Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Gender

Gender is culturally based, socially constructed in humans. Gender determines, to a large extent, the societal role of a person. In most societies, the gender is assigned according to the sex of a the person: Male->Men->Masculinity and Female->Woman->Femininity. Gender has made into social role binaries, in which one gender is defined by opposing the other. Gender is fluid, changing from culture to culture and over time.

But that is all pretend, or only barely true. Many works of science fiction challenge our modern understanding and acceptance of gender. Ursula Le Guinn, hero of gender and sex challenges, explores gender in The Dispossessed. On one planet, Anarres, sex still exists in that there are male and female, but gender is not stereotyped. The protagonist views females as equals and partners. He does not ignore their sex but he does not judge by it. When he travels to Urras, he finds it difficult to accept the limited power women accept and the way men look down upon the women. The people of Urras often challenge his assertions of equality as they cannot believe it is possible for women to be valued as equal to men.

In The Handmaid's Tale, the society is taken to the opposite extreme of Anarres. In response to supposed Muslim attacks on women, theocratic men take control of the government, creating a society based on literal understanding of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. Women are forbidden from owning money and property and from reading. Abortions are illegal. They are expected to be subservient housewives who defer to their husbands and bear them children. Due to ecological collapse and nuclear waste, many people have become sterile. However, absence of children are blamed on the women and never on men. Women are forced to be segregated in society. Sex/Gender can be identified by the color and design of clothing. Homosexuals are called "gender traitors." Sterile women (not wives) are either: sent to colonies to die a slow death; Aunts, who control and train handmaids; Marthas who do domestic work; Jezebels, sex workers; or Econowives, who are expected to fulfill all the roles of a woman. Women who are sterile, widows, divorcees, feminists, lesbians, etc are called "Unwomen."

The stakes are always high when it comes to gender. When gender is considered the same as sex, it is difficult for anyone to step outside of their assumed role. Science fiction explores gender either by presenting a society which is free from modern gender issues or by presenting a society which has pushed those issues to the breaking point of humanity.

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