Monday, July 19, 2010

Something to think about

In Ursula Le Guin's novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, the human inhabitants of the planet Gethen have apparently been subjects in a long ago experiment. The results are as follows. The Gethens have roughly a 26 day sexual cycle: for around 22-3 days they are effectively asexual. They are neither male nor female. Sometime around the 22nd day they begin to undergo changes which will result in becoming a sexual being--either male or female--for about 2-3 days. This period is known as kemmer.

The significant effect of this is that the inhabitants, therefore, have no real sense of being male or female as we do. They are just people and treat each other as such. They only perceive each other as males and females during the 2 or 3 days of kemmer. This has repercussions in behavior, possibly even threatening to non-Gethenians.

In a report, one observer notes that--

The First Mobile [first ambassador] , if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

What do you think of the above statement?

Do we always see each other and treat each other as a male or as a female, even though the signals may be indirect or even if unnoticed consciously?

Would it be so terrible to be "respected and judged only as a human being" and not as either a male or a female? Would this be "an appalling experience"?


  1. But would not kemmer be anticipated, adding to a person's self-consciousness about what is a stake during kemmer?

    Human beings anticipate all sorts of things, and that kind of anticipation influences behaviors. How is Le Guin's imagined race of beings exempt from such behaviors influenced by anticipation?

  2. R. T.,

    While there may be anticipation regarding sexual activity, this does not relate to gender which is what the quotation refers to. They knew they will become sexually active, but they do not know whether they will become a male or a female. So, essentially 3/4 of their lives is spent in a gender neutral state.

    They react to each other, as the quotation states, as persons but not as either a male or female.

  3. I think the ambassador is generalizing and really saying how he himself would feel. Personally, I'd rather be respected and judged only as a human being. It's funny, but society today ( in America, anyway) is a bit schizophrenic about this. They emphasize that women shouldn't be viewed as any different than men in the workplace, etc., and not be reduced to sexual objects. Yet if you look at advertising, movies, tv and such, it's MAINLY emphasizing a woman's sexuality as being of prime importance. (Just my opinion. Others may see things differently.)

  4. Cheryl,

    That could very well be--an individual response. But, I wonder--I occasionally meet people whom I either don't like or feel something's wrong at the first encounter. I can't give a specific reason--it's just an immediate reaction on my part. I can never figure out why I react negatively to them.

    I wonder if that may be the issue: they aren't responding to me as I expect, which bothers me. Could their response be that they are responding to me as a person and not as a male?

    I agree-there is a gap between what is supposedly right and what happens in practice. While this does affect mainly women, I think males are now being treated as objects more and more often today.

  5. Fred: "I wonder if that may be the issue: they aren't responding to me as I expect, which bothers me. Could their response be that they are responding to me as a person and not as a male?"


    I find that I don't respond as well to people who are really flaunting their gender- whatever that may be. Women who act "girly" all the time (i.e. talking about hair styles, fashions, shopping) and "macho" men tend to irritate me. I feel much more at ease when people are more neutral. For instance, I was at my husband's family reunion and met a male cousin who's a farmer. He talked to me about his farm, tractors, and his truck. I really liked him. Why? Because he didn't see me as a "woman" - who wouldn't be interested in that stuff - but as a person, and talked to me as such.

  6. All that quote really tells us for certain is that the character thinks this state of affairs is appalling -- and I think that tells us more about him and the society he represents (the Ekumen) than anything else. It sounds like their league of worlds might be even more rigid about gender roles than some societies here on Earth.

    I remember that quote made me doubt the reliability of the narrator a little bit right from the start. The whole book is about characters who are hard to pin down (not just in gender) and whose motives are LeGuin might deliberately have thrown in a really pointed and sharp opinion specifically to throw people off balance and make us wonder "Should I trust this guy?"

  7. Cheryl,

    I didn't get the feeling that Le Guin was writing about exaggerated behavior. I think she was referring to the everyday subtle forms of behavior, the almost automatic or unconsciously different responses that we make to another female or to another male, simply because that person is a female or a male.

    We not only act this way but, at some lower level of consciousness, we expect the same responses from others. When we don't get those response, then we feel something is wrong--wrong with us. We are not being treated as we think we should be. We are lacking something.

  8. RAB,

    It's a bit tricky here, but I don't think it's Genly Ai who makes that comment, but an earlier observer who included the comment (the quotation I posted).

    I agree: the book is about people who are hard to pin down. Part of that is because of their gender and part because Ai is still an outsider, an alien, and doesn't completely understand the culture. That's why the Ekumen sends down its representatives alone, without a staff, and forces them "to go native."

    Immersion is still the best and quickest, and perhaps only way for an alien to absorb and grasp another culture.

    I don't know about rigidity in the Ekumen. The other novels I've read suggest perhaps they are less rigid they we are, but still are shaped by the biological facts that most are always male or female, and this does provide for some blinders that those who are not sex determined can detect.

    Perhaps the concern is a result of greater self-awareness and knowledge. This would make the Ekumen more sensitive to the subtle shading that being a male or being a female would give our perceptions.

  9. R. T., Cheryl, and RAB,

    I appreciate your comments. They are forcing me to really think about some issues in the work, issues which I've never had the opportunity to discuss up until now.

    Le Guin's novel has always been a favorite of mine--it's one I invariably recommend when asked to suggest a good SF novel--so I may also be seeing it with some blinders on.

  10. Fred said: "I think she was referring to the everyday subtle forms of behavior, the almost automatic or unconsciously different responses that we make to another female or to another male, simply because that person is a female or a male. "

    This made me remember that old Saturday Night Live skit from the 90's about Pat, the gender-ambiguous person. People were uncomfortable around Pat because they couldn't figure out if Pat was male or female. The character was played by a woman, but you couldn't tell Pat's gender from observation or conversation. I've seen androgynous-looking people live and on TV/movies, and the first thing I find myself doing is to try and figure out if they're male or female. It must be - for me at least - an ingrained response.

  11. Cheryl,

    Exactly. I think that's Le Guin's point.

    I had forgotten about Pat, but I think Pat's ambiguous behavior would be typical for a Gethen. I don't remember any of the skits, and I suspect that the theme of the skit was irrelevant. It was the gender ambiguity of Pat's behavior that was the real point. Thanks for reminding me of Pat.

  12. I knew it wasn't Genly Ai who makes that observation, but I went back to check why I thought of that quote as influencing my view of him. Turns out it's because in my copy of the paperback edition, that quote has been used as a blurb right on the first page of the book! It actually comes from chapter 7, but those words were the first part of the book I ever saw when I first picked it up. I've read the book three times, yet I'd forgotten that excerpt wasn't intended as a preface or introduction, and was merely used for that by some later editor.

  13. Re the Pat sketches: I'd suggest the point of the sketches wasn't that others were uncomfortable around Pat but rather that they were afraid of causing embarrassment if they misidentified his/her gender. This is an example of humor coming from overly rigid behavior: their confusion would be solved instantly if they could just bring themselves to ask Pat his/her gender, but if they did it would raise the possibility that a) Pat might be offended or b) they'll look like fools in his/her eyes. So they desperately talk around the subject, trying to get a clue, and Pat remains blissfully ignorant of their perplexity.

  14. RAB,

    I guess the editor thought that it was a significant statement about the theme in the novel, or at least it's a very interesting and striking quotation.

    Setting it out like that so it's the first thing one reads would definitely influence readers and perhaps give it an even greater importance than it would have if it had been first encountered in a later chapter, as Le Guin had intended it.

  15. RAB,

    As someone in some film once said, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

    Yes, they are trying to get the usual gender signals, but Pat isn't helping them, and therefore, they don't know exactly how to respond in return.