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Whither Gender?

April 22, 2012


Pamela Sargent just won the Pilgrim award for lifetime contributions to science fiction scholarship. Known for pioneering work in SF, her novels such as Earthseed and Shore of Women promote women protagonists and explore gender.

Serendipitously, I received a set of “research questions” recently from an Iranian scholar writing about women in SF. Which lead me to reflect, where is gender headed? What’s the cutting edge of gender exploration today?

Looking back, when writers first started writing fiction as women (rather than hiding behind a man’s name) they took these approaches:
(1) A woman protagonist takes a role traditionally filled by men, in a man’s world (Picnic on Paradise)
(2) A planet or country is inhabited only by women (Whileaway,  Gate to Women’s Country, A Door into Ocean)
(3) A world where males and females have equivalent roles (Brain Plague).

The last approach is the  most tricky, in my opinion. It only “counts”  if the females and males are equally likely to succeed, and all relationships are potentially bi/trans. That’s where I see the biology heading.

What do you think are the most interesting directions for gender in fiction today?


  1. frances permalink
    April 22, 2012 5:14 pm

    This is why I read very little fiction outside of sci-fi – or mostly a particular subset of it.

    For sci-fi, Charles Stross, China Miéville, and Iain Banks for me are the three whom I read and re-read because it’s obvious they think about gender and identity issues, or more broadly, human (and non-human) rights.

    Charlie’s Accelerando is a (still) brilliant example of what happens when you take identity and gender beyond the corporeally human – angst over issues of trans, queer, gay, lesbian, male female, whatever is mostly trivial if you’re distributing your consciousness across a flock of pigeons.

    For non-sci-fi, i find both Judith Butler (especially her more recent stuff), and Deleuze and Guattari both consider gender and identity from a philosophical perspective that fits with these sci-fi writers very well. There’s also some nice tension between them with (loosely) Butler seeing gender as a useful generalisation, and D/G almost atomist, with each body being a unique gender.

    • April 23, 2012 9:26 am

      Yes, good examples. I’d like to see women SF writers get more attention, especially Chris Moriarty.

  2. Frank permalink
    April 22, 2012 9:46 pm

    I’d like to see more approaches like I played with in Scion of the Zodiac: I largely decoupled gender and biological sex. The idea was that it was a society, on an alien planet, where people couldn’t survive by themselves. There was just too much to do. As a result, in common with many other societies, they came up with gender roles, about who gardened, who cared for the goats, who maintained the cultures that they needed to make viable soil, raised children, and so on.

    However, the fundamental split was traditional or not. If you followed traditional gender roles, you were either a man or a woman, and your role in society was pretty well defined (and pretty predictable). If you were nontraditional, your gender was “faer.” The faery gender was for everyone who simply couldn’t stay within traditional gender roles, for whatever reason. There were certain clothing restrictions on the faer folk, but otherwise, they were free to work out their own division of labor. A couple in this society could be a man and a woman, a man and a faer (biologically male, female, or other), a woman and a faer (biologically male, female, or other), or between two or more faer. In a faery marriage, the partners had to figure out who did what, but they had to pull their weight in their clan regardless.

    My back story was that the ancestors of this culture were sort of like today’s radical faeries, who rejected gender roles entirely. Nature being what it is, they had some aggressively conservative children who insisted on being given a confining role that they could play and excel in, rather than making up their own lives as they went along. Thus, their society became three gendered.

    While a three-gendered society is unusual, basing gender on societal role is not. There were some traditional societies (as in Polynesia) where every adult was married, simply because men farmed and women fished, and a single person would not get enough food to survive unless that person had a partner to provide the other foods they needed. In Polynesia, there were some male “women,” who were simply so good at women’s work that they became women. Unfortunately, there weren’t any female men, but that speaks to our prejudices more than anything else.

    On an alien planet, survival is going to be a major concern, and it’s not entirely stupid to assign genders to jobs, however we feel about it now. This does not mean that gendered work has to have the same prejudices that it has now. This is definitely my personal whimsy, but I’d be thrilled if more people explored decoupling sex and societal roles, and played with getting rid of prejudices associated with breaking gender roles. In real life, we’ve done that for decades with “breaking the glass ceiling,” but stay-at-home dads and house husbands get a fair amount of discrimination from women today.

    • April 23, 2012 9:29 am

      A lot of entertaining ideas, here. The Iroquois also defined gender after the job you were doing; to be a “judge” you had to dress up as a woman.

    • paws4thot permalink
      April 23, 2012 9:54 am

      Ref your para 4 in Polynesia, how did they farm and fish? My serious question here is about methods.
      1) Net fishing (even small nets) is harder and more physical work than line fishing.
      2) Push ploughing is harder work than draw ploughing or boring.

      So what you’re describing could be the logical division of who “normally” did what by the physical strength needed.

      • April 23, 2012 10:01 am

        That works for some things, though not others. In some native American traditions textile weaving is defined as male. In other traditions, the young men dress up and paint themselves for dancing, to be selected by the women.

        In some indigenous cultures the women do all the heavy work of ploughing, planting and harvesting whereas the men ride off on horses to shoot game or raid neighboring villages. It looks more like a home-based versus distance-based division of labor.

    • Frank permalink
      April 23, 2012 6:07 pm

      Joan is right about the home vs. distance split. Traditional Oceanic agriculture is all human-powered, using digging sticks. I somewhat misspoke up there, confusing Micronesian and Polynesian agriculture. The basic thing in Micronesian societies was that the women’s lineage owned and gardened the land (although the men still ruled their familial matrilines). Men went to sea in their ships, fishing and traveling, and in fact, there’s a distinction between the hereditary power of a chief (tied to his matrilineal lands) and the earned power of a navigator (tied to his skill at traveling between islands). I know a similar duality occurred in some Polynesian societies, but there are enough variations that talking about a “Polynesian pattern” is incorrect.

  3. paws4thot permalink
    April 24, 2012 7:31 am

    And in others (The Japanese Ama (sp) spring to mind) the women fish (free diving and/or line fishing, both from boats) and the men farm and/or provide oar power for the fishing. I’m not sure it’s an easy generalisation after all.

    • April 24, 2012 8:51 am

      Yes, the Ama were the inspiration for the women of A Door into Ocean. Their physiology is of great interest; surprising they aren’t better known.

  4. fari permalink
    April 30, 2012 2:05 am

    dear Joan,
    Thanks, especially for the way you illuminated deconstruction of binaries in A Door.I think I must devote a whole dissertation on the varieties covered so smoothly in your fiction.

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