Fittingly enough for this Starship Ladies series, my first memory of experiencing sexism involved a jet plane.
I was around eight years old, playing with my brothers’ toys—I vastly preferred them to Barbies or doll houses—which, in this case, involved a model aircraft. I was running outside, waving it through the air, making all of the proper zooming and blasting noises and laughing my head off, when it was taken away from me by an adult family member.
She (yes, a woman, tragically) told me that planes were boys’ toys, and that it was inappropriate for me to play with them. I shouldn’t be outside, tromping in the dirt, getting my scrawny legs coated with it. I should be inside, playing with something more fitting, like a doll or a stuffed animal, and leave the flying, the dirt, and even the loud laughing—I kid you not—to the boys.
It was the beginning of a refrain that I heard in various forms for the rest of my childhood. That I still hear today.
Girls should be clean. Girls should be quiet. Girls should sit back and let boys have the fun.
I heard it in books and movies, over and over again. Even if the words weren’t said aloud, they were painfully hammered into me when I only saw or read about boys having the adventures that I wanted to have—only boys getting dirty, being loud, soaring through the sky. Like so many, I grew up reading Lord of the Rings, Ender’s Game, and other classic SFF, and watching Star Wars—stories I loved, but that featured boys. I hadn’t yet read Anne McCaffrey or Robin McKinley or Ursula K. LeGuin. I hadn’t yet seen Rey wielding a lightsaber. Nowadays, I know how to find more stories that represent me, but I definitely didn’t then.
Luckily, I’m a pretty stubborn person. I don’t appreciate being told what I can or can’t do.
This formative moment was also the first time I experienced the idiom “to see red.” It was a feeling that rose from my feet, boiled in my chest, and blazed through my skull like a volcanic eruption. My eyes and face were hot; I wanted to scream. Blast off.
I snatched my jet back from this family member, making her jump in surprise, and shouted at her that I would play with whatever I wanted.
Fast forward to today: I’m still doing this. I just have bigger toys.
I moved to Alaska, where I have a vast wilderness for a backyard, and I get coated in dirt whenever possible. I have a boat with a deafening 600 HP engine, with which I commercial fish for sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay with my husband—one of the slimiest, wildest jobs around. And my biggest toy of all: books. I write them.
I am even louder now, whether laughing or otherwise.
It should come as no surprise that the point-of-view character I wrote for my upcoming, coauthored YA sci-fi, Shadow Run, is a female starship pilot. Captain Qole does a lot of zooming and blowing stuff up. She gets grimy. She gets loud. She even “fishes” in space. In some (though definitely not all) ways, she is me in space. Me, flung on a string of words, up into the sky, toward the stars, to fly.
I’m still blasting off.
Not that it’s always been easy or simple for me to find my way. I’ve grown a lot more complicated since I was that angry seven-year-old. Now in my early thirties, I’ve realized I’m genderfluid, spending about half my time in my head as a demigirl (“someone who partially, but not wholly, identifies as a woman, girl or otherwise feminine, whatever their assigned gender at birth”), and the other half around neutral or even masculine-leaning. This doesn’t mean I’m less of a feminist, or that I experience sexism and misogyny any less. It means I get to feel even more frustrated and awkward regarding other people’s perceptions of me and what I should be doing with myself. Also, being biromantic asexual has added another layer between me and a world that accepts me for who I am. (I’ve written another YA Interrobang post on specifically this, if you’re interested.)
Now that I know who I am, books have become both the biggest playground and the best toy of all. In reading, it’s a thrill to discover or revisit awesome female characters (of all kinds, whatever their assigned gender at birth, sexual orientation, race, religion, or mental/physical abilities), and the choices are only getting better and more varied, as time goes on.
As for my own books, Shadow Run not only has Captain Qole representing parts of me, but also both genderfluid and gay supporting characters. My latest work-in-progress has a female biromantic asexual protagonist, and both trans and gay supporting characters. But that’s not what the stories are about. They’re about these characters having adventures. Getting dirty. Blowing things up. Soaring through the sky.
Now, ever since that day someone tried to take that jet, those wings, from me, I not only write about whomever I want, doing whatever they want, but even better: When writing myself into imaginary worlds, I’m inserting myself into this world by putting my work out there for others to see. It’s too late to go back and give my books to the kid I was, but perhaps kids like me will be able to pick them up, and discover that they are in the pages. That these wild worlds—both real and imaginary—are also for them. That they, too, can fly.