Monday, March 4, 2013

Subverting dominant paradigms with SF/F (focus on gender)

Events over the last few days have been getting me to think a lot about science fiction and fantasy stories which subvert dominant paradigms. They draw our attention to things we may not have thought about. They expose our insecurities, our fears, and also our invisible privileges. They can make us feel very uncomfortable.

It appears that this kind of work has always been present, and has often received acclaim, despite this discomfort. That, to me, is important. I would hate to live in a world where there were no Shakespearean fools who could expose uncomfortable truths, or no one to show the oft-ignored diversity of human experience. The institutions of the dominant culture can act to suppress these voices, it's true. But we continue to chip away, and works of brilliance can begin to shine through.

As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I like to try to turn expectations on their heads. I like to think of how to make things work differently. Do I think that writers of speculative fiction should feel obligated to do this? I don't think I'm inclined to tell people what they can and cannot write. However, I do think an opportunity is lost when we decide to leave the old stones unturned. For inspiration, I'll bring your attention to the wonderful book, Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Read it - you'll get tons of ideas.

There are many, many ways to question the status quo, and to bring attention to voices which deserve to be heard. The way that these cultural debates play out on social media are of great value, but are restricted by their medium and often oversimplify. In storytelling, there are a lot more, and different approaches that authors can take to a single problem. Last night I was thinking about questions of gender and sexism (as I often do), so I thought I'd look at some examples of how it has been done.

Reverse the Culture and Physiology

Star Trek TNG had an early episode called Angel One where the Enterprise encountered a planet ruled by an oligarchy of women. The men on the planet, so far as I could tell, appeared to be physically smaller and less imposing than the women. Reversal is a technique fraught with peril, in my opinion, as it is easily interpreted as revenge fantasy or vilification of the promoted group (and it has been used this way before). Another problem is that the reversal of the physical qualities of gender also serves to reinforce the idea that this physical evidence justifies the cultural bias. This does not mean it couldn't conceivably be handled well.

Reverse the Culture but not the Physiology

I loved the approach that N.K. Jemisin took to gender and sexism in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her character Yeine came from a culture where women were dominant, but this was not the case in all cultures in this world. It was, in fact, one of the reasons why she was treated as an outsider by the people of Sky, who retained the pro-male bias. This allowed Jemisin to take a close look at the contrasts between the two views. Most important from my point of view was the fact that she didn't treat Yeine's Darre people as somehow physiologically different from everyone else. She didn't even try to change gendered behaviors. It was simply that masculine protectiveness and concern with physical prowess was considered sweet and more than a little silly by the women in power. To me, this seemed very real. It seemed natural to a system where one group is considered inherently inferior regardless of their achievements, and thus quite an insightful reversal of sexism in our own world.

Change the Gender Variables - Adding a different gender

The example of this that I love comes from the work of Octavia Butler in her Xenogenesis series, which starts with the novel Dawn (great article about it here, at She creates a third gender, "ooloi," which is entirely different from either male or female, yet has a very specific physiological function among the Oankali. Essentially the Ooloi is a DNA guardian and gene-mixer, who experiments with the kinds of offspring that can be created through different combinations of genetic material. In Butler's conception, the Ooloi doesn't stand outside the traditional male-female relationships, either - it lies between male and female, literally. Butler makes the ooloi, and the implications of its presence, impossible to ignore. She does an amazing job of questioning our sense of species at the same time as our sense of gender.

Change the Gender Variables - Creating a different gender spectrum

In this category I loved "Love might be too strong a word" by Charlie Jane Anders. She's created a far future humanity divided into six genders, with a diversity of physiological "ins" and "outs" (not her terms; for convenience, I'm borrowing them from Kij Johnson's "Spar") that are supposed to come together in different combinations. Along with that diversity comes a ranking, where people of more outs are more highly ranked than people with more ins. It takes the male-over-female bias to a logically extreme point, gender castes, and looks at how those biases would play out for a character who isn't willing to play by their rules. In a lovely linguistic move, Anders uses "man" and "woman" as verbs to describe different approaches to sexual interaction (and status interaction). Really thought-provoking.

Change the Gender Variables - eliminating permanent gender

For this one I come back to Ursula K. LeGuin's classic The Left Hand of Darkness. For the people of Gethen, gender is a transitory experience rather than a state of being. These people are genderless in their day to day lives, and only experience femaleness or maleness during a short period of sexual readiness called "kemmer." However, they can't control which gender role they will take in a sexual interaction, which means that they are at the same time neither gender and both. The crux of the matter is that gender is irrelevant to the daily public lives of Gethenians, and is entirely a private matter. LeGuin then is able to create some fascinating tensions with the human male sent among them.

Eliminating gender

I've distinguished this one from Ursula LeGuin's approach, because it involves trying to get rid of all the trappings of gender. Star Trek took this one on in their episode, "The Outcast." The society of the Janii purported itself to have evolved beyond gender and sexuality alike, and the character of Soren got in trouble because she identified as female and became attracted to Commander Riker. One of the contemporary issues brought up in this episode was that of therapy intended to "fix" someone with the wrong gender identification (in this case, any gender identification at all).

I think one of the greatest values of science fiction is its ability to get us thinking outside of our normal patterns. Though I have looked at gender in this post, there are so many more social issues that we could consider. Reading speculative fiction is in some ways like learning a foreign language, or encountering a foreign way of life - by experiencing difference, we not only learn about others, but we learn more about ourselves. The dark corners of our deepest assumptions are put under the light of scrutiny, and thus we are given the opportunity to consider them consciously.

Maybe you'll be the next person to get people thinking in a new way. It's worth the time and effort.

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