Plan for the Day
- Reading to Think
- Judith Butler, Gender Studies Guru
- Today’s Readings
- liminality: in between or ambiguous
We’re reading science fiction to help us think about the world around us. Although I ask questions on Tests about what happened in a story, that’s to make sure you’re reading. However, this class isn’t about your ability to recall plot and characters–it’s about thinking. Paladin might believe the key to autonomy is privacy, but thinking separates us from zombies. It’s hard to be autonomous if you don’t think for yourself, and I want you to push yourselves to think more deeply in general. The texts we read have themes that become apparent when we read between the lines. I’m trying to get you to recognize that. If you’re ever not sure, please ask.
Why is this section titled “critical theory”? Great question! Critical theory is a school of thought, and, in the interest of brevity, consider it an approach to a text that asks what social, cultural, historical, etc. influences mediate the text. There is also a goal for this type of analysis, and Max Horkheimer (1984) claims it is “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Critical Theory, p. 244). Our view of literature privileges this analysis because it allows us to understand motivations, and it can also help us understand why we make the choices we make (and whether or not those are free choices).
Gender Studies from Judith Butler
Judith Butler is a major gender theorist. She points out that gender is instituted (as opposed to innately felt) through acts that make us believe gender is natural. I’m selectively pulling out some quotations from her most famous essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (1988):
- p. 154: “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time–an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.”
- “if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform.”
- p. 155: “what is called gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo.”
- Refering to Simone de Beauvoir: “gender is an historical situation rather than a natural fact.”
Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah…” (1967)
Here’s the synopsis: This peculiar short story takes place in the future, an imagined (possibly) 21st-Century future of the mid-to-late 1960s. The narrative revolves around four Spacers, space workers who’ve been neutered–not just sterilized–before puberty, so they can work in dangerous areas of space where radiation would harm their reproductive capacity. Delany’s story also shows that this early neutering leaves the individual with an androgynous result–it’s difficult for others to determine the neuter’s sex as an adult. But just like the Axe Body Wash and Deodorant commercials, these Spacers (astronauts) are lusted after by the ‘frelks’. As the Anthology editors mention, the frelks are into the Spacers even though the Spacers don’t have sex drives–it’s a fetish because it’s impossible to arouse them (p. 405). When the Spacers visit Earth between work (going up and down), they sometimes prostitute themselves to the frelk groupies.
Delany himself points out that this was written before the Stonewall riots, which is considered the first “event” of the modern Gay Rights movement. Many homosexuals were in the closet during this period, and there were almost no obvious popular culture references to homosexuality in American culture. The 1960s, however, was a time of social upheaval. In addition to the many anti-war and student (counter culture) riots/movements, there was a sexual revolution that sought to throw away the prescribed puritanical morality of patriarchal culture.
Yes, in a way, this is a romance story, but it’s probably ironic–there’s an incongruity between what’s expected in a love story and the outcome of this one where the narrator prostitutes himself in order to feel connected to someone. This is an interesting take on the traditional prostitution narrative of the older john looking for a connection with a prostitute he pays for, but she (usually a woman) is doing it just for the money. The spacers might be doing it because they can’t feel a full connection to others and exist in a gender borderland–not quite male and not quite female; not quite homosexual and not quite heterosexual.
There’s another component to this “romance” story: perversion. Delany himself comments on the possibility that the encounter between the narrator and the Turkish college student is a look into perversion. But what exactly is perversion? It’s sexual gratification/desire that’s not part of the mainstream–phallocentric, heteronormative sex. If we read this story ironically, we recognize that a perversion of sex is the inability to have a mutually pleasurable experience. Spacers just do it for money and the need to fill a void in their lives; the frelks do it because it’s some kind of game.
The title obviously refers to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. The two cities were destroyed as punishment for engaging in all kinds of “perversions.” Delany, who identifies as gay, certainly doesn’t think homosexuality is wrong, so why this story? Could he possibly be passing judgment on this projected world?
Well, passing judgment is too simplistic for an artist of Delany’s caliber, so we can safely rule that out. Perhaps a possible answer is in the affirmation “Aye”–meaning “yes” (only opens on campus with access to The OED Online). Also, there’s a further definition that is “indicating assent” before stating “a more forcible” idea. Then again, couldn’t “Aye” be a play on “I”? This is what’s great (and frustrating) about language and studying literature–ambiguity. Words can have multiple definitions, so they can change the meaning of a sentence (or title in this case), making readers think about the multiple meanings possible. Maybe this is a lamentation of the narrator and the other spacers.
Samuel R. Delany identifies as gay, and was married to a women (who identifies as lesbian) when he wrote this short story. I know we’ve discussed that an author’s life isn’t THE place where meaning is held for a work, but Delany’s situation might help readers understand the ending where the narrator and the Greek student don’t “hook up” because there’s an impossibility of being fulfilled. Delany was married to his ex-wife, Marilyn Hacker, when he wrote this story. The two met in high school and married shortly after graduation. They actually had to go to Detroit, MI because it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry in New York…a rather surprising situation considering New York’s contemporary reputation for being progressive. Then again, New York is much bigger than New York City. Perhaps Delany’s subconscious was carried out through the narrator: As a person “in the closet,” he couldn’t quite feel fulfilled in his relationship, and, to be fair, his wife probably didn’t feel that way either.
- Narrator–a spacer
- Greek student–a frelk interested in the narrator
- Other Spacers–Kelly, Lou, Bo, and Muse
- French: “une frelk” (p. 406)
- Spanish: “una frelka” (p. 407)
Why is there a gender difference between the two languages? What comment could Delany be making about the frelks’ gender roles or social status?
Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience”
Don’t worry, I didn’t assign this article, but I needed a section heading. Feminist scholar Adrienne Rich discusses the idea of compulsory heterosexuality in her famous essay. I know we’ve covered some of these terms already, but revisiting them might be a good idea:
- Compulsory Heterosexuality: (Adrienne Rich) “women may not have a preference toward heterosexuality, but may find it imposed, managed, organized, propagandized, and maintained by society.”
- Heterosexism: the belief that heterosexuality is the only valid relationship type–man and woman.
- Heteronormativity: a term that is used to describe situations wherein variations from heterosexual orientation are marginalized, ignored or persecuted by social practices, beliefs or policies.
- homophobia: fear or hatred of homosexuals; fear of one’s own homosexual desires or the idea that one may be homosexual.
- phallocentrism: male-dominated society holding power over the others (usually women) through the phallus, the symbol of male potency.
- phallus: any object that represents the figure of a penis.
Images of Gender vs. (normal) Behavior
It seems we live in binary worlds, the feminine and masculine, the gay and straight, the liberal and conservative, the red and the blue. While there are more complex arrangements in the “real world,” our menus for gender and sexuality are usually dualistic. Those spheres (and their duality) are socially constructed–they are made up of what is considered normal, and any deviation is considered abnormal. Some say media influence our understanding of what it means to be a man or woman, but others point out that it merely reflects what is already considered normal, or, more importantly, ideal. That’s fairly easily seen with images of men and women–we’ve discussed the limited standards of beauty that are simulated and repeated throughout media–but it’s not as easily seen when we analyze behavioral patterns.
What are normal behaviors and where do they come from?
He-Man and She-Ra
Compare the two introductions to He-Man and She-Ra. Are they the same–meaning no difference in the portrayal of the masculine character vs. the feminine character?
- He-Man: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7SjnG4Yr4Q
- She-Ra: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wR65P73X5GI
Are the representations congruent with your understanding of masculine and feminine roles? Don’t forget your psychoanalytic hat either: What’s going on with the ways the two hold their swords?
Joanna Russ’s “When it Changed” (1972)
Joanna Russ creates an all-female imagined world for us to think about gender roles. This all-female world has lived without men for centuries on the planet Whileaway. The main characters rush to meet the alien men who arrive…the women aren’t necessarily welcoming to the outsiders. As you read, consider how Russ portrays the men. The women aren’t impressed with them as macho astronauts, intrepid pioneers. Why? Didn’t we hear a couple weeks ago that women love a man in uniform?
Russ wrote the novel The Female Man (1975) after this short story. It is out-of-this-world! The basic plot is the lives of four women thrust together from different time periods and world’s:
- Joanna (not hard to figure out who this is…) is from the 1970s Earth.
- Jeannine is from an alternate past of the 1930s.
- Janet is Whileaway, and the novel is written from her perspective.
- Jael is from a different universe where a literal battle of the sexes is waged.
Social Construction of Beauty/Attractiveness
Even the words above are gendered to an extent. We usually don’t identify men as “beautiful,” but we interchange “beautiful” and “attractive” for women. Some might say a landscape or poem is “beautifully” written, which could led us into a deeper discussion on the word’s usage. For now, let’s concentrate on the ways Russ portrays the Whileawayans and the Earthmen.
- “Men! Yuki screamed….”They’ve come back! Real Earth men!” (p. 509) Yuki exclaimed, “I thought they would be good-looking!” (p. 510)
Later, Yuki’s excitement goes away when asked if she could fall in love with a man: “With a ten-foot toad!” (p. 514)
- Janet sizes them up: “They are bigger than we are. They are bigger and broader. Two were taller than me, and I am extremely tall, one meter eighty centimeters in my bare feet. They are obviously of our species but off, indescribably off, and as my eyes could not and still cannot quite comprehend the lines of those alien bodies, I could not, then, bring myself to touch them.” (p. 509)
- What’s the role of violence on Whileaway?
Gender Roles and Stereotypes
This story imagines a world where the binary division between masculine and feminine is absent. Unlike stories of all-female worlds written by men, such as, Anderson’s Virgin Planet (1959), “When it Changed” envisions a world where women aren’t longing for the male other. In many stories, a male protagonist is used to save women–from a dragon, a band of savages, King Koopa, etc.–but Whileawayans need no saving because they’re doing fine. Clearly, Whileaway is on the verge of change, and Russ, writing in the early 1970s, was influenced by the effects of the sexual revolution and counter culture movements. I would be shortsighted to claim that those cultural events died by the 1980s, but there was definitely a return to more puritanical mores. The epidemic of STDs in the late 1970s and 1980s put a huge taboo on what was seen as reckless sexual behavior, and the rise of conservatism and right-wing religious clout in politics quelled much of the fervor of 1960s liberation. Then again, maybe the 1960s couldn’t sustain its revolution because it still operated under phallocentric assumptions. Heteronormativity is the dominant familial condition replicated in most cultures today.
Janet’s statement: “I doubt very much that sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth” (p. 514). Maybe Russ is commenting on the fact that men in patriarchal culture think there’s equality, but, being from a position of privilege, they can’t see inequality. This situation is referred to as “male privilege.”
What’s in a Name?
Janet tells readers at the end of the story that Whileaway used to be called For-A-While before the men were killed off by disease. What’s the significance of the names in relation to the story’s title?
- What does it mean to whileaway your time?
We’ve got some fun this week! Keep up with the light reading this week and read William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” for Wednesday (10/30) and Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” for Friday (11/01). We’ll have Salt Fish Girl to discuss next week, so get moving on that.