Honours: The Next Generation

Emily BagnaTerms of Engagement: Teaching & Learning in the English Departmentld, Geena Kelly, and Shelby MacGregor are three of our department’s incoming Honours students: in the 2014-2015 academic year, they’ll write theses exploring a range of issues in feminist science fiction and speculative fiction. This spring, they chatted with contract faculty member Tina Northrup about their interests, aims, and academic experiences so far.

All three students had taken Dr. Northrup’s ENGL 3363 : Feminisms and their Literatures course in 2013-14, which helped them develop and refine some of their ideas.

Tina Northrup (TN): So, what interests you about the genres you’ve chosen to work on for your Honours theses?

Emily Bagnald (EB): The books I’m writing about, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, are science/speculative fiction. Primarily I’m interested in these genres because I’m interested in social and political structures: in the ways that societies function, and specifically the role (or lack thereof) of the state in a more just, compassionate, and free society.

I’m also interested in revolution, intentional community building, and unintended consequences. Speculative fiction grapples with all these things. To be honest, I’m less interested in these books as works of literature than I am as socio-political thought experiments. I want to know: if we want to be free, if we want an existence that honours the earth, and all animals (including humans), what could that look like? Because I think these are the ideals of many—if not most—people. There is so much political rhetoric about freedom, democracy, and justice. I would argue this rhetoric is frequently a tool of manipulation used to achieve antithetical ends, but it would not be so often deployed if it were not effective, if it did not speak to the people’s values.

Geena Kelly (GK): What I like about my thesis is that hopefully it will portray women in science fiction in a better light. In the Science Fiction class both Shelby and I took last year, we learned that in the beginning science fiction was portrayed as big buff oily guys and women in shiny leotards getting attacked by aliens. In contrast to all of that, we have the heroines from the books I’ve chosen, such as Elizabeth from Frankenstein, the characters from The Left Hand of Darkness, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, and other current sci-fi heroines. I like the idea that we’ve gone past needing to be rescued and defined by some weirdo muscly man, and turned into our own protagonists.

Shelby MacGregor (SM): That’s a lot of the same for me as well. I’m interested in strong female characters in science fiction, and fantasy more broadly. My thesis primarily comes from how angry I am at the representation of Katniss in The Hunger Games, because I find that she’s presented as a strong genderless character, when in reality she is very gendered, and all of her actions reflect her gender. Overall, I’m trying to analyze her gender and how aware she is of it versus her gender neutrality, and then talk about how that fits into film and film adaptation: what the end result is when you see it on the screen rather than see it in the written word.

TN: So, Shelby, your thesis will juggle both the books and the film franchise?

SM: Yep. It’s going to be a bit more of juggling the themes of both. Mockingjay is going to be particularly difficult, because the fourth film will not be out until December 2015, but the third one will be out hopefully in December 2014, so I can watch and write that section of my thesis when it comes out. But a lot of what I’ll be doing will be speculative, and the specific scenes in Mockingjay (the novel) that I think speak to Katniss being stifled, which speaks to my belief that her agency is taken away at the end of the franchise, will not exist on film yet, which will make a book-to-film comparison difficult. So, I’ll be looking at specific themes found in the novels and then discussing how they change once they are adapted to the screen.

TN: Geena, you were saying that you’re interested in an arc in science fiction, in which initially we might be likely to find a lot of muscly men and damsels in distress, whereas now there seem to be a lot of strong female characters. Picking up on some of what Shelby has just said, I’d like to know how you—and Emily, you too—see those female characters being represented as protagonists. Is there anything about the specific ways they’re portrayed that interests you?

EB: Representations of women in my chosen texts are pretty fascinating. Woman on the Edge grapples with gender performance more so than Dispossessed. In both of the ambiguous utopias, Mattapoisett in Woman and Annares in Dispossessed, women generally do very little in the way of gender performance or displays of femininity. There are other societies in the texts that are largely there for contrast: in Woman this is Earth’s past and also an alternate future; in Dispossessed it is Urras. It is clear from these societies that exaggerated gender performance is correlated with sexual oppression, and even, in Woman, sex slavery. When Connie, the protagonist of Woman, first encounters Luciente, her female guide from the future Mattapoisett, she initially believes Luciente is male because Luciente does not engage in the kind of gender performance with which Connie is accustomed. There are similar things going on in The Dispossessed, to a lesser extent. Both Piercy and Le Guin are feminists, but in writing these particular texts Le Guin was more influenced by anarchist political theory, and Piercy by feminist theory.

GK: For the novels I’ve chosen, what interests me is the ways in which the female characters interact with their femininity and how they try to adopt their own agency, despite the pressures coming from the world around them. If you look at Elizabeth in Frankenstein, she tries to have an impact on the events unfolding around her. She doesn’t have any of her own agency, but she tries to make an impact on Victor’s life. She’s always writing him to him, she’s always saying, “look: are you okay, what are you doing? are you doing bad things? if you’re doing bad things, you should probably not be doing those things.” And while she can’t come out and stop him from doing anything, she’s trying as hard as she can, within her own limits. With Katniss, you can almost see that same thing, where she doesn’t have any of her own agency versus the Capitol, and how she’s trying to make her own impact on them with her own life, and how she’s trying to keep Prim safe, and all that kind of stuff wrapped up with how, as hard as she can, she can’t really affect the Capitol the same way the Capitol can affect her, just like how Elizabeth can’t affect Victor the same way he’s affecting her.

TN: That’s really interesting: I wouldn’t have thought to align them as being similarly limited or similarly powerless in those ways, but now that you say that I think that’s absolutely right. And what about in The Left Hand of Darkness?

GK: What always interests me about that book is that Le Guin came under a lot of fire because of how she wasn’t super, “women are awesome, yay!” but rather she kind of painted everyone under the male light. I was always interested in that because I think the time in which she wrote this book needs to be taken into consideration. She was writing this book in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, and when we were reading the book in class I was thinking about how at that point in time, women wouldn’t have had that much representation anyways, and if they were out in public, they were either secretaries or in some other “gendered” occupation. If you were trying to be an actual career woman, you were harassed, or you were seen as, “oh, you’re trying to be like a man,” or that kind of thing. For someone in Le Guin’s position, maybe a genderless world would have been utopia, because if you don’t have a gender, you can’t be harassed. And so it’s going against the whole “embracing femininity” thing to saying, “no, we don’t have any gender, you can’t harass us anymore.”

SM: Yeah, and there’s also—going off of what you said: if it’s all in a male light, Le Guin is almost reclaiming traditionally female roles because all characters do everything, and the king is pregnant. So, it takes traditionally female and, like, meek, I guess, characteristics and puts them in that harsh male light, so it’s kind of a form of reclaiming femininity through maleness, in a weird way, or feminine aspects in a genderless way

GK: “You can’t be mad at us ‘cause you have to do it too.”

I think the thing about The Left Hand of Darkness is that while you have Genly Ai, the lead protagonist, sitting there making negative associations about people based on whether or not he’s giving them “male” or “female” characteristics, I feel that there is also this subtext when reading in another character’s point of view of how wrong Genly Ai is for doing this. A point is made within the book that Genly cannot wrap his head around the fact that these people have no genders and that their male and female characteristics, regardless of negative or positive associations, are wrapped around each other to create unique individuals. To the people on this new planet, it is Genly Ai’s maleness that is foreign and strange. Later on in the book, a point is even made that Genly’s “male pride” is inhibiting the progress he and Estrevan are able to make on their journey.

EB: Oh, all that is so interesting. Similar things are happening in Woman on the Edge in regards to reproduction and child rearing. No one carries pregnancies physically: that is all done by tech. Then three people parent a child and several will breastfeed, including men. The protagonist’s, Connie’s, reaction to women not carrying pregnancies was similar to my own: she was saddened and shocked. It was explained to her that carrying pregnancies was the one thing that women had to give up to attain true equality for all, but she was appalled that they would lose the potential to have this experience and connection to offspring. This was an example for me of why Mattapoisett is an ambiguous utopia, rather than a straight up utopia, largely because I agree with Connie that carrying a pregnancy can be an amazing and empowering experience, but also because I questioned how they prevented women from becoming pregnant in Mattapoisett. What kind of bodily control is practiced so that it seems to never happen? How is that control enforced? This was one of the few features that made Mattapoisett an ambiguous utopia for me. Otherwise I would be pretty ready to move there. You know, if it were real.

TN: Shifting the conversation slightly, I’m interested to know whether or not our discussions in the Feminisms seminar this year—or, Geena and Shelby, your discussions in Science Fiction last year— influenced your thinking about these texts and how you might approach them. If so, how?

EB: For sure our discussions in Feminisms gave me a broader context from which to approach specifically Piercy’s work. Also, for me the debates ongoing about feminisms are linked to the debates ongoing within the broader politics I pay attention to and am attempting to explore here. What I mean is, I hear a lot of politicos saying that freedom is about choice: about having negative liberty. I hear the same thing from so-called third wave feminists: that freedom and feminism is all about choice . . . negative liberty again. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not necessarily opposed to negative liberty, but I also don’t believe that a fervent belief in negative liberty is enough: not for political justice and not for feminism. The extreme individualism that characterizes liberalism, in feminism and more broadly, is detrimental to the formation of egalitarian communities. The attitude of self and choice before all else does not foster unity, or community, or address the root causes of oppression. I know that seems a bit tangential, but that is what I spent most of the year in Feminisms thinking about. Initially I wondered: why are we talking about “feminisms” plural? Of course, I quickly saw that is because the movement is split, and that those splits are over deep and fundamental differences. Also, I kept wondering, why do so many people insist that feminism is just about equality and choice, when this was not the extent of the original meaning or intent of the movement? Increased personal options improve the lived experiences of some individuals, but the existence of more options for some does not mean the systems of power that reinforce misogyny and oppression have been dismantled, far from it. I think of what is beginning to happen to anarchism on Annares in Dispossessed: it has become stagnant, dogmatic, counterproductive, and even, in some ways, the antithesis of its originators’ dreams of true liberation from systemic oppression. I fear, although it is an imperfect analogy, much the same can be said for the modern feminist movement—at least popular liberal feminism.

SM: Science Fiction, for me, was more helpful in broadening my horizons with science fiction: taking me out of the oiled men and damsels in distress and giving me more subtle and questioning forms—showing what science fiction can do, and what purpose it can serve in society. So that changed my mindset with regard to the way I look at certain forms of fiction and the questions I ask. And the fem lit discussion class: it’s more shaped my thesis more than anything, because I wouldn’t have picked up The Hunger Games to read if it had not been for that class, just because I have no time to read other books. Since it was on the course material, it’s like, “okay, you have to read this now,” and I was like, “this is amazing! how did I not read it before? what was I doing?” And we had one discussion that I remember in particular where Emily said something like: “I ask more of young adult fiction, and its representation of women, and what it says to women” (if we’re presuming that women are the primary readers of a book written by a female author with a female protagonist). She said she holds it to a higher moral ground, and I agree. That’s why I have all of these thoughts about Katniss and her representation in film, because I think that because it’s a young adult book and it’s marketed to a very specific group of people, even though other people might read it or watch it, then that initial group takes certain things away from it that I would not as an adult reader. Since it got adapted into film and it reaches a wider audience, if the film and the text become paratexts to each other in very strong and significant ways, I am interested in investigating how that would affect readership of Katniss from the film to the book and vice versa, and what that would mean to those broader audiences now.

GK: I know when we were doing all the cyborg stuff at the end of the semester in Feminisms, whenever we’d start talking about it all I could think of was about these two other books we read in Science Fiction, Neuromancer and He, She, and It, and how similar they were to our course readings at the end of Feminisms. Whenever we would talk about the cyborgs that’s all I could think about. He, She, and It had a woman who fell in love with a cyborg, and within the book it was viewed as this negative thing that she wanted to hide from her community. But in the book almost everyone had cyborg parts—or not necessarily parts but I mean they all had like implants, pretty much Google Glass. And so whenever we were talking about it all I could think about was that book and how they already were cyborgs, I guess, and how it was completely normal in that timeline for people to just have robotic parts, but even still, how the main protagonist ends up falling in love with a cyborg, but that’s unheard of, in the book. She ends up falling in love with a cyborg, and it’s this big hush hush, “don’t tell anyone, ‘cause it’s bad,” which I found interesting, at the end, ‘cause I mean, they’re all pretty much kind of robotic themselves, but dating an actual robotic person is bad.

EB: I was really fascinated by Haraway’s essay on cyborg identity. I might incorporate her ideas somewhat when talking about Woman on the Edge. That book was published in 1976 and citizens of Mattapoisett wore devices called “kenners,” which are eerily like our modern “smart phones.” There are other ways, certainly, that Haraway’s ideas could relate to the texts I’m working with, but I think if I do mention these ideas they won’t feature prominently. As much as I am interested in Haraway’s essay, I think extensively pursuing her ideas would be too much of a digression: really I want to look at the ways people engage with each other socially and how that looks in the absence of a centralized state. If I had to name my theoretical lens I would say it is Anarcho-Marxist / radical-feminist. I thought a lot about this initially but what that amounts to at the moment is simply me looking at the texts through the same lens I always use to see the world.

Update: Since this interview was conducted, Emily Bagnald has chosen, due to family and work obligations, to graduate with a general BA.  She may return to her thesis project at a later date.

Honours: The Next Generation, Part 2 will feature our two other honours students, Rebecca Power and Jess Herritt, who are both writing theses on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Next February, you can hear more about how our Honours students’ thesis research has developed when they will present their work in a departmental colloquium, to which all students and faculty will be invited.


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