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Nonbinary Devices: When Playing With Gender Works

At the end of the day I have many answers for it. It has to do with my mom, who was an extraordinary woman, and a great feminist. It has to do with the people in my life. It has to do with a lot of different things, but — I don’t know! Because I’m not just writing the female characters for other people. I have a desire to see them in our culture — that was not met for most of my childhood. Except occasionally by James Cameron. — Joss Whedon, San Diego Comic-Con 2011, in response to a question about why he writes strong female characters.

Gender is a problem in pop culture.

If you follow any critical discussions around these issues, you probably know this already. A 2012 study found that women made up about 39% of characters on primetime TV, 30% of characters in children’s TV, and 28% of characters in “family films.” Sure, there’s The Hunger Games, where the leads are a woman who hunts and a man who bakes (link goes to Sarah Seltzer’s discussion of critics of the first two movies) but there’s also Harry Potter, where Hermione Granger falls into what more than one blogger has identified as the role of “overqualified sidekick” (link goes to Kit Steinkellner at HelloGiggles.com). There are more women in genre TV and movies than there used to be, but many of them are still falling to what Tasha Robinson calls “Trinity Syndrome.”

As with the other categories I’ve talked about in the last few weeks, race and sexuality, gender in genre fiction is very much a work in progress. For every Joss Whedon show with its strong women (and the fabulous-quote-I-can’t-find-after-much-searching about how Joss Whedon’s vein of gold is “men creating strong women that they can’t control.” See: Buffy, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, Alien:Resurrection…), there’s a conversation about how there can’t be a standalone Wonder Woman movie.

Just like with other identities, genre fiction makes some effort to reimagine or revise traditional gender roles. In SF societies, men and women are often seen as unremarked equals. Fantasy makes some efforts with this, too, although more often than not it’s a straightforward reversal of traditional Western roles, where women are the warriors and men stay home and rear children (Melanie Rawn’s Ruins of Ambrai series is the most obvious example of this, although there’s some of it in NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, too).

And just as with the other categories, anything that tries to step out of the binary — trans folk, or non-gendered folk — gets rapidly and massively more complicated.Let’s talk, for a moment, about genre books written to explore the concept of nonbinary gender. Let’s start with The Left Hand of Darkness.

This book, written in 1969 by the great Ursula LeGuin, is the one everyone starts with when they want to talk about “feminist science fiction.” For those who don’t know, the primary culture of the novel are the Gethenians, a race of humans who manifest biological sex only a few days a month when they enter the fertile period of “kemmer.” Every individual can theoretically experience kemmer as male-bodied or female-bodied; many produce children (at different times) as both the gestational and sperm-producing parent, and have different social relationships with the two groups; and Gethenians find the culturally-gendered societies of other planets bizarre to say the least. In the original text, all Gethenians are referred to with male pronouns; a short story set in the same universe has been published in two different collections with two different sets of pronouns.

This book explores ideas of gender. It also explores ideas around first contact and cross-cultural trust; has some great descriptions of what life would be like on a world in perpetual ice age; and demonstrates how people from very different cultures can become friends without any sex involved. In my mind, this is the way to do a book “about gender.” There are two books that have crossed my desk in the last month that both look at nonbinary notions of gender. One of them has won multiple awards this year;  the other is a book with 28 reviews on Goodreads. They’re Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, and I didn’t like the one that everyone else did.

Ancillary Justice won basically all the awards this year. It got the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the Nebula for Best Novel and the Locus for Best First Novel. Its narrator is a starship trapped in a human body, and it’s gotten a lot of press for the fact that every character, regardless of self-identified sex or gender, is referred to with female pronouns:



I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She outbulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked. She didn’t realize what she was playing with. She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak — my own first language — doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me. (p. 3)

I wanted to like this book. I gave it what I generally consider a good-faith try (about 100 pages). But after that point, I gave up. I didn’t have a good sense of what the book was about it, or what its central conflict was. I’m willing to wait for Big Plot to unfold, but I need to like what’s going on in the meantime… and I need to like the characters. Other reviewers (mainly on Goodreads) have had the same complaint about this book, that its protagonist, Breq, is difficult to relate to and not very likeable. I suppose the apologist explanation for that would be that she’s a starship and thus sees things very differently from people, but to this reader, the book felt like it was all gimmick.

The other book, Necessary Ill, takes a different tack in its approach to gender. Its central premise is that in a dystopic future, a genetic mutation in the ridiculously-overpopulated human species has begun to produce “neuts,” people who are both sexless and genderless. Neuts think differently than “gens” (sexed/gendered people); because their brains aren’t affected by sex hormones, the story goes, they are more dispassionate and more logical. Taber posits a world where neuts are basically isolated from gens by choice, living in massive underground communes — and that their primary goal is to find ways to preserve the human race, even at the cost of individual humans. The neut protagonist, Jin, is a “spreader”; it crafts plagues designed to target specific portions of the population and then takes them out into the world. And yes, neuts are labeled with the pronoun “it.” That took me a little while to get used to, but by the middle of the book it felt natural.

This book had its problems. There were places where the dialogue felt a little hokey, and the ending seemed a little pat. But the story was interesting; there were philosophical questions raised beyond just the thought experiment of what it’d be like to have genderless humans. There was more going on than the gimmick. Most importantly, I liked the characters, both neut and gen; they were distinctive and interesting, and their interactions were unlike stuff I’d seen in other books.

I think that the lesson reinforced from these 2 books, for me, is that whatever else your book is doing — and I’m a firm believer that books should do many things — the story has to come first. Your characters should be diverse; you should think about representation and about pushing the boundaries of what’s customary in genre fiction. But it can’t end there. Because no matter how many awards a book wins, if I don’t finish it, I’m not going to recommend it. Representation shouldn’t be an either/or situation.

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  1. The God of Old Men: Religion, Age, and Throne of the Crescent Moon | Sociologist Novelist

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