Monday, March 2, 2009

Week 8: Tiptree

"Her stories and novels are humanistic, while her deep concern for male-female (even human-alien) harmony ran counter to the developing segregate-the-sexes drive amongst feminist writers; What her work brought to the genre was a blend of lyricism and inventiveness, as if some lyric poet had rewritten a number of clever SF standards and then passed them on to a psychoanalyst for final polish." — Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree

One of the strengths of the feminist texts of Alice Sheldon, whether written under her own name, under James Tiptree, Jr. (ex.: "The Women Men Don't See"), or under the name Raccoona Sheldon, is that they allow women and men to exist together even while struggling to understand their place in the crazy world within which they reside. For example, in The Screwfly Solution, a passionate love affair between a married couple still exists in the midst of the mass slayings of the Pauline Purification cults. And even as Alan imagines "the only body he longed for" and searches for answers to the heightened killing of women along the Intertropical Convergence Zone, he still finds himself, within days, of confusing his desire for Anne with the thrill of slitting her throat. And to protect her, he tells her to stay away from him - kill him if she must.

And even as men slay women, indeed dress as hunters seeking their prey, a family friend, Dr. Barnhard Braithwaite, hides Anne at a remote cabin. Here she is often forced to flee from the men around her, and we get a sense of her terror at being the only women left in the world. And this is where Sheldon/Tiptree is at her best - for the old man, obviously past the physical need for sex (at least, that is the only way I can account for his ability to identify her and not wish to harm her – he has bypassed the “close linkage between the behavioral expression of aggression/predation and sexual reproduction” of other men), warns her that the men are carrying out their “liberation.” Nothing in this relationship between men and women is ever fully evil, as Anne acknowledges in her epitaph, when she writes "Here lies the second meanest primate on earth,” aptly noting that even women are capable of great wrong under the right circumstances.

And as Brian Aldiss notes in the quote above, Tiptree’s feminist texts did not seek to bloody men (even if only metaphorically), as with Marge Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time, or even isolate themselves from men, as in Charlotte Perkin’s Herland (Perkins seems to have spawned similar tales, as with West’s “The Last Man,” which also seems to be written along similar lines: here the real woman initiates natural love and “the couple’s subsequent flight because she can’t stand the all-female society’s lack of liveliness and love” (Russ 52). I think that is why I like Tiptree's stories. There is a natural balance to her texts even in the midst of the horror, which may, as noted in Michael Swanwick’s Introduction, be an aspect of her character: “the outcome of the battle reflects Tiptree’s antipathy for all ultimate resolutions” (xi). I see it as a maturity that can see past the need for vengeance to a kinder need to find the peace that can exist between the sexes.

And though Joanna Russ may we correct in her reflection upon the ten tales she selects, including Tiptree's "Mama Come Home," I do not agree that the conflict is resolved when the men's victory includes a quasi-religious conversion of the women, or that the women "constantly plan to do away with men" while men "it seems, are not willing to do away with women" (43). The only reason Anne is still alive in "The Screwfly Solution" is because the men have not yet found her, and she - knowing her fate - decides to take her own life. The "liberation" the hunters seek is not one for her soul. And again, ironically, it is a man who has attempted to hide her. Still, I acknowledge that the tales Russ has selected probably do in fact carry the theme she mentions; it just so happens that it does not apply to all of Tiptree's work.

I do, however, like Russ' notion that women are not always actively engaged in fighting with men; at times they have merely withdrawn from man's company, which is seen - almost identically - as a challenge to male domination. Now that would be interesting to follow, for one can see it in Herland as well. And, I wonder, if it was Connie's anger ("The anger of the weak never goes away, Professor, it just gets a little moldly....and probably those angers go on growing in the dark of the grave like the hair and the nails") and her ability to withdraw from the "the institution" that brings about their interest in controlling her mind in this world. If she had not withdrawn, would their need to control her have been as total? It could be said that her ability to withdraw is in fact her power.

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