Feminist Science-Fiction? Gender Aspects in Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" and Feminist Criticism

Term Paper, 2015

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Defining Feminism
2.1 Liberal and Radical Feminism

3. Gender in The Dispossessed
3.1 Gender Concept on Anarres
3.2 Gender Concept on Urras

4. Feminist Criticism of The Dispossessed

5. Conclusion

6. Works cited

1. Introduction

In recent decades the literary genre of Science Fiction has experienced a rising interest which might be attributed to the rapid technological development and the deep integration of it into daily life. Science Fiction offers writers a wide range of potential themes to explore and is thus a very complex genre. While often being considered male oriented, at least during the Feminist Movement in the 1960s, female authors found their way into the genre and raised questions about gender roles, political inequality and sexuality within their works. Among those female writers was Ursula K. Le Guin who gained wide recognition for her writing and is today regarded one of the most influential science-fiction and fantasy author of the twentieth century. Asscociated with feminist tendencies in her works, her most famous novel referred to be feminist science fiction is The Left Hand of Darkness in which she imagined an androgynous society in order to investigate what society would be if sex did not matter. But also many other of her works have received attention from critics interested in gender and feminism.

In this paper I intend to analyse and discuss the depiction of gender and the realisation of feminist aspects in Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed: An ambiguous Utopia. The novel won several important literary awards such as the Hugo and the Nebula and gained a lot of respect among critics for its great literary qualities and its extensive exploration of political ideas and social themes, including for example anarchism, capitalism and socialism. It is set on the fictional planets Urras and Anarres which inhabit two contrasting societies, one capitalist and class oriented and the other one following the principles of anarchism, avoiding any form of social hierarchy among its population. Anarres – apparently the utopian planet in Le Guin's work, is often called a feminist utopia for its conception of gender. However, Le Guin has been highly criticised from feminist for several problematic issues in her approach of sexual politics in the novel. The question therefore arises weather The Dispossessed really can be labeled feminist science-fiction and if Anarres really can be called a feminist utopia? To answer this question it is first necessary to broadly define the feminist ideology relevant for this paper. The discussion of the novel will begin with an examination of the gender concepts and the possibilities offered for women to participate as member in the respective society. The following part will focus on the main arguments of the criticism expressed by feminist and possible ambiguity within the novels approach towards the realisation of the feminist ideology.

2. Defining Feminism

Generally, the idea of feminism refers to the belief that women are not treated equally because of their sex and in consequence are disadvantaged in comparison to men. As feminists assume that the differences of gender treatment is defined by culture, they believe in the possibility of change. The ideal state according to feminists then, would be the equality of men and women in every aspect of live without any differences in opportunities and social rights within society. In the progress of time, feminism has developed and different orientations of it sharing the common idea of gender equality have separated from the basic concept. Among them the movement of liberal and radical feminism, which will be the two major feminist traditions relevant for the discussion of The Dispossessed, because Le Guin's approach of gender concepts on Anarres seems to follow the liberal perspective, whereas the main feminist criticism comes from the radical movement.

2.1 Liberal and Radical Feminism

In the words of Rosemarie Tong ''Liberal Feminists wish to free women from oppressive gender roles - that is, from those roles used as excuses or justifications for giving women a lesser place, or no place at all, in the academy, the forum, and the marketplace'' (34). The essential goal of the Liberal Feminist Movement according to Tong is then to gain the equality of gender mainly in the public sphere. This focus is also stressed by Chris Beasley who states ''in liberal feminist thought there is a focus on the public sphere, legal, political and institutional struggles for the rights of individuals (…) Public citizenship and the attainment of equality with men in the public arena is central to liberal feminism'' (51-52). In terms of equality in the private sphere, liberal feminism believes in the choice and autonomy of the individual. They tend to support marriage as an equal partnership, and argue that the ending of domestic violence and sexual harassment will be achieved by the abolishment of sex-biased laws (Jaggar 181).

In contrast to the values of liberal feminism stands the ideology of the radical feminist movement. Radical feminist emphasises the patriarchal roots of inequality between, and social dominance of men and women. Chris Beasley writes ''Radical feminism pays attention to women's oppression as women in a social order dominated by men (…) the distinguishing character of women's oppression is their oppression as women, not as member of other groups such as their social class'' (54) This orientation opposes existing political and social organization in general because from their point of view they are inherently tied to patriarchy. Instead, radical feminists want a revolutionary cultural change which undermines the patriarchal structures of the current system. Moreover, they claim that ''Women should not try to be like men. On the contrary, they should try to be more like women, emphasizing the values and virtues culturally associated with women'' (Tong 50).

The main differences then between the two forms of feminism are that liberal feminists believe in the equality of men and women and thus want women to be treated in the same way men are, whilst radical feminists recognizes men and women as two different kinds of human beings and believe the current political and social system to favour male dominance which thus causes the oppression of women.

3.Gender in The Dispossessed

3.1 Gender Concept on Anarres

Each of the twin planets Urras and Anarres represent different forms of society, especially in terms of gender roles. The society on Anarres functions as an utopian laboratory for Le Guin's thought experiment of a colony in exile who creates its own society based on anarchistic and non-possessive principles. The philosophy behind those principles, which also serves as foundation for the Anarresti culture is based on the thoughts of Laia Odo, a female rebel that spurred the revolution which led to the settlement of Anarres approximately 200 years before the events of the narration take place. The fact that a female revolutionary was the founder of the new society and that her ideas are still important and highly valued after such a long time can be understand as a hint to the feminist tendency found within the structures of Anarres and there are a lot more feminist ideals implemented on this planet.

One of the leading principles of the Odonian philosophy is egalitarianism and the solidarity of the community. It is a society without a leading government or authoritarian institutions in theory and the society lacks any form of social hierarchy. Every inhabitant is regarded a full member of the community which consequently includes the equality of gender. With the sense of egalitarianism in their roots, the Anarrestis do not see any differences between men and women besides those based on biological facts, but they do not define the identity of a person or the role for the community. Thus, on Anarres the sex of a person is irrelevant for the society, hence the concept of social gender becomes neutral. This is particular obvious when looking on names. Every name on Anarres is unique and individual to a person for a lifetime. Produced randomly by computer, they are assigned at birth and give no indication of family, sex or regional origin. The irrelevance of gender is also to be found when looking on the distribution of work. In the Odonian society jobs are assigned regardless of gender and based on personal ability or needs of the community by a system called Divlab. Women work in the field of science as well as they have to do physical labour for the good of the society. Women and men thus have the same opportunities for a career but also the same responsibilities for the community. In a conversation between Shevek and Dr. Kimoe on board of the spaceship travelling to Urras, this becomes evident:

''Is there really no distinction between men's work and women's work?''

''Well no, it seems a very mechanical basis for the division of labour, doesn't it? A person chooses work according to interest, talent, strength - what has the sex to do with that?'

''Men are physically stronger'' the doctor asserted with professional finality.

''Yes, often, and larger, but what does that matter when we have machines? And even when we don't have machines, when we must dig with the shovel or carry on the back, the men maybe work faster – the big ones – but the women work longer.'' (Le Guin 17)

The protagonist Shevek who grew up with the Odonian philosophy does not understand the question of the Urrasti Kimoe, because in the Odonian society the question of gender does not arise. People are seen as individual human beings with particular talents which, when being supported, will provide beneficial effects for the society. By creating the society without gender relevance Le Guin put the basic belief of feminist, that men and women should not be stereotyped by their sex, into practise and offers the women on Anarres lots of opportunities in private as well as in social life.

The equality between men and women is also found in partnership and sexuality. Marriage, highly criticised by radical feminist, does not exist on Anarres. People having a relationship with someone, refer to themselves as ''partnered'' (ibid. 49). Within partnership men and women are independent equals who choose to be together rather than being bond to each other by an institution. It is not uncommon that a couple lives locally separated from another because they work in different areas. Partnership therefore does not affect either the man's or the woman's career. Here again Le Guin realises feminist ideal, which is that the husband's job should not determine the career of the woman. Although long-term partnership seems to be desirable, as it is shown through Shevek's and Takver's relationship, there are also indications for anti-monogamous tendency:

An Odonian undertook monogamy just as he might undertake a joint enterprise in production, a ballet or a soap works. Partnership was a voluntarily constituted federation like any other. So long as it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t work it stopped being. It was not an institution but a function. It had no sanction but that of private conscience. (Le Guin 244)

The choice remains with the individual and everyone is free to live out sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual, according to the own needs and preference without being socially condemned. Sexuality on Anarres absolutely mirrors the idea of sexual liberation feminist claimed for during the 1960s. Experimentation and intercourse with both sexes is practised by all Anarraetis from adolescence onwards (ibid. 51) and sexual relations are as varied, frequent, temporary and permanent as the individual wish them to be. Moreover, sexual activity is not associated with dominance or possession of the other, since the society values anti-propeterian ideals. The result of this freedom of sexual expression and the lack of domination in sexual acts, involves that women on Anarres do not have to fear sexual violence from men and molestation is ''extremely rare'' (ibid.245). The anti-possessive character of sexual activity becomes clear in Shevek's comment, where he says ''it made no sense for a man to say that he had “had” a woman. The word which came closest in meaning to “fuck,” and had a similar secondary usage as a curse, was specific: it meant rape''(ibid. 53). Women are not seen as sexual objects or are mainly desired for their body or beauty but are treated with respect and valued for their individual spirit :

On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, the men and women. We have nothing bur that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendour, the splendour of the human spirit. (ibid.228)

For feminist, the absence of reducing women to their physical appearance, is essential. According to feminist belief, objectification treats a person as something that can be owned by another and denies its subjectivity, means that the feelings of the person do not need to be taken into account. In Shevek's description of Takver when he first meets her, Le Guin emphasizes that a partner is not chosen for physical beauty but for spirit and charisma:

She had the laugh of a person who likes to eat well, a big, childish gape. She was tall and rather thin, with round arms and broad hips. She was not very pretty; her face was s warthy, intelligent, and cheerful. (ibid.177)

Another significant aspect that underlines feminist tendencies on Anarres is the detachment of sexuality from the goal of reproduction. In the Anarresti society women have the choice to decide, freed from social pressure, whether they want to have children and if so they can choose a time for their pregnancy that correspond with their career plans. Shevek mentions quite early in the narrative ''The girls wanted to complete their training and start their research or find a post they liked, before they bore a child'' (ibid.55). The statement about the girls emphasizes the independent character of Odonian women and the equal opportunities they have in the society as they can, just like the boys, concentrate on their training.

Feminist ideals also form the concept of family. On Anarres family structures follow the principle of collectivism and have the tendency to undermine the nuclear family. Children are normally not raised by their parents, but organized in day-care nurseries from a very young age with other children and are supervised by a matron. The matron takes the roll as educator, teaching the infants right from the beginning the Odonian ideals. Although it is not common practise, parents have the option to send they children full time into nursery if necessary. For example the protagonist Shevek lives full time in nursery during his childhood, because both his parents work as engineers (ibid.27). This example shows that women are not expected to choose the gender stereotypical role of motherhood. On Anarres either the mother or the father may stay with the children if they want to, whereas the other works full-time or may even be geographically separated from his family by labour distribution and accepts this for the good of the community. Le Guin uses this form of collectivism to emphasizes the anti-properterian ideology of Anarras and their sense of community, but regarded from a feminist perspective this concept supports the equality of the sexes because both, men and women, are not prevented from having a career through parenthood. In Addition, it promotes the feminist demand that childbirth and motherhood should not disadvantage women and encourages them to return to work shortly after giving birth.

3.2 Gender Concept on Urras

The complete opposite of the Odonian society system is found on its neighbour planet Urras, where the dominant capitalist state of A-Io is defined by a highly hierarchical society structure. Inequality is to be found in many aspects, not only in gender, provoked by the consumerist mentality of the population. The society does not function as community, but is controlled by the wealthy, dominant bourgeoisie class which is only interested in profit and property. Within this class system men take the dominant role in society, whereas women are oppressed and as a result of the propeterian system treated as something that is owned by men. Looking on the statement, ''Ioti women did not go outside with naked breasts, reserving their nudity for its owners'' (ibid.213), this becomes clear. Gender roles on Urras are clearly defined and thus the sex of a person plays an important role in the political, social and private life of the population and defines among other aspects, such as wealth and education, the identity of people and their position in the social class system.

The definition of gender in the Ioti culture follows the traditional role conception of men and women. The public sphere including University life and education, holding jobs and having a career, doing science and engaging in politics, belongs to men and offers them many opportunities. In a conversation with the Ioti woman Vea, Shevek comments:

It seems that everything your society does is done by men. The industry, arts, management, government, decisions […] The men go to school and you don't got to school; they are all the teachers, and judges, and police, and government, aren't they? (ibid. 214)

In contrast, women are confined to the domestic sphere taking care for the home and raising children. They are only presented to enter public life for social events, where they accompany their husband, primarily for decorative purpose. In the Ioti culture women are not permitted at the University and excluded from any education, except of some ''girl's school'' (ibid.73). In a conversation between Shevek and some Urasti scientist, Shevek asks them about women at the university and Dr. Pae answers:

Scientists. Oh, yes, certainly, they're all men. […] Can't do math; no head for abstract thought; don't belong. You know what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there's always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal athrophy. (ibid.73-74)


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Feminist Science-Fiction? Gender Aspects in Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" and Feminist Criticism
University of Bonn  (Anglistik)
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feminist, Science-Fiction, Gender, Aspects, Ursula K. Le Guin, The, Dispossessed, Criticism
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Celine Briot (Author), 2015, Feminist Science-Fiction? Gender Aspects in Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" and Feminist Criticism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/303846


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