When Republicans Opposed the Free Speech of David Duke

a planet without gender: how science fiction sheds light on our own world’s constructs


The following guest post by Erica Deadman is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.

With the recent passing of the incomparable Ursula Le Guin (queen of sass, as Vox reminds us), I’ve been revisiting her famous novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.  I had never read it prior to last year, though I knew it by reputation.  I finally chose it as one of the selections for my feminist book club and it was a fascinating read.  The story has stayed with me.

For those who haven’t read it, here is Wikipedia’s overview:

“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.

future problems: what sociology should (re)learn from science fiction

The following guest post by J.Z. Garrod is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.

I can’t recall with any certainty the moment when I became an unofficial sociologist. The moment when I became an official sociologist was in second-year university, when I signed up for a class called “Crime and Society” because my roommate was taking it. In typical movie cliche fashion, the course changed my view on everything and from that moment on I became engrossed in the study of society.

But when was the moment that I became an unofficial sociologist? That moment when I started to question the social world; to ask why parents and teachers made rules, why the (newly created) bank machines didn’t just spit out free money, and why some people had no things and other people appeared to have all the things? Certainly, the same forces that pushed me to ask those sorts of questions must have been the same ones that found in science fiction (SF) a certain sort of reprieve. Being given a glimpse into a variety of alternate worlds was a way of softening the strange realities of existence.

It is perhaps no surprise that I now see my interest in these two things—sociology and SF—as being inextricably linked. Continue reading “future problems: what sociology should (re)learn from science fiction”

sunday morning sociology, visualizing consumption edition

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Flowing Data visualizes consumption patterns by income groups. Details and explanation here.

A weekly link round-up of sociological work – work by sociologists, referencing sociologists, or just of interest to sociologists. This scatterplot feature is co-produced with Mike Bader.

Continue reading “sunday morning sociology, visualizing consumption edition”

the sociology of science fiction: a brief history

The following guest post by Philip Schwadel is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.

I dreamed of writing science fiction as an adolescent, but became a sociologist (it’s okay, don’t be sad for me). Without exposure to science fiction (SF), however, I may not have become a sociologist. The novels I read as an adolescent and young adult were replete with sociological themes that resonated with my growing understanding of the social world. Asimov’s Foundation series introduced me to the idea that aggregate behavior could be predicted using quantitative techniques, which (on a less grand scale) is what I do for a living these days. I am not a sociologist of SF (though some people may quibble with this statement since I am primarily a sociologist of religion). Nonetheless, I have a long-standing interest in the field. In this blog post, I will discuss what I see as the primary currents in the sociology of SF, and share a few of my own insights on the subject. This post is by no means a thorough review of the entire field, but is instead a selective review focusing on key research strands.


Continue reading “the sociology of science fiction: a brief history”

racism in my white working-class roots

I really enjoyed Andy Perrin’s recent review of six books that hope to explain the white working class (WWC). His key insight is that the white working class is a product of social and political forces, rather than something fixed and authentic, to be “discovered” by liberal city dwellers who make anthropological visits to their culture:

[The WWC was] weaponized by economic desperation and media manipulation, and deployed by an opportunistic Trump campaign happy to trumpet their authenticity for its own electoral ends. The WWC was made, not found; deployed, not discovered.

I am a class migrant from the white working class, and I have been rolling my eyes so hard as book after book “discovering” the true sentiments of WWC voters and their worries that whites have been left behind. Andy’s thoughtful analysis of these works takes them seriously and exposes the flaws of this post-hoc search for cultural authenticity, in a review that is important and smart. Read the whole thing, as we like to say. I don’t have any arguments with Andy’s analysis here, but I do have one thing that I’d like to add to it, based on my own roots in the WWC.

Continue reading “racism in my white working-class roots”

sunday morning sociology, monstrous income distribution edition

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New analysis of global income distribution data suggest that Milanovic’s “elephant graph” depicting cumulative growth rates across the income distribution may look more like the Loch Ness Monster. Via Vox.

A weekly link round-up of sociological work – work by sociologists, referencing sociologists, or just of interest to sociologists. This scatterplot feature is co-produced with Mike Bader.

Continue reading “sunday morning sociology, monstrous income distribution edition”