Posts Tagged ‘Emotion’

In 1929, Edward Bernays persuaded a group of women to break the taboo on female smoking by arranging for them all to light up during that year’s Easter Parade in New York City. Though cynically motivated – Bernays was acting on behalf of the American Tobacco Association – this capitalistic appropriation of the suffragette movement was wildly successful: rebranded as “torches of freedom,” cigarettes became both a touchstone for gender equality and a visible accessory of female defiance. The fact that smoking is an addictive, unhealthy and potentially lethal habit doesn’t change the fact that women were being denied access to it purely on the grounds of gender, and yet most people, on learning this particular historical tidbit, will probably feel uncomfortable – not just because Bernays was effectively manipulating the women’s rights movement in order to sell more cigarettes, but because he still had a valid point. No matter the many adverse effects of tobacco – none of which were known at the time – freedom of choice is a basic human right, and denying it to women on the grounds that smoking was a masculine pastime is fundamentally sexist, regardless of our views on cigarettes as a concept.

Similarly, I always feel uneasy whenever I see news outlets fretting about the apparent increase in violent crimes committed by women, and particularly young women. While social commentators are quick to blame the phenomenon on any number of causes – binge drinking, mimicry of “kickass” role models, a seemingly historical predisposition towards initiating domestic confrontations, family breakdown and ladette culture, a change in the definition of assault – their unifying fascination with the issues seems to hinge on the idea of women being corrupted by men; as though female violence is somehow the dark side of feminism. Well, yes, in the sense that violent crime is deplorable regardless of who’s committing it; but that’s a far cry from the view – seldom stated outright, but overwhelmingly implied – that such offences are somehow fundamentally worse when committed by women, not only in a moral sense, but as a perceived symptom of social malaise; as though violent crime as a whole must therefore have reached such epic proportions that even pure, sweet, innocent ladies are being infected by it.

Underneath such scaremongering lies a toxic view of gender essentialism: that because men tend to be physically stronger than women, violence – whether criminal or constructive – must therefore be an innately male characteristic; or at the very least, something which should be viewed with greater acceptance and sympathy when expressed by men. The idea that a certain amount of physical strength is a necessary prerequisite to possession of violent urges, or that maleness somehow excuses poor emotional control, is part of a sexist social logic that serves to validate male expressions of  anger and aggression as being both natural and powerful while demonising women who behave likewise as unnatural and weak. On some level, the cultural derision of female anger as hysteria seemingly stems from a belief in female physical impotence: if verbal disagreements are seen as either analogues for or precursors to physical altercations, then our tacit assumption of female weakness serves to characterise female anger as being somehow disembodied; as though our implied inability to (if necessary) take things outside means that our anger can never be physically felt, and is therefore  inadequate when contrasted with proper, red-blooded, bodily male anger.

Hence my suspicion that at least part of the disgust and confusion leveled at aggressive women stems from the fear that this logic no longer applies: that where before we could trust in angry women to neither hit first nor hit back and therefore discount them appropriately, now we might actually have to treat them with the same deference – or at least, the same concern – as angry men.

To be clear: violent crime is not synonymous with anger; nor is anger only, or even most commonly, expressed through physical acts of aggression. And I’m hardly coming out in support of female violent crime as some bizarre species of empowerment. What I am saying, though, is that our culture has spent so many years defending, downplaying or otherwise handwaving aggression, vice and violence as being integral to proper masculinity – or at least, the inevitable side-effects of same – that we’re now extremely uncomfortable with the idea of women entering those arenas, too. In the case of physically confrontational sports, for instance, like boxing and martial arts, one of the oldest and most universal defenses of their social utility has been as necessary outlets for male (and particularly young male) aggression. But let women into the ring – demonstrate that they can be just as skilled, combative, determined, aggressive – and suddenly that assumption comes under all sorts of scrutiny; because if the desire to punch someone can’t be solely attributed to possession of a Y-chromosome, then maybe – just maybe – all our boys-will-be-boys excuses have been less a rational defense of biology and more an irrational defense of culture. And that’s a truly frightening thought for many, because all of a sudden, centuries of excuses about why men can’t be expected to exhibit self control in any number of situations – why it’s always women who have to dress modestly, avoid conflict and not start fights; why territorial violence, or violence as response to supposed disrespect, is overwhelmingly justified – start to look like… well, excuses.

In a recent article, writer Jen Dziura contended that, contrary to the logic of gender stereotyping, men are just as emotional as women; it’s just that specific types of emotion more commonly associated with men – such as shouting, aggression and violence – are culturally viewed as positive attributes (or at least excusable ones) , whereas emotional displays that are viewed as feminine, like crying and getting upset, are interpreted as weakness.  To quote:

I wish to dispel the notion that women are “more emotional.” I don’t think we are. I think that the emotions women stereotypically express are what men call “emotions,” and the emotions that men typically express are somehow considered by men to be something else.

This is incorrect. Anger? EMOTION. Hate? EMOTION. Resorting to violence? EMOTIONAL OUTBURST. An irrational need to be correct when all the evidence is against you? Pretty sure that’s an emotion. Resorting to shouting really loudly when you don’t like the other person’s point of view? That’s called “being too emotional to engage in a rational discussion.”

Not only do I think men are at least as emotional as women, I think that these stereotypically male emotions are more damaging to rational dialogue than are stereotypically female emotions. A hurt, crying person can still listen, think, and speak. A shouting, angry person? That person is crapping all over meaningful discourse.

Note, please, that Dziura describes these particular emotions, not as being intrinsically male or female, but only stereotypically so. This is a crucial distinction to make, because without it, we miss the existence of yet another double standard: the fact that, on those rare occasions when women do manage to overcome their own socialisation and publicly express anger, rage or violence, they are still derided for being emotional. Once again, the creeping toxicity of our assumptions about who is entitled to anger – viz: anyone we think is capable of supporting their verbal aggression physically – causes us to conclude that, as women lack this ability – and particularly when ranged against male opponents – their anger must therefore be disembodied and hysterical rather than bodily and genuine. An angry man is a growling Alsatian: we listen because his bite could well be worse than his bark. But an angry woman is a yapping chihuahua: visible rage only serves to magnify her physical inability to express it seriously, and in the meantime, we laugh at how cute she looks when she’s pissed.

And then, of course, the issue is further compounded by both conscious and subconscious racism: white male anger, for instance, is viewed as restrained, civilised and righteous, whereas black male anger is viewed as savage, bestial, wild. In this metaphor, the violence of white men as expressed through verbal aggression is viewed as a holstered gun: we’re obscenely comforted to know that, if the argument came to blows, they’d be capable of defending themselves, but otherwise, we don’t worry that violent words are likely to translate to violent actions. The violence of black men, however, is taken to be overt, like a constantly brandished sword – even when their words are milder, we’re conditioned to worry that at any moment, they’ll forgo dialogue in favour of physical action, and to fear and mistrust them appropriately. That’s just one example; the stereotyping is endless. But for any intersectional group and their associated stereotypes, you can be sure that society has an opinion on how entitled they are to anger and violence, how frequently (or not) it’s perceived to be expressed by that group, how threatening this behaviour is to the privileged, and whether such expressions should be generally met with condescension, fear or outright hostility.

As a culture, we need to get past the idea that anger is sole and rightful purview of those with both the potential for physical violence and enough social privilege that their usage of it is always assumed to be justified; that aggression is distinct from emotion, and therefore a legitimate species of argument when employed by men; and that the aggression of anyone who lacks the protections of privilege or the semblance of physical strength mustn’t be legitimate anger, but either thoughtless thuggery or baseless hysteria instead. Like it or not, the right to anger is a cultural resource, and one the most privileged have been keen to reserve for themselves. Not only must we reclaim it, but – as Dziura says – we must also stop mistaking it for the only valid form of discourse; or rather, stop fooling ourselves that we haven’t embedded an unhealthy tolerance for aggression, and specifically white male aggression, in the heart of our definition of reasoned, rational debate. Anger in discourse can be justified, but we should always recognise it for what it is – an emotion – instead of only classing it as one when someone of lesser privilege is using it. That way, we can start to build a system where everyone is heard, and where legitimate expressions of outrage aren’t buried beneath a sneering weight of gendered, racist contempt.

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Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.