“Too Like The Lightning” Punches Everyone In The Face: What TLTL’s Aggressive Misgendering Is For

Content notes: discussion of misgendering and ciscentricity; light spoilers for Too Like The Lightning.

I’m a big fan of Too Like the Lightning. But when friends mentioned substantial issues regarding the presentation of gender as a binary, I began to understand how what I (male and cis) had found so intriguing could also be extremely problematic.

The points that stood out to me were:
 (1) the aggressive misgendering of characters,
 (2) the gender essentialism the story seems to take for granted (and, indeed, makes a linchpin of in Seven Surrenders), and
 (3) the rather grotesque portrayal of Sniper, the only clearly nonbinary character, as bizarre and a fetishized object of curiosity (again, even more in Seven Surrenders than in TLTL).

Yesterday, D Libris published The Problematic Presentation of Gender In Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning , which I found thorough, well-written, and insightful. It looks like the issues I noticed are mostly the same ones being discussed here, so I guess yay, I can maybe see things when pointed out to me :P

I agree without qualification regarding (2) and (3). The aggressive misgendering I would like to qualify — while I absolutely see the problems D Libris describes, I also think there’s something of note here.

It basically boils down to this: I read the misgendering as being extremely deliberate, and firmly intended to make us uncomfortable. I think these choices were made in the service of some particular goals, including some effects I personally appreciated very much.

First — and I know how odd this may sound — TLTL portrays the insult of misgendering in a way that’s disassociated from queerness.

Here’s my contention: Misgendering is something that usually happens to queer people — people who don’t fit handily into society’s accepted gender binary. And it is hard to drive home to a cis, heteronormative person what’s so bad about being misgendered, because society is set up in a way where that’s never something they’re at any meaningful risk for. And what TLTL does, which (to me) seems pretty unusual, is setting up a situation where people are being baldly, blatantly, arbitrarily misgendered — but it’s not queer people being misgendered, it’s absolutely everybody.

Because that’s kind of the thing about (most of) the misgendering in Terra Ignota: it’s very blatant, but what’s more, most of it feels really arbitrary. The book constantly calls attention to the fact that it’s misgendering people — but the reasons it gives for that do not seem to me intended to convince. When Mycroft says that everybody knows Dominic is female, but by god, Mycroft knows better — that grates. When Mycroft introduces us to Chagatai, his justification for misgendering them female is absurd — referring to a single long-ago incident, flying against biological sex, “masculine” Black Law pride and violence, and of course any say the person themselves might have to say in the matter.

Pretty soon, you’re painfully aware of every gendered reference Mycroft makes. And in this, more than anywhere else, you know he is an unreliable narrator — sometimes making mistakes; sometime obscuring facts; sometimes indulging random flights of fancy.

This arbitrariness, and the reader’s growing sensitivity and frustration with how nonsensically gendered everything in the story in — that sounds to me like it speaks to the arbitrariness and ubiquity of gender constructs in the real world, and to the experience of those who don’t fit into those constructs.

Now, I’m not saying that recreating pain and violence is, itself, a worthy cause. There is no glory in pain for pain’s sake. We have plenty of social ills that need no reiteration.

But to my mind, misgendering is not yet one of those. Too many people don’t yet understand it; too many people consider the gender binary to be self evident; and even cis people (like myself) who sympathize strongly, will never have the ongoing lived experience.

And that’s why creating a society where anyone can be misgendered, and depicting misgendering in a way that’s visceral and painful for anybody — that seems noteworthy, to me.

Secondly, TLTL is squaring off against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Consider, as a counterpoint, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, where the Radchaai Empire gender everybody as female. That is truly a gender-neutral setting — to the point that Breq really does consider gender expression to be inconsequential (IIRC — it’s been a few years since I read it…).

In TLTL, that is where the Seven Hives are trying to get to. They’ve adopted that ideal — hide your differences, and there will be no discrimination.

Which is basically: don’t ask, don’t tell.

And that’s kind of the thing: it sounds really good, at first flush. It sounded amazing to me in Ancillary Justice. It had me going, “gosh, what a utopian world!” at the beginning of TLTL. The goal — of ending discrimination, of granting people personal freedom to be as they wish, without scorn or judgment — sounds fantastic.

Note the twin thread TLTL give gender — religion,hidden in much the same way, for much the same reasons. Personally, I’m a very liberal Jewish Orthodox. And I can tell you I positively soared just at imagining the idea of faith, religion, being a personal thing — something a person lives his life by devoutly, but doesn’t need to constantly explain, defend, or be eternally lumped in with other people who share that particular marker.

The question is — and this is the question TLTL asks very explicitly — is whether this actually works. The goal of personal freedom and accepting others without bias is never in question; what is being examined is whether this particular method can actually get us there — or if it’s a way to bury the problem and hope it goes away.

I don’t think people want to hide their gender expression, or what they believe. I don’t think those things can be hidden, and the toll it would take to hide them would be tremendous. And, by misgendering everybody through Mycroft’s narration, and by the many many cracks in the supposedly-gender-neutral setting, I think that’s something Palmer is saying clearly: this isn’t something you can paper over. You want a world without gender discrimination; don’t settle for a world without gender. It’s not going to work out well.

Even if you stop people from knowing, you won’t stop them from guessing, from applying the same damned constructions and patterns. Even if most people want gender essentialism dead, the ones who benefit will toil to keep it alive. This shouldn’t deter us from the goal — but, the goal needs to be one of actually living within diversity, not in obscuring it in the name of avoiding fricton.

“We hope that we can make a better future, but have to accept that it will be a long, hard, and complex path,” Palmer has written of TLTL. This, I think, is the book’s credo — it portrays a society striving for utopia, but also one that’s not nearly as close as it thinks it is.

In conclusion, I think TLTL is exploring some important and unusual territory with its treatment of gender — including a pivoted conception of gender norms, a visceral demonstration of misgendering aimed specifically at cis people, and an examination of what we’d want a better society to actually look like, and what the steps on that path might be.

None of which is to contradict that it does so in problematic ways. It is easy to see how it can be painful for trans and nonbinary readers. If part of the point, indeed, is to portray a version of misgendering that hits cis readers hard, it’s unsurprising that it could hit trans and nonbinary reader much, much harder.

Which seems to me exactly what trigger warnings are for, and where they are most important — this is a book I think can be eye-opening for many people, while it can be hurtful (and possibly, entirely unnecessary) to others.

I do think that dismissing the… necessity?… of these elements as “Well, she built the world; she could have chosen differently” might be missing some of the point — to my eyes, these issues are very much at the heart of the book. I think Palmer is deliberately dealing with difficult, painful subjects — and she has some problems while she does it. But I think she’s dealing with those subjects because, well, they’re really important, and I’d hate to see TLTL dismissed as having nothing to contribute.

(All that being said: This was my own reading of Too Like The Lightning; obviously interpretations differ, and authorial intent only goes so far. And, the sequel, Seven Surrenders, added several points I had much more trouble with — including what seemed like really blatant gender essentialism, and pretty much everything to do with Sniper.)

(Edited to add: Queership ran a series of essays by Palmer, where she goes into TLTL’s treatment of gender.)

If you’ve enjoyed this essay, you might also like my posts on “Themes in Too Like The Lightning”
Begin here:
“The Precariousness of Coexisting in Utopia.”