I recently finished reading The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. It’s a book that seems to be having quite a lot of impact at the moment - I expect I picked it up from one of those lists of sff books written by women or something like that! Anyway, I enjoyed it though certainly not without reservations.
Anyway, it’s another book which does some Interesting Gender Shit and I wanted to write about that! Partly to compare it to the Imperial Radch books, because I think they aim for similar things re: presenting gender as a culturally variable thing instead of just making the white/colonial gender system universal.
So ok, a brief description of what each book does before I try and say anything about it, I guess:
In the Imperial Radch series, the protagonist Breq is an artificial intelligence inhabiting a human body, created by a society which does not have a gender division of any kind. From the very first page, there are quite a lot of passages in the book where she talks about her struggles to correctly read gender in different societies, and at various points she gets peoples’ genders wrong and gets corrected.
Gender in the Imperial Radch books mainly seems to affect language, and how you refer to people. While the books are very concerned with systems of power, it’s much more about Radchaai imperialism and cultural hegemony, and class divisions within the Radch and other societies, than gender.
Breq’s inability to perceive gender affects the narration - it’s implicit that she is narrating in Radchaai, and in the ‘translation’, she uses ‘she’ pronouns for everyone, except when quoting spoken dialogue in a language other than Radchaai.
I know people have criticised the books for using ‘she’ instead of a gender-neutral pronoun, but I personally feel it’s a good choice. (Using ‘he’ would not be. But using ‘female’ as default is still a good and important statement, I think. And it is incredibly refreshing to read, as a woman.)
When I first read it, I took the gender stuff to be more radical than Ann Leckie probably intended - this is something I wrote about here. When she was writing Ancillary Justice at least, she seems to have taken the view that there was a ‘real’ underlying gender binary beneath the culturally varied presentations. i.e. ‘people are male and female everywhere but how you indicate which is which varies by culture’.
So you get Breq saying things like “I knew Seivarden was male, that one was easy” early in Justice, which has led large parts of the fandom to interpret this not as “Seivarden’s body would be characterised as male on the planet Nilt, where Breq is speaking” but that “Seivarden is definitely 100% officially male, this means exactly the same thing as it does in our society, and therefore only CAMAB actors should play her”. Which is sadly probably what that statement was intended to mean.
When I first read the books, however, I thought Ann Leckie was going rather further. To me it seemed immediately apparent from Breq’s discussions that she did not view bodies as inherently gendered - this comes up when she is talking about childbearing in the Radch, where she talks in a way that clearly makes no assumptions about bodies.
“And you?” She stood beside the chair, her cup and bowl in her hands. “You’re certainly Radchaai. Your accent, when you speak Radchaai”—we were speaking her own native language—“sounds like you’re from the Gerentate. But you have almost no accent right now. You might just be very good with languages—inhumanly good, I might even say—” She paused. “The gender thing is a giveaway, though. Only a Radchaai would misgender people the way you do.”
I’d guessed wrong. “I can’t see under your clothes. And even if I could, that’s not always a reliable indicator.”
She blinked, hesitated a moment as though what I’d said made no sense to her. “I used to wonder how Radchaai reproduced, if they were all the same gender.”
“They’re not. And they reproduce like anyone else.” Strigan raised one skeptical eyebrow. “They go to the medic,” I continued, “and have their contraceptive implants deactivated. Or they use a tank. Or they have surgery so they can carry a pregnancy. Or they hire someone to carry it.”
None of it was very different from what any other kind of people did, but Strigan seemed slightly scandalized. “You’re certainly Radchaai. And certainly very familiar with Captain Seivarden, but you’re not like him. I wondered from the start if you were an ancillary, but I don’t see much in the way of implants. Who are you?”
Though now I reread the passage, for all that Breq is talking about Radchaai childbearing in a way that doesn’t take gender into account, she does act as if ‘looking under [Strigan’s] clothes’ would tell her something. So yeah…
(Though to be fair Ann Leckie has improved her understanding since then, writing things like this on tumblr. And the second book contains a ‘genitalia festival’ and Breq is confused to see only penises, and the whole discussion is framed in a way that does not hold penises as gendered, which was cool.)
But yes, for all its discussion of gender as a culturally variable thing, we basically get two kinds of society in the Imperial Radch books: the Radch, where there is no gendered division of anything and gender doesn’t even make sense (except in recently annexed cultural groups who haven’t fully assimilated); and other societies which have a gender binary, which however confusingly it’s expressed in Breq’s eyes, still distinguishes exactly two gender classes which Breq can ‘translate’ as ‘male’ and ‘female’. Possibly Ancillary Mercy will introduce something else!
Anyway now to talk about The Mirror Empire, which prompted this post. This is by the same author, Kameron Hurley, who wrote the famous blog post essay We Have Always Fought, which won a Hugo a couple of years ago - like i guess you could reasonably argue she’s a pretty big name in the post-racefail ‘09 resurgence in ‘social-justicey’ science fiction.
The Mirror Empire is the first in a trilogy called the Worldbreaker Saga. It was published in 2014; the next book comes out in October this year.
Before I go on, I should say: Content note: The Mirror Empire is pretty damn grimdark, though definitely by no means as super-male as most grimdark books. There is genocide, slavery, gruesome violence, several instances of rape or attempted rape, and severe abuse throughout the book. I’m going to mark particularly bad paragraphs with [CW]s and [end CW]s, but if you don’t want to read about those things, this section may well be worth skipping.
In The Mirror Empire, there are three major ethnic groups featured in the story: the Dhai, the Saiduan, and the Dorinah, each of whom also have nations of their own. (A fourth ethnic group is mentioned a few times, but they suffered a complete genocide at the hands of the Dhai long before the story began.)
This is a fantasy rather than a science fiction book, and the three cultures were all once on the same continent until a cataclysm split the Saiduan away from the others with a sea between. The Dhai and Dorinah nations are separated by a large mountain range. Additionally, a large amount of Dhai are enslaved in Dorinah (referred to as Dajians by the Dorinah). The Saiduan also have slavery, but the slaves are not limited to any one ethnic group.
Anyway, the reason this is all relevant to this discussion is that the three cultures all have distinctly different gender systems.
The Dhai have a system of five genders, listed early on as ‘female-assertive, female-passive, male-assertive, male-passive, and ungendered’. It’s said at various points that Dhai choose their genders.
In Dhai, exclusive romantic relationships are basically in no way normative, and marriages can happen between any number of people. It’s made clear (though this wasn’t obvious from the start, since for a long time we only see women with multiple husbands and men with multiple wives) that Dhai do not see anything particularly different about same-gender and different-gender relationships, and we get the viewpoint Dhai characters feeling attraction to people without any particular regard for gender. (very strongly! in many cases)
However, it does seem that gender is considered connected to bodies. At one point in the story, the Kai (supreme political leader), in this case male, enters into a political marriage with a woman, and they talk about how that woman will not be realistically able to marry other men, though she could take female lovers, because otherwise it might make parentage difficult to determine if she has children (important because the Kai is a hereditary position). If the Dhai consider gender truly unconnected to bodies, female lovers would offer no advantage here and the woman in question could still bear children with another woman.
One way you can reconcile this with Dhai choosing their genders: in the books there are many magic-users who have the power to shape peoples’ bodies, and it may be that it is demanded that if a Dhai person’s body is not normative for the gender they choose, they must undergo modification to ‘correct’ that. But that’s only an assumption, it’s not made clear. That does seem inconsistent with the general ethos of the Dhai though - even touching without asking is considered rude, so it would be surprising if Dhai people were required to undergo medical interventions.
In any case, in Dhai, gender does not obviously function as a system of power. Female characters hold a variety of ranks. That said, it has some significance - it is unprecedented at the beginning of the book for a man to be Kai, and this is considered to reduce the legitimacy of his claim to the title.
We’ll get back to Dhai in a bit but let’s cover the others. In Saiduan, there are three genders - male, female, and ataisa, a gender specific to Saiduan that’s described as ‘in between’. It’s noted that misgendering is considered as rude in Saiduan as in Dhai.
Unlike Dhai, gender is assigned at birth, though it’s not made clear which genders are assigned. One of the viewpoint characters (Roh) becomes friends with an ataisa slave called Luna, and wonders how and when Luna was assigned ataisa (prompted by seeing his breasts, which suggests that Roh considers breasts to be unusual for ‘male’ people in Dhai).
Two green-robed orderlies were helping Luna dress. They pulled Luna’s soiled robe off, revealing his small breasts. Roh was used to Dhai, where everyone chose what gender they went by. He wondered, for the first time, who had decided Luna was not “he” or “she” but “ze.” Was it the first person who owned Luna, or Maralah, or someone else? But that, it turned out, was a terrible train of thought, because then he had to acknowledge that every single person he’d met in Saiduan had had a gender decided for them. They had no choice in it at all.
Luna was originally a Dhai person captured by Saiduan slavers, but it’s not said what gender ze identified as before hir capture.
When characters are speaking in Saiduan, the ataisa pronoun is ‘translated’ into English as ze/hir. The Dhai characters, when talking about Luna in Dhai, use ‘he’ pronouns, with the narration explaining that they’re using the male-passive pronoun. This extends to the narration in chapters from Roh’s viewpoint. Another ataisa character encountered by Roh is referred to in his narration with ‘she’ pronouns, though.
There’s one additional special Saiduan character who throws a further wrinkle in things. Taigan is a Saiduan character whose magic comes from the most chaotic and dangerous star (an omajista in the book’s terminology). Unlike most omajistas, this connection has had a particularly powerful effect on their body, making them able to recover from almost any injury, but also meaning their sex characteristics change every few months from a normative ‘male’ body to a normative ‘female’ body.
Apparently the Saiduan didn’t really know how to fit this into their gender system, and eventually tentatively assigned Taigan ataisa, but Taigan preferred to identify themselves - and use pronouns - according to which state their body is in. Partway through the book, Taigan goes from using ‘he’ pronouns to ‘she’ pronouns in response to the changes in their body, and the narration in Taigan-viewpoint chapters changes to match.
As far as the implications of gender - it is made clear that the ruler of the country, the Patron, is always male, although he’s not necessarily the most powerful person - his chief advisor Maralah is the main power, and she plans to temporarily put him to sleep after he starts making decisions she does not agree with.
In Saiduan, the rule is that whoever (officially, at least) kills the Patron then becomes the new Patron, though without support they may not last very long! When the Patron dies with Maralah and some other characters witnesses to the act, it’s considered untenable for Maralah to claim to have killed him and become Patron, because she is female.
The final society described in the book is the Dorinah, who are an evil matriarchy. Of all the three cultures, these are the ones I’m least comfortable with.
Essentially they are a reverse patriarchy - all the expectations and norms (re: decorativeness vs. practicality for example) of patriarchy are in place, but the ruling class is referred to as ‘women’, and (implicitly, from how they talk about sex) consists of people who would be CAFAB in our society, and the oppressed class is referred to as ‘men’ and consists of people who would be CAMAB.
To me, seeing gender as a relationship to power, or at the very least as an identity, I am uncomfortable with translating the name of the Dorinah ruling gender class as ‘women’ and the oppressed class as ‘men’. This ‘translation’ only makes sense if ‘women’ and ‘men’ are fundamentally associated with particular kinds of bodies. To me it seems like - though I’m not sure about this - it would be a more natural translation to refer to the ruling class as ‘men’ and the oppressed class as ‘women’, even though these people would be assigned different positions based on their bodies in our own society.
In any case, going with the language the book uses, the ‘women’ of Dorinah have absolute ownership of ‘men’, who are literally treated as property. One of the two Dorinah viewpoint characters, Zezili, rapes her husband Anavha in her very first scene, and is able to severely limit his access to reading materials and generally order him to do what she wants; other family members were apparently also permitted to rape him in the past. Men are not allowed to travel unaccompanied, with ‘enforcers’ prepared to apprehend them if they’re caught. In a later scene, one of Zezili’s sisters attempts to rape Anavha again; this is considered not a crime against Anavha, but against Zezili for damaging her property. It’s made extremely clear that a man who kills a woman will be horribly executed. Men are basically expected to wear dresses and makeup, and women trousers and practical clothes (the exception being that many Dorinah women do apparently wear elaborate hairstyles).
So in short: extreme patriarchy, but with the ‘twist’ that the normative bodies/pronouns are reversed.
It is clear that relationships between Dorinah women are not considered extremely taboo. Zezili is accompanied on her mission by a Dorinah woman called Monshara from another universe, who flirts with Zezili and tries to ask her to have sex (though Zezili turns her down politely), and later one of the lieutenants in Zezili’s army is indicated to be having sex with Monshara, which Zezili pretends not to notice.
(The other-universe thing is kind of central to the premise of the book, but it’s not hugely relevant to the discussion of gender, so I’m not going to get into it!)
(We also get some viewpoint chapters from Anavha, in which he describes his feelings towards Zezili as an abuse survivor. We learn he was basically married to her at 15, and she constantly rapes him but he talks about ‘loving her’ for it. He also self-harms, which Zezili considers a pathetic attention grab because she’s a fucking horrible person in every respect. This leads to him discovering he is an omajista who, like other omajistas, can open portals with his blood. So like the whole thing is… basically really horrible abuse, and both abuser and abused are viewpoint characters. And while I definitely don’t think we’re supposed to feel hugely sympathetic towards Zezili, because apart from raping and abusing Anavha she is also carrying out a genocide, we are supposed to think positively of her to some extent as she rebels against her empress and the invaders from the alternate universe who ordered the genocide, I think?)
So like, I guess a thing I was hoping to take away from looking at these books was to see how current science fiction and fantasy books are trying to present gender as more complicated and culturally variable than they have in the past - and in particular how these depictions fall short and I can do better in my own writing.
Both books, I should note, are written by white cis women. Also in this… tiny subgenre of SFF books depicting cultures with different gender shit going on is of course The Left Hand of Darkness, which has its own problems that are discussed all over the place.
I don’t think I’ve seen a science fiction book which presents a system of ‘gender’ without implying, on some level, a connection to bodies congruent with the white/colonial gender system.
So I guess the connection is, what would that even look like?
Which kind of requires us to answer: what is even the ‘gender’ thing I’m trying to describe?
Hopefully an acceptable starting point is that ‘gender’ in our society divides everyone into groups. The basic ‘binary’ form of the gender system says there are two groups, called male and female; everyone in the society is taught that people are either male or female, and told how to recognise which group someone belongs to. That at least I think we should be able to agree on?
What defines the two groups is argued about. The white/colonial gender system insists that the bodies refer to natural, biological categories: all humans, it says, have bodies that fall into two clearly marked groups, and the genders in this view are considered to simply be everyone with a particular body. This obviously pretends intersex people don’t exist at all (if they’re brought up they will be dismissed as outliers who should be forced into one of the two ‘natural’ categories), and also insists trans people are different genders to what we say we are.
In this view, we are trying to make ‘equality’ exist between the ‘natural’ men and women; if gendered power structures are destroyed, people will still be divided as ‘men’ and ‘women’. And if you try to make sense of trans people, you conclude that trans people have a ‘brain sex’ that is different from their ‘actual sex’, and transitioning is about bringing those to into line.
It’s this view that something like The Mirror Empire’s Dorinah make sense in. ‘Women’ and ‘men’ are words that refer to groups of people who have a particular kind of body, or want that kind of body. Instead of Men ruling Women, Women rule Men.
(That’s not to say that there couldn’t be a society in which people who would be CAFAB in opur society rule people who would be CAMAB. But calling them ‘male’ and ‘female’ has a lot of implications).
Anyway it became really obvious that the basis for this ‘natural’ biological classification is incredibly shaky. It’s also not the view taken historically or worldwide, though I can’t really speak in any meaningful detail about systems of gender which aren’t this one. But like, though gendered class divisions obviously existed before, historically this particularly strong ‘scientific’ view of a sex binary crystallised in order to assist European colonisation and control the people Europeans colonised. (in this understanding i’m particularly influenced by the writing of b. binaohan.)
So like, what are the genders fundamentally, if not ‘people with a particular kind of body’? Why is there a system of gender at all? The most compelling answer I’ve seen is that it offers a division of labour that allows one class, ‘women’ to be exploited by the other, ‘men’, for emotional and reproductive labour. (This absolutely applies to trans women too, even though we can’t directly bear children! There is far more to ‘reproductive labour’ than actually growing a child inside you, and trans women are expected to provide that and more. idk if i wanna go into it here.) Women are not expected to be compensated for this work the way other workers are - and this allows men to benefit extensively as a class. And from that, the idea is that there grows all the ideology, and symbols, and so on. (i’m trying to remember where i first saw the idea articulated, but, it’s not coming to mind - if you want to search back through /tagged/transmisogyny, go for it, i probably reblogged it at some point).
‘Physical sex’ then is just ‘gender in doctor’s clothing’ - classifying peoples bodies into ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a practice created for the purpose of creating the gender classes, rather than the gender classes arising from different kinds of bodies ‘naturally’ forming a class system.
So in this view, if gendered power structures were broken down completely, the categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ as we see them in this society would no longer be coherent at all. It’s not clear what such a society would look like to me, and I’m not sure it necessarily has to be to still aim to bring it about.
Another understanding that I subscribed to early in my transition is that it’s about “identifying as” a particular gender - in this regard genders almost become empty strings, referring only to the people who would agree that they meet that gender. Now though like… I don’t think this is sufficient for describing trans and nonbinary people, I think it needs to take into account power.
The Dhai view of gender in The Mirror Empire seems to be caught somewhere between the ‘identifying as’ view and the ‘gender comes from bodies’ view - it’s a bit inconsistent as I describe above. Like at first glance, the five Dhai genders seem to have little significance, just empty strings - but they are associated with bodies, and Dhai do cast non-Dhai people into their gender system on some basis.
Anyway coming back to like, what I might want to write. So like fundamentally I’m looking at a division of labour and a class system based on that, with particular bodies coercively pushed towards different parts of the class system, and those who disobey punished severely. And it must be possible to write a society with a power structure within it that has some or all of those aspects, but without maintaining the division of ‘male’ and ‘female’ that exists in this society. Like I want to write societies in which our division of ‘gender’ is completely alien.
I think I’m going to stop here, with ideas forming for when I get round to writing something (I don’t know what yet - a Twine game, a story?) sff-y myself.