Short Story: Gender, an Alternate Reality

I sat on the cheap plastic chair and tried to stop shaking. I felt like I was going to vomit. I couldn’t get my head around what the woman was saying, although she’d been saying it for some time now.

I looked back up at her. She was a scientist, that much I understood, the ill-fitting lab coat and the science fiction t-shirt gave it away. “So… the world… isn’t real?” My voice trembled.

She shook her head, impatience clear on her face. “No, not THE world, just YOUR world.”

Another wave of nausea… don’t vomit, don’t vomit. “And I’ve been living my whole life in a computer?” I asked.

“A simulation.” She said it slowly, like she was talking to a dim child. “You remember your parents dying in the car crash when you were three?”

I nodded. “Afterwards I went to live with my grandmother?” I’d started the sentence as a statement, but ended it as a question, a note of pleading in my voice.

“Yes and no.” She tried to give me a caring look, but she didn’t pull it off. “You were brought to us as an orphan, we took you in and placed you into our research programme. I’m afraid your grandmother didn’t exist in the real world, from that point onwards you were living in our simulation.”

I vomited all over the floor.

The scientist jumped out of her chair and backed away from me. She gestured towards the one-way mirror for someone to come in. I heard her muttering something about ‘hysteria.’

A young man entered carrying a mop and bucket. He looked so absurd I did an actual double take. He was wearing makeup, and the neckline of his t-shirt plunged so low it looked comical. He flashed me a vivid-pink lipstick smile of brotherly solidarity, and despite his outlandish appearance, I felt a bit better. I was sorry to see him leave once he’d finished cleaning up my sick.

“Let’s try again shall we?” The scientist sat back down, she leaned forwards and placed a sympathetic hand on my leg. She left it there longer than I was comfortable with. “The virtual world you’ve been living in was exactly like the real world… except for one major difference, we swapped the gender roles.”

“Wait, you did what?”

She leaned closer. “In your world men acted like women, and women acted like men. Men were historically the dominant sex, not women, the opposite way round to the real world.”

“What? I don’t understand… here, in the real world, women behave like men, and men are like women?”

She nodded.

I stared at the floor as I tried to process what she was telling me. “But that doesn’t make any sense.” I concentrated on my nether regions, trying to verify they were still as expected. “How can men give birth? We don’t have the right equip…”

She cut me off with a wave of a hand and a look of exasperation. “Don’t be silly, obviously women still give birth in the real world, and breast feed too, if they choose. But once that’s dealt with you men step in and take over the childcare, at least traditionally, although I believe many couples share the load now.”

I thought back to the evolutionary biology I’d studied, my mind was numbed by shock, I was struggling, but it didn’t make sense. “But don’t women usually do most of the childcare because they can’t have as many children as men, because reproduction is so much more costly for them? I mean, a man can conceivably father hundreds of children, even thousands, but women can’t can they? Doesn’t that make women naturally more devoted to their children?” I realised how shrill my voice was becoming.

The scientist shook her head at me. “Such barbarian ideas. You forget we’re a monogamous species, that we form pairs. You think men can simply run around impregnating women without consequence? It wouldn’t be allowed. Men have to spend time forming a lasting bond with a partner, so they make themselves attractive and develop their childcare abilities. Then women compete aggressively for the best fathers. It’s obvious, it makes perfect evolutionary sense.”

She kept on. “We accidentally left clues in your simulated world too, we forgot to reverse the other monogamous apes, in all of those species the males provide the parental-care. Frankly I’m surprised you bought that ridiculous version of evolutionary theory we pedalled you, men being competitive and women being passive, complete balderdash!”

This had to be a dream. It made no sense. Although maybe it explained the bizarre appearance of the male assistant, and the absurdly tight shorts and pink t-shirt I found I was dressed in. Fuck, maybe this was real? Maybe I had spent the last thirty years of my life in a fake reality? But why? “Why did you do this to me?” I said it so quietly it was almost a whisper.

She look startled, she blinked her eyes rapidly. “Why? For science of course. We wanted to understand if gender roles are biological or cultural. If women are naturally competitive and aggressive, and men caring and emotional, or if these are cultural expectations? People have been arguing about this for thousands of years you know, but there was never a way to actually test it. Until the development of realistic computer simulations that is.”

She glared at me. “You should be very proud young man, the experiment was a resounding success, you’ve been part of something historic.”

“That’s a huge relief.” She recognised my sarcasm like a windshield recognises flies. “So what did you find?”

“A bit of a shock really,” she said. “Turns out it’s entirely cultural. We found no evidence that gender roles have any biological basis at all, it’s all a cultural myth.”

She tried to look caring again. “Don’t look so upset young man, I’m sure you’ll find reality to your liking, the real world is refreshingly free from prejudice, we’ve achieved almost perfect equality.” I caught her looking down my top as she said it.

“But what am I going to do now?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, there are plenty of jobs for men these days. We might even be able to get you something at the university. Maybe a part-time position? I imagine you’ll be wanting to start a family soon after all.”


Author’s note. 

This story was based on an argument about whether traditional gender roles are biological or cultural, and how you could test it.

I like to think that men and women aren’t that different, and that a lot of what we assume is hardwired, isn’t. It’s not intended as any kind of attack on women. It’s meant to show that maybe our traditional roles could have been reversed if history had happened differently, and evolutionary theory hadn’t been formulated almost entirely by men.

A different version of this story was originally published by Jerrick Media here.

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