Genre and gender

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

One of the things that interests me most about the genre fiction community is its politics of race, sex and gender. While only a fool would call it a utopia of enlightened equality (far from it), I’ve long suspected that the frequent flarings-up around these sorts of issues are actually a sign of subcultural health; to make a brief comparison with one of my other favourite cultural spheres, to even attempt to discuss the objectification of women or the undercurrents of homophobia in rock and metal music is an exercise in futility that does little more than remind you of the sheer extent of the problems you’re trying to address*.

I suspect that genre’s status as a comparatively safe harbour for alternative politics is due at least in part to the fact that it’s always been a group that identified as non-mainstream (which brings certain counter-compensatory problems with it, but that’s a discussion for another time). Another important component is that genre fiction itself provides a toolkit for creating thought experiments where alternative politics can be played out, and Kyle Munkittrick of Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog has come to a similar conclusion with respect to sex, gender and sexuality:

Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us.

It’s an interesting piece, though I think it could be accused of taking the most optimistic reading possible of the genre as a whole, and of individual texts. Munkittrick sees The Fifth Element‘s Ruby Rhod as “perfectly and outrageously androgynous”, for example, while the same character crops up at io9 in a top ten list of embarrassingly terrible racial stereotypes; the reader’s perspective holds primacy in their own world, and for every player who finds playing a female character in a computer game enlightening for its ability to let them empathise with an unfamiliar sexuality, I suspect there’s rather more than one that does it because they simply like watching a pixellated female form more than a male one.

But Munkittrick’s underlying point is very valid, I think; by setting itself in worlds different to the one of our daily experience, non-mimetic media – especially science fiction, but by no means exclusively – gives artists a chance to sneak issues of gender and sexuality “under the wire” to an audience that might well baulk at the same ideas presented in a more everyday context. The battle for understanding and empathy is far from won – in the genre community and the wider world alike – but genre remains an important theatre for it, and that’s something to be proud of, I think.

[ * The persistent misogyny, homophobia and playground-grade discourse of mainstream metal may well explain my continued drift toward its fringes. That, and the fact that I get bored easily. ]

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One Response to “Genre and gender”

  1. Ted says:

    Scientific language has been classic a staple in communicating about sex. I think of the videos I watched in middle school that used pancake batter to illustrate parts of the sexual organs. In some ways, it’s the modern equivalent of Victorian language, where a “rocky outcropping” then might be a “damp protuberance” now.
    SF, like all genres I think, is a conversation between writers and readers and thus the language used is so telling about how we see ourselves.
    I don’t know that I agree specifically that “we write what we hope to see,” but I think I know what Munkittrick was saying about SF allowing people to become more open minded, to provide a channel of access for discussion of cultural taboos.
    Particularly in fiction, I think the swath of great SF stories about sex are quite telling. This article makes me think of Jeffrey Noon’s Pollen where animals, people, and dreams can crossbreed, of Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star where a wealthy BDSM addict’s afflictions may lead to mass death throughout the universe, and also Phillip Jose Farmer’s Lovers where sexual politics are deeply intertwined with religious and government control.