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Throughout history, as women struggled to gain equality with men, these suffragettes were often ostracized and not accepted by society. In today’s world we find the basic rights which these women were fighting for fair, and the thought that someone would have opposed a woman’s right to vote seems ridiculous. Our society likes to feel that we are less rigid and very open-minded, but is there a type of equality, which we are still not prepared to accept? The two science fiction novels, He, She, and It by Marge Piercy, and The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey both make strong predictions about the technology, government, and social aspects of the future. Piercy and McCaffrey also express similar feminist views through the characters of Nili and Helva. Although they come from completely different hypothetical universes, these women are able to accomplish amazing feats without falling into a label, and are completely comfortable and proud of who they are. Helva and Nili exemplify feminists who use their strength and confidence with themselves, their constantly mutating attitudes and personalities, and their unique relationships with others to make incredible changes in their worlds.
Although the characters of Helva, from The Ship Who Sang, and Nili from He, She, and It, are very different, they actually possess very similar personalities and characteristics. Helva is a human who was crippled at birth and transformed into a shell person. She lives her life inside the safety of a titanium shell, and without the shell’s protection she would be dead. Helva’s limitations may seem severe; however, the shell, which Helva lives in, allows her to have extreme capabilities far more advanced than any regular human’s. Therefore Helva is physically disabled, yet at the same time physically superior. Nili is very different in that she appears to have the body of an average human, and she has the abilities that humans have without needing a shell to protect her. However, they are both very similar because both Helva and Nili need their technological advances in order to survive. If Nili had not undergone alterations as a child, she would have been unable to survive the incredibly harsh conditions of ‘the black zone’ where she was raised.
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Both Nili and Helva are mixtures of two standard forms-they are part human and part technology or machine. Neither of them could be defined as a standard human, yet they are not robots either. Physically they do not really fit into a set category. Helva could be considered a cyborg, but that is a very vague term, which leaves one wondering if she is a machine with a brain or a brain controlling a machine. There is also the fact that Helva has been conditioned all her life to think, act, and behave a certain way. Central Worlds seems to have almost programmed her to ensure she will act exactly as she is predicted to. This sort of programming is not very different, and much less severe than the type of brainwashing which is done to the humans in Piercy’s novel. The workers of corporate enclaves are expected and to a point forced to behave in a certain way, and the corporations control most aspects of their personal lives. Nili was not raised in this corporate society, but she seems to despise this treatment and even aids Tikva in combating the Y-S enclave. Nili believes that everyone should be able to obtain information: “The ability to access information is power” (Piercy 194). Nili wants all people to have equal opportunity to enable this power, and she risks and devotes her life to this search for equality. She expresses distinct interest in a section of the world called the Glop, which houses the poor, uneducated, underprivileged people of the world: “Nili saw the Glop differently than Shira always had. Shira realized she had been trained automatically by her culture, to treat the Glop as an unimportant place…But Nili turned to the New Gangs for answers. In people living off the garbage of the preceding century, Nili found much to study and admire” (Piercy 361). Nili’s behavior could be seen as that of a feminist because feminists are constantly struggling for power equal to that of men. Just as feminists argued that answers could be found in women just as easily as men, Nili believed that the unappreciated Glop could be just as important as the most powerful corporation. Nili sees knowledge as a powerful weapon and she believes everyone in the world has an equal right to be armed. Through her struggle to gain equality for the oppressed, Nili exemplifies many characteristics of a feminist.
Nili’s rebellious struggles may seem very different from Helva, who actually works for Central Worlds; however, Helva has her own more subtle way of rebelling against the system. Helva will refuse to obey orders if she does not think they are the right. When in a very dangerous situation with her brawn, Kira, Helva uses her own judgment and defies her superiors: “ ‘The end justifies the means, and might I remind you that for some reason, unknown forever to God and man, your list of restricted planets did NOT include Alioth, as by the fingernails of that God they should have!’ Cencom sputtered indignantly” (McCaffrey 89). Although Helva has endured a youth where she was shaped to think and act according to Central Worlds’ commands, she will still defy them when she feels she is in the right. Helva exemplifies a feminist, especially in the era in which McCaffrey was writing. Women during the sixties had been raised with very strict rules on how females were to behave, enduring many restrictions and constantly expected to obey and even serve men. Feminists of that time were still working to achieve basic rights and respect in the world. Helva also wants to be treated equally and wants Central Worlds to respect and honor her opinions. Helva may seem like less of a feminist than Nili because although she disobeyed Central Worlds and sought respect, she still chose to remain under their employment when given the option of freedom. However, Helva remained so by her own choice and on her own terms. A woman may be a feminist and still chose to remain in the stereotyped women’s role as a housewife and child bearer; however, she will still desire the right to chose her own path, even if she wants the one which she was expected to take.
Helva and Nili may choose different paths in their worlds, but they both have a very strong confidence in themselves. Many people who are distinctively different from the norm of their society have low self-esteem and are constantly seeking a way to fit in. Nili and Helva are both individuals in a very small minority of the population, Helva being a shell person, and Nili coming from an isolated community of women. However, instead of attempting to assimilate into society, they actually embrace their differences. When Helva is still a child she is visited by a group of people who feel creating shell people is inhumane. Helva responds to a woman in this group: “Oh, I forget. You people don’t have adjustable vision” (McCaffrey 4). Helva is proud of her advanced abilities and actually feels pity for ‘normal’ humans who do not have these benefits. Despite her pride, Helva becomes aware of her own limitations. She is restricted when it comes to expressing certain emotions, even if she is feeling extreme sadness. Helva finds comfort in Theoda, who cries for her, which leaves Helva puzzled: “She felt a hard knot of grief coming untied and she was suddenly rather astonished that she, Helva, was the object of pity” (McCaffrey 50). Although some of her distinctions are negative, Helva is very confident in herself and does not wish she were a human. Feminists also believe one should be comfortable with themselves and not try to change into what society expects a woman to be. Instead, they want the world to accept women as they are, whatever that might be.
Similar to Helva, Nili is also very proud of her enhanced physical abilities. Malkah speaks of Nili: “I like to watch her. Her expectations of herself are unlimited. She is strong without excuses or apologies” (Piercy 419). Malkah is not only talking of Nili’s physical capabilities when she refers to her as strong. Nili does not question herself, or seek a place for herself in society. She instead expects to be accepted just as she is, and does not change her behavior in order to assimilate into whatever society she is living in. Nili is confident in herself, and self-confidence is a very feminist belief. Neither Helva nor Nili feel as if they are freaks or outcasts, but instead embrace their uniqueness. Helva and Nili do not attempt to find a place in society for themselves, but instead attempt to find a place for their group of people as they are. Helva wants shell people to be accepted for who they are and treated fairly by Central Worlds. On many occasions, Helva argues with Central Worlds about their treatment of shell people, and also herself. Because shell people are extremely expensive to create, they must spend a greater part of their lives on missions for Central Worlds, attempting to pay off their debts. This form of indentured servitude seems to occasionally border on slavery, because Central Worlds has the power to charge for any damage caused during missions, they are the ones who decide the monetary value of the mission, and they can do things such as delay the payment of debts in order to prolong a shell person’s time in the service. Helva does not accept this treatment from Central Worlds, when they try to manipulate her into completing a dangerous mission after her debt has been repaid. She negotiates with them until she receives what she wants. Nili is also seeking equality for her people - through the ability to access the Net. Nili’s mission is to find a way to connect her community to the rest of the world. However, she does not want to change the women of her community into workers of corporate enclaves, free towns, or the Glop. Instead, Nili wants to explore these aspects of the world and see how her people can use existing technology to their benefit, and attempt to connect themselves to the rest of the world through information available on the Net. Both Helva and Nili want themselves and their people to be recognized for who they are, but to still maintain an active role and connection to the world without losing their distinctiveness. Neither Nili nor Helva care what people think they should or should not be, just as feminists fight against expectations of women.
There are not only restrictions of what women should and should not be, but there are also places where women are expected to be or not to be. McCaffrey puts Helva in a place where woman were very restricted during her time – space. Helva is not only the captain/controller of a spaceship, but she explores unknown territory. Yet this seemingly masculine job is one which Helva does, and does extremely well. In a way Helva defies gender barriers, which feminists were struggling to fight against in McCaffrey’s time, and are still fighting today. Helva was in a sense, an astronaut, which would have been an unheard of position for a woman in McCaffrey’s era. Helva is actually one of the most respected and valuable ships working for Central Worlds. However Helva does not exemplify a stereotypical male, but she instead possesses characteristics of both male gender identities and female gender identities. After all, Helva is the ship who sings, which adds a feminine twist to her otherwise very masculine seeming job. Helva is neither stereotypically male nor female, but is composed of whichever characteristics suit her. Her gender identity is very fluid and constantly changing. Helva is known to have a sweet disposition and she generally tries to make her passengers feel welcome and comfortable. Helva’s first brawn, Jennan, tells her, “You lose your sweetness and I’ll come back to haunt you, girl” (McCaffrey 14).
McCaffrey displays Helva as a stereotypical female in the beginning of the novel. Helva also seems to be quite emotional and when her first brawn is killed, Helva becomes extremely depressed and upset. However, throughout the novel, McCaffrey reveals the many sides of Helva. Helva is illustrated in the first chapter and “The Ship Who Sang”, and later revealed to be “The Ship Who Mourned.” These stereotypical female characteristics are challenged when Helva is unveiled as “The Ship Who Killed.” She is a person with many aspects to her personality, and she expresses her ability to be aggressive, a typically male characteristic. When Helva must kill a fellow shell-person she is able to do it. Helva is first exposed as sweet and emotional, but later it is revealed that she is capable of murder. McCaffrey uses Helva to show a person who is fluid and constantly changing in their personality and behaviors. Helva does not have to be defined as either feminine or masculine, but instead is composed of characteristics of each, which she reveals when necessary.
Nili is also constantly revealing different characteristics of herself, and constantly changing how she acts. McCaffrey begins by showing Helva’s more typical feminine characteristics, and slowly reveals her many different sides and more male characteristics. Nili on the other hand is introduced into the novel as a very masculine sort of warrior, or Amazon woman. Her blood red hair and intimidating appearance make her seem immediately aggressive. She even introduces herself to Shira and Malkah as an assassin. Although Nili is immediately perceived to have what is considered a typically masculine personality, Piercy eventually reveals many other sides to her. Nili is first portrayed as brutal and violent, but is later revealed to be a caring and nurturing mother when she speaks of her daughter: “I was chosen for this quest. I’m the best equipped. But I miss her. Every day three or four times I sit and meditate on her image, but I know it’s out of date” (Piercy 362). Nili is a constantly changing, ever fluid character that can never be pinned under a set definition. This may be Piercy’s way of exploring a different kind of feminism in which women are not seeking a definition separate yet equal to that of men. According to Rosemarie Garland Thompson: “Incorporating post-modernism’s challenge of the unsituated, objective Enlightenment viewpoint, feminist standard theory has reformulated gender identity as a complex, dynamic matrix of interrelated, often contradictory experiences, strategies, styles and attributions mediated by culture and individual hierarchy” (Thompson 24).
She seems to say that gender identity cannot really be defined through a definite set of characteristics, but is unique and complex to each individual. Instead, maybe no one should have any sort of gender-identity at all, but be free to have a mixture of characteristics, which were once considered either male or female, and express these characteristics at will.
Nili is not only constantly changing in her personality, but she constantly changes her relationships to best suit her needs. Her romantic relationships throughout the novel are all very brief, unalike, and serve her different purposes. She describes her relationship with Riva: “We were physically intimate but not emotionally close. I admired her, but I never learned to read her clearly. She keeps a distance” (Piercy 227). Although she seems to worship Riva and see her as a hero, Nili does not make her an important or necessary part of her life. Unlike most people, Nili seems to be capable of quickly severing any romantic bond with one person, and moving on to another. She next becomes involved with Gadi, who she seems more interested in out of curiosity than anything else. Nili is not necessarily using the people in her relationships, but she seems to regard them as a mutual experience, where each person gets out of it what they can, and then moves on. When she first appears in the novel, Piercy causes the reader to assume that Nili is a lesbian based on her intimate sexual relationship with Riva. However she is excited to try a relationship with a man, and does not seem to think of it as anything different in that she is merely just involved with a different person. Nili does not seem like she really needs any of her relationships and it is made very clear that her mission for her people is most important. Nili does not define herself through her relationships or determine her self worth from others, but instead she learns from the other person as much as she can. Her view of relationships illustrates Nili’s craving for knowledge, both intellectual and emotional which she receives from her significant other, as well as her need for independence. Nili does not allow society, the environment, or other people to determine or change who she is based on their standards.
Helva also shares this need to always have a sort of relationship, although her relationships are obviously much different. But similar to Nili, Helva connects with both men and women in a similar way. Her initial relationship is that with Jennan, her first brawn who she falls in love with. Later, Helva also experiences close relationships with two women – Theoda, and Kira, and although these are partners who are assigned to her, she is able to establish a bond much closer, if not as close, as the bond she had with Jennan. This shows Helva as similar to Nili, in her relationships with members of both sexes. Helva’s relationships with the two other women in the novel are relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, while the relationship with the men seems to be more about attraction. Helva learns to evolve emotionally and eventually recover from her state of mourning through helping and being helped by Theoda and Kira. Both of these women have lost a loved one, and Helva is able to sympathize with them in order to heal. Her relationships with both of these women are very strong and they experience bonding moments, such as when Helva stops Kira from committing suicide. Through saving Kira and making her realize that there is life after losing a loved one, Helva slowly saves herself. Helva seems to be dependent upon others in that she hates to be alone and is constantly demanding a permanent brawn, similar to how many women seem to be constantly seeking out a husband. Helva wants a brawn who she will spend her entire life with and fulfill her dreams. This seems like the romantic hopes of a ‘stereotypical woman’: to find a first love and spend the rest of your lives together. It is very important to Helva to have a long lasting relationship with someone, as opposed to a temporary brawn. The connections between ships and their brawns were very similar to the connection of marriage-they traveled and worked together until ‘death do us part.’ Jennan describes the connection between brains and their brawns: “My father gave me the impression he was a lot more married to his ship, the Silvia, than to my mother” (McCaffrey 13). McCaffrey also constantly refers to the brawns ‘courting’ Helva in order to win her favor. This seems very similar to the traditional marriages that are considered normal today. However, Helva has one particular difference-she chooses her brawn. After throwing a party and speaking to several of them, Helva decides which man she wants to be her partner. This is putting a sort of feminist twist on the relationship because Helva has all the power and all of the choice. Helva could even get rid of her brawn, but this would cost her a penalty to Central Worlds. This makes it seem like Central Worlds is trying to enforce this sort of relationship and keep it intact. However, Helva defies Central Worlds’ requirements at the end of the novel. She demands that Niall Parrollan accompany her on her mission, and although he has not completed brawn training, Helva is granted her demand. She seems to possess this sort of power over the men of the novel in the last scene. Helva’s relationships had many aspects that seemed stereotypical of women, yet she also had many which seemed empowering and even feminist.
Helva and Nili are two women who are constantly changing in their personality, behavior, and relationships. They can sometimes be viewed as masculine, and sometimes feminine. For both of them, different situations bring out different components of their personalities. Rosemarie Garland Thompson states, “Acknowledging identity’s particular, complex nature allows characteristics beyond race, sex, and gender to emerge” (Thompson 24). The difficulty of placing these two women into a set category of definitions actually allows new, unique characteristics to be expressed. Despite their constantly mutating and fluid gender, both Helva and Nili both find a place in their world and gain acceptance. However, both of these worlds are fictional interpretations of the future.
Is our world currently ready for a Helva or even someone as extreme as Nili? I think that Piercy is adamantly expressing that we are not. Our current world is one in which we like to give everything and everyone a label. It is acceptable to be different from the norm, as long as you remain so unchanged. We tend to fear things and people like Helva and Nili, who we cannot exactly pin down to a label. We can’t even come close, except for the one characteristic which they both always possess-and that is the fact that they are always changing. This type of change is not something our world is quite ready to accept. Years ago, most people were very intolerant of homosexual people. The fact that Helva and Nili were intimately involved with other women would not be much of an issue today; however, the fact that they both continuously switch from relationships with men to females would be very controversial. Bisexuality is a lifestyle that is still highly disputed and frowned upon, even by people who are homosexual. It is okay to have a different sexual preference, as long as this preference stays the same. Not only would Nili and Helva be unaccepted for these reasons, but also their fluid identities and personalities would be viewed as weak. When people constantly change how they behave or exhibit extreme personality characteristics, it is usually thought that there is something wrong with them. Our society would be constantly screaming at Helva and Nili: Make up your mind! It would be very difficult to dispute that both Nili and Helva are strong, and even admirable; yet, we still would find it impossible to get past the barrier of their fluidity. Unlike Helva and Nili’s imaginary worlds, we greatly dislike what we cannot distinctly define. Both McCaffrey and Piercy seem to suggest that in order to embrace Helva and Nili, we would have to let go of the labels which we love so dearly, and we are not quite ready to do that.
McCaffrey, Anne. The Ship Who Sang. Canada: Del Rey, 1969.
Piercy, Marge. He, She and It. United States: Ballantine Books, 1991.
Thompson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia, 1997.