“So what are you working on for your next book?” the man at the polyamory meetup asked me, after his friend introduced us and he realized he’d read one of my books.
“It’s a murder mystery called Psychic City,” I said. “The detectives are three women in a polyamorous triad.”
“A triad?” he said. “That’s cool.”
“Yeah, it’s fun having three queer women as main characters,” I said. “Two of them are definitely gay. The third woman would probably identify as pan or bi in theory but has mostly had lesbian relationships in practice.”
“Wait,” he said. “How can you have a triad if the women aren’t into men?”
“It’s an FFF triad. Three women,” I restated.
“Yeah, so how can the two women be into the man if they’re both gay?”
Into the man? I thought. What man? “All three members of the triad are women. There are no men in the triad,” I explained again.
“Ohhhh,” he said. “Oh, a triad without men! Oh. Huh.” He stood there a moment, seemingly stunned at this idea.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. It was as though he’d never considered this. That he’d never known that FFF triads existed. This was curious to me, as I knew several. And likely so did he, since we knew a lot of the same people. But for some reason, the idea just didn’t click with him. Not until I’d said it several times.
The conversation recovered. We talked about other things. People we both knew. The games folks were playing at the meetup. He recounted his dating history to me. Asked me what I thought about an issue he was having. I gave some advice.
We talked and talked.
As we did, a theme emerged: He tended to position himself at the center of everything… in general, really. And because of this, he seemed to get lost whenever polyamory didn’t revolve around a man.
When Polyamory Doesn’t Revolve Around Men
A while back, I wrote a post called “The Switcheroo” that ended up being one of my most popular articles. It’s a conversation I had about polyamory with a male coworker who felt sorry for me as a polyamorous woman because, according to him: “Everyone knows that polyamory is just a thing that straight dudes made up so that their girlfriends will let them have some extra sex without looking like a creep.”
In the process of bantering back and forth in that piece, I address a lot of misconceptions that he has about polyamory — that frankly a lot of people have.
By the end of the talk, he’s changed his tune:
“Wow,” he says. “So polyamorous women really do have a lot of power.”
I nod. “Polyamory is a matriarchy.”
Looking back, I was probably a little hasty saying that polyamory is a matriarchy. (I’m a sucker for a punchy one-liner.) With the benefit of hindsight, I know now that it’s more that there are certain men, like the one I spoke to at that meetup, who feel like anything that doesn’t revolve around men is a matriarchy.
To those kind of men (and no, not all men, before anyone goes there — inb4 #notallmen, kiddos), any gender egalitarian polyamory will feel like it’s skewed towards women. And any set of polyamororous relationships that doesn’t explicitly include men? Perhaps it’s completely invisible to them.
Passing the Bechdel with Flying Colors, Failing a Hypothetical Reverse Bechdel
After I finished writing Psychic City, I subjected it to the Bechdel Test. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, here’s a quick dirty rundown of the criteria a work needs to pass the Bechdel Test:
- Has to have at least two women in it
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man
Some people add a fourth point that states that both women must have names — but that’s optional.
Anyway, Psychic City definitely passes the classic Bechdel Test:
- All of the major characters are women.
- They talk to each other a lot.
- If they’re being schmoopy, romantic, or thirsty, they are typically waxing sapphic, not talking about boys with hearts in their eyes. They’re also investigating murders, so they’re talking about work a lot.
However, when the genders are reversed, my book fails a hypothetical Bechdel Test for men. And fails miserably.
There are four named male characters in the book (so it meets the first criterion). True, two of these ostensibly male named characters do have gender as a more fluid/less salient factor about them as well — since one’s a shapeshifter and the other’s undead.
However, two men never have a conversation with one another in this book. They are only seen talking to women and only one at a time (which means they also don’t have the opportunity to talk about things other than women). So the book can’t meet the second or third stipulations re: men.
The Gender Gap When It Comes to General Literary Representation
I read a book a while back called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve that performed some linguistic analyses on literary classics and bestsellers and came up with some interesting insights. There’s lots of quirky stuff in there that I appreciated as a stats nerd. But the chapter I keep thinking about was the one on gender:
…saying most authors just prefer to write about their own gender would be an oversimplification. First, the most female focused books are nowhere near as lopsided as the extreme male focused books. The Prime of Miss Brodie was 21% he and 79% she. That’s the extreme example on the female side. Meanwhile, a book with the opposite split — 79% he and 21% she — is in the middle of the pack on the male side. There are twenty books with more extreme male ratios.
Within classic literature by men, she was used over 48,000 times, while he was used 108,000 times. There is a huge discrepancy in the characters that male authors are describing. But the reverse is not true. In classic literature by women, she was used 89,000 times, while he was used 90,000 times. The near identical rates of pronoun usage illustrate that in books by female authors, men and women are described at close to equal rates. Yet male authors include women less than half as often as they write about men.
Now, I didn’t deviate from the usual pattern on purpose. I didn’t intentionally forget to focus on men, while I was writing geeky buttkicking female characters. But I’m nonetheless amused at how things shook out.
And I’m glad to have written a representation of polyamory that doesn’t revolve around men.
Update (6/21/21): The second book came out, and Psychic State is now a series. Huzzah! The Psychic State books are mysteries with strong female leads and feature a large ensemble cast of polyamorous characters.