She & Him

In Neil Gaiman’s short story collection “Smoke and Mirrors” (which I recommend), there is a disturbing story called “Changes” set in a not-too-distant future where the jet-set drug of choice is one that can cause a person to change their gender.  Despite dangerous side effects, the rich are illegally using it so they can bed whomever they want from whichever side of the plate they’d like.  Hilarity ensues.  Well, not really.

The reason this crossed my mind today was a report that I saw in the journal Endocrinology about a species of sex-changing gobies (fish).  As it turns out, the goby species Trimma Okinawae is one of the few species that can change from male to female and back serially, depending on population and environmental conditions.  The fish have both fully functioning ovaries and testes, and have the capacity to turn one “off” and the other “on” interchangeably – pretty funky.

But then I started thinking about the gobies and about the story.  And people.  Of all the things about people (even more than skin color), gender has to be the first thing we notice and the one that makes the deepest impression.  From the moment we’re conceived – XX or XY – it defines who we are.  Even our language – he, she, him, her – is constructed around gender.
Is this something that you’d change if you could?  Would you change your gender for a day in that “walk a mile in my shoes” sort of way?  Just for the novelty?  What if the change had to be longer – a year?  Would you do it?
If it were possible, do you think it would be good for society?  There’d certainly be no gender gap if gender was as easy to change as a hair-style.  Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin would have been merely candidates.  The institution of marriage would almost certainly have had to be different.  There would have been no reason for mad-cap shows like Bosom Buddies.  How would Tom Hanks have become famous?
Personally, I sort of like things just the way they are – and I’m glad that such things remain in the realm of science fiction and obscure Pacific fish.
But maybe that’s just because I’m a man.

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17 thoughts on “She & Him

  1. Really cool post, my friend. So, yes, I would definitely change gender were it possible to do so at will. I would do it when confronted by a situation wherein it would be more advantageous to be of the opposite sex or to generate humor and create general mayhem. The possibilities are virtually endless. I'll let you use your imagination. :-)

  2. You mean I can't??? Uh oh…
    I recall LeGuin tackled the issue of gender and its implications in "The Left Hand of Darkness" but all I can remember from that story is a long trek across a frozen wilderness by the main character. This possibly explains why I learn nothing at all.
    Considering that research suggest that the brain anatomy and functional control paths are hard-wired differently in males and females, the process of truly switching would involve some pretty fundamental alterations in personality. That's creepy stuff. Gaiman is such a gifted writer, I'm sure he handled it deftly.

  3. Nope, wouldn't change, and wouldn't want the possibility out there. I'm such a right/wrong – black/white – is-what-it-is kind of person, I think messing with certain things is to invite chaos in our world. Plus, my whole belief system in a Creator means I believe we were created a certain way, and shouldn't go pushing buttons to change that. Now hair color … that's something that just begs for changing every now and then …

  4. Of course if YOU could do (only), you could cause all sorts of mischief, but if EVERYONE could do it, then we'd all just say, "Oh — there goes rg changing gender again…sigh…"

  5. Actually, I don't think NG addressed the neuronal impact of gender-switching. Could you be female on the outside and male in your head still? Kind of like wearing a Giants jersey but rooting for the Eagles.

  6. BBL — DaveB brings up an interesting point on "The Left Hand of Darkness" UK LeGuin's story set in a world where inhabitants are neuter and then change (one into female one into male) when they want to pro-create. So that world was (in a literary way) created with that being "normal" — there was still love and jealousy, but it was an interesting exercise in addressing gender-bias.

  7. I wouldn't change for even an hour, let alone a day! I agree with BballLady…there would be too much chaos! Besides…you'd never REALLY know who you were married to! Plus, the idea of my husband turning into a female…well…let's just say I don't even want to go there! :-)

  8. Thanks, I'll give this novel a try. I'm a huge Sandman fan but the rat novel made me think I didn't like Gaiman's fiction. This one, though, looks neat.
    Sexism is becoming more accepted in our culture but you know what? We women have endurance. If I were to be reincarnated I might accept maleness, but I think I'd be disappointed. I'm sure it's fun to be a guy but there's a spirituality to womanhood that I wouldn't want to give up.
    (But I would rather have the ability to morph into some fearsome predator. Hillary or Palin morph into Berserkers….that would rock)

  9. love Neil Gaiman (and the sciences!) I wouldn't want to change but I certainly have my share of testosterone. Not saying I have chest hair or anything.

  10. Very thought provoking post! I was weighing the pros and cons of changing then decided… I'd stay the same. I think there is something to the mystery of genders and how we relate to each other.
    Those fish are pretty amazing, however – I feel good about leaving the gender changing to them. :)

  11. Ellie — I never read the rat novel, but "Smoke & Mirrors" is a collection of short stories that on the whole was pretty good. My only disappointment was that my favorite one was the first one in the book!

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