Short Story Month, Day 27: Charlie Jane Anders
"Love Might Be Too Strong a Word" by Charlie Jane Anders
If you couldn't tell from my story choices, I don't read a lot of high-concept sci-fi. I don't have a problem with it, but usually the closest I get is some sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic story, usually written for young adults. I wanted to find something by Charlie Jane Anders, though, because she's awesome.
What I appreciate in this story was the play on gender and class. The third-person pronouns in the story are intentionally blurred; there is no "he" or "she." Anders uses pronouns that indicated gender but not in binary ways we'd recognize. Still, these other pronouns are easy to roll with, proving that we can always include new gender-fluid pronouns (or eliminate gender-specific ones) from our lexicon without too much confusion. They take time getting used to, but they're not difficult. It's a pretty good example to hold up to those against the addition of new pronouns to accommodate trans and gender-fluid individuals.
The traditional ideas of the male and female are present in the story, though, and Anders uses them in a way that allows readers to question the way we see gender identity. There is, for example, the idea of playing the part of a man or a woman in terms of sex, with the concept of being a "woman" not just about penetration but about submissiveness. The class of beings that are lowest on the totem pole, the dailys, must "woman" to the higher classes; the highest class, the pilots, "man" everyone else. The idea of pilots being "manned" by others—especially a being as lowly as a daily—is offensive and degrading. Even in the future, womanhood is second class. I'm not always convinced that the idea of "womaning" is handled as best it could, but I think Anders has the right intentions when it comes to debunking ideas of penetration as a means of subservience.
Anyway, the outward appearance of things we attribute to femininity are not necessarily a problem in this world, as gender norms in terms of behavior and appearance are otherwise unlike our own reality. Dot, the pilot, visually comes off as frilly and ostentatious in a way normally associated with feminine fashion, but it's mixed with the aggressive wooing techniques of a showboating football jock. That Dot's wooing of Mab starts with the retrieval of a dropped kerchief sounds like something out of a debutante's playbook, except the kerchief is actually a bandana and Mab is more interested in fellow dailys, making Mab "unnatural." What makes each character supposedly strong differs, too: the character who "mans" gains power from class constructs, the character who "womans" gains power through self-determination despite adversity. How we, as readers, mentally file them in our perceptions of male and female likely say a lot about us and our own perceptions of gender.