Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is The Left Hand of Darkness Sexist?


Twelve years ago, give or take a few, Gregory Frost and I guest taught one of Judith Moffett's science fiction classes.  This was back when she was at the U of P.  It was a good class.  The experience was satisfying to everyone involved.  Then, after the class, two of the female students approached Greg and me with a question that was obviously burning in them:  "What do you think of The Left Hand of Darkness?"  Which was a strange question because Judy worshiped at the altar of Le Guin specifically because of that novel and we were sure she'd taught it intensely.  Hell, in person she could hardly stop talking about it.

"We think it's a very great book," Greg said.

I nodded.  "Why?  What do you think about it?"

They looked embarrassed.  Then one of them said, "We think it's sexist."

To say that the male components of this exchange were flabbergasted is an understatement.  But we did as well as we could in the conversation that ensued to put the book into perspective in a way that did not condescend to either Le Guin or her young readers.

Time passed.

Recently, I wanted to re-read a specific section of LHoD and discovered that I was no longer satisfied with the copy I'd owned for decades, a coverless paperback bought back when I had far more reading time than money.  Time has reversed those proportions and so I bought a  hardcover.

Behold the (admittedly still partial) triumph of feminism:  Now I can see what those students were talking about.

Take a look at the last full page of this work about a sexless culture, starting with Genly Ai's meeting with Therem's father.  The male nouns and pronouns pop from the page:   old man... he... his... son... old lord... brother... son... him... he... he... old man's... boy... heir of Estre, my son's son... boy... king... old lord... he... he... Lord Envoy... the boy, Therem's son...

And then the conclusion:  "Will you tell us how he died?--Will you tell us about the other worlds among the stars--the other kinds of men, the other lives?"

It was as if the female pronoun and all related nouns had been banished.  It was as if being male were the default position of humanity. It was as if women didn't count.

It seems so obvious now, forty-four years after the book's first publication.  But the year before that, 1968, when Le Guin would have been writing the novel, I remember a friend (we were both freshmen at William & Mary then) who, crying and in extremis, drunkenly said, "Everybody says that men and women think differently -- but we don't!  I think exactly the same way a man does."  I could hear the truth in her voice.  But I was baffled by it.  Everybody knew that men and women thought differently.  All our literature said so.  Every woman I'd ever known said so.  My mother said so.

And here was a woman saying: No.  It's not so.

I didn't know what to make of it.  I thought about it for years, trying to understand it.

That was the world in which Le Guin wrote The Left Hand of Darkness.  Which had at its core what then seemed to almost everyone to be an obvious untruth:  Men and women are in essence the same.

What an extraordinary work for a woman of her times to have written!  Le Guin must have known, as she was writing it, that she was working on a novel that might well have been beyond her capabilities.  How astonished we were by it when it came out!

What a triumph for her that nowadays even a male reader can wonder, if only for a moment, if it's sexist.



Farah Mendlesohn said...

And homophobic. And heteronormative.

Far from arguing that men and women are the same, the kemmer scenes portray a sexuality absolutely linked to gender performativity in which the "male" takes on "masculine" and the female "feminine" traits.


Even at fifteen I smelled a rat.

Michael Swanwick said...

You were far more perceptive (and obviously far less pig-ignorant) at fifteen than I was at seventeen, Farah.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

The benefits of being a second generation feminist.

But I read The Female Man at the same time which was rather an eye opener.

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

See LeGuin's essay (in The Language of the Night, I think) where she talks about the pronouns in that novel. In the original essay, she defends the use of 'he' as gender-neutral. In a later revision of the essay, done in two columns, she carefully and ardently blasts her earlier self's defense, point by point, and concludes it was a mistake to try to use 'he' as a gender-neutral pronoun. I love that essay; just brilliant.

FSJL said...

One of the more interesting aspects of LHD is that while some characters might seem more "masculine" or "feminine" they didn't have to be one or the other automatically in kemmer. Genly Ai was surprised that his feminine appearing "landlady" had fathered but not mothered children.

David Stone said...

I agree with FSJL; I feel like the personality and behavior of the Gethen characters was fairly consistent regardless of where they were in their sexual transformation, and it seems like a lot of the gender role assigning type stuff has more to do with the fact that the story is told largely from the perspective of Ai, a person of fixed gender. But it's been a long time and I don't have the book in front of me, so it might be that my own biased memory is misleading me.

Judy said...

Hmm. I may have worshiped at UKLG's altar so ardently that those students may have felt they wouldn't get a fair hearing if they brought their issue up in class. That's too bad. But I didn't only teach content. When I first read the novel, in 1973, I was utterly blown away by the androgyny trope, it's true, but also by the beautiful prose and a taboo-busting love story that moved me personally more than I can say. I hadn't been reading sf for a dozen years or so, but while I wasn't looking the genre had grown up. I taught the book all of a piece: form, theme, style, structure, like you would teach any mature and serious work of fiction.

I was not disposed to quibble over pronouns while reeling from my initial encounter with Le Guin's Gethenians. But later, when I read "Is Gender Necessary?", the essay Mary Anne Mohanraj mentions, included in The Language of the Night (1976 version) and then in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1987 version), I agreed absolutely with what Le Guin says in the second revision. Later still Virginia Kidd let me read in ms. a screenplay treatment Le Guin had written, in which she attempts to rectify her mistake by inventing and applying the neuter pronoun English lacks and needs. The pronoun is "un" in nominative and accusative cases (Un invited un to the dance), and "uns" as a possessive (Un did uns homework and went out to play). Not such an easy problem to fix gracefully, alas.

I don't think it makes sense to label the book "sexist" or "homophobic." It may look those things from a contemporary perspective, and my students may have called it sexist for reasons that made sense to them in the 80s, but in 1969, its year of publication, Left Hand made a groundbreaking assault on traditional gender attitudes and entrenched homophobia. Change has to begin somewhere. Fair enough to see and say that the novel is grounded in the moment of its appearance; not fair to dismiss the many more ways it burst through that moment to carry feminist conscious forward, to the point where people can look back and mainly see, not the revolutionary message, but the flaws!

Michael Swanwick said...

There are many good comments here. Judy, unless you object, I'm going to put your thoughtful reply on the blog proper this Monday so everybody can see it.

Judy said...

Please feel free. You might first correct the mistake in the last paragraph: conscious should be consciousness.

Also, thanks for not calling me Judith again! I was thinking of maybe retaliating with Mickey...

Judy said...

PS: Believe it or not, that class wasn't 12 years ago, it was at least, shudder, 20. We retired from Penn in 1993 and left for SLC in '94.

Michael Swanwick said...

Both innocent mistakes -- yours and mine -- have been corrected.

And how fast the decades flee! At least we're still here to marvel at them.