An Experiment in Gender

A review of James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour (Eos, 1998)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I was originally trained as an anthropologist (for my Bachelor’s Degree and my Master’s Degree), so I always find books that explore the notion of anthropological researchers fascinating. James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour centres on a story of a scientist and his assistant visiting a small town where all of the residents alternate gender identities (between male and female) every year until they reach their 21st birthday where they “commit” to a gender. Their gender options are male, female or “neut” (essentially intersex). Each person has a different look and different personality in each of their gender identities.

Yet, Gardner also points out the issues of the anthropological researcher since, although the researcher says he is committed to noninterference, he irrevocably changes the society he contacts, leading to murder, religious upheaval, and a fundamental change in how their society views gender.

Gardner’s narrative focuses on the perspective of a currently male member of this society who is about to commit to a gender identity. We are able to get insights from a believer in that society who views the researcher’s presence as an interference at best and a travesty at worst.

Using a researcher doing ethnographic research in a science fiction novel immediately evokes the work of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hanish Cycle of books, and having the story about gender and a society where people alternate genders immediately evokes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, Le Guin’s parents were famous anthropologists Theodora and Alfred Louis Kroeber, which is perhaps why her explorations of culture are so powerful. Gardner’s work reads as a love letter to Le Guin, examining her ideas and giving another perspective to a gender-alternating culture.

Yet, Gardner’s exploration of gender takes a different path than Le Guin’s, and where Le Guin doesn’t explore the notion of taboos in society (something that people have critiqued The Left Hand of Darkness for because it ignores the treatment of LGBTQ2IA people as other in our own society), Gardner explores taboo and violence against sexual minorities by featuring a society that technically allows people to choose to be “neut”, but lynches them, kills them, or drives them out of their society violently. Where Le Guin takes a utopian view toward gender diversity, Gardner brings in the realities of human violence and bigotry.

Like Le Guin, Gardner’s Commitment Hour is about a gender experiment – partially his own use of Sci Fi as theory to rethink and critique gender, but also to examine what it would mean to have to choose gender.

As a nonbinary person, a person who exists outside of the binary of male/female, I found reading Commitment Hour fascinating. I was particularly fascinated by the “neut” option for gender identity. This third gender option is a reminder that notions of gender are not fixed or unchanging, but, rather, subject to change. Gardner experiments with ideas of gender and the aspects of gender that are constructed as “natural” and how societies reinforce these ideas.

Commitment Hour explored aspects of the gender binary and assumptions about what characteristics are feminine and which are masculine, while also examining a fluidity between these gendered characteristics. Gardner explores the way that social norms, expectations, and taboos reinforce the idea that there are only two ways of being in the world – male and female and explores the social punishment that people receive for being outside of that binary.

Although these are ideas that are discussed much more often now and although we have new language for exploring gender identity including pronouns other than “she”, “he”, and “it”, Gardner’s Commitment Hour was written in 1998 and challenged some of the entrenched ideas of the time. It is definitely a book that deserves to be looked at anew and that still has something to say about gender.

To find out more about James Alan Gardner, go to https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To discover more about Commitment Hour, go to https://openroadmedia.com/ebook/commitment-hour/9781497623491


Review by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

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