Speculating Canada had an interesting post—Gender Swopping Characters to Reveal Stereotypes—on their blog recently. It made me think about swopping out one sex of a character for another in one of my stories. It’s not as if I hadn’t done it before in my mind. In fact, I’ve been doing it all my life thanks to the male dominate adventure culture I live in.
When I see a great movie or read a great book, I often think of it long after film credits roll and pages close. As a dreamer I dream about putting myself in the leading or supporting roll. If I really like the male character leading the adventure, I don’t mind playing his side kick. If the supporting actor is preferred, I step into the lead roll and guide him to safety.
Derek Newman-Stille over at Speculating Canada suggested taking one of our stories and switching the genders to reveal stereotypes. He tried this with his English students at Trent University, stating, “I thought gender swopping would be a really interesting way to get students to examine power structures implicated in writing gendered narratives and start to question some of the stereotypes and beliefs that are assembled with our constructions of gender.”
My thoughts when I read Derek’s post were, “I wonder what Fowl Summer Nights would read like if the genders were switched?” So I tried it. Below is the semi-edited first chapter of the novella Fowl Summer Nights. The only things I changed were names (to switch gender), pronouns (him/her, she/he), daughter/son, Dad/Mom, man/woman and girl/boy. I did make one other change: purse to man bag. Everything else remained the same.
I wonder, is it obvious that these parts were gender swopped?
* * * ~ * * *
Fowl Summer Nights (or Fine Winter Days?): Chapter One
by Diane Lynn Tibert McGyver
The accolades and celebration of forty-three years of service with Canada Post dissipated the first week of retirement. At the age of sixty-five years and seven days Morten Fowler decided he had received the worst possible birthday gift: unemployment.
The smiles and hugs from coworkers still flashed before his eyes and the din of their congratulations hummed in his ears. Even the sweet smell of Sammy’s breath as he toasted to long days of leisure lingered on his nose hairs. He now wondered if they truly believed being sent out to pasture was a happy occasion or if they simply wanted to give him a final hurrah before he entered obscurity. In reality, who really wanted to do nothing all day?
His daughter Cindy told him to take up a hobby if he got bored, which she sincerely doubted he would. “You’re where everyone aims to be,” she had said. “You’ve earned this freedom. Take advantage of it while you still have your health.”
“You’ll be able to sleep in,” his youngest daughter Vicki had said on the phone from her office in Summerside.
But he didn’t like to sleep in and miss the sunrise. Where was the advantage of sleeping away your day, the remainder of your life?
His only son Dougie had told him to travel, to visit old friends, but without a travelling companion he dared not leave the comfort of his neighbourhood.
Morten flopped on the big comfy chair in his livingroom and looked around. Since his loving wife Jane had passed away seven years before, his life had seemed empty. Now it felt meaningless. While working at least he had a purpose, a reason to rise each day. With all the time in the world, he didn’t know what to do.
He picked up the phone and dialled Cindy’s number. After four rings, he heard a click.
“Dad.” She sounded agitated, saying only his name and not her usual cheery hello. Darn call display didn’t even give her the opportunity to greet him with optimism. “This is the third time today. I’m working.”
“Cindy, I was just wondering if you’d like to have supper with me this evening,” said Morten. “I’ll cook a turkey and all the fixings.”
“Dad…Janice has hockey practice and Stephen’s at dance. John and I won’t have time to squeeze in a sit down between work and the kids.”
She signed heavily. “Dad, I know you’re adjusting to your new life, but…I can’t always be there when I have so much to do here and at home.”
“Seems I always had time for you.”
The phone hung silent for a moment. “Saturday, Dad. I’ll take you out to brunch. How does that sound?”
“If that’s all you can spare the fine man who helped bring you into this world, then I should be gracious and accept.”
“Not gonna work this time, Dad. Have you looked into the local senior’s organisation? I’m sure they have tons of events going on.”
Morten huffed. “I was by there. Do you know that’s a place for old people? I mean really old people. Most of them can’t hold their water let alone a shot of rum.”
“Well, then get a pet. A cat. It will keep you company.”
“A cat? I never liked hair all over the furniture.”
“Okay, Dad. We’ll talk Saturday. I have to go. The boss is giving me the eye.” The phone went dead.
“Good bye, daughter.” Morten hung up the receiver. “A pet.” He shuddered. He’d never owned a pet in his life. The gerbil that ran away didn’t count. He picked up the newspaper and sifted through the pages, not taking note of any particular article. The pictures were entertaining, but most of them were of puffed-up politicians who yakked more than they did.
He was about to toss the news into the wood pile when a bright, big-eyed creature caught his attention. The caption read: Support Your Local Youth Club–Buy a Chicken. Morten read on. It was a fun-raiser for 4-H. Members had hatched out one hundred chicks and were selling them for five dollars apiece. The article provided a brief description on the care of raising chickens.
Morten puckered his lips. It didn’t seem that difficult, and it would give him something to do. And it would support the 4-H kids. It was a win-win opportunity. He checked the time and location. It was taking place in three hours at the local farmer’s market. That gave him plenty of time to arrange something. Maybe get a box to put them in and a dish for water.
For the first time in seven days Morten felt he had a purpose. The spring in his step launched him out of the chair and around the house.
Before the chick stand opened for business, Morten was waiting in line with his empty box. Two other people showed up to wait behind him. They were middle-aged, still working people who obviously had flexible schedules to be at the Farmer’s Market at two on a Tuesday afternoon.
“Are you here for the chicks?” asked the scarfed male. His neck was a billowy fluff of pink and black stripes.
“I was thinking of it,” said Morten. “Certainly with a box in my hand I’m doing more than thinking of it.” He grinned.
“How many are you getting?” asked the woman next to him. She reminded Morten of a regular customer at the post office with her shiny, slick-backed yellow hair.
“I’m not sure. Is there a limit?” He hadn’t considered how many chicks he’d purchase. “Maybe one will be good to get me started. But it would be lonely. I should get two.”
“There’s no limit,” she said. “You could buy all one hundred if you wanted.”
“Really?” The thought of one hundred chicks livening up his house lost him in thought.
“No,” said the scarfed man. “We want a few.”
His mate chuckled. “I was only joking. What would you do when they started laying? You’d have a hundred eggs a day.”
One hundred eggs a day! thought Morten. What could he do with them? Sell them, maybe. That would mean getting customers. A mini business. People would have to visit him. They’d keep him busy.
Morten turned to the stand and watched as several young people opened up the barn-style shed and hustled around, organising tables, chairs and flyers. Perhaps two chicks would be enough to get him started. If he discovered he liked raising chicks, he could get a few more. What if one died? Then the other would be lonely. He should get three to protect against that. Three’s a crowd.
The sound of chirping neared, and he looked to see a youth carry a box containing dozens of holes. The chirping came from it. The sound enchanted him. It was beautiful. Three was definitely a crowd. He needed four to keep them happy, then they’d have partners for their games. It was decided, four chicks. He’d buy four. Four eggs a day was a good number. He could eat two himself and make brownies or muffins with the others. Fresh eggs were divine. He’d had them several times in his life; store-bought eggs couldn’t match the colour or flavour.
“Are you here to buy chicks?” A young boy in a thick sweatshirt stood near him.
“Yes, thank you.” Morten stepped forward. “I’m just debating on how many.”
“We always recommend buying one or two more than you think you’ll need. If you want only two eggs a day, get three,” he said, smiling to reveal a lovely set of braces that would make everyone run out and buy braces. “They don’t lay every day, but they lay most days.”
Morten rolled this thought around in his mind. “Five. I believe I’ll take five then. We’ve been rounding up for pennies, so it only makes sense.”
The boy gave him a blank stare as if trying to figure out the similarities between pennies and chicks.
A girl about the same age plopped one of the chirping boxes on the display table. “How many?”
“Five, dear,” said Morten. He glanced into the box. The little peeps look adorable.
“That’s twenty-five dollars,” she said, smiling. “Great, you brought a box.” She reached for it.
Morten dug into his cavernous man bag and uncovered his wallet from a mound of coupons, tissues and bandages. He extracted five five-dollar bills and placed them in the young woman’s hands. “One, two, three, four and five.” He grinned. “Five for five. That’s a high five.” He winked.
The girl handed the money to the boy and counted out five yellow chicks.
“Are they all light brown, or what is this called? Golden?” asked Morten. “Do they come in any other colours?”
“These are Rhode Island Red chicks, so they are all the same colour,” she said.
“Oh.” Morten scanned the boxes. Some chicks were a little lighter or a wee bit darker, but they all looked the same. How was he to name them and remember who was who?
“When they get older, they’ll have rich brown feathers decorated with dark brown and black. Sometimes there’s also a white feather.”
“Just one white feather?”
She nodded. “Weird, ain’t it?”
“How am I to tell the boys from the girls?” he asked, inspecting the chicks as he placed them in his box.
“They’re all girls. Hens,” she said. “They’re the only ones that lay eggs.”
“This is a chicken, isn’t it?”
She paused as she considered his question. “They’re all chickens, and they’re all hens.”
He stared in silence. “Aren’t roosters chickens?”
“Yes, they are, but they don’t lay eggs. Only hens lay eggs.”
“So you’re telling me these chicks are all chickens and they are all hens. And that they all lay eggs.” He waited for the confirmation. It all sounded a little crazy.
“That’s right.” She closed the lid of the box and held it out to him.
“So all these girls will lay eggs?” He gripped the box and pulled it close.
“Yes, because they’re all hens.” She looked past him to the waiting couple.
Morten glanced at them. They quickly hid the smiles on their faces, but not before he caught them. He squinted, puckered his lips and made a B-line for his car. The scarfed man stepped back to give him room. He placed the box gingerly in the back seat and closed the door. Then he had second thoughts. Maybe they were too young to travel back there. He opened the door, removed the box and carried it the passenger seat. Once in place, he studied the box. Then he reached around and drew the seatbelt snuggly around the cardboard container, securing it in place.
“There. You’re safe to travel.” He flung closed the door and went to the driver’s side. After starting the engine, he wondered if the radio was too loud. He turned it down. Then he wondered if the draft coming in the open window was too cool for the chicks. He rolled it up just in case.
Now that “Babies were Onboard” he drove slower than normal. The last thing he wanted was to lose his precious cargo in an accident. By the time he pulled into his driveway, he had a line-up of six vehicles behind him. A few waved, but one honked loudly and pulled into the adjoining driveway.
Morten gently slipped the box from the car seat and turned to go inside. He’d need to feed and water them right away. Goodness knows when the last time they were fed.
He turned and watched Mrs. Anna Mills stomp towards him, a full-head of anger already steaming. Her short grey hair looked disarrayed and her face hot tempered.
“Mr. Fowler, are you aware that there’s a law for driving too slow.” She halted so close to the box of chicks, any movement might shove them into Morten’s chest.
“No, I’m not aware of such a ridiculous rule,” he said. “If there was one—which I doubt—then bicyclists would be ticketed non-stop.”
She huffed. “It’s not for spandex pedal pushers, but for old men who should no longer be gassing it between the lines.” Her nostrils flared causing her nose hairs to shoot towards him in an unlady-like manner.
“Inconceivable! Share the road; share the law and with it the fines.” He grunted and stuck his chin forward. Since retiring more than five years ago, Anna the Anal Neighbour had never given him a moment’s peace. She’s the first to complain he hasn’t shovelled his driveway and sidewalk, the only one who grumbles over the way he cuts his lawn and trims his hedges and whines he’s left the porch light on all night.
“The next time I call the police!” She turned and shuffled towards her vehicle, mumbling. “Dingbat.”
“I heard that!” she spat.
“You must have cleaned the wax out of your ears.” He cradled his precious cargo as he walked. Chirping exploded inside.
“What in tarnation is that?” shouted Anna Mills.
“That is none of your nosey business.” Morten unlocked his front door, stepped inside and slammed it behind him. With neighbours like Anus Anna who needed a power plant spewing obnoxious air? It was time for her to ditch her widow’s pad and head for the nearest geriatrics institution.
Morten set the box of chicks gently on the floor while he removed his jacket and shoes. The chirping fell silent as if suddenly the little birds realised they were no longer home, no longer with their mama. Morten suddenly felt a twinge of regret. He had taken these poor dears away from their mother. They would be traumatised for life.
One innocent chirp came from the closed box, one peep that filled the little home that had felt vacant for seven years. The sound ignited an inner desire to take care of its needs regardless of how small or how large. He had not felt necessary since Jane had left for the afterlife. He would answer the call.
But where? Where could his little peeps stay safe until they got bigger? The bathroom. Or more precisely, the bathtub. Morten picked up the box and carried it carefully with two hands. Movement inside made him tilt the box this way then that to keep it balanced. He placed the box in the tub and opened the lid. Five bright black eyes stared up at him through fluffy, golden down. They looked terrified.
“Oh, you sweeties, there’s nothing to fear with Uncle Mortie.” With his index finger he gently stroked the head of a chick. It opened its beak and a chirp escaped. The others began chirping like crazy and running away from his hand. He withdrew and they stopped.
He scrutinised the porcelain tub. It was cold and unwelcoming. It needed something to make it feel more like home. A thick, fluffy towel! He leapt up, went to the closet and pulled out a green towel. “Perfect. It looks just like grass.”
Morten spread out the towel on the bottom of the tub, then he removed the chicks from the box. They pecked the strands in the towel, pulling on them with their beaks. They chirped happily as they scratched the towel with their feet. It was such a serene scene it made Morten rest his chin on his arms and watch. The afternoon passed and before he knew it, time was deep into the evening.
..end of chapter one. Fowl Summer Nights is scheduled for release summer of 2014.