Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Shadows to Walk" and the difficulty of deconstructing dualisms

Marcellino’s analysis of feminist science fiction utopia, “Shadows to Walk”, focuses, in particular, on her attempts to undermine the dualism of classification in traditional feminist SF narratives. Rather than utilizing themes of separation (where “women can get away from men and experience female singularity” (203) or countercolonization (which “hinges on a reversal of dominant male power with dominant female power”), “The Left Hand of Darkness” offers a third approach; “by privileging neither female nor male norms, by diagramming in her narrative different but interdependent female and male strengths, and by criticizing and praising (nuanced criticism) both female and male political approaches” (204), Le Guin has, in Marcellino’s eyes, produced a new, non-hierarchical, non-dual paradigm for feminist science fiction. I was also intrigued by the creation of ambisexuality, and the implications that changed physicality has for social organization; however, I remained troubled by the ways in which “The Left Hand of Darkness” might continue to enforce gender binaries and the association of gender with sex.

The title of the novel itself stems from a fragment of Gethen mythology, which states that “light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light./Two are one, life and death, lying/together like lovers in kemmer,/like hands joined together, like the end and the way” (LHoD 233). Within the Gethen mythos, light and dark are identified with gender, with ‘light’ representing masculinity and ‘dark’ representing femininity; in Marcellino’s words, “ just as we need light and dark to see, each gender needs the other to function.”(206) This is a worthy statement, in an era where gender is still hierarchical, and where reimagining of gender often preserves inequality; however, privileging this statement means also accepting a series of assumptions about male and female. The first assumption is that concepts of male and female NEED to exist, as cultural constructs as well as biological entities; that there are concepts that can be usefully pinned down as ‘male’ or ‘female’; that there can be only two genders that work in concert.

As an example of gender interdependence within the text, Marcellino analyzes a scene from the crossing of the Gobrin Ice Sheet; Genly Ai’s Gethen guide (named Estraven) goes into kemmer, and her newly manifested femininity becomes crucial to the survival of both individuals. Because Estraven now identifies as female, she divides up food in a way that favors Genly; her selflessness enables Genly to preserve his physical strength, which he then uses to protect her from the harsh climactic conditions of the ice sheet. Marcellino characterizes this scenario as a “scene of personal gender interdependence”; but his analysis identifies female biological sex as always leading to a set of feminine personality traits; are women always inherently self-sacrificing and physically weaker? (This scenario reminds me of the work of Carol Adams, a feminist and vegetarian who writes extensively on the politics of gender; she constantly debunks the assertion that physically stronger men automatically need or deserve more food than women as a mechanism which is used to justify the exploitation of both women and animals) Is this scenario actually a lesson in gender, or is it a more general point about the necessity of interdependence?

Within “Is Gender Necessary: Redux”, Le Guin points out that “our curse is alienation, the separation of yang from yin. Instead of a search for balance and integration, there is a struggle for dominance.” (16) The preservation of gender binaries and gender roles means that the Gethenians represent an incomplete departure from dualism and gender hierarchy; Le Guin’s novel is certainly feminist, and was very successful in getting its readers to think about alternatives to gender and sex as we currently experience them; however, I’m not sure if it can be posited as an entirely unprecedented form of feminist utopian SF narrative.


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