Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tiptree’s Women: Themes of Alienation and Escape

Although all vastly different, several of the stories that we read in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever share a common theme: women’s response to crisis, and their reaction to and escape from the specter of male-dominated society.

In the highly disturbing “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, we see a girl so desperate to escape the stigma she suffers for her own ugliness that she first tries to take her own life and then, when provided with the opportunity, throws herself so completely into a fictional life created for her that she essentially abandons her own identity. A parallel escape into fantasy occurs in “With Delicate, Mad Hands”, as CP uses her fantasy of an “Empire” in which she is accepted to power her dedication to her work and to allow her to distance herself from and cope with the pain and humiliation she suffers on a daily basis. In both these examples, the protagonist’s suffering is clearly presented as the product of an oppressive, male-dominated society in which she simply cannot fit. In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, modern consumerism bears the brunt of Tiptree’s attack: celebrities are “gods” and a girl initially described as being full of guileless love can only find happiness by assuming a “perfect” image that is nevertheless empty (“Delphi” has no say in her own life, she is constantly monitored, her physical senses are dimmed, and her sexuality dampened). Even the romance of the story is a superficial lie; Paul is quick to reject the idea that his love could be anything but the beauty in front of him. In “With Delicate, Mad Hands”, CP is, like P. Burke, ostracized because of her physical appearance, which, in a society where a woman’s purpose seems essentially to fulfill sexual needs and serve as “a low-status noncompetitive servant and rudimentary mother figure” (219), is enough to condemn her to a life of abuse that culminates in murderous insanity. Both of these characters, as seems to be the norm for Tiptree, are quite doomed—they die young, after experiencing only the briefest tastes of love and acceptance.

The female characters in “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” are of a different breed entirely. Calm and professional, these women aren’t fazed by the attempts at domination by the men they encounter. Like P. Burke and CP, Ruth and Althea are misfits in a patriarchal society, and seek escape. However, as Ruth’s ingenuity shows, they need neither man’s approval nor men themselves. Similarly, the women in “Houston, Houston” have absolutely no desire to include men in the culture they have developed. Although one could definitely argue that their society is handicapped by their lack of progress, individuality, and desire to feel deep emotions, they clearly don’t feel that gaping hole in their lives that Bud and Dave feel driven to fill.

While all of these stories share a theme of women escaping the domination of men, they illustrate two widely divergent forms of escape: Escape by rising above prescribed societal roles (and, indeed, any need for men at all), and escape by falling below them.


Post a Comment