“Gender-constructs and their underlying impact on war: The Left Hand of Darkness and Herland”
|Caricature in which the woman tells her husband that she's going out to a |
women's club (leaving him with the baby), but is actually seeing another man.
Artist: Freie Blätter (1848)Source: Wikimedia Commons
“In 2007, an Army Specialist Brown saved the lives of fellow soldiers after a roadside bomb tore through a convoy of Humvees in the eastern Paktia province […] After the explosion, which wounded five soldiers, Brown ran through insurgent gunfire and used his body to shield wounded comrades as mortars fell less than 100 yards away” (AP n.p.).
A year later, Army Specialist Brown was awarded with the Silver Star medal by the United States military. Brown’s story is moving, but it becomes even more complicated when in the above sentences, “his” is replaced with “her”. Army Specialist Lin Brown is indeed a woman, and was only eighteen years old when she performed extraordinary tasks that the Pentagon swears a woman is incapable of doing (Ferber 4).
Gender-exclusion has long been one of the many flaws of the United States military, but it has not stopped women from serving (and often giving) their lives to a greater cause. Over the years, the number of women included in the military has grown, albeit slowly, and women’s roles in the military have expanded somewhat, but still not on equal footing with men’s roles in the military, largely because it is believed that a woman cannot do what a man can do. It is debatable as to whether women and men can physically perform the same military tasks in the trenches during combat, and to what degree. The way women are regarded (or disregarded) in the military is a simple analogy to the general disparities between men and women, and it leads to a greater question: whether or not gender-constructs influence war, either directly or indirectly. Delving into literature is one way to theorize upon this question, with the genre of science fiction as the base. Science fiction is another male-dominated system that is notorious in its portrayal and exclusion of anything feminine.
In science fiction literature, an androgynous society and the effects of war can be surveyed in detail, as famously penned by Ursula K. LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness. In comparison, the effects of the loss of masculinity on an exclusively feminine society and their subsequent approach to war can be similarly analyzed in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. Decades of gender-equality implementations separate LeGuin’s and Gilman’s literary paradigms of feminist science fiction, but the parallels between the two stories and their relations to war-less communities tie them together. Through a feminist lens, I will explore the differences between men and women (in the military and in science fiction), and how gender-constructs and gaps can influence the supposed necessity of war.
Gender neutrality: there are those who are scared of the term, and then there are those who cannot imagine a world in which humans are no longer a part of a binary mental separation (Butler viii). Duality of nature is celebrated and found in many aspects of life, like the idea of light and dark, or yin and yang. While reading The Left Hand of Darkness or Herland, one is struck by how alien the idea of androgyny is. Human beings are a long way off from practicing an androgynous lifestyle, as duality is still a main teaching in our culture, and seen in its simplest form at the birth of each child.
|"Portrait of a Young Boy"|
Artist: Thomas Hazelhurst (1800)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
When a human being is first born, the most identifying trait about them is their sex (as told by a character in The Left Hand of Darkness): “in most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners, ---almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food” (LeGuin 234). However, theorists like Judith Butler and many others make the case that human beings are not born with intrinsic traits marking them as ‘male’ or ‘female’. Why then, upon birth, should the distinctions of ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ imprint a human being with pre-determined actions and ideologies? Feminist Cathy Rudy explains that gender is “a matter of performance that […] a woman or man does and [we are] thereby coding ourselves one way or the other […]. The more we do the things that--say, as in my case--a woman does, the more we feel ourselves to 'be' a woman at our core” (22). In order to be accepted, one must not stray from their chosen paths of masculine or feminine, and those that step outside of the gender boundaries are often feared.
Women, for their part in gender-constructs, often take on the attributes opposite that of a man, pretending to be demure, unintelligent, uncreative, physically weaker, and, as Russ says in her afterword to “When It Changed”, whatever traits are more convenient for the man (or woman) at the time. Russ's musings sound very similar to Butler's ideas about learned gender traits when she says “flutteriness is not 'femininity' (something men are always so anxious women will lose) but pathology”. That one sentence taken from Russ's afterword to “When It Changed” enforces the gender debate of nature vs. nurture, and also alludes to the fear men have of women becoming something other than feminine. If a woman were to lose her femininity, she would be equal to a man, and the thought of non-subservient women is not an inspiring one to men, even among men that consider themselves sympathetic to women's rights. Deep down, men feel that women need to be protected, and in order to properly protect something, a hierarchy must be established, with men at the top of that hierarchy. Men supposedly bring with them special and secret knowledge essential to establishing a working society. However would a society function without men to guide every aspect of daily living? Chaos would ensue, utter chaos...unless authors like Russ, Gilman, and LeGuin can convince the masses otherwise. In the literary worlds of these and other feminist writers, worlds without men function on the same level of prosperity as dual-natured societies with one major difference: war is non-existent.
Russ’s short story “When It Changed” is the male paradigm of the perfect world, because it is a planet made up exclusively of women. Being a non-dually natured society, the planet of Whileaway is free from the conflicts of war, and thus there is no army. Like the men in Russ's short story “When It Changed”, the men in Herland believe that with their arrival, they will bring the barbaric (and probably) scared women much needed stability. And just like the men in Russ's story, the men in Herland encounter a working society of women, women that have integrated male traits with female traits. To the men in both stories, the type of man-woman hybrid they meet is like an alien, while to the indigenous women, it is the men that are alien-like.
Women and men do tend to examine one another as though they were considering the faults of an alien species from afar, or from the top of very tall pedestals. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, but they do not have to be. Science fiction is a genre in literature that allows for easy gender-exploration scenarios, even though this was not always true. Science fiction is a genre still struggling to remove the gender-bias it has carried for decades. Though there are many science fiction literary texts that begin their historical analysis with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and some even include another Shelley classic, The Last Man), most of the other novels named in their science fiction study are written by men. For example, a historical study of science fiction novels might begin with Frankenstein (written in 1818), but might not include another woman on the list until 1915, the year Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland. Even after that, women authors are sporadically mentioned every ten to fifteen years, and it is not until the 1970’s and 80’s that women are constant (and yet not exactly common) fixtures of the science fiction literary canon. Literary critic Carl Freedman feels that “[for the most part, pulp and post-pulp] science fiction can make a small and subordinate place for women characters, [as] it is particularly allergic to any undermining of overall masculinist assumptions” (30). There are critical articles and essays written from both gender points of view, with many of the male-opinioned articles being as Russ describes “overtly and comically anti-feminist”, and they go so far as to suggest that the best solution to a battle of the sexes would be for “women to accept their position as subordinate to men” (Larbalesteir 1). Thankfully, not every man involved in the study of science fiction feels that way. Many modern science fiction anthologies or science fiction textbooks include feminist writers or feminist theory as an intrinsic part of the developing genre.
Male literary critic Brooks Landon quotes science fiction writer Pamela Sargent in his textbook Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, also agreeing with her when she states: “to discuss women and science fiction is, of necessity, to discuss the entire field. Perhaps eventually, if sexism and racism diminish sufficiently, we may finally discuss only writers” (142). Sargent is reaching for a world that does not yet exist, a world where women and men are not set apart by societal splits in gender, but are equal in every sense of the word.
|Author Margaret Atwood attends a |
reading at Eden Mills Writers' Festival,
Ontario, Canada in September 2006.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Modern feminine pioneers of science fiction like Joanna Russ, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Sheldon (who used the male pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr.) write about gender in very illuminating ways, expanding their fictional writings to speculate on why men and women live by a very constrained set of identifiers. The exact dividing line between the two sexes is hard to pinpoint, but it is somewhat illuminated when looking at the inequalities found in the United States military.
An end to masculinity would also bring the end of femininity (Barr 68). In an androgynous society as described by Gilman or LeGuin, there would be no more duality of human nature (male/female), but unluckily for both of those female authors, the system of duality pervades in life and in the literary genre to which they have both contributed. Despite the potential harm gender constructs have had over the long history of human conflict, the duality of nature on Earth remains in its off-balance way, more noticeably off-balance in military situations. Men and women share very differing roles in the United States military. The history of women’s exclusion and slow integration into the military is a reflection of how the male-helmed community of science fiction also approaches gender (in)equality.
|Newly arrived Women's Army Auxiliary Corps recruits, |
at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, 1942. (U.S. Army Signal Corps Collection)
Author: The US Army
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The United States military and the genre of science fiction share another thing in common, as unlikely (or likely) as that may seem. In both of these fields, patriarchy rules, and femininity gets undermined, even as time has managed to lessen some of the male-dominance. Certainly, females have better roles in the military and in science fiction than they did even thirty years ago, but that place is still highly disproportionate to their male counterparts. Female (and particularly male roles) determine a woman's place in the American military system. Before 1973, women made up a tenuous 2.5% of military personnel, a provision purposely enforced by the Pentagon (Ferber 2). After the birth of the All-Volunteer force in 1973, female presence in the military increased significantly, but never in an influential aspect. Restrictions limited female advancement, strategically keeping them from reaching high-level jobs in the Pentagon, where they might be in a position to dictate, and therefore change, military policy. Of course, Pentagon officials would never admit to the real basis for exclusion concerning high-level and infantry positions for women. Congress passed the Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, and that act states explicitly that women are not to advance in the military above the rank of lieutenant colonel or Navy Commander (Ferber 4). Two of the premier arguments Congress and the Pentagon consistently cite for keeping women out of certain levels of the military is physical inferiority, and protection. Women are not built the same as men, hence how can they be expected to perform on the same level as their well-muscled counterparts? Many men are accepted into the military with a frame far from the perfect male archetype. Some men accepted into the military have a frame comparable or even worse off than women in their same age/height groups. Yet, possession of a phallic golden ticket means that despite being five feet tall and severely under-muscled, a man can rise in the military ranks to any position he aspires to reach.
Women are kept from ascending politically in the military or from infantry jobs because men hope to keep them from “exposure to hostile fire and substantial risk of capture” (Ferber 6). Men are allowed to be fired upon with lethal projectile weapons, and they are also allowed to be put at the risk of getting captured. Why? Perhaps men believe that their anatomy will serve as protective charms, or when it comes down to the wire, potential weapons.
Jeff from Herland is described by Van as a man similar in sentiment to Pentagon officials: [Jeff] idealized women, and was always looking for a chance to 'protect' or to 'serve' them” (Gilman 90). Still high on his urban ideals that separate men from women and vice-versa, Jeff offers to carry a basket of fruit for a Herlander he meets in the fields. He tells her that a woman should not have to carry anything, and when she asks him why, he does not answer. Van can guess at Jeff's unspoken reply:
He could not look at that fleet-footed
deep-chested young forester in the face
and say, 'Because she is weaker' She
wasn't. One does not call a race horse
weak because it is visibly not a cart
horse. (Gilman 93).
Woman in life and on the battlefield do not need protection, even if they visibly lack the brute strength of a cart horse. This jibe about the physical inferiority of women in comparison to men was made in 1915 by Gilman (writing from the viewpoint of a man). Almost a hundred years later, there are many men that would persist in the argument that women are weaker, and when asked why, just like Herland’s Jeff, they would be hard-pressed to explain exactly why a race horse is weaker than a cart horse.
Recently, the battlefield has been changing to include women (or race horses if you prefer), in greater numbers. 99% of all Air Force positions are open to women, and the number of women in the military has jumped from 10% in the 1970's to a whopping 14% (Ferber 8); times are a changin' (or a stayin' the same). Women have been fortunate to gain what little influence in the military that they do have, even if staunch Congressional policy states that they should not be there based on their lack of physical skills and because they possess secret pheromones that scream at men “Protect me, fools, at all costs!” Even lawful and limited inclusion does not an equal make.
America's anti-terrorist disputes in the Middle East have enabled women to serve in the 'trenches', as these conflicts have never been openly declared to be wars. Lack of the ‘war’ definition has left wiggle room for women's roles in the military during recent worldwide entanglements; “Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said last year '[…] I know what the law says […] but I'd be hard pressed to say that any woman [serving today] did so without facing the same risks as their male counterparts'” (Martin np). With the reality of a new generation of capable females, Congress was forced to convene a Military Leadership Diversity Commission to re-evaluate their combat exclusion laws. A panel of female veterans took the reins of the argument, but their arguments were drowned out by retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Peterson: “Here is my problem, we're talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what's on your back, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you […] would live like that?” (Martin np). In response, Tammy Duckworth, a paraplegic female vet said, “I've lived out there with the guys, and I would do it. It's about the job” (Martin np). Duckworth has a valid point: it is about the job. To those that share the mindset of Peterson, it is not about the job; women obviously cannot survive in a dirty environment, without television and other vapid pursuits to calm their delicate demeanors.
Even when women 'live out there like that' with men, there is still an invisible wall of gender roles between the soldiers. Kayla Williams served in 2003 and onward, and she had to live alone with a group of male soldiers for six-months. Of the entire experience, Williams came away feeling part of the unit, up to a point: “every once in a while it would slip over a line, and they would want to see my boobs. It was tricky” (Martin np). Women and war are mostly separate concepts. Famous war heroes that are spoken of are hardly ever female. When a woman’s name is mentioned in a time of war, it is usually because she is the victim of rape or murder. To maintain a female disconnection from war helps to maintain an overall masculine control of not only the military, but of life, which is probably why the percentage of women allowed in the United States military has only fluctuated from 2.5 to 14. A minority of 14% cannot hope to effect change or dictate policy, not when that minority is legally required to be ‘protected’ by the majority.
In the androgynous worlds of Herland and Winter, female equality in the military is a moot issue as there are no military factions whatsoever. The lack of military does not deter from possible violence and/or criminal acts, at least in Winter. Herland's community is more idealized than Winter's because there is no theft or murder. Panels of Herlanders constantly rework and revise their laws, for the betterment of everyone. One of the Herlanders tells Van “it has been hundreds of years since we have had what you call a thief” (Gilman 68). The word 'utopia' as Thomas More wrote of comes to mind when comparing Herland to other worlds. Winter is not as perfect as Herland because there is still theft and murder, but there has never been a war. When Genly Ai comes to Winter, there seems to be a high level of dispute between the different countries, tensions that he believes will lead invariably to war, but that threat of Winter's first war is averted when Genly Ai's mother-ship lands and gives Winter citizens a greater cause (the pursuit of harmony and intelligence) to unite for. If only every war in human history could have been averted for reasons such as those. Instead, humans create justifications to start and sustain war.
Over the course of human history, there have been a number of rationales that have led to war. Leaders have used the persuasions of moral, physical, or economic dominance as key arguments for war, but one of the most common persuasions for war has been self-preventative protection by attacking an enemy first (Aiello 1984). The major reason behind the American Revolution was to be free from British oppression and taxation. During the Civil War, the leaders had to prove they could run a steadfast government by smacking the seceding states into submission. Recent 'wars' in the Middle East have occurred in part because Americans are “innocent dupes” or because “the American Frontier experience pre-conditions Americans to pursue their interests violently and devalue the lives of others” (Rubenstein np). Butler ties the violence of war with gender identities, bringing her thoughts on power, sex, and gender, and re-applying them to her thoughts on social policy (Chambers & Carver np). Other theorists like Konrad Lornenz have argued that warfare arose in human culture because of the development of tools, (hence weapons), and Arthur C. Clarke insinuated in his book 2001: A Space Odyssey that warfare is an ideal handed down to humans from an advanced alien civilization (Wrangham & Peterson). Whatever the ultimate cause of war, gender-constructs may or may not play a large role in the outcome. In the worlds of Herland and Winter respectively, war is an absent concept, perhaps in direct correlation to the citizen's deficiency of what Genly Ai and Van call 'sex-traditions'.
Genly Ai thinks that Winter citizens are too lazy to go to war; “they lacked, it seemed the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals, in that respect, or like women” (LeGuin 47). His assessment of their laziness could inadvertently stem from his automatic response to think of Winter citizens as first manly, and then (ultimately), womanly. Women cannot do what men can, and by that limited definition, women are lazy. Van and friends are also shocked when they find Herland to be a productive community, as they had expected a “dull monotony, and found a daring social inventiveness far beyond [their] own” (Gilman 81).
Both worlds (Herland/Winter) are a-sexual, except that Winter citizens are more like hermaphrodites because every month they go through a sexual cycle, culminating in their transformation into a woman or a man. Winter citizens are at times feminine and masculine, and they commit crimes like theft and murder, two actions that Herland leaders have managed to eradicate through selective breeding. Winter citizens have children the old fashioned way, by means of messy procreation, whereas Herland women can consciously control when and how many children they have by sheer will over their bodies. Total control over their progeny makes sex a non-essential activity on Herland, but it is a must on Winter. Women in Herland are calm, strong, and are seasoned with the serenity of mind that many monks and nuns possess. Winter citizens can be quick to anger and there are many that Genly Ai meets that he considers to be clinically insane. In the instance of criminal violence in both stories, sexual passion can perhaps account for its presence on Winter and its absence on Herland. Sexual desire may be a latent pre-cursor to crimes committed by Winter citizens, but their sexual desires are on a monthly cycle that lasts for a few days, and then it is gone. After the cycle (or kemmer), Winter citizens are left sexless beings once more. For the majority of their daily lives, Winter citizens have no sexual motivation, much like Herlanders. In lieu of constant sexual cravings, they share an equality of gender roles that is unparalleled on Earth, as a Winter citizen can both give birth to and father children, splitting the responsibilities of parenting without being confined to either role of father or mother. An earlier explorer of Winter wrote “Consider: a child has no psycho-sexual relationship to his mother or father […] There is no unconsenting sex, no rape” (LeGuin 93-94).
As for there being no war on either world, the void left by a patriarchal or matriarchal system is apparently filled up with a harmonic way of living that cannot fathom the want (let alone the excuse) for war in any capacity. LeGuin summarizes the relationship between war and gender as an abomination arising within human culture, as sustained sexual desires mixed with “organized social aggression” make the perfect recipe for war (96). On Winter and on Herland “there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking” is not a part of their society, and may justify their peaceful habits (LeGuin 94). All of the afore-mentioned persuasions for war such as moral, economic, racial, or other differences cannot be a basis for a war in Herland or Winter because all citizens are equal. Moral, economic, or racial differences do not apply to either world, hence these differences cannot set the foundation required for strife in the same capacity that humans on Earth are used to witnessing.
The first human explorer on Winter watched those around her and she recorded everything she saw in a series of journals. In her journals, she assumes that Winter was an experiment formed by a technologically advanced race. What the experiment was meant to signify is not clear to the explorer, but she makes her best guess: “did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment did they eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped?” (LeGuin 96). Again (as Barr theorizes), without masculinity, there can be no femininity, because they are inverts of the other, sharing a symbiotic relationship that invariably leads to violent conflicts.
Of course, gender-constructs and their influence on war cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt on either Winter or Herland. There are other reasons why war is an abstract concept in both novels. Herland is a small country compared with others on earth. It is cut off from outsiders by natural markers like a river, a mountain range, and a forest. Herlanders live sustainable lifestyles, and do not seek to expand their land. They work to maintain an efficient community within their own borders, never dreaming of the imperialistic tendencies of their dually-natured neighboring countries. Thus, Herlanders are seen by Terry as unmotivated, but Van sees them in a different light: wise.
Winter citizens have an alternate explanation for their peacekeeping as well, beginning with their climate. Winter is not called Winter by accident. All year-long, Winter is in a constant state of cold. It is not uncommon for a daily temperature on Winter to reach below zero. The first explorer to Winter supposed that the greatest enemy on Winter was the cold: “The weather of Winter is so relentless, so near the limit of tolerability even to them with all their cold-adaptations, that perhaps they use up their fighting spirit fighting the cold” (Le Guin 96). Once again, an alien society is rendered unmotivated by their surroundings (like the Herlanders and their natural boundaries), creating in them a conscious decision to avoid conflict.
Consider the history of Earth’s violence in relation to the fictional worlds of Herland and Winter. Earth has always been dual-natured, among animals and humans alike. Women and men live together, and yet they are separated by gender-codes, with some of those codes deciding if and to what degree they can participate in on-going wars of inter-community violence. There are also animals that indulge in inter-community violence: chimpanzees. Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson write about the random violence observed in African chimps in their book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Both authors wonder why murder and war is a trait shared by humans and chimps alike, an ironic comparison because chimps and humans are so close on the evolutionary chain (Wrangham & Peterson). As advanced as humans believe themselves to be, they take the same page as their mammalian cousins, fighting amongst themselves for territory or profit, or just because they can. Another trait exclusive to humans and chips is their tendency to live in what Wrangham and Peterson describe as male-bonded patrilineal kin groups, in which the males band together to defend their territory, but the females move on to mate with other tribes or groups, groups of men like “Hatfields vs. McCoys, Montagues vs. Capulets, Palestinians vs. Israelis, Americans vs. Vietcong, Tutsis vs. Hutus” (np). To sum up, “the system of communities defended by related men is a human universal [trait] that crosses space and time, so established a pattern that even writers of science fiction rarely think to challenge it” (Wrangham & Peterson np).
Like the rest of Earth, thousands of years ago, Herland was a country shared by men and women. After a series of bloody wars (in which the women were left out of), men became extinct. With the disappearance of men came the disappearance of war. The women of Herland took control of society’s laws, and none of those laws accounted for war in any form. On Winter, androgyny has always been constant, and war has always been absent. Genly Ai mentions the word ‘war’ to the neuters that comprise the planet of Winter, and they do not recognize its meaning, or the large-scale violence involved. On Earth, men + women= war. On Herland, women - men= peace. On Winter, women (men) + men (women)= peace. In all three equations, the variable that increases the chance for war are gender-divisions. Are gender constructs solely responsible for the motivations behind every great war? Of course not, but it can also be argued that a car cannot run with only an engine, as there are many other components that make up a working car. However, without an engine, there would be no working car. It is plausible that without gender constructs, there would be no underlying cause for war.
Gender is a measure by which humans rule their lives, knowingly or not. There is a code for how a human should live out their lives, beginning when they are swathed in either pink or blue blankets at birth. Pink and blue; two colors that hold so much sway over every human action and inaction. Seen humorously through the eyes of Russ, women and men are divided by their accomplishments, with men seeking every pursuit under the sun, with women considering marriage to be their highest calling (126). Modern society is evolving, and gender-constructs are evolving along with it. Women can hold jobs that only a hundred years it would have been unthinkable for them to aspire to. Men are expected to and enjoy taking a larger role in caregiving for their children. Lesbians and gays (the ultimate threats to a dually-natured way of living) are accepted more and more every day. The military, a notoriously patriarchal system, has repealed the anti-gay statute of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and has allowed women to join their ranks, however sparingly. Through all of the supposed progress with gender constructs, the one constant that serves as the biggest reminder to the inequality between men and women is the military’s limited inclusion of women. Yes, women are allowed to serve in the military, but only up to a point. It is similar to a man that wants to take a nice girl home to his parents, a girl that is kind, pretty, and smart, but not smarter than him. If women were allowed to ascend to the highest stations in the military and legally fight alongside men in the battlefield, the nation’s attitude towards war might not change in any way, but there is no way to tell until that happens. As it stands, war is controlled and carried out by a boys club who wants the status quo to remain. Though, the larger issue still remains: is war the inadvertent product of gender-constructs? After being analyzed in the context of Gilman and LeGuin’s novels, maybe so. The opposite side of the argument can be illustrated using a common sense motto: two points make a line, not a pattern. Toss in Russ's “When It Changed”, and perhaps the case for gender-constructs and their influence on war can be made at greater length.
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