Over on John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, Sarah Monette has posted a piece on gender in science fiction and fantasy. It’s a sensible look at the problems of this discussion, but there are a couple of things about it that bother me a bit.
She goes over the problems of defining sex and gender. She breaks it down as: sex is biology and gender is culture. Immediately, she asserts that this is problematic, because biology itself is not a neat packaging device, and there are many people who simply don’t fit in one side or the other (male-female). Gender as cultural artifact has problems because such definitions begin with our apprehension of the biological aspect and proceed from there.
The question often begged in such discussions is why the wide variety of alternative sexual possibilities get shoved off the table when these definitions are formulated (usually in mists of ancient history). Perhaps answering that question would begin to unravel the seeming tangle of our concepts of so-called gender roles.
The first question is: why Male Female?
Certainly major anatomical differences play a part, what are termed secondary sexual characteristics. Penis, clitoris, lactating breasts, facial hair, pelvic variance. But recognizing these attributes does not, it seems to me, establish the basis for our millennial-old bias toward a single binary standard. (Monette cites this as an American thing, this insistence, but that doesn’t follow. Few cultures ever have had much tolerance for anything outside that binary definition, revisionist scenarios notwithstanding.)
Go back far enough–say the 19th century on back before the building of Uruk–and the basis is fairly clear, unambiguous, and overwhelming.
Sex roles are assigned on the basis of what it takes to make more people.
Period. Reproduction. The heterosexual act of intercourse that results in pregnancy and childbirth underlies all our subsequent categorizing of sex/gender metaphysics. In the extremes of what I’ll call subsistence sexual politics, this is all that matters, and the politics that forms around it always excludes anything that does not lead directly to this outcome–which includes all forms of homosexuality, bachelorhood or spinsterhood, or even what we today assume to be the individual prerogative of childlessness by choice. Which explains why in some cultures even today (fewer, vanishing, but nevertheless there) you find draconian attitudes toward any kind of deviance from an assumed norm, like birth defects. (It also suggests interesting readings for self-selected celibate groups, who then extract themselves from other aspects of “normal” social intercourse, but that’s another topic.)
Anyone remotely familiar with evolutionary anthropology understands the possibilities latent in even the simplest of defining attributes over time.
Confusion enters into this with all the other aspects of a culture, chiefly affluence. Once a civilization arrives at a point that some of its members may separate their activities out from the requirements of a subsistence economy, you start getting moralizing and class warfare, part of which has resulted in our present-day mess of gender politics.
When the survival of your group depends on growing numbers, it is easy to see how tolerance for individual variation that might threaten that growth can shrink or, as is more likely, never occur in the first place.
Add to this, now, the argument made by some that gender is something unrelated to biology, and we start getting into the almost impossible area of determine “What’s normal?”
In my opinion, trying to separate gender like this from biology is absurd. Because ultimately we’re talking about what Turns People On, and that means physically, which has everything to do with biology–the hypothalumus, the limbic system, all tied together through the nervous system–because basically we’re looking at what provides individuals with meaningful pleasure. (Unless what is intended by this is a limiting of “biology” purely to reproductive strategies—but the “wetware” for this is still in place regardless of the strategy, which is biology…)
(A sidebar here for a moment–that word, pleasure, suffers in this debate because it doesn’t have the same connotation for everyone. For a large and very vocal group, to put it in its simplest terms, “pleasure” equals “evil.” It’s difficult to discuss the salubrious and often essential benefits of pleasure with someone who simply can’t hear the word without visions of Ezekial and Revelation flashing before their inner cinema screen. It is also difficult to impress upon people who think of pleasure as something inessential, to be had in one’s “spare” time like a hobby, but not important in the same way that providing food and shelter is important. Pleasure gets short-changed on most levels, by most people, most of the time. Consequently, a lot of what is done essentially for pleasure gets folded into things that can be seen–by the doer as well as any observer–as “necessary.” Interesting how that relates to, say, reading…)
The thing that makes another person someone with whom we “connect” sexually (or, conversely, what dictates what we will not do sexually with another person) cannot be separated from biology.
Just as the things that can then go on to ruin our lives cannot be seen as deviant, in this instance incompatibility, either physically, emotionally, or intellectually.
But I digress.
Monette’s argument takes off on the ongoing discussing of supposedly diminished or underappreciated roles of females in science fiction, both written and visual. The trend is moving for more and better representation for women, has been for a good long while now. True, SF, like so much other fiction, has a history of male dominance. Why? Because for a long time, the public lives of males were more interesting. Men got to be detectives and soldiers, scientists and politicians, explorers and engineers. And–very important–men got to choose their sex partners. The absurdities of this arrangement spring from the culture, which publicly had decided that women’s most important role was still tied to that founding definition about making more people, and became clearer and clearer with the emergence of the Super Male–James Bond, et al. Firstly, he wasn’t “making more people” with all these women, which led to the obvious revelation (duh!) that neither were all those women.
This debate is important, because we have reached a point in history in which making more people is verging on immoral. There are too many and it’s damaging the planet. Furthermore, it’s important because the pitch of the argument in some quarters is becoming shrill, because a several-millennia-old way of assigning social roles is being pushed aside. (Do all those people who think traditional marriage is sacred and should be barred to Out Groups actually believe women are inferior or gays somehow evil? No, of course not. On an individual level, many of them would never dream of making A woman subserviant or stoning a homosexual–though, of course, some would, so we have to be careful about making too-sweeping a statement. No, it’s like killing Santa Claus. Before we knew what we were supposed to be and do, even if we didn’t actually live up to that. Now…?) So the question on the table is, what now?
A good place to start is by deciding that everyone, regardless of so-called orientation, has an interesting life that can be made the subject of compelling drama. And that seems to be what’s happening. Men (and not all males, by any means) got center stage for so long because they were seen to have the interesting lives. Of course, you could extend that statement and see where I’m going with this—for a long time, stories were only about aristocrats and warriors because they were seen to have the only interesting lives.
What about all those other people? The ones off-stage?
Well, it has become clear that they, too, had interesting lives–just not in the same way as those who complained because they were no longer center stage. As a result, they show up more and more in our stories about ourselves.
What has made this discussion compelling–why it has, really, always been compelling–is that we have passed out of the time when the primary defining need has shifted from “Making More” to “Making Something of It.”