Author Topic: Would it be viewed as sexist to give men and women different roles in society?  (Read 989 times)  

Offline Sharad9

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I took some inspiration from the native American Iraqouis tribe, which is a dominantly male lead but heavily woman centric society. Male chieftains are selected to head a clan by clan mothers, who are the ultimate authority and have final say in decision making. Men dominate in politics and warfare, while women control economics.

The reason culture developed this way in my setting is because all women have access to magic, which is instrumental in creating technology and is present in all walks of life. However, that magic is slow, intensive, and time consuming, which limits it's effectiveness. Giving birth is also interpreted as a kind of magic. The ability to create life is seen as sacred, a gift from god and a symbol of divine authority. Due to their role being more "valuable" they are geared toward keeping society running, while men are delegated to handle day to day affairs.

Is this a sensible setup? Does it make sense to give some religious connotation to the sex that gives life? Does it inevitably come with sexist undertones?  What are some ways i can expand on this concept?

Offline Lorri Moulton

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Male chieftains are selected to head a clan by clan mothers, who are the ultimate authority and have final say in decision making. Men dominate in politics and warfare, while women control economics.


If the clan mothers have final say in decision making (even after they choose a chief) then it sounds like they're your Senate, so to speak.  Can the other men also have input, but at a lower level (House of Representatives) and can they be overruled by the women?  The chief would have final say, but could he be replaced by the women if he rules unwisely?  Or is it a lifetime position?

It sounds like your women would still have a say in politics, if not war.  Just an observation.

If the women control economics, do you mean they are the ones who trade with other tribes?  Do they make the goods that are traded?  Would men make some, too?  And economics and politics are so interwoven (even in basic trading agreements) that both men and women would be impacted in your group.

As for the magic and ability to give birth...that makes sense and can be seen in other cultures, too.  Sounds interesting.  I think any sexist issues would come from the men dismissing the women or all men telling the women to stay out of issues they do not understand. (A few are just good plot development.)  If it is consistent and you represent your characters fairly, this could be a very interesting story! :)
« Last Edit: April 21, 2017, 09:06:11 AM by Lorri Moulton »

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Offline Huldra

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It can definitely be argued that it's sexist, in that men and women are limited in their life choices because of their gender. Tag on the "women are special because babies" and there's the whole root of "a woman's value is in her reproductive abilities" thing.

However! There's nothing inherently wrong in having a fictional world with a sexist society. It's fiction. If you want to explore a society with set gender roles, that's perfectly within your right.
Just maybe consider not glorifying it, if you're concerned with how it's received.

Offline AliceS

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That's been explored by plenty of authors. Go for it. I remember reading a story a long time ago that not only swapped the roles, men were kept in harems. As long as it makes sense in your world, you can do whatever you want.


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Offline SC

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I took some inspiration from the native American Iraqouis tribe, which is a dominantly male lead but heavily woman centric society. Male chieftains are selected to head a clan by clan mothers, who are the ultimate authority and have final say in decision making. Men dominate in politics and warfare, while women control economics.

The reason culture developed this way in my setting is because all women have access to magic, which is instrumental in creating technology and is present in all walks of life. However, that magic is slow, intensive, and time consuming, which limits it's effectiveness. Giving birth is also interpreted as a kind of magic. The ability to create life is seen as sacred, a gift from god and a symbol of divine authority. Due to their role being more "valuable" they are geared toward keeping society running, while men are delegated to handle day to day affairs.

Is this a sensible setup? Does it make sense to give some religious connotation to the sex that gives life? Does it inevitably come with sexist undertones?  What are some ways i can expand on this concept?

That sounds like a sensible setup to me. As for whether it's sexist or not, that's going to depend pretty heavily on the individual reader. I just read a blog post by someone who thought that men and women having different roles in society--regardless of what those roles were--was inherently sexist. I don't agree, and I especially wouldn't agree if in this society women have access to magic that men don't. What you've described appears to be pretty "separate but equal" which I'm okay with (as far as what you've described so far). What's sexist to me is a society where men and women (and their roles) are separate and very much unequal (such as in most societies throughout history).

So to me, what you've described doesn't sound sexist. Although I'd caution you not to put too much emphasis on the birthing/sex part because that can really come off as "women are highly valued but only if they produce offspring and make themselves sexually available to at least one man" which I would say is very much sexist. Make sure the individual women are valued, independent, and powerful regardless of their status as wives/lovers/mothers.

Offline alexabooks

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That's been explored by plenty of authors. Go for it. I remember reading a story a long time ago that not only swapped the roles, men were kept in harems. As long as it makes sense in your world, you can do whatever you want.

I just finished a series that had women locked up for breeding, and I can't find a single reason to hate the author for exploring such ideas. It's what fiction is for! I agree, as long as it's all explained in the book, any reader with a shred of intelligence will understand the idea.


Offline SC

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I just finished a series that had women locked up for breeding, and I can't find a single reason to hate the author for exploring such ideas. It's what fiction is for! I agree, as long as it's all explained in the book, any reader with a shred of intelligence will understand the idea.

I think that for a lot of readers (including me), it's not that we don't understand the idea. It's that we read for fun, and to us, reading about such a horribly sexist society is not fun. That's not a world we want to escape into. (And before someone asks, "Well, what about horror? What about George R.R. Martin?" -- I don't read those books for exactly the same reason. I'm not saying all readers share my take on this. I'm just trying to explain a bit why some of us feel this way, whatever percentage of readers that may be. I can't really speak to those readers who love Martin but still get angry at some sexist things because theirs is not my thought process.) The exception here, for me, might be that a sexist society like that is set up but the main story is about characters who, despite their society, are not sexist (men who treat women well instead of as objects, even if treating women as objects is the norm in this society). Even then, it would depend on how the book handled all that and how much time in the reader had to spend in the sexist parts, as well as the various plot points and ending and all that.

It's not that readers who don't like reading that don't buy into the world or think it's realistic. It's more that we just don't want to spend time there because it's unpleasant. And part of that, when it comes to men's mistreatment of women, is sadly because we know it's all too real (at least when you look at history) and we want a little more escapism.

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What if a woman doesn't want to have babies or care for children or farm or whatever, and wants to go fight instead? What if a man doesn't really like fighting or politics and wants to care for children cause he loves kids? Would they not be allowed to do this in the world you have created?

If your society has hard lines about what someone is and isn't allowed to do drawn along gendered lines, it's sexist. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sexism

Now, if you want to write that, that's fine. Just know that is what you are doing.

Offline ConnieBDowell

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As others have said, preassigned roles based on gender is kind of the definition of a sexist society. But there are loads of books that explore fictional sexist societies, but aren't sexist books in their message. The question is how you handle it in your story. Does your story reinforce the arbitrary roles of the society or does it question them? What happens to characters who aren't happy with their gender's role? To really stir the pot of this society, what happens to characters who don't identify with the gender they were assigned at birth?

Offline Sam B

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I'd say that to some degree, yes, it's a sexist society.

Does that mean that you're sexist for writing it? Not even a little. Does it mean that some people won't read it because they don't like that kind of thing? Sure. You'll lose some people. You'll lose some people because it's not sexist enough, too.

You also get to decide how you present it. It can be presented neutrally, 'this is what happens'. Or it can be inherently praised by the author 'this is the great thing that happens'. It's all in how you write it, and most people will be able to separate you the author from the things that happen in your books.

Offline T.J. Lantz

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Sexism has existed in some form within every society since the beginning of time. Creating a society that has these same traits makes it seem real, and that's what you want. Personally, I love the idea. I recently watched "Frontier", a drama about the fur trade in the 1600's and I thought that the fact that certain tribes were led by females in peace and males during war was fascinating. And as a man with kids, I'd totally believe there was some kind of sorcery going on during birth. Good luck with the concept!

Offline P.J. Post

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Yes. By definition, it would be extremely sexist. But wait...there's more.

When developing worlds, it's always a good idea to work out why things have evolved as they have. For example, was magic discovered, like the wheel or steam engine, or has it always been manifest, beyond ancient memory? What makes human females different from males or even other species that they alone can control magic, what makes them unique in this regard? And, if magic is ancient in origin, and sacred to the point of establishing unique gender roles within a society, (at least for one that has evolved into a city-state or beyond), then religion would probably permeate every aspect of daily life. In fact, the current social structure would almost certainly be the result of a long history steeped in draconian religious law, giving rise to a religious hierarchy, rigid caste system (especially if only some women are magic users, or if there is a difference in ability - since it is a divinely given ability, it would necessitate a social hierarchy), and extremely restrictive and judgmental social customs, including religious courts and the elimination of heretics. Logically, to me, it doesn't sound like the men, under these conditions, would be allowed the autonomy to run daily matters, beyond the role of labor. If the men in this society are significantly stronger and more prone to violence, as human males have been, how do the women maintain power, or more precisely, how did they achieve dominance in the first place? If they had to fight for it, the society would probably be even more tightly controlled, men being held in fiercely guarded camps, or perhaps even having to completely cover themselves in public.

If child bearing is also sacred, (what about child rearing?) this further underscores the separatism inherent between genders, which begs the question, is there romance within this society? Do unions exist, are they arranged or are the women and men completely separated except for the expressed purpose of procreation? Is it church sanctioned? Beyond procreation, are the primary relationships in this society homosexual? Is it an honor to be selected to give birth, or, regardless of the eyes of the church, is it a secret shame because of the association with the male of the species.

What do women and men think of one another? How do they interact? Are they even allowed to interact? Who fights the wars? Who starts the wars and why? If they send men to war, do they do so to control their populations through pointless arranged wars with other states? How are the genders educated? Do they worry about sin or souls? What are the religious requirements of each gender? Is there a god? More than one? How does the concept of magic influence society? What about the application of magic? Does greed exist? Murder? Debauchery? What are their stories like? Myths? Legends? Hope and dreams? When they think of the future, what do they see?

Are all societies on this planet similarly aligned, or is this culture unique. If so, how are they viewed by other nations and people? How does trade work?

And if they all get along passively, working together in a Utopian state, how did they overcome their predatory DNA to chill out and learn respect for one another, like in the species' early evolution? Or is this far into the future of this world?

SFF has a tradition of creating worlds as metaphors to address social commentary, the evils of the society being tipped or exaggerated in order for the book's themes to be explored. As a result, many of those worlds are familiar, but as the social fabric gets increasingly distorted, more explanation (creative investment) is required to maintain the suspension of disbelief. It's not necessary to actually write the history of the people, but everything that does happen needs to be consistent with that history. It's tough to do well.

The Iraqouis example works because of their level of development, that of a hunting and gathering tribe in a land of plenty. However, you mentioned technology. Imagine the magical gender division of your world in 1400 England. What would daily life look like? Humans have a history of being mercilessly cruel and power hungry to the point of absurdity. How does this society overcome this tendency? Or do they?

Yes, it is sexist, but it's still full of story. I'd recommend sorting it all out, the history of it, let your mind race from consequence to consequence, logical requirement to logical leap, and then figure out the themes you want to explore...or write it, and then go back and see what themes emerged, and reinforce those. The bottom line is there needs to be a story reason for why the world is as it is.

That's my 2 cents.  ::)
« Last Edit: April 21, 2017, 10:06:49 PM by P.J. Post »

Offline Herefortheride

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You should be alright.

Most animals also "assign" roles based on gender, only humans see a problem with it.

Perhaps your book could ask the bigger questions? Maybe there are people who want to break the mould? Could be interesting! :D
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Offline Doglover

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I just finished a series that had women locked up for breeding, and I can't find a single reason to hate the author for exploring such ideas. It's what fiction is for! I agree, as long as it's all explained in the book, any reader with a shred of intelligence will understand the idea.
This immediately brought to mind the Nazis and their forced breeding program, but if it is fantasy or sci fi of some kind, although I wouldn't read it, it doesn't seem to be untoward.

As to the original question, if you are writing in a fictional world, it hardly matters what you do. I write historical and sometimes my heroes are a bit brutal. I had a review which stated it was so disrespectful to women, she couldn't finish it. Well, the sixteenth century was disrespectful to women and if you are going to take offence at that, don't read historical.

A fantasy world can be whatever the author wants it to be. I shouldn't think anyone is going to care either way, unless they are extreme feminists.


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Offline Jo Black

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I think people have mis-appropriated to the word sexist to mean something it doesn't in the desire to virtue-signal. If as a writer you are deliberately demeaning a gender, race or ethnic group based on your own opinion-bias and not because it is essential to a story, then you can be accused of an -ism. If you are creating a world based on a extrapolation of a inherent society trait then you are doung your job as a writer to challenge society norms. A society that is segregated, gender biased or discriminatory highlights the very real existance of these things in real societies and allows you to explore the ideology and experiences behind them. The man in the high castle is a fantastic example of taking the experience of 1940's oppression and transporting it onto the doorstep of America. By showing how Americans would have experienced life under these oppressive regimes you help explain why Americans were involved in the war. We don't confront these ussues by burying  in a safe-space, we bring them to heel for what they are. Powerful literature does not come from safe spaces and equality, it comes from the fundamental struggle against constraints, oppression and discrimination. If you are writing gender bias because you think that's how things should be, odds are your treatment if the subject will merely represent your own bias, but if you want to explore a society that represses equality and can make a strong protaganist that fights against that repression you achieve the opposite and provide a powerful platform to highlight social ills.

Ultimately you shouldn't need to ask. The idea of 'safe space' in literature initself is a form of intellectual facism - to suggest anything that doesn't subscribe to a mandated orthodoxy must somehow be a negative statement or damaging is damaging to society progression. Sexism and male-dominated societies still exist on our planet in places like Saudi Arabia, mirroring injustice in fictional worlds only condones it if you write it as a manifesto of approval, not a critique of inequality.


Offline Herefortheride

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I think people have mis-appropriated to the word sexist to mean something it doesn't in the desire to virtue-signal. If as a writer you are deliberately demeaning a gender, race or ethnic group based on your own opinion-bias and not because it is essential to a story, then you can be accused of an -ism. If you are creating a world based on a extrapolation of a inherent society trait then you are doung your job as a writer to challenge society norms. A society that is segregated, gender biased or discriminatory highlights the very real existance of these things in real societies and allows you to explore the ideology and experiences behind them. The man in the high castle is a fantastic example of taking the experience of 1940's oppression and transporting it onto the doorstep of America. By showing how Americans would have experienced life under these oppressive regimes you help explain why Americans were involved in the war. We don't confront these ussues by burying  in a safe-space, we bring them to heel for what they are. Powerful literature does not come from safe spaces and equality, it comes from the fundamental struggle against constraints, oppression and discrimination. If you are writing gender bias because you think that's how things should be, odds are your treatment if the subject will merely represent your own bias, but if you want to explore a society that represses equality and can make a strong protaganist that fights against that repression you achieve the opposite and provide a powerful platform to highlight social ills.

Ultimately you shouldn't need to ask. The idea of 'safe space' in literature initself is a form of intellectual facism - to suggest anything that doesn't subscribe to a mandated orthodoxy must somehow be a negative statement or damaging is damaging to society progression. Sexism and male-dominated societies still exist on our planet in places like Saudi Arabia, mirroring injustice in fictional worlds only condones it if you write it as a manifesto of approval, not a critique of inequality.
^^This!

Don't be afraid to write about real issues. Why would you want to write about a cookie cutter ultra PC society?

I guess you could write about that society and see how they are missing the point that could be interesting, as well.
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Online Annie B

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Sexism and male-dominated societies still exist on our planet. Period. You don't have to travel anywhere.

The OP asked if the society they described here is sexist, and yes, it is. If that's what you want to write about, nobody is going to stop you.

As for worrying about being too PC... I stick with Neil Gaiman on this as I think his thinking provides a pretty good guideline when considering how we treat our fellow humans: http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/43087620460/i-was-reading-a-book-about-interjections-oddly
« Last Edit: April 22, 2017, 02:56:44 AM by Annie B »

Offline D. Zollicoffer

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As others have said, preassigned roles based on gender is kind of the definition of a sexist society. But there are loads of books that explore fictional sexist societies, but aren't sexist books in their message. The question is how you handle it in your story. Does your story reinforce the arbitrary roles of the society or does it question them? What happens to characters who aren't happy with their gender's role? To really stir the pot of this society, what happens to characters who don't identify with the gender they were assigned at birth?
This is a good point. There's a difference between having sexist things in your book and promoting them. It's like the difference between King and Lovecraft. I've read most of King's books and most of them have a character saying the n-word. But King doesn't just do it for laughs or because he's a bigot like Lovecraft. Most of his good guys reject those ideas, and the person who said it usually dies in the end.

So if it's sexist, point it out, and show that it's wrong and that you aren't trying to say this is how things should be.
« Last Edit: April 22, 2017, 04:34:56 AM by D. Zollicoffer »

Online Laran Mithras

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If you're worried about it being sexist, be careful your neurosis doesn't flavor your writing; it would kill the believability.

Offline Rosalind J

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Sexism and male-dominated societies still exist on our planet. Period. You don't have to travel anywhere.

The OP asked if the society they described here is sexist, and yes, it is. If that's what you want to write about, nobody is going to stop you.

As for worrying about being too PC... I stick with Neil Gaiman on this as I think his thinking provides a pretty good guideline when considering how we treat our fellow humans: http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/43087620460/i-was-reading-a-book-about-interjections-oddly
Yep. I'm thrilled to read that Gaiman quote. That's exactly what I've been asking for the past six months, and wondering when refraining from rudeness and being respectful to others started being a bad thing.

Yes, having assigned roles for genders is sexist. Of course it is. That's the definition of sexism. Yes, sexism is still an issue. If you're a man and you don't see it, there's a word for that too. There's what's called "benign" sexism, which is what the OP is proposing writing. And there's nothing neurotic about noticing sexism and not liking it. It's neurotic not to IMHO. Lots of groups of people have been told to sit down and shut up throughout history. That doesn't get many changes made.

I also agree with Shawna that there are things I do and don't want to read for entertainment. Rape for example, as a plot device. Which would be why I made it about 30 pages into the first Game of Thrones book and stopped. It's not about demanding that fiction reflect a perfect world. People can read and write whatever they want. But I get to choose whether to give their fiction my time and money.
« Last Edit: April 22, 2017, 08:29:39 AM by Rosalind J »

Offline D. Zollicoffer

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Yep. I'm thrilled to read that Gaiman quote. That's exactly what I've been asking for the past six months, and wondering when refraining from rudeness and being respectful to others started being a bad thing.

Yes, having assigned roles for genders is sexist. Of course it is. That's the definition of sexism. Yes, sexism is still an issue. If you're a man and you don't see it, there's a word for that too. There's what's called "benign" sexism, which is what the OP is proposing writing. And there's nothing neurotic about noticing sexism and not liking it. It's neurotic not to IMHO. Lots of groups of people have been told to sit down and shut up throughout history. That doesn't get many changes made.

I also agree with Shawna that there are things I do and don't want to read for entertainment. Rape for example, as a plot device. Which would be why I made it about 30 pages into the first Game of Thrones book and stopped. It's not about demanding that fiction reflect a perfect world. People can read and write whatever they want. But I get to choose whether to give their fiction my time and money.

In response to your first point:

It's funny. Netizens throw around terms like snowflake, SJW, and butthurt whenever you speak out about something that's offensive. They're upset because society is becoming less tolerant of certain views. They don't want to admit that they're terrible people. They want to say hateful things and blame the world for all of their problems.

I roll my eyes when someone starts whining about something being too PC.

I also hate when authors throw in gratuitous rape scenes. I'm a guy, and it makes me really, really uncomfortable. I'm like, "If it has to happen--do it off screen." Some writers describe them in pornographic detail. It's not realistic IMHO, just tatsteless and serves no real purpose.
« Last Edit: April 22, 2017, 09:32:17 AM by D. Zollicoffer »

Offline AbbyBabble

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I took some inspiration from the native American Iraqouis tribe [...] The reason culture developed this way in my setting is because all women have access to magic, which is instrumental in creating technology and is present in all walks of life.
Robert Jordan does exactly this in his Wheel of Time series.

I wrote this article about sexism in the Wheel of Time series.  http://alt.abbygoldsmith.com/articles/wot-Sexism.shtml  It may or may not apply to what you're doing, but the article got a lot of attention.  On the other hand, I think there are lot of great things about the WoT series.  It all depends on how well you write, how much people love the characters, situational plausibility, etc.  If you respect people regardless of their gender, it will come across in your writing.

Offline notjohn

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Would it be viewed as sexist to give men and women different roles in society?

Oh gosh, don't even dream of doing this! Recall how Margaret Atwood did that in The Handmaid's Tale, and how it all but ended her career.

(Even I have it queued up on my Fire tablet, though largely because it was free on Kindle Prime.)

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Oh gosh, don't even dream of doing this! Recall how Margaret Atwood did that in The Handmaid's Tale, and how it all but ended her career.

(Even I have it queued up on my Fire tablet, though largely because it was free on Kindle Prime.)

That book is all about sexism and misogyny (and in some ways Christianity/organized religion) taken to a dystopic extreme. So...

Offline Steve Voelker

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virtue-signal.

I personally LOVE this term. Lets me know there is absolutely no reason to read anything said after it. It's turned out to be a real time saver.
« Last Edit: April 22, 2017, 02:09:32 PM by Steve Voelker »

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