English is a rich language. We can shade our meaning with both lexical and grammatical choices, but the powerhouse of any sentence is its verb. Verbs can be weapons or balm, verbs are often directional, and verbs are always revealing. Who does what to whom tells the reader a lot about the characters involved—but also a great deal about the underlying assumptions and/or agenda of the writer. Sadly, unskilled writers can be unaware of their bias.
When I was thirteen (or thereabouts) I sat in a biology class. Yet again we were told, “The sperm penetrates the egg.” Old hat. I was barely listening. But this time I sat up straight and thought, “No, it doesn’t!” It’s not that I disagreed with the essence of the thing, that egg and sperm fused, but that the phrasing the teacher used—the one in all the textbooks—pissed me off. Suddenly it really pissed me off. Yet again, the boy/sperm got all the exciting action (swimming, penetrating) while the girl/egg had to just sit there like a lump and wait. And I was done with it, done with the idea of Male do, female done to. Done with the whole cultural tale of woman-as-object and man-as-subject.
It’s possible that one of the engines of my writing career was that gush of rage I felt when I realized that verbs not only mirror unconscious power dynamics, but reinforce them.
That day in class, of course, I couldn’t articulate my new understanding. Now I can. Now I can manipulate sentences to convey the basics of mammalian reproduction to reflect cultural female-as-object-male-as-subject tropes: “The sperm penetrates the egg.” Factual balance: “Two gametes fuse to create the zygote.” Or an opposite but equally lop-sided power narrative: “The egg subsumes the sperm.” If I mess with word order and passive/active voice, I can probably come up with more than a dozen ways to color the essentials.
It can take the edge off the boredom if, during a routine conversation with an idiot, in my head I turn their sentences inside out and add little stories. Imagine a queen egg on a jousting-tourney style dais watching in amusement as lots of fighty little sperm push and shove each other in a dash across the field. The queen leans down to examine the half a dozen out-of-breath competitors who make it to the finish line. She beckons three promising candidates forward for a closer look. Today, one of them meets her approval. She nods to her guard, points, and the gate to the royal enclosure swings open… Somedays she might find all the competitors unworthy, or too tedious for words, or she’ll be busy with other, more important things. But whatever mood she’s in, my story is always about her. She is subject, not object.
This post originally appeared at NicolaGriffith.com.