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Feminism Seen through the Prism of Bisexuality in "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula LeGuin

Hristo Boev


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 tremens.

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 corporations.

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 as individuals.

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> (16.07.2011).

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> (16.07.2011).



© Hristo Boev
© E-magazine LiterNet, 16.07.2011, № 7 (140)