The figure of the transsexual or transvestite circulates as an extremely charged image in contemporary debates about sex and gender. From Judith Butler's celebration of drag as that which reveals that all gender is a performance, to Janice Raymond's characterization of transsexuals as an empire of men bent on subverting feminism from within, theorists of gender have found in transgendered people an extraordinary range of meanings and ideological agendas.
Readings such as Butler's argue that the production of gender identity as a cultural system extends even to the materiality of the body itself, unduly limiting the range of bodily morphologies that could materialize, in Butler's double-meaning of that term. Other critics, such as Raymond, insist that the material body remains essentially male or female, and that the target of critique should be the system of gendered social behaviours that we attach to these gendered bodies. Transgender people themselves are torn between occupying a subject position that inherently challenges the sex/gender system and a requirement (now receding) to articulate their 'problem' in terms of essentialized gender identity so that they meet the psychological standard for gender reassignment surgery. Both their own self-representations and the use of their image by cultural theorists struggle with the nature/nurture, biology/culture debate, and the question of how best to challenge the current sex/gender system.
In this article, I would like to consider what speculative fiction (SF) can contribute to this discussion. In the world of SF, gender reassignment surgery can occur with an ease that is not possible in our own world. Through the trope of perfected technology, SF is able to raise questions about the malleability of gender identity given a perfectly malleable body. Not limited by what Anne Balsamo has called "the irreducible distinctiveness of the material body," SF bodies can inhabit any gender -- male, female, something in between, or nothing at all -- and can switch with ease from one to the other. This ability makes SF bodies a potentially useful site for challenging the cultural construction of gender.
I'm going to explore the representation of the gender-fluid SF body in two SF texts, Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia and John Varley's Steel Beach, to interrogate their representation of gender and the effectiveness of this representation as a critique of the sex/gender system. The larger question I want to ask concerns the malleable body and its usefulness to cultural theorists of gender: is the SF body a more useful image than the transgender body for this kind of cultural work? In order to answer this question, I will first provide a description of the malleable body in each of these novels, before turning to an analysis of the ideological effects of each representation.
Delany: Trouble On Triton
Delany's novel begins with an epigraph from Mary Douglas's Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. The Douglas quotation reminds us that "the social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived," signaling Delany's understanding of the body as a product of culture rather than an artifact of nature. The subtitle of the novel, "an ambiguous heterotopia," comes from a quotation from Michel Foucault's The Order of Things, a work which addresses one of Delany's recurring concerns about how language can model reality: what is the relationship between words and things. In both cases, these references signal Delany's consciousness of the social power of language and naming and his explicit engagement with the way ideology constructs social common sense.
The social/sexual world in Delany's novel includes the ability to switch from one gender to the other and to change one's sexual orientation through a neural process called refixing. There is no explicit prejudice against either homosexuality or heterosexuality, and prostitution is legal, although most prostitutes are male on the moons while most are female on Earth. The narrative does note the peculiarity that male prostitution is illegal on Earth while female prostitution is illegal on some moons. Most people live in co-ops -- which are specific to gender and sexual orientation, although mixed co-ops also exist. Some people live in family units composed of multiple parents whose gender, sexual orientation, and parental title may shift. A social space exists for almost any combination of sexual desire and bodily morphology that can be imagined.
The plot in Trouble On Triton recounts the experiences of Bron, a resident of the moon Triton, during a war between some of the outer colonies and Earth. At the beginning of the novel, Bron is male and lives in an all-male, non-specific sexual orientation co-op. Significantly, the residents of Triton describe the war as being over the inviolable right to subjective reality. The standard on Triton is that the state can't interfere with the choices of its citizens up to the point of "destructive distress -- and the destruction must be complained about by another citizen; and you must complain about the distress." The driving force of the novel is the fact that Bron cannot be happy within this heterotopia because he does not know what he wants. His crisis of identity begins with the rejection he experiences when the Spike, a woman he is attracted to -- obsessed with might be a more accurate characterization -- refuses his advances.
The turning point for Bron occurs during an incident in which he constructs himself as a heroic male who has rescued the familiar helpless-woman-of-patriarchal-construction and said woman fails to appreciate his heroism. In this act of heroism, Bron happens to be near the home of Audri (a female coworker) during an incident in which the city is experiencing random losses of power, which cause certain areas either to lose their artificial gravity or to experience an extreme increase in gravitational force. The women in Audri's co-op are being harassed by an ex-husband of one resident and have locked themselves inside. The man leaves (and is killed by a gravity fluctuation) as Bron approaches. Bron breaks a window of the co-op, but discovers that this action is unnecessary as the crisis is now over and because the women were not even aware that the gravity problem existed. Shortly after Bron's arrival, the authorities announce that it is now safe for everyone to go home.
Bron finds that he doesn't want to go home, but instead wants to remain and "have the women give him coffee and a meal and talk and smile and laugh with him" -- his earned reward of deference for this act of heroism. Bron's disappointment over the women's failure to respond in a manner he considers appropriate to his heroism, and his anger at the Spike for rejecting him, lead him to the decision to switch both gender and sexual orientation, becoming a woman who desires males. He explains his decision to Lawrence by arguing that women don't understand "normal, heterosexual men," and that he must become this kind of woman "to preserve the species." Bron argues that "what gives the species the only value it has are men, and particularly those men who can do what I did . . . the bravery demanded there." These men, he continues, "deserve more than second-class membership in the species," but are currently not getting their due because "that kind of man can't be happy with an ordinary woman, the kind that's around today." Bron's decision to become a woman, then, is based on his desire to be the woman he thinks he deserved as a man, in order to ensure the existence of such a woman. He is the epitome of everything Raymond fears transsexuals represent: a man who uses the material of a female body to insist upon, to embody, a definition of femininity that suits patriarchy.
Delany's narrative distances itself from Bron, however, by continually undermining Bron's perspective through the response of other characters to it. Bron complains to his counselor, "I just don't feel like a woman. I mean all the time, every minute, a complete and whole woman." The counselor responds, "When you were a man, were you aware of being a man, every second of the day? What makes you think that most women feel like women," demonstrating to the reader that Bron's perspective on being female is precisely that, a male perspective on femininity. Bron's plaintive reply, "But I don't want to be like most women" again suggests a narrative distance from Bron revealed in the irony of his contradictory demands: he wants to be a real woman but insists that real women must be women as he wants them to be. Delany uses Bron's experience as a woman to diagnose how damaging the category of 'ideal' woman can be. Bron attempts to live up to his conception of the perfect woman, a conception that is markedly similar to the patriarchal construction of woman.
As a woman, Bron feels it necessary to forego her own desires in order to accommodate the desires of the men around her. Acquiescing to Lawrence's demand that they go out to dinner when she would rather remain at home, she observes, "after all, Lawrence was a man. And a real woman had to relinquish certain rights. Wasn't that, she told herself silently, the one thing that, from her life before, she now, honestly knew?" The female Bron is less competent and efficient at her work and unable to act upon her desires for men she finds attractive for fear that such aggressiveness would turn off the kind of man she wants to approach her. Bron become a woman in order to 'do' woman better than the females around him were; as a woman, she discovers that "the doing, as she had once suspected and now knew, was preeminently a matter of being and being had turned out to be, more and more, specifically a matter of not doing."
Through Bron's disappointments and challenges, Delany diagnoses the damage that the sex/gender system of patriarchy does to women as individuals. Bron's counselor tells him that his inferior work performance is a consequence of the fact that he is "somebody who believes that women are less efficient. So you're just living up to your own image." He argues that Bron can never really be a "complete" woman because "being a woman . . . means having that body of yours from birth, and growing up in the world learning to do whatever you do . . . with and within that body." Bron hasn't experienced the socialization required to make him the 'real' woman he desires to be, both because he has not occupied the female body throughout his life experience, and because the kind of ideology that used to produce the 'inferior-to-man' woman Bron desires is no longer a part of social experience in Delany's heterotopia.
In Delany's representation, being a woman is the result of a long process of socialization, the specific contours of which will be determined by the ideological elements influencing this design. Bron longs for an 'earlier' ideological formation, one in which woman would be produced according to his blueprint. He laments,
It's so strange, the way we picture the past as a place full of injustice, inequity, disease, and confusion, yet still, somehow, things were . . . simpler. Sometimes I wish we did live in the past. Sometimes I wish men were all strong and women all weak, even if you did it by not picking them up and cuddling them enough when they were babies, or not giving them strong female figures to identify with psychologically and socially; because somehow it would be simpler that way to justify . . . [sic]
Bron finds himself unable to finish his sentence, to explain what the model of strong men and weak women would justify, but the reader can clearly see that such social shaping is used to justify sexist discrimination. Bron is told that he is "a woman created by a man" rather than the 'real' woman he longs to be; the similarities between Bron's woman and patriarchy's woman thus provide an effective critique of the sex/gender system and its systematic production of sexual difference.
Varley: Steel Beach
Varley's novel also openly suggests that sexual difference is a thing of the past. The novel begins with the announcement that the penis is obsolete, about to be replaced by a new sexual stimulation technology that offers pleasure far superior to that which can be provided by simple friction. As our narrator Hildy explains, "the basic idea was, since sex and reproduction no longer have much to do with each other, why should we have sex with our reproductive organs." On its surface, Varley's novel suggests an enthusiastic deconstruction of gender essentialism. The near-immortal characters move from one gender to another throughout their lives, except for a few aberrant individuals called Naturals who resist cosmetic body modifications. People generally live alone because long-term relationships are simply too extremely long term given the modified human life span. Sexual relationships can be monogamous or simply casual, and many individuals shift between hetero- and homo-sexual relationships with ease. Most children have a relationship with their mother alone, the concept of a father being illogical in a society in which gender is not fixed. One's mother may be male or female at various points in one's life, and most births are accomplished using artificial wombs. Sexual pleasure, reproduction, and social role have all been neatly severed from one another, a move that reveals the constructed and artificial character of a patriarchal social organization that would demand necessary relationships among these three terms.
The main character in the novel, Hildy, decides to switch gender from male to female after a virtual reality experience during which he had been female. After this interlude, Hildy decides that he is "wearing [his] body like a badly fitted pair of trousers, the kind that bind you in the crotch . . . it was time for a Change." The novel reveals contradictory feelings about the process of Changing, which is always capitalized in the text. On the one hand, Changing is established as a commonplace activity in the novel, reduced to mere fashion through tropes such as the Body Change Parlour and this season's fashions in body styling. In Hildy's words, Changing is "no big deal." On the other hand, some sections of the novel demonstrate a strong attachment to gender identity as an essential part of character. After emerging out of his virtual reality experience and being informed by the Central Computer that he had failed to notice the gender switch to female in the virtual world, Hildy responds with extreme emotion:
Words fail me again. How many degrees of surprise can there be? Imagine the worst possible one, then square it, and you'll have some notion of how surprised I was . . . I had been a girl before, and I was a girl now, and I never gave it a thought. Which was completely ridiculous, of course. I mean, you would notice such a thing. Long before you had to urinate, the difference would manifest itself to you, there would be this still, small voice telling you something was missing. Perhaps it would not have been the first thing you'd notice as you lifted your head from the sand, but it'd be high on the list. It was not just out of character for me. It was out of character for any human not to notice it. Therefore, my memories of not noticing it were false memories, bowdlerized tales invented in the supercooled image processor of the CC.
This passage demonstrates the tension surrounding gender identity that permeates the novel: it is no big deal, but still, one notices one's bodily gender.
Gender is so important to Varley's characters that the failure to notice the gender switch constitutes proof to Hildy that the virtual reality experience had been a computer simulation, not a 'real' experience. Another intriguing aspect of this passage is the way Hildy describes becoming aware of the gender change -- you notice that something is missing. This characterization of the penis as essential signifier of identity works against the earlier suggestion that it had become obsolete. Varley's narrative is interesting to me precisely because it signals both the deconstruction and the reclamation of stereotypes required by the sex/gender system. Despite the openness of the world that Varley creates -- one in which anyone can act in any way regardless of gender, can switch gender at will, and can engage in any sexual partnerings without reference to the gender of one's partner -- the novel works to validate heterosexual desire and traditional masculine and feminine behaviour.
Hildy's direct address to the reader about the fine points of Changing is revealing on both counts. Hildy insists that he or she just 'happens' to be heterosexual in any gender. As well, Hildy's attitude toward clothing 'naturally' shifts when Hildy shifts gender:
Can you call something a quirk when you share it with a large minority of your fellow citizens? I'm not sure, but perhaps it is. I've never understood the roots of this peculiarity, any more than I understand why I don't care to go to bed with men when I am a man. But the fact is, as a man I am fairly indifferent to how I look and dress. Clean and neat, sure, and ugly is something I can certainly do without. But fashions don't concern me. My wardrobe consists of the sort of thing Bobbie threw away when I arrived, or worse . . . I don't pay much attention to colors or cut. I ignore makeup completely and use only the blandest of scents. When I'm feeling festive I might put on a colorful skirt, more of a sarong, really, and never fret about the hemline. But most of what I wear wouldn't have raised eyebrows if I had gone back in time and walked the streets in the years before sex changing. The fact is, I feel that while a woman can wear just about anything, there are whole categories of clothing a man looks silly in.
The diction of the passage -- "quirk, peculiarity, silly" -- works along the axis of the same tension between triviality and importance that characterizes the novel's treatment of gender identity in total. The passage suggests that while Hildy is embodying a female stereotype of the narcissistic woman, this characterization is 'no big deal' because it is just a silly quirk; our narrator remains the same Hildy we 'knew and loved' in the earlier portion of the narrative. The novel tries to recuperate these stereotypes under the rubric of personal choice and preference, suggesting that they are merely one valid choice among many. At the same time, however, it privileges the 'choices' of the status quo, both through the failure to interrogate a contemporary ideology which would see them as the necessary and inevitable, and by making them the personal choices of our sympathetic narrator.
The novel uses the gender switch to 'allow' Hildy to engage in behaviour that she had not been able to do as a man. The plot of the novel concerns finding out the reason behind Hildy's suicide attempts, all of which are made while Hildy is a man, reinforcing the stereotype of masculinity as a condition of acting. After the switch to being a woman, Hildy begins to reach out to her friends and talk about these experiences, drawing on a stereotype of women as emotional. The narrative also treats Hildy differently after the sex change: there are many more passages describing her appearance, apparel, and sexual activity than in the 'male' sections of the novel. Finally, while the novel does try to signal a deconstruction of the sex/gender system by arguing that any individual can occupy any position within this system, it also suggests that the entire world changes when one changes gender:
It turns the world on its head, Changing. Naturally, it's not the world that has altered, it's your point of view, but subjective reality is in some ways more important than the way things really are, or might be; who really knows? Not a thing had been moved in the busy newsroom when I strode into it. All the furniture was just where it had been, and there were no unfamiliar faces at the desk. But all the faces now meant something different. Where a buddy had sat there was now a good-looking guy who seemed to be taking an interest in me. In place of that gorgeous girl in the fashion department, the one I'd intended to proposition someday, when I had the time, now there was only another woman, probably not even as pretty as me.
It is difficult to imagine a stronger statement of how important the sex/gender system is to identity and social organization. Unlike Delany's novel, which explicitly points out the social origin of these constructs, Varley's continues to insist that these are just natural and inevitable 'quirks.'
At this point, I want to return to my original question: how useful the malleable body enabled by the discourse of SF is to cultural theorists of gender. In my reading of these two novels, it is clear that Delany's work performs its own cultural critique, using the imagined future to diagnose Bron's attachments to our contemporary gender constructions as pathology in a more enlightened future. Delany uses the tropes of SF to best effect, creating a world whose changed ideology demands that it produce different social subjects from the ones that inhabit our world. Varley's novel also works to construct a future in which no one is tied to a gender identity, suggesting that the category of gender has become irrelevant to social organization in his more enlightened age.
However, despite these protestations, gender identity remains an essential category of identity to Varley's characters. The contrast between these two novels suggests that the malleable body of SF is as problematic a category as the transgendered body for cultural theorists attempting to work through the sex/gender system and its social effects. Just as the acts and self-representations of particular transsexuals are open to readings at both ends of the political spectrum -- Butler's sense that they reveal the absence of the authentic original and Raymond's sense that their raison d'etre is precisely to shore it up -- so, too, is the malleable SF body open to multiple and contradictory readings. Simply creating a world in which the gender or sexual orientation of a body can easily be changed is not sufficient to dismantle the authority of gender as a category of social discrimination.
But I would also argue that the problem is deeper yet. There is a danger in works such as Varley's which explicitly support the elimination of gender as a category while implicitly relying on many of its axioms. Such works can mitigate against the development of a critical consciousness, encouraging the reader to engage with the surface narrative of gender equality while ignoring the persistence of gender stereotypes in a world in which, seemingly, anything goes. This kind of SF reveals the degree to which an unacknowledged and unconscious allegiance to the notion of gendered behaviour as natural continues to structure our social perceptions and choices, even our perceptions of alternate worlds.
Let me quickly add, in case this sounds as if I am advocating that we stop reading 'inferior' works such as Varley's, that I don't think that metaphorically seeing no evil is an effective solution. Instead, it is important to critically read and discuss works like Varley's, works that both circulate popularly and that embody the contradictions of the sex/gender system, so that our discussion can make these tensions more evident. Although gender, like race, may no longer have any standing as a biological category, it continues to have concrete effects as a ideological one.
I'd like to end by arguing my case for both/and, extending the use of the term beyond an understanding of gender as a spectrum rather than a set of poles. I am not arguing that the malleable body of SF is a better tool for cultural critics than the material transgendered body, but I am also not arguing that it is a simple or unproblematic tool. We should use both tools, and we should be aware of their limitations. The malleable body of SF is both a useful tool for interrogating the category of gender and a tool that can be used to reinforce the sex/gender system; its limitations and ambiguity do not preclude it from serving as a useful point of departure for critical analysis.
However, as the comparison between Delany and Varley reveals, simply showing that protagonists can shift gender is not enough, just as treating gender as a performance through drag is not enough for the performance to be critical. The appeal of drag can lie in the fact that it is an acknowledged performance, relying on the gap between the performance and the 'true' gender beneath to produce its effect. Similarly, the gender-malleable body of SF can work to reinforce constructions of gendered behaviour as natural or inevitable by suggesting that they would persist in a context where gender was fluid, as is the case with Varley's novel.
I want to end by stressing that my purpose is not to argue the obvious point that Delany is a more sophisticated novelist than is Varley and hence is self-conscious and critical when using the category of gender to construct his SF worlds. Rather, it is to argue that the transgressive potential of SF's representation of gender is not achieved by the fact that the fictional world can allow things like gender changes to happen, but in how thoughtfully the reader engages with the implications of these changes. The malleable SF body, like the transgender body, does not mean one thing or the other; form is not enough alone, but the form's potential to be politically enabling is a useful starting point.
Sherryl Vint holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta. She is currently working on a project about the intersections of science studies and science fiction. She completed a dissertation on representations of the body in science fiction in 2000. Send her email.
Balsamo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York, Routlege, 1993.
Delany, Samuel. Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.
Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York, Pantheon Books, 1982.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Raymond, Janice. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. New York: Teachers College Press, 1994.
Varley, John. Steel Beach. New York: Ace Books, 1992.
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