Posts Tagged ‘Sexuality’

Recently, there was something of a furor at Strange Horizons over the publication of Liz Bourke’s scathing review of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords.The comment thread exploded: for every respondent who liked the piece, there were three more lambasting it as being unprofessional, arrogant, vitriolic, and “in the style of a schoolyard bully”. Now, I’ve not read Theft of Swords, and based on Bourke’s review – which I found to be neither unreasonable nor poorly-argued, but humorously written and to the point – I have no plans to do so. Doubtless those who love the book will find this outcome a travesty, just as others will be in agreement. At this point, further arguments concerning the book itself don’t interest me: what does, however, is the slap-startled reaction of readers to the idea that a well-known SFF review site might, on occasion, choose to publish negative reviews.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be shocking. As was recently pointed out in this excellent piece by Veronica Roth, reviews are meant for readers, not writers. Speaking as an author: yes, it’s lovely to get a good one, while a sour piece can completely ruin your day, but the point of criticism is not to make the writer – or, just as importantly in this instance, the writer’s fans – feel good. True criticism is a means of discussing the merits, failings and themes of a work unchecked by any conscious reference to whether or not that discussion will benefit the work. That doesn’t mean reviews aren’t important to a book’s success – they are – but helping books succeed is not their primary function; nor should it be. And yet, as demonstrated  not only by the response to Bourke’s reviews, but by the necessity of Roth’s piece – which was a timely response the string of recent YA author/reviewer incidents – large numbers of the SFF community seem to be struggling with the fairly basic premise, inherent to the very notion of criticism, that no one is under any obligation to be nice.

Can I take a moment to express my thorough dislike of the word nice? It’s such an insincere, simpering, placatory term, like an ambling jaywalker flapping their hands at traffic. Nice is how you describe an acquaintance you don’t know well enough to call kind or likable; places whose primary virtue is inoffensiveness are nice;  we tell children to play nice before they’re big enough to understand words like consideration and empathy, so that asking other adults to be nice is about as condescendingly ineffectual as telling them to write their names on their shoes. I start to hear the Witch from Into the Woods in my head, as she sneeringly sings at the dithering cast, ‘You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.Because niceness sets my teeth on edge. It’s a placeholder term for everything we’re too polite, busy or disinterested to say properly, and it grates on me when people talk about being nice as though it’s a dogdamn* aspirational state. Kindness is worth aspiring to, but niceness is only the semblance of something more meaningful.

Anyway.

I started wondering, why are so many SFF/YA fans adverse to bad reviews? Why is negative guff on Goodreads upsetting so many people, and why, more particularly, are these incidents almost exclusively sparked by SFF/YA material? Hardly a month goes by that some blog or other doesn’t feature a list of great literary put-downs, famously scathing reviews or ill-conceived rejections, so why is our particular section of the internet so loathe to join in the fun? Admittedly, most of those are historical anecdotes rather than hot news, but the fact remains that I’m yet to see a stoush like this surrounding the criticism of a mainstream, literary work.

And then it hit me: the mainstream is the problem. Or rather, the fact that even now, despite the tremendous popularity and success of various young adult, fantasy and science fiction properties, the literary establishment still tends to sneer at genre. All too often, we see the publication of articles on YA literature written by people who either misunderstand or actively dislike it as a genre; the incomprehensible review of fantasy books by journalists with no interest in fantasy; the exclusion of breathtaking SFF works from major award lists because they’ve been deemed too low-brow; the slighting of adults who read YA; imprecations and warnings about inappropriate themes for teens; the demonisation of escapism. In short, the SFF/YA readership – with good reason – still sees literary criticism as the vehicle through which their passions, beliefs and creative outpourings are othered. We have so long been subject to external criticism that we don’t know how to react to internal criticism, because whereas the most enduring, positive and sensible response to the former is a united front – you shall not divide us, here we stand – responding to the latter is an entirely different ballgame.

This is my fear: that as a community, we don’t know how to critique ourselves, and that this is doing us damage. Criticism, and specifically the criticism of both literary publications and the mainstream press, has so long been the weapon of the enemy that our first response on seeing it wielded internally is to call it the work of traitors. We have found strength in the creation of our own conventions and the hallowing of our own legends, flourishing to such an extent that, even if we are not yet accepted into the mainstream literary establishment, we are nonetheless part of the cultural mainstream. We are written about inaccurately, yet we are written about; and if there ever was a time when the whole genre seemed a precarious, faddish endeavour, then that time is surely past.

Like Tyrion Lannister, we have taken the things for which others sought to mock us – magic, dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards, kings, quests – and made them our strongest armour. We have proved we are not ashamed, because there is nothing in what we love to shame us. And yet, this success has come at a cost. By choosing to present a united front, we have forcibly ignored internal dissent. By armouring ourselves in tropes, we have bred homogeneity in their expression. By refusing to be criticised for what we are, we have started ignoring criticism of what we’ve done. And now that we are a force to be reckoned with, we are using that force to suppress our own diversity. It’s understandable – but it’s not acceptable.

In the past few years, more and more passionate debates about the nature of SFF and YA have bubbled to the surface. Conversations about race, imperialism, gender, sexuality, romance, bias, originality, feminism and cultural appropriation are getting louder and louder and, consequently, harder to ignore. Similarly, this current tension about negative reviews is just another fissure in the same bedrock: the consequence of built-up pressure beneath. Literary authors feud with each other, and famously; yet genre authors do not, because we fear being cast as turncoats. For decades, literary writers have also worked publicly as literary reviewers; yet SFF and YA authors fear to do the same, lest it be seen as backstabbing when they dislike a book. (Small wonder, then, that so few SFF and YA titles are reviewed by mainstream journals.) Just as a culture of sexual repression leads to feelings of guilt and outbursts of sexual moralising by those most afflicted, so have we, by denying and decrying all criticism that doesn’t suit our purposes, turned those selfsame critical impulses towards censorship.

And against whom is this censorship directed? By way of answer, think back to the big subcultural debates of 2011 – debates about how gritty fantasy isn’t really fantasy; how epic fantasy written from the female gaze isn’t really fantasy; how women should stop complaining about sexism in comics because clearly, they just hate comics; how trying to incorporate non-Eurocentric settings into fantasy is just political correctness gone wrong and a betrayal of the genre’s origins; how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers;  how aspiring authors and bloggers shouldn’t post negative reviews online, because it could hurt their careers; how there’s no homophobia in publishing houses, so the lack of gay YA protagonists can only be because the manuscripts that feature them are bad; how there’s nothing problematic about lots of pretty dead girls on YA covers; how there’s nothing wrong with SF getting called ‘dystopia’ when it’s marketed to teenage girls, because girls don’t read SF. Most these issues relate to fear of change in the genre, and to deeper social problems like sexism and racism; but they are also about criticism, and the freedom of readers, bloggers and authors alike to critique SFF and YA novels without a backlash that declares them heretical for doing so.

It’s not enough any more to tiptoe around the issues that matter, refusing to name the works we think are problematic for fear of being ostracized. We need to get over this crushing obsession with niceness – that all fans must act nicely, that all authors must be nice to each other, that everyone must be nice about everything even when it goes against our principles – because it’s not helping us grow, or be taken seriously, or do anything other than throw a series of floral bedspreads over each new room-hogging elephant.

We, all of us, need to get critical.

*Not a typo. As an atheist, I’m sick of swearing by a deity I don’t believe exists, but also want to stick within the bounds of familiar expression. Thus, I’ve started substituting dog for god, for three reasons: one, it’s god spelled backwards; two, it sounds similar; and three, I don’t have faith in a supreme being, but I most certainly do believe in Dachshunds.

So because I am a crazy lady who cares about her stories and her feminism, I have basically spent the whole week having imaginary internal arguments with Steven Moffat about the sexism in Sherlock and Doctor Who. And because I am also a crazy lady with a blog, I have decided to get all of this angsting off my chest in a cathartic, therapeutic way by having an imaginary interview with Imaginary Steven Moffat right here on the internet, in honour of the forthcoming Sherlock episode.

Thus, I give you: My Imaginary Interview With Imaginary Steven Moffat!

.

Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, it’s a pleasure to have you on the blog.

ISM: Thank you. Though I feel I should start by apologising.

Me: Oh? Why?

ISM: I’ll be honest. I have no idea who you are. My Imaginary Agent booked this gig at the last minute, so… you have the advantage of me. (Laughs)

Me: (Laughs) Fair enough! Well, in brief: my name is Foz Meadows, I’m a fantasy author, a geek, a blogger and a feminist – and as you’ve been honest enough to start with an apology, I probably should, too.

ISM: And why’s that?

Me: Because – straight to the point – I’ve basically got you here to talk about the concerns of many that there’s a theme of sexism in your work, specifically Sherlock and, to a lesser extent, Doctor Who.

ISM: Look. I’m very tired of these accusations. Neither I nor anyone on the team is either sexist, or a misogynist, and frankly I find the suggestion offensive. As I’ve said before in response to Jane Clare Jones’s piece in the Guardian:

I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings. I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act. I’m certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong. 

Me: Right, OK. I understand that. And like I said, I apologise, because you’ve come in here not knowing that this is the topic under discussion, when clearly it’s something you feel very strongly about.

ISM: There’s nothing to discuss. I’m not a sexist. I respect women.

Me: All right. I hear what you’re saying. But as you say, there’s a relevant distinction to be drawn between what a writer believes in real life and the things they write about, and on those grounds, I and a lot of other fans would contend there’s a case to answer.

ISM: This interview is over. I’m leaving.

Me: I’m sorry, Imaginary Steven Moffat, but it’s not, and you’re not, because this is all happening in my head. You’re Imaginary Steven Moffat, not Real Steven Moffat, and while I’m sure he might like to leave at this point, this whole thing is, as they say, my party. One way or another, we’re going to thrash this out.

ISM: Rats.

Me: Right. So, before we get to the meat of things, I’d like to make one thing clear from the outset.

ISM: Go on, then. Clearly I can’t stop you.

Me: Thank you. What I want to begin by saying is – and I’ll understand if you don’t believe me – that contrary to how it might seem, I am actually a fan of Doctor Who and Sherlock.

ISM: (Snorts) You’ve got a funny way of showing it.

Me: I can see how it might appear that way, and I’ve definitely used some strong language to get my point across. But I’m sick of this idea that offering up real criticism of the things I love somehow makes me a bad fan. If I didn’t like your shows, I wouldn’t bother critiquing them, because I wouldn’t bother watching; but that doesn’t mean that all their good points are enough to make me excuse the sexism. A lot of what’s on TV is far worse than anything you’ve put out, but that’s why I avoid it. Certainly, I’ll complain about the damage they do, but not in personal terms, because I have no attachment to the material. But I do care about the Doctor; I do care about Sherlock Holmes. These are both characters who’ve existed long before you ever started to write them, who have dedicated fandoms and histories that precede your work by decades. You were two years old when Doctor Who first aired, and Conan Doyle was writing in the 1800s. That’s a long time for people to become attached to these stories.

ISM: So what you’re saying is that by taking over two existing narratives, I’ve come along and ruined a good thing – that all the previous interpretations are better, and that because my work doesn’t meet your standards, it’s crap.

Me: Not at all. You’re a fantastic writer. You have great ideas, you put together great production teams. A lot of your work I really love. But what I’m saying is, there’s a difference between picking up an existing story and creating something new, because existing stories come with existing audiences.

ISM: So I should just avoid doing anything original with old material?

Me: No, no! It’s not that you shouldn’t try new things – I love that Sherlock is set in the modern day. It’s just – remember what I said earlier, about not critiquing shows I don’t care about?

ISM: Yes.

Me: Well, I’d say that’s true of the majority of people. So when a new, original show rubs us the wrong way, it’s a very easy matter to disengage: we don’t have any investment in the story beyond what we’re willing to put in at the outset. And if you, as a writer – as all writers do – start to build up a portfolio based on your individual kind of storytelling, then as you move from project to project, you’ll start to collect fans whose primary investment in each of your new stories is the fact of your involvement: that you, Imaginary Steven Moffat, are the one in charge. By the same token, though, some people might not like your storytelling style; maybe they’re just ambivalent, or they’ve never heard of you, or they like it, but not enthusiastically enough to consider themselves a fan. Maybe they even hate it. But if you start writing about characters that are dear to them – like Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes – then those people will end up watching your shows, too. And unlike your usual fanbase, their primary motive isn’t your involvement, but the presence of existing characters. And this is important, because it means that a significant proportion of the people responding critically to your output will end up critiquing, not just the show itself, but the way you’re telling it. And because the characters aren’t yours, their opinions can’t just be written off by saying the show isn’t for them; because clearly, those characters are for them, or they wouldn’t have bothered watching.

ISM: I don’t think I’ve ever said these shows aren’t for fans of the originals. Quite the opposite.

Me: No, I’m not saying you did. But what I’m ultimately getting at here is that perhaps one reason why the accusation of sexism has upset you so much is that it’s no something you’ve had to deal with from your usual fanbase, and you’re confused as to why people like me, who are being heavily critical, are watching to begin with.

ISM: You do think badly of me, then.

Me: A little bit, yes.

ISM: Hah!

Me: Look, I’m trying to be honest. Nobody’s perfect. I’m not perfect, and I certainly don’t expect you to be. But part of fighting sexism is acknowledging that, precisely because we’re not perfect, our ideals and our actions don’t always match up.

ISM: You’re making it sound like I have lapses; like I suddenly forget that women are equal to men and behave like a Neanderthal. It’s ridiculous. I’m not a sexist; I repudiate sexism; therefore, there is no sexism in my writing.

Me: But that doesn’t logically follow, does it?

ISM: Excuse me?

Me: Well, look at it this way. It it possible to offend someone unintentionally, even when you’re trying to be polite?

ISM: What, you mean like a back-handed compliment?

Me: No, I mean genuinely by accident. Like, say I meet someone at a party whose outfit I think is stunning, and I compliment them on their style by comparing them to a particular celebrity who, unbeknownst to me, they completely loathe.

ISM: Obviously that’s possible, yes.

Me: OK, right, good. So, sticking with that example, what if I know beforehand that the person hates the celebrity, and I still make the comparison?

ISM: That would be deliberately offensive, yes.

Me: Yes, it would – but what if, even knowing what I know, it’s my firm belief that the person’s dislike for the celebrity is unreasonable? That because I’d consider the comparison to be complimentary, they should, too, and that by making the comparison, I’m partially trying to bring them around to my way of thinking?

ISM: Still offensive, but in a different way. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, though.

Me: Of course. It’s a more contextual point. But can we agree that, even though I’ve paid the compliment knowing it will be badly received, to my way of thinking, I’ve not actually said anything offensive? That because I wouldn’t be offended if someone said that to me, I haven’t set out to be insulting, and that if the person is insulted, then that’s down to their beliefs more than it is my actions?

ISM: Technically, yes, I agree. Though you shouldn’t be surprised if they still react badly to it.

Me: Of course not. But compare all this to what you’ve just said about sexism. Intentions only carry us so far. Believing that you’re not sexist doesn’t prevent you from perpetuating sexism any more than intending to be complimentary prevents me from being insulting. And when you react to the knowledge that some people find your work sexist, not by considering the possibility that it is, but by continuing to assert that we’re wrong to see it that way – by saying something you know we’ll find it offensive – then, as you say, you shouldn’t be surprised that we react badly.

ISM: Yes, all right, very clever. But this is all metaphorical; you haven’t actually addressed the content of what I’ve written.

Me: OK, then. Consider Irene Adler. In the original Conan Doyle story, A Scandal in Bohemia, she beats Sherlock Holmes at his own game, marries her fiancé and leaves England victorious, while he is left – according to Watson – with a new-found respect for the intellectual capabilities of women. There’s also an inference that he’s attracted to her, because the only payment he takes for the case is her photo: at the very least, he certainly admires her.

ISM: And Sherlock admires her in my version, too. He definitely respects her.

Me: Yes, but he also beats her; she “beats” him with a riding crop – which is a nice play on words, I grant you – but he’s the one who actually wins. And then at the end, you’ve literally made her a damsel in distress, rescued from execution by terrorists in Karachi.

ISM: Look, I’m sorry, but it seems like a pretty poor definition of sexism to say that men can never beat women. Following that logic, any story where women don’t come out on top is sexist.

Me: No, that’s not what I’m saying. If you were writing an original story where your male protagonist triumphed over and subsequently rescued a female antagonist whom he nonetheless respected, that would be one thing. But when you take an existing, much-beloved story where the female antagonist not only wins, but is vaunted by the male protagonist for doing so – where this is, in fact, the primary basis for his admiring her – and change it so that things end up the other way around, then yes, I’m going to call that sexist.

ISM: (Angry) So you’re saying I wrote Adler the way I did because I’m a sexist? That wanting to write a fresh interpretation had nothing to do with it, and all I really wanted to do was put her down as a character?

Me: (Frustrated) No! What I’m saying is that you elected to make Sherlock look really badass by having him first defeat and then rescue an intelligent Irene Adler, but without appreciating the fact that making male characters stronger at the expense of their female counterparts is one of the oldest, most sexist tropes in the book. Using the trope unconsciously doesn’t make you a sexist: but it doesn’t strop the trope from being sexist, and if you refuse to acknowledge that some narrative conventions are founded on sexism, then you will invariably include sexism in your work.

ISM: So men being cooler than women is sexist?

Me: No, not just being cooler than. Being cooler at the expense of. Can you see that there’s a distinction?

ISM: (Pauses) Hypothetically, yes, but I don’t see how that applies in the case of Adler.

Me: Sherlock is made to look cool and competent because Adler’s feelings for him prove her undoing. That’s coolness for him at her expense: she loses her professionalism – the phone being “Sherlocked” – while he gains credibility for spotting the error. Then she has to beg him for protection: she loses her dignity so that he, in refusing her, can gain mastery. Finally, she loses her competence – the ability to get herself out of trouble – while he gains power for rescuing her.

ISM: But now we’re just back again to this tired idea of sexism meaning any story where women lose to men.

Me: No, we’re not. Because as an existing character being reinterpreted, Adler is quite literally loosing her essence. In Conan Doyle’s original, she has professionalism, dignity and power, and the story ends with her in possession of all three. But in your version, Sherlock strips these qualities from her to enhance himself, and for no other reason than that you wrote him that way.

ISM: (Uncomfortable) All right. I can see how people might be… I can see why some people might not like that ending, though I know a lot of them have. But the story is about Sherlock, after all – it’s his show, it’s his party. Why shouldn’t he be the best character?

Me: Imaginary Mr Moffat, if you think that losing once to an exceptional woman is enough to stop Sherlock Holmes from being the best character in his own show, then we really do have a problem.

ISM: (Silence)

Me: The fact is, you have a habit of depowering your female characters to make your male protagonists look stronger. That doesn’t mean your women are badly written, or that your male characters are sexist, or that you are. It means that, somewhere along the line, you’ve unconsciously absorbed two very old and very powerful narrative ideas: that a protagonist who routinely proves himself better than the other characters is a strong protagonist; and that an exceptional man can be made even cooler by his rescue of an exceptional woman. And because we live in a society that’s still overrun with sexism, you’ve also taken on board the idea that it’s acceptable to make jokes about women’s bodies.

ISM: I think you’re going too far, now. I’ve conceded the point about Irene Adler, but now you’re grasping at straws. Where did all this appearance stuff come into it?

Me: Molly Hooper. Sherlock is constantly criticising her make-up, her clothes, her appearance, her sexuality. Twice, he makes her cry. He even criticizes her weight, making it a negative thing that being with her new boyfriend has caused her to get heavier, when in Conan Doyle’s books, that same exchange was a friendly one between Holmes and Watson, with the weight-gain being part of a cheerful, positive assessment of how marriage agreed with John. In Doctor Who, too, when Mels regenerates into River, the first thing she does is start talking about her body, what clothes will fit and how she needs to weigh herself. For an entire season, Amy is reduced to being a womb in a box – the Doctor even destroys the ‘ganger that took her place, because she’s not “real”, even though he’d just spent the whole episode telling people that ‘gangers deserved human rights – and then later, you let Old Amy die in favour of saving her younger counterpart, even though Old Amy has been suffering for forty years. In both cases, a copy of Amy dies because her body is wrong – she’s not the real, young Amy, and so she can cease to exist with impunity.

ISM: This is a separate point, though, to the one you were making before.

Me: Separate, but related to why critics think there are sexist themes running through both interpretations.

ISM: I don’t see it. You’re taking all these scenes out of context. This isn’t about plot, and it’s not about changing an existing character. Molly, Amy and River are my creations. You’ve gone completely off-message.

Me: OK, I’ll admit to having jumped around a bit. My apologies for that. But I’d like to run with another hypothetical.

ISM: Do I have a choice?

Me: Not really.

ISM: (Muttering) My Imaginary Agent is so fired, I can’t even.

Me: Right. So imagine I’m the writer and creator of a TV show called The Last Amazon – it’s about Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen from Greek legend, being an immortal, kickass warrior who’s lived through to the present day and has now teamed up with a team of geeky sidekicks to fight the forces of mythological darkness.

ISM: If you say so.

Me: Now, this is mostly an SFF show, but with mystery elements. Sure, there’ll be flashes of romance and sexual tension from time to time, but mainly it’s about magic mixing with technology, solving crimes and having crazy adventures.

ISM: Right.

Me: Apart from Hippolyte, most of the geeky sidekicks are women. There’s one or two men involved, but in almost every encounter with the female characters, they either suffer hilarious put downs or are told to shut up. One of them has a massive crush on Hippolyte, but she’s a kickass Amazon warrior – she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and makes hurtful jokes at his expense, which is played for laughs. The female camaraderie is the real emotional heart of the show: ladies looking out for each other, being awesome, and only really dealing with men on the sidelines. In fact, men are mostly encountered as victims: handsome surfer youths who’ve been drowned by Sirens, loving fathers who’ve been ripped apart by Harpies, little boys who’ve been kidnapped by Neriads, wise old men who are callously killed by the descendants of Circe. Sometimes women die, too, but those deaths are always more perfunctory, less brutal and less emotionally intense than those of men. Most killers are, by contrast, women: goddesses and girl-monsters all, and there’s a general sense that, by taking them on, the female protagonists are fighting the worst aspects of their own gender: protecting the less powerful men from the predations of cruel, murderous women.

ISM: Very subtle.

Me: And yet, the reverse dynamic is the sacred foundation of almost every crime procedural, ever. Except for the put-downs part. That’s just for your benefit.

ISM: Touché.

Me: Anyway. You’re watching this show because hey, Greek mythology is awesome! And you really start to get into it. But then you notice the fact that the women are always putting down the men. You notice that, while the female costumes are cut concealingly, to make them look well-dressed and competent, the pretty young men are always shown shirtless or wearing revealing clothes – and that’s offputting, because it’s ultimately unnecessary. You notice that the men, though clearly doing important work in the background, are never given due appreciation by the other characters. You notice that time and again, they’re the ones imperilled and threatened; they’re the weak link the villains always seek to exploit. You notice that the men are always ruled by their emotions, falling in love with the women at first sight, their romantic epiphanies made grandiose while the women are allowed to remain aloof. You notice that the women often make jokes about how the men look – about their weight, and their hair, and their attractiveness, their probable penis size and how good they are in bed; sometimes they’re even shown to call their male partners the wrong name, which is played for laughs. You notice that, given a bunch of new characters to protect in a perilous situation, it’s always the men who end up dying for dramatic effect. You notice that, while the female characters are given room to develop in lots of different ways, the men are primarily defined by their sexuality: as lovers, adulterers, boyfriends, husbands and fathers, but rarely anything else. And when Hercules, Hippolyte’s historical love interest, shows up on the scene, you’re dismayed to find that, far from being the competent warrior who won her love and then left her, as per the old story, he instead shows up as a high-class escort – one who claims to be gay, but then falls for Hippolyte anyway – while she then humiliates and rescues him in short order.

ISM: Like I said. Subtle. And long-winded.

Me: I’ll get to the point, then. Having watched The Last Amazon, you, as a male viewer, start to feel that I, the female creator, might be a bit of a misandrist. Certainly, there are elements of misandry in my characterisation, or of sexism at the very least. You cannot find any male characters who come out on top, and while you still appreciate that this is meant to be Hippolyte’s show, you don’t see why there can’t be more of a balance where the portrayal of men is concerned. You’re not the only one to have noticed the problems, either. You write about them, detailing your complaints in blogs and newspaper articles. And then I respond, because I’m angry at your criticism. I say that I’m not a sexist; that I find it offensive that anyone would use the word misandry to describe what I do, because obviously I believe women and men are equal – and after all, I’m married! I say your claim is ridiculous, and don’t address your specific concerns beyond saying that you’re out of line. I am not a sexist, I protest; therefore, my show isn’t sexist. End of discussion. So how would that leave you feeling?

ISM: I’d be angry. Frustrated. At the very least, I’d start to think that, if you really disliked sexism, then you’d want to make very sure that you weren’t perpetuating it by accident, rather than just assuming it was impossible. That you were reacting defensively, automatically, without any sort of self-assessment at all. The unfairness of it would nag at me until one day, having had various arguments with you in my head about what you were doing wrong, I realised that we’d never be able to have a proper conversation, and so decided to write down an interview with Imaginary Foz Meadows about all the misandry and sexism in The Last Amazon. Because even an imaginary dialogue would be better than your angry, non-response to the legitimate complaints of fans who are sick of seeing their gender slighted and demonised in the media.

Me: And?

ISM: Oh.

Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, thanks for joining me.

ISM: It’s been a pleasure.

Yesterday, my husband and I rewatched Season 1 of Sherlock. It’s an awesome show, and one that was made even better by repeat viewing in all respects save one: the treatment of the women. I’ve blogged before, pointedly and with bitterness, about the terrible things Steven Moffat routinely does to his female characters in Doctor Who, and though his motives seem to stem more from ignorance than malice, the results are nonetheless unpleasant.

Early on, we’re introduced to Molly Hooper, Sherlock’s contact at the morgue. His obliviousness to her interest in him is played for laughs, which is fine and as it should be; what’s less fine is the way he consistently and cruelly criticises her appearance, which is also played for laughs. In A Study In Pink, he remarks on the fact that without her lipstick, she doesn’t look as nice; it makes her mouth ‘too small’. In The Blind Banker, he defuses her legitimate anger at his behaviour by complimenting her hair, which Molly accepts with a giggle. Finally, in The Great Game, Molly brings in a fake boyfriend, Jim, to try and attract Sherlock’s attention. As the boyfriend turns out to be Moriarty, the implication is that he’s duped her into friendship, though we don’t find this out until later. In the meantime, however, ‘Jim’ has pretended to be gay, which Sherlock points out (there’s a lot of guff about personal grooming and choice in underpants, which feels hideously superficial until it’s revealed that Jim has, in fact, slipped Sherlock his number) – and that might be fine, too, except that he also takes the time to tell Molly ‘You’ve put on three pounds since you’ve been with him.’

‘Two and a half,’ says Molly, desperately.

‘Three,’ Sherlock says again.

The encounter ends, not unsurprisingly, with Molly fleeing the room in tears, and even though Watson points out that Sherlock has been unkind, this is on the basis of so callously revealing her boyfriend to be gay, and not for the remark about her weight.

Next, we have Mrs Hudson. Given the character’s origins, it’s less surprising that she’s given short shrift, but her treatment by the other male characters nonetheless rankles. At two points in The Great Game, she’s shown nattering pleasantly (or trying to natter pleasantly) with Holmes, Lestrade and Watson: in both instances, she is rudely ignored, while in one they actually walk away and leave her talking mid-sentence. Again, this is played for laughs, the implication being that Mrs Hudson, above and beyond being a genial, clueless landlady, is so utterly irrelevant that nobody needs to even acknowledge her presence or attempts at conversation.

Sargent Sally Donovan gets a slightly better deal, in that she’s the one woman shown to interact aggressively with Sherlock, calling him Freak and telling Watson that he’s a psychopath; but we’re also meant to dislike her for this very same reason. She’s also a WOC – the only non-white cast member, in fact – and given the unfortunate tendency of the TV industry to continuously cast black women in angry roles, this facts strikes me as being doubly unfortunate. And then, of course, Sherlock makes the obligatory remark about her sexuality, pointing out to Watson that she’s been sleeping with her (equally unlikeable) white colleague, Anderson, saying she clearly spent the night at his house and must have ‘scrubbed your floors, going by the state of her knees’. Which – as ever – is played for laughs.

Charming.

Then we have Mycroft’s female assistant, Anthea, who’s shown as being aloof and disinterested in Watson to the point of outright rudeness. Texting almost constantly, she only looks up to rebuff him and, on their second meeting, professes not to know him at all. We’re meant to find her vapid and distant, despite the fact that, as Mycroft’s assistant, she must be exceptionally intelligent and capable. Her characterisation might be brief, but she nonetheless fits the pattern of how women on the show are treated.

Finally for the recurring characters, there’s Sarah, Watson’s love interest. As is par for the course, we know almost nothing about her except that she’s a doctor and a love interest; she obligingly takes on Watson’s locum duties when he falls asleep at work and then gets thoroughly damselled at the end of The Blind Banker, with the intervening time spent being sneered at by Sherlock. Not exactly an offensive piece of characterisation, but hardly stand-out, either. Besides her attraction to Watson, her passivity is her only defining feature.

And the one-off female characters are hardly treated any better. The primary victim in A Study In Pink is female (and one cannot help but notice how her love of pink has been tied to her femininity for the purpose of the plot); in The Blind Banker, Mei Lin Yao is killed while trying to escape a female villain who is herself killed at the end of the episode; and in The Great Game, the gallery owner, Ms Wenceslas, is shown up by Sherlock after trying to exhibit a forged painting. In the same episode, two women, a man and a child have explosives strapped to them: the middle-aged woman is called a ‘stupid bitch’ by Moriarty, while her blind, elderly counterpart is called ‘defective’ and then blown up for trying to describe his voice. Add to this another female victim – Connie Prince, a celebrity makeover artist – and a wife who colluded in her husband’s disappearance in order to collect insurance money, and the scoresheet for female characterisation remains steadfastly at zero.

But wait! I hear you cry. What’s wrong with having female victims and villains? They can’t all be men, and it’s not like there weren’t male victims and villains on offer, too!

Which, yes, of course; and under ordinary circumstances, unless there was an established pattern of preference for pretty female victims, I’d be happy to leave well enough alone. But in Sherlock’s case, these otherwise ordinary oneshot characters all stand as testament to the fact in nearly five hours of television, every single female character is either a villain, a victim, a dupe or a damsel: someone to be arrested, avenged, ridiculed or rescued. And under those circumstances, no, I do not care that a few male characters also suffer the same fate, because as the entire narrative premise is centred on Two Exceptionally Awesome Men Being Awesome And Exceptional, there is no imbalance between clever/likeable and stupid/unlikeable blokes to merit the comparison.

I am not asking for a female character to be smarter or better than Sherlock Holmes: it is, after all, his story. I’m not even arguing that it ought to pass the Bechdel test (which it doesn’t), even though I’d love it if it did. I am, however, deeply disappointed that not even one female character is anywhere near the equal of Watson, Lestrade or Mycroft, or who at the very least could engage in some sort of banter with one or any of them. There is a great, yawning gap between “as smart as Sherlock Holmes” and “gormless passivity”, and while we have male characters aplenty who fit that bill, not a single woman does. The only woman described as clever, in fact, is the victim in A Study In Pink – but seeing as how she’s already dead, that doesn’t add much to the overall quality of female repartee.

But then, the show is the brainchild of Steven Moffat, who hasn’t got aspectacular track record when it comes to writing women, and to whom the following quote from 2004 is lamentably attributable:

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

Which, um.

ABOUT THAT.

And it angers me. It angers me because I tend like, if not love, the stuff Moffat works with – Doctor Who and Sherlock and Tintin – but am forced to do so in spite of what he believes and says and writes about my gender. And I am SICK of it.

 This piece  is also posted here.

Let me show you how it works:

  1. A female, POC and/or LGBTQ politician/leader is appointed in your area. This is cause for celebration, because
  2. while you aren’t sexist, racist or homophobic, you’re all too aware of the fact that other people – and, more specifically, The System – are frequently biased in those directions, making it harder for such candidates to be accepted regardless of their qualifications. Certainly, this new person is a definite a minority among their high-powered brethren, which suggests that
  3. they must be exceptional in some way. Depending on the context, this specialness could be ascribed to any number of skills, passions or characteristics, but the most important thing is that
  4. despite their gender, race and/or sexual orientation – or rather, despite the biases of less enlightened people who consider such things a handicap – the candidate has succeeded. But no matter how glad you are to see them installed, it’s important to remember that
  5. the candidate did not succeed because of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation. Regardless of whether quotas and/or tokenism are a relevant in this instance (which depends entirely on the individual circumstances), it’s generally seen to be the job of obnoxious, right-wing objectors to claim, sneeringly, that so-and-so was only let in because of their gender, race and or/ sexual orientation, this being a basic means of undermining such a candidate’s qualifications from the get-go. Nonetheless,
  6. it’s clear that their gender, race and/or sexual orientation is a relevant factor in terms of how they’ll be perceived in their role, no matter how irrelevant it might be to their actual portfolio. But even though these details only matter to you in terms of your being happy to see The System veer away from straight white male dominion,
  7. should an instance arise (as it inevitably will) where the candidate is in a position to act (or not) on left-wing issues – and particularly where, either accurately or not, you perceive those issues to overlap with their own gender, racial and/or sexual identity – your natural expectation is for them to Do The Right Thing. And as you’ve already acknowledged that the candidate is special,
  8. you’ve automatically set yourself up to hold them – albeit with the best of intentions – to a higher moral, social and political standard than their straight, white and/or male counterparts. Even if you can acknowledge that people in positions of authority must, of necessity, compromise their own values in order to maintain alliances, get work done in the long term and keep their position within the party/organisation, all that hopefulness about seeing a female, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate in the arena can turn swiftly to feelings of betrayal should they compromise on the issues you care about,
  9. because they, of all possible candidates, should know better. But now they’ve gone and abused your trust; they’ve proved that they weren’t special after all – no better than their straight, white and/or male colleagues, really, and certainly worse in terms of causing you heartache, because of how they should have known better. And because you took their betrayal personally, rather than viewing it as a pragmatic (if irritating) function of their being a human in office, you can’t bear to support them any more. You’d feel like a hypocrite now, and anyway, keeping them in just to maintain diversity and at the expense of your principles would really be tokenism. And so you take the only remaining, logical course of action, and
  10. vote them out of office. It’s a shame they couldn’t live up to your expectations, but maybe the next woman, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate to come along will be different. After all, is it really so unreasonable to expect that your chosen leader be a flawless paragon of virtue?

Congratulations! You have now succeeded in holding minority candidates to such an unreasonably high standard on the basis of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation that you’ve effectively recreated the same type of discrimination you were so angry about in the first place. Wash, rinse and repeat, until society collapses or insomniac authors die from an overdose of facepalm.

This tutorial/rant brought to you by politics, the internet and human nature.

A couple of years ago, I went with a friend to see a children’s show as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was based around the conceit of a magic pencil: there was an interactive screen where a digital cartoon character interacted with images the (male) comedian drew in real-time, with a pre-recorded voice providing one half of their conversation. At four different points, the comedian asked for child volunteers to come up onto the stage and have themselves drawn, with the subsequent caricatures becoming part of the show. It was a small audience mostly comprised of young children and their parents – my friend and I were almost the only exceptions to this – and whenever the call came for volunteers, a sea of eager little hands would stretch into the air.

Sitting directly in front of us was a pigtailed girl, aged about seven, who desperately wanted to participate. Each time she wasn’t chosen, she slumped down dejectedly in her seat, only to spring straight back up again at the next opportunity. There were easily as many girls as boys in the audience, with an equal parity in the number of hands raised; and yet the comedian never picked a girl. The fourth and final time her hand went ignored, the girl in front of us let out a frustrated sigh and exclaimed, ‘He’s only choosing boys!’ Both her outrage at this situation and her powerlessness to correct it were fully evident in her voice, and I felt myself getting angry. I’d noticed the same problem, and hearing it summed up by a child in tones that suggested she’d witnessed the problem before made me utterly disconnect from the show. I tried to think of reasons why the comedian had chosen only boys. Maybe he thought their facial features would make for better caricatures; or perhaps he was worried that the good-natured teasing with which he accompanied his drawings might be more likely to upset a little girl. Maybe he was simply picking the first hand he saw, regardless of who it belonged to. Most likely, though, he didn’t even realise he’d done it: whatever other planning he’d put into his act, the idea of trying to choose two boys and two girls for the sake of equality seemed never to have occurred to him.

When the show was over, I caught sight of the little girl on the way out. She looked forlorn and sad, which is hardly the reaction that a children’s comedy show is meant to provoke, and I left feeling dejected and furious that a seven-year-old girl had already learned that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how badly you want something or how high you raise your hand: just being female is enough to make you invisible. For whatever reason, the comedian hadn’t seen her or any of the other girls in the audience, and no matter how benign the reasons for that blindness might have been, it had unquestionably had consequences.

Earlier in the year, an eagle-eyed blogger used word clouds to illustrate the boy/girl gendered language of toy advertisements. A recent article discussing gender reveal parties hosted by expectant parents shows a sample invitation which reads, “Boy or girl? Astronaut or ballerina? Come spend the afternoon with us when we find out!” Then there are images of congratulatory cards for new parents, where baby boys are praised as brilliant, while baby girls are called beautiful. Children’s books are rife with male characters, but women? Not so much. No sooner is their gender known than children are defined by it: pink for girls, blue for boys, baby dolls for girls, action heroes for boys, kitchens for girls, tools for boys, ponies for girls, cars for boys, and God help any child who wants to play with both.

All this gendering, and then we have the temerity to act surprised and shocked when a seven-year-old girl can clearly and comprehensively identify when she is being discriminated against on the basis of being female.

Early in primary school, I had a friend called Ben. We’d hang out together at lunch and recess and sit together in class, which felt like a fairly normal thing to do. This was not, however, a universally held sentiment: one of the boys in the year above, called Tim, thought there was something deeply wrong with a boy and girl being friends – or, more specifically, he thought that we couldn’t possibly be just friends, and so took to seeking us out on the playground for the sole purpose of first declaring us to be a couple and then taunting us for it. Neither of us liked this, but it was harder on Ben than me. I have a very clear memory of us sitting down together one lunch, only to find that Tim was, as usual, heading straight for us. Ben looked at me and said, ‘I think we’d better split’ – both serious and sad. I nodded, and up he got, walking away to find someone else to talk to. Tim saw this and grinned in triumph, having  accomplished what had evidently been his mission all along: to split us up.

Tim was six when this happened; Ben and I were five. I very much doubt that Tim’s parents ever sat him down and explain that boys and girls being friends was wrong – it would be as ludicrous as suggesting that adults invented the idea of girl germs and boy germs (or, for the Americans, cooties). Nor do children instinctively police each other along gender lines; certainly, Ben and I never did. But we are not raised in a vacuum, and if, from minute one of their lives, you call half the children Blue and the other half Pink; if you dress them differently, give them different toys, tell them different stories, praise them for different qualities, rebuke them for different transgressions, encourage them at different activities and actively enforce all these differences on the basis of gender (‘No, sweetie, that one’s for boys!’), then the inevitable consequence of sending them off to interact in an environment where, true to form, all the Pinks are wearing dresses and all the Blues are wearing shorts, is that even a fucking five-year-old will start to think that boys and girls talking is wrong.

Nobody has told them this explicitly.

Nobody has had to.

Writing about this week’s controversy over gay characters being removed from YA novels (excellent summations of which can be found here and here), author N. K. Jemisin says, “As many have pointed out, we live in a world full of bigotry but no bigots. No one wants to claim their own little slice of the Contributing to the Problem pie, even though everyone should get a little.” Giving her keynote address at the recent Tights and Tiaras conference on female superheroes and media cultures, author Karen Healey talked about the cultural reasons why women who otherwise love SF, fantasy, comics, fanfiction and superheroes end up steering clear of mainstream superhero comics and comic stores – specifically, about the idea that the prevalence of sexism and objectification of women at the level of both the narratives of said comics and the creative processes which create them are, not surprisingly, offputting to female readers.  And at the end of last year, an American mother blogged about what happened when her five-year-old son dressed up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween; how other mothers attacked her for it, saying that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – and will keep saying it forever, because it will never cease to be true: we are all a product of culture. Five-year-old children experience discrimination from parents, from their peers and from society –  because they’re boys who dress like girls, because they’re girls who want to be friends with boys, because they have the temerity to be different – but when the question of why comes up, we never consider that all those seemingly innocuous things like toy choice and clothing colours and storybooks might have something to do with it; that when you pile up all the individual molehills of culture, the end result really is a mountain. Most of us were raised this way, and we continue to raise more children along the same lines – because what’s wrong with girls being girls and boys being boys? Children are just like that. Well, of course they are, if that’s how you insist on raising them. And then those children grow up into teenagers, the primary demographic for so much of our culture, and while many of them are increasingly savvy about the subtleties of the gender biases that govern their existence, many more aren’t; and that means that they don’t question cultural output whose tropes are reflective of those biases. And after all, why would they be? Isn’t the world just like that? Well, of course it is, if nobody tries to make it otherwise.

And then publishing companies and advertising agencies and Hollywood and every other organisation who sells things for a living looks at the buying habits of the general, youthful populace says, It’s not that we’re bigoted, but books about gay teenagers don’t sell and neither do comic books where the women aren’t sexualised or films where the leads aren’t white. And I’m sick of it, because if all the excuse-mongering about demographics and target audiences by people who should know better is to be believed, then the whole of Western creative industry is made up exclusively of lovely, unbigoted people who are the friends of other lovely, unbigoted people forced by circumstances beyond their control to make books and films and comics and toys along bigoted lines, because apparently the entire creative monopoly of unbigoted editors, writers, agents, artists, filmmakers and producers constitutes such a powerless minority voice that they couldn’t possibly hope to change the standards they purport to hate, and anyway, it’s not like they’re in charge of our culture – oh, wait, it is.

The moral of this story is: don’t take culture for granted, because if there’s one thing it exists to do, it’s change. Our whole society is Theseus’ Ship, and the sooner we realise our collective power to tear down broken parts and replace them with things that work, the better. Especially those of us who tell stories; and doubly for those of us who tell stories to children and teenagers. To quote the Witch from Into the Woods:

Careful the things you say; children will listen. 

 

 

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.

Given how well-established she is, I’m something of a latecomer to Trudi Canavan’s work. Right now, I’m in the middle of her Age of the Five trilogy, which is what’s prompted this post; I’ve also read her Black Magician trilogy, the prequel volume, The Magician’s Apprentice, and the two most recent novels in the Traitor Spy series, which is set in the same world. Full disclosure: Trudi is a friend, and a very lovely person. However, that is hardly a sufficient basis on which to recommend her work, so on the off chance that you, like me, have come late to the party, here are some more compelling reasons why you should give her a try.

One of the most omnipresent epic fantasy tropes is that of prophecy: the insinuation that moments of great social, political and magical change must always be predestined, their success contingent on the agency of either a Chosen One or a classic Five Man Band. Often, there’s a tendency for such characters to be defined by their destinies, such that the possibility of their choosing a different path is never really an option. In Canavan’s works, however, the element of prophecy is absent. The world still changes, and particular individuals often have a prominent say in how that comes about, but their success is never guaranteed, and frequently bittersweet. Instead, the emphasis falls on choice, consequences and conflicting cultures: the honest yet frightening idea that it is only ever people – unguided by higher powers – whose actions change the course of history. Often, characters are forced to question both their own traditions and those of their enemies, sans any sense of moral absolutism. In this context, change is not just an excuse to declare old systems tyrannies while lauding their replacements as infallible; rather, both characters and readers must front up to the idea that such distinctions, while instinctive and easy to make, are ultimately arbitrary.

Her conception of black magic is the perfect example of this. By using a terminology which has negative connotations not just in the world of Kyralia, but also in the minds of readers, Canavan forces us to reexamine one of the most basic biases of fantasy magic: the idea that using blood in rituals is always dark, dangerous and, by extension, morally unjustifiable. Given that black magic is an everyday part of enemy Sachakan life – and given, too, the hideous extremes to which its use is taken – it would be easy and, to a certain extent, expected that the practice itself be vilified in the narrative. Instead, the characters are forced to recognise that, no matter how distasteful they find black magic, it is not evil in and of itself – and more, that it using it may well be necessary for Kyralia’s defense.

In keeping with her emphasis on the actions of individuals, even Canavan’s most powerful characters are shown in a deliberative light, defined by the manner in which they make their choices as much as the choices themselves. There are villains, but not outright villains: no matter how opaque their motives might seem to the protagonists or how objectionable their beliefs, the enemy’s actions are always defined by culture and personality. The same is true of her heroes; nobody is infallible, and everyone makes their own decisions. In this context, ignorance and biased assumption are the greatest evils, such Canavan’s most benevolent characters are always struggling to combat them. This extends to her narrative structure, too. In both the Age of the Five and Black Magician series, the initial confrontations which lead to war are portrayed as being so shocking and violent that both characters and readers automatically align themselves against the evils of the enemy. But as the stories progress, these initial assumptions are slowly peeled back, forcing us both to understand the enemy and to reassess our own ‘side’. Similarly, despite the advent of war in both her series, healing is lauded above and beyond martial prowess. In Age of the Five, the skills of the Dreamweaver healers in the aftermath of battle prompt something of a social reconciliation with the dominant Circlians, while two of the heroines in her Kyralian series, Tessia and Sonea, dedicate their strong magical gifts towards helping the less fortunate. A strong social conscience pervades these stories. No matter how entrenched a prejudice is or how understandable in the context of that society, the narrative never condones it.

As well as encouraging cultural and social tolerance, Canavan’s stories also contain a strong element of sexual equality, both in terms of feminism and homosexuality. Her most recent novel, The Rogue, features three romances, all given equal prominence, each one concerning at least one point of view character: one male/female, one male/male, and one female/female. Similarly, her Sachakan women in The Magician’s Apprentice are shown in a deeply sympathetic light: a group of wives who, despite being controlled primarily by their husbands, have nonetheless founded an underground political movement dedicated to promoting the welfare of other, similarly restricted women and offering sanctuary to those in need. There’s a lovely naturalism to these narrative elements, and a gentleness to their execution which is nonetheless powerful. By which I mean: the characters are never defined solely by these aspects of their personalities, nor do they become crusaders. Rather, they teach by example, encouraging change by living in such a way as to prove its worth.

Couple this with a fluid writing style, memorable characters and epic plots, and you have a set of books that are well worth reading. Canavan is an intelligent, compassionate writer with a knack for crafting believable societies, cementing her characterisation through conflicts that hinge on issues of personal choice, political freedom and, above all, social change.

The year is 1991; the setting, my kindergarten classroom. I am not quite five years old, and if this isn’t my very first day of school (memory being understandably hazy about such things) it’s certainly sometime in my first two weeks. Our young class has spent the morning seated on the floor, and now our teacher, Mrs Pallier, tells us all to stand up and find a desk. There is no seating plan; the ‘desks’ are actually conglomerates made of four or so smaller tables, big enough to seat about eight students each. Despite our newness, groups of friends have already started to form – one such being the cadre of boys who, by Year 6, will have become the male half of the popular crew. They pick a desk and sit down together. I don’t have a group yet; the boys, though, are interesting, and there’s a spare seat at their table. I go to take it, but no sooner have I sat down than they all leap up again, yelling about the undesirability of girls, and run to colonise the next desk down. This leaves me with a choice: either I can stay where I am, feeling hurt but pretending I really did want this particular chair, or I can follow them and see what happens. Desks are starting to fill up, after all – they have to sit somewhere. More importantly, though, I’ve discovered a secret power: I can make the boys run, and even though I really did want to join them, thinking of it as a game – one where I’m in charge, the chaser – is easier, less hurtful, than staying still and accepting their rebuff. And so I get back up, and follow them again.

What happened next is hazy. I couldn’t say whether I won or not, if I claimed a seat at their table or ended up somewhere else. But I remember the choice, and the thoughts preceding it, with clarity.

I mention this because there’s been some recent discussion about the perception of women SF writers within the industry generally and their relationship with feminism in particular, and when it comes to the assertion that such authors are given less credence, less prominence and less publicity than their male counterparts – when I am presented with the image of women writers chasing after acceptance in a male-dominated area – the first thing that always springs to mind, or rather the first memory, is the image of a table of five-year-old boys in shrieking fear of Girl Germs. It’s not just this debate, either: earlier this year, there were questions asked about the feminisation of epic fantasy, and more recently VS Naipaul has asserted that women writers are “unequal” to him. Unclenching one’s teeth sufficiently to talk about this latter case, there’s something interesting to unpick in Naipaul’s claim that:

“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” 

It’s an argument I’ve encountered elsewhere: that women just write differently to men, that everything from their subject matter to their sentence structure and word choice sets them apart. It’s a breathtakingly flawed assertion, and yet so fiendishly simple that, like most such lies, it is easily believed, repeated and socially countenanced. Ignoring the fact that this is an unquantifiable, personal claim hinging entirely on anecdotal evidence, how often do we read anything without seeing a name attached? Almost never, would be my guess – unless, of course, you’re someone in charge of vetting anonymous submissions to an academic publication, which is by no means irrelevant to the topic at hand. Surely, if Naipaul is correct, the flaws which distinguish women’s writing and ideas from those of men will be present in any type of writing, and not just works of fiction? If so, wouldn’t the publication records of academic journals with a policy of anonymous submissions – or better yet, journals which had recently switched from named submissions to anonymous submissions – be the perfect venue to test the theory? What about studies assessing the difference a male or female name makes to the reception of a single piece of writing?

As it happens, such data and studies do exist – bur rather than confirming Naipaul’s assertion, what they show is that switching to anonymous submissions increases the number of female-authored articles accepted for publication in academic circles. Take a moment to appreciate the significance of that finding. By removing a writer’s name – and, by extension, their gender – from the equation, more women are being published. This is all that changes. For obvious reasons, blind submissions will not translate as a solution to the bias in literary circles and awards: books are published with names on the cover, and even in the case of novels we’ve not yet read, there’s still a strong chance that we’ll know who the author is. But when, for instance, Gwyneth Jones expresses a wish to have used a male pseudonym for her earlier feminist works in order to have bettered their success, rather than criticise this as a betrayal of the sisterhood, we could perhaps extrapolate that the same biases which afflict academia are just as omnipresent in the fiction/SFF world, and that wanting to avoid their ill-effects is entirely understandable.

In the same Women’s Hour segment where she expressed that opinion, Jones went on to say:

“If you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.”

It’s an inflammatory suggestion, but one which seems all too sadly in keeping with the bias against women. Reading through the reactions of Jones, Timmi Duchamp and Cheryl Morgan to the Women’s Hour interview, much of what’s being discussed is the idea that the US and the UK have different notions of feminism; or that writers from these countries do; or that these particular writers do; or some combination thereof. As a recently expatriated Australian, I don’t know enough about the differences in feminist practice on either side of the pond to contribute to that debate. What I take away from this particular conversation, however, is the fear that simply being a woman SF writer, regardless of the actual content of one’s books, is enough to see those works branded as feminist by readers who have no interest in feminism – a misapprehension which ineluctably forces the writer to argue that their gender ought not stand in the way of their writing. Thus, the author is forced to speak out as a feminist – thereby reinforcing the perception of their works as feminist writings – only because this was already assumed to be a foregone conclusion. And so we go round, and round again, until it’s easier just to pretend to be male feminist, the way George Sand once did, than to confess to being a female one.

What a squeamish irony that is: that even feminism is more palatable when espoused by male advocates! Presumably, this is because women, as the movement’s primary beneficiaries, are seen to have more of a personal agenda in putting it forwards; whereas men, who are casually assumed to gain nothing from its success, and are vindictively assumed to lose everything, are seen to be more objective. If male feminists become passionate in their writing, then it is a rational passion, commendable for its intelligence; but if women feminists do likewise, then they’re guilty of pushing a personal, politically correct agenda, or of being angry, hysterical writers. Obviously that’s a provocative statement. Obviously we want and need male feminists: I am by no means suggesting that the feminism of men is less important, less relevant or less meaningful than the feminism of women. But I can and will criticise those members of the public, be they feminist or unfeminist, male or female, who find feminism to be more palatable when it comes from men; because if you think men are intrinsically more lucid on the subject than women, or think women can’t be trusted to speak dispassionately about it, then you’ve probably missed the point.

Back in 1991, I chased the boys rather than be ignored by them, and some time over the next seven years of primary school, they stopped running and became my friends. Regardless of genre, authors in the fiction world – like children in a playground – have no recourse to anonymity, no ready means of stripping names and faces away, to let our words stand on their own bare merits. Instead, we must take the harder road: to actively consider the principles of equality, to hold ourselves accountable for our own biases, and to continually question whether or not we’ve truly overcome them.

So, for reasons that have to do with how my brain works and are therefore largely inexplicable, I decided tonight to try my hand at flarf poetry. This is not something I’ve ever done before – it is, in fact, something I only learned about recently – so you’ll have to forgive me my small cheats at canonical practice. I have, for instance, spelled all the words correctly rather than leaving certain of them in their original state, because netspeak burns me and, on a non-pedantic note, because it makes the whole thing a bit more seamless; harder to see where the one quote segues into the next (or so I hope). I’ve kept references of all the sites from whence these lines came, but won’t post them here. I also typed the words in twice, picked and chose which bits to use: the first time without quotation marks, the second time with. I’ve put in a couple of full stops, colons and hyphons to shape the end-of-line grammar: but otherwise, the content is unadulterated.

Without further ado, then, here is the poem, titled after the words I typed into Google:

.

Is She A Whore

.

She’s a whore at fourteen, when she leaves the house

in a miniskirt, tights, and a low-cut T-shirt.

It’s her own fault

if someone grabs her in the park –

.

is she a whore,

who I’m trying to see as innocent?

.

Not only is she a whore, but I just don’t see

what guys find all that attractive

about her. Maybe

if she didn’t look so trashy and retarded…

.

Not only is she a whore whore, but she’s

an attention whore.

I wouldn’t call her a whore. She obviously

is troubled, genuinely seeking a

connection

.

(rapport & comfort)

.

This is the worst kind of whore

because she’s pissing on love and respect.

You get the picture.

She’s got that crazy, hyper, coked-up

look in her eyes, because she’s thin and has big boobs

and is young, meanwhile

you are old and/or fat and gross:

guys look at her and

she ALWAYS says hi to them.

.

Is she a whore? Proverbs tells us:

she naively embraces

evil, and knows nothing.

She promises understanding, but

gives nothing but lies; and why

does she convert 10-year-old followers

into mindless slut zombies?

.

She makes a living based on her looks

and her sexuality:

is she a whore for that?

.

Honestly, does anyone know?

I am concerned

that I need to lock up my boyfriend

and take all of my holey fishnets

off the washing line.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned:  a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false  lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some practices and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By focusing on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.