Thursday, 26 April 2012

Mr or Ms Vole?

One of the interesting exchanges at the Science into Fiction conference I attended yesterday came during the lunch break. Craig, a cheery man who writes what the Guardian calls 'harrowing' fiction, asked another chap if he knew who Plashing Vole was. I gingerly raised me hand, to which he replied that he'd always assumed PV was female.

I'm intrigued by this, and asked Twitter followers what their assumptions were. Most said male, a few said female. I realise I've never stated my sex online, but I assumed that if anyone gave it a moment's thought, they'd think I'm male. One respondent said my style is 'very male', which raises a number of fascinating questions about discourse and gender.

In terms of content, I think I fit largely into the male category, though it's a dubious claim to make. Sex and gender, we know from modern theory, is an unstable concept reinforced by performance. But I talk about football, the minutiae of indie music and politics a lot - not exclusively male, but certainly publicly more male than they should be. On the other hand, teaching is a subject and profession with many women in it (though less rarely in senior positions) and I talk about them a lot. I would reckon that I fit some stereotypical categories: the mildly autistic collector, for one.

Stylistically, I think my writing is masculine: I'm obsessive, forceful and often rude. Obviously there are plenty of women who fit these categories (hello mum) but you're more likely to find these qualities in writing by men. Certainly from my days as a literary theorist, feminist critics asserted that men write authoritarian, 'closed' 'phallic' texts, while women write 'open' or flowing, ambiguous work - informed by their respective genital and sexual characteristics. Lakoff claimed forty years ago that women's speech is marked by qualifiers, ambiguity, hesitations, redundancy and tentativeness - marking a desire for communal validation, whereas men supposedly assert things without concern for the speech community's opinions. Very baldly: some claim that men use speech as a carrier of meaning while women use it as a social glue. Interesting claim, but dependent on a lot of philosophical/ideological assumptions.

It's easy in some languages: Japanese has separate vocabularies for male and female language for some things. There's also some physiological evidence for differential communication skills between women (better) and men, from brain scans, and that women are more fluent on paper. Women apparently use language more formally or correctly, while men adopt slang more quickly - though I suspect new media and educational/social changes might erode this difference. It's also believed by some that men and women exist in differential cultures and linguistic groups, which makes sense to some extent: we often read different things, talk about different subjects and mix with different groups - though it leads too easily to the Men are from Mars bullshit. This isn't exclusive of course: most of us work and play in the same spaces, with each other. There's also an argument that linguistic difference represents the unequal distribution of power between men and women, which seems fairly convincing to me.

I quite like the idea that my sex isn't immediately obvious online. It lends a kind of freedom and lets me escape from gendered assumptions. To all the arguments noted above, I'd insist that linguistic and sexual identity is a continuum rather than a pair of opposed poles. We're all located somewhere on the scale. I hope that my interests are open and interesting to people all along the scale, but I'd have thought that my mode of expression was further to the male side. So: apart from those of you who know me, what sex did you think I am?

Update: some comments from Twitter:
@PlashingVole until I discovered your identity, I thought you were female, too! Pink background (gender construction) of the avatar [ a statue of a man reading]
I thought you were "he" because I read the profile bit where it says "he". 
 I know you and thought you were female. 
never for a second thought you were a woman - something very male about your writing style 
I did. I think it might have been discussions of child care. I know, says more about me...
I confess that I too thought you were female! Something in the (very eloquent, BTW) way you write, perhaps? 
Update: @infinitewarrior tells me about a site that claims to analyse your prose and give you a 'gender' reading. I'm a bit dubious: my writing is hugely derivative of the people I read, my academic context and the newspapers I follow, and when you look at the analysis, the decisions as to what constitutes a 'masculine' or 'feminine' word is heavily culturally dependent. But it's interesting.

My result:
Female Score: 1160Male Score: 1288The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!


Anonymous said...

I definitely thought you were a woman until you posted steam train pics. Then, and only then, I wondered.

The Plashing Vole said...

A very fair point! I'm not a steam nut, though I do think they're rather beautiful. What made you think I was female?

Emma said...

So you'e not Polish and you are a man. I guess I am in the wrong place for a Eastern European bride.

The Plashing Vole said...

Very sorry to disappoint you. I'll ask around my students, see who they can rustle up.