Masculinities and Science Fiction
Exploring the Banishment and Reformation of Masculinity in Scientific Gynotopias
The Scientific Gynotopia depicts not just an ideal society, but one in which technological advancement is used to create a community women may consider utopian. However, the Scientific Gynotopia (SG) is not always an ideal space for men. Among SGs there are two main models for dealing with the ‘male problem.’ There are two parts to this problem: first, what role to grant men in a female utopia and, second, how to stop men from destroying it. This second part is a primary concern as many SGs depict a world rebuilt from the ashes of one destroyed by men. The first approach I examine I have dubbed the Separatist Model, which segregates men either socially or physically from female society. The second, less common approach I will refer to as the Integrational Model, in which ideas about both femininity and masculinity are completely reformed to create an androgynous, equal society.
I have selected three case studies to demonstrate these models and how they vary. The Separatist Model is encapsulated in Katharine Burdekin’s The End of This Day’s Business (1989) and Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women (1986). The Integrational Model is depicted in Marge Piercy’s utopia, Mattapoisett, in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). These SGs explore the problem of containing the more regressive elements of patriarchal versions of masculinity such as violence and irrational thought. The Separatist Model seeks to contain regressive masculinity by limiting the reach and power of men: “the authors are not subtle in their reasons for creating separatist utopias; if men are kept out of these societies, it is because men are dangerous” (Russ 140). Communities practising the Integrational Model, however, believe in reforming masculinity through strong communal bonds in a society that looks after all its members. These novels provide an important contribution to discussions of speculative fiction and masculinity as they encourage debate around the ethics of gender segregated societies. Furthermore, they expose the gender dualisms and power dynamics present in our own time by presenting us with alternatives of varying extremes. They ask the question: “‘what if the world were feminist’ (which is not the same as ‘what if the world were perfect?’)” (Pfaelzer 291). They are not utopian blueprints but instead suggest that the road to utopia requires a reformation of traditional, masculine expectations and behaviour.
The Separatist Model
Both Burdekin’s The End of This Day’s Business and Sargent’s The Shore of Women depict matriarchal societies that view the reduction of men as necessary for human survival. This represents a channelling of contextual anxieties; to Burdekin, the rise of fascism in the 1930s and its patriarchal ideology were a looming threat, and Sargent was publishing towards the end of the Cold War. This led to their imagining of male-less societies in which these threats of devastating conflict no longer exist—although this is not to say these societies are better; they are merely an alternative. The gynocracies of the SGs are used as tools of critical defamiliarization. They depict to the reader a familiar place (our own world) with an unfamiliar social structure and history (as these novels are set in the future). This uncanny mix of the familiar and unfamiliar allows the reader to see these societies as possibilities rather than feel completely removed from them; hence, it opens the reader’s mind to societal reform. Authors present a subservient male sex ruled over by a matriarchal system that regards traditional masculine behaviour as universal, unchangeable, and a block to social progress. The authors encourage men to embrace the feminist cause by putting them through an extreme version of the female experience: “Because of the alternative realities of science fiction, women writers have particularly effective ways to force male characters to undergo what real women of all ages have undergone: rape, the physical dangers of reproduction, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination” (Donawerth 127). For example, the supposed unchangeable psychological state of men in these novels and the ways by which it is distorted and weaponised may be compared to the weaponised diagnoses of women as “hysterical” in our own recent history. Despite this, both novels ultimately depict a man and a woman breaking societal taboos by interacting with and teaching one another, disproving the social orthodoxy that men are violent and incapable of learning.
Burdekin depicts England in the year 6250 when women govern as the intellectually superior sex; however, this ‘natural’ superiority is manufactured by the women as a component to their systemic ‘reduction of men.’ Burdekin’s society has manipulated men into inverted versions of twentieth-century masculine values regarding gender hierarchy: “it’s perfectly natural to obey women”; “men were naturally modest, and would not bare more than their arms, legs and heads in a public place” (Burdekin 41; 7). Burdekin employs a common tactic of the Gynotopia, as observed by Jean Pfaelzer: “the feminist utopia has challenged the Lockean notion that patriarchy is a natural right” (Pfaelzer 283). However, Burdekin creates a hybrid of gender expectations, pairing obedience and modesty with patriarchal masculine values traditionally associated with 1930s fascism. Men are encouraged in some violent behaviours such as fighting (but only with other men) precisely to enable their subjugation. Men are allowed to be content in their ‘natural state,’ which society perceives as a less superior version of Fascist appropriations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s übermensch, or superman, a type of advanced hypermasculinity seen as natural male behaviour (Nietzsche). In this society, men can be supermen without the political power to cause wider harm: “a man had to do what his strong muscles and weak mind and masculine nature fitted him for” (Burdekin 4). Burdekin appropriates the hypermasculinity of the supermen to justify the incompatibility of this masculinity with politics and learning. Thus, she undermines some of the most patriarchal and dangerous notions of masculinity in her own time in her writing.
Neil, the male protagonist, struggles with the limitations of his enforced masculinity. This leads to an existential crisis: “If he stopped enjoying a man’s life, what other life was there for him? Would death be better?” (Burdekin 6). The hypermasculinity forced upon Neil and his seemingly unnatural rejection of it causes him to experience body dysmorphia; he begins to hate the parts of himself that present as masculine: “he opened his shirt and glanced at his muscular male chest. He hated it. But if he hated his body, then he hated himself, for it was part of himself. Neil hated Neil” (7).Neil has been conditioned to believe that his identity consists of his masculinity rather than his human individuality and by rejecting it, he loses his sense of self. Neil wants to be himself beyond the limits of what this Separatist model of sex allows him to be, echoing twentieth-century pressures on women.
Neil’s biological mother, Grania, disagrees with single-sex rule. She explains to Neil how he has been conditioned: “A psyche cannot grow unless it’s content with its sex. If it’s proud of it and thinks the other is inferior it will overdevelop, if it’s ashamed of it, it can’t develop at all” (43). Men have been taught to see their sex as a weakness, which in turn represses their sense of self, allowing them to be subjugated. Women are seen as superior due to their ability to give birth; men are seen as only capable of destruction. When discussing the history of patriarchal rule, Grania says, “They were the Lords of Creation [. . .] And if they hadn’t turned themselves into Lords of Destruction they might have kept their place” (48). It is this fear of the supposed uncontrollable destructive tendency of men that drives the matriarchal regime. However, they place the blame on the men who ruled rather than the patriarchal structure of the regime. Women are still fearful of their own history of oppression and wrongly believe the only way to avoid going backwards is to invert this dichotomy completely.
A necessary component of the Separatist Model is rebellion. The catalyst for Neil’s rebellion against the matriarchy is the revelation of his father by Grania and subsequent feeling of familial wholeness: “he felt himself the small precious core, the very kernel of a proud and valuable whole” (24). This is the first time Neil has felt a part of something, specifically love that is not driven by lust but by familial bond: “he had a pride and pleasure that had nothing to do with his muscles, his physical courage, his work, his outward position among men, or his sexual successes” (24). Grania’s act breaks a social taboo, the “elimination of fathers,” leading to her crime of teaching men their history and their ability to develop individual consciousness (91). Grania voices her contempt for gender-segregated rule: “This female world, I think, is not right. It is safe, reasonable, uncruel, loveless and dull. The men’s world was not right either. It was absurd and too unsafe, cruel and stupid” (105). Burdekin’s message can be summed up in Grania’s statement that“no race can ever be mature while one sex is infantile” (143).Despite the deaths of the protagonists, the novel ends on an optimistic note of potential future reform reflective of Burdekin’s wishes for women to be granted more rights in her own time. Burdekin’s novel highlights the harmfulness of traditional notions of masculinity, not just to women but also to the men upon whom these standards are imposed. She argues for a society in which gender does not inform participation in any sphere of life, be it politics or learning. Crucially, she disproves the alignment of traditional patriarchal models of masculinity with men themselves and protests the dehumanising capabilities of biological determinism.
The second case study in the Separatist Model is Sargent’s The Shore of Women. In this SG, men are exiled from civilised female strongholds. Ironically, to become free from men these women physically entrap themselves within their city walls. Sargent’s women use a mix of technology and religion to keep men subjugated. Men are forced to live by primitive hypermasculine codes of conduct in tribal conditions in which displays of strength and violence dictate their survival. Younger men are often victims of sexual abuse by more dominant males, behaviour which the women of the enclave dismiss as inherent to male nature; however, this does not exist in the comfort of the civilised enclave. Sargent highlights the absurdity of the belief that this violence is genetically encoded rather than a result of primitive conditions.
The men have been tricked into believing women are corporeal forms of a goddess and only come to the female enclaves for purposes of reproduction, executed medically and without female contact. Those selected for breeding are done so through careful consideration by the women to keep the gene pool healthy and varied but also strong. Same-sex relationships are the norm in both societies. Therefore, the sexual relationship between protagonists Birana and Arvil, particularly the natural conception of their child, disgusts the majority of the female enclave. This is prompted by the belief that men are universally prone to violence: “Your natures are violent ones. You must be kept from bringing destruction to the world again” (Sargent 207). Men are blamed for the state of the earth, devastated in a nuclear holocaust forcing society to be dismantled and rebuilt by women. Ultimately, the women believe that masculine urges to destroy are irremediable and therefore men themselves are a lost cause.
Men have become the dangerous and alien ‘other’ as their banishment and segregation has turned them into unknown bogeymen-like figures in the eyes of the women. In this way Sargent reverses what has been a traditionally female role in science fiction, the woman as ‘other’: “part of women’s cultural role has been to play the Other that allows men to see themselves as the norm” (Attebery 90). The women see themselves as the rational and non-violent norm to the unchecked violence of the male Other. They are thus guilty of dehumanising men, seeing them as universally bound by biologically determined impulses: “One boy is like another” (Sargent 8). Sargent depicts this misandrist and determinist viewpoint as unfair and contradictory by presenting complex and flawed characters in both communities. Through the character of Arvil in particular, she presents a man who proves these fears wrong: “He had the traits of a man, and yet he had tempered them. [. . .] I had glimpsed some intelligence and even gentleness in his eyes. Hard as his world was, he struggled against the worst of its cruelties. Ignorant as he might be, he thought and questioned and reasoned his way to a truth” (229). Arvil disproves the gender discrimination dictating the matriarchal system.
Sargent’s women believe themselves superior due to their reproductive capabilities. Women are aligned with creation and men with destruction: “they cannot give life and so must deal in death” (10). However, Sargent undermines this ideology by proving women to be quite merciless towards one another. The novel begins with the heroine, Birana, being unfairly sentenced to exile alongside her criminal mother. Sargent depicts the irony of a society that shuns masculine ‘nature’ yet commits horrific acts of violence itself, including genocide against male communities that grow too strong or learn too much.
By the end of the novel, Laissa, Arvil’s biological twin sister, conducts a study of the male communities. She comes to the realisation that men are counterparts to women in society and cannot be separated from them due to biological relationships; all families contain men and women thus the world must contain men and women: “They are our fathers and our sons. There is something of us in them and something of them in us” (555). Again, familial bonds become catalysts for change, specifically the overcoming of violent masculine impulses and female paranoia alike. Unfortunately, this is a realisation for few characters in the novel and it ends less optimistically than Burdekin’s text. However, Sargent’s message is encapsulated in Brian Attebery’s statement on SGs: “the excluded sex is never completely excluded. [. . .] men are present [. . .] in the form of the unlamented past, the pressure no longer felt, the horrible example, the stolen prerogative” (Attebery 116). The Separatist Model therefore has an attitude toward gender that does not support the binary or the exclusivity of either gender. These novels experiment with patriarchal societal structures, pushing them to their extremes with an inversion of the privileged sex to depict the ridiculous pseudoscience that is dualistic social structure.
Neither of the SG societies undergoes immediate change, but both carry the message of dissatisfaction with the segregated structure. Darby Lewes describes utopian literature as “the literature of dissatisfaction” and specifically feminist utopias as “the discontent of the outsider” (Lewes 29). In these novels, the outsider role becomes that of the men who are either literally on the outside of the enclaves in Sargent’s novel or on the fringes of society in Burdekin’s narrative. Ultimately, the authors achieve the goals of the Separatist model which Donawerth lays out in four key points: “subvert the male narrator or point of view to their own ends, [. . .] the male narrator converted to a woman’s point of view; the male narrator as dumb man (a parody of masculine authority); and the male narrator forced to undergo feminine suffering” (Donawerth 115). The Separatist Model follows a pattern in its approach to masculinity: the inversion of the familiar followed by the reformation of this inversion into something representing gender equality or at least a desire for it. These novels most notably highlight that it is men and not just women who can be harmed through traditional, patriarchal conceptions of masculinity.
The Integrational Model
The second model dealing with the ‘male problem’ in the SG is Integrational. In this model, gender is integrated into a society that is a communal, familial, and androgynous whole. This model eliminates not only masculinity but also femininity, deconstructing the separate categories of gender in a way only science fiction can. In Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, the author rejects notions of dualism in terms of gender, adjusts dehumanising categories of femininity and masculinity, and proposes a concept of personhood in which the individual is divorced from biologically determined traits.
Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time depicts the imagined future utopia of Mattapoisett, a version of a town in Massachusetts in the year 2137. Connie Ramos, a woman in a mental institution in the twentieth-century United States, communicates with an androgynous time traveller, Luciente. Luciente reveals that Connie’s actions in the present will impact whether the future Mattapoisett comes to pass or whether a darker hypermasculine dystopia will emerge instead. In Mattapoisett, traditional understandings of gender roles have been dismantled, resulting in an androgynous society with little stigma and much greater equality. The price is the sacrifice of the binary notions of masculinity and femininity, the outcome is a mix of these qualities that embodies only the healthiest attitudes and creates a society in which sex does not dictate behaviour.
Male and female pronouns no longer exist, replaced by the gender neutral ‘per,’ short for “person” and applied to everyone. When Luciente first appears, Connie believes them to be a man due to their confident behaviour: “Luciente spoke, she moved with that brisk unselfconscious authority Connie associated with men. Luciente sat down, taking up more space than women ever did” (Piercy 68). This is the result of being raised in a society where acceptable traits of one’s biological sex do not dictate behaviour. The poverty and racial inequality in Connie’s 1970s New York encourage the type of regressive and violent masculinity displayed by the mistreated men in the Separatist Model: “men without jobs proved they were still men on the bodies of other men, on the bodies of women” (233). These harmful, gendered traits are eliminated in Luciente’s future. People in Mattapoisett may present in any gender, although the concept itself is now irrelevant: “biological males, biological females, or both. That’s not a useful set of categories. We tend to divvy up people by what they’re good at” (232). Neither masculinity nor femininity in their traditional forms have any place in Mattapoisett.
At first, this reformation of gender seems ideal; however, Connie is soon horrified to see what can only be described as maternalised masculinity. In this extreme reformation of the traditional masculinity of Connie’s time, men in this world are mothers too; “mother” is no longer a gendered word: “Romance, sex, birth, children [. . .] that isn’t women’s business anymore. It’s everybody’s” (274). Each child has three comothers. Birth is eliminated and babies are cultivated in laboratories (unlike in Brave New World, these babies are not produced eugenically but receive a mix of genes to ensure ideas of racism, classism, and sexism are eliminated). For Connie, the most shocking aspect of Mattapoisett is the male appropriation of mothering: “How can men be mothers!” (110). She witnesses Barbarossa, who has been given the power to breastfeed hormonally: “He had breasts. Not large ones. Small breasts, like a flat-chested woman temporarily swollen with milk” (142). Barbarossa is male, yet this act does not emasculate him because ideas of masculinity in which traditionally female roles are degrading have been eliminated. Michael Pitts writes of the interconnection between males and mothering in Mattapoisett, arguing that male breastfeeding “illustrates the enriching capabilities of new masculinities” (Pitts 12). Connie suffers mixed feelings about this as for the first time in her life she witnesses a tender and nurturing man: “She could almost hate him in the peaceful joy to which he had no natural right; she could almost like him as he opened like a daisy to the baby’s sucking mouth” (Piercy 143).
Much as the Separatist Model postulates, women see their power in their ability to give birth and nurture a baby. Luciente argues with Connie that by giving this up, women put themselves on an equal plane with men, who in turn give up their societal dominance and take part in raising children. “Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers” (110). No activity or life event in Mattapoisett is gender specific, which eliminates sexism. Discussing androgynous societies in fiction, Attebery notes: “The unconscious masculine view of androgyny is an image of something taken away [. . .] while the feminine perspective sees Value Added” (Attebery 135). Piercy corrects this. She imagines characters who give up their gendered behaviours and advantages to create true equality unhindered by gender. This in turn creates a reformed or what Pitts describes as an alternative masculinity, one that is nurturing and kind. This contrasts with traditional patriarchal models of masculinity displayed in Connie’s society that depict manliness in tandem with violence, possessiveness, and control.
To summarise: in the Separatist Model we perceive male tendencies to violence that are not genetically encoded but are shown to be a systemic, ‘woman-made’ masculinity, a result of artificial male subjugation. Despite being gynocracies, these fictional societies still perpetuate the gender dualism that enables patriarchal systems. Instead of misogyny, they promote misandry and the competitive hierarchies inherent to traditional notions of masculinity remain in place. The Separatist Model provides a platform for the deconstruction of male and female alignment with creation and destruction as both are shown to be capable of each. These novels show the limits of gender polarisation in society and conclude that those who continue to engage with and allow this segregated ideology are as responsible for its damaging effects as those who created it. The Integrational Model builds upon this philosophy as it eradicates the binary and therefore abolishes essentialist notions of masculinity and femininity. The societal androgyny of this model allows for collective freedom and safety. The Integrational Model differentiates between the male and the masculine, viewing personal identity as the more crucial characteristic.
Despite dystopian undertones, Separatist SGs are ultimately catalysts for change. Men disprove ideas of regressive masculinity and undermine the regimes that confine them by coming together with women to exchange knowledge as equals. The Separatist Model therefore exists to illustrate the problems of the author’s own society by imagining an inversion of inequalities experienced by women. They promote the idea that gender inequality in any form is dystopian, as noted by Attebery: “gender itself can become a dystopian system. Forcing all members of either sex into a single pattern will inevitably result in dystopia, while the most positive visions of society are those in which women and men are similarly free to defy norms” (Attebery 128). By this logic, the Integrational Model is the more positive of the two as it presents a reformed masculinity, whilst the Separatist model functions differently as a thought experiment, an extreme ‘what if?’ in which regressive masculinity is either abolished or contained as a stage towards potential integration. My findings are that these SGs fall into two categories of approaching the role of men in a feminist utopia: banishment or reformation. What the two models have in common is a shared understanding that there is no place for masculinity as we know it in an inclusive utopia.
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Pitts, Michael. “Complicating American Manhood: Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and the Feminist Utopia as a site for Transforming Masculinities.” European Journal of American Studies, vol.15, no. 2, 2020, pp. 1-18. Open Edition Journals. https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/15771.
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Rachel Harrison is a Ph.D. researcher in her first year at the University of Dundee. Her thesis title is “Reclaiming Gynotopia: Female Authored Ustopian Novels and Science Fiction.” Her research interests are feminist science fiction and speculative fiction, and her postgraduate dissertation was an exploration of the critique of damaging masculine attitudes toward science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.