Gender Pointers and Binaries

I am almost done with my project. I have a substantial draft completed for my cumulative paper, and I am excited to revise and tweak it until it says the things I really want to say, and the things I think are really important. I’ve decided to use Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s concept of “fictive neologies” as sort of a framework for my ideas; in particular, I’m extending Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s analysis of nouns into an analysis of pronouns. Pronouns are the second structure I am imposing on my ideas.

In English, pronouns serve as a gender pointer. When science fiction writers create new pronouns or use regular pronouns in unfamiliar way, they complicate the reader’s perception of a character’s gender. When characters use these unfamiliar pronouns to refer to each other, this complicates how the reader constructs gender relations in the book. Science fiction typically portrays gender as stable and immutable—something that just is, and something hardly worth discussing in detail. In my paper, I will examine science fiction that attempts imagines something beyond binary genderedness. These imaginations take place at the level of pronouns, rather than the level of nouns that is so common to science fiction. Pronouns serve a convenient framework for this issue: pronouns are a linguistic structure that point to the underlying social structure.

There are two main ways in which these types of science fiction challenge traditional conceptions of gender. The first is through gender fluidity. Books that imagine gender fluidity imagine a world in which gender is not (and, importantly, should not be) a stable marker of identity. The Left Hand of Darkness and Woman on the Edge of Time are two examples of books that imagine gender-fluid worlds. The second way is through gender multiplicity. Science fiction that imagines gender multiplicity imagine a world in which heteronormativity is destabilized. The Golden Witchbreed and the Xenogenesis trilogy are two examples of books that imagine worlds with multiple genders.

Despite the really interesting science fiction I’ve read, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of this supposedly gender-challenging sf ends up reinforcing, to some degree or another, heterosexual gender norms. It’s really hard, it seems, to imagine a world that doesn’t end up condensing down into some sort of binary. I’m going to see how my paper shakes out, but that is the preliminary conclusion I am drawing.


  1. Cassandra Chang says:

    Your paper sounds really neat! Pronouns can be overlooked very easily, and are restrictive in the sense that there aren’t quite enough pronouns to truly encapsulate all the different gender identities. Do you think that writers are trying too hard to make their gender-challenging worlds easy to understand in a very heteronormative society, or do you think that it’s really too difficult to imagine a world without a gender binary?

  2. emschneider says:

    Hi Logan! In addition to conclusions about sci-fi literature and semantics, I think the research you’ve done has some interesting implications for the psychology of human beings. Could there be a psychological reason that the worlds you have read about have condensed into binaries? Humans inherently categorize as a mean of understanding the world around them, and especially in literature when the only data the readers are getting about the fictitious world is from what the author writes, binaries might be psychologically easier to process. It seems like it just gets too confusing and pronouns get confused when there is no gender or multiple genders. Is it because we’re just so accustomed to two genders and the binary system that everything else seems impossible or is it somehow part of our nature? Maybe a little bit of both?

  3. Thanks for your comment! This is definitely something I’ve thought a lot about. I wonder whether it is the innate psychology of humans to condense into binaries or the socialized psychology of sf authors; I think I lean toward the latter. These created societies aren’t unbiased: the people that create them come from binaric societies. Binaries are the starting point, no matter if the author seeks to reaffirm or challenge them. And when the created societies have a binaric foundation (the foundation of the author), they seem to come back around to that foundation in the end (or, as you put it, condense back into those binaries). Pronouns themselves are inherently binaric. It’s hard to use pronouns yet completely break out of the binary.

  4. Hi Cassandra, thanks for your comment! I think that the authors themselves have trouble breaking out of the heteronormative society from which they come. Whether they like it or not, hereonormativity and binaries are their frames of reference. I think that it’s probably a mixture of both. Authors don’t want their readers to become completely lost: they want to maintain, to some extent, the hetero frame of reference. On the other hand, I think it’s so so difficult for these authors to break out of their own heteo frames of reference. It’s tricky, and I don’t know the answer…