Sci-male here. No, that is not a typo. Just permitting myself a few primal grunts.
You may have observed this bit of opinion over at the TOR.COM web site. As topics go, fluidity of gender (in the speculative arts) is as old as the hills. Science fiction has been noodling at the idea for decades. Long before the humanities departments at universities began teaching it as gospel. But until now I’ve never come across something like this sentence specifically:
I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.
Got it? Not an exploration of alternatives to the default of binary gender. That would actually fit well within SF’s role as the literature of the possible. No. The author states: an end to the default of binary gender.
Well, that’s a rather interesting imperative. Especially when one considers the very common conceit (in SF circles) that spec fic is not just the literature of the possible, it should also be the literature of the inevitable. Activism in story form. Agitation through words, threatening the status quo. “Dangerous” fiction. Life will be made to imitate art. And so forth.
But is gender—one’s biological and personal identification as either male or female—really just a “social construct” as the author of the TOR.COM piece says? Unlike sports, where you get to pick which team is your team, sexuality is something you’re invariably issued on the factory floor. An XX for girls and an XY for boys. Or, if you want, an XYY or an XXX for perhaps one in a thousand births. And if the factory assembly line has performed to standard, both the XX and XY (and the XYY, and the XXX) models will roll out the door with standard internal and external anatomical features respective to their classification. Some of which won’t manifest until after puberty.
We are not, as a species, delivered into this world stuck in neutral. Biology, like physics, doesn’t have to conform to our ideas about how we think the world ought to be.
Moreover, it’s odd seeing the argument—for the total plasticity of gender—coming from the same academic and literary quarters that argue for rigidity of sexual orientation. If gay people are born gay and therefore absolutely remain locked into their sexual preference at a biological level, why is it then possible for the XX and XY models to decide to magically become, oh, I don’t know, YZ? Or even AB?
But getting back to spec fic, what might the actual societal ramifications of gender obliteration mean? An infinite number of different public bathrooms? Or how about an infinite number of different barracks and dormitories, for military and college use? Or, do we simply remove the signs from all of the above and rack people together as a single, heterogeneous mass? No gender-specific facilities at all! Problem, though. How will a doctor know how to treat an infinite number of genders if some conditions—such as menopause—are very clearly gender-specific to carriers of the XX chromosome pairing? How will someone identifying as gender QRS feel about using the omni-gender toilet next to gender HIJ? What if QRS feels that HIJ will experience uncontrollable sexual impulses in the presence of QRS when QRS has its pants around its ankles? How will the legal system endure the endless lawsuits as the many genders squabble over restroom real estate?
Don’t laugh. It’s already been happening on campuses. Does that mean it’s inevitable out in the wider world, too?
Allow me to propose this shocking answer: no.
Because our binary gender default is not merely a construct. It has a massive amount of biological inertia behind it, too. Tens of millions of years, counting the hominid lines. Hundreds of millions, if we dive all the way back into the seas. The minute nature invented sex as a means to reproduce and strengthen species via gene-mixing, we were put on the road to male and female.
Now, this does not mean all life everywhere in the universe must necessarily be binary gender. There may be life forms with three genders, or four, or five, or even more. Evolution might invent any number of more-complicated means for throwing genes into the proverbial martini shaker, and tossing things up.
But here on Earth, we’ve got what we’ve got. Male, or female. 99.999% of us arrived that way, and 99.999% of us will die that way. Even those who change it up, and undergo gender reassignment. The objective of the surgery and the therapy is not to invent a third gender, it is to merely swap hood ornamentation.
So why must science fiction end the use of binary gender?
Part of this sentiment is, I suspect, rooted in old grudges about sexism. SF, as a genre that is horribly self-conscious, still has a spiritual hangover from the days when it was male-dominated, with stories written by and for men, featuring men doing manly things, and women (in the fiction) were mostly there for eye appeal, and for tomfoolery.
Part of it is, also, I suspect, rooted in SF’s time-honored tradition of flaunting the ordinary. The mundane. The usual. Many an author (and a reader) has been drawn to the genre precisely because it was the one place in literature where you could write and read truly far out stories about truly far out people, places, situations, et cetera.
But I’ve said many times in this space that you can have too much of a good thing. Presently, as SF literature’s total marketshare continues to decline, the genre seems to be working overtime to alienate—rather than appeal to—ordinary people. People for whom the grand old history of spec fic begins with Star Wars and ends with whichever Marvel Comics movie happens to have come out this month. These are readers who not only don’t have a problem with binary gender as the default, they will be seriously weirded out by suggestions that it ought to be otherwise.
And to be perfectly blunt about it, that’s not just okay, that’s healthy!
See, the internet is not the whole universe.
And spec fic geeks, we’re not the whole internet.
There are billions of people on Earth, and lots of them read, and not everybody is going to think “ending” something as fundamental as male/female is such a great idea. Again, largely because of biological inertia. Which has nothing to do with constructs. Nor is it even related to roles. Men and women—especially in the West—have spent the last two centuries gradually learning to take on more and more jobs which used to be very specifically defined for one gender, or the other. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable and, indeed, even admirable, for spec fic to take on the idea that men and women can and will do different things. Compared to their accepted, traditional roles of eras past. Some of which really are subjectively inherited from culture.
But gender? That’s in the blood. Literally. Which means even if we push really hard and try to make the idea of gender plasticity stick, the biological springback is always going to be in favor of binary. Like a sapling that’s been bent to the ground, and let loose. SPROING! There it goes. Despite our best effort to the contrary.
So don’t worry about whether or not you’re “gender normative” in the nomenclature of the academy. What goes on at the university and what actually transpires in real life, can be very different things. If you’re a reader or a writer who never thought twice about “gender binary,” don’t fret. This is just fine. There are (obviously) other people to obsess on that subject, and they will find ways to tell stories for the small audience interested in that kind of thing.
The rest of us will keep telling stories for the big audience.