Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Engendering Utopia: From Amazons to Androgyny

Engendering Utopia: From Amazons to Androgyny
by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake

Fictional concepts of utopia—"no place"—and dystopia—"bad place"—have invariably been used as an imaginative form of social criticism. While the literary utopia might seem to be far removed from reality, it is essentially a challenge to the actual world of the writer, and the meaning arises through the confrontation of the impossible with the known. Despite the derivation of the word, utopia has come to mean the "good place"—it is a sketch of the ideal, the world which has solved contemporary problems as the author sees them, for example, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. By contrast, dystopian fiction exaggerates existing problems in order to highlight them; instead of presenting the "best" of all possible worlds, it presents the "worst" of all possible worlds: e.g. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or Esther Friesner's The Psalms of Herod. The term "anti-utopia" is often used as a synonym for "dystopia," but it may also be used to refer to works in which utopian thought or ideas themselves are being criticized, often in a satirical way.

Sexual Identity in Utopian Texts

Utopian fiction has always been a product of its time, and as such, it is nearly unavoidable that it reflects on gender roles, whether intentionally or not. Since our social structures revolve around gender, any re-imagination of those structures must specify the roles men and women are destined to play in the new society. For example, in Thomas More's Utopia (1516), the little book that gave us the word for (if not the concept of) an imaginary place that examines ideal societies and social institutions, the patriarchal paradigm is the basis for social organization. While women can work outside the home and even become priests (unthinkable in sixteenth century England), More explicitly states that husbands are allowed to chastise their wives; no mention is made of wives being able to chastise their husbands. The way utopian and dystopian fictions constitute themselves in reference to gender is a result of both the social agenda of the writer and the implicit assumptions of a particular moment in history.

Since at least the time of Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World (1666), women writers as well as men have used the form of the utopia to voice social criticism. It was not until the thirteenth century, however, that utopias by women became common—even to the point of exceeding those by men. Chris Ferns distinguishes two major types of positive utopias (as opposed to dystopias and anti-utopias): dreams of order and dreams of freedom. He points out that while "the overwhelming majority of utopian dreams of order have been written by men, it is equally the case that the recent resurgence in utopian dreams of freedom has been predominantly the work of women" (27). Women writers have also been prolific writers of dystopias, but they have only rarely tried their hands and pens at dreams of order—perhaps because the traditional dreams of order such as More's Utopia tended to be most restrictive where women were concerned.

Appropriating Utopia: Amazons and Matriarchs

An early use of utopian narrative for specifically feminist goals is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915), in which three men discover a remote country in which only women live—an Amazonian utopia. The community of women is civilized and much more peaceful than a world on the cusp of the Great War. While the First World War plays no role in Gilman's fiction, the conflicts and violence of a male-dominated world are the subtext of Gilman's particular dream of freedom: the contrast between Herland and the world of the male visitors illuminates "our noise and dirt, our vice and crime, our disease and degeneracy" (Ch. 12). In order for such a perfect (too perfect?) word to come into being, it was necessary for the inhabitants of Herland to become spontaneously parthenogenetic. This conceit facilitates the utopian experiment of a world without men.

An interesting parody of the Amazonian utopia was provided in 1924 by the German writer Gerhart Hauptmann in his novel Die Insel der groéen Mutter (The Island of the Great Mother, Engl. trans. 1925). In this anti-utopia, Hauptmann's island matriarchy is eventually destroyed by the insurgency of the males and the sexual hunger of the ruling women. Here too, "parthenogenesis" plays a role—in the mythology created by the shipwrecked women, a miracle based on a cultural lie. When one of the women finds herself pregnant a year after the catastrophe, she claims a mystical experience with the snake god "Mukalinda," enabling her to bear a child without being impregnated by a man. As opposed to Herland, however, Îles des Dames is graced with one male, the adolescent Phaon, but if he were to come under suspicion of being behind the miraculous pregnancies, the social structure would collapse.

In Joanna Russ's fascinating reappraisal of Amazonian utopia, The Female Man (1975), women of the far future have deliberately developed parthenogenesis—a scientific advance required in order to be able to live without men. But the utopian world of Whileaway is only one of four different narrative levels, and is contrasted explicitly through the world of the character Joanna (a fictionalized version of the author herself) with the contemporary world, as well as two others: the ongoing economic depression of Jeannine's world, where women have no option other than marriage, and the near future of Jael, in which men and women are at war. As a result of these different narrative levels, the utopian ideas do not appear as naïve as they often do in utopian fiction.

Other more recent works in the utopian tradition also tend to include negative as well as positive, providing both darker visions (without becoming strictly dystopian) and more ambiguous visions of Amazonian community and matriarchy. The novel The Gate to Women's Country (1988) by Sheri S. Tepper, for example, postulates a world after nuclear war:

It was men who made the weapons and men who were the diplomats and men who made the speeches about national pride and defense. And in the end it was men who did whatever they had to do, pushed the button or pulled the string to set the terrible things off. And we died, Michael. Almost all of us. Women. Children. (301)

The women of "Women's Country" have taken over what is left of civilization and are embarking on an exceptional experiment to ensure that such destruction never happens again. Men and women are segregated in "town" and "garrison," and while the men are responsible for defense, women control the books and the knowledge, and so the men's access to war technology is limited. In a final twist, it is revealed towards the end of the novel that the women are attempting to breed violence out of men through selection—one of the few technologies they have maintained is genetics.

Pamela Sargent's novel The Shore of Women (1986) is based on a similar premise—men have nearly destroyed the world, and women have taken over and live apart from the men, but the women's civilization is more technological than in Tepper. The question of blame is also less clear-cut: although men certainly were guilty in the past, it is now women who have the power and are corrupted accordingly. They kill entire populations in villages of men on the outside when it appears that the men are becoming too advanced and might pose a threat to the established matriarchal order.

The Biological Utopia: Androgyny

Androgyny refers to an ideal state of being rather than state in the political sense, but because it calls into question the biological determinant of sex, it is a fascinating thought experiment for a critical examination of gender roles. Both Joanna Russ's The Female Man and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time incorporate references to androgyny, but the novel which has practically come to exemplify the fictional treatment of androgyny is Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

As with several of the novels already mentioned above, LeGuin's world of Gethen is not utopian in the sense of a positive place, but the fact that the inhabitants are androgynous (or as they are referred to in the novel, ambisexual) provides an interesting contrast with our world. On Gethen (also known as Winter), there is no division of labor by sex, no rape, no power struggle between the sexes—and little progress. While the narrator of the novel, Genly Ai, must constantly readjust his perception of the dual-sexed beings on the planet where he is stationed as envoy, the natives tend to see his exclusive maleness as perverse, and cannot comprehend a world on which one half of humanity alone is responsible for bearing children. As Pamela J. Annas points out, the male narrator's "problems with the inhabitants of Winter come from his inability to judge them as human beings without first defining them as men or women."
An early researcher of the planet points out:

When you first meet a Gethenian, you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations…Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interactions is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? (94)

Yet this is of course exactly what Genly Ai does, because he is incapable of thinking any other way, outside the box of sexual duality.

Perhaps one of the most famous fictional treatments of androgyny is Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando (1928), in which the main character switches effortlessly from man to woman and back again:

Orlando had become a woman—there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. His memory—but in the future we must, for convention’s sake, say “her” for “his” and “she” for “he”—her memory then, went back through all the events of her past life without encountering a single obstacle. (90-91)

But as it turns out, the transformation is not quite as effortless as it initially seems. Orlando begins to act like a woman and think like a woman: "She was becoming a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person" (122). A further change is in the perception of the reader—as soon as Woolf changes the pronouns, she transforms the character in the minds of her audience.
Given the potential of the ideal and idea of androgyny for social criticism, it is worthy of note that there are not more writers who have made use of it. Perhaps, like Genly Ai, we are trapped in our need to see people in terms of one sex or another, and it is easier for us to imagine three or four or five sexes. As long as we can still make distinctions between male and female and more, our thought structures are not quite as threatened as when we are unable to ask that first question—whether it's a boy or a girl.

Works Referenced

     Annas, Pamela J. "New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction." Science Fiction Studies 15 (Vol. 5, Part 2), July 1978.
     Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1985.
     Bonin, Erin Lang. "Margaret Cavendish's Dramatic Utopias and the Politics of Gender." SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.2 (2000), 339-354.
     Cavendish, Margaret. Blazing World (1666).
     Ferns, Chris. Narrating Utopia: Ideology, Gender, From in Utopian Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1999.
     Gilman, Carolyn Ives. Halfway Human. New York: Avon Eos, 1998.
     Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland (1915).
     Hauptmann, Gerhart. Die Insel der großen Mutter oder das Wunder von Île des dames. Eine Geschichte aus dem utopischen Archipelagus. Berlin: Fischer, 1924.
     More, Thomas. Utopia (1516).
     Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). New York: Fawcett Crest, 1983.
     Russ, Joanna. The Female Man (1975). Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
     Sargent, Pamela. The Shore of Women. New York: Bantam, 1987.
     Tepper, Sherri. The Gate to Women's Country. New York: Bantam, 1989.
     Woolf, Virginia. (1928) Orlando: A Biography. New York: New American Library, 1960.

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Ruth Nestvold is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany. Her work has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov's, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Baen's Universe, Strange Horizons, and several year's best anthologies. She has been nominated for the Nebula, the Sturgeon, and the Tiptree awards. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella "Looking Through Lace" won the "Premio Italia" for best international work. Her novel *Flamme und Harfe* (Flame and Harp) appeared in translation from Penhaligon, a German imprint of Random House, in 2009. She occasionally maintains a web site at

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at

1 comment:

  1. Great research. Enjoyed your commentary on utopia and your thoughts on matriarchy/patriarchy. You may be interested to read my blog/article on parthenogenesis. I've been stuck on this subject since 1969.
    Here's the link:
    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.