Saturday, May 18, 2013

Language and Gender in Utopian SF

For my Utopian Science Fiction class, we just finished reading Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. We have also recently read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Triton by Samuel R. Delaney, and The Female Man by Joanna Russ. The following post looks at the use of language and gender in the utopian society (Mattapoisett) in Woman on the Edge of Time and compares to the other books.

Connie, an older Mexican-American woman in a mental hospital, is the protagonist from our time (the 1960s) and Luciente is a woman from the future who is able to mentally link with her and allow her to see her time.

In class, we discussed terms having to do with feeling such as "bottomed" (sad), "feathered" (happy), and "bumped" (frustrated/angry). We observed that these terms feel more physical in nature, rather than abstract like our current terms and what this means about the difference between our society and Mattapoisett. If we accept the premise that these terms are used because that is how these emotions feel to the "mems" of Mattapoisett, I think we have a very interesting novum-language in effect.

The language in the novel mirrors the society itself, in that it both clearly evolved from our own society and has its own contained set of references or "structure of feeling." Unlike the language of Anarres, it is not an invented language and so carries older connotations. Terms like "mem" and "crit" are abbreviations of words we use. Following our own language trends, many common terms are abbreviations of longer words, like "coms" for co-mothers. However, like the feeling-words, the language also reflects the way the society has changed.

I particularly want to look at the use of "person," "per" and "pers" as pronouns. Binary gender still exists in Mattapoisett...but it has ceased to differentiate between the sexes. Neither men nor women procreate, both men and women breastfeed, nurture, defend, engage in physical labor, live on their own, and have multiple sweetfriends and handfriends. The differences are so muted that Connie at first takes Luciente for a man. "Person" is a gender-neutral term from our own language and it becomes used as a pronoun when the difference between "his" and "hers" is irrelevant.

This leads me into how the novel addresses gender differently from others we have looked at. On Triton, anyone can become the gender of their choice which means that one can escape the set of gender stereotypes one is born with, but not escape gender stereotypes altogether, as Brom discovers. In The Female Man, we encounter societies where the genders are segregated, so that each can develop without the oppression of the other. However, of all these, I prefer Mattapoisett's solution, where everyone is given the "powers" of both genders, so that gender stereotypes can be eliminated, and through inclusion rather than exclusion.

In conclusion, "pers" is my new favorite term.


Biblibio said...

OH. Pers. That's happening. That's wonderful. Just... oh.

Space Station Mir said...

I know, right?! Thanks Biblibio for understanding!