It’s hard being human and dealing with gender issues, whether in your personal life or in media. And that’s to say nothing for gender equality/representation. Look at the Bechdel test. There’s a lot of pressure on writers and storytellers to fairly represent genders these days. Do you have a “strong female” somewhere in your story? Or are all your women useless, inactive damsels in distress? Is every one of your male characters either the tall, dark, and mysterious type or the uber-macho, muscular, tanned, blonde hero? Sure, those stereotypes exist for a reason, but the trend is to break out of them.
Thank God for that. Reading stories featuring nothing but sun-haired, sapphire-eyed heroes and their descriptionally identical ladyloves is like only getting fairy tales featuring the Big Bad Wolf. So often when it comes to designing other races, we as creators are so trapped in the binary gender system that we don’t even think about it. As a certain famous alien says, “It’s a trap!” Who decreed the “laws” of human gender are universal? Why do we so often assume aliens are split down the male/female line the same way we perceive ourselves to be?
Because it’s easy. It’s familiar. It’s also dead wrong. (Okay, maybe not dead wrong. Who’s to say things on other planets aren’t based the same as on Earth?)
The point is that it’s limiting. And it’s not even as simple as genetics. So if you’re wanting to make your inhuman race as inhuman as possible, consider a few things when deciding what sort of gender breakdown (if any) they have. Sure, there’s genetic influence, but there is a ton of social influence on gender. Either way, both influences can offer a lot of power on how your otherworldly race develops and identifies.
While it’s very easy to sink into morals and fair representation when talking about a topic like this, it’s up to the storyteller to decide what use he or she makes of characters’ genders, races, sexualities, credos, and all that other fun stuff that are illegal to discriminate against. The purpose of this essay is to explore the factors that affect gender (of an individual or even a race) so that if a storyteller wants to escape the binary, they have an easier time doing it.
I’m going to approach this as if creating a non-binary alien race is the goal. But this could be applied to anyone or anything of your creation.
Biological Influences on Gender
Of all the potential influences on gender, genetics is the one we as humans can’t control. Genes are unchangeable. No matter
how much testosterone an XX individual receives, it will not change that second X chromosome into a Y. At the basest level, that person will always be part of a binary system. Those genes are what determines a body’s development. Yes, things can go wrong developmentally. People are born intersex, or with XXY chromosomes, or with XX but still appears male (XX males are really a thing.) The point is that genes are dealt at conception.
The anime manga/show Ouran Highschool Host Club centers on the gender presentation of character Haruhi Fujioka. Biologically female, Haruhi incurs a debt to the host club, a group of boys dedicated to entertaining the girls of their school. Originally mistaken for a boy, Haruhi joins them. While she is frequently mistaken for a boy anyway, Haruhi still has the large eyes associated with females, which are occasionally remarked on by clients. Even when not participating in club events, Haruhi dresses somewhat oddly, in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts or in a dress coupled with blue jeans. In the manga, it is not revealed for certain until the end of the series that she is, in fact, biologically female. It is left in question. When addressed in the show, she admits she is female, but that it’s not important, or that she isn’t as conscious of gender as most people.
Either way, Haruhi is biologically of one particular gender. But that in itself is not a defining factor of who she is. Genes themselves don’t have total bearing on gender.
On their own, hormones can do a lot for gender appearance. Hormone therapy is one of the least invasive actions we can take to affect biological gender. A quick rundown: exposure to hormones in the womb affects development of certain physical characteristics of the body. They can ultimately affect mood and actions throughout life. When exposed to different hormones, even in adulthood, physical changes can/will occur.
**Spoiler Alert for Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory**
In The Wasp Factory, main character Frank was traumatized by a dog attack when he was a child. The attack resulted in his castration. Throughout the book, he displays methodical, violent behavior, including causing intentional harm to animals and his relatives. He’s an unbridled, clearly conscience-less teen boy, a trait that seems to run in his family. His father hates women, and his brother Eric is a known animal torturer who has escaped from a mental hospital. In Frank’s case, though, it is eventually revealed that he is in fact female, and that her father has been secretly administering male hormones to her for years in hopes that she’d transition from female to male.
In Frank’s case, we see some of the effects hormones can have on an individual. While Frank doesn’t know he’s taking testosterone, he exhibits clear understanding that he is male. He doesn’t question his lack of genitalia (thanks to the story told by his father about his castration) and demonstrates the stereotypical rough-and-tumble tendencies associated with males. As the reveal of the book, it’s particularly effective, as it’s a shock to the character Frank, too.
But again, the hormones themselves do not actually make Frank male. Compared to Haruhi, I would say he is more “male” in gender, though both are biologically female. In Frank’s case, it’s more due to hormones. His behavior suggests he’s being dosed with more than he really needs, but it’s definitely the key factor in his mannerisms and hobbies.
**End of spoiler**
Using Biology as a Cornerstone in Gender Creation
This is all well and good, but what do we do with this information? Well, with humans, the best thing you can do if you want to write a non-binary character is to find someone who doesn’t “fit the mold” and actually talk to them.
But you’re wanting to come up with a new race for your novel. Aliens, some form of elf, or a whole new type of creature that doesn’t fit into a binary gender system. Sounds like fun! For the sake of brainstorming, let’s work with aliens, just for consistency.
Biological Gender 1
Let’s say we’re wanting to build a race that has three distinct genders. Not two extremes and middle zone, but three fully differentiated genders.
So look at these purely from a non-human genetic standpoint. For our aliens, genders are based on the presence of one of three chromosomes: D, E, or F. For reproductive purposes, sex characteristics can be matched up between any (or all) combinations of the three. D’s can mate with E’s, F’s, one of each, or even, dare I say it… other D’s. They may even be able to reproduce asexually. How’s that for a mind boggle?
This build-a-gene inheritance chart goes far beyond the X/Y, X/X one we get as humans. Based on the parent(s), the offspring could inherit any one of their chromosomes. Whatever identifying characteristics (sexual organs, secondary characteristics, etc.) are present will end up matching one of their genetic donors. But only one. Think of it as a genetic war between genders where any one of them can win out. If these aliens breed in clutches, they can have children who are siblings but are genetically very different. If they’re more mammalian, then one parent will carry that offspring. In that case, does the parent’s genome get passed on, or not? Are all genders able to bear young? There’s a lot more to think about than just what a being’s genetic makeup is, at least when it comes to reproduction. This doesn’t even say anything for personality characteristics (if you want to have those be indicators of gender.)
This is just an expansion on basic genetics. It’s easy enough to play off of as far as assigning identifying characteristics to them. Don’t even try to put them in terms of the familiar “male” or “female” and see where it takes you.
Biological Gender 2
Before we move on, let’s have a little fun (maybe complicated and overwhelming fun) and expand further, into genetic blends. We’re going to build another race and look at how genetic blending might make your aliens differ from human binary gender.
This race has only two chromosomes. Again, to stay away from our own stereotypes, we’ll call them A and O. Now, like humans, let’s assume offspring have two chromosomes, one from each parent. In humans, with X/Y, we have two potential genders, broadly speaking. XX is female, and XY is male. The presence of the Y chromosome makes a person biologically male.
So our aliens. If we mesh things the same way as humans, one chromosome will, like the Y chromosome, be “dominant.” Its presence changes gender, spurs the being to be male rather than the “default” female. Does it have to be that way?
Unless we’re talking computers, things don’t have to be on/off. So let’s make genetics serve us and not the other way around! If we only have two potential gender chromosomes, A and O, we can actually get four potential pairings.
Sure, AO and OA may be interchangeable… but what if they’re not? What if one is more dominant than the other just because of which parent carried/bore/laid/spawned the offspring? We could have four possible genders here, just based on whatever the parents are. Think of the ramifications of this for personality and behavior! If the A chromosome is associated with aggression and O with predisposition for depression, just based on those two characteristics alone, we can see very different individual types.
AA- highly aggressive, short tempered. Likely very active, pushy, or bossy. Possibly tend towards physical violence. This could very well be a warrior class.
OO- often depressed and negative, possibly pessimistic. Could be reclusive or shy, even stoic or apathetic.
AO- assuming A (listed first) is the dominant, we have an aggressive individual who still tends towards depression. Might be someone who acts on perceived worst-case scenarios… or someone who actively strives to prevent them. Even aliens have superheroes, right?
OA- predisposed to depression but with a slight aggressive tendency. This could be someone who actively tries to make the worst case scenario happen just because they see no other way out. This could be a suicidal individual.
So think of the possibilities. We’ve got the makings for four very different characters, and that’s just based on a single trait attributed to each chromosome. We’re a far cry from the Aryan hero/weeping damsel in distress, aren’t we? And we haven’t even looked at creatures as male or female. Not to mention that each chromosome will probably have more than one trait associated with it. That will make personality possibilities increase exponentially.
Social Influences on Gender
After biology, the other potential construct or influence on gender is social. It’s one thing for a person to believe they are or identify as a female, but something else to physically be one. Now, we’re going to explore more what gender behavior is.
“It’s a Boy” and “It’s a Girl” announcements are associated with colors and themes. It’s pretty simple and well-known. Pink vs. blue, flowers vs. trains, snuggly sheep vs adorable tigers…gender stereotypes and expectations come at us from infancy. A lot of that actually comes straight from our parents before we’re even born. Adjectives are used to describe babies as strong, active, delicate, or beautiful simply based on the genes mentioned earlier. Without intending to, personality traits and identity are assigned to an individual before there’s even a hint of cognitive reasoning or self-awareness.
Outside perception–from family in particular since they’re the people we’re around most from infancy–can be very telling on an individual. And all this is based on that handful of genes one can’t help receiving. The most basic behaviors can be associated with particular emotions based solely on gender. A 1976 study showed college students a video of a child being startled three times by a jack in the box. When the students perceived the child as a male, they described the child’s cries as angry. When told the child was a girl, the observers described the baby as fearful.
Such expectations are applied to humans their entire lives, sometimes creating consonance with an individual’s self-perception but occasionally creating dissonance. While such influences are not wholly to blame for, say, a biological female to associate more strongly with being male, it can have such effects.
**Spoiler Alert for Set This House In Order**
In Set This House in Order, author Matt Ruff presents us with main character Andrew who plays host to a number of multiple personalities, male and female both. To a certain degree, these people are his family. Andrew himself is simply one of many personalities. His father Aaron was the personality who got all the others organized and still can take control of the body, if needed. Any of the personalities, or souls, can. While the majority of the souls the reader comes across in the book are male, some females also present. Which certainly makes for some interesting conflict when it’s revealed that the body is actually female and Andrew develops a relationship with a woman who doesn’t realize he’s one of many personalities.
Trauma in Andrew’s past–the same trauma that caused the initial personality dissociation in the first place–was part of what caused Andy to split away from being female and live as a man. The trauma–abuse, not exactly the best familial influence, but definitely some influence–was at fault here. And throughout his adult life, the other personalities Andy interacts with affirm and reaffirm his masculinity. He’s not macho, but he’s definitely male.
Sadly, we don’t get to see much of Andy’s formative years in this novel, but he, like Frank from The Wasp Factory, is also a product of familial influence. Not only hormones, but the lies his father told him solidified a personal identification as male in his head. Certain attributes and expectations are placed on infants, often pre-birth. Everything from blanket colors to nursery themes to proffered toys can be split along gender lines.
In my personal experience, there can be much that is confusing or freeing in looking at gender perception outside the family unit. In a lot of ways, the media itself projects a number of gender behaviors on the developing individual. These can reinforce those same expectations given by parents and family. This is also the broadest influence, since family can be a very limited populace, and biological indicators are all internalized. Media and interpersonal influences make up the rest of the world, and that’s a big place.
The influences of media–let’s focus on television and movies–can put a lot of pressure on a person who’s just starting to self-identify. Whether intentionally or not, we as humans look for similarities, patterns, and people like us. Whether that’s someone who looks or acts like us, or someone we can just relate to, it doesn’t matter. We gravitate toward the familiar and seek self-representation in the information we take in. Children subconsciously seek role models and people they want to be. In a binary world, that alone can be very limiting. The child questioning himself might look at television programming and think there are only two ways to be: male or female. There’s little to no middle ground that seems available. The grey area is nonexistent. So that child thinks he doesn’t quite resemble the boys he sees, so of course he must be a girl. He doesn’t see any other options.
I’m not saying that there should be a full representation of gender presentation in every single program. But there’s no reason
stereotypes have to be perpetuated. Just letting that boy know it’s okay for him to like dresses or dolls or “traditionally girly” activities goes a long way. On Disney Junior, the show Sofia the First presents an episode where girls practice ice dancing and boys play hockey. Long story short, the boy who is interested in ice dancing is afraid of being teased for it, but Sofia has, in the past, expressed interest and skill in a traditionally male activity. Why should this be any different?
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with boys liking “boy” things and girls liking “girl” things. But for our purposes, why do activities have to have gender? Think through this in terms of creating species and races. Do certain behaviors have to display gender? You may say yes, and that’s fine. You may say no, and that’s fine too. But it’s definitely one more piece of the puzzle to consider when creating a non-human race from scratch.
And of course, being rooted in a binary system also creates some confusion when people don’t fit into the binary. It has an effect on every interaction we have. How often do you hear a child ask, “Is that a boy or a girl?” when looking at someone who doesn’t perfectly present into their expectations? Have you ever thought it about someone?
The web comic Order of the Stick has a genderless character in the main team. Vaarsuvius, also referred to as “V,” is an elf wizard whose gender is deliberately ambiguous. Throughout the series, the character’s identity is questioned but never delivered on. Other characters refer to V as he or she, depending on their perceptions. V never corrects anyone. V’s children call V “Other Parent”–this is because V’s mate is also of ambiguous gender and is called “Parent.” This example of character plays up the constraints of the binary system since in English we don’t have a personal pronoun to express non-gender. “It” suggest objectivity, not personhood. The language being split into a binary helps concretize the two-gender system, which makes for some great hilarity with the character, but, in practicality, it’s another limitation for non-binary people.
Consider the language of your characters/race in respect to gender. There can be great limitation or amazing flexibility in how your characters refer to one another. Labels have great impact on gender and identity. Think about the terms “tomboy,” “mama’s boy,” “sissy,” and “girlie-girl.” What effect would these have if you said them to a young boy or girl, or a questioning child? What if you said them to your own child, or if a stranger said them? What if a stranger called you by one of those terms? How would it affect you now, or how would you have reacted as a child?
Using Social Structure as a Cornerstone in Gender Creation
Some people in the world of psychology have held that gender is socially derived, learned behavior. You’re more likely to behave as a boy if you’ve had trains, guns, and sports thrust at you and more like a girl if surrounded by butterflies, ballerinas, and glitter.
In many studies, social influence is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to a being’s perceived gender. But what if social influences actually shaped a being’s gender? What if deciding whether to give your child a cowboy hat or a glittery tiara actually formed your child’s being all the way to adulthood? Does gender even have to be genetic? That’s definitely an option to explore when creating foreign races. If the way you treat someone forms who they become, imagine the society that would be! In this case, could the whole race be genetically bereft of sex chromosomes? Are they truly agender/asexual and merely develop into several distinct personality classes based on their treatment in the earliest developmental stages of their youth? Or what if that behavior causes their bodies to develop in different ways, becoming one physical gender or another as needed?
You may have heard of some species that can switch gender in case one gender is missing from their ecosystem. Is your alien race one that essentially builds whatever gender is needed for reproduction or companionship?
Using social structure as a method of creating gender is much more fluid than basing it on the hard science of genetics. It also allows for more free play and creativity. But there is the caveat that you’ll be treading very unfamiliar waters. This will affect you as a writer, but keep in mind it can also create a large disjoint for your readers. Solid gender lines tend to be expected, but that’s a product of many of the social influences of our world and race.
Gender as a Plot Point
Say a character in your novel is the equivalent of agender, transgender, or bigender. Simply put, one of the characters is not strictly part of a binary system. You can use this to your advantage. In the crux of your story, your bigender character may be able to do something not normally achievable by someone of a single or stereotypical sex. To put this rather vague situation into a binary situation, say you have a transgender male. The whole story, he presents as female and is accepted as one. But there is some magic or technology or some other important element that is only usable by males, for whatever reason. In that heated, climactic moment, your transwoman taps into biological gender and saves the day.
Yes, there is some flack to be brought up here: the concept of “fixing” those who don’t fit into the binary. In some situations, this may be what you’re looking for. A personal acceptance story could focus on that, admitting to oneself that there is a disjoint, but that it’s okay to be whatever it is you are. But situations like this would be easy to make meaningless, and in that case, insensitive. The last thing I want to do is to become preachy about this topic. Consider why you’re putting your characters in these situations. I’m not going to say you need to walk on eggshells to avoid offending people. Everything has the potential to offend someone. Just be aware that this may be a hot button. But that’s for humans. In whatever race you’re creating, it may be a non-issue.
There are innumerable limitations we place on ourselves as humans with relation to gender and identity. Sometimes, it’s easy to project those limitations on non-human creatures without thinking twice.
When we consider the underlying factors that influence gender in beings, we open up tons of possibilities of creation to make creatures that are truly different from humans. Those differences can enrich your writing, plot, characters, and even the themes of whatever projects you choose to use them in. Think about what genetics might affect the development of a race, and what their social interactions do to affirm or negate stereotypes and identity. Think about the “by the book” definition of genders for your races. What would an individual who doesn’t fit into any of those criteria look, act, and sound like? What would it be like to grow up an outsider? What if that outsider found acceptance and the familiar in humans? There’s a whole world of questions that will flesh out characters and races if you break out of the binary, or use the binary to suit you, rather than trying to fit into it.