According to Microsoft Word the following clause is incorrect: ‘The owl who referred to himself as Hibou”. The correct form reads like this: “The owl that referred to itself as Hibou”. What can we learn from this? That Bill Gates is speciesist? That owls say “That” and not “Who”? Clearly, No. What the jagged little green line of pedantry is trying to say – though it flies in the face of everything from “Winnie the Pooh” to “War for the Planet of the Apes”, and is probably upsetting to all my vegan friends and anyone who refers to themselves as the “Mummy” of a cat – is that animals (even those capable of making reference to themselves) are, grammatically speaking, objects and not subjects. They are, literally, animate inanimate objects.
I discovered recently that – up to a certain point in my life – everything I’d written was slightly sexist. Okay, it wasn’t full-blown Princess-with-a-Forrest-Gump-IQ or Prostitute-with-a-Heart-of-Gold sexist but, in truth, none of my hobbyist scribblings had even achieved the baseline female empowerment of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Power Rangers. I had attempted to get inside the heads of the women I’d written, and I had given them backgrounds, careers and lives that were more than clichés but those careers and lives were incidental, and the insides of those heads were… boring. These women reacted immediately to their environment. They thought about the other characters a lot, and hardly at all about themselves. They weren’t flawed. They weren’t interesting. They were just vapid, space-filling entities of an almost uniform build and each one was described by at least one adjective that boiled down to “pretty”. It’s a cringe-worthy and self-conscious thing to admit but, sadly, it is true. They were the most naked aspect of the sort of escapism that manifests itself in the fiction of young men – and I didn’t even have the balls to get any of them naked.
My current hobbyist scribblings involve something of an attempt to alleviate this shortcoming. But here’s the beautiful thing: it’s so much fun! The irony is that, of all the great lengths I’ve gone to to differentiate my voice and my world from all the genre fiction around me, slipping inside the head of a strange, flawed, funny, mad-as-a-bag-of-badgers woman is about the easiest and tidiest technique I’ve yet found. Because, in spite of all the noise around political correctness, feminism, identity politics, etc. there is still a massive vacuum in the world of fantasy and science fiction for odd, funny women. And – for that matter – very little sympathetic/interesting representation of homosexuality, bisexuality, polyamory, and (like yours truly) non-gendered or trans people.
This is not a criticism of hetero-normative culture, rather a gleeful invitation to an opportunity. Genre fiction is a vocabulary of metaphors: elves and dwarves, robots and aliens; kings of fictitious realms and pontiffs of fictitious religions. Surely then, as we experience an age undergoing the birth-pangs of gender equality and gender exploration, there is good art to be made. And I’m not talking about preaching a liberal agenda. Think of it more like the relationship between science and science fiction. There is a feedback loop between the discoveries and questions unearthed by theoretical physics – quantum theory, faster-than-light travel, the search for extra terrestrial intelligence – and the works of fiction that both inspired and were inspired by these scientific concepts. In this way, the social evolution that manifests itself in androgyny and relationship anarchy and female empowerment should form one half of the feedback loop of how we – the writers and artists – talk about relationships and identity and the human condition. Anything less is out of touch, clichéd and boring.
I think we can all agree that language is something that should constantly evolve alongside society. The difficulties this can throw up are evident in, for example, the ongoing argument about gender neutral pronouns. And remember people used to gripe about the appropriation of the word “gay”? As if it was more important that we have one extra synonym for “happy”, rather than a simple little word for 10% of the population.
(interesting side-note. If you type “what percentage of” into Google, here’s what you get:)
It’s more than possible that I’m biased towards the liberal end of things. But the wonderful thing about fiction is that – like the real world – my sex-positive, non-gendered, homosexual, libertarian, feminist, vegan characters exist in the same space as people who totally disagree with them. And, like my conscious decision to write women with the same unpredictability, nuance and depth of self as their male counterparts, I can make it my proud mission to write a hetero-normative conservative as lovingly as I can. Well… I can try.
Because fiction is all about seeing things from other people’s points of view. That’s why any art that renders women as objects – and makes their inner machinations unrelatable and boring – is so open for criticism. Even if it is of its time; that time has come to an end.
Getting back to my little owl, I think I’ll have to make the grammatical error quite intentionally. In my world – with sentient, talking animals abound – it just sounds weird and impersonal to use the word “it”. Hibou is a “him”. Unless of course he decides to go for gender reassignment surgery, which he’s perfectly entitled to do. Even in that case, there is more of “who” than of “that” when it comes to my owl.
Merci pour la lecture