Decades ago, there was a show called Martial Law, which starred legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer Sammo Hung as Sammo Law, a Chinese law officer who comes to the U.S. for a case and then stays to help the Los Angeles police by getting into awesome Kung Fu fights in warehouses filled with convenient collections of things to swing from and hit people with.
Was the show good?
Okay, listen, what is good, really?
It was a silly cop show in the 90s. It aired next to Walker, Texas Ranger. It was Ohara if you simplified Pat Morita’s English dialogue but gave him a lot more spin kicks. (Am I the only one who remembers Ohara? Possibly! I watched a lot of questionable television back in the day.) The plot was pretty much there as a vehicle to get you the viewer from one martial arts fight to the next, and getting to see an amazing Hong Kong fight choreographer do his stuff on network television was fun.
Also, one time, an international assassin showed up for a job. and the businessman who had hired him bowed to him, and the international assassin bowed back, and Karin caught me bowing back to the TV screen along with the assassin because I’d gotten caught up in how badass everyone was, and she did not let me hear the end of it for awhile.
One episode had a plot point that made me laugh out loud. (I looked up the Martial Law episode guide on Wikipedia, because apparently this matters to me, and I think it was S1E08, “Take Out”.) The heroes are trying to help a Chinese restauranteur who is being threatened by an evil white business tycoon for refusing to sell his restaurant. (As I recall dimly, evil tycoon guy knew about plans to make a new highway that would have increased the value of the land.)
So we’re at like the two-thirds point of the episode, restaurant guy is now in the hospital, and evil tycoon guy sends him a gift, saying he hopes that our restauranteur recovers and makes the right decision, and the gift is a clock. Restauranteur guy looks sad and shaken, and all the Chinese people on the show look angry, and all the white detectives look confused, and one of the Chinese detectives explains, “In Chinese culture, giving someone a clock as a gift is bad luck or even a threat, because it symbolizes time running out and dying.” The tycoon was making a threat!
On one hand, White Viewer Patrick learned something. On the other, I found it hilarious that this evil white business tycoon, who had been portrayed as basically a rancher type (I do not remember whether he had a hat (Edit: he totally had a hat), but there were definitely evil rancher vibes) would have anywhere near the cultural understanding to know that a clock was bad luck as a gift in Chinese culture. This was not a tycoon who was Chinese himself, or who had been set up as having knowledge of Chinese culture. This was your basic evil white American rancher tycoon, and the show wanted me to believe that this guy would go to his goons and snarl, “Listen, boy, you git on down to that hospital and you give that old feller a CLOCK, you hear me? Ohhhh, yes sirree, I’m giving him a clock, sure as mud on a frog’s backside! You know, boy, back in the day, I thought taking that ol’ Chinese Lit course to cover my World Cultures requirement at University was a waste of time, but it’s really payin’ off now! No, not an hourglass, you ninny! It has to be a clock. In Chinese, “Giving a clock,” is one o’ them dang ol’ homonyms for “Attending a funeral,” so get the feller a goddamn clock so that he knows I’m threatening his life!”
White people don’t know that stuff. Not even good white people, too much of the time. The odds that the evil white rancher tycoon is gonna do that level of cultural interrogation is, uh, low.
Or, as coworker Sylvia Feketekuty amazingly summed it up when I ranted about this years later, “I want to threaten this guy, but in a way that shows a deep respect for his culture!”
Some of you at this point are wondering why I have chosen to use one of my rare website updates to discuss a silly episode of a silly TV show from more than two decades ago. The reason, beyond, “I paid for the website, so I can put as many Martial Law posts up as I want,” is that some novel critique I received on the alpha draft of the current work in progress made me think about that episode again.
I have a non-binary character in the novel. Part of this is to see how hard it is to do, and so far, the answer has been that yes, I have to pay more attention to my sentence-crafting than usual to keep things clear, but no, it isn’t too hard for people to do in general. (Another part is that I’ve been using they/them for a couple years now, and I thought, hey, what if I wrote a fantasy novel that was pretty much a normal, by-the-numbers action-adventure fantasy novel, but it just happened to have a major character who used they/them? As a non-binary person, I’d like to see that.)
So anyway, friend and awesome writer Mishell Baker was reading the alpha draft, and brought something up in her critique. Essentially, I have my non-binary character come around a corner, weapon raised, and Random Bad Guy 6, who does not know the character except as a hostile intruder, shouts, “Kill them!”
The character isn’t wearing clothes that code particularly masculine or feminine, and this world doesn’t have anything obvious people wear to indicate pronoun preferences, and Random Bad Guy 6 doesn’t know who they are, sooooooo why did Random Bad Guy 6 say, “They?”
Random Bad Guy 6: Kill them!
Random Bad Guy 5: For the Blood Demon! Wait, “them”?
Random Bad Guy 6: Yeah, man, I don’t want to assume their pronouns.
Random Bad Guy 5: You could’ve gone with “him or her”.
Random Bad Guy 6: Sure, but the singular “they” allows for uncertainty and is a lot less likely to give offense.
Random Bad Guy 5: Oh, yeah, okay, good point.
Random Bad Guy 6: For the Blood Demon!
I have basically made Random Bad Guy 6 into Culturally Sensitive Evil Rancher Tycoon. So hey, Martial Law, all those times I made fun of that plot point, and here we are.
I’m thinking about what to do about this in the story, weighing options, and it’s leading to some interesting revelations for me, both as a writer and as someone who uses they/them.
I could make it clear that in this world, you use “they” until you know someone’s pronouns… but that implies a lot of intelligent gender discourse in this fantasy world, and this novel… isn’t… that? Like, this is not “Patrick is being self-deprecating and trash-talking their own stuff,” but I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice and A Door into Ocean, and they are good and thoughtful and interesting and have some fascinating things to say about gender and society… but the book I’m writing is one whose fight scenes you can and should imagine me acting out with Lego minifigs, complete with pew-pew noises for the blasters.
(Or, slightly more vulnerably, I am still figuring out my own gender stuff, what being a They means to me. I do not have the education or the personal comfort level to do a big worldbuilding exploration of how gender stuff could work differently.)
So having a world where even the random bad guys check gender doesn’t feel right. Instead, I could have people make incorrect guesses about the character’s gender… but part of the reason I wrote this was that I wanted to have folks like me see themselves in a big silly action-adventure fantasy novel, and a positive experience for folks like that is not one where they get to see a character get misgendered every few minutes. We can get that for free in real life!
What I’m looking at as a possibility right now is just writing around it for characters who wouldn’t know. Random Bad Guy 6 can just shout, “Kill them all!” to include both the non-binary character as well as anyone who might be with them. or “Kill the intruder!”, which is non-gender-specific, at least until someday when this novel sells and then someone wants to translate it into a romance language and sends a polite email asking, “Should ‘the intruder‘ be ‘l’intrus‘ or ‘la intruse‘?”, and really, I cannot stress this strongly enough, that is a problem for Future Patrick.
Or maybe I just have Random Bad Guy 6 shout, “Attack!”, because I have now spent the better part of an hour thinking out loud about how to fix a two-word sentence a random bad guy shouts in the middle of an action scene, as opposed to other issues like “Main plot motivation kind of doesn’t make sense in current draft.” Just avoiding the issue with unnamed characters means that the random bad guy doesn’t have to be weirdly gender-inclusive while also sacrificing people to blood demons, and it also means fellow readers who use they/them don’t have to deal with evil bad guys misgendering the good guy.
And while I am a little annoyed at how much of a spiral I went into over this, I am also happy about it. It’s making me think a little more about the reasons I switched to they/them, and what it means for me. I am more than four decades into my life, and I’m still trying to figure myself out in a lot of ways. The stuff I write may not be doing super-deep studies of gender, but it’s telling a fun story and also giving me a chance to think about my own gender stuff.
And also, apparently, the Culturally Sensitive Evil Rancher Tycoon from Martial Law.