Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Taming my Knee-jerk Feminist, or Thoughts on Stranger in a Strange Land

I wandered into the world of science fiction when I was 22 and didn't start with the Grand Old Men of the genre, picking out without realizing it predominantly female authors and books that portrayed strong female heroines. I'm not sure how I managed it as that doesn't exactly describe the majority of the books in that genre. Ever since I got into reading and writing SF, though, I've wanted to make up for my lack its history and read the masters--or at least try them. Hence my initial foray into Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress that lasted all of five pages. I also picked up a copy of The Number of the Beast at a used bookstore a while ago, but it has sat forlornly in my TBR pile ever since, the memory of TMIAHM making me skittish.

As I mentioned before, I'm trying to whittle down said TBR pile, and the thought of a very nice edition of a Heinlein novel given as a gift continuing to linger in that pile just didn't sit well with me. So I shored myself up and dove in, trying to forget the discussion, however light, of said book that I happened to read shortly after receiving the book. I was prepared for the infamous Disposable Woman. Only I didn't find her. So I kept reading (yes, the story kept me engaged as well), looking, waiting to see which of the female characters was going to shortly meet her demise to allow the hero to embark on a quest to avenge her.

In this, the uncut version, she never appeared. Unless she's talking about the mother of the hero who died in childbirth. I might cede Kate Elliott that--except she was joined in death shortly thereafter by her lover and husband in a murder-suicide, and the other five people (three of them also women) with the woman in question also died not long after that. The event was not a motivator for the hero. In fact, the hero never so much as mentioned his parentage ever in the book, and no one discussed it with him. Now I've got to find the original version of the book and see what happened there.

That being said, reading this book was an exercise in shutting down my knee-jerk feminist reaction to how women were portrayed and how the men treated them in this novel. I kept reading, armed with the knowledge from Virginia Heinlein's preface that there was a reason for all the cut stuff which I presumed meant the free love. I just didn't know what it was. Whenever the casaul belittlement, objectification, and dismissal of women was employed, I focused on the craft. Heinlein is one of the beloved founders of the genre, there had to be a reason. So I quelled the urge to fling the book across the room and soldiered on.

From a craft perspective, I was astonished that a book that is in large part dialog to the point of near constant speechifying and preaching managed to keep my interest. Also that a coming of age story with no real stakes could hook me. Also, I found the 1940s/50s freezeframe of society sped forward into the future with the expected bulky electronic gadgetry fascinating. For all that science fiction writers seek to portray what life will be like, it is damn hard to weed out any retained flavor of the current era in which the work was written.

Then, finally, on about page 500 of 525, I realized the point of all the, to me, horribly blatant sexism. Most of it (there's aspects of how women are characterized and treated that go beyond this) are purposefully there. The hero comes to realize that what makes humans different from the Martians who raised him is expressly the duality of the genders, specifically the feminine nurturing vs masculine providing aspects. It's why homosexuality is given an awkward "well, OK if you want to do that, but it's not really what we're about" brush-off at several points in the novel. What made humanity unique was the give and take between the sexes, the polar nature of our genders, particularly with regards to sexual intercourse. Working together in our opposed yet complimentary ways yields the full understanding of the universe. There is both no equality and total equality between the sexes in this treatise of universal understanding--grokking. There is an acceptance of each other and the very different things we bring to life, which is both totally freeing and unbelievably limiting in the genders' appointed roles.

OK, so at least I understood why women were treated as objects, Other, less, and hyper-nurturing. I don't have to agree with it. I'm not sure Heinlein does, either, which begs the question of the point he was trying to make in employing such a thematic element. I'm going to reread this book a year or so down the road and see what else gels from it (there's a ton about religion only being good if it teaches true self-awareness and personal responsibility and rigidly requires adherence to those principles that I want to go back for).

While there was a payoff to suppressing the reactionary feminist in me, I'm not sure I could do this again with any other book. In other words, I pushed through the sexism because it was Heinlein. I doubt the novels of, say, Gor could provide any such motivation to stomach the misogyny therein.

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