Dismantling the Default: Alex MacFarlane and the Post-Binary Gender Crisis

So, what happens when you write a post asking for more gender diversity in science fiction? Outrage.

No, really. A few weeks ago, Alex Dally MacFarlane started a new column at Tor.com, wherein she intends to review and critically examine science fiction novels that deal with post-binary gender, and the internet sort of exploded.  The lack of diversity in SFF is a topic that has been getting lots of circulation recently, and the SFWA has blown up the internet twice in recent memory in regards to the issue of representation.

There are, in essence, two reactions to the article — a positive and a negative — and much of the vitriol surrounding the article comes from a (possibly deliberate) misreading of MacFarlane’s opening statement: “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.”

Most of her detractors blithely ignore the word default, viewing her article as an exhortation to stop writing binary gender. New York Times bestselling author Larry Correia wrote a scathing response to MacFarlane, in which he calls her — and other unnamed sci-fi writers — out for “wanting their genre to die completely.” He denies the existence of the default of binary gender, and warns anyone who takes MacFarlane’s advice that writing post-binary gender, just to check off a box on some imaginary list, is a sure-fire path to writing a bad book.

MacFarlane objects to Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, not on the basis of it's quality, but because it's often the only post-binary gender text held up as a classic, and it was written in 1968.

MacFarlane objects to Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, not on the basis of it’s quality, but because it’s often the only post-binary gender text held up as a classic, and it was written in 1968.

I happen to agree with his advice; including any sort of character, theme, idea, setting, you name it, for any reason other than that it adds to the story is a bad idea and is going to be a detriment to the final product. However, MacFarlane’s not asking us all to start writing societies and characters with post-binary genders, she’s just asking us to consider it. She’s not saying that binary gender cannot exist, or that it shouldn’t be written, but instead is demanding fiction that has thought about its gender politics and whether or not a binary gender society actually fits the needs of the story instead of just being a lazy out—the same way a vaguely medieval European setting can be an easy “out” for an epic fantasy writer.

The most interesting part of Correia’s rebuttal, for me, aside from the name-calling and straw-manning he does, is that he consistently dances around that idea of a default. First he outright denies its existence, and then he goes on to state that destroying the default, just to destroy the default, is a bad idea. Needless to say, I disagree.

At the core of MacFarlane’s article is an un-articulated demand for equal representation for all people. She’s asking that the default (heterosexual able-bodied white cis-male) be broadened to consider other types of people, and to be more reflective of reality. By ignoring the word default, her detractors manage to completely derail the entire argument, because how can you challenge the default if you deny that it even exists?

This denial of the existence of the default is a deflection tactic used by those in power to avoid having to talk about the issue–because if the default doesn’t exist, neither does the issue of representation, because the calls we keep hearing for equal representation are perceived by those in power as threatening.

We hear a lot about the “old guard” of SFF, and of intolerance, racism, and sexism directed at fans, creators, and industry professionals alike. Speaking up and asking writers to reconsider their notions of gender, to include something other than the default setting, opens up the backlash and misinterpretation because that default heterosexual, able-bodied, white cis-male? He’s the same one running every other part of our lives and asking us, as writers, to think of characters other than him, to remove him from the position of default character/race/gender/sexuality, threatens his power. The people who benefit from the default cling to it, because it benefits them and them only, and will defend it with their dying breaths, because this default gives them not just privilege, but power.

MacFarlane’s article is really just a call for writing that is better thought out and more considerate of the complex realities in which we live. But the backlash she has been subject to illuminates the invisible power structures that run through our society and how ardently those in power will strive to defend them.

Aliens, an anthology edited by MacFarlane, that was selected as one of iO9's best books of 2013.

Aliens, an anthology edited by MacFarlane, that was selected as one of iO9’s best books of 2013.

You can find MacFarlane’s website here, and follow her on twitter and tumblr.

[1] For the purposes of her column, MacFarlane defines post-binary gender in science fiction as “the acknowledgement that gender is more complex than the Western cultural norm of two genders (female and male): that there are more genders than two, that gender can be fluid, that gender exists in many forms.”

K.D. Callaghan has a BA in Creative Writing which she uses to write copy by day and fantasy at night. While championing diversity in fantasy is her passion, she also loves Leverage, tea, and the Oxford comma. Her work has appeared in Room magazine and YA speculative fiction magazine Inaccurate Realities.