Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Final Rough Draft - Tiptree's Politics in The Girl Who Was Plugged In

Many of the short stories and essays by James Tiptree, Alice B. Sheldon, reflect his personal experiences and thoughts on situations that were going during his time and life in general.  The politics of Sheldon are heavily present in all of her stories, mostly hidden behind the theme or plotline of the specific story.  The Girl Who Was Plugged In is no exception to this rule.  The main politics that Sheldon conveys in this story concern her thoughts on what it means to be human; specifically what defines humans and their interactions.  She focuses specifically on male and female roles separately and their interactions with each other.  More importantly throughout the story she conveys her thoughts on empathy, which she sees as the best qualities that one can have, and her hopes of human evolution as an ultimate goal.  The Girl Who Was Plugged In conveys Sheldon’s politics about the faults and dark-sides of human life, while she is simultaneously telling the reader about her thoughts on how to overcome those problems and evolve as a species. 

            Sheldon’s personal life was full of lots of confusion and inner turmoil with herself, while she tried to figure out who she was and what her purpose was in life.  She went through periods of questioning herself as a human being and more importantly as a woman with ambitions, goals, and desires that conflicted with her very being.  She was always married to men, but she longed to make love to women and the greatest loves of her life were all women.  She had secret crushes on several women in her life, during boarding school, college and her career in military intelligence.  However, it always seemed to be unrequited love and she never really felt comfortable acting on any of her feelings.  She felt like she was locked inside a body that didn’t fit her true self, so in a way she felt trapped and enslaved by a body that wouldn’t allow her to feel and act on what she truly wanted.  Just as P. Burke is trapped inside the body of Delphi and has to accept this as her only way to live, even though she really wants to be out in the world living her own life as her true self.  Her true self, the ugly carcass, would not be accepted by society, so she is forced to live through a more pleasant appearance in order to live at all.  Sheldon too struggled with the implications of her outer appearance and how it meant she would have to portray herself in society.  It also turned out to be the reason why she started the prank of using the pseudonym, James Tiptree Jr.  This allowed her to write as bluntly and honestly as she wanted without having to worry about being seen as a woman who was stepping out of her place.  During her time women had a very specific role that they were to fill and if they went out of that role they were seen in a very negative light,

“she learned that women who worked outside the home were ‘masculinized’ a condition which endangered their marriage, their children, and sex life…feminism ranked with Communism, anti-Semitism, nihilism, and anarcho-syndicalism as on of the ‘organized movements of the modern world gathered around the principle of hatred, hostility and violence’” (Phillips 170). 

Sheldon struggled with her own sense of masculinity and how much it conflicted with her biological characteristics of being a woman.  Society didn’t help, only adding more pressure by setting strict standards that women were to uphold or have the very sex questioned.  This male dominance society is the same society that P. Burke must survive in.  GTX was composed of mostly men, “five of them technically male and the sixth isn’t easily thought of as a mother” (Tiptree 6).  This is the corporation that runs and controls all of the communication and public relations in the society.  Men are the dominant force once again and they expect to use beautiful young bodies of females, like Delphi in order to promote their ideas and products to the people.  Delphi is to be seen but not heard as she is always monitored and under surveillance.  Sheldon is mimicking the society that she felt pressured by and felt put a limit on her and what she could and should do in life.  When she refers to the men as “technically male” she is alluding to the fact that biologically they are men, but that may be the only thing that defines them as men.  The fact that the only woman isn’t “easily thought of as a mother” implies the masculinity that is pushed on women who work outside of the home and questioning her ability to truly care for her children.  She is thought of as a threat rather than an empowered woman, because of the men that surround her who want sole control.  If women decided to do anything that a man does in the workforce they were seen a hostile and dangerous force during Sheldon’s years.

            Besides dealing with the pressures that men put on women, she felt that all women in general already had issues and conflict to deal with on their own.  To Sheldon, their sex alone and biological make-up caused problems for them.  She wrote,

“Women are more apart from their bodies than men are; having a woman’s body is quite something; it is like being the owner of a large and only partly tamed animal, day and night the damn thing is being itself, with its own semi-inscrutable operations…It is like being attached to a sleepless, amoebic, oozing, urgent, swelling, welling, vegetable animal, forever slipping out of control and leaking its pseudopod round the corner. An unpredictable, volcanic, treacherous, merry, rather overpowering thing to live with” (Phillips 181).

This description of the bodies that women have describes P. Burke and her experience with the body of Delphi.  She is the owner of the “vegetable animal” that is Delphi.  She is an only partly tamed animal, because P. Burke only owns her mind, but isn’t able to feel touch or enjoy the other physical pleasures that Delphi experiences.  She is in a very literal sense apart from and unattached to the body that she lives through.  Sheldon uses her to illustrate her beliefs about women and she continued to struggle with women and questioning her own identity.  Perhaps she created this weird combination of a human brain and a robot in order to illustrate her confusion about the physical and mental state of women and herself, in particular.  This also could be Sheldon’s expression of wanting to be out of her own skin.  Phillips’ points out that “she never explicitly identifies with men, but she doesn’t feel like a woman either.  She often seems to be trying to get free of gender entirely, as if her scientific inquiry is a way of climbing out of her own skin” (182).  Sheldon believed in human evolution and maybe she thought that creating a gender-free world would allow for that overall transformation.  This would end the distinct roles of men and women and end a male dominant society.  The cyborg that she created out of the character of P. Burke could be a representation of the evolved creature that she hopes for in the future; at least the ideal woman of the future.  As the body, Delphi, evolves towards the end and starts to become independent, with a voice of her own.  Sheldon liked to see women who were intelligent, ambitious and had goals, like her, and the evolution of Delphi represents this woman.  She has gone from a silent, controlled, vegetable, to being able to think on her own and speak out.

            She uses this story to talk about the social problems that existed at the time, and in many ways still exist today.  As Phillip mentions the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, among other things were going on when Sheldon was writing and they all influenced her thoughts on human beings and what made them do certain things.  She dealt with the cruelty of human beings and how it had caused some to take over the once glorious, adventurous, and amazing place she knew as Africa in her childhood.  It had become colonized and the Europeans destroyed the rich culture that she had once experienced.  She was dealing with what causes humans to be violent and cruel to one another, which were the basis of all of the social issue going on.  Through her studies in psychology, ethology and research she developed ideas of what is most important to humanity.  Phillips’ writes, “Ethology also demands empathy, which Alli began to see as an important part of negentropy—that force of life, growth, and organization that she felt was our purpose on Earth…She wondered if it [empathy] could be bred or taught. She thought it might save the world” (238).  Empathy was what was lacking in the U.S. and the world with racism, sexism, cruelties of war, etc.  In The Girl Who Was Plugged In there is a lack of empathy, which could be Sheldon’s way of showing how much chaos exists in a society with little to none of it. 


 (I didn't use much reference to Tiptree's CIA or Military career, because according to the biography it really wasn't that much of an important phase in her life, as far as having huge impacts on her thoughts and writings.  The CIA especially was a very short-lived career, so it wasn't that significant to her life.   I'm also not sure if it would be better to use Tiptree or Sheldon in the essay.  I find it easier to use Sheldon because I talk about her experiences as a woman.  Also it ends abruptly because I just stopped writing, it's not an actual conclusion.)

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Here's a link to a version with comments: