“The novel follows the story of Genly Ai, a native of Terra, who is sent to the planet of Gethen… Individuals on Gethen are ‘ambisexual’, with no fixed sex. This fact has a strong influence on the culture of the planet, and creates a barrier of understanding for Ai. …A major theme of the novel is the effect of sex and gender on culture and society, explored in particular through the relationship between Ai and Estraven, a Gethenian politician who trusts and helps him.”
Many have written about Le Guin‘s major theme, the effect of sex and gender on society. Here, I would like to discuss the novel’s exploration of gender from a different vantage point: the difficulty of the cisgendered male protagonist in adjusting to the lack of gender on Gethen. There are two elements to this. First, Genly Ai’s difficulty interpreting behavior of people who lack the social frame he’s accustomed to; and second, the misunderstandings that result when Gethenians interact with Ai in unintentionally gender-coded ways. Both cause confusion and frustration for Ai throughout the story.
In the middle of the book, Ai writes instructions for other Terrans new to Gethen: “When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations.” This is sound advice, but Ai is unable to follow it.
From the start, Ai experiences discomfort at Estraven’s androgyny. He can understand, on an intellectual level, what he’s experiencing, but it doesn’t prevent the underlying reaction:
“I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence… and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him or in my own attitude towards him?”
While there are elements of misogyny here, it is not simply disdain for a female-presenting person that Ai describes. Rather, it is distrust of one who exhibits traits that he interprets as feminine and, simultaneously, traits that he interprets as masculine.
Judith Lorber’s “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender” can help us understand these reactions. Lorber’s main point is that “gender signs and signals are so ubiquitous that we usually fail to note them – unless they are missing or ambiguous. Then we are uncomfortable.” She explains the process by which children are socialized, learning to talk and gesture and move as appropriate according to their gender. As a culture, we have a shared understanding of these methods of self-presentation, these “tertiary sex characteristics,” and we use them to categorize people into gendered groups. The process itself is invisible. We regularly perform this categorization without realizing it, without thinking about it. Even in the androgynous world of Gethen, Ai’s mind strives to sort people into the gender binary, relying on tertiary characteristics, as above with “Estraven’s performance.” But in a world where people haven’t learned to do gender as we do, Ai is grasping at false signals.
The other side of this cultural mismatch is that Gethenians interacting with Ai are unfamiliar with the gendered structure of Terran society. They can’t understand the implications of their interactions with Ai, who struggles to separate their intentions from his own interpretations. A great example is when Ai falls ill on a physically-demanding journey. Estraven inadvertently slights Ai when attempting to lighten his physical burden. Ai bristles and rants internally, insisting that Estraven is “built more like a woman than a man,” and comparing their relative physical efforts as “a stallion in harness with a mule.” To his credit, he quickly realizes the unfairness in this attitude:
“He had not meant to patronize. He had thought me sick, and sick men take orders. He was frank, and expected a reciprocal frankness that I might not be able to supply. He, after all, had no standards of manliness, of virility, to complicate his pride.”
This nicely illustrates Michael Kimmel’s “Masculinity as Homophobia“. Kimmel discusses hegemonic masculinity and how masculinity is framed as rejection of and opposition to femininity. Further, “masculinity as a homosocial enactment is fraught with danger, with the risk of failure, and with intense relentless competition. …Our efforts to maintain a manly front cover everything we do.” Ai knows that he is in a gender-free culture, but he is so accustomed to guarding the boundaries of his masculine identity that he continues to do so. His swift reaction in defense of that identity, though perplexing to Estraven, is entirely understandable within our gendered system. (For additional illustration of this, see the Man Box section here.)
And that is the brilliance of Le Guin’s novel. Showing Ai’s repeated struggles opens the readers’ eyes to the pervasiveness of our own culture’s gender binary. It is ever-present in how we think and interact, in ways that are hard to see until presented with the question of how to make sense of a completely alien culture. That’s the power of good science fiction, and surely why fans have continued to discover and rediscover this novel decades after its publication.
If you haven’t yet, go give it a read and discover your own favorite parts of her gender-bending commentary. Enjoy!
Erica Deadman is a Statistician who stays engaged with her Sociology-degree roots through blogs and book clubs.