I have no good reason for this, but whenever people discuss the Imperial Radch books in a way that implies that they are Good Female Representation, or that Breq in particular is a woman, it drives me up the wall. The books refer to Radchaai characters as she/her (and I’m going to keep using she/her here for Breq for that reason, and postpone questions about pronoun choice for another time) but the characters aren’t women.
What especially bothers me is people asking about Breq’s body(‘s reproductive organs) as if that’s relevant to how readers should understand her.
Breq is genderless. Everyone raised in Radchaai culture is genderless. Breq makes it 100% clear that she has absorbed this aspect of Radchaai culture and has no understanding of gender, gender presentation, or why gender identities are important to people from other cultures.
I don’t care whether Breq’s body is what we would call AMAB or AFAB. Those terms don’t even work in the context of the Radch, because it’s a genderless society. Radchaai aren’t assigned anything at birth except a name. Being AFAB does/would not make Breq a woman. Being AMAB does/would not make Breq a man.
I was sufficiently confused by all the flying pronouns when Breq talks to people from other cultures that I don’t know what gender they thought Breq was, and I don’t want to know.
It’s not that I’m offended on Breq’s behalf at her being misgendered. Or at least, not mostly. What bothers me is that I feel like all the most important and interesting things about Breq’s story are pushed aside if you try to analyze her as a woman. I feel like there are all these tropes about female main characters floating out there waiting to be applied (or currently being applied) to Breq, and they all fit so badly and misrepresent her so thoroughly.
And this is maybe not my thing to have an opinion on, but in my head, if Breq has to have a binary gender she’s going to be trans.
The way Breq relates to her body is alllll about alienation and not-belonging. It literally is not her body, and she had no choice about getting it. In fact, if she’d had a choice about her body she wouldn’t have picked this one– we are literally told that whoever picked it must have done it deliberately to annoy her, because it is so far from what she would have liked.
This body came to her through trauma. It used to have its own consciousness and identity, and as we’re told, that person was not wiped away before Breq’s consciousness was connected to their body. In fact, they were awake and aware during that process. For a moment two people inhabited this brain, and Breq felt the previous owner’s fear and confusion as their identity disintegrated.
And Breq doesn’t try to justify this. She’s strongly opposed to the making of “ancillary” bodies for AIs, and to the expansion of the empire that provided large numbers of POWs to be made into ancillaries.
At the same time, this body is also the only way for her to exist now that the computer core that could be considered the “real” or “original” Breq has been destroyed.
So. Breq has some very mixed feelings about her body, to say the least.
The way Breq relates to her society is also all about not-belonging, conditional belonging, and mixed feelings. AIs aren’t considered human. Ancillaries aren’t considered human after they’ve been connected to an AI, even though they used to be independent human beings. Most people find ancillaries deeply disturbing, even when they’re only guarding a door or doing maintenance on a ship instead of daring to act like a person and a citizen.
Breq has a “cultured”-sounding accent, which is mostly just an old-fashioned way of speaking, since she lived quite a long life as a ship’s AI. She’s familiar with how the upper levels of Radchaai society behave, because those are the kind of people who become high-ranking officers on spaceships like Breq was. As a lone ancillary, Breq can convincingly pretend to be a high-class, important person, but she learned how to do that from people who saw her as a servant at best, equipment at worst. She knows that most people she meets would be disgusted by her if they knew what she was. Her relationship to the people around her is not comfortable.
I feel like understanding Breq as a (cis) woman, and especially as a cool, badass, Strong Female Character-ish woman, tends toward glossing over all that discomfort and disconnection and loss.