So Is It About Gender or Not?

24 Mar

Spoiler: I’m not gonna answer my own question, or at least, I’m not setting out to directly answer my question, but knowing my tendencies, I’m likely going to answer it anyway.

But onto the discussion at hand, namely the way gender functions in The Left Hand of Darkness. Part of me desperately wants to avoid talking about this, since the text is so very, very loaded with other stuff to talk about, and I likely would have written about the whole political issues, maybe even something about developing nation states and the commentary about the political machinery and the Other (totally there, by the by), were it not for two things:

1) Lauren’s response, which brought home something I myself had been thinking throughout the text.

2) Le Guin’s writings “Is Gender Necessary?” (certainly sounds like Le Guin anyway) and “Coming of Age in Karhide”.

Let’s start with Le Guin, mostly to make Lauren squirm a bit (I have this delusion that my peers actually care what I have to say about their theories and posts; odd, right?). Barely three pages into the essay, Le Guin directly states “that the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort”. Which seems to end the discussion before it begins. The author said that it’s not about sex! We can go home people! But interestingly enough, we have access to Le Guin’s later thoughts and revisions, where she states that this very statement is, in point of fact, defensive, and that the text is about gender. It’s also about more than that, and we can’t simplify things too much or we undercut the work. But I’m shelving that for now. Because I can. And because I still wanna talk about Estraven.

Specifically, I want to talk about how very manly Estraven is. I, like Lauren, read Estraven as a man. The whole pronoun thing certainly didn’t help matters, which Le Guin herself acknowledged at a later point. However, there is just something about the way Estraven is portrayed that seems masculine. To be honest, Lauren already said most of what I wanted to say on that, and has even pulled quotes, thus making my lazy self quite satisfied. In point of fact, the relationship between Estraven and Gi is likely, if anything, a queer one. There’s some definite affection there, and the fanboy part of me that loves to ship things together (fan term: Shipping = pairing two characters together romantically, usually in defiance of narrative) puts Estraven and Gi together. Partly because I think that would have been a more interesting story, as Gi would have had to try and figure things out, and part of it comes from how the relationship itself is presented.

But, again, Le Guin has pointed out the difficulties here. The pronoun thing, the presentation, all that good stuff. Again: read Lauren; I’m not reiterating, I’m supporting. Yet if you really want to see these differences highlighted, looking into what feels like the sequel: “Coming of Age in Karhide” feels more definite. For that work presents a Hearth of people; it’s told through the perspective of a native; and things are both complicated and more simple. It’s also super sexy, if you’re into that sort of thing. But within that work, the narrator reminisces about the narrator’s first kemmer, what that entailed and what all resulted because of it. That in itself would be super interesting to read, but the narrator’s family has a tendency to be… female. It is something of a choice and something of a tradition. The various people in that Hearth/clan/brood become female most of the time; they don’t vow kemmering to one another. In other words, they’re matriarchal, nearly to a fault (there seems to be an underlying argument there).

While the narrator, Sov (I think; the names are as confusing as Sci-fi/fantasy names should be), purposefully discusses Le Guin’s own issues with gender, insisting that it’s hard to write in a language that forces sexualized pronouns, she still comes off as, well, a she. She becomes female during her first Kemmer; is pretty well forced into it. She seems to associate more with the female. She does female things, or fulfills traditional female roles. In point of fact, she seems as female as Estraven seems male.

And that’s what makes this comparison so interesting. Le Guin has presumably deleted gender from the equation, yet there is still a definite feeling of gendered roles there. It almost seems to suggest that there is no escape from gender, or at least some form of gender identities. Yet at the same time, they do seem to challenge these roles at some point. The texts seem to demand us to explain why Estraven is male and Sev is female. It draws attention to those constructs and makes very definite statements about them and the relationships portrayed as a result.

So in the end, I guess I am answering my question. It is about gender, but it’s about everything that gender is connected to. It’s about what gender is and how we perceive gender, and how people fulfill or deny certain gender roles. It’s about a lot, and that’s what we’re hoping for in Sci-fi.

Now go read “Coming of Age in Karhide” if you hadn’t. It’ll expose you to the word clitopenis, and you know that alone is worth the time you spent reading it.

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One Response to “So Is It About Gender or Not?”

  1. Dr Lothian March 25, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    “The texts seem to demand us to explain why Estraven is male and Sev is female.”

    Or do they (instead? Also?) demand of us that we confront why we are compelled to gender people, why we want markers like the ones Genly Ai constantly brings up to have recognizable meaning? There are, after all, non-alien individuals in the real world who feel as personally uncomfortable with being assigned maleness or femaleness as Estraven and Sov would… What might it mean to abstain from gender not only in the science fiction context but in a wider one?

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