Настройки: Разшири Стесни | Уголеми Умали | Потъмни | Стандартни
WHAT IF YIN AND YANG WERE ONE?
Feminism Seen through the Prism of Bisexuality in "The Left Hand of Darkness"
by Ursula LeGuin
The unexpected is what makes life possible
I am writing this essay in a retrospective response mainly to radical feminists
like Adrienne Rich, Helene Cixous or Andrea Dworkin, who in their essays Compulsory
Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience (1983) The Laugh of the Medusa
(1976) and Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) see men as the
greatest enemy and advocate taking a critical stance towards heterosexual
feminists, thus campaigning for lesbianism. I will do so against criticism based
on the bland world of the neuter androgynous society of The Left Hand
of Darkness (1969) by Ursula LeGuin who in it anticipates unisexism and
prospectively addresses this matter.
30 years after Compulsory Heterosexuality was written things have changed
drastically and the atrocities committed from men to women in certain societies
used as an argument in the feminist campaigns for changes in legislation and
for raising women’s awareness of patriarchal injustice have borne good fruit
bestowing to the petitioners all the rights they did not have before, the legislation
in the 1st and 2nd world countries having been adjusted
accordingly assuring women with extra protection so they can feel more secure
as single mothers if so they choose to be or if so happens to be the case.
Foucault’s pendulum nowadays has swung with full force in the opposite direction
and feminism, which was established and developed as a somewhat belated reaction
to history as in his story in the 17th through the 19th
and early 20th centuries, has long since ceased to be writing in
white ink (Helene Cixous 1976: 881). Poststructuralist feminists like Simon
de Beauvoir and Kate Millet have performed feats of ground-breaking critical
thought establishing feminism as a method of literary analysis deconstructing
patriarchal myths and offering a fresh perspective of reading writers like Norman
Mailer, D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller.
We must admit, however, that as a movement as regards social structure and
mentality, feminism has passed the critical point which would grant equal rights
and opportunities to both men and women, which goes to show that living in a
gendered society innately presupposes a perpetual imbalance, the scales weighing
in one direction or the other at any given point in time.
If we were living in a patriarchal society until recently, we can now safely
say that lots of countries have established feminist legislation and that it
not only favors women over men, but is equally detrimental to both sexes inhibiting
them in their relationship with each other and, in fact, resulting in the emergence
of the third sex - gay culture and unisexism. Far from opposing homosexualism
in any way, I do believe that people should have the freedom of realizing their
own sexuality from a number of available choices and not have a restricted access
to any of them.
To be more precise, I will give two examples from a country where the term
sexual harassment dominates social discourse. On the 6th of
December in 1989 at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada a troubled young
man, Mark Lepine, a second generation immigrant entered the main building and
singled out 9 women of whom he shot 6 to death on the pretext that they were
feminists. Their objection that they were not feminists but only women
did not stop the killer as he responded to them that one equaled the other.
He then proceeded by killing 8 more women to the total of 14 after which he
shot himself as well. To this moment Canadian society has provided no sensible
explanation of the tragedy. 20 Years later the Quebecois film Polytechnique
(2009) was released based on this massacre. Unfortunately, all that the film
does is show, very graphically, what happened still providing no answers
as to why it happened.
Society in Canada has advanced and established feminist laws and we might even
say that that is all very well. However, this law advancement has happened at
the expense of all women and men living there, some, if not most of the women
being rather traditional in their approach to the other sex: for example, a
woman there believes that she should reject the initial advances of a man before
she may eventually establish a relationship with him even if she likes him.
The problem with this arrangement is that no man, who is sensible or aware enough
of the law, will risk pursuing the matter any further after the first rejection
for fear of being accused of sexual harassment. If so, it may turn out
to be the end of his career as in this case he would be guilty until proven
innocent and proving the latter may leave us with the conundrum from Mark Twain’s
short story Running for Governor where the main character has to prove
it was not him who entered in a drunken state a certain hotel the previous night
and upon his failure to do so, is subsequently labeled by the papers delirium
What follows from the above said is that women increasingly find less urban
men willing to even attempt a heterosexual relationship, let alone go for a
commitment, an idea explored humorously in the novel My Life as a Whale
(1993) by Dyan Sheldon where a single straight unattached man proves
hard to find on the entire island of Manhattan. Men, unprotected in any
way by the law, feel exposed and turn to other men just like, not finding a
male partner, heterosexual women turn to other women and so both sexes are pouring
in great numbers into the ever increasing gay community (The Gay Village in
Montreal takes up 2 km of central city area from one end to the other) where
they can consume their newly adopted sexuality without feeling threatened.
We must say that the situation thus outlaid is becoming typical of all so-called
developed countries especially in the urban environment where the gray concrete
of the high-rise buildings creates a feeling of alienating uniformity and the
perceived full equality of the two sexes in everything realizes itself in the
establishment of uniformity in their appearance as well as in the norm of the
indistinct unisex city dweller sporting loose casual clothes completely closing
all sex-revealing body curves or shapes. It is also true that urban men have
become more apathetic and effeminate lest they should be perceived as aggressive
(one of the chief accusations against men by feminists) and urban women more
assertive and masculine (assertiveness being one of the main urges for women
propounded by feminists) competing with men for well-paid positions in business
In response to the polarized gendered society we have been living in since
the dawn of time, Ursula LeGuin imagined a world where gender has no meaning
on the planet Winter seen through the eyes of the Earth Envoy Mr. Ai whose trisemic
name standing for I, eye and the interjection of pain, expresses
his complex perceptions of the ice-covered world and its inhabitants many light
years away from Earth. While trying to negotiate an agreement between the Ekumen
- an association of 83 planets and the Gethenians - the inhabitants of Winter,
Ai undertakes to document his observations of their sexuality functioning in
an inverted order of the female period on Earth - the somer-kemmer relation
where somer is the period of time in which they act as bisexual neuters
or eunuchs - 24 days a month and kemmer (from 5 to 6 days a month)
where they can develop sexual traits alternatively activating their male and
male sexuality. When in kemmer they mate with the result that the
mother of several children may be the father of several more (LeGuin 1969:
48). When in sommer they are neither men nor women, or as Ai calls them
menwomen. Ai’s sexuality is perceived by the Gethenians as a state of
permanent kemmer which automatically categorizes him as pervert.
Alongside with the positive characteristics an androgynous society seems to
impose like shared burdens and privileges such as: childbearing and childraising,
housekeeping, it also additionally features suppressed aggression- lack of cases
of rape or war (LeGuin 1969: 49). There are also others, not so pleasant such
as: elimination of gender and the consequent lack of reciprocal appreciation
of virility in men and femininity in women (LeGuin 1969: 49).
Ai, as an extended human proboscis from the Earth, finds the only available
option of one to be judged only as a human being, unclouded by gender
bias, an appalling experience. (LeGuin 1969: 49).
One of the things impressing Ai the most is the total lack of compulsion
in the sexual relationships between the Gethenians as they have no way of knowing
when they will develop male or female sexual traits in kemmer from month
to month. By contrast, if we return to Compulsory Heterosexuality, we
will find in it what Adrienne Rich identifies as means of enforced heterosexuality
on women operating on a physical and subconscious level. (Adrienne Rich 1983:
640) It is obvious that the Gethenians studied by Ai are in a lower state of
their evolution as a civilization - feudal, pre-capitalist times, a gender-free
race immersed in and shrouded by legends and myths as compared to ours - gendered
society, corporate capitalism, deconstructed myths and legends, only revealing
the abyss separating urban realities from primordial myths with the evidence
that the idea of practicing homosexuality has not yet entered their minds.
On the other hand, a considerable number of gay movies and books have been
produced recently celebrating gay and lesbian culture. The relationships portrayed
there are shown to be just as romantic as in their heterosexual counterparts.
Some of these books turned into movies are Les Nuits fauves (1992), Chansons
d’amour (2007), Legături bolnăvicioase (2006), Brokeback
Mountain (2005), all of them winning prestigious film awards.
Another important argument for Adrienne Rich is sexual harassment exercised
by the allegedly men dominant capitalist world, an issue addressed above
showing that the phenomenon has been mythologized in certain countries (e.g.
Canada) with devastating effects on both sexes arising from that. In the wonderful
world of Winter the issue is non-existent as the society there is not gender-polarized
and consequently, its members can be men and women alternatively (only in kemmer)
so their internal antagonism towards the other pole is neutralized within themselves
The third argument Adrienne Rich’s essay is based on is lesbian existence
as a historical phenomenon and as a reaction to patriarchy. According to her,
it can be viewed as direct or indirect attack on male right of access to
women. (Adrienne Rich 1983: 649) In the same line of thinking it could also
be viewed as women’s access to men denied, which should subvert her claim
unless we assume that it is done out of women’s free will while heterosexuality
is imposed on women by patriarchy, but that, of course would leave out all heterosexual
women who enter a man-woman relationship out of their free will in their conscious
and/or subconscious desire to fulfill their role determined by their sex embracing
heterosexuality and mothering.
Revisiting Compulsory Heterosexuality, we must admit that the feminist
campaign has been won at least in the European countries, the United States
and all members of the Common Wealth. This has been done not without its taking
a heavy toll on men and women alike as countries with advanced feminism well
incorporated in their mode of government and legislation have gone well beyond
the initial claim for equality of the two sexes (still unachieved elsewhere)
and have severely limited the possibilities for interaction of the latter, having
given rise to the emergence of the third sex - gays and lesbians as a
vogue broadly publicizing the lives of gay artistes such as Elton John and George
Michael. Bisexualism (hermaphroditism) has not been left unobserved, either
lying at the core of the immense success of Lady Gaga.
We can quote Ursula LeGuin in her saying that, we should consider science fiction
not as prescriptive but descriptive (LeGuin 1969: 8), as
a quest for self-knowledge and the questions we pose about our lives today may
find their answers in a projection of our society in another space and time
where we could make a study of a problem unimpeded by extant norms or directives
society is imposing on us.
If we do so, a certain number of rather unpleasant similarities can be established
between a Gethenian and a unisex city dweller by quoting some of the observations
Ai makes of the indigenes: in appearance - stolid, slovenly, heavy, effeminate
- not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross,
bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge (LeGuin 1969: 87); in
personality - double-dealing with pronounced ambivalence: a prying, spying,
ignoble, kindly nature (LeGuin 1969: 27); in behavior - Estraven's performance
had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit
(LeGuin 1969: 10); in manner of speaking - His voice was soft and
rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man's voice, but scarcely a woman's
voice either…but what was it saying? (LeGuin 1969: 10).
It will not be hard to recognize here the average office worker from a concrete-and-glass
skyscraper in a modern metropolis. Bound by the necessity to work hard to be
able to pay the exorbitant rent, utility bills, bank loans, credit cards, the
city dweller is confined to a chair 8 or 9 hours a day and not infrequently
many more, the eyes glued to the computer screen, the brain busy calculating
thousands of mechanical operations, the clothes loose enough (already a standard
dress code in most companies) to cover the lack of a typical male or female
shape due to a lack of sports activities, junk food consumption in the short
lunch breaks (30 minutes is a standard), and last but not least, lack of love
life in the heart of the city. The modern city dweller has all the right to
envy the Gethenians, who, at least once a month, can experience love.
In its extreme forms feminism hampers heterosexuality, blunts sex distinctions,
and in combination with the smothering effect of the metropolis, the city resident
is heavily restrained in acting according to his or her sex, thus being gradually
transformed into an amorphous unisex creature, self-contained, but money dependent,
languishing its life away within lifeless concrete walls to the indifference
of the metropolis.
Cixous 1976: Cixous, Hélène. The Laugh of
the Medusa. // Signs, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976, vol. 1,
No 4 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173239>
LeGuin 1969: LeGuin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness.
New York: Ace Books, 1969.
Rich 1983: Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality
and Lesbian Experience. Signs, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983,
vol. 5, No 4 (Women: Sex and Sexuality), <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0097-9740%28198022%295%3A4%3C631%3ACHALE%3E2.0.CO%3B2-2>
© Hristo Boev
© E-magazine LiterNet, 16.07.2011, № 7 (140)