Sex-Role Reversals and Gender Benders

By Leila A. McNeill

I came to love science fiction by reading the likes of Jules VerneIsaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick for entertainment, but it wasn’t until I came across the works of Ursula Le GuinOctavia Butler, and Margaret Atwood that I really started to learn from sci-fi. In a 2013 Fanbros podcast, Dominican American author Junot Díaz eloquently explained the subversive underpinnings of so much of our popular science fiction that continuously draws me to it: “There is no person of color or person of a marginalized community that doesn’t read the genres-- comic books, science fiction-- and not see how much more honest these texts are about the way we’re living, about the way we’re oppressed, the way power is used, the way race exists.” Not only does science fiction provide a way to clearly see and critique present circumstances, but it also gives voice to marginalized groups that they may disrupt and dismantle oppressive social hierarchies, reimagine their identities, and reshape the self.

For women, science fiction has long been a powerful tool used to challenge patriarchal systems, violence against women’s bodies, and masculine colonialism and destruction of the natural world. One of the first recollections I have of tackling these themes was in a Fantasy and Science Fiction course taught by a professor who always wore tight leather pants and had a mustache that even Nietzsche would envy. Aside from this memorable professor, what I remember most is the short story “The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone, which first appeared in Wonder Stories in 1931. In the story, Gola, a matriarchal planet ruled by female aliens, is under siege by human men from Earth who seek to colonize it.

The sex roles of males and females on Gola are completely reversed to that of Earth in an early twentieth-century Western society in which Stone was writing. On Gola, males are mere “consorts” and “shut-ins,” unintelligent beings who are “unable to grasp the profundities of [the females’] science and thought.” The females, on the other hand, occupy all the seats of power and control all social structures on Gola. They also tout scientific and technological progress with their “marvelous telescopes” and defensive weapons that harness thought to render invading ships powerless. This sex-role reversal becomes even more prominent when human men arrive from Detaxal, which Stone says is the “third planet of the sun” implying that Detaxal is actually Earth. The human men insist on talking to a male alien, assuming that a male would understand terms of trade and business whereas a female would not: “I believed that a man holds the same place here as he does on Detaxal...but I suppose it is just as possible for woman to be the ruling factor of a world as man is elsewhere.”

Not only does Stone reimagine a society in which women pull all the strings, but when the human men arrive, she also slips in some strong criticism of imperialism and colonialism, which Stones shows as both exclusively masculine and destructive. The narrator describes the human’s arrival in not so subtle sexual language. The men arrive in their “great smooth cylinders” by “pushing cautiously through” the thick shroud of beautiful clouds and mist that surrounded Gola, “seeking that which lay beneath.” In this case, Freud’s cigar is definitely a penis. By sexualizing this encounter, Stone draws a connection between rape and colonization as an act of male violence and violation. The Golan narrator then describes the destruction and disenfranchisement of the colonized that inevitably follows from such an act: “...the ignoble male creatures, breed for physical prowess, leaving the development of their sciences, their philosophies, and the contemplation of the abstract to a chosen few. The greater part of the race faces forth to conquer, lay waste, to struggle and fight as the animals do over a morsel of worthless territory.”

As radical as Stone’s reimagined matriarchal society was for 1931, her characters even in a speculative future operate within a strict sex (male/female) and gender (masculine/feminine) binary. Octavia Butler, however, tears down sex and gender relationships as we know them and forces her readers to reimagine sex and gender as something more fluid and complex. In her 1987 novel Dawn, the first book in the Lilith’s Brood Series, Butler creates a post-apocalyptic future in which humans have destroyed themselves with nuclear war, but the alien Oankali saved many humans from extinction by intermingling and trading Oankali and human genes.

The Oankali not only look very different than humans, but their culture and social structures are completely foreign too. Social hierarchies built on gender power relations are virtually non-existent largely because the Oankali don’t conform to a sex binary. The Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi-- neither male nor female. Also for some Oankali-human children, their male or female sex doesn’t emerge until metamorphosis, which occurs years after birth. Without a definitive sex to assign a subsequent feminine or masculine gender to at birth, inequalities in gender-based relationships cannot persist like they do in a human society.

With the introduction of a third sex, Butler disrupts heteronormative sexual practices by taking away any sexual power dynamics between male and female. For the Oankali, nothing about sex is moral; the goal is only reproduction. Sexual reproduction requires three parties: a male and female, either Oankali or human, and a ooloi. The ooloi gathers gametes from both the male and female, induces fertilization within itself, and then plants the zygote in the female womb. Both male and female are rendered passive during this exchange, whereas in heterosexual sex, men have historically been seen as the active agents of intercourse and reproduction.

The ooloi, in turn, present us with an interesting dilemma. The humans sometimes try to gender the ooloi because it’s so difficult to think outside their sexual and gender binary. In one view, the ooloi can be seen as male since it uses sensory arms, calling to mind a male penis, to penetrate the skin to gather reproductive material. In another view, the ooloi receive the male sperm for reproduction, which is the human female role. But Butler doesn’t allow this sexual binary to stand as she also introduces the process of extracting a female ovum for which there is no human equivalent. Despite all that, the human inclination for the binary is quite stubborn as one character demonstrates: “ ‘I never really lost the habit of thinking of ooloi as male or female.’ That, Lilith thought, was a foolish way for someone...to think-- a kind of deliberate, persistent ignorance.”

Part of what these stories do is challenge the notion of sex and gender determinism by creating alternative narratives where such determinism doesn’t exist . Stone would have us imagine a place where patriarchy was replaced with a matriarchy all the while pointing out the absurdity of the inequalities among the sexes and the injustices of colonialism. Butler pushes us even further by challenging us to think outside the gender binary to which so many don’t conform. Ultimately, what these stories do is reveal how deeply gender orders our world, establishing systems where inequalities are primed to flourish. If we can even just briefly buy into these alternative narratives in the context of aliens and spaceships, I don’t believe it should be so hard to try to live out these alternatives ourselves, and refusing to do so is, as Butler eloquently states, a “deliberate, persistent ignorance.”