Sexism in the Ringworld

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The Kzinti are arguably the most archetypical uber-sexists in the history of speculative fiction. They are fierce meat-eating predators, they all act like alpha males, the females of their species are non-sapient sex kittens, and their government is--by definition--an Old Boys’ Club that they have the temerity to openly call “The Patriarchy.” They’re just as bold as brass about it. When one takes people such as these, and drops them in a vaguely yonically-shaped place like the Ringworld, it’s just an automatic recipe for sexisim, isn’t it? 1

“Ah,” you say, “But that doesn’t really concern us, does it? The story is primarily about humans front and center, the aliens--though fascinating--are subordinate characters. Clearly there can be no sexism in a book like this, can there?” As a thought exercise, let’s put away our knowledge of what the author intended--which was clearly to be as pro-feminist as 1970 could conceive--and look at what he said. How have those perspectives have in the forty years since? The written word may not change, but social perspectives do, and this kind of historiography tells us a lot about the culture in which a work of art was created, if not its universal meaning.

We start out, as ever, in the endlessly hip-and-swingin’ earth of Known Space: All sex all the time. We meet up with our protagonist as he’s grown tired of easy conquests and easier life. He had love once, but he describes the effect she had on him in openly violent terms (“Whiplash of the heart”). He finds a new love who is of interest to him pretty much exclusively because she reminds him of his old love, offering him a chance to effectively conquer what was denied to him years before. There is an unstated, but very male assumption here that the reason Louis can’t put the past behind him is because he had his dominance taken from him, and this new girl is his chance to re-assert it.

The new girl is shown as vapid, though immediately engaging, and--of course--immediately sexually available. She moves in with Louis, becoming financially and--until midway through the novel--socially dependent upon him, without any real reservations about this. She’s clearly not consciously a gold-digger, but she does seem entirely content to allow others to be subservient to her needs, and there is an unspoken, cozy assumption that this is kind of the way it’s meant to be.

The mission ensues, traveling to a yonical* world that was built by men. Exactly who or what built the Ringworld is unclear in this book, but it is obviously artificial, and as such represents a perversion of nature itself. It is an artificial mother, built by a father, which, in one sense, makes it little different from the Kzinti’s nonsapient sex kittens writ large. If you’re a radical feminist, then this is pretty much exactly what you believe is every man’s secret fantasy: a world in which every aspect of the female (excepting the nookie) is supplanted by the male. This even extends to the aliens. As we’ve seen, the Kzinti are essentially a parody (Deliberate, I assume) of the feminist view of male psychology in the ’60s, but it’s revealed in this novel that the pacifistic, cowardly, vegetarian Puppeteers are a tri-gendered species in which two males impregnate a non-sentient female. In other words, the Puppeteers are outed as a species of homosexuals who want kids. Because, of course, everyone just knows that pacifistic vegetarians just must be gay. They’re neat, too. Tend to live alone (At least when in the presence of humans). Tend to imitate women--their voices, anyway--and they’re very musical. They spend a lot of time on their hair. Really, the only stereotype they’re missing is that they clearly don’t like cats. I assume this is not deliberate, but if the Puppeteers were intended as the opposite of the uber-male phobias of radical feminists, then it follows they’d be ‘acceptable’ males by the commutative power of crazy worldviews. And what is the opposite of a patriarch? Well, obviously, a queen.

The point being that the closest thing to a feminist in the book is immediately relegated to not-quite-male status, and hence neutered as a threat to our two (very) male leads.

Is it any surprise that the very phallic spaceship is name the ‘Lying Bastard?’ Is it any surprise that this cosmic tallywhacker attempts to probe the Ringworld, and, of course, gets slapped down for it? Is it any surprise that Ringworld civilization lies in ruins? Not really, because you need men there to run the thing, or so a radical feminist would believe men think.

When we finally meet an important Ringworlder, she is, of course, a professional ship’s whore, there for the entertainment of the crew for the duration of long voyages, and--it is implicit--for keeping the crew in line via her extremely-well-trained feminine wiles. Louis--no stranger to crazy screaming orgiastic sex--describes her as being preternaturally good, and again, the implicit suggestion is that one could easily become addicted. To whom you are addicted, you are a slave. She has been living as a sham goddess for quite some time, subsisting off the stupidity and labor of the people below. Thus, in her we find the archetypical (yet sexually confusing) concept of the Goddess/Whore.

Both Halrloprillalar and Teela are manipulating men for their own ends. Halrloprillalar wants out of her current situation, and Louis is the guy to do that. She uses him, and there’s no particular reason to believe there’s any more to it. Teela manipulates the men in the expedition by her luck, unawares of course, but it’s no less manipulative for that. Thus we end up with the concept that whether they’re trying to do it or not, women just ain’t no damn good, and you can’t trust ‘em, ‘cuz they’ll make you do stuff they want.

In the case of the vapid and dependent Teela, what she wants is to use Louis as a kind of ‘This space reserved for future use’ lover until she can meet a bigger, more forceful man who can dominate her sexually. It’s no surprise that this guy turns out to be a Conan the Barbarian knockoff. Once our men folk are of no further use to her, our heroes are cast off the Ringworld, having effectively played the part of middlemen to a woman who kinda’ didn’t realize what an imposition she was being.

Clearly, there’s a lot of sub-textural sexual politics going on in the novel. The questions arising from this are simple: How much, if any of this is intentional? And if any of it is, then is the book intended as a slam on feminism, a defense of masculinity, or just a rollicking good time that we shouldn’t read too much into?

Probably the latter, but you can’t entirely write off either of the other choices, which is, of course, the mark of great art: It never stops revealing itself to you in unexpected ways, even if you’re a bit uncomfortable with some of those revelations now and again.