un-gendering pronouns


(Note: when writing "employer," I did want to have the subscript 1 [I hope someone talks about this] but it didn't copy over to the blog and I don't know if/what html coding would do this.)

As we started to discuss on Monday, one of the most intriguing and often startling things about Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany is the use of "she" as the default pronoun for both male and female humans and nonhumans--collectively "women." The first problem this presents, of course, is confusion for the reader, because the reader does not live in a world where this usage is the same. I was quite confused especially when in the beginning Marq is talking with her (I will attempt to discuss the world in its own terms) employer on Nepiy and calls both her employer and her employer's human friend "she," while they call each other "he" (62). Eventually the reader finds out that "she" refers to anybody, while "he" refers to an object of sexual desire--both regardless of the biological sex of the woman in question. One thing this does is effectively remove cultural gender and renders differences in sex basically meaningless. In doing this, Delany shows how unnecessarily important gender is to our society--the reader constantly wonders about the gender of each individual character mentioned because it is rarely given, and when it is, it is given late in the introduction. Not only does this point out the problematic fascination for identification but it shows that a society can work fairly well without the constant identification we have. Interestingly, the step from modern society to the world(s) in Stars is not unlike the transfer from permanently gendered words in romance languages like Spanish to English which has mostly neutrals. The difference, of course, lies in the language of Marq's society. They use the same gendered pronouns we have today to talk about other women, but their meaning has completely changed. "She" doesn't mean a female woman, "she" means any woman. "He" means a woman to whom the speaker is sexually attracted, not a male woman. "Woman," itself, has replaced the word "person," which is quite helpful in the society in Stars because it can refer to any species, while "person" refers simply to humans.

Another effect this new use of pronouns has on the society in Stars is the way sexuality is viewed. Intriguingly, male homosexuality seems the norm, not a deviation, in this society. Whether or not this is true, the appearance of it comes from two places. First, the first-person protagonist, Marq, is a homosexual male woman, so it is discussed in a very natural way. Second, the object one woman's desire is always "he," and therefore male in our eyes, and thus the original woman is considered "he" in the eyes of the other; to the reader, this makes all sexual relations appear to be between male women. There is still, obviously, a variety of sexual preferences in the world of Stars, and (at least on Sygn worlds) sex in general seems a very free idea. No one particularly cares what or how much sex other women have. The argument could be made that by removing gender from the language helps create this general tolerance in the culture of the types of sexual relations that occur. Not only does this blur the lines of homo- and heterosexuality, but the language used in essence removes the reproduction aspect of sex ("sperm and egg," as Marq puts it) and leaves sex simply as a pleasurable act. There are many other techniques this society uses for reproduction, as evidenced by the great variety of genes that make up the members of Marq's family, or stream.

A final note about the language usage is something that was briefly mentioned in class but not discussed: Why did Delany pick the female as the neutral, default term? Considering Le Guin's choice of the opposite and the way we often write, this does appear strange. Likely, Delany wanted to point out how neither term, to us, really is neutral--because if they were, why would we complain about using the female as the baseline? It was startling to read a book written this way, and I often found myself replacing "women" with "men" because I'm used to understanding groups of people in terms of the so-called neutral male status. What's even more intriguing to me is something that we discussed Monday night in my neuroscience class that I'm not sure Delany knew: the baseline sex for humans is indeed female. Human fetuses, until about eight weeks old, have two sets of possible genitalia--one of which ends up disappearing, the other of which grows into either male or female sex organs. At about eight weeks, if the fetus is genetically male, the Y-chromosome sparks the growth of male gonads which release testosterone and prompt the growth male genitalia. If it is genetically female or, for some reason, this testosterone release is never initiated, the fetus will become a female baby--whether or not it should be male based on its genes.

I'm totally with you on the pronoun thing - I think it's really interesting how Delaney screws around with our assumptions and conventions. Who would think of something like that, having the most essential and basic identifier be not gender but sexual attractiveness? Even reading your post, I got confused, so I can only imagine that my head would explode rather quickly if I lived in such a society.

However, that's completely beside the point. I admire Delaney's aim - as you put it, to show how "unnecessarily important gender is to our society" - but I don't think that his removal of gender as an identifier is really realistic. This is (obviously) just my point of view on the matter, and it's always difficult to argue about how characters would act in SF, given how far removed it is from reality, but I'll try. Power is pretty universally essential - we crave it, we envy those who have it, we are always trying to prove to ourselves and to others that we have it as well. Foucault said - and I can't remember whether this is a paraphrase or a direct quote - that power is inevitable. We're always looking, consciously or not, for differences that set us apart as superior - and, as a result, makes others inferior.

Delaney's characters have set aside gender differences - great. There is clearly still difference, as there are two pronouns in use, so there is a vacuum to be filled. Attractiveness is power - perhaps individuals who are referred to as a "he" by many different people would have commonalities in their physical appearance or personalities that would for the basis for a construction of a "he" image, for example. Though I'm all for gender equality, I really think that removing gender norms from society would just leave room for something different, and perhaps worse.

Somebody tell me if they hate this idea - it's something I'd like to discuss and talk out.