The Undermining of Feminine Roles in Le Guin’s Genderless Novel
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, describes a utopian world in which there is an absence of gender. The novel takes place in Karhide, where winter is the nation’s only season and its inhabitants are Gethenian’s — androgynous beings. Although Le Guin sought to create a genderless world, she still created a completely masculinized text. The undermining of femininity was seen through her choice of using masculine pronouns, and in the conflicting masculine and feminine connotations attached to societal roles. Additionally, the only male, human character within the text assigns gender stereotypes to the asexual Gethenians based on their actions and behaviours. Science-fiction has been deemed a male dominated genre, and although Le Guin sought to avoid the aspect of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness, women and femininity are continuously marginalized, even in a novel in which gender does not exist.
Gender may be absent in Le Guin’s novel; however, sex and sexual ambiguity are still abundantly present. The Gethenians’ sexual nature corresponds with the female menstrual cycle and as well, the Gethenians’ ambisexuality was argued to have no adaptive value. The Gethenian sexual cycle lasts twenty-six to twenty-eight days, and for about twenty-one to twenty-two days, one is sexually latent and inactive. From then, one enters a masculinized stage called kemmer, in which one becomes sexually active and changes from female hormones to male hormones. Throughout the mating cycles, the Gethenians are further injected with male or female hormones. Wendy Gay Pearson, author of Postcolonialism, Gender, Sexuality/ies and the Legacy of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’: Gwyneth Jone’s Aleutians Talk Back argues that Le Guin links the human women’s menstruation cycle experience to the experience of sex and gender in her novel (Pearson). There is a strong sense of sexual arousal and attraction throughout Le Guin’s text concerning the Gethenians, as well as through Genly Ai. Estraven develops a closeness with Genly Ai, as they flee Orgoreyn together and travel back to Karhide; they come to love one another, further developing a strong sexual tension. Although they travelled together across the ice in the severe cold for months on end, they manage to restrain from any sexual activity. Kathy Rudy, author of Ethics, Reproduction, Utopia: Gender and Childbearing in “Woman on the Edge of Time argues that if Genly Ai and Estraven were to have sex, as an alien and a human, this act would have the same effect of reifying gender, regardless of Estravens androgyny (Ruby).
The Gethenians view Genly Ai’s sexuality as perversion. Sexual perverts and abnormals are called halfdeads in Gethenian slang and are not acceptable within their society, as they are in Genly Ai’s modern human society. Gently Ai’s seeking to acclimate and understand the Gethenian’s sexuality and cycle leads him to set up a barrier between himself and the Gethenians. Moreover, Genly Ai experiences a short and abrupt state of erotic rage, rising perversion and sexual frustrations due to being a foreigner in an ambisexual world. When discussing females and their anatomy in their entirety, Genly Ai describes females to Estraven as being the same as Estraven and himself, but having larger breasts and looking like pregnant Gethenians. However, the Gethenians are able to possess both male and female sexual traits depending on the cycle. Fayad Mona, author of Aliens, Androgynes and Anthropology: Le Guin’s Critique of Representation in The Left Hand of Darkness argues that within the text Le Guin uses the relegation of gender to describe those who possess masculinity, and uses biological characteristics to describe those who possess femininity (Mona). Through Le Guin creating a world in which gender is deconstructed, it is important for reproduction to be available by all, rather than to just those who just possess an abundance of female growth hormones; we see in the text that Argaven, the King of Karhide, was able to become pregnant (Ruby). Yet Genly Ai expresses his understandings of the distinctions between paternal and maternal instincts, claiming that this distinction is “scarcely worth making,” for he believes that parental instinct is not a sex-linked characteristic, but is gender behavioural (106). With the absence of gender, Le Guin uses sex and sexual biology to examine and highlight the differing gender roles of masculinity and femininity. Le Guin undermines the roles of women and femininity in her text; however, she incorporates the same capability of biological functions for all Gethenians.
Although gender was absent and the Gethenians identify as asexual, Genly Ai, as a human, coped with living among the Gethenians by assigning gender according to ones actions and behaviours. Genly Ai identifies any Gethenian who is considered weak as feminine, especially in discussing Estraven and Argaven. As Genly Ai explains, “Was it in fact perhaps his soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him?” indicating his dislike of Estraven’s persona due to his feminine aspects, which he does not see as fit for his societal role (13). Genly Ai sees Estraven as both feminine and masculine, but it is the feminine aspects of his behaviour which he finds to be unsettling. Pearson argues that the notion of sex and gender can be viewed as an interrogation of our current sex and gender systems and of the implications of the relationships between men and women. The novel leads us to begin to think about how gender functions in our society and also about the implications of each sex (Pearson). Since Genly Ai was a human male, he understood the difference between common male and female behaviour, while his explanation of females regarding Estraven determined how he distinguished the Gethenians in Karhide:
Suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners — almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. Women … women tend to eat less … It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child-rearing (253).
Genly Ai adheres to a clear distinction between males and females and between the gender roles attached to each sex. In coming to Karhide, where gender did not exist but one could change depending on the cycle, and or inject different sex hormones, Genly Ai coped with his new situation by assigning gender to the Gethenians he came in contact with. In doing so, Genly Ai places a negative and feminine connotation on those who are weak or do not perform their jobs in a masculine manner. Le Guin’s novel may be initially seen as an attack on binaries; however, it has functioned more so as an attack on the damaging stereotypes separating males and females (Mona).
Due to the accepted gender stereotypes that Genly Ai has been accustomed to in human life, he associates certain roles with the more masculine and feminine characters in the novel. Genly Ai describes women and femininity to Estraven, who was ignorant of such constructs: “They don’t often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn’t that they are stupid. Physically they’re less muscular, but a little more durable than men. Psychologically” (253). Genly Ai uses his knowledge of the modern-day human male and female gender roles towards the Gethenians, making assumptions based on their roles in the Karhide society: “Argaven was less kingly, less manly, than he looked at a distance among his courtiers. His voice was thin and he held his fierce lunatic head at an angle of bizarre arrogance” (33). Genly Ai thus discusses Argaven’s role as King, hinting that he is an unfit King due to his pressing femininity overcoming his kingly duties. Genly Ai also harbors preconceptions about Estraven based on his social position as a profound politician, but he later rejects his preconceptions of him once he notices his feminine behaviour (Mona). The prominent social roles in Karhide were argued as imperative for one who exemplifies masculinity to take on. Genly Ai meets a foreteller named Faxe, who claims, “That’s a discipline that must arouse the interest of kings, politicians, men of business” (72). Ultimately, Genly Ai advocates gender bias and sexism in discussing the necessity of a man in certain social positions, claiming, “Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man” (15). The Left Hand of Darkness seeks to lessen the oppression and exploitation of women by eliminating women and gender as a whole (Rudy). Nonetheless, even with the absence of gender, femininity is being undermined due to this doctrine that the challenging and audacious positions in Karhide (such as the responsibilities of politicians, businessmen, or Kings) need to be administered by those who possess masculinity and male gender roles. This notion is based on the premise that those who possess femininity and female gender roles are not qualified.
Le Guin creates a genderless world; however, in her novel she chooses to use sexist male pronouns in discussing all of the Gethenians. Everyone in the text was referred to as he, him, sir or brother — Le Guin had also only constituted a King of Karhide, rather than a Queen. In doing so, Le Guin has created a flawed work in terms of eliminating gender distinctions, as she rejects the option of creating a new language for the Gethenians to depart from sexist pronouns (Pennington). Pennington argues that Le Guin attempted to challenge the way in which we think about gender, yet her work is flawed because male and female readers are confined to their own perspectives of gender and will interpret the text accordingly. Le Guin explains, “I eliminated gender, to find out what was left. Whatever was left would be presumably, simply human. It would define the area that is shared by men and women alike” (Pennington). Pennington believes that this attempt at deconstructing gender has failed due to the sexist pronouns, on account of the still-present gender stereotypes and of the readers unconsciously interpreting the text based on sex. Additionally, as the reader seeks to deconstruct the gender differences in the text, the reader’s individual response comes to be an essential theme (Pennington). Genly Ai, as the only male human in the text, nonetheless recognizes his use of masculine pronouns towards the asexual Gethenians: “Wiping sweat from his dark forehead the man — man I must say, having said he and his the man answers” (5). Le Guin’s experiment in eliminating gender is ambitious, a departure from the norms of the traditional science-fiction novel. Yet The Left Hand of Darkness had missed the mark as the implication of gender was present through her style of writing, in the masculine pronouns and contrasting interpretations of the sex and gender of the Gethenians depending on the sex of the reader.
The Left Hand of Darkness allows us as readers to think differently about the implications of gender in its entirety. As a science-fiction novel, it allows us to comprehend the genre as a whole, and how in this male dominated genre, women have been marginalized as characters. Le Guin’s attempt at destructing gender and creating an asexual race of Gethenians, which were created as “heuristic devices” and a “thought experiment” had ultimately failed, as she continuously marginalizes females and femininity in her text (Pennington). The novel questions what it means to be human and non-human. Still, Le Guin’s take on being human in society was taken as being a white, masculine male, such as Genly Ai (Pearson). Genly Ai saw the Gethenians, such as Argaven and Estraven, as possessing female characteristics, since he presumed that they were weak and incapable of the masculine roles of being Kings and politicians. Femininity and the role of women has been undermined in a text which was supposed to be constructed as an androgynous document, making strength and masculinity deemed necessary in order to pertain to a role of high power among the Gethenians in the nation of Karhide. Gender may not have existed in Karhide, but sexism was still prevalent in the text as masculine and feminine behaviours are still presented, stereotyped, and given value to in terms of the roles in society. There is no clear distinction between male and female gender roles, as there is no gender assigned to the characters; however, femininity and female behaviours are given an adverse undertone which parallels more traditional science-fiction novels, which have been known to dismiss the role of women and to be dominated by men.
Fayad, Mona. “Aliens, Androgynes, and Anthropology: Le Guin’s Critique of Representation in the Left Hand of Darkness.” Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 30.3. ProQuest. (1997). Web.
Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Postcolonialism/s, Gender/s, Sexuality/ies and the Legacy of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’: Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutians Talk Back.” Modern Humanities Research Association (2007). Web.
Pennington, John. “Exorcizing Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation ProQuest. (2000). Web.
Rudy, Kathy. “Ethics, Reproduction, Utopia: Gender and Childbearing in “Woman on the Edge of Time” and ” The Left Hand of Darkness”” The Johns Hopkins University Press (1997). Web.
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