I just finished reading The Hunger Games, the new hit young adult speculative fiction book that’s basically Rite of Passage meets The Lottery meets Battle Royale. It’s fairly good, if not particularly original.1
This post, however, is about something interesting I noticed: for the first fourteen pages of the book, I thought the protagonist was male.
The book is in first person, so the only clues to the sex of the main character are the “long dark braid” and the name “Katniss”. Things flip a bit on page 10:
…where did this stuff about having kids come from? There’s never been anything romantic between Gale and me.
…um. My mind decided that this was a society where homosexuality was as normal as heterosexuality—something I appreciate in books these days. I didn’t quite make the connection with “kids”, but even then maybe it’s just “starting a family”.
It wasn’t until page 15 that I came to an abrupt halt.
To my surprise, my mother has laid out one of her own lovely dresses for me.
The fact that this would be considered “cross-dressing” in a Western culture made this sentence seem highly unlikely. At that point my mistake began to dawn on me, and I went back through the first fourteen pages looking for hints I had missed.
At first I put this down to my usual speedreading tendencies—I’m embarrassed to say that the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I missed the part that said exactly how Gollum got the ring from Frodo in Return of the King. >_<. But no, it turned out that those three things (the braid, the name, and “kids”/”romance”) were really all that might hint at a sex in the first fourteen pages of the book.
As a reader
Is it bad that I automatically assumed the main character was male before I got definite information? I admit I did the same thing with Avice in Embassytown, another female first-person narrator. But I don’t think my imagination can handle a sexless person, at least not without deliberate effort (cf. The Left Hand of Darkness). There are many hair colors, skin colors, accents, and so often I don’t include those in my mental sketch of a character. But sex is binary, at least in humans—and most main characters are human—so it’s something I don’t just leave blank.
EDIT from the future: (a) This is not true, and (b) “gender” would be more correct.
Partly this might be due to English lacking gender-neutral pronouns. We feel uncomfortable talking about someone whose sex we don’t know, and usually default to “he” or “she”, with an anxious look to see if we’ve got it right.2 Other languages with gendered inanimate objects have it even “worse”: studies have shown that associating a name with an object is easier for people if the sex of the name matches the gender of the word for the object.
Given all that, is it bad (sexist) that I assumed the protagonist was male? Should I have assumed the protagonist was female because the author is female? I think the answer to both those questions is “no”: it’s still reasonable for a hypothetical person to have a sex, and there’s a fifty-fifty chance (in theory) that it’s “male”.3 And authors write opposite-sex characters all the time, at least in the last century or so.
Though I wonder: do female readers tend to assume the main character is female if given no hints? And then, is that because as kids girls tend to read more books with female protagonists, and likewise for boys? Hm…
As a writer
After my moment of cognitive dissonance had worn off, and after I had checked to see that it really wasn’t my fault (at least up to page 10) that I didn’t know Katniss’s sex, I felt a little annoyed at Collins. Would it have been that hard to indicate the sex of the main character somehow? It’s easy to drop hints (“dad had wanted a boy”, “we weren’t the best of sisters”, etc.), and it would have saved me a fair bit of confusion.
In one of my recent stories (not online yet), a friend commented that she didn’t realize at first that “Jenn” was the (first-person-narrating) main character, and not someone else “off-screen”. I had actually put that in the story deliberately: the opening conversation didn’t have the protagonist’s name until the very end. I’m not sure why I did that…maybe I thought it was clever. But it just made things hard on my reader(s).
Now, I do think it would be clever if someone wrote a whole book where the protagonist’s sex is unknown. I’d love to compare notes with other readers on that, to see when (or if!) they realized what was going on. Even hints towards one gender with a sudden reveal at the end—oh wait, they did that; it’s called Metroid.
But this was just inconvenient. If Collins was trying to be clever, it seemed like clever for clever’s sake, which is never really a reason to leave something in a book. I guess I think sex should be established very early after a character’s appearance in a book, even before the name. I can work with a nameless character; I can’t work with a sexless one.
It’s simple: a writer shouldn’t confuse their readers. Right?
I’ve read Rite of Passage and The Lottery and highly recommend them both. Haven’t seen Battle Royale yet. ↩︎
Recently I’ve been consciously trying to use “they” not just for an abstract, non-referential, gender-neutral person but also for referring to an actual person whose sex I just don’t know yet. ↩︎
As much as I’m against hypothetical people always being “he” (sometimes using “she” but more often now going with “they”), I think non-hypothetical people are always going to have an associated sex. Even fictional ones; they still have a (fictional) referent.
Or maybe not “always”. Maybe we’ll be more inclusive about sex and sexuality differences to the point where I can have an abstract person with no sex. Or maybe we’ll all become machine intelligences and sex will be moot anyway. ↩︎