On a strong recommendation from my local bookshop I started reading Mammoth the new novel by the talented Chris Flynn that’s currently receiving a lot of praise for its unusual narrator, a prehistoric mammoth skeleton from the Museum of Natural History. As part of my study I’ve been reading a lot of stories with non-human narrators and this novel fit the description. What I’ve found however, isn’t a novel about animals as consumables and climate extinction, but two jovial buddies, a mammoth and tyrannosaurus bataar, who speak predominantly in human clichés discussing how amazing two other men were who pieced together and toured the mammoth narrator’s skeleton.
I’ve been perturbed to find the only female character in the museum does not even have a face. An Egyptian mummy’s hand, identifying as female, is constantly spoke down to, told to shut up, and teased for thinking she belonged to the body of someone important. Which is actually highly likely considering they didn’t go to the effort of preserving the corpses of everyday citizens in ancient Egypt.
Book reviews aside, I was struck by the ratio of male versus female characters in a novel with mostly non-human protagonists. It got me wondering – if the characters were all human museum workers relaying the history of the museum artefacts instead of the displays themselves, would we be as accepting of this gender depiction of one uptight woman who just needs to shut up and let the men talk? If current literature is anything to go by, probably.
For a film to pass the Bechdel Test it has to have at least two female characters who have a conversation that does not involve or is not about a male character. And it is depressing how many movies and books do not pass this test. In all fairness to Mammoth I have not finished reading it yet, and maybe the hand is allowed to speak, maybe she gets recognition amongst the sausage-fest that is the bones and stuffed animals of the Museum of Natural History, but why is the only female character in the first one hundred pages depicted as some kind of nagging nuisance that all the male characters can’t wait to get away from?
Ingrained gender qualities are hard to move away from when writing because they live predominantly in our subconscious. I recently had to write two side characters in a novel I’m working on, one with superior strength and one with the ability to manipulate people into serving them. Can you guess which gender I automatically assigned to each? Once I sat back, I had to explore inside myself why my mind went automatically to a strong male and manipulative female. Like the protagonists in The Umbrella Academy, a woman’s powers are always seen as talking to get what they want or power so great they can’t control it. I mean, Vanya literally gets over emotional and accidentally destroys the world twice in two seasons. Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer similarly can’t control her emotions and hence her power leading to her almost destroying the world in a peak of grief. Thankfully in both TV shows a male is around to talk the crazy ladies down, to reason with them.
Full disclosure, I am currently working on a novel that is entirely populated by males. The only female characters are seen in flashback and only by the male characters. Will it pass the Bechdel Test? No. Does that make me sad? Yes. But as any writer will tell you we don’t get to choose much about a character, well at least this writer doesn’t. When I start writing the characters wander in fully formed with their own idiosyncrasies, anxieties and personal history and demand to be written as such. Changing a character’s gender, at least for me, is notoriously hard. I was wrong once, I had spent a month trying to name a character in my story, frustrated that they wouldn’t form in my head, turns out I had their gender wrong. It was only when a new person entered my head and declared himself, ‘I’m male.’ And I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ and he was all ‘Yes’. And from that moment on the novel flowed like water.
So, where does that leave me? Frustrated at other writers’ depictions of female characters? Check. Still writing things with cliched females myself? Check. So how do we change our subconscious mindset of gender characteristics? If our everyday interactions that show the diversity of gender characteristics don’t change it what will? I suspect we as artists have a role to play, and as hard as it is, we need to step back from the work created and examine why our brain has chosen those genders, and how are we adding to the diversification around us with our art. Is gendering human and non-human characters even necessary?
We are a society that still sees a photo where only 25% of the people are female and see it as predominantly female. Our brain is so shocked that there are a handful of women it extrapolates it to almost say: too many, too much! Is it the same thing when writing characters or is it the case that we see male characters with many personalities and women with only one or two. Is that why almost all the non-human display pieces are male in Mammoth? Because male is the default gender? Why is the only museum artefact identifying as female stuck-up, self-important disembodied hand who does not understand the jokes cracked by the easy-going penguin, mammoth, and T-batar?
All I can say is talk to the hand, please, someone, talk to the hand, because I think she might have something interesting to say.
Tiffany Hastie recently graduated with First Class Honours in a BA in Writing and Children’s Literature, receiving the Plantation Award on graduation. A two-time winner of the Talus Prize in 2017 and 2019, Tiffany’s focus on speculative fiction explores futuristic worlds and hidden private lives revealing the dark underbelly of the id. Published as a winner in the Margaret River Press anthology Pigface,Tiffany has been a featured author on stage at both the Margaret River Writer’s Festival and The Australian Short Story Festival, reading excerpts from her stories and talking about her writing process.