How to write about sex/gender in science fiction about shapeshifters?
February 3, 2021 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on a science fiction piece. Some people fly a spaceship through some star-trekky anomaly, and they start to shapeshift at random. Currently it includes this language: "The first time it happened, everyone on board freaked. Our uniforms didn’t fit, some of our genders felt unfamiliar." Is "genders" the right term to be using here?

I realize that the more correct term for biological difference is "sex," but if the character is talking purely about biological difference, it feels like the line would just be "our bodies felt unfamiliar." However, this line comes in a conversation between two people who formerly had a romantic and sexual relationship, so just using the term "bodies" skirts one of the main issues the characters are confronting. "Genders" sounds right to my (cis-male) ear, but is that playing on harmful tropes?
posted by HeroZero to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I like "identities." Then become more specific as more information is revealed.
posted by firstdaffodils at 3:36 PM on February 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I really don't think "gender" is the term you're looking for here. I didn't really grok what my gender was until I was in my mid-forties (though I had an very strong sense of what it wasn't); if I was suddenly shape shifted into a different body I might feel that that body felt weird, but my internal sense of being a non-binary individual would (I believe) remain the same.

I don't entirely understand why you're leaning away from "bodies," but for what it's worth I would encourage you to go with that (or at least something other than gender) instead.
posted by DingoMutt at 3:38 PM on February 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: “Our anatomies felt unfamiliar” maybe?

I wouldn’t use the word gender. Gender (at least the way it’s used these days) is a mental self-perception, so it wouldn’t change when one’s body shapeshifts.
posted by mekily at 3:46 PM on February 3, 2021 [19 favorites]

Seconding DingoMutt and mekily - after nearly posting a very similar but boringly verbose answer.
posted by pipeski at 3:49 PM on February 3, 2021

"Genders" doesn't quite fall right on my ears (eyes?) in this case. Maybe something along the lines of "...some of us were more uncomfortable than others in these new bodies"?
posted by erst at 4:11 PM on February 3, 2021

Best answer: I think looking into the mythology of shapeshifters across history would yield some surprising wrinkles on how different cultures and societies came to the myth of shapeshifting in the first place.

Like, shapeshifting from human to animal, or shapeshifting from one human for to another? What's the cultural mythology that you're working from?

If you are staying within the human form and shapeshifting in ways where the characters remain bipedal and human-like, then perhaps gender has some currency but I'm struggling to see how, honestly.

If you're writing more of say, an Italo Calvino "Cosmicomics" type story then gender and biology largely become meaningless concepts and I suggest visiting that book for ideas on how to describe completely new beings inhabiting their shapes (Cosmicomics does a wonderful job of this)

As a person who has literally shapeshifted my body to inhabit a different perception of gender, I have to say that my body changing shape didn't really directly impact my internal sense of gender, it's more that it impacted the sense of how I occupy space and time and move through it. So I would suggest perhaps getting more into the details of spatial awareness and how these new body shapes moves through space. I think honestly that you are looking for a quick linguistic currency to communicate a lot of ideas, and in the process are generalizing too much by trying to capture the experience into a single word.

From my own personal experience (quite literally) with this, I would write:

"The first time it happened, everyone on board freaked. Our uniforms didn’t fit, some of us, unaware of the new shapes we occupied, were unable to navigate the world and relationships we previously had, as our genders had been decomposed and bodies deposited onto blank pages waiting for their new stories to be written"
posted by noiseanoise at 4:14 PM on February 3, 2021 [10 favorites]

If you are using the slang of “freaked” some anatomical slang like “junk”/“bits” or similar may work in the voice of the narrator. For a fun teen take on the full body swap, see Jack Black’s character in Jumanji, which is a teen/not-quite-fully-adult take.
posted by childofTethys at 5:24 PM on February 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

If I was reading a story where people were changing shape a la Salvador Dali (stretching out, squishing, new random flesh appearing) and the FIRST thing that was mentioned was gender, I'd be confused. Like, OK, you now have a third arm and a face with no eyes but the first thing you thought about was your gender presentation?
posted by kingdead at 6:53 PM on February 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Your conception sounds binary, so no, the two genders won't do.

And handwaving yadda-yadda for 'the first time' will only ever be placeholder until you've got specific characters narrating their experience of the body that they inhabit and their response to the changes.

You might have some horny fantasy or sex-positive hookup going on and then a character asks "with what parts of this body am I going to continue to participate?"

You might have a woman whose place in ongoing male-on-female violence (if this persists in their culture or is part of making their culture accessible to our not-very-spacefaring culture) means they want to plonk a scrotum in a colleague's drink and they either get the chance or miss the chance.

Each character will react body-positively or body-negatively depending on what they have been taught to believe about the outward appearance and the roles it plays in their social order -- modulo some inner strength to rise upward or retain now-lost high status.

And that's before considering a character who now imagines they're less able in the form that your macguffin put them in. That could be a contrast to one crewmate who accepts limitations of their physical form -- things that we might call a disability -- and then is macguffin'd in ways that overcome those difficulties with ease. (It's a discussion for another time how much responsibility to this hypothetical crewmate the ship's designers have to fill the ship with enabling and accessible means to pay a part in the crew.)
posted by k3ninho at 12:24 AM on February 4, 2021

Sounds fine to me. The point you're making comes across perfectly clearly on first read.
posted by McNulty at 12:47 AM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sometimes being more specific can help. "...some of us had new genitals."
posted by zompist at 12:52 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you said “genders,” I would have one of several possibilities in my head, and from your question I’m not entirely sure which you intend:
- you were referring to their own self-identity, and that you might be implying that, for lack of a better term, their souls had shifted too. New person, same memories, may not have anything to do with the new shell.

-you are about to take a Neal Stephenson-esque deep dive into the neurobiological basis for the experience of gender. Different body, therefore different gender, which is deeply connected to the new shell.

-you were mistakenly describing primary and secondary sexual characteristics and didn’t want to say “genitals” or didn’t know the difference.

Whichever way you intend, I’d encourage you to find a trans beta reader, because this feels like real thin ice.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:05 AM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agreed, "genders" used in this way sounds off and not usefully descriptive to my (cis, queer, spends a lot of time talking with trans and nonbinary friends about gender) ears. I'm not clear enough on what you mean to even be able to answer whether what you mean is a harmful trope. I'd strongly recommend both using language that describes what you actually mean - their internal sense of themselves and how it matches up or doesn't with their new anatomy? A mismatch between that internal sense and how they are perceived by others? Perplexity about whether to change their descriptions of orientation or past relationships based on their new bodies? Something else entirely? - and a trans sensitivity reader if this is a significant part of the story.
posted by Stacey at 5:36 AM on February 4, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks all. I'm just changing one word, "genders" to "anatomies," because
- The sex/gender stuff just isn't central enough to what I'm doing to justify otherwise skating out on that thin ice. The shapeshifting is across different alien species, plenty of them nonbinary.
- It's a text intended for performance, and time is very limited, both in terms of the performance's length and in the time left to prepare for the performance. I'm kicking myself a bit for only noticing this possible issue so late in the process.

I definitely endorse paying sensitivity readers for this sort of thing, and have done so in the past on other projects, but thank you AskMeFites for your generosity in responding to this last-minute post.

Also, good gravy, having other people read your work is tough, but having other people read two sentences of your work completely out of context is somewhere between brutal and hilarious.
posted by HeroZero at 6:10 AM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

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