Bending gender (till it breaks): Left Hand of Darkness vs. Ancillary Justice

lefthand ancillary

There are a lot of books, I think, that are classics in their field, required reading, not because they did their ideas best, but simply because they did them first. Lord of the Flies is my go-to example for this — it didn’t thrill me when I read it, because by that point I’d already read Galax-Arena and Battle Royale (among others) and seen those same ideas explored better elsewhere.

The critical buzz that greeted the release of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice suggested that it was doing just that to Left Hand of Darkness: that this was the gender-bending sci-fi of the new millennium, the long-awaited upgrade to LeGuin’s seminal work on the subject (by now nearly fifty years old). But after reading it, I couldn’t disagree more — Ancillary Justice doesn’t replace Left Hand of Darkness or retread that ground; rather, it complements LeGuin’s story in a way that I have never before seen two novels do, especially not novels written by different authors and separated by decades. In tandem, they explore how gendered pronouns influence the way we perceive and interpret human behavior. They come at the issue from different angles, and in so doing, call into question some of our most basic assumptions about masculine and feminine.

In Left Hand of Darkness, we have Genly Ai, a dude from “our” society, more or less — it’s set in the future, but he comes from a world with our familiar binary sexes and gender roles. He’s on a mission for the space equivalent of the United Nations to make first contact with a planet called Winter, which is populated by hermaphroditic humans who only assume a physical sex when in heat, which is about four days a month. He splits the narrative with a native of Winter named Estraven, who is kind of really a badass and, incidentally, my gold standard for characters who don’t think with their dicks. For ease of reference — and because male is the default and unremarkable, amirite? — Genly opts to use he/him pronouns for everyone on Winter (and I believe that male pronouns in Estraven’s portions are explained as being Genly’s “translation”).

It’s not striking at first, because let’s face it — there’s a lotta sci-fi books out there without a “she” in sight, and they aren’t doing it on purpose. And so even though we’ve been explicitly told that these humans are legitimately gender-neutral, that their bodies and features don’t look distinctively male or female, the presence of those male pronouns exerts a subtle force, and your mental image of Estraven and the other people of Winter is likely to skew male. Likewise, it brings you up short when Winter residents behave in ways that we don’t expect from men, even if it’s immediately checked with, “Right, because they’re not actually male. I knew that.”

But over the course of the book, what we come to understand both from Estraven’s insider perspective and from Genly’s gradual change in perception, is that male is not unmarked, it’s not some kind of neutral default. It brings with it as much baggage and preconceptions as female does. Which begs the question of how different the book would have been if Genly had gone with female pronouns for everyone instead.

…and which is why Ancillary Justice is such a brilliant companion piece to Left Hand of Darkness, because Ann Leckie takes that question and runs with it.

In Ancillary Justice, the viewpoint character is an artificial intelligence from a society in which gender makes no difference socially and, accordingly, isn’t encoded in their language. The blanket pronoun for everyone is she/her, so what you end up with is the opposite of the Winter situation: instead of a sexual binary imposed on a unary people, you have a single pronoun applied to people who do, in fact, have binary physical sexes. And the narrator may not care whether the person she’s talking to is physically male or female, but you-the-reader do.

It’s just something we are so accustomed to knowing. For walk-on characters in most books, it’s often the only thing we know about them — how many times have you been reading a story with a random passerby who was identified only as “a nearby man” or “the woman next to him”? Even when the character’s gender isn’t the slightest bit important to their role in the story, it’s still information that feels fundamental, that we expect to know — but in Ancillary Justice, more often than not we don’t.

Sometimes we find out — through other, more binary-minded people’s conversation — or enough hints about their physical appearance are dropped that we’re pretty sure what sex they are. But most of the time it’s ambiguous, and in the absence of knowing one way or the other, you find yourself scrutinizing interactions, character descriptions, for clues that will tip it one way or the other.

…And then you find yourself wondering, Why does it matter? Why do I care so much?

Why do we feel such a powerful urge to know whether someone is male or female? Shouldn’t their actions be able to speak for themselves, and tell us all we need to know about their character?

Well… in a word, no. Because coming as we are from a world in which binary sexes exist physically and binary genders exist socially, we look very strongly to the sex/gender of an actor before judging their actions. In that sense, both books are pushing their readers toward a similar realization: that we interpret the same behavior very differently when it’s coming from a man vs. coming from a woman. (I’ve been playing in this pool long enough that that’s not really news, but outside of feminist circles, I think it’s something that a lot of people have yet to recognize.)

Deborah Tannen, preeminent sociolinguist whose best work is on gendered differences in communication styles, has observed that when female executives adopt the same language and confrontational approaches as their male peers, what was read as large-and-in-charge for him is perceived as pushy and abrasive from her. (Sam wrote this well in Ironsides, with a gender-swapped Tony Stark who is just as much an asshole as canon-Tony ever was, but still gets called a bitch for her trouble.)

Likewise my adviser, who as a young professor was told by her older male mentor that being thoughtful and polite was the way to succeed in departmental politics — and promptly found that it wasn’t, because courtesy is a display of benevolence, a favor, when coming from an old white man, but is taken for granted and seen as meekness when coming from a young Asian woman. (These days she’s got a reputation as a dragon lady, though I suspect her un-nurturing nature would be unremarkable in a male professor.)

(Are we seeing a pattern here? That the behaviors congruent with authority and command are coded as the province of masculinity?)

Or — and I haven’t decided whether I agree or not, but it’s worth thinking about — the argument that for all the flak Kristen Stewart gets about her “wooden” performances, her acting style is actually remarkably similar to Heath Ledger’s. Only what was ~masterfully understated~ coming from him is a ~limited emotional range~ coming from her. It is undeniably true that women are held to different standards of expressivity (give us a smile, sweetheart) and also true that when women don’t conform to those societal expectations, that difference is read as failure.

Which makes the criticism surrounding Left Hand of Darkness as instructive as the book itself:

Among others, Stanislaw Lem (whose name carries the same sort of potency hers does) accused her of basically painting a false picture of Gethen β€” writing the Gethenians as men who very occasionally exhibited womanly characteristics, and thus hardly exploring the intriguing notion of what people who were both sexes at once would really be like. (x)

(I think that article is dead-idiot wrong, btw, like someone stepping in to ‘splain how The Color Purple isn’t ~actually~ about race, but if you’re interested in the controversy, this page has more detail about LHoD’s critical reception, along with direct quotes, more rigorous citations, and LeGuin’s rebuttal to Lem.)

I confess, I would be more receptive to Lem’s criticism if it had been a man who wrote this story about supposedly androgynous humans who just happen to all get called by male pronouns — but accusing a female writer of failing to represent femininity? Of saying that LeGuin accidentally wrote a race of bro-dudes instead of a race of hermaphrodites? I’m not buying it. What, in the behavior of LeGuin’s Gethenians, is Lem looking at and characterizing as distinctly and exclusively male? What exactly would they have to do for him to deem them adequately feminine?

(I’d also be more receptive if he’d made his own stab at writing what he thinks LeGuin should have done, instead of just taking potshots. Then again, considering that Lem appears to be one of those men who writes women like an inscrutable species of Other, I cringe to think what his idea of distinctively feminine characteristics would be.)

Furthermore, I can’t imagine anyone levelling the same criticism if LeGuin had gone with female pronouns for the default. If you took the same book and swapped out he’s for she’s, I think Lem et al would have had no trouble picturing Winter as a world of lesbians rather than a world of slightly wide-hipped dudes, and it would never have occurred to them to accuse LeGuin of inauthenticity in writing the feminine. Hell, they probably would have pointed to the Gethenians’ aversion to warfare as proof that she wasn’t adequately representing the male side of her androgynes.

It seems obvious, rather, that Lem’s criticism is informed more by his own biases and blind spots than by what’s actually in the book — that he sees male pronouns, sees actions that are acceptable for men, and fails to realize that they’re not exclusive to men. When he calls her Gethenians men with only occasional womanly characteristics, he is claiming as masculine everything that is not absolutely predicated on female biology.

Which is where Ancillary Justice steps in, because suddenly you can’t overlook the possibility of the feminine. All the textual cues are saying she, she, she, but you’re also explicitly told that they’re not actually all female, and your only clues toward the sex of the characters are the actions themselves: is this behavior male or female? The answer, we find almost inevitably, is that it could be either.

And that, my friends, would be the point that Leckie and LeGuin — each bookending half a century of desultory social progress — are trying to make.

8 thoughts on “Bending gender (till it breaks): Left Hand of Darkness vs. Ancillary Justice

  1. You know, I used to dislike Kristen Stewart but by now I realize that she’s a pretty good actress, and that her endeavor in the Twilight movies was simply a good move for her career: you really can’t fault her for choosing to play Bella if it got her name recognition.

    As for the topic at hand… I don’t blame us for trying to slot everything into a binary set: it makes things easier to recognize if there’s patterns. I mean, one of my siblings identifies as agender (or gender neutral?), but when I look at my sibling, I instinctively see my little sister. It’s difficult to move away from that, especially if we’re hardwired to recognize gender visually.

    Also, it just occurred to me that ‘modern’ society is more okay with women in ‘masculine’ dress than we are with men in ‘feminine’ clothing. You really don’t see a lot of the latter, aside from drag queens and the like. I look forward to the day when we can see men in dresses and criticize their fashion choices, instead of their mode of dress. Hopefully I’m getting my point across?

    • Oh I definitely believe in a binary — even beyond the biological reality that most humans can be easily slotted into physically male or physically female, there’s a reason why every society ever has had different roles and norms for men and women, and it’s not because we’re sheeple who are too dumb to question what’s handed to us. The gender binary exists because it works for most people, and while we as a society should definitely be more accepting of those who don’t fit that binary, and should stop perpetuating certain toxic ideologies, I am staunchly opposed to the idea that we should ~smash~ the gender binary, or that gender ~isn’t real.~

      As trans activist Julia Serrano put it: only cis people who are already comfortable in their gender identity have the luxury of believing that gender isn’t real. (Well, I think she put it better — I’m paraphrasing.) What I’m arguing for, rather, is that we should stop holding a double standard for the same behavior — that what’s admirable in men should be admirable in women too, and vice versa.

      You also hit the nail on the head with your observation that women taking on male trappings is far more acceptable than the opposite. Julia Serrano (again! because she’s good at this game!) makes a convincing case that this is because we as a culture de-value femininity — that it’s barely acceptable for women, and certainly unacceptable for men. Women acting more like men? That’s cool, because hobviously they’re striving for the superior state of being. Men acting like women? They come in for the harshest scorn society can muster, for ~degrading~ themselves so.

      If this is a topic you’re interested in, I highly recommend Serrano’s book, Whipping Girl — I talked about it a while back, and it is excellent, really insightful reading.

      • Also, this is weird but I’ve been going through your backlog of posts sporadically (stuck at work, writing descriptions for library resources is not as fun as it sounds) and you noted that you used to work in Half-Price Books in San Antonio, at a particular location. I consider SA my hometown and often went to a HPB around town whenever the mood struck during high school and whenever I went home during summer breaks in college. So it’s entirely possible we’ve crossed paths or came close to it at one point. Although I tended to end up at the one by the North Star mall because of the proximity to my high school. I am also considering a move to California for library jobs, applying to some at the moment. *jazz hands*

        • Hah! Believe it or not, you are not the first fellow SA person to find their way to my blog from across the wilds of the internet. (And then find their way to California, even.)

          I know which HPB you’re talking about, though I didn’t get down there very often because I lived on the northside. If you ever went up to the new one you might have seen me — or you might have seen my doppelganger, since I was one of two interchangeable floppy-haired blond dudes. (Srsly, customers could not tell us apart — I was always getting people walking up to me and trying to resume a conversation they’d been having with him.)

          If you find yourself in the Bay Area though, do drop me a line! I’d be delighted to hang out and pick your librarian brain.

  2. I’m definitely buying what you’re selling in terms of teh estranging possibilities in LeGuin’s use of ‘he’ throughout LHOD – that it’s the estrangement of who now is described as ‘he’ that has a kind of revolutionary potential. And if I’m reading you right (and also spinning what you said further) because LeGuin was actually writing to an audience that is not only used to ‘he’ representing certain things, but also used to that literary convention of he being the default, that when she uses it to name the Gethens the reader then does something automatic that by the end of the book can no longer be automatic, because of the way in which kemmer affects the non-narrator ‘he’ Estraven. Which is awesome.

    the thing i have *always* had an impossible time swallowing with that book was the no war thing, because it’s one of those essentializing moves that i associate with goddess-feminism (where they reify what is supposed to be an inversion of gendered power dynamics but instead just becomes the essentialization of a very specific set of gendered behavior – you know, that one that goes hand in hand with men-as-mountain-men stuff)

    • Hallo Kate! So happy you have followed me to WordPress. ^_^

      LeGuin was actually writing to an audience that is not only used to β€˜he’ representing certain things, but also used to that literary convention of he being the default, that when she uses it to name the Gethens the reader then does something automatic that by the end of the book can no longer be automatic

      Yessss, that is exactly what I’m saying, and not just because of their heat cycles. It’s been many years since I read it, but I remember walking away from that book having come to feel, by the end, that she really had written a race that was neither recognizably male or female by our standards. It is aggravating but unsurprising that many male readers have zeroed in on the sexual acts as being the one thing that sets Getheniens apart from “regular” men, because it’s basically the only thing that can’t be overlooked.

      I believe one of those links quotes some of the criticism that LeGuin herself has made about the book in the decades that followed (which critics like to tout as “look, even she admits she didn’t do it right”), but the way it comes off to me is a combination of frustration at having been misread (and wishing she’d been able to convey her point better) and frustration at not having been able to cover all the ground there is to cover on this topic. She might not have been deliberately trying to question the idea of male == default, because I think she called it “lazy” to have used male pronouns for the Gethenians, and said that it excluded women from the discussion entirely, but in my opinion it did the job of challenging “male == default,” did it beautifully, and that challenging our notions of what femininity entails necessarily had to come in a separate work — which is what makes Ancillary Justice a such a brilliant companion piece to Left Hand of Darkness.

      Likewise, I’m also kind of dubious about the likelihood of any human society — patriarchal, matriarchal, or hermaphroditic — that “doesn’t make war.” Although, my impression is that that was a pretty common theme in sci-fi of LeGuin’s era, yeah? That humanity as a species might be able to transcend warfare? Maybe she was using “doesn’t make war” as a lazy shorthand for feminine sensibilities, but she also showed a number of Gethenians who were hawks and actively trying to drum up the jingoism necessary for starting an armed conflict. An interesting thing to consider is whether the aversion to warfare had less to do with a feminine influence, and more to do with being a mono-gendered society — that they didn’t have an easy division of martial labor, that men are the ones who fight and women are the ones who work the factories and make babies. Or that it’s not about the presence of feminine sensibilities, but the absence of masculine ones — that Winter doesn’t have the toxic ideologies of machismo that insist you need to prove your manliness by going out and shooting things.

      Or maybe I’m retconning! But “women don’t make war” certainly isn’t the only explanation for it.

  3. Hi! This is Illian from LJ also following you over. (And slighty weirded out as I’d forgotten that you came from S.A. too.)

    I like the parallels between the books you’ve drawn but one of the things that makes Ancillary Justice sit wrong for me is that Leckie apparently debated using “they/them” as a gender neutral term rather than “she/her” but found it too, fudge I forget what she said specifically but let’s say clunky. Which I can both understand and a judgment as the writer which she can completely make. However, while Genly was projecting his gendered expectations on the natives, Breq doesn’t come preloaded with those assumptions and, textually, has tremendous difficulty accounting for them to the point that Breq doesn’t use gendered terms unless the language forces the choice. With those characteristics, writing Breq’s perspective constantly using she/her even in their own thoughts leads to a conflict between essential character elements and leads me to feeling like I’m reading is a mishandled “translation” of the story into English.

    • (Hallo Illian! :D)

      I think Ancillary Justice requires some suspension of disbelief that Left Hand of Darkness doesn’t — namely (1) how biological sex ceased to matter in their society, (2) how female pronouns came to be the default for their language, and (2) why an AI of Breq’s capabilities would have trouble putting together the physical cues that differentiate biologically male from biologically female. (She talks about cultural norms/fashions being different in different place, but come on — even really stupid humans have no trouble interpreting the secondary sex characteristics of voice, build, and body hair.)

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re seeing a contradiction in the way that Breq’s society seems to be post-gender, and yet by using female pronouns she’s gendering everything? The way I read it was that the “she” pronoun had just expanded to fill the territory previously occupied by he/she/it/them, and that male is now the marked rather than the unmarked. That what sounds like a gendered term (“she”) isn’t gendered in Breq’s mind, just in ours-the-readers’. My contention with that is how it could have happened, because if a human language were going to eliminate one set of pronouns and absorb it into the other, it seems far more likely that it would be female –> male rather than the other way around.

      …And I forget where I was going with that. In essence: I find the premise rather unlikely, but given that premise, I think the book does an excellent job challenging our notions of what is gendered behavior. Her use of female pronouns (highly marked in our language/society) makes it impossible for readers’ mental images to default to male, as happened in Left Hand of Darkness, and as I think would have happened if she had gone with they/it/ze pronouns.

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