Transitions, transfers and transgressions: (temporary) trans* wish-fulfilment in SF body-exchange narratives

Rebecca Hutton , Deakin University |

 

‘The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future […] but to describe reality, the present world.’

—   Ursula K. Le Guin[i]

Science fiction, according to Pearson, Hollinger and Gordon’s Queer universes: sexualities in science fiction, ‘reflects contemporary realities back to us through the lens of a particular type of imagination’ (2008, p. 3). This imagination, in part at least, is associated with the genre’s ability ‘to think outside mimetic reproduction of contemporary reality’ and represent dynamic rather than static models of existence (p. 3). In particular, SF and speculative narratives can ‘operate as destabilizing forces’ (Battis 2007, p.9), challenging established hegemonic structures and ‘offer[ing] possibilities for new landscapes and new beings, including non-conventional views of gender and identity’ (Ginway 2010, p. 41).

every day coverIn the quote used to preface this piece, Ursula K. Le Guin identifies her 1969 novel The left hand of darkness as a work of descriptive rather than predictive SF. As a thought-experiment based on a variant of ‘what is’ rather than a vision of the future, the text ‘imagines a world free of the male/female binary that so thoroughly dictates identity and informs discourse’ (Thibodeau 2012, p. 263). A similar experiment that attempts to describe (rather than predict) the possibility of an amorphous existence, at the very least conceptually akin to The left hand of darkness’ androgynous Gethenians, is David Levithan’s Every day (2012). Every day may not be a canonical text like that of Le Guin’s work, but it is one such experiment whereby notions of the supposed singularity and permanence of sex and gender are challenged. In the text, an entity named ‘A’ is born without form or sex. Both are assumed when the entity occupies a human body, briefly sharing the vessel and taking control. Each occupation necessitates a deliberate gender performance (see for example p.150, p.166) for a twenty-four hour period before A is forced to move on to another body/performance for a day, then another, and so on. This cycle has continued since A’s birth, with time marked in a continuous flow of days rather than months and years. But it is on Day 6023 that Levithan makes explicit an association that is infrequently made in terms of exchanges and passages between physical bodies in SF texts: that of transgender and transsexual experience.

According to Pearson, ‘depictions of trans people and bodies […] thread through the entire history of [SF] often functioning allegorically as ways of questioning Cartesian approaches to sex as dichotomous and gender as its essential consequence’ (2009, p. 399). When A occupies the body of Vic—who is ‘[b]iologically female, gendered male’—trans* experience is explicitly conflated with A’s existence, as Vic is ‘[l]iving within the definition of his own truth, just like me’ (Levithan 2012, p. 253). The experience of bodily discord is further elucidated in A’s early experiences:

There were days I felt like a girl and days I felt like a boy, and those days wouldn’t always correspond with the body I was in. I still believed everyone when they said I had to be one or the other. Nobody was telling me a different story. (p. 254)

Part of A’s existence resembles a type of transsexual wish-fulfilment fantasy, as in the text the actual process of sex change for A is painless, usually easy and seemingly a natural part of A’s biology. Such a depiction is quite utopic in the erasure of both physical and mental barriers to transition, with the process circumventing the need for repeated, prolonged and painful procedures. However, in Every day the transition from body to body, gender to gender to gender, is simultaneously portrayed as a dystopian concept. A exists mostly in a somewhat resigned acceptance of circumstance but becomes discontent after meeting and falling in love with Rhiannon. While the text explores the possibility of Rhiannon loving A regardless of bodily impermanence, her acceptance of A’s sex changes from day to day is markedly limited. She is inhibited on occasions when A is in female bodies, as she feels she is ‘not actually kissing [A] […] You’re in there somewhere. But I’m kissing the outside part’ (p. 132). A’s final solution for their predicament is to leave Rhiannon to love someone else—a supposedly ‘suitable’, stable (male) body/mind. The text concludes (apologies for spoilers) with A continuing the cycle of travelling from body to body, leaving Rhiannon behind.

The novel is certainly promising in the prominence given to a way of being that, conceptually at least, rejects a rigid binary of male and female and challenges these categories as unchangeable. In particular, Every day offers a vision of existence where there is not just the option of one-to-the-other but a multitude of back and forth across sexes and the potential for different embodiments of each gender. But this vision is unable to wholly celebrate such a fluid existence. This is particularly so in terms of notions regarding the changing body, as the closure (or lack thereof) implies A’s transitioning is likely an unending process. An unfortunate by-product of this is that, when read as a metaphor for transgender and transsexual experience, the implication is that in the process of real world transitioning the body will continue to fall short of being what is desired and the changing body will struggle to reach a state that is satisfactory for those both within and outside of the body. The text may champion a conception of existence that is open, seemingly limitless, and transgressive in its resistance to established boundaries, but it is coupled with a sense of dissatisfaction that neither A nor Rhiannon can transcend.

farscapeBody swapping within and between sexes is also common in SF television (Star Trek, Stargate, Red Dwarf, to name a few). However, in mainstream productions in particular, the outcomes of the narratives often extend then rescind the offer of body/sex/gender change, as souls/essences are expected to return to their original form. Farscape (1999 – 2003), an Australian-made SF series, plays with body exchange in the season two episode ‘Out of their minds’. In the episode, multiple attacks on Moya (the biomechanical ship the crew call home) result in a series of body swaps. After the first attack, Crichton’s (Human, male) mind is transferred to the body of Aeryn (Sebacean, female) and Chiana (Nebari, female) is transferred to D’Argo (Luxan, male). In these exchanges, the opportunity to occupy differently sexed bodies is played comically. Crichton, whilst in Aeryn’s body, takes the opportunity to explore the female landscape with a foray beneath the shirt and an implied expedition below the waistline. He (though I would much rather write ‘she’ given that he was occupying and utilising the female body at the time) bounces and jiggles himself/herself excitedly and takes in the spectacle of his now female body. Chiana likewise takes the opportunity to enjoy her new, male, Luxan body while she occupies it, or at least it is implied that is the case when D’Argo, after reclaiming his body, questions what she did to his sensitive tankas (tentacle-like facial appendages). Even Aeryn hints that she spent some time down Crichton’s pants whilst in his body. Interestingly, the joy of body swapping for each of these characters is closely tied to their enjoyment of the sexual aspects of their new bodies. They take delight in pleasures from the new mechanics, living the dream of those wishing for such an easy acquisition of an alternate set of genitalia.

Where Jes Battis calls Crichton’s occupation of Aeryn’s body ‘the ultimate straight (and gay) male fantasy’ (2007, p. 124) I would argue that it is even more so a trans* fantasy. But where Farscape is quite unique in the way it is so willing to ‘cross bodily boundaries’ (Battis, p.124), the characters must still return to their bodies and sex/gender by episode’s end. While the foray across sexes is enticingly carnivalesque and enjoyable for the characters for a time, the pursuit of the original form is prioritised over prolonged exploration of alternate bodies and genders. By episode’s end, original form and sex have quite joyously been reclaimed (celebrations and jokes all around), with Chiana’s comment to D’Argo that she ‘really liked being in [his] body’ only an echo of the pleasure of her experience now that the fantasy has ended. She may have ‘really liked’ it but she cannot stay permanently, just as A cannot in Every day.

Both texts discussed offer scenarios of transitioning that embody a type of trans* fantasy where transitions across sex and gender are fluid and easy. Yet these texts still cannot deliver a re-imagining of transgender and transsexual experience that allows for enduring contentment in the revised body. Both are in their own ways thought-experiments, revisioning the present world and the possibilities of transition from one body to another, a sex to another, a gender to another. Yet even in these imaginings the transition is never completed and the mind must be brought back to the original form or propelled forward on a seemingly unending journey towards a potentially unreachable end.

Bio: Rebecca Hutton is a PhD candidate in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Australia. She has written on dystopian young adult fictions and the use of music in young adult narratives. She is currently writing on music and utopia in GLBTQ young adult novels.

 

References

Battis, J 2007, Investigating Farscape: uncharted territories of sex and science fiction, I.B. Taurus, London.

Ginway, ME 2010, ‘Transgendering in Luso-Brazillian speculative fiction from Machado de Assis to the present’, Luso-Brazillian Review, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 40 – 60.

Le Guin, UK [1969] 2010, The left hand of darkness, Ace Books, New York.

Levithan, D 2012, Every day, Text Publishing, Melbourne.

Out of their minds, Farscape, 2003, television series, The Jim Henson Company.

Pearson, WG 2009, ‘Trans(lating) sex/gender/sexuality: Trans SF?’, pp. 399 – 400, in ‘SFS Symposium: Sexuality in Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 385 – 403.

Pearson, WG, Hollinger, V & Gordon, J 2008, Queer universes: sexualities in science fiction, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.

Thibodeau, A 2012, ‘Alien bodies and a queer future: sexual revision in Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” and James Tiptree, Jr.’s “With Delicate Mad Hands”’, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 262 – 282.

 

Image credits

Every day cover, http://www.davidlevithan.com/every-day/

Farscape, 2.09 ‘Out of their minds’, http://farscape.wikia.com/wiki/Out_of_Their_Minds

 


[i] Le Guin, UK [1976] 2010, ‘Introduction’, The left hand of darkness, Ace Books, New York, p. xiv.

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