Science Fiction Studies

#77 = Volume 26, Part 1 = March 1999

Veronica Hollinger

(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender

To what extent does the category of women achieve stability and coherence only in the context of the heterosexual matrix? If a stable notion of gender no longer proves to be the foundational premise of feminist politics, perhaps a new sort of feminist politics is now desirable to contest the very reifications of gender and identity, one that will take the variable construction of identity as both a methodological and normative prerequisite, if not a political goal.—Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (5, my emphasis)

1. Reading Queerly. My aim in this discussion is to suggest some strategic intersections between feminist theory and queer theory in order to (re)read how the "variable construction of [gender] identity" has been represented in science fiction by women writers.1 Starting from the assumption that, as Judith Butler—whose work is central here—has noted, "literary narrative [is] a place where theory takes place" (Bodies That Matter 182), I’ll focus on three stories in particular: C.L. Moore’s "No Woman Born" (1944), James Tiptree, Jr.’s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973), and Joanna Russ’s "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" (1982). Each story works out, in narrative form, some of the theoretical issues I find especially relevant to my present concerns. That none of these stories is contemporary serves to emphasize the fact that complex and sophisticated inquiries into gender issues are by no means new to science fiction, even if our theoretical representations of these issues have not always kept pace with the fiction. While keeping in mind their many real differences, I read the theories and the fictions as reciprocal echoes and restatements: they suggest information about each other and serve to defamiliarize each other. When the theoretical focus turns to issues of gender and sexuality, science fiction is a particularly useful discourse within which to represent, through the metaphors of narrative, the philosophical and political conceptualizations deployed within critical theory.

I’ll be undertaking a double strategy in the process of this reading: I want, first, to queer my perspective and, second, to work within the theoretical context of gender-as-performance. The first part of this essay, an overview of some relevant theory, makes a case for queering feminist critical reading, while the second part, which includes a detailed look at the stories by Moore and Tiptree, suggests the efficacy of performance theory in denaturalizing some conventionally fixed notions about gender and heterosexuality. My third section reads Russ’s "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" as an exhilaratingly queer performance that undermines the solidity of what Butler refers to as "the heterosexual matrix."2

All too often, heteronormativity is embedded in both theory and fiction as "natural" and "universal," a kind of barely glimpsed default gender setting which remains unquestioned and untheorized. Science fiction would seem to be ideally suited, as a narrative mode, to the construction of imaginative challenges to the smoothly oiled technologies of heteronormativity, especially when/as these almost invisible technologies are pressed into the service of a coercive regime of compulsory heterosexuality. However, in spite of science fiction’s function as a literature of cognitive estrangement, and in spite of the work of both feminist writers and critics in their on-going efforts to re-think the problematics of gender—especially gender’s impact on the lives of women—heterosexuality as an institutionalized nexus of human activity remains stubbornly resistant to defamiliarization. On the whole, science fiction is an overwhelmingly straight discourse, not least because of the covert yet almost completely totalizing ideological hold heterosexuality has on our culture’s ability to imagine itself otherwise. Both science fiction as a narrative field and feminism as a political and theoretical field work themselves out, for the most part, within the terms of an almost completely naturalized heterosexual binary. As Michael Warner puts it, "Het culture thinks of itself as the elemental form of human association, as the very model of inter-gender relations, as the indivisible basis of all community, and as the means of reproduction without which society wouldn’t exist" (xxi).

In response to such constraints, queer theorists such as Judith Butler, Sue-Ellen Case, Teresa de Lauretis, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have undertaken critical/theoretical explorations that consciously avoid situating heterosexuality as the unquestioned norm in human sexual practices.3 In their work, heterosexuality comes to acquire a certain exoticism as an object of estrangement and we are invited to consider it, not as natural and universal, but—to a large extent—as both learned behavior and a network of forces embedded in the very fabric of culture. As the title of Diane Richardson’s recent collection, Theorizing Heterosexuality, suggests, heterosexuality has its own history.

In "Tracking the Vampire," Case points out how "while gender is an important site of struggle for women, the very notion reinscribes sexual difference..." (3). While she refers here to the dilemma which this reinscription of an institutionalized heterosexual binary poses for lesbian theory, feminist readings in general face the same dilemma: an emphasis on gender risks the continuous reinscription of sexual binarism, the heterosexual opposition which historically has proven so oppressive for so many women. Case goes on to argue that

the heterosexual feminist perspective in theories of representation ... when it creates the unmarked category of "woman" as a general one that includes queers, or when it displaces queer desire by retaining, in the gaze/look compound, sexual difference and its phallus/lack polarity, that perspective remains caught in a heterosexist reading of queer discourse. (13)

Examined more broadly, Case’s observation suggests that such a perspective "remains caught" in heterosexist readings, not only of queer discourse, but of all discourse in general. In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick sounds an equally cautionary note:

It may be ... that a damaging bias toward heterosocial or heterosexist assumptions inheres unavoidably in the very concept of gender. This bias would be built into any gender-based analytic perspective to the extent that gender definition and gender identity are necessarily relational between genders—to the extent, that is, that in any gender system, female identity or definition is constructed by analogy, supplementarity, or contrast to male, or vice versa.... This gives heterosocial and heterosexual relations a conceptual privilege of incalculable consequence. (31, my emphasis)

In our struggle against a monolithic patriarchy—which is, after all, a kind of theoretical fiction produced, in part, by the very feminism aligned against it—we risk reinscribing, however inadvertently, the terms of compulsory heterosexuality within our own constructions. In other words, our critiques of sex and gender polarities often leave those polarities in place. Using the strategically powerful perspectives of queer theory, however, is one way in which feminist work can be mobilized to think against the grain of heteronormativity, so that we can also begin to think ourselves outside the binary oppositions of a fictively totalizing feminine/masculine divide.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, as queer has increased in influence, its meanings have become widely contested.4 Developing out of (and, in some instances, in spite of) lesbian and gay theoretical and political work, queer points to a broad interest in gendered behaviors, human sexual practices, and questions of sexual difference in general, while at the same time it aims to resist and critique dominant sexual paradigms. Queer is the result of contemporary developments in postmodern theorizations and deconstructions of subjectivity and identity. Indeed, one of the fundamental characteristics of much queer theoretical work is its attention to the range of differences within identificatory "fictions" such as sexual orientation and gender. Butler’s work, in particular, is useful here, functioning as a postmodern rearticulation, a post-Foucauldian effort to re-present the conceptual matrix of sex/gender, ideas about the subject and about agency, and issues of representation outside the boundary lines of compulsory heterosexuality.

In the context of science fiction, we can read some variations in the deployment of queer in the differences between Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975)—which focuses on the struggle to establish lesbian and feminist identities and sexualities within the constraints of a culture of compulsory heterosexuality, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—which, through a radical imagining of human life without gender, explores gender as a cultural construction that is at once coercive and contingent.5 Butler’s work, on the cusp of feminism and queer theory, suggests the potential for queering our reading of feminist issues in science fiction, and a statement of Sedgwick’s is particularly resonant in this context. She writes that "[t]he study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender; correspondingly, antihomophobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist inquiry. But we can’t know in advance how they will be different" (27). Nor can we know in advance the varied ways in which they might support each other.

Many lesbian-feminist science fiction writers have been at the forefront of queer challenges to the regime of compulsory heterosexuality through both cognitive disruptions and imaginative revisions. This is one way in which the lesbian-separatist utopian writing of the 1970s has been a crucial force in shaping feminist science fiction, in spite of the many and obvious differences among its political projects.6 Writers such as Joanna Russ and Monique Wittig have created literary worlds in which the range of social and political practices available to women have not been constrained by a binarism that situates women on the "feminine" side of an essentialized and insurmountable gender divide. The promise inherent in such imaginings accounts in part for the particular poignancy at the conclusion of Russ’s classic story "When It Changed" (1972). Her characters are faced with the dismal certainty that their lives are about to be radically circumscribed by the return of men to the all-women planet Whileaway—and by their own re-inscription as "half a species" (258), the feminine half, after centuries of performing "unnaturally" as the entirety of the human race. As Russ’s narrator concludes, "This too shall pass. All good things must come to an end. Take my life but don’t take away the meaning of my life" (260). "When It Changed" suggests that, at least as things are now, queer only exists on sufferance—for a while—until the masculine/heterosexual re-enters to colonize it (again).7

Not for nothing does Wittig, author of the utopian novel Les Guérrillères (1969), separate lesbians from the category of women. Wittig’s theoretical writing aims to de-essentialize the biological category of "women," to redefine it as a social class, and to dismantle the sex/gender system itself as a system of political oppression. As she writes in her essay, "One Is Not Born a Woman," "the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically" (20). Wittig argues that the term "women" denotes a class of subjects circumscribed by the gender binarism of heteronormativity; the lesbian, for her, is that figure whose survival demands "the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which provides the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this position" (20). Until such a demolition is effected, however, the logical theoretical move is to remove lesbians from the class of women altogether.8

The feminist stories of James Tiptree, Jr. provide a significant contrast to the frequently celebratory texts of writers like Russ and Wittig. Tiptree’s writing is notable for the dark and ironic tones in which it represents issues of gender and sexuality. Even a story like "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976), which rewrites Russ’s "When It Changed" to the extent that it manages a "happy ending"—or at least an imaginatively satisfying one—nevertheless suggests the high price of freedom for women. The cloned women of Tiptree’s future refer to themselves as "human beings.... Humanity, mankind.... The human race" (222). However, in order to erase the threat of a return of the heterosexual repressed, Tiptree’s story ends with the execution of the three male astronauts who have inadvertently invaded this future in which women are the entirety of the human race—breaking through from what we might think of as the "unconscious" of history.

I read Tiptree’s feminist stories as explorations of some of the more dismal exigencies of a naturalized heterosexuality, (re)constructed as a kind of inescapable heterosexual bind. While "Houston, Houston" suggests that execution is a viable option to preserve the full range of women’s lives, in other stories heterosexuality is constructed as both inevitable and fatal. In stories such as "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" (1976), "The Women Men Don’t See" (1973), and "The Screwfly Solution" (1977), women escape into madness, disappear into outer space with unknown aliens, or simply wait to be killed. The unremitting pessimism in these stories arises, at least in part, from Tiptree’s determination to follow the implications of gender difference to their grimly logical conclusions; her stories read like darkly parodic representations of the extremes of gender difference. Perhaps this is most dramatically demonstrated in "The Screwfly Solution," a story which literalizes the "war between the sexes" as an alien-inspired holocaust that will end only when there are no more women left alive.

In these stories, sex and death are co-extensive. This is most strongly suggested in the title of a story in which there are no human characters at all, "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" (1973).9 "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side" (1972) extrapolates upon the two-sexed system of human relations and essentializes it as the story of humanity’s "long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. Or get impregnated by him; it works for women too. Anything different-colored, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying. That’s a drive, y’know, it’s built in. Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human" (42). When human longing is directed towards alien beings, however, this drive becomes counter-productive and threatens the continuity of the species: "Man, it’s deep ... some cargo-cult of the soul. We’re built to dream outward. They [alien races] laugh at us. They don’t have it" (42).

In these stories, human (hetero)sexuality is both instinct and damnation. Human sexual desire for the "other" results only in pain, as our objects of desire become increasingly, and sometimes literally, alien to us. Sexuality is the failed attempt to know the irreducibly alien. From this perspective, Tiptree’s stories are modern tragedies of gender difference. At once ironically understated and parodically hyperbolic, they provide us with some of the saddest moments in science fiction.

2. Performing Gender. Feminist and queer post-structuralist theories about the performative nature of human being-in-the world suggest some fascinating and useful analytical perspectives through which to consider the construction of the gendered subject. In terms of the development of a performative theory of gender, one of the most provocative documents in contemporary feminist debates about the nature of "woman" is Joan Riviere’s 1929 case study "Womanliness as a Masquerade," which raises this vexed question: "What is the essential nature of fully developed femininity?" (43). As a true Freudian, Riviere suggests that "[t]he conception of womanliness as a mask, behind which man suspects some hidden danger, throws a little light on the enigma" (43). But her study has, in fact, already reached its most controversial conclusion: "The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade.’ My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference: whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing" (38). Riviere thus (re)introduces the notion of femininity as re-presentation. The "feminine" is a role; "genuine womanliness" is always a character-part, constituted in performance. Within the terms of Riviere’s particular case study, the motivation for such a performance is a negative one: it arises from the need "to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if [a woman] was found to possess it" (38).

Many recent studies have built upon both Riviere’s and Jacques Lacan’s10 commentaries on femininity as masquerade, revising the implications of these readings in ironic directions that suggest the potential for deconstructive rearticulations of conventional constructions of sex and gender identities. In both Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, for instance, Butler develops convincing arguments for the nature of sex and gender performances as constitutive of the individual subject involved in such performances. For Butler, as well as for Sedgwick and others, doing is being.11 In other words, when gender is theorized as performative, in a move which re-situates the "tragedy" of the masquerade of femininity and turns it into ironic contestatory practice, we become less dependent upon essentialist ontological categories and, at least theoretically and imaginatively, we can initiate a more radical inquiry into the nature of the individual sexed and gendered subject.

The ironic mobilization of feminist mimicry and parody is an imaginative intervention into what must otherwise be read as yet one more oppressive construction/representation of "woman" as artificial, superficial, suspect, and lacking—the mere negation of a masculinity which is the primary term in an opposition shaped by the pressures of the heterosexual paradigm. Within the constraints of conventional liberal humanism and essentialist notions of the subject, the masquerade is the sign of women’s failure to "live up to" the demands of "true" femininity which such an ideology posits as the marker of the "real" woman. Reading the masquerade in the ironic mode, however, suggests very different conclusions.12 Within the postmodern context in which critique and complicity work hand in hand, such radical inquiry through the conceptual apparatus of sex/gender-as-performance becomes a utopian as well as a contestatory gesture. As Butler explains:

Performativity describes this relation of being implicated in that which one opposes, this turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a "pure" opposition, a "transcendence" of contemporary relations of power, but a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure. (Bodies That Matter 241)

We see the beginnings of such contestatory gestures in both C.L. Moore’s "No Woman Born" (1944) and James Tiptree, Jr.’s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973), two early cyborg stories that imaginatively construct fictions about "femininity as a masquerade." Moore’s story can be read as a working through of Riviere’s conclusions about the inherently self-protective nature of the masquerade of femininity, a femininity mobilized to protect the "masculine" woman from retribution for assuming that which does not naturally belong to her. Tiptree’s story is a sadly ironic fairy tale that examines the pressures on women to replicate the ideal of femininity, to play it "straight" even as they are doomed always to fail at such a task.

Moore’s story is a particularly resonant early thought experiment, marked by anxiety but nonetheless unflinching in its examination of the nature of femininity. I read it as a moment when (proto)feminist sf begins to turn towards explorations of the performative nature of gender. As such, it helps to establish a ground for the radical destabilizations of gender which we see in the growing body of queer sf writing.13 As many readers will recall, "No Woman Born" is the story of Deirdre, a world-famous actor and singer, "the loveliest creature whose image ever moved along the airways" (236). Although her career is cut short by the theater fire that destroys her body, Deirdre rises like a phoenix from the ashes, resurrected within the gleaming metallic body designed for her by the scientist Maltzer. Most of Moore’s lengthy story unfolds around the question of whether or not Deirdre is still a woman, indeed whether or not she is still human. Broadly read, Moore’s story is thus a complex early thinking-through of some of the implications of our human interface with technology. It is, at the same time, a sophisticated examination of the implications of gender, as well as a meditation, albeit an anxious one, on the nature of gender as performance.

The text consistently represents Deirdre within the tensions of anxious oppositions. At various times she is either more human than ever or increasingly inhuman; more beautiful than ever or increasingly grotesque; more in touch with her audiences than ever, or more and more withdrawn from humanity. Is she still the woman so loved by her millions of fans or, having lost the physical body which previously defined her, is she merely the metal housing for a brain completely devoid of both gender and sexuality? These oppositions structure the conflict between Deirdre, who plans to resume her performing career in spite of her cyborg status, and the two men who are closest to her, Maltzer, her "maker," and John Harris, her adoring manager, who is also the point-of-view character in Moore’s text.

Maltzer becomes increasingly convinced that he should never have "tampered with nature" in his attempt to keep Deirdre alive: "She isn’t a human being any more, and I think what humanity is left in her will drain out little by little and never be replaced" (259). Harris becomes more and more anxious about what he sees as the illusory nature of Deirdre’s femininity, the performative nature of Deirdre’s humanity: "Later he would think again that it might be only a disguise, something like a garment she had put off with her lost body, to wear again only when she chose" (279-280). Deirdre herself eventually calls attention to her increasing detachment from the rest of humanity, her sense of growing isolation from flesh-and-blood bodies, her new and singular identity as "[a] sort of mutation halfway between flesh and metal" (286). As Deirdre contemplates the possibilities of her continuing transformation, the story’s final words foreground the crisis of identification precipitated by the cyborg body: "‘I wonder,’ she repeated, the distant taint of metal already in her voice" (288).14

The ambiguous and uneasy (non)resolution of "No Woman Born" represents exactly the anxiety around which Moore’s text develops itself. Deirdre is monstrous not because she is ugly, but precisely because her gleaming metallic body is so—inhumanly—beautiful. She is monstrous not because she has ceased to be feminine, but precisely because her performance of femininity is so—calculatedly—convincing: "She threw her head back and let her body sway and her shoulders shake, and the laughter, like the music, filled the theater.... And she was a woman now. Humanity had dropped over her like a tangible garment" (265).

It is worth remembering that the "original" Deirdre was already a consummate performer. As such, she represented femininity as spectacle and was the object of desire for millions of adoring fans. Deirdre’s "natural" performances are, in fact, electronic mediations and she herself is adept at performing the image of femininity, at least for those same adoring fans. Moore’s story cannily situates her manager, Harris, as the point-of-view character, thus maintaining Deirdre’s status as the object of "the male gaze," and we, as readers, are also confined to viewing Deirdre’s narrative from the outside. Consequently, we share with Maltzer and Harris the sense that she is both less and more than woman, both less and more than human. Like Riviere, Harris theorizes the nature of Deirdre’s femininity as "masquerade." And, like Riviere’s subjects, Deirdre, within this paradigm, performs "womanliness" in order to divert punishment for enjoying privilege and power which are "unnatural" to female subjects.

Deirdre’s original performances serve to maintain and to secure conventional and hegemonic notions of gender but they are read as natural because they are performed by a "natural" female body. The cyborg which Deirdre has become rearticulates the concept of gender, turning it into something—similar to the performances of drag queens or the feminine mimesis ironically theorized by Irigaray—that is both excessive and disturbing. Gender is now disassociated from the "natural" body, and the gap between body and performance has become too great to ignore. Deirdre’s body is monstrous in its suggestion that there is more to her masquerade than merely the reiteration of an idealized femininity.

In her analysis of the gender performances in Jennie Livingston’s film about New York’s drag balls, Paris Is Burning (1991), Butler discusses why successful gender performance must be enacted in what we might think of as the "realist" mode:

Significantly, this is a performance that works, that effects realness, to the extent that it cannot be read.... For a performance to work ... means that a reading is no longer possible, or that a reading, an interpretation, appears to be a kind of transparent seeing, where what appears and what it means coincide. On the contrary, when what appears and how it is "read" diverge, the artifice of the performance can be read as artifice; the ideal splits off from its appropriation. (Bodies That Matter 129)

Moore’s text never reconciles the tension between these two kinds of gender performance, the realist and the excessive. Is Deirdre trapped inside the system of gender representation as her image used literally to be trapped within electronic image systems? Or is she "playing with mimesis" for Meltzer and Harris and her new audiences, ironically performing the feminine while, in fact, "remaining elsewhere," as Irigaray so intriguingly suggests? (76).

In spite of Moore’s (proto)feminist challenge to notions of gender construction and femininity—in spite of her suggestion of femininity as masquerade—her cyborg is, finally, trapped within the binarisms of a heterosexual perspective on the nature of woman. Like Frankenstein’s Creature, Deirdre exists in an increasingly abjected space outside the boundaries of what is acceptable to human beings, to women. Moore’s cyborg, however, remains a powerful early image of the potential for such figures to disrupt science fiction’s conventional constructions of the feminine, an image of the powerful woman who, even as she feels herself withdrawing from humanity, nevertheless retains control of her own gendered representation. The cyborg in this story thus becomes more than a metaphor; it becomes a character in an sf universe in which the technological imagination can begin to explore the ramifications of what theory tells us about ourselves as bodies—as gendered bodies, sexually-defined bodies. As has been frequently pointed out, the techno-body reiterates itself through replication, not through reproduction, and it does not require the heterosexual matrix as the space within which to duplicate itself. Given the emphasis in theories of performativity on reiteration and citation, the techno-body as replicated body points us towards the utopian space of queer excess. Perhaps all techno-bodies are, at least potentially, queer bodies.

In contrast to "No Woman Born," Tiptree’s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" theorizes the coercive nature of gender as imprisonment.15 It demonstrates that even the cyborg, like the madwoman (in the attic) and the angel (in the house), may become enmeshed in and diminished by a too-faithful performance of femininity. "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973) is Tiptree’s proto-cyberpunk story about the techno-body that fails. Its protagonist, P. Burke, "the ugly of the world" (45), is precisely the body that does not matter, the body that must be hidden underground in a hi-tech cabinet while her mind remotely operates the beautiful but soulless body of Delphi, who is described as "porno for angels" (49) but who, nevertheless, is "just a vegetable" (50) without someone controlling her from a distance.

P. Burke and Delphi represent a kind of split subject integrated through technology into a single mind/body matrix. Without Delphi, P. Burke, as the narrator tells us, "is about as far as you can get from the concept girl" (56). Here Tiptree’s text recalls Butler’s contention that gender definitions exclude as often as they include; P. Burke’s is the abjected body relegated to the outside of what conventionally constitutes the feminine. Telepresence, however, immerses P. Burke in a virtual experience that allows her to be beautiful and famous, even if only at a distance. Within the plot development of this futuristic fairy tale, P. Burke falls in love with a lovely young man, is loved reciprocally as the beautifully feminine Delphi, and dies—both as P. Burke and as Delphi—when she tries to express this love directly, without technological mediation, to the horrified object of her affections.

Tiptree’s politicization of gender in this story intersects with her critique of the society of the spectacle—the parallels between "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" and Moore’s earlier story are both intriguing and suggestive. Delphi and others like her are "managed" by representatives of big business who employ them as living advertisements in order to sell products in a future in which direct advertising has been banned. Constantly surrounded by cameras, P. Burke-as-Delphi lives in full view of millions of potential consumers. Meanwhile, in her cabinet, P. Burke dreams of healing the split between the mind trapped in her monstrous body and the idealized feminine body that remains forever separate: "You see the outcome [says the narrative voice]—the funneling of all this agony into one dumb protoplasmic drive to fuse with Delphi. To leave, to close out the beast she is chained to. To become Delphi" (67). In Butler’s terms, P. Burke desires to become the gendered ideal represented by Delphi, her body-at-a-distance, to close the gap between herself and the cultural ideal of a perfect femininity that she has been taught to worship.

In this sense, Tiptree, like Moore, has crafted a story about the performance of femininity, a performance that is at once perfect and completely unnatural: P. Burke learns how to "run" her body-at-a-distance as a beautiful woman, while she herself remains out of sight, wired into the system, a controlling brain, loved, finally, not as a human body but—by Joe, her trainer—as "the greatest cybersystem he has ever known" (78). P. Burke’s performance-at-a-distance of femininity is a consumer-driven masquerade in which such performance provides her only opportunity, within the constraints of an ugly and abjected female body, to mimic acceptable femininity—and thus to qualify for the kind of fairy-tale ending, marriage to a handsome prince, which is (almost) P. Burke’s reward for successfully performing the masquerade.16

Performance theory, which has obvious parallels to theories of theatrical performance, examines gender and sexual practice as a range of activities rather than as passive states. In individual performances, the subject reiterates social ideals of gender behavior and it is these re-citations, these active repetitions of previously existent models, which are constitutive of the individual as a gendered subject. From this theoretical perspective, gender is less an essential characteristic of the individual than a series of performative gestures which the individual learns to replicate. This is true also of sexual identity: heterosexuality and homosexuality as constitutive features of the individual are read not as stable categories but rather as the result of specific activities that serve to define the individual during the course of the performance of those activities. Tiptree’s P. Burke is the divinely feminine Delphi as long as she performs Delphi, who in these terms is neither more nor less than the sum of P. Burke’s gendered performances; P. Burke is the actor and Delphi is her role. We might thus read the tragedy at the heart of "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" as P. Burke’s confusion of herself-as-actor with Delphi-as-role. In much the same way, of course, our culture, devoted to the categorical regime of heterosexuality, fails to distinguish between individual women and men and the gendered roles which the culture demands they play out as if these roles were natural.

3. Concluding Differently. Within the terms of my discussion, queer is both an exclusive and an excessive space, "a zone of possibilities" (2), in Annamarie Jagose’s terms, inhabited by all that is not heteronormative, "the point of convergence for a potentially infinite number of non-normative subject positions" (Jagose 101). At its most inclusive, it can incorporate heterosexuality, but a heterosexuality stripped of its conventional privileges: no gendered or sexed identities in this utopian space are compulsory, or universal, or natural; and, none, certainly, are invisible. To borrow from Donna Haraway’s "Cyborg Manifesto," we can think of queer as a kind of cyborg space, "a cyborg world ... about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of ... permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints" (179). In these terms, queer marks a utopian space, which is, perhaps, also an ironic space, inhabited by subjects-in-process who are not bound by reifying definitions and expectations, and in which bodies, desires, and sex/gender behaviors are free-floating and in constant play. Haraway’s description of her utopian-inflected cyborg figure suggests something of the—if not literal, then at least imaginative—potential of the utopian queer.

Joanna Russ’s "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" (1982) also suggests the outlines of such a queerly utopian world. This story is the first-person account of a nineteenth-century journey by river boat undertaken by the narrator and her/his young companion, Maria-Dolores. Both are human and yet other than human; they have psi talents that enable them to "read"—and therefore to survive—the world of ordinary human beings. The narrator travels as a man, but the text suggests that s/he is neither man nor woman; this "other" species is unmarked by the physical traces upon which culture’s obsession with gender difference is founded. In contrast, ordinary humans tend to be the victims of their own gender constraints. The middle-class women traveling on the river boat suffer from "[t]hat dull, perpetual, coerced lack [they] have been taught to call ‘love,’ which a gentleman’s arm, a gentleman’s face, a gentleman’s conversation, so wonderfully soothes. It’s a deadly business" (67-68). The doctor who suspects something "unnatural" about Russ’s narrator concludes that s/he must be an "invert." As the narrator writes of this benighted doctor, his misreading is the result of the binary vision within which all his assessments of human beings take shape: "the division is so strong, so elaborate, so absolute, so much trained into them as habit, that within reasonable limits they see, generally, more or less what they expect to see, especially," as the narrator concludes, "if one wears the mask of the proper behavior" (73). In other words, the performative possibilities inherent in gender provide Russ’s narrator with the perfect strategy for deflecting ordinary human suspicion of her/his extraordinarily queer reality.

Not surprisingly, Russ’s story, as a science-fiction story, achieves something of the estrangement of gender that Sedgwick sees as potential in queer studies, which have a crucial role to play "in radically defamiliarizing and denaturalizing, not only the past and the distant, but the present" (44). In part, "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" achieves this estrangement through a series of gender masquerades, as the narrator successfully counteracts every effort on the part of the curious doctor to interpret her/him correctly. Referring to the "medical" notes through which the doctor is constructing his own version of the "truth" (that the "young gentleman" must be a male homosexual), the narrator wryly informs us:

Now he is writing in a burst of inspiration ... that the only influence that has saved me from the "fate" of my "type" (lace stockings, female dress, self-pollution, frequenting low haunts, unnatural acts, drunkenness, a love of cosmetics, inevitable moral degeneration, eventual insanity, it goes on for pages, it is really the most dreadful stuff) is my healthy outdoor life in the manly climate of the American West! (78, italics in original)

Russ’s story thus satirizes the nineteenth century’s discursive construction of "homosexuality" as a specific category for defining individual subjects. And, as "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" concludes, a good performance of gender will usually be successful in its (re)citation of social norms, simply because most people see only what they expect to see.

As the narrator tells the less-experienced Maria-Dolores, in the mountains toward which they are traveling to join others like themselves, there are no women and there are no men either, and Maria-Dolores’ confusion echoes the reader’s own inability to conceive of non-gendered subjects:

"Well, can I dress like a man?" [asks Maria-Dolores]

"Like this?" (pointing to myself) "Of course."

She says, being a real pest, "I bet there are no women in the mountains."

"That’s right," I tell her. (She’s also in real confusion.)

"But me!" she says.

"When you get there, there will still be no women."

"But you—is it all men?"

"There are no men. Maria-Dolores, we’ve been over and over this."

She gives up, exasperated. Her head, like all the others’, is full of los hombres y las mujeres as if it were a fact of nature: ladies with behinds inflated as if by bicycle pumps, gentlemen with handlebar mustachios who kiss the ladies’ hands. If I say las hombres y los mujeres, as I once did and am tempted to do again, she will kick me. (70-71, italics in original)

In the end, the story constructs an ironic analogy in which heterosexual/queer oppositions parallel conventional oppositions between human and alien; it also deconstructs these binaries, however, as soon as they are introduced. There is no suggestion that these differences are anything other than the productions of heteronormative cultural anxiety. "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" concludes with an image of satirical gender confusion constructed through the words of one of the imaginary nineteenth-century dime novels that Maria-Dolores reads:

What doom is stored up in Heaven for these hard-hearted men and women, diabolically disguised as men and women or vice-versa and therefore invisible to our eyes, speaking the language of anyone in the room, which is dreadfully confusing because you can’t tell what degenerate nation (or race) they may come from, and worst of all, pretending to be human beings? When in fact they ARE??? (92, italics in original)

When women write science fiction, as Jane Donawerth has convincingly demonstrated, they repeat generic conventions. But they repeat them differently, and sometimes excessively (I am tempted to write that they’re "pretending to be science-fiction writers—when in fact they are").17 I wonder if women and queer writers of science fiction aren’t always involved in various forms of masquerade. Occasionally their performances are ironic; and sometimes they also pose a challenge to what is, in spite of its promotion as the literature of change, in many ways a deeply conservative genre which, for the most part, demonstrates an unquestioned allegiance to heteronormative sexual relations and to the limiting gender distinctions that are one of the results of this heteronormativity. Queer, however, suggests a postmodern and utopian space for exploring sexual difference(s); it promises much in terms of recuperating traditionally abjected figures like monsters and grotesques, as it deploys, in Butler’s words, the "repetition of hegemonic forms which fail to repeat loyally" (Bodies That Matter 124).


1. This essay will also appear in Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction, ed. Marleen S. Barr (Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming). I thank Marleen S. Barr and Rowman and Littlefield for agreeing to its inclusion in this special section of SFS. I would also like to thank my colleague, Wendy Pearson, for her help in working through some of the crucially queer theoretical terms of my discussion. And I am indebted to Shelley Cadora and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. for their rigorous challenges and suggestions.

2. Butler defines "the heterosexual matrix" as "a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender ... that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined, through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality" (Gender Trouble 151, n. 6).

3. See, for instance, Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Case’s "Tracking the Vampire" (1991), de Lauretis’s "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities: An Introduction" (1991), Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (1993), and Michael Warner’s Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (1993). See also the special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies entitled More Gender Trouble: Feminism Meets Queer Theory, which includes Butler’s introductory essay, "Against Proper Objects." For an all-too-rare application of queer theory to science fiction, see Wendy Pearson’s essay, "After the (Homo)Sexual: A Queer Analysis of Anti-Sexuality in Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country."

4. For a detailed and well-balanced examination of the historical and theoretical contexts of queer, see Annamarie Jagose’s Queer Theory: An Introduction (1996). Her chapter on "Contestations of Queer" (101-126) provides an insightful look at some of the complexities and varying deployments of queer. Almost by definition, queer is a term which defies fixed definition. In the "final" analysis, I concur with Butler’s suggestion that

[i]t is necessary to learn a double movement: to invoke the category [in this instance, queer] and, hence, provisionally to institute an identity and at the same time to open the category as a site of permanent political contest. That the term is questionable does not mean that we ought not to use it, but neither does the necessity to use it mean that we ought not perpetually to interrogate the exclusions by which it proceeds, and to do this precisely in order to learn how to live the contingency of the political signifier in a culture of democratic contestation. (Bodies That Matter, 222)

5. Le Guin’s by-now "notorious" use of the third-person masculine pronoun to refer to her androgynous aliens queers her text more specifically as well: the impression given of her alien planet is that it is occupied solely by masculine persons. All sexual relationships, as a result—and perhaps most especially between the human Genly Ai and the Gethenian Estraven—feel like gay sexual relationships. In spite of what we are told of Estraven’s feminine appearance when he enters kemmer at the conclusion of the novel, it is difficult to avoid reading Genly Ai’s unconsummated "love" for Estraven as the text’s drawing back from the physical expression of a love "which dares not speak its name."

6. It is worth recalling that, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the patriarchal dystopia of Gilead takes over a world which has put aside and/or forgotten its radical mothers. Samuel R. Delany, one of the most important queer writers of science fiction, called cyberpunk to task for a similar act of forgetting, for trying to erase its debt to its "real mothers" (including Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Vonda McIntyre). According to Delany in a frequently quoted 1988 interview with Takayuki Tatsumi:

It’s interesting that the feminist explosion—which obviously infiltrates the cyberpunk writers so much—is the one they seem to be the least comfortable with, even though it’s one that, much more than the New Wave, has influenced them most strongly....

Cyberpunk is, at basis, a bastard form of writing.... What it’s got are mothers. A whole set of them—who, in literary terms, were so promiscuous that their cyberpunk offspring will simply never be able to settle down, sure of a certain daddy.

I’m a favorite faggot "uncle" who’s always looked out for mom and who, when they were young, showed the kids some magic tricks. (9)

7. Annamarie Jagose pinpoints "three crucial respects" in which queer has been influenced by the work of lesbian feminism: "its attention to the specificity of gender, its framing of sexuality as institutional rather than personal, and its critique of compulsory heterosexuality" (5).

Feminist and lesbian utopian writing isn’t necessarily queer, of course. Consider, for instance, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s early utopian text, Herland (1915), which privileges all things related to motherhood, or Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1979), which transforms many of the features of a stereotypical femininity into the "natural" virtues of its lesbian Hill Women. In contrast, queer is about the subverting of those normative models and categories which, given their more essentialist deployments of identity politics, writers like Gilman and Gearhart work to sustain.

8. It’s intriguing to speculate that, within the terms of Wittig’s own analysis, a feminist reading of Les Guérrillères is "impossible," since feminism’s focus on women is, arguably, irrelevant to a text in which there are no women, only lesbians. For a complex examination of the queer as a utopian figure in Wittig’s theory and fiction, see Jennifer Burwell’s "Acting Out ‘Lesbian’: Monique Wittig and Immanent Critique."

9. For a detailed reading of this particular aspect of Tiptree’s science fiction, see my "‘The Most Grisly Truth’: Responses to the Human Condition in the Works of James Tiptree, Jr."

10. Lacan provides another document in the case. In his lecture on "The Signification of the Phallus" (1958), he seems to reiterate Riviere’s position, although his trajectory moves in a different direction:

Paradoxical as this formulation may seem, I am saying that it is in order to be the phallus, that is to say, the signifier of the desire of the Other, that a woman will reject an essential part of femininity, namely, all her attributes in the masquerade. It is for that which she is not that she wishes to be desired as well as loved. (289-90)

11. See, for instance, Elin Diamond’s "Mimesis, Mimicry, and the ‘True Real’"; Mary Anne Doane’s "Film and Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator"; and Mary Russo’s The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity—especially her chapter "Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory" (53-73). For a study that looks at some of the complexities of masculinity as gender masquerade, see Kim Michasiw’s "Camp, Masculinity, Masquerade."

12. Luce Irigaray’s work in the field of psychoanalytic theory has also produced an influential construction of femininity as resistance through a kind of deliberately skewed repetition. Femininity, in Irigaray’s words, is "a role, an image, a value, imposed upon women by male systems of representation. In this masquerade of femininity," Irigaray goes on to say, "the woman loses herself, and loses herself by playing on her femininity" (84). Irigaray also points out how this masquerade can be used to undermine the very systems of representation which it is supposed to maintain. In a much-quoted passage Irigaray writes that "to play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it.... It also means ‘to unveil’ the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are not simply reabsorbed in this function. They also remain elsewhere..." (76).

13. A range of more recent works relevant to a detailed examination of science fiction as a queer field includes Russ’s The Female Man and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, of course; as well as Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains (1969) and The Passion of New Eve (1977); Elizabeth Hand’s Winterlong (1990); Emma Bull’s Bone Dance (1991); just about everything written by Samuel R. Delany (my own favorites are "Aye, and Gomorrah..." [1967] and Triton [1976]); many of John Varley’s stories and novels, including "Options" (1979) and Steel Beach (1991); Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989); Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden (1988); and Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People (1991) and Ring of Swords (1993). Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint (1987), Geoff Ryman’s Was (1992), Pat Murphy’s Nadya: The Wolf Chronicles (1996), and Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine (1997) are good examples of writing that queers fantasy.

14. The key "origin" text activated by Moore’s story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Deirdre and Maltzer consciously explore their own interactions through the roles first dramatized in Shelley’s novel. Responding to Maltzer’s despair at having overstepped the boundaries of human achievement—despair which, the text implies, arises from his inability to allocate any agency to Deirdre herself—Deirdre insists: "I’m not a Frankenstein monster made out of dead flesh. I’m myself—alive. You didn’t create my life, you only preserved it. I’m not a robot, with compulsions built into me that I have to obey. I’m free-willed and independent, and, Maltzer—I’m human" (278-279). However, Moore’s story concludes with Deirdre’s own growing anxiety at being the only one of her kind: "I wish there could be others like me. I’m ... I’m lonely, Maltzer"—to which he replies: "Then I am Frankenstein, after all" (287).

Given Shelley’s novel as intertext, it is tempting to read Deirdre as a displaced version of the monstrous bride so eagerly desired by Frankenstein’s Creature and aborted by Frankenstein out of fear, not only of her potential ability to procreate, but also of her potential for destruction. As Frankenstein argues to himself, the Creature "had sworn to quit the neighborhood of man and hide himself in deserts, but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation" (150). And behind the aborted bride stands the Eve of Milton’s Paradise Lost, itself one of the key intertexts in Frankenstein. As if fulfilling Frankenstein’s fears, Maltzer’s creation does indeed refuse any "compact" but her own with her audiences, and insists on taking responsibility for her continuing existence.

15. One of the most detailed and useful readings I know of "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is Scott Bukatman’s discussion in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (316-320), which situates Tiptree’s story within the context of the commodifying practices of the "society of the spectacle" and contrasts its feminist critique of techno-transcendence with the technological power fantasies of such later cyberpunk novels as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).

16. Tiptree, of course, was herself skilled at gender masquerade and became the subject of one of science fiction’s favorite stories about writerly performance. Robert Silverberg’s often quoted—and wonderfully wrong-headed—description of Tiptree’s "ineluctably masculine" (xii) writing has been read as a convincing demonstration that writing as a human activity is not inherently gendered. See Silverberg’s "Who Is Tiptree, What Is He?" In the context of gender masquerade, see also Jane Donawerth’s very useful chapter, "Cross-Dressing as a Male Narrator," in Frankenstein’s Daughters (109-176), which examines, in some detail, the deployment of male narrators and masculine points-of-view by such writers as Moore and Tiptree.

17. How women writers negotiate various conventions not particularly adapted to their own skills, interests, and politics is one of the questions explored in Donawerth’s Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction, a wide-ranging overview of "women writers’ responses to the defining constraints within the genre of science fiction" (xvii).


Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Burwell, Jennifer. "Acting Out ‘Lesbian’: Monique Wittig and Immanent Critique." In Notes on Nowhere: Feminism, Utopian Logic, and Social Transformation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 165-202.

Butler, Judith. "Against Proper Objects." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies (Special issue: More Gender Trouble: Feminism Meets Queer Theory) 6 (Summer-Fall, 1994): 1-24.

_____. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993.

_____. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Case, Sue-Ellen. "Tracking the Vampire." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3 (Summer 1991): 1-20.

de Lauretis, Teresa. "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities: An Introduction." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3 (Summer 1991): iii-xviii.

Diamond, Elin. "Mimesis, Mimicry, and the ‘True-Real’." Modern Drama 32 (March 1989): 58-72.

Doane, Mary Anne. "Film and Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator." Screen 23 (Sept.-Oct. 1982): 74-87.

Donawerth, Jane. Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse UP, 1997.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." 1985. In Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, ed. Elizabeth Weed. NY: Routledge, 1989. 173-204.

Hollinger, Veronica. "‘The Most Grisly Truth’: Responses to the Human Condition in the Works of James Tiptree, Jr." Extrapolation 30 (Summer 1989): 117-132.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York UP, 1996.

Lacan, Jacques. "The Signification of the Phallus." écrits. 1966. Rpt. écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. NY: Norton, 1977. 281-191.

Michasiw, Kim. "Camp, Masculinity, Masquerade." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6 (Summer-Fall 1994): 146-173.

Moore, C.L. "No Woman Born," 1944. In The Best of C.L. Moore, ed. Lester Del Rey. New York: Ballantine, 1975. 236-288.

Pearson, Wendy. "After the (Homo)Sexual: A Queer Analysis of Anti-Sexuality in Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country." SFS 23.2 (July 1996): 199-226.

Richardson, Diane, ed. Theorizing Heterosexuality: Telling it Straight. Bristol, PA: Open UP, 1996.

Riviere, Joan. "Womanliness as a Masquerade." The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10 (1929). In Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan. New York: Methuen, 1986. 35-44.

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_____. "When It Changed." Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison. 1972. New York: Berkley, 1983. 253-260.

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Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. New York: Bantam, 1981.

Silverberg, Robert. "Who Is Tiptree, What Is He?" Introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree, Jr. New York: Ballantine, 1975. ix-xviii.

Tatsumi, Takayuki. "Some Real Mothers: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany." Science Fiction Eye 1 (March 1988): 5-11.

Tiptree, Jr., James [Alice Sheldon]. "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side." 1972. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1990. 35-43.

_____. "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." 1973. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. 44-79.

_____. "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" 1976. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. 168-222.

Warner, Michael. "Introduction." Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Warner. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1993. vii-xxxi.

Wittig, Monique. "One Is Not Born a Woman." 1981. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. 9-20.

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