More Wickedness Than Men Can Make Right. #Sciencefiction by Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.)

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Chaucer’s Wife of Bath anticipates that women’s literature would express an inconsolable anger of women toward men.

693       By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
                By God, if women had written stories,
694       As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
                As clerks have within their studies,
695       They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
                They would have written of men more wickedness
696       Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.
                Than all the male sex could set right.

James Tiptree Jr. is the most common pen-name for Mary Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987). She is a recognized master of popular science fiction storytelling. I haven’t yet read all of her work. At least a handful of her stories explore gender conflict in dire ways. The best treatments are, in my opinion, the astonishing ones that share a low opinion of men. The others are worthy entertainments that share a low opinion of men. Can you find the common theme? It’s not pleasant for me to share group punishment, but I like these stories. This essay will examine two of her novellas. One describes an Earth without Men. The other describes an Earth without Women. Both are at least sometimes uncomfortable reads, but worth it.

Problem! It’s difficult to discuss The Screwfly Solution and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and offer full analytic treatment without spoilers. I will restrain myself here with more limitation against spoilers of the better story.

The strongest of the two stories is The Screwfly Solution. It first appeared in Analog magazine, which reached my mailbox as a teenager. It doesn’t just touch the mostly highly sensitive and upsetting problem of gender conflict, male violence against women. Rather, it embraces that violence for larger effect on the reader. The story arms the very idea of “male violence against women” with explosive metaphorical power. For that reason, it is reasonable to join it to the horror genre, as well as science fiction. Its protagonists ask what is causing the disease that weakens the barrier between male desire and male violence? I don’t want to spoil it because the answer is a shocker. The path of the narration toward that conclusion shocks all the way to a world without women. A horror story, horrible also in a common sense, and a powerful story.

If you can grant yourself 55-minutes to listen, this radio play leads to a world without men. The novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” not at Tiptree/Sheldon’s highest level of work. However, it is fun and free to hear as a radio play (link below). Its postulate is a little like Planet of the Apes: Wayward male astronauts return to a changed Earth of women and trans women-to-men. Planet of #TheFutureIsFemale! Some of the sexist things two of the male characters say about the women seem dated, but some do not.

This is important: I’m unable to conclude the authorial intent here… is there something self-consciously sinister in the way the women treat the men? Or does the narrative fabric consider the men to deserve it? There is a scene of sexualized violence, but the women have the power. Arguably, but without full clarity, the women rape one of the men for conspiratorial reasons, although he doesn’t know it. It’s sinister.

Returning to my fundamental unease with the narrative opinion, near the end the women assess the role of men, evolution and civilization in a way that doesn’t bode well for men. Assuming procreation is not a problem, does the human species need men to continue be human? The women of Tiptree/Sheldon’s planet without men have no doubt: Maybe humanity needed men tens of thousands of years ago, but not anymore. And men aren’t worth with risk to preserve. Does the narrative mind consider this sentiment evil, or is it progress, as the women of the future assert? That’s what intrigues me most…

 

Here (below) is the trailer for the merely adequate televised version of Tiptree/Sheldon’s  novella, The Screwfly Solution. It’s an episode of a TV series called Masters of Horror. Again, Sheldon does not shy away from upsetting ideas. I suppose the written version might be less disturbing than to see them on screen. While I don’t want censorship, I myself sometimes walk out of the room during any kind of murder scene on TV, then rush back. This is no exception, but nonetheless, the story’s weaponizing metaphors of gender conflict are so precise and so chilling.

In The Screwfly Solution, the future is male. In contrast to Houston, Houston, Do You Read? a male-only future unambiguously leads to human extinction.

Both Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Screwfly Solution reserve an aggressively misogynist roles for male preachers which sometimes sound like a selectively worst sample of the religious right.

In sum, women’s fear and resentment of men, sometimes rising to hatred, can be more than just a social movement or social media post. It can be the force behind bad, fine, good, even great art, just as any disturbing aesthetic or set of ideas can. In addition to their value as stories, these two Tiptree/Sheldon novellas provide anthropological data points of women’s rising expectations. Revolutions happen when social conditions start to improve. Whether or not revolutions succeed in building a better world is another question. Is gender conflict a zero-sum game? Tiptree/Sheldon’s stories suggest that it is. This could be the author’s opinion, or it could be a way to tighten the conflict. Unlike social movements, it’s not the duty of storytelling to provide solutions. Tellingly, neither of these two Tiptree/Sheldon novellas foresees a solution to gender conflict other than emphatic androcide. If men by their nature can’t make it right, as the Wife of Bath claimed, is it truly even the fault of men?

The wikipedia links below include a couple more descriptions of Tiptree/Sheldon’s science fiction treatment of gender conflict:

The Women Men Don’t See

The Girl Who Was Plugged In

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Published in: on December 12, 2017 at 11:53 am  Comments (1)  

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a #Review)

Reader! Don’t ask, what is in the wallpaper? Ask, who:

 

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern–it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” is 6,000 words of striking through the mask. In the quote below, from Ahab’s explanation of his pursuit of the White Whale, I have changed Melville’s word “man” to “woman”:

 

“Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, woman, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If woman will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

 

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With the husband/doctor’s infantilizing endearments such as “little girl,” the patronizing care of the woman suggests real domestic oppression. Clearly, the woman (sometimes women) in the wallpaper are in a prison:

 

“She just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.”

 

At the same time, the source of the narrator’s mental illness arrives ready-made from offstage.  1887 patriarchal oppression has a role here, and this is inescapable. But to limit it to that seems to trivialize the narrator’s humanity. A human being doesn’t need domestic or political oppression to have a problem with reality. Rather, what assumptions do we carry today that sanity is the default point of human equilibrium?

What everyday miracle (or hubris) of civilization helps us to feel that we are, most of the time, living in a shared reality?

This short story doesn’t answer. Instead, it offers delightful creepiness and narrative tricks to bring its full impact:

 

“Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was.”

 

Warning bells go off when I read these assertions. Healthy, unconfined people do not need to offer such reassurance. As a reader I’m not prepared for the wallpaper’s assault on the senses, its unreal behavior, tactile disobedience, and odor. The ragged line of many one-sentence paragraphs at to the experience of unraveling. It also offers a generous readability.

Further claxons roar when the narrator hints that her husband and doctor do not want her to write. My initiation reaction as a reader what this was a male evil inflicted on her. However, after reading Gilman’s 1913 biographical statement about her story, I understand the author references this as part of a prescriptive “rest cure.” It is not simply evil to ask a person suffering a “nervous breakdown” (Gilman’s words) to abstain from work. Arguably, as compulsion, it was an act of medical ignorance. The evil part was to compel her to do so, and with the narrator’s dark liminal resources, it fails to take away her liberty. As the narrator declares from her state of creeping madness:

 

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

 

Even today, there is an ethical question, often heartbreaking, of when compassionate authorities should compel people suffering mental illness to accept treatment. When is a mentally ill person responsible for determining her or his treatment, and when not? Treatment can still be invasive. Common wisdom and law on this question changed in my lifetime toward personal freedom. Relatedly, there are hundreds of mentally ill homeless people camped among garbage not far away as I write this. These are additional realms in which the story touches a discomfort between thresholds.

Gilman makes clear in her 1913 statement about that she needed to work to become healthy again:

 

“I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

“Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.”

 

Who was the “wise friend”? I don’t know.

In the story, the husband’s arrogant, sometimes infuriating good intentions and patriarchal power lead him to override the narrator’s repeated hints and evasions. These evasions turn inward in passive-aggressive rebellion, seeking solitude, locking the door, seeking to enter the wallpaper. Mental illness brings an illusion of freedom.

Maybe the sick woman’s confinement has something in common with modern prison solitary confinement—a condition that induces madness and, in prisons could arguably qualify as a cruel and unusual punishment.

Without intellectual stimulation, there is a fungus of decay. The wallpaper has become her psychic expression, in it, of it, behind it.

 

“I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.”

 

We have all seen faces in patterns… The word “pattern” appears 25 times in the story. The human mind is a pattern seeker… how potent the imagery of the wallpaper, its color, weavings, its smell and movement. It’s delightfully creepy, and reminds me of the Lovecraft’s story of an early radio operator who finds a way to make visible the horrible animalculae who inhabit in its waves. There’s the mediocre Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost” who gets lost between walls, with 4th dimension…

 

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How effective the hint of a creeping woman going round and round her room like Doré‘s image of prisoner exercise, revisited in yellow by Van Gogh in the year of his suicide.

 

prisoners-exercising 1890

What is it about the color yellow? Is mental health the baseline state? Or is it an aberration? Is it connected to artistic people like Gilman or Van Gogh? How does the nuclear family, the demands of small children, commodity consumption, relate to mental instability? Is it something about women and modern living? Something about her upper middle class life? Does the narrator’s servant Jennie have the opportunity to succumb to madness? She’d probably die in a wallpaperless ditch, like Bartleby the Scriviner, in a prison yard.

The theme of a woman’s unhealthy descent toward the liminal in “The Yellow Wallpaper” made me think of another character, Beret. She is the wife of the protagonist Per Hansa, in the novel Giants in the Earth (published 1924, set in 1873) by Ole Edvart Rølvaag. Per Hansa is a man of action who thrives in the challenges of homesteading in the north American plains; she, however, suffers from loneliness and desolation. To make her feel more at home, he painted the walls of their half-sunken sod home white. Like the all-too-permeable yellow wallpaper, the white walls pushes the woman’s mental health deeper into depression.

 

The lime had been mixed according to directions, and spread over the walls–three coats of it, no less; now the sod hut shone so brightly inside that it dazzled the eyes. . . . Before the snow came, Beret thought it delightful to have such walls; but after there was nothing but whiteness outside–pure whiteness as far as the eye could see and the thought could reach–she regretted that he had touched them. Her eyes were blinded wherever she looked, either outdoors or indoors.

 

She becomes more religious without becoming less melancholic. Unlike the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” there is no “rest cure” available to a pioneer woman. Unlike the real Gilman, the regime of work does not ease her mental distress of Beret:

 

Beret went about her work with a greater determination; but her sad mood did not lift.

 

During a harsh winter, over many days, she wants Per Hansa to make a journey to fetch a minister for a dying neighbor. Over the course of many pages, she pushes and pushes Per Hansa to make a dangerous trip in the cold. She remorselessly threatens to do so herself. Finally he relents, attempts it, and freezes to death.

I bring this up because I want mention that Gilman’s story recognizes that the suffering of women impacts the suffering of men. As Gilman points out, there is a liminal issue, a trap door of our shared problem with the fragility of the relation between our self and our reality. “The Yellow Wallpaper” ends with ghoulish, wink of misunderstanding of the man’s utter horror, or possibly worse:

 

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

 

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As a helpless kid in the 60s-70s, I grew up hearing of how much women hated being housewives, of the lurking option of putting their heads in the oven. Without claiming expertise on the genre, you could put “The Yellow Wallpaper” on the unhappy shelf with Diary of a Mad Housewife, and The Bell Jar. There are others, old and new; let’s not forget Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Since rumor has it, women even with careers continue to be unhappy, there may be further such works. Alternatively, you could frame this story in a way that emphasizes our shared suffering (7 out of 10 suicides in the USA 2015 were white men). You could place “The Yellow Wallpaper” among categories of human literature among those that poke reality and find it more fragile than we might have otherwise assumed.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a much stronger work than Gilman’s Herland. It’s more interesting to explore problems than perfection. From the first paragraph to the last, this is highly effective, creepy, feminist gothic. “The paper stains everything it touches.”

You can read “The Yellow Wallpaper” here for free.

You can listen to The Yellow Wallpaper here for free.

You can read Gilman’s 1913 statement “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” here.

Published in: on December 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

#Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a #review)

To prepare for #theFutureIsFemale, I thought I’d read the 1915 utopian novel Herland. As seems fitting, it offers both more and less what, I guess, Gilman details in the story. A land of women without the influence of men is a fun concept that fits in the fecund genre of that time concerning the discovery of lost worlds. In short, three men find the hidden land and, with some trials, learn their ways. The men leave with some companions who want to learn about our world in Gilman’s sequel novels.

UTOPIA, HOW BORING

Is there an earnest, non-humorous, non-satiric utopian story anywhere that succeeds? Yes, most people want to live in a beautiful place. But that’s only part of utopia. Who wants to live in a place that purports to have solved all problems? Without problems, is the human experience reduced to that of a beautiful machine?

The women of Herland treat the captive men well, and with patience. They are physical, aesthetic, intellectual superiors, though not god-like. They agree with each other. Herland once had men, but lost them all through war and the natural disaster that sealed the land from the rest of the world. Herland has replanted all of its forests with fruit and nut trees, a gesture toward permaculture at the expense of wilderness. Herland has many cats bred to lose their meow and ability to hunt birds. Yes, like a late 1990s Internet email, Herland takes time to discuss the idea that women prefer cats, men prefer dogs. Herland educates its young through play, the USA does not—well, a man remembers, there is the Montessori method. Herland raises its children apart from the biological mother.

Is this engaging reading? Meanwhile, there are references to drama, dance, music, religion, and education. I don’t want to shock you, but all of these are superlative accomplishments. They also don’t have disease: apparently, all it took was 2,000 years without unsanitary men, and there you go, cured. I don’t recall seeing any reference to politics, industry, economic classes, money, energy sources. The Herland guards pick up the men and drive them in electric motors (cars), which, unless I missed it, they never mention again. Herland references communications system that are different but equivalent to USA’s, but does not explain.

MORE THAN INTENDED

The female utopia Gilman envision is a realm of mutants. These women reproduce by parthenogenesis. Individuals have some control over self-pregnancy through will and diet. A reader could question, then, to what extent they are human. If they are not human, is this even a utopian novel, or a novel about a visit to female elf-land? I believe most human women would say their reproductive system is important to their experience in life. However, a most generous gesture as a reader I think would be to accept the parthenogenesis as an ultimate form of birth control. It’s also a way of avoiding social censure of a disreputable concept.

My guess is that Gilman did not intend the following interpretation, but she does anticipate the future. We already are see trans-human intersections of our birthed selves with technological implants and genetic medicine. I assume without particular knowledge that in my lifetime, real human women will be able to reproduce without any kind of male contribution. Then what happens? Does this novel lend insight?

LESS THAN INTENDED

Unfortunately, by literary standards, the only real characters in the book are the men. Characterization of the three men show them as three individuals, with different values, different personalities. They even disagree with each other. In their relations with women, one is a chauvinist cad, one puts women on a pedestal, and one is moderate.

There are pale hints of differences between the women of Herland, their size, age, intellect. In one part of the book, the women differentiate themselves in reaction to the three male types. Herland fails the Bechdal test.

For the most part, the women are not even mutant humans. They are cardboard cutouts of Gilman’s ideology. They are smart, beautiful, poetic, unconvincing, polemic machines. Once in a while they rise from one dimension to two. Sometimes their combination of strength and kindness hints of a richness to them that the text never fully realizes.

I think the novel might have been stronger (and less predictable) if three women of USA 1915 visited Herland and brought different opinions in argument with each other and the women of Herland.

CONTRADICTIONS

Herland over and over asserts ways, specific and general, the way woman is a social construct. Herland smashes restrictive roles for women that the men describe. When Herland is not making those strong arguments, it is asserting Motherhood as essential to womanhood. It often does so with quasi-religious feeling.

PLATO’S CAVE

As I was reading this, I felt an urge to stop reading it and instead meta-read it. Instead of taking the words as Gilman wrote them, I sometimes wanted to find the shadow of Gilman’s personal life and world, its restrictions, prejudices, and privileges. I heard some hints about her life that I wondered about as I read. I don’t know if this is fair, but it might be a more generous way for a modern reader to plow through the preachy passages of the text. I don’t think Gilman would have liked this anthropological attitude, though. Of course, readers will bring their own non-literary motivation to the reading, and that might suffice.

CONFLICT AND CARNALITY

As a reader, I don’t understand why the three Herland women marry the three men. It happens in the context of their curiosity of the outside world, and urge to explore. I have the impression that it happens for no reason other than narrative necessity, to bring the utopians into 1915 USA for their critique in the next novel, which I haven’t read. If this was an opportunity to draw lines of, perhaps, females struggling with conflicted human complexity, the novel avoided such messiness. Was it just too much to imagine independent women carrying their ideas across international borders of propriety?

Surprise! Men bring mess and conflict to the utopia. It’s sometimes difficult to pin down the evasive language, but I think the utopian women of Herland have no sexual desire. The male narrator patiently and ethereally accepts his bride’s request to wait before intercourse, and it never happens in the book.

The only sexual intercourse that may or may not happen is the chauvinist cad’s attempt of marital rape. This upset is the part of the book that feels the most real. The women who fight him off even kick him in his private parts, the book makes clear. So urgent is the narrative feeling against this male violence that the sanitized curtain rents apart. Aside from that, Gilman’s female utopia conceives no sexual happiness, only relations as cloud-tripping with Oos and Ahhs.

The other two times the men bring conflict is their attempt to escape, which never had a chance to succeed, and introducing harsh ideas from human history. It turns out that all of Herland is like a North American university of 2017, one big safe space. When the narrator vaguely explains concepts of Damnation and Hell, she runs “blinded and screaming” to a temple to have the idea removed:

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Although #theFutureIsFemale excludes me, still, I am not comfortable with this novel’s connection between an uber-female’s sanity and the sanitization of ideas. How does Gilman intend the reader to interpret this utopian female weakness? Is it a hint that the utopia harbors a stagnancy? Or is the book merely trying to offer the isolated mutant woman’s reaction as an objective assessment of dark human history? That’s probably too generous, because the utopia has such a ready way to remove unpleasant ideas. This may be an unintended hint of the cost to our human natures to establish and hold on to a state of perfection (even if only brain-suffocating, mutant perfection). The idea that the unsanitary is “male” continues, however. Some of my female friends who attend the Michigan Womyn’s Festival tell me that the only men allowed in are the ones who clean the portable toilets. A google search today offers 2,460,000 results to the term “toxic masculinity,” part of the ready vocabulary of the current androphobic sex panic.

Listen to Herland for free here.

Read Herland for free here.

Published in: on December 4, 2017 at 2:35 pm  Leave a Comment