SF gender - Livre d'Or








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livredor
SF gender
Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 09:32 pm
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So I read Ian McDonald's River of gods about a month ago, and although I was extremely impressed with it, I never got round to posting a review. I think that's partly because I bounced about it at cartesiandaemon and rysmiel while I was reading it, and partly because I'm disorganized. But it's an absolutely fascinating and highly original book.

Anyway, among the explosion of exciting SF ideas, one of them is the concept of "nutes" who "Step Away" from gender, by a surgical and psychological process more or less analogous to an extreme version of sex reassignment surgery in our reality. I just can't get out of my head that if that gender existed, I would want to be it.

I mean, I know the medical technology described in the book is totally unrealistic, including physically rewiring the brain so that it doesn't even think gendered thoughts, not to mention remodelling the entire skeleton. And even it were possible, it would be a totally stupid idea; the book postulates, I'm sure correctly, that nutes are almost universally hated and regarded as freaks. It's perfectly obvious that I'm much, much safer looking like a moderately attractive woman than in a body that would upset everybody by being even more gender rebellious than any genderqueer person can ever manage in reality. People who know me well know I'm not as female in my head as I look, but I don't have to deal with the prejudices of any random strangers based on my appearance, and that's really the optimum situation. I also really don't need to be convincing myself not to do something that isn't even slightly an option!

Somebody said to me recently that if I have to hesitate to remember that I'm supposed to be female, that makes me gender dysphoric. To me that seems like comparing feeling a bit melancholy sometimes with actual clinical depression; I generally quite like my body and it's not even slightly a hardship being regarded as a woman. Thinking wistfully about how it would be nice to be able to opt out of gender is no more serious than vaguely speculating about whether telepathy or invisibility would be a cooler superpower. And realistically, even with existing technology I could present as a lot more androgynous if I chose to, and I don't think it's worth the hassle in order to look more like the person in my head. And really, even in RoG, it's a choice between male, female and social outcast, which isn't a whole lot better than having only two options.

Don't know if I'm actually going anywhere with this; the main point is that if you are interested in my review, it's linked.


Whereaboooots: Varanasi
Moooood: restlessrestless
Tuuuuune: Alice Cooper: Love should never feel like this
Discussion: 17 contributions | Contribute something
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(no subject) - monanotlisa (7/16/08 09:13 pm)
livredor: body
From:livredor
Date:July 20th, 2008 06:55 am (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 06:55 am (livredor's time)
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I like this comment, it's very pertinent to where I am with thinking about gender at the moment. Thank you.

There is a big problem with medicalization around gender. There are clearly lots of people who just happen not to fit into either of the two standard boxes, and their biggest problem is often that lots of people automatically disapprove of their gender identity, not what the gender identity happens to be. Equally, there are some people for whom dysphoria is a huge problem that is really affecting their quality of life, and in that sense it is medical. From listening to what some trans* friends and internet writers say, I have come to see dysphoria as a potentially acute problem, but it's one that's more to do with a person's sense of their body not matching the shape of their body, than with gender expression per se. Someone who is anorexic and believes they're enormously fat when actually they're skeletally thin is also dysphoric.

There's also the political issue that if someone whose gender is hugely dissonant with their body is regarded as having a mental illness for which the treatment is sex reassignment surgery, they may get more useful support than if they're regarded as someone who's just not conforming for the sake of being deliberately awkward. In that context, it makes sense for me to say, no, I'm not dysphoric, I'm just a bit genderqueer. But for some activists, it's very important to convince the world in general that gender identity is varying degrees of fluid for most people, and that people who are truly trans are just at one extreme of the scale. They want to claim people like me for their team, in a way, which is totally fair enough. I'm just not sure that talking about dysphoria is the best way to do it.

Puberty is weird, isn't it? I wonder if body changes are more sudden and radical for girls, whereas men undergo a gradual process of maturation which they may find less disorienting. I'm not sure. My experience very much matches yours; it's taken me a long time to get to like my adult body, and part of that is having to get used to suddenly finding myself gendered. But part of it is also getting used to not being a scrawny and full of energy and highly mobile child.

But there's also the issue that society has a whole bunch of expectations of "women" which just aren't true for most women. That again feels like it should be in a different category from dysphoria. It's not dissatisfaction with my body, it's dissatisfaction with the expectations created by my body. The other aspect of that is that I had to go looking very hard to be able to find any positive views at all of being a fat person; for a long time I was not only inconveniently female, but even more inconveniently ugly.
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pw201: science limecat
From:pw201
Date:July 16th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 11:09 pm (pw201's time)
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Have you read Greg Egan's Distress? There's a similar concept in there, with a character who is "neural asex" as well as having SRS to become asex. The book also contains "i" and "u" genders (ifem, ufem, etc.): people who've been sculpted to look more or less like a typical man/woman.
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lethargic_man: blue!
From:lethargic_man
Date:July 17th, 2008 06:48 am (UTC)
10 hours after journal entry, 06:48 am (lethargic_man's time)
(Link)
Beat me to it...
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 20th, 2008 06:57 am (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 06:57 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Thanks for the rec! One of the things I like about Egan is his ability to imagine people who are truly different from twentieth century middle-class Americans, and gender is definitely one aspect of that.
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hairyears: default
From:hairyears
Date:July 16th, 2008 11:39 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 11:39 pm (hairyears's time)
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I think you need some social context: read up about Hijra.

India is far stranger than we can imagine: there are a number of gender-orthogonal castes and society's attitudes to them are, I suspect, somewhat more ambivalent than the things that we sometimes read, in English, in a Western context, related to us second-hand by Anglo-Saxon authors. The view that 'nutes are almost universally hated and regarded as freaks' misses a point about the caste system: it has a place for everyone, a community and an identity, and even if the majority regard you with loathing and contempt, they will allow you space to exist. This internal apartheid isn't quite the same as tolerance - and it is often accompanied by abominable injustice and enforced economic inequality - but it isn't anything like the exterminative hatred that exists in societies that seek cultural uniformity and have no mechanisms for accommodating diversity.

Urban middle-class Hindus don't like Hijras but that's not quite the same as hating them, and no-one's bothered to ask what other disadvantaged castes might think. A nute subcaste might well find a similar niche. Or, as in the book, carve out a new one defined by social inferiority but still achieving economic security based on superior education and arcane technological abilities.

Still, India isn't just the urban middle class. Brahmins might hate and loathe the future nutes if their education, technological aptitude, and administrative skills make them an economic threat; but they might equally co-exist in a hypocritical fog of public condemnation concealing near-universal private accommodations of illicit sex and undisclosed technological services.

I would agree that some of the technology in River of Gods is improbable but I always allow some leeway in a well-written 'future world' because there will indeed be some completely off-the wall innovations, and a great many adaptations of technologies we have today, that we would struggle to believe or even recognise if confronted by them in the present day. After all, no-one wrote a convincing '2008' in the late 20th Century that has turned out anything like our own daily life.

Further reading?

McDonald's short story The Dust Assassin is set in a slightly different India, with the 'nute' caste developed in subtly different ways: and, despite the short form, his story paints a very rich community with a truly wonderful sense of culture and depth.

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siderea: default
From:siderea
Date:July 17th, 2008 01:25 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, July 16th, 2008 08:25 pm (siderea's time)
(Link)
Nifty! I had no idea about the Hijras. Thanks for this comment.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 20th, 2008 08:26 am (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 08:26 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I am definitely aware that I am looking at India through the totally inappropriate lens of my European cultural assumptions; I mentioned something about that problem in the review. I am not sure that I am capable of reading Indian novels written by actually Indian authors, even assuming that they exist in translation; I find Rushdie confusing already, and he's very much writing within a Western framework. My understanding of India is always going to be third-hand, and I'm sort of ok with that because I can't expect in one lifetime to understand the whole world as intimately as I understand my one tiny little cultural and geographic niche.

I have picked up enough to realize that gender in India doesn't work the same way as in America, and I had read of the hijra system before. In River of Gods, hijra is a fairly straightforward insult, equivalent to bastard. It doesn't seem to be applied to nutes, though; they are something much more scary than a non-virile man.

I thought the portrayal of the caste system was very plausible, though I'm sure it misses more nuances than I can even imagine. We're postulating a society where most people don't treat religion as a strong influence in their lives, and consider themselves far too modern and cosmopolitan to care about that superstitious nonsense. Caste is important to Parvati and some of the people around her, but most of the characters in the book, I think realistically, have at least consciously discarded that system. At the same time, they still have underlying prejudices. And there is a deeply ingrained system of economic and class divisions, which I can't see not being the case in any fifty year future projection of India.

As for the technology being improbable, that wasn't a criticism of the book. In a book where physicists can open portals into alternate universes and harvest energy from them, it's very silly to quibble about unlikely medical technology. It seems socially plausible, though of course it's astronomically unlikely that India in 2047 will be exactly like that, and I think that's more important than whether the exact technologies imagined would really work the way they're described. The point about the "Stepping Away" surgery being improbable is that there's absolutely no point in my wondering whether I would take up that option if it existed, it's the equivalent of thinking of what three wishes I'd choose if I had a fairy godmother.
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siderea: default
From:siderea
Date:July 17th, 2008 01:36 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, July 16th, 2008 08:36 pm (siderea's time)
(Link)
Neat! Thanks for bringing this to my attention! Going on to my Amazon wishlist.
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pthalogreen: Joshua
From:pthalogreen
Date:July 17th, 2008 05:36 am (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 06:36 am (pthalogreen's time)
(Link)
i'm kind of in a similar situation as far as gender goes. i like that "a bit meancholy but not depressed." somewhere in between, enough to want the body to pass, not enough to want surgery. i don't even necessarily want to pass all the time. i mean i sort of do, but i don't always consider it worth the effort. mosty, i'm just a me, or an us really.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:July 20th, 2008 08:31 am (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 08:31 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
That makes a lot of sense to me. And I must say you look very convincingly male in the recent set of pictures you've posted. (Of course passing isn't just about appearance, it's body language and a whole set of complicated things.)

I think if society doesn't have a slot for who you are, then you're choosing between two bad options: either making a constant effort to convince people that your appearance is different from your physical body, or going through life not looking like yourself. For me, not looking like myself is a very minor problem, whereas trying to pass as androgynous (which doesn't really even exist in most people's heads) would be a huge headache, so I'm not going to bother. For someone like you, looking female is more of a problem, so it's worth some amount of effort to present as male. For an actual transman, looking female is absolutely unbearable, so he is willing to go through all kinds of effort, putting himself in danger and maybe even undergoing surgery to reconstruct his body.
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tooticky: Musing
From:tooticky
Date:July 17th, 2008 08:42 am (UTC)
12 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Not quite on the topic, but have you read Ian McDonald's 'King of Morning, Queen of May'? I'd be very curious to see what you thought of it.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 20th, 2008 08:40 am (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 08:40 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
No, that one I haven't read. I read Sacrifice of fools a long time ago (1998), and enjoyed it but got very distracted by the alien linguistics elements and missed most of the point. I'd like to reread it at some stage. Other than that I've read Desolation Road, which is too magic realism for me but has some really amazing prose, again, I want to go back to it now I have read more modern SF; and recently Terminal Café, which blew my mind. I think at this point McDonald is a cert for me, I'm going to read anything of his I can lay hands on.
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rysmiel: heffalump
From:rysmiel
Date:July 21st, 2008 08:00 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 04:00 pm (rysmiel's time)
(Link)
Darn it, I could have sworn I had sent you a KoM, QoD. I will try to make it stick in my head that you don't have one, but I do lose track of who I have sent what these days.
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lumiere: default
From:lumiere
Date:July 17th, 2008 02:45 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 06:45 am (lumiere's time)
(Link)
I imagine you're familiar with the asexual community?
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livredor: body
From:livredor
Date:July 20th, 2008 08:57 am (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 08:57 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Thing is, asexual is exactly what I'm not. I'm very sexual, I'm just (mildy) annoyed with the fact that it is generally regarded as impossible to express sexuality without also expressing gender. Every time I act on my sexuality I'm assumed to be acting as a woman; my attraction for women is parsed completely differently from my attraction for men, for example, whereas to me it's the same basic feeling. I can't play a submissive role and ignore the whole history of women being expected to be sexually submissive.

And if I try to explain why this bothers me, people (it's not just you, it's something that happens a lot) leap to the conclusion that if I'm not interested in being sexual as a woman, I must not be interested in sex at all. That's why I was very drawn to the idea of the nutes in River of gods; they are extremely sexual, even hypersexual (in an analogy of real world gay culture before homosexuality became at least vaguely accepted in the mainstream), but on their own terms. They have reprogrammed their endocrine system so that they have a completely novel, and not gendered, hormonal response to certain kinds of touch. The have no genitals or secondary sex characteristics. I don't know if I would want to go that far or not; I like having breasts! I just don't like the way that breasts make me female, and suddenly create this entire system of roles and responses, which I have to either follow or transgress, when really I just want to be me.

It's not only about sex, though it's most acute when it comes to sex. For many people it seems to be actually unthinkable to contemplate the possibility of being sexual but not gendered. And in the real world as opposed to a near-future novel, it is pretty much impossible not to be gendered, gender is everywhere. But I think it's at least possible to want not to be as heavily gendered as I am.
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lumiere: default
From:lumiere
Date:July 20th, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 12:49 pm (lumiere's time)
(Link)
I was misled, then, by the term "nute", not having read the books, as it suggests neuter, and neutered animals generally lose interest in sex. (Though on consideration, it's not clear that would be true for humans; consider the castrati, after all.)

Are you trying to convey a self-identity that's dual-gendered (androgenous, hermphroditic, or otherwise) or agendered? You're going back and forth between the two some, and it's not clear to me which you mean.
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