Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gender and Sexuality, Identity, and Duality in China Mieville's Iron Council (Part Two)

Note: Though I do not give a full summary, please be aware that some of the discussions inevitably mean that there are spoilers. Also, I've broken up my essay so it's easier on the eyes. Feel free to comment--however if you want to refute any of my points please wait until the final posting. This is the continued discussion from Gender and Sexuality (Part One).

Gender and Sexuality (Part Two)

We learn of Judah’s relationship with Ann-Hari in the same instance that we learn about her own sexuality. She is a woman whom Judah

finds[…]when she is flushed by the road, and she takes him and discards her virginity with eagerness he knows has little to do with him. For the few days that she is only his he tries to make it as much as he can; he tries to give the arc of a life’s love. It is not an affectation but a role; he gives himself over. She is looking over his shoulder while she straddles him, for something else—not even something better, but else, more. She makes friends. She comes to him in the villages smelling of other men’s sex (194).

But Ann-Hari, and the other women peasants cause problems in the camp:

The whores who have dutifully followed these men, splitting from the perpetual train to work with these mountain diggers, are affronted by their new rural rivals, these farmgirls who expect no pay. Some of the workers themselves are threatened by these newly voracious young women who do not sell or even give sex but take it (195).

Ann-Hari and the other peasants have sex at will, and Ann-Hari particularly seems to be a wild spirit, and sexually liberated individual. But she seems silly at times, as when Judah shows her his golems; she is “entertained but no more than by a thousand other things” (195).

She also seems to use sex as needed. After the whores attack the farmgirls, she goes to Judah, and together escape to New Crobuzon. She explores the city, ignorantly curious, eager to learn everything about the city. Some nights she does not return, and when she “is with Judah she sleeps with him and takes money from him” (198). It is her treatment of Judah that allows us to assume that she has found other men to spend time with, to take sex and money from, though she does always return to Judah (until she leaves New Crobuzon for good, taking more money from Judah without bothering to say good-bye to him first (206)).

Judah finds Ann-Hari again later in what’s known as Fucktown near the rails (I don’t think I have to spell out for you what happens there), and she is the Madame of the other prostitutes (224). She seems to have changed in their time apart; her matronly role over the prostitutes puts her in a leadership position. Similarly, her relationship with Judah seems to have changed as well:

Ann-Hari does not lie with him, though she will kiss him, for long breathless moments, which she does not do with anyone else. But when he wants more she charges with a principled resolution that disturbs him.

— I ain’t a client, he tells her. She shrugs. He can see it is not venality that motivates her (225).

Though she insists that Judah pay her, he knows that she doesn’t care about the money. But Ann-Hari is a mystery to us as readers because we are never privy to her inner thoughts—all our experience with her and her behaviors and sexuality are filtered to us through Judah’s experience with her, and since he offers no speculation, we must infer.

What is not represented in this novel is lesbianism, or at least a woman who identifies as bisexual. There’s plenty of guy-on-guy action, and heterosexual sex, but there are no women who have sex with women. That’s not to say they don’t exist, but no narrator ever mentions them. Madeleina, the future leader of Runagate Rampant, doesn’t seem to have sex with anyone (though she’s human, so it can be assumed she at some point has). Some of the whores in Fucktown could have identified as lesbians, even Ann-Hari, but since the novel is all (and I mean all) in male perspective, lesbianism simply does not exist as far as the novel is concerned.

There are clear gender roles throughout the novel, but there are women who engage in fighting later on. In Judah’s story, prior to the forming of Iron Council, men work on the rails, clearing the land. The women follow the men, working in the sex trade. The gender roles are challenged, however, in a few circumstances:

A strong accomplished man drives a spike down in three strikes. Many men take four swings; cactacae and the most augmented steam-strong Remade two. There are three prodigious and respected cactus-men who can push a spike home in one blow. There is one Remade woman who can do this, too, but in her the ability is judged grotesque (223).

While strong men are admired for their ability to drive spikes, a similarly strong (Remade) woman is disgusting. Admittedly, Remade are supposed to be disgusting, since their remaking is supposed to be the result of some crime, warranting the reshaping of their bodies into some grotesquery; but there are other Remade (men) that do not elicit such disgust as they work.

Despite these gender roles, it is the whores’ strike that spurs the rebellion that forms Iron Council. They refuse to sell sex to the men (236), and the men are angered. The women chant “No pay no lay no pay no lay” (236), refusing to give the men sex on credit. But the men haven’t been paid either—they’ve been working for free, and they want sex. Ann-Hari bands the women together, protecting them from violence and rape:

The women defend Fucktown. They have patrols with sticks and stilettos; there is a frontline[…]

That night a group of men try with something between light-heartedness and anger to push their way past the picket, but the women block them and beat them hard and the men retreat holding split heads and screaming in astonishment as much as pain[…]

They do not let the men touch them the next day and there is no longer novelty or near-humour to the situation. A man takes out his cock, shakes it at them. —Want payment? he shouts. — I’ll give you payment. Eat this you fucking dirty moneygrab sluts. There are those in the crowd of men who have enough affection for the women they have traveled with that they do not like that, and they hush him, but there are others who applaud[…]

There is another attempt on their camp[…] It is a rape squad intent on punishment. But there is an alarm, a panic from Remade women sent to clean clothes near the Fucktown tents. They see the men creeping and yell, and the men are on them quickly and attacking to silence them (236-7).

What the men’s response to the prostitutes’ protest demonstrates is this belief that they have an inherent right to the women’s bodies. Paying for sex previously commodified the women’s bodies; when the men could not pay and the women thus refused them sex for free, the commodification is gone—yet still the men feel—no, believe—they have privilege over the women, and can thus use their bodies as they wish. That they are angered to the point of forming a rape squad illustrates their indignation of being denied what they believe is their right, thus then deciding to regain control over the errant bodies with intention to steal.

The men then take the women’s strike and make it their own, spreading the word with Runagate Rampants circulating the camp: “No pay no lay they tell us, and that can be our slogan too. We will not lay another tie, another rail, until the money promise is ours. They say it, and we say it too. We say: No pay no lay!” (239). The women’s and men’s strikes combine, uniting against the TRT, resulting from the women not fucking for free, and defending their right to do so. However, the men taking their slogan strikes me as the men legitimizing the women’s protest—almost like giving them permission to do so, thus conforming to the men as active, the women as passive pleasure holes.

Ann-Hari is charismatic, forcing her way into the men’s council and demanding that the women have a say because they fought too, they’re workers too. The men call each other “brother,” (253) and only after Ann-Hari convinces the council to make the train move, to steal the train and flee (and one woman objects to the use of “brother”), does one man concede, “All right bloody hell sisters then” (265). Later even the men are referred to as “sisters.” I would like to point out this doesn’t make up for previous affronts to the women, but it’s a nice little step toward equality in the novel.

Meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon, there are revolutionary groups forming, meeting in secret to plan. Runagate Rampant is quite passive, members meeting and publishing the secret newspaper of the same name. Conversely, there is a group referred to as the Toroans, led by Toro, a revolutionary leader of the gang (an active, violent gang). Ori, first a member of Runagate Rampant, finds Toro inspiring because “ ‘he’s changing something’ ” (76). These two groups are gendered in the archetypical sense as one is passive, the other active (I’m sure you can guess which is thereby masculine and which is feminine—if not I will then wish to know why you’re reading this).

As is the group itself, (the first) Toro is gendered. Though MiĆ©ville is careful to not use any pronouns to indicate Toro’s sex (from the narrator), Ori uses male pronouns when speaking of Toro (76), and thus the reader (consciously or unconsciously) picks up on this. Thus, the revelation of Toro being a (Remade) woman is somewhat of a surprise. Except for Ori attributing a definitive maleness in Toro, there is no other indication of that supposed maleness. Even descriptions of Toro are filtered to us through Ori, as in when Ori first meets the famed leader:

Toro moved like a mime, an exaggerated padding so unbullish Ori almost laughed. Toro was slighter than he, shorter, almost like a child, but walked with a precision that said I am something to fear. The thin figure was surmounted with a massive headpiece, a great bulk of iron and brass that looked too heavy to be carried by such tight little muscles, but Toro did not totter (303).

Or perhaps it is Toro’s helmet itself which causes the reader to assume maleness; after all, a bull is itself a male, and (for a time at least) the only visage the reader has to associate with Toro is the helmet:

Stylized, made from knots of metalwork, gnarled by the residue of fights. The myth, that helmet. More than dumb metal[…]The horns were ivory or bone. The snout ended in a grille mimicking teeth; the exhaust pipe was a nose ring. The eyes were perfect, round, tiny portholes in tempered glass that flowed white—whether backlit or hexed, Ori could not see. He could not see human eyes behind them (303).

Once Toro’s sex is revealed to us, there is almost no hesitation to gender her. She is a Remade woman, which does not surprise Ori, admittedly he “had not felt capable of surprise for a long time” (393). Toro’s crime is sported upon her head:

A child’s arms emerged from her. One from each side of her face. One over each brow. A baby’s arms that moved listlessly, tangling and untangling in her lank hair. They had been stretched out, one inside each horn, in the helmet (393).

Toro killed her child, seemingly by mistake (she states that she shook her baby to quiet her, but she can’t really remember (394)). She was sentenced to Remaking by Magister Legus (coincidentally Mayor Stem-Fulcher’s lover). What’s particularly striking about Toro’s gendering is her justification for assuming the Toro-identity and using it to kill the Magister, her aims boiled down to being “an old grudge” (395), and I can’t help but wonder: what if Toro was a man? Everything else would be the same, except instead of a mother killing her daughter and thereafter being punished for it, it is a father killing his daughter, a father wearing his daughter’s arms to remind him of his crime. With this in mind, I ask: would Toro’s targeting the Magister be a mere “grudge”? I cannot help but wonder if Toro’s goal would be referred to with a more substantial term, such as “revenge,” if Toro were instead a father. I wonder at this link to motherhood, wearing her child’s arms—as many of us know the mother identity overtakes other identities for women, but when a man is a father, this identity does not overshadow his identity as a man. If it were a man wearing his child’s arms, would it be the same link to parenthood as it is for a woman? I wonder also if Ori’s despair is attributed to Toro’s womanly grudge, and if Toro were a man, would he have felt so used? There is no denying that the woman used the Toroans to get to the Magister, but they did in fact accomplish the death of the Mayor, which was what the Toroans wanted (but which ended up having no effect in the end anyway). The Toro character is thus problematic, because prior to her revealing herself she is perceived as male, yet everything she was while wearing that helmet shatters with her crime, her “grudge.”