Friday, December 4, 2015

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin : On Gender Issues

My general thoughts on this work are here.

Because of its thoughtful and detailed look at so many aspects of humanity, an enormous amount of commentary has been written about this book. In an attempt to say something different, I choose to write a few words about just one of several important themes. Furthermore, I am going to focus on a subtheme of this theme.

One very prominent area of exploration in this book is gender and the role of women in society. There is so much on this subject covered within this novel that it would be difficult to focus even on this one area in a single blog post. Thus, I will concentrate on one subtheme within the broader theme of gender. That is, the effects that women’s roles have upon men.

Le Guin depicts the society on Anarres as having achieved full gender equality. Furthermore, no one on Anarres is sexually objectified in any way. But it goes beyond that. Interests in beauty and fashion standards are nonexistent. Much of what we would describe as “feminine” in our modern society is eschewed. There is no debate or controversy about this among men or women. It is simply how Anarres is.

This is contrasted with the various societies on Urras, the other planet examined in this work, where women are extremely oppressed. Even in the more advanced nations that seem to be on the level of those of twentieth century Earth in terms of technology, women hold absolutely no economic or political power and very few rights. In addition, they are universally objectified.

Vea is an upper class woman that Shevek, the main character of this book, befriends during his stay on Urras.

At one point, he describes her,

"Shoes, clothes, cosmetics, jewels, gestures, everything about her asserted provocation. She was so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely to be a human being. She incarnated all the sexuality…repressed into their dreams, their novels and poetry, their endless paintings of female nudes, their music, their architecture with its curves and domes, their candies, their baths, their mattresses.”

I think that that the comment “she seemed scarcely to be a human being” is significant as it illustrates what Le Guin’s views are pertaining on what she believes are the dehumanizing effects of the sexual objectification.

Yet this novel is not simplistic and does highlight other views. Vea’s comments about the society on egalitarian Anarres, as she is talking to Shevek, provides an interesting counterpoint,

"I’ll tell you something, though. If you took one of your ‘sisters’ up there…and gave her a chance to take off her boots, and have an oil bath and a depilation, and put on a pair of pretty sandals, and a belly jewel, and perfume, she’d love it. And you’d love it too! Oh, you would! But you won’t, you poor things with your theories. All brothers and sisters and no fun!”

Based in the text, it seems that Le Guin is depicting the Odonian (Odonians are what the inhabitants of Anarres call themselves. See my first post on this book. ) attitudes concerning gender to be superior to those of our modern Western society. With that, this novel is full of nuanced ideas, and it is illustrated that these are complex issues.

Things get interesting when the men of Anarres encounter the women of Urras. The males of Anarres are depicted as completely progressive when it comes to attitudes on gender. This view seems to be universal even with young men.

Yet when boys on Anarres view videos of slave women on Urras, they become very sexually stimulated. Furthermore, when Shevek, an otherwise sympathetic protagonist, begins to interact with Vea, he is intoxicated by her sensuality and losses control. He commits what can only be described as a sexual assault.

So what is Le Guin saying here? I think that it is safe to assume that the society on Anarres, where the vast majority women do not participate in activities to enhance their attractiveness, is meant to be viewed positively. In the world depicted in this book, both men and women seem to function in balanced and healthy ways when it comes to sexuality and gender relations. Yet, exposure to women who do place value and effort upon physical attractiveness leads to some awful behavior on the part of men who are not otherwise sexist or misogynist in any way.

Le Guin seems not to be condemning men here. However, I think that she is saying that there is an innate tendency for men to objectify women. She is tying to illustrate that this tendency is harmful to both men and women.

Le Guin seems to be saying that a society where people, particularly women, do not bother at all to be sexually attractive is a preferable society to our own. Or, perhaps the author is just throwing the idea out as food for thought.

My opinion is that the issue of some people wanting to be attractive to the opposite sex is an extremely complex one. Likewise, the issue of some people being attracted to certain traits in other people, and how this attraction affects them, is similarly complex. Some aspects of human society clearly objectify people, usually women. Where healthy sensuality ends and objectification begins is a major source of the complexity. I think that a society where women, and men for that matter, take virtually zero care in their physical appearance in regards to attracting others sexually runs counter to our biology and is not desirable. With that, there still is objectification of women in society that is demeaning and that is not conducive to a healthy society.

Thus, while I do not agree with Le Guin entirely here, these are really important concepts that delve deeply into the core of humanity. These concepts are examined in a thoughtful and enlightening way within the pages of this work.

I have only scratched the surface above. This book has a lot more going on in terms of gender. Furthermore, gender is only one of the many aspects of society examined in this work. As I mentioned in the first part of my commentary, this novel takes an intriguing look at economics, violence, war, poverty and a host of other things. It is a treasure trove of ruminations about so many aspects of the human condition.


Suko said...

Brian Joseph, it does sound like there are many fascinating ideas in this book. Living in a society in which appearance is less important would be freeing in some ways. Thank you for sharing an important theme of the book and your thoughts in a well-written post.

JoAnn said...

This is such an interesting post. I rarely read science fiction and have never been tempted to read Le Guin, but you've made me very curious about this book.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Definitely a book I have to read as there is obviously a lot more to it than I thought. The exploration of a society in which woman (and I'm presuming men) do not bother to be sexually attractive is certainly intriguing.

James said...

Le Guin is great at creating worlds where these interesting ideas can be explored. Your commentary on this aspect of The Dispossessed reminds me of the equally imaginative exploration of gender she performed in The Left Hand of Darkness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks for your comment. I tend to talk to the people in my life a lot about these types of social issues. Several women have expressed similar opinions as to how a world like Anarres would be.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favorites. When one looks at both books together, we are presented with such interesting commentary on gender.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks JoAnn.

This novel is very different from a lot of scientific fiction. If you read it, I would love to read what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - There is really a lot going on in this book. The society of Anarres presents so much opportunity to explore our own society.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian. I have not read her book, although I did read up on her after your first post. I have also since looked up authors (Theodore Sturgeon and Cordwainer Smith for example) that influenced her writings. So I have a number of authors I need to read up on. Thanks for opening that door up for me.

Based solely on your comments of LeGuin's book I feel that she has over-simplified the whole aspect of gender. Can't we women wear at least a little make-up and perfume without being objectified? Must we live in an androgynous society to ensure respect?

Of course my opinion is that men who objectify women (and it's certainly not all men) will do so no matter what society or culture they live in.

Look at Islamic cultures, those women are covered up from head to foot but nobody would accuse them of living in a society that treated them with respect.

I do agree that our culture pushes women to objectify themselves. It's ironic that in today's society when women are supposed to be more "empowered" than ever, our culture is so hyper-sexualized. I'm old enough to be shocked at what young women (and some forty-something women) wear in public.

But I do understand LeGuin was showing extremes to bring her points to people's attention. I think, however, one must be careful not to be too extreme in order to maintain credibility.

Speaking generally, of course, since I haven't yet read the book. Thanks for a thought-provoking review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I agree with you. There is too much objectification of women. With that, I think that all efforts of women to be attractive are not objectification.

I will be reading and blogging more about this issue in the coming months.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

That looks like a fascinating book. I am intrigued, even more so since I have the book but always sort of pushed it aside because science fiction is not normally a genre I gravitate towards. I see now that I've been wrong and I hope this will be among the books I read next year.
It's an interesting subject; while I don't agree with the extremes presented as options here (I think a happy medium would be the best), gender issues have been subject for debate for ages. We still live in a society that seems to punish women for their choices. And yes, I may roll my eyes at what some of them are wearing but I respect that choice. So should everybody else.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Le Guin's science fiction really is unique and is in a class by itself.

I agree with you, society puts enormous and unfair pressure on women to look a certain way.

I also agree that there is a happy medium out there. I have continued my reading on this subject and will be posting additional entries in a few weeks.

Harvee said...

I read one of her books but since then have not read her. What a prolific writer!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Vicki - I am curious to know what yourself and others thing about this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Le Guin has written a lot of books. I really want to read more of them.

Maria Behar said...

AWESOME post, Brian!!

As you have stated, this is a theme in the novel that would need several posts to explore fully; yet, I think this one really gets to the gist of the matter.

I do agree that men seem to have an innate tendency to objectify women. I wonder when this first started. It seems to go back very far in history. Why this should be so is a mystery to me, and, I would bet, to a lot of women, as well.

Unfortunately, a lot of women throughout history have used this combination of objectification and oppression to their advantage. They have wielded power over men through their sexuality. I suppose they were forced to do this because of male dominance in most areas of life, but how sad to live this way....

I think you're right in stating that total indifference to one's appearance runs counter to our biology. So does a complete lack of differentiation in clothing between men and women. Most people want to dress attractively for the opposite sex. Heck, if this weren't so, the human race would have become extinct eons ago! However, as in other areas in life, my own motto is: "Moderation is the key."

There's nothing wrong with a woman wearing makeup, or jewelry, or nice clothes. (And I must admit that high heels, although they eventually wreak havoc on the whole body, do make women look more attractive.) However, dressing provocatively is another matter. For instance, I am appalled at the way women in the entertainment industry dress, especially at awards ceremonies. Their dresses show an incredible amount of bare skin, and sometimes are even transparent. What is the purpose of this? A woman can certainly look attractive to men without going to such an extreme! How can these highly talented women ever be seen as the great performers they are, if they dress like elegant 'ladies of the night'?!

In the case of singers, I suppose such attire goes with the turf. If a singer dresses too conservatively, she will probably not make any sales, as flaunting her body is part of the whole package. Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce come to mind here. I find their attire and onstage dancing totally disgusting, but it's the reason they make sales. And lots of women, especially young girls, take them as role models! UGH. These three women are obviously intelligent. WHY do they choose to voluntarily objectify themselves? They're after the money, of course. Heck, NO amount of money would ever tempt me to publicly display my body the way they display theirs. Paradoxically, I do like their music. But I don't watch their videos. Go figure....

You know, it truly baffles me that women whose views are progressive, who tout themselves as feminists, will still dress in this manner. They are completely contradicting themselves. They want to be taken seriously by men, yet, dress in such a manner that it becomes impossible for men to see them as anything but sex objects. The women I mentioned above certainly fit in this category. So do many others in the Hollywood industry. Incredibly, you even see such women in the corporate world!

As a feminist, I think what has always bothered me the most is being seen EXCLUSIVELY as a female body by certain men. Even though I do not dress in a provocative manner, I have sometimes been objectified. And objectification inevitably leads to an attempt by men at sexual conquest. That is precisely what is so infuriating, and frightening, about it. Indeed, that's precisely what Shevek does when he becomes totally enchanted by Vea's sensuality.

It would be so nice if there were a THIRD planet in Le Guin's story -- one that would have moderate views regarding gender equality. Biology shows us that it's really impossible to eradicate ALL differences between men and women. But at least ONE difference should definitely go, and that's the male tendency to see women MERELY in terms of their sexuality.

Thanks for another great post!! : )

Gently Mad said...

First of all, Maria Behar gave a wonderful response and said a lot of what I was going to say.

I would like
to respond to Delia's comment that we should respect women's choices.
Respect is not given, it is earned. How any man or woman conducts him or herself (including how they dress) either commands respect or disrespect. Delia admits as much when she says she "rolls her eyes" at how some women dress. Rolling your eyes at someone isn't respectful.

I've been thinking about this subject about society and how much control it has over people's actions.

What is "society"? Isn't it just me and you and every other human being? To say on the one hand "women have the right to choose but society punishes them", as Delia claims, but then say "society pressures women to certain types of behavior as Brian claims, are opposite assertions. Either a woman is free to choose or not.

The only thing both those claims agree on is that women are victims.

I believe neither, instead women may not be in control over what other people think of them but they can still own up to their own choices and stop blaming this invisible monster "society". That's authentic empowerment.

Maria makes an acute point when she says that many women use their conduct and dress to have power over men.

As a mother of a 20 year old son, I know that on more than one occasion he has felt sexually harassed by women who purposely dress provocatively in order to get his attention. Does that make him a victim?

Of course not, he can man up and still be a gentleman. (He can also run the other way like Joseph from Potiphar's wife.)

Thanks for getting me thinking about this subject Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the super comment Maria.

This is controversial especially among feminists, but I do think that there is some evolutionary biology behind men's tendency to objectify women. With that I think that like many things that are driven by evolution, when we allow our better tendencies to win out, we do not act and think in ways that objectify and demean women.

I am a bit of a progressive libertarian and I am not comfortable saying that women should not dress provocatively if they want to. With that, I believe as society continues to improve there will be a lot less pressure for women to do so and it will become less common.

I must also mention that my favorite women popular singer is Patti Smith. I think that it is fair to say that she has never let herself be objectified.

I cannot imagine what it feels like to be objectified as either an object of desire or scorn. It is a really awful thing that people do.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks for the insightful comment.

I think that society does put way too much pressure on women to look a certain way and I think that it should not be.

I think that we can criticize the pressure that society puts on women (or men for that matter) without going as far as identifying people as victims. I think critique of society is really important and has more often then not led to beneficial change. With that, I do agree that folks generally should take more responsibility for their actions.

This book is really generating some great discussions!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria and Sharon - i want to mention that Le Guin does address the issue of women using sensuality to manipulate men. Some of the women of Anarres even call the women of Urras "Body Profiteers" in this regard. There is really a lot going on in this book.

My opinion is that women, like men often use whatever advantage that they can to thrive and to survive. I attribute this to evolutionary biology. I think that as society improves, and I think that it is, in the long run improving, these harmful tendencies will express themselves less and less.

Brian Joseph said...

Lots of interesting discussion and points!

Several folks have commented on respect. In my opinion some respect does need to be earned. But there are other types of respect that should be extended to everyone. This includes acertain level of civility. It also includes allowing others to make their own choices as long as those choices do not harm others or are terribly self destructive.

Caroline said...

Really enjoyed reading this, Brian. Very interesting and makes me want to go and grab a copy right away. I loved that first quote.

So many books, so little time said...

Certainly not a book I have heard before Brian or been on my radar, I think I may have a wee nose out for it now though. Not surprised this one evoked a long and thoughtful post from you, I have seen a lot of your tweet and know how passionate you are about these issues.


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. This is a really compelling book for a lot of reasons. I would love to know what you thought if you read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Indeed I have been a big advocate for women's rights as well as speaking out about violence aimed at women.

Partially as a result of this gender issues in general have been a big interest of mine lately. I did not realize that this book delved so deeply into such issues before I read it.

Maria Behar said...

Brian, I do agree that this is a controversial topic among feminists. Women, like men, should indeed be free to dress as they choose. Everyone should be free to choose what they feel is right and proper for them. On the other hand, personal freedom should be tempered with the realization that one's actions might impact negatively on others. In the case of women dressing provocatively, first of all, I will never understand why a woman would voluntarily choose to dress this way, unless it were when she is alone with her husband. Otherwise, she will of course be objectified. Additionally, she will be causing men to have lustful thoughts toward her. Some of those men might very well be married, and so, such a woman would be infringing on the wife's right to have her husband's exclusive sexual attention. A married man could be sexually tempted in such a situation. Perhaps that sounds very old-fashioned, but I am, after all, a Christian feminist. I not only advocate for the rights of women, but I also adhere to Christian standards of what is right and wrong.

We are all free to do whatever we want, but, are ALL actions morally correct? Of course, then we enter into a debate as to what constitutes morality. Conservatives and liberals differ markedly on what they consider to be right and wrong. As a moderate, I agree with some of the views of conservatives, as well as with some of those held by liberals. In this particular case, I consider it morally reprehensible for women to dress provocatively. This is a conservative viewpoint. I also consider such dressing to be detrimental to a feminist stance, as it obviously negates everything that feminism stands for. This is a liberal viewpoint.

Having said all of the above, men should be held responsible for their actions, as well. When faced with a woman who is dressed provocatively, a man can certainly choose to ignore the obvious sexual provocation, and go the other way. But men are not brought up to do this. Society (which, after all, is still dominated by men) would consider such an act to be contrary to "what's natural" for a man. And it does appear that men are wired to react sexually when confronted by a provocatively-dressed woman. Still, it's been proven, throughout history, that giving free rein to one's instincts will frequently cause huge problems.

In some Middle Eastern countries, men totally refuse to take responsibility for controlling their lust. Therefore, they force women to totally cover up their bodies when they go out in public. This is ridiculous in the extreme. But, in our Western societies, we go to to the other extreme. Just about anything goes nowadays, especially in the entertainment industry.

At the risk of being considered judgmental, I have to say that I can't help but feel contempt for women who intentionally dress in a provocative manner. I know that, as a Christian, I should instead pity them, as well as pray for them. This is hard for me to do, though, because, in addition to causing potential havoc in marriages, these women are also infringing on the rights of all of us women to attain gender equality.

OMG.....I have to get off my soapbox now. Lol But this such an INTERESTING topic, with many ramifications into related topics!

Maria Behar said...

This post has certainly sparked a very interesting discussion!

I'd like to thank Sharon for her comments on my own first comment. I think, Sharon, that you and I can agree that, sadly, there are still women whose only goal in life is to find men to manipulate by using their bodies. Why this should still be so, in light of today's more progressive standards regarding gender equality, is beyond me.

You make an excellent point when you say that a man can choose to ignore a woman who is flaunting her sexuality in order to seduce and/or have power over him. You have referenced the case of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Unfortunately, I don't think many men would do what Joseph did, unless they were Christians, and even then, they might succumb to the temptation. Even Christian men are brought up with the idea that men are by nature sexual aggressors, and are "supposed" to dominate women, to be "the one in charge". Unfortunately, the Bible does reinforce this idea in many passages, with such concepts as a man being "the head of his wife". My take on this is that the Bible has cultural influences that reflect the times in which the various books were written. These influences do not necessarily apply to our own time.

A case in point: adultery is frowned upon in the Bible, and, indeed, the Christian standard is that marriage is between one man and one woman. Yet, the Hebrew patriarchs all had more than one wife, and God never punishes them for this. What a contradiction, then, when an adulterous woman is brought before Jesus in the New Testament, by a group of citizens (presumably all men) who are more than ready to stone her! Why didn't anyone try to stone Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob? Why didn't anyone find Sarah's suggestion that Abraham father a son through her servant something that should be punished? So it's obvious that, in addition to containing moral truth, the Bible is also rife with concepts that are actually against that very truth. Why? Because they are influenced by the male chauvinistic standards of the society of the time.

As to how free we really are, I sometimes wonder about that myself. Do we REALLY AND TRULY have free will? Or are we completely limited by the cultural milieu we were brought up in? But that's another topic...

Citizen Reader said...

That's it--I have GOT to make some time to read Ursula Le Guin.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sarah - I would love to know what you thought if you read this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - thanks for another great comment.

The one issue where I disagree with you on is men's reactions to dressing sensually and women's responsibility for that reaction.

I can assure you based on experience, a person can be very attracted to a woman and not objectify her. I do not want to sound like a saint. But on this issue, I never objectify women, that includes what goes on inside my own mind. Many men nevertheless do this. That is their unfortunate choice and I do not blame women for this. Of course there can even be some discussion as to what we mean by "Objectify". That is also another discussion :)

I also the same way about men cheating on spouses or other committed partners. I so not blame the way that women dress. Regardless of what society tells men, I think that is the man's responsibility only if he choices to be unfaithful. We have all kinds of temptations that could lead us to doing what is unethical and immoral. I think that men are one hundred percent responsible for their own choices here.

With all that, women sometimes do use their sensuality in an attempt to manipulate others. Like men, sometimes women do bad things.

Though it did help shape a lot of thinking for good human morals, based modern morality the morality of the Old Testament is abominable for various reasons. Much of it did indeed originate out of a complete male dominated society that had disdain for women. (That is, unless one subscribes to Harold Bloom's theory, which to me seems at least credible. He believes that the work is full of irony and is very sympathetic to the plight of women. In fact, he believes that it was originally written by a woman).

The Bookworm said...

Excellent commentary as always Brian. I think that a society where people don't take care of their physical appearance would be undesirable as well. We are wired to respond to what we find pleasing to the eye. Our pupils dilate, we smile, pulse quickens...
"Where healthy sensuality ends and objectification begins is a major source of the complexity...." you hit the nail on the head there.

I don't like labels, but I am a feminist and believe in equality for all. That being said, I enjoy getting dressed up and wearing high heels when I'm going out. I wear makeup everyday. I do that because I enjoy looking nice, plain and simple.
Happy weekend :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida.

I think a few, but a very few Feminists are against beauty based gender roles. Most are really moderate folks who are interested in gender equality. I think that an important point that many feminists make is that folks stop ostracizing and/or criticizing women who choose not participate in society's beauty standards. I will be writing more about this in an upcoming post.

HKatz said...

"Where healthy sensuality ends and objectification begins is a major source of the complexity."

I think this is an important point, and I'm glad that you brought it up (and wrote this whole post). I think it largely comes down to whether you see the other person as fully human. If you respect someone and perceive their humanity and dignity, you can admire or be attracted to their body, their clothes, etc. without reducing them to those things. You can still see them as a whole person and not an object. It requires some profound changes in how we think about people who aren't like ourselves - and it isn't solved by just wearing less makeup (because even the comments some people make about how women shouldn't dress up nicely or wear makeup sound contemptuous of women - like being chided for being "air headed females" - it becomes yet another way to control women through the appearances).

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - I love your take on the difference between attraction and objectification.

I also agree there is an effort to control women by elements of society and it is related to attempts to police appearance. This comes in both directions. Women are criticized for looking too attractive and at other times for not trying to look attractive enough. I will have more to say about this in an upcoming post.