Poor Impulse Control: Gender Relations in “Snow Crash”

Most of the time, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a playful, high-speed romp through his new-age universe, complete with motorcycle chases and robotized dogs and samurai sword fights. But Snow Crash is not all fun and games. Frivolity aside, the novel is also a biting indictment of modern society, a society fraught with skewed, corrupt social processes.

With tongue-in-cheek sarcasm as sharp as Raven’s glass-bladed knife, Stephenson examines modern America’s corroded patterns of gender relations. Increasingly, Stephenson suggests, women are treated like commodities but fail to do anything to stop it. Sex is most often a hasty, casual occurrence. These are only a few of the crucial flaws of gender relations that Stephenson pokes at, prods, and probes throughout the course of the novel, and he does so primarily through the character of Y.T.

I like YT. She’s got spunk, pizzazz. She’s shrewd and brazen enough to defy the cookie-cutter ideals of conformity her “Burbclave” upbringing has pounded into her brain. Even better, she doesn’t succumb to that exhausting “damsel in distress” persona, instead slipping comfortably into the role of unstoppable superwoman, outwitting villains left and right and effortlessly slipping from the clutches of men twice her size.

However, Y.T.’s casual, hasty approach to sexual relations stands in stark contrast to her strong and independent image. For example, wherever Y.T.’s adventures take her, she is always slightly conscious of being leered at by older men—the “perverts,” as she sometimes calls them—but is seemingly unnerved by this attention. If anything, she almost revels in it, exploits her sexuality to her advantage. In fact, when the brain-washed, babbling, robotic minions who infest Rife’s ship don’t give her lecherous-uncle looks, she notes this lack of attention with surprise—disappointment, almost.

And then, of course, there’s that whole relationship thing with Raven.

Suffice to say, Y.T.’s good judgment doesn’t exactly shine through in this episode. While aboard the Enterprise, a massive man approaches Y.T. with a lewd, lopsided grin on his face, reeking of fish and stale beer, the words “poor impulsive control” plastered on his forehead (literally).  Out of pure infatuation—enamored by his power and strength, perhaps—Y.T. allows this strange, older man to take advantage of her. Not just any man, mind you: the man. We’re talking about Raven, the homicidal, nuclear-weapon-wielding psychopath.

And then, as if matters couldn’t get any worse, Y.T. realizes after the fact that she neglected to use birth control. Whoopsie.

After this episode, you’re tempted to wag your finger at Y.T. and say, “Come on! You know better than that!”. But at the same time, it is important to remember that Y.T. is a product of her society, and as such she is infected with its beliefs and customs. When examined from this perspective, Y.T.’s behavior isn’t too outlandish. After all, she comes from a place whorehouses abound on every street corner and arcade games beckon challengers to “strike the mammory gland!” for just a quarter. Society definitely carries some of the blame, to be sure.

Through the character of Y.T., Stephenson comments on the disintegrating sexual relations of America, in which meaningful, long-term commitments have given way to lustful, careless “one night stands.” Or, it could also be a comment on rising pregnancy rates in America due to a lack of information about birth control. Either way, Stephenson’s ideas regarding gender relations eerily anticipate the future hip-hop era, which has drastically exploited women and blurred the distinction between racy and downright pornographic.

When it comes down to it, this is what I admire most about Snow Crash: while it does offer some meaningful social commentary about issues ranging from race to gender relations, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Stephenson manages to skewer serious societal flaws in a hilarious manner, such that the pages are never dripping with pessimism. But let’s face it. How seriously could the novel possibly take itself when the protagonist is a sword-wielding, pizza-delivering hacker named “Hiro Protagonist”?

Anna Dickens

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