Recently, N. K. Jemisin wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of womanhood in fantasy.  Together with Kate Beaton’s take on Strong Female Characters, Kate Elliott’s discussion of gender and culture, and Overthinking It’s analysis of why strong female characters are bad for women, the essay illuminates an increasingly problematic disjunction in our treatment of femininity. The success of feminism means that women can now choose to live beyond the confines of their traditional roles; but despite/because of that freedom, there’s a fearful sort of disparagement reserved for women who still elect to be wives and mothers, or who shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. As though, somehow, feminism has made all such occupations redundant; as though a perfectly equal society is one in which nobody ever has to get married, give birth or do the washing-up. Doubtless there’s some who’d call such a world Utopia, which is fair enough. But here in reality, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t the same as being anti-feminist, and the definition of a strong female character is not exclusively one who eschews domesticity – or love, for that matter.

Commenting on Jemisin’s post, one woman remarked:

“Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.”

Which is another way of saying that romance in narrative is innately anti-feminist. Frankly, it’s a sentiment which terrifies and chills me, not least because of the way in which it echoes the historical discrimination against working women who dared to get married. Find a man, this logic went, and you loose your credibility: married women should be (or are, depending on your preferred flavour of sexism) incapable of devoting time, effort and intelligence to anything other than marriage itself, and therefore can’t be trusted in the workforce. The modern version is subtler. In this scenario, women shouldn’t (or don’t, depending on your preferred flavour of feminism) need men to fulfill them; positive depictions of male/female romance contradict this tenet by linking happiness with heterosexual  romance, and are therefore anti-feminist. To be clear: the overwhelming preference of our culture for embedding marriage as the standard Happily Ever After is still problematic, as is the marginalization of happy non-hetero love and the idea that singleness is always the same as loneliness. What I’m objecting to is the idea that being romantically involved with men is, by itself, enough to undermine the feminist worth of female characters.

Imagine a group of macho men disparaging love as ‘chick stuff’ and an affront to masculinity, calling their married friends pussy-whipped and questioning the manhood (not to say intelligence) of any man who changes his lifestyle for the sake of a woman; the whole ‘bros before hos’ nine yards. Ugly, right? Then imagine a group of modern women disparaging love as a means of patriarchal control and an affront to feminism, calling their married friends submissive backsliders and challenging the feminist cred (not to say intelligence) of any woman who changes her lifestyle for the sake of a man; the whole ‘housewives and breeders’ manifesto.

Yeah. Still ugly.

To wax briefly lyrical, love is the great leveler: if you don’t lose your dignity at some point during the process, then I’d contend that you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, and as treacherous an idea as it might seem to our sensibilities, loving another person does fulfill us in a way that nothing else can; nonetheless, love is not our only means of fulfillment, nor even – necessarily – the most important. Love is unique; it fascinates and enthralls. As countless narratives from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice have been at pains to point out, neither love nor loving is a weakness. Which isn’t to say that love is never destructive, ill-conceived, fleeting, hurtful, wrongheaded, violent or stubborn. It can be all that and more – but the saving grace is, it can also be exultant, glorious, unexpected and gleeful. Contrary creatures that we are, it can sometimes even be all those things at once. To quote e.e. cummings, whose wisdom in such matters is unparalleled:

‘and being here imprisoned, tortured here

love everywhere exploding maims and blinds

(but surely does not forget,perish,sleep

cannot be photographed,measured;disdains

the trivial labeling of punctual brains…’

That being said, I’m not about to issue a blanket indemnity for each and every romance ever written. Just as many real-world relationships are abusive, one-sided, airheaded and/or undertaken for all the wrong reasons, so too can narrative relationships turn toxic. The vital point here is whether the author intended the relationship to be positive or negative or somewhere in between, to what purpose, and whether or not they’ve succeeded. In this as in so many things, your mileage may vary; but more of that shortly. Assuming momentarily that adherence to feminist canon must always be the rubric by which we gauge the narrative success or failure of fictional relationships (it’s not, but that’s another post entirely), failure on that count isn’t the same thing as failure overall. By which I mean: a story which deliberately chronicles the ups and downs of a negative relationship is not automatically anti-feminist. But wait, you cry: weren’t you asserting only moments ago that positive relationships were the problem? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked me that, because the sad fact is that some proponents of this view will have you coming and going. Negative hetero relationships are called anti-feminist because, nine times out of ten, they show women being mistreated by men, which – yes – is awful, but frequently on purpose, which is to say, the mistreatment is written deliberately to raise exactly this point; which is to say, a point that some commentators – not many, but enough to notice the pattern – persist in missing. But positive relationships are still called anti-feminist, too, because isn’t it just so contrived and backwards and cliche that a heterosexual woman might fall in love with a man, or want to? Why is it even necessary?

Look, you got me: it’s not necessary (or at least, not necessary to everyone). That doesn’t make it irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t make it unrealistic. I mean, dragons aren’t necessary, and they’re still fucking awesome – but hey, if you don’t like dragons? Maybe read a unicorn book! Or something.

This is why I get irked when novels – or more specifically, their romantic plotlines – are reviewed in line with this somewhat warped version of feminism. To directly refute the Jemisin commenter, you do not fail the Bechdel test by having your heroine fall in love, even if it’s with an awesome, powerful dude; but perhaps you do fail at writing a feminist heroine if, for whatever reason, love turns her into a doormat and her love interest into a douche without any indication that this is, in fact, suboptimal. Similarly, to play something of a strawman argument – and without wanting in any way to suggest that lesbian relationships aren’t legitimate, beautiful, awesome things – having your heroine fall in love with a lady does not automatically make her more feminist than if she falls in love with a dude; so why would heterosexuality prove a feminist handicap? So often in these debates, I feel like narrative context becomes optional in assessing a story’s merits; we get hung up on whether or not the heroine is making the same choices we would under the same circumstances when the whole point is that the story’s not about us.

Returning finally to the subject of strong female characters, then, wives and mothers of any kind are no more anti-feminist than kickass warriors in skintight leather with multiple sexual partners are the feminist ideal. Suggestions to the contrary may well be a fault of terminology; despite appearances, the strong in strong female character doesn’t refer exclusively to physical attributes, but rather to strength of character – interesting, three-dimensional ladies with a range of capabilities, backgrounds and interests being, for my money, a far more workable and compelling definition than just ladies who can fight. But then again, I’m happily married, so I guess that means my life fails the Bechdel by default.

Rats. And I felt so strong, too.

Comments
  1. Kate Elliott says:

    Back in 1992 when my novel Jaran had just come out, I went to the big national book expo (I think it’s not held any longer but has been split up into regional expos). I wandered the aisles in a daze, and got some free books.

    But at one point I walked past a booth for a publication that was a feminist book review magazine that I knew included reviews of sff novels.

    Hey! How exciting! I was a feminist!

    I went over and introduced myself and with Great Excitement said my first science fiction novel had just come out. And the woman I was speaking with so very excited too. She asked me what it was about.

    I said something like, it’s a political anthropological story of this young woman who finds herself stranded on an alien planet and it turns out some of her brother’s enemies are there and she has to find out why, and she falls in with the local people and there is a love story between her and this man (possibly I used the word “romance”)

    It was like a huge gate crashed down.

    Bam! I was closed off.

    The woman became instantly dismissively polite and couldn’t wait for me to leave.

    I was shocked (and obviously I was naive). And in a way I felt kind of betrayed.

    Looking back, I’m not shocked. I’m sad that this kind of thing is still going on in different forms.

    • Brendan Podger says:

      I read a lot of 60’s and 70’s feminist tracts when I was at Uni and much of it was: Patriarchal Society is Bad; Men are part of the Patriarchy; thus All Men are Evil. I think it is a “phase” many feminists go through when the whole thing is bright and new for them.

      Don’t worry, most of them grow out of it;-)

    • fozmeadows says:

      @Kate:

      What an awful thing to happen – but as you say, it’s still going on, and that’s really not acceptable.

      Without any evidence to back it up, my suspicion is that most such people exempt their own relationships from criticism on the grounds of Knowing They Know Better Than The Majority, but then persist in harshly judging the relationships of others. Which, frankly, is a hypocrisy we could well do without.

  2. tomdanby says:

    Have just skimmed your blog – looking for The Rare, and I read in two forms – wizz through the books I distribute & scifi or crime by the bed ( and a couple of pages if I am lucky ) – though both books in The Rare were read cover to cover. Anyway, not really up on the details of feminist theory, romance & literature.
    However I think we keep forgetting we are natural creatures.
    On cover images for example – young women are essential to our survival as a species, so it is no surprise that both men and women notice and instinctively respond to images of fertile young women. Yet we tolerate the commercial sexualisation and exploitation of this natural response.
    It also explains why society can seem so overtly critical of women.
    On love – the same applies – we must be hardwired for commitment – at least in the breeding years, as a stable family unit ( as broad as possible ) ensures survival and education of the children. So why is a shock that we fall in love. It is a weakness like ageing – everyone does it, some better than others, and sometimes life is cruel in the process.
    On writing – I have read that imagining you are practicing playing the piano is almost as good as actually playing the piano – so I am not surprised that reading about other experiences can build our skills in dealing with all that life throws up. I doubt the style and genre makes much difference, so long as you get a fairly balanced diet – or at least read around the “skills” area you want to exercise.

  3. e6n1 says:

    You get a similar problem in sci-fi, for example in the depiction of women as the ‘Other’ (the cyborg, the alien, the clone) or someone who has to be more male than the other men e.g military officer, aloof scientist) as if a brighter future for women lies in not being a wife or a mother.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I think there’s an interesting parallel to be had between specific homophobic fears and the upshot of feminist fears of Traditional Women. Viz: some idiots are always scared that gay people want to TURN EVERYONE GAY and STOP THE HUMAN RACE FROM BREEDING, which is ludicrous; but no less ludicrous (I can’t help feeling) than the other extreme, which is to forcibly pretend that breeding of any kind is optional to the extent that only a moron would do it.

  4. Brendan Podger says:

    I find myself agreeing with the original commentator about the mis-use of romance in cetrain titles. My thinking goes back to the Anne McCaffrey novels where I felt she was increasingly turning good SF/F books into bad romance stories.

    If a story is a romance it is a romance and that is fine. But when a story becomes a romance halfway through then we have a problem. While I haven’t read any myself I think this is a common complaint about the Sookie Stackhouse books(Although I may be thinking of a different series entirely). At first the books were good adventure laced with very risqué romance and later the books became more and more sex and less story.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I agree that some series do change direction and emphasis, romantically speaking, and that this is sometimes (YMMV) a bad thing; however, there’s an important distinction to be made between stories which undergo this transition and stories which are un- or anti-feminist. Specifically, the former is a structural/tonal problem – a change in style and genre – while the latter is a statement of social/political values as expressed in the text. Which isn’t to say that the two things are always unrelated – one can definitely lead to the other – but the relationship, where and if it exists, isn’t automatically causal.

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