Posts Tagged ‘Society’

Following on from my recent thoughts on female characters in YA dystopias and the Broken Bird trope, something else about the treatment of women in stories has been niggling at me. Writing those both posts, my emotional reaction was consistently stronger and more negative than seemed explicable by their topics alone – as though there was something else under it, some deeper irk I couldn’t consciously describe, but which was nonetheless feeding into my reaction. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was; and now, finally, I think I’ve drawn a bead on it. So!

Regardless of their political orientation, most people can admit that:

a) sexism exists as a part of human culture; and

b) has done so for thousands of years.

Even people who insist that our current, enlightened society is sexism-free can usually admit that, once upon a time, things were otherwise, and that this has been true for the vast majority – if not all of – human history. So, following on from this logic, any SFF novel set in either:

a) a fictional society whose culture is modeled on that of a historical civilisation; or

b) a future society whose culture is modeled on that of either a present or historical civilisation

will, unless the author actively chooses otherwise, incorporate certain aspects of real-world culture into the narrative by default. These defaults are many and varied, but the one I want to talk about is sexism. Thus: because most readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect a certain level of sexism to exist in every society – even fictional ones – authors can infer sexism as a cultural default without ever needing to explain or address it. This leads to the formation and propagation of certain tropes, stereotypes and archetypes whose existence and validity are fundamentally dependent on the narrative presence of sexism generally; and more specifically, given the overwhelming number of fantasy novels set in a sort of idealised, white, medieval Europe, on a grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles. Some examples of this are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To An Ugly Man She Doesn’t Love;
  • The Lone And Therefore Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors;
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders;
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils;
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled;
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah;
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working;
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams;
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail;
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World; and
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

And so on.

Now: as per the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they’re inherently bad, or anything like that. What I am saying, though, is that these are all comparatively common tropes, and that, even lacking specific details of the stories in which they appear, it’s still obvious that, of necessity, they all must involve societies in which sexism plays a part. What’s more, because these examples all corroborate easily with a familiar sexist framework – that is, sexism against women in a Western/European setting – they don’t require much explanation. In fact, unless the story is actively trying to write an original culture or to tweak an existing one in ways that are plot-relevant, most readers are likely to consider any actual declaration of women are oppressed for these reasons to be not only redundant, but insulting – because obviously, we already know how it works! So if I pick up a novel and learn in the first chapter that the heroine is being pressured into marriage by her father, I don’t need to ask why, and chances are the author won’t bother to tell me. Certainly, the chances of the actual plot involving a push for social justice – a sort of SFF suffragettism, if you will – are slim to none. All I’m meant to infer that sexism exists, that the female characters will be hindered accordingly, and that otherwise I should just get on with the story.

And most of the time, the author takes it no further. We are left with sexism as a background detail: one which is used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters and the total absence of others, but which is never actually addressed. Which, in instances where the protagonist is male, or where the majority of the cast is male, leaves us instantly with a screaming, red-faced anachronism: where are the actual sexists? Why, if sexism in this society is so deep-seated, are the heroes so unusually enlightened? Here is why; I will tell you the secret. Because we are meant to like them. Funnily enough, most authors have cottoned on to the fact that writing openly sexist heroes is less heroic than it is disgusting; that it’s sort of difficult to hail Weapons McFighty, Trueking Noob and Roamer Nomadson as the exalted Lords of Awesome when they’ve spent the majority of the book acting like entitled jerks.

Except, here’s the other secret: this is completely untrue.  Offhand, I could name you half a dozen fantasy novels where open, narratively-acknowledged sexism on behalf of the characters has neither prevented the book from being excellent nor the hero from being heroic. True, it’s made them more complex (gasp!) and probably less likable, but it’s also made them more human, forced the reader to actually think about sexism, and tied the characterisation to the worldbuilding in a realistic and consistent way.

This is not the only way to address the presence of default sexism. You can, for instance, construct interesting and believable histories for your male characters which explain their unusual sense of equality – provided that you also allow the women to find it unusual, rather than just taking it for granted. You can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focusing exclusively on those few exceptional women who’ve avoided it, such that your characters – and, by extension, the audience – are forced to view it as more than just an inevitable background detail. Then again, you could avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You could write an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic!

But just using sexism as a default while simultaneously including characters whose ambivalence to, distance from or disconnect with the problem only serves to diminish its impact and make it a background issue? That makes you not only a lazy, unoriginal writer, but one who actually perpetuates sexism by training the reader to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences, because that’s just how things work, and anyway women’s issues are boring.

And this is my problem, the thing that underlies all the beefs I have right now with UF and YA and dystopias in particular, but also with a bunch of other things in general: the simple fact that too many authors shrink away from acknowledging the default sexism of their settings when everything in their stories suggests its relevance. I am not asking you to use your writing as a vehicle for feminist discourse – actually, no, wait, I sort of am, if by feminist discourse you mean not letting sexism pass without comment, which is also weirdly synonymous with being a decent human. I just want you to admit that this is a problem, and that perhaps making it a background detail without any sort of commentary beyond ‘Oh my female character was being oppressed but now she’s escaped or been rescued, so that’s cool,’ is, you know, unhelpful.

For instance! Are you:

  • Writing a story where your heroine is either the lone woman in her field or one of an elite few ladies? Then tell me why! If she’s battling uphill against an entrenched culture of sexism, show it to us – don’t just rely on inference. Fighting sexism in the workplace is hard enough when you’re an office temp, let alone fighting manticores or saving the world! And if there’s no culture of sexism, then why are there so few ladies? Were lots of them killed off in a major battle? Is the job itself actually considered low-status in a context where women tend to hold higher-status positions? Or did you just default to a male majority because that’s how the world often looks and you didn’t actually think about it, even though you’re trying to write about an institution that prizes equality?
  • Writing a story where, due to some stupid quirk of magical biology, the female of the species is much rarer than the male, so that all the guys fight over her and go swoony for her lady-originating specialness?  Here’s an idea: don’t. I am truly, thoroughly sick of this trope. If I happen across one more story where there’s a bajillion boy-werewolves, boy-vampires, boy-magicians or whatever and then lo and behold, a lady werewolf-vampire-magician shows up and OMG SHE’S THE ONLY GIRL BECAUSE REASONS, LET’S FIGHT!, I will SET THE BOOK ON FIRE. To me, this is the most toxic, awful form of default sexism because it builds into biology the idea that girls must either be unspecial and irrelevant or special and put on a pedestal while simultaneously providing an excuse to perpetuate all the very worst gender stereotypes (New Special Girl Resented By Special And Unspecial Girls Alike,  Boys Fighting Over Potential Mates Ladies In A Way That’s Meant To Be Hot, Hierarchy And Sexism Are How Our Society Work So Deal With It) as a species-based culture. Plus and also, this is doubly ridiculous because healthy animal populations produce an equal number of males and females; when human populations end up with more men that women, it’s invariably because sexist cultures encourage sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. So not only does it make no biological sense, it also ends up taking some of the very worst aspects of real-world sexism and using it to justify sexy romance plots. Which, I’m sorry, no.
  • Writing a story where women’s bodies and sexuality are policed, reproduction is exalted and all the hallmarks of deeply coercive sexism apply? Then actually call it sexism! Show the consequences! Or at least, show the indoctrination! Explain how the system is maintained, how it came into being, and why people believe it! Show what happens to LBGTQ people! Don’t be afraid to write radical characters! These last two are particularly important: I am getting massively tired of sexually coercive dystopias whose protagonists are always straight people in love, and whose rebellion therefore stems wholly from not being free to choose each other, rather than from the fact that, you know, they’re living in a dystopia based around eugenics, enforced heterosexuality and state-sanctioned rape. Romance is great and all, but if you’ve built a setting founded on sexual atrocities, then glossing over them because it detracts from the romance is sort of… atrocious.

And so on.

Sexism is not the only social default thus applied – racism and homophobia continue to crop up in SFF for much the same reasons. Default sexism might well be more common, but only because the exclusion of POC/LGBTQ characters from so many SFF works means that problems of race and homophobia are even more deep-seated in the real world than problems of sexism, making it harder for those conversations to be had in reference to fictional works from which they’re too often erased. Women are everywhere – it’s hard to ignore us completely – but thoughtless authors can and do whitewash and straightwash their stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. Which is, I think, somehow more terrible than if they’d made an active decision. The freedom to  ignore the relevance of intersectionality is just another form of privilege, and arguably one more vicious than benign. Remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

In a nutshell, then:  I am sick of stories that pay lip-service to equality (sexism exists, and is bad) while actively working against its principles (but it’s boring, so let’s get over it). More importantly, I am sick of this process being so much in the way of a default setting that we’ve stopped even questioning it – making it a hidden process rather than something overt. In the immortal words of Caitlin Moran:

These days, a plethora of shitty attitudes to women have become diffuse, indistinct or almost entirely concealed. Fighting them feels like trying to combat a mouldy, mildew smell in the hallway, using only a breadknife. Because – like racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia – modern sexism has become cunning. Sly. Codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying ‘nigger’ but might make a pointed reference to someone black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, so a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes that they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing….

It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.

Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.

Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.  

Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.

Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel. Fever picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:

The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.

The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.

I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…

Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.

And that’s when I stopped reading.*

Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.

More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:

Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…

When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…

When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.

That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.

It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…

Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…

Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…

Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.

She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”

Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”

“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”

At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.

No: it’s that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.

Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their ascension when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail – “A Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn’t have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.” – but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.

But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.

As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver – ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual recuperation – but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.

Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence, though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.

For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither and Fever, Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road,   Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places, Carrie Ryan). All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency; all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.

And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on – and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary, in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of  being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.

Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.

To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.

In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?

Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.

And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.

To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.

Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.

And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.

* For now. I do plan to finish the book!

Warning: spoilers.

Together with my husband and mother, I went to see Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist on Thursday night. Our session was completely packed out: there was no allocated seating, so half the audience had to rearrange themselves when it became apparent that every space was needed. Though this is nothing new – our local cinema is both tiny and anachronistic – it felt strangely appropriate on this occasion; as though the venue, like the film, were deliberately harking back to the earlier days of moviemaking.

Thanks to my father’s influence, I grew up watching black and white films. Most were talkies, but he showed me some silents, too, with the result that I grew up knowing all about the transition from silence to sound; how lots of old artists had lost their jobs when the change came through. Above and beyond any historical sense of nostalgia, then, The Artist was also personally nostalgic: a return to the type of film I watched in childhood, regardless of the generational difference.

From a cinematic point of view, The Artist is utterly brilliant. Having opened with scenes from protagonist George Valentin’s latest film, the camera pulls back to show us the screen on which it plays and the duplicate audience sitting beneath, so that we – the real cinema-goers – could almost be watching ourselves.  It’s a gorgeous trick of perspective, and one that Hazanavicius employs several times throughout the film. The camerawork is eloquent, purposefully making up for the lack of spoken dialogue. The rare intrusion of sound is used to tremendous effect, a commentary both on Valentin’s neurosis and the significance of the talkies themselves. The music, too, is wonderful: an emotive tribute to the wordless storytelling of silent cinema, and a beautiful score in its own right. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is perfect, the visual personification of old Hollywood’s leading men, while Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller is exactly the right mix of vivacious and coy – a real Judy Garland girl.

As a homage to silent cinema, then, The Artist is a rousing success. Undeniably, it succeeds as a form of visual nostalgia, tipping the hat to movies past while simultaneously acknowledging the importance and inevitability of change – which is exactly what it set out to do.

However.

As well as copying the visual and musical styles of silent cinema, Hazanavicius has also employed their narrative stylings, leading to the construction of a story which is both deeply cliche and boringly simplistic. From the outset, it’s obvious that the fortunes of Valentin, the beloved and happy-go-lucky son of silent cinema, must fall as the talkies rise; obvious that Peppy Miller, the bright young thing with the suggestive name, must ascend in his place; obvious that the two will fall for one another; obvious that Valentin, abandoned by his wife, will fall into ruin; obvious that Peppy will save him.

And this is where I started to get cross, because narratively, The Artist is nothing more than a bland, archetypal tale of white male hubris where old-school sexism is played for modern laughs. Valentin is cheerful and friendly, but rude and dismissive of his female co-star, giving his dog more credit than her and then, after seeing her sound test for the talkies, laughing in front of the investors. When photographed with Peppy, he condescendingly waves away his wife’s jealousy, sending his driver off to buy her jewels in appeasement for the tiff and then later dismissing her unhappiness in the marriage because he’s too busy wallowing. Only Valentin’s pride keeps him out of the talkies: offered the chance to participate, he turns it down, then later acts surprised when this results in his dismissal. Once apart from the studio, he turns passive and nostalgic, pawning his possessions instead of looking for work, and sinking into despair. At the height of his sadness, he sets fire to his old movies and nearly dies; but when Peppy not only rescues him but gives him a second chance, he still runs away and toys with committing suicide before she can convince him that he’s worth saving.

The only twist we get – and it’s not much of one, given his name – is that, when we finally hear Valentin speak, he has a French accent, which is meant to explain why he’s been so adamantly convinced that he can’t succeed in talkies. Admittedly, this is a reasonable barrier for the time, but given that Peppy finds a way around it in about three seconds flat – dancing – it doesn’t quite justify the fact that he’s spent four years moping about a problem that only existed because he was too proud to change with the times. Remove the novelty of silence, then, and The Artist becomes a cliched tale of artistic self-indulgence: the struggle of a successful man who mistreats the women in his life to overcome the consequences of stubborn pride and be redeemed by the undeserved care of a prettier, younger woman. With a funny dog added for laughs.

And that’s a problem, because this is not a nostalgic theme, or something we should feel nostalgic about. Stories of white male hubris with bonus! comedic sexism are pretty much what’s always been wrong with Hollywood, then and now, and while I can feel nostalgic for the visual conventions of an earlier age, I don’t want them tied to the type of cliched storytelling that routinely makes me shout at the internet. I don’t care that sexism was rife in the period: that’s not an excuse to duplicate it for laughs. Ditto with racism, because really: there was no excuse for the inclusion of jungle-dwelling, spear-waving tribesmen in a Valentin film except that someone, somewhere thought it was more funny than inappropriate, and, yeah, no.

Overall, then, The Artist is a disappointment. The success of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood has proven that indulging in the visual aesthetic of a previous era doesn’t have to mean capitulating uncritically to its morals or sense of self-perception, and yet, despite being given an opportunity to both display and critique  our nostalgia, Hazanavicius has instead opted to affirm it on all fronts. I can get behind the visuals, and as a piece of cinema history, The Artist is worth seeing – but as yet another example of Hollywood’s collective narrative hubris, it isn’t.

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.

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. 

 

 

My current laptop was purchased around early March this year – an act of necessity after its predecessor suddenly carked it. Though I ported all my files across, the one thing I didn’t do – have never done, in fact, because I can’t be bothered – was save my browser settings and bookmarks. Starting afresh on the current machine, I defaulted to Firefox for the first week or two before finally conceding to the superiority of Google Chrome. After that, it was another week or so more before I bothered to set up specific folders for any links that caught my interest. Factoring in the fact that we moved house on March 20, that makes their approximate start date the 1st of April. It is now the 31st of August – meaning that my folders have been live for roughly 122 days.

Since then, based on nothing more than my daily browsing of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news sites, the folder titled Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality has accrued a grand total of 208 links. That’s almost exactly 1.7 articles per day that have struck me as pertaining to the feminist debate. The first link is to a green paper on rape statistics in Camden, written by PhD student Brooke L. Magnanti – who, as some of you may recall, was revealed in 2009 to be the author of a once-pseudonymous biography titled The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. The paper debunks the previously established idea that the prevalence of strip clubs in the borough directly contributes to a higher incidence of rape. The most recent link is one I added this morning: a t-shirt made by American retailer JCPenney for ‘girls [aged] 7 to 16’ which reads: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother had to do it for me.” A random sample of other bookmarked articles includes:

And this is before we cross over to my other folder on SFF, YA and Literary Culture, where a vast majority of the 274 articles bookmarked concern the portrayals of women in narrative, culture and subculture, as well as discussing issues like racism, homophobia, culture and discrimination. Some of these include:

Feel free to look at all those links, or some, or none. There’s not a lot of coherency between them, except for the fact that they all relate to the treatment, perception and acceptance of women, whether in the positive or the negative. But they’re all things I’ve read since April this year – bookmarks of discussions I’ve had, arguments I’ve followed, scandals that have broken, cultural linchpins I’ve railed against. The creation date of some posts predate my finding them by weeks, months or even, more rarely, years; others popped up on my radar almost as soon as they were published. All are relevant to feminism, to women and to society. If I’ve had a conversation with you about anything even vaguely feminist at all this year, the chances are I’ve made reference to something bookmarked in my links folders. Possibly I might even have sent you the articles themselves, if you expressed interest in seeing more.

I didn’t use to be a feminist. As a teenager, I did the weaselly thing of calling myself an equalist, which is a way of saying that I thought women should be treated the same as men (good) but that I was afraid of being associated with man-haters who just wanted to turn the patriarchy into a matriarchy (good in principle, bad in that this is a toxic misconception of feminism). Crucially, I also thought the change in terminology was necessary because, apart from sounding more, well, equal, it seemed as if feminism itself had already succeeded to such a degree that the very word, feminist, had been rendered as anachronistic as bluestocking. Sure, I’d copped my share of flak for having short hair and acting the tomboy, but I went to school and was praised for my brains; I had equal rights with men under the law; I had the vote; I wouldn’t be married off or penalised for divorcing an unwanted husband; I could sleep with whom I wanted, use contraception, aspire to any profession I chose and wear pants with impunity. Surely all of that freedom meant that feminism had seen its use and should gracefully pass on, the relic of a bygone era?  Wouldn’t calling myself a feminist under such circumstances be an innately radical act, putting me in the same camp as those hysterical man-haters I’d heard so much about? What more did I want?

The successes of feminism thus far are many, and huge, and vital – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to fix, nor that all the remaining problems are small. Women are still paid less than men for doing the same work. They must have better qualifications to be hired for the same job. They are still the primary domestics and caregivers for children, even when both partners work. Discrimination is still widespread. Sexism, misogyny and chauvinism still exist. Institutions like the business world, academia and popular culture are still rife with negative stereotypes, to say nothing of the progressive under-representation of  women the higher up the food chain ones goes. Yes, we can vote, and yes, we have rights – lots of them! These are all good things. But they are meaningless if we do not exercise and fight for them; if we ignore every person who impedes equality as an anomalous upstart; if we are afraid to call ourselves feminists because we don’t want to be perceived as radical; if we are content to assume that everyone thinks as we do, because it’s 2011; if we dispute the existence of anti-feminist (or anti-equalist) sentiment on the large scale of culture, institution and subconscious bias simply because we’ve never experienced it ourselves (that we know of).

Looked at in isolation, any of the articles listed above – or, indeed, any of the myriad others I’ve never encountered, or haven’t mentioned – might well seem like a storm in a teacup; a glitch on the social radar that, while dispiriting, is ultimately a minority example of behaviour that everyone knows is unacceptable. Looked at in the context of the whole, however, a different picture starts to emerge: one where, quite possibly, there are still miles and miles to go before we sleep. And that’s why I argue with people in pubs and online; why I get frustrated at having to explain, over and over and over, why I bother; why feminism is still necessary.

Because suffrage wasn’t the end of things. It was only the beginning.

One of my favourite things to do in the shower (and don’t you wish more sentences started that way?) is to rake my fingernails over my face and slough off the wet, dead skin. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to: because I am deeply weird; because it feels nice; and because it keeps my complexion pretty. Leaving aside the first point as both an inevitability of my existence and a perennial lost cause (I also collect hats!), the latter two motives combine to form a habit which is both satisfying and, insofar as I can tell, cleansing. And lest you be disturbed by the image of long, sharp, manicured talons being gouged down my rosy cheeks, please bear in mind that I am, in fact, possessed of the shortest, bluntest nails in Christendom. Seriously. They are messed up.

There’s a point to all of this. Honest. Just bear with me.

Last weekend, my husband and I went on a picnic, taking advantage of what has thus far been one of Scotland’s four genuinely sunny summer days. Much to my surprise, this actually resulted in a light sunburn, such that I’ve been gently peeling all week. Today’s nail-enabled exfoliations therefore took longer than usual, which afforded me time to wonder: Do other people do this, too? Did I start doing it because it felt nice, or because it improves my appearance? And if it didn’t feel nice, would I still do it to look pretty? And that made me think about all the other things I do to maintain myself, and whether they count as active beautification – and that was interesting question.

Because the thing is, I don’t wear makeup. This is not a shorthand to indicate that I only sometimes wear makeup, nor is it a dishonest means of saying that I wear very little makeup, be it regularly or semi-regularly. I mean, quite literally, that I wear no makeup at all. I own one tube of fifteen-year-old lipstick, worn maybe three times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, that my mother gave me a decade ago. I wore clear lipstick at my wedding, and nothing more. Twice, female friends have given me party makeovers: once recently for the hell of it, and once as a teenager, when we were dressing up as vampires for a fantasy fancy dress birthday. I certainly experimented with makeup as a young tween, putting on blush and lippy and foundation and eye-shadow that I’d found in my mother’s bathroom cabinet, or else trying those same things at various girls-only sleepover parties, but that never really translated to my actually wearing makeup as an adult. There’s a number of reasons why this might be so – my mother rarely wore makeup herself, I was proudly a tomboy, I was too lazy to bother, I’d rather have spent my pocket-money on books – but the practical upshot is that I’m a grown woman who doesn’t wear any makeup, something which seems to be comparatively unusual.

And what really struck me today – the thing that made me sit down and blog – was the realisation that my decision to avoid makeup was not, in fact, a decision at all, let alone a political one. I never chose a makeup-free existence, because that would imply an actual, active thought process on the matter. I just never bought or wore it, in much the same way that I neither buy nor wear designer clothes: it’s simply something other people do. And that bothers me, because the more I think about the sexism and inequality of our culture and its obsession with unrealistic and frequently negative beauty ideals, the more it feels as though my abstention from makeup should be part of my politics. Which is where the comparison with designer clothes falls down: because while I can postulate a theoretic future, no matter how distant and unlikely, in which I take an active, positive interest in clothes design and the aesthetics and history of fashion (which is, for the purposes of this example, a different creature entirely to the horrific inequalities of the actual fashion industry), I cannot think of a similar future where I’d suddenly take an active, positive interest in wearing makeup. Or, to put it another way: despite the fact that I never decided not to wear makeup for ethical, moral or political reasons, I would nonetheless feel it to be an ethical, moral and political capitulation on my part to start wearing makeup.

That doesn’t seem so irrational, surely? And yet saying so makes me feel horrifically judgmental – a gender traitor, even, for all that I’m trying to make a case in support of women. Because the fact is that most Western women do wear makeup, and for much the same reasons that I scrape the dead skin off my face in the shower: because they enjoy it, and because doing so makes them feel cleaner and prettier than if they didn’t.

And so I ask myself: am I a total hypocrite? After all, I still have a beauty regimen. I exfoliate; I use body wash and a loofah, facial scrub and moisturiser. But I do these things as much in the name of cleanliness as beauty. The nice feeling they give me overlaps, is equivalent to, the sensation of having freshly-washed, non-greasy hair and sweat-free skin. But I also shave my underarms and, when I can be bothered, my legs, which is something different again. There’s nothing innately clean about the idea of hairlessness – our culture  just teaches us to prefer clean-shaven men and women with minimal body hair. And there’s problems with that, because who the hell decided it, and why do most of us do it anyway? But while it makes perfect sense to keep such social imperatives and their malleability in mind, ultimately I don’t foresee a version of the human species wherein we don’t have some beauty norms, and if I were given ultimate control over humanity for a day such that I could forever revoke a particular beautification practice, shaving wouldn’t be it; or at least, not leg/arm/facial shaving, the practice of women removing their pubic hair to effectively recreate the image of prepubescence being considerably more problematic. Anyway: what I’m getting at here, or trying to, is that we adhere to different norms for different reasons, and even though women’s hairlessness is politicised in ways that men’s is not – hairy-legged or unshaven feminist being well-known terms of abuse – the trend ultimately seems to be more in line with the vogue of hairstyles than the application of makeup.

Possibly that’s a false distinction, and I’m very much open to the idea of being wrong: it’s something I’ve thought about before, and something I want to keep considering. But when it comes to sculpting, altering and otherwise emphasising our physical appearance (and ignoring the much more complex issues of body size and type, which is worth myriad other essays in its own right), what ultimately puts me off makeup is the extent to which it conceals and alters our faces. If I shave my legs and arms and crotch (or not); if I cut and colour my hair (or not); if I wear jewelry and pierce my ears (or not); if I paint my nails and get a tattoo (or not), then I am, for whatever reason of preference and aesthetics, changing my physical appearance: I am striving to look different, and regardless of whether I’m doing so to conform to an external standard of beauty, a social standard of beauty or simply to my own tastes – and those three things overlap more often than not – they are changes which serve to emphasise my identity and selfhood, rather than obscure it. Obviously many women – probably most, in fact – feel the same way about makeup: that wearing it serves to emphasise who they are. And I can understand that position; it’s why I’ve bothered writing this piece, because I’m honestly conflicted about where the line is between expressing oneself through physical beautification and objectifying oneself through adherence to (potentially damaging) cultural norms. Perhaps there’s no single solution, after all – maybe the question will never be answerable on anything other than a case-by-case basis; and that’s fine, too.

But makeup doesn’t empower me. The few times I’ve ever put on a face (and isn’t that a telling expression?), it’s made me feel, not beautified, but erased. It feels like compensating for my features, instead of emphasising them; like saying my native self is, if not actually ugly, then insufficient. Bland. Unmemorable. I don’t define myself by my hair or nails, my legs and arms or groin; I don’t consider that dyeing, styling and cutting my hair is anything other than an aesthetic act. But my face is what others see of me, and what I see of myself. It’s where people look when I talk to them; it is how we talk, and the act of acknowledging, even tacitly, that my primary means of expression could benefit from cosmetics, leaves me feeling utterly unbeautiful. And what’s worse, makeup is a considered to be a strictly female domain. Men bathe and exfoliate; they shave and wax their body hair; they use dyes and moisturisers and hair gel and even nail polish – and yes, it’s still more common for women to use those things; and yes, some few men do use cosmetics; and yes, they have every right to do so, and more, should be allowed to do so without fear of social reprisals. I know all these things, and they are relevant and important. But knowing them will not convince me that I can find an iota of self-confidence, one ounce of esteem, in the application of tinted animal fats and powdered chemicals to any part of my face – and nor, I think, should it.

I’m not trying to claim superiority over women who wear makeup; far from it. I’m not even trying to suggest that the concept of makeup is innately wrong – only that, for me, it crosses a personal line, and that part of that crossing is exacerbated by the fact that it applies almost entirely to women. The lines between personal aesthetics and social aesthetics will always be blurred, because we’re all creatures of the world in which we’re raised, and even if we can see where the habit of leg-shaving or lipstick comes from, that doesn’t automatically mean we should strive to destroy those practices out of pure contrition. Or, to put it another way: we are all empowered by different things. There will never be a perfect world where none of our customs have problematic consequences, and while I fully believe in our ability to create more and better societies than the one in which we now live,  the way to do that isn’t to issue a new mandate to the masses about what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.

But in order for that to happen, we have to think about why we do things, the better to understand – and, in some cases, change – our reasoning. And so I ask: if you do wear makeup most or all of the time, why? Is it habit, or ritual? Does it empower or undermine your sense of self? Does it make you feel happy, or sad, or nothing at all? Does it give you a sense of belonging, or dislocation? Does it feel right or wrong, natural or unnatural? Does it make you feel beautiful or ugly, enhanced or lessened? Do you wear it because you want to, or because you feel you have to?

I already know how I feel. So what about you?

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.

There has been some controversy on the internets this week. Specifically – as this is otherwise a useless and self-evident statement akin to pointing out that the Earth revolves around the sun – on the subject of steampunk.

Now: I get that it’s in the nature of human beings to be critical. We all have little mental pressure valves that sometimes need to be vented in full, no matter how slight the final provocation. The results of this are not always entirely rational, and don’t even necessarily represent our day-to-day views; or, if they do, then in a more polarised, less compromising format. For instance: when my husband and I were cycling along the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand in the first week of our honeymoon, a territorial magpie flew right into the side of my un-helmeted head, causing me to fall to the dirt, cry just a little bit out of shock, and – once I straightened up – to bleed from the temple. This prompted my significant other to launch into an angry, fifteen-minute long tirade about how all magpies were basically just flying rats, they’re bloody dangerous and their singing’s not even that great, fucking magpies, flying around like they own the place, and so on until I had a little less blood streaming from my head and had recovered enough to point out that, one, the magpie had gone; two, I didn’t think it had actually meant to hit me, if its stunned retreat was anything to go by; and three, magpies are actually pretty cool, when they’re not defending their nests.

Thus assauged by my recovery, my beloved came to see the humour in the incident, and returned emotionally to his default state of Magpies Are Fine, Or At Least Not Worth Getting Constantly Worked Up About. And thus, the point: while a little vitriol from time to time is both healthy and human, the important thing is to recognise when the rage has passed, and to compensate accordingly. Which brings me to Cat Valente’s recent blog on the problems of steampunk, a post that was clearly written while in the throes of anger, and which she has subsequently followed up with both a concession to that fact and a list of ten things she actually does love about steampunk. My reactions to her initial post aside, these efforts at conciliation are worthy of respect, in that Valente has been both brave enough, while impassioned, to share her views publicly, and then adult enough to try and engage afterwards in a more constructive dialogue. So, points for maturity.

Charles Stross has also written an anti-steampunk post, one which predates Valente’s and to which she makes passing reference; and then, in seeming response to both these views, but specifically to that of Stross, we have Scott Westerfeld’s defence of steampunk. In case you have been living in a hole, it is not unrelevant that Westerfeld’s two most recent novels are themselves works of YA steampunk: Leviathan and its immediate sequel, the newly-released Behemoth. There have also been other sundry responses lurking about the webnologies, notably this piece by Kirstyn McDermott, who agrees with Valente, and a critique of the anti-steampunk position by jadegirl (props to marydell for the link). But in case you’d rather skip the links, here is my breakdown of both camps:

Anti-Steampunk

1. As a sub-genre, steampunk is more concerned with the visual aesthetics of sticking goggles and cogs on top hats than dealing with the actual, complex and fascinating social issues of the era in question, a complaint which is best expressed by this comic. (Sidenote: no matter who you agree with, Kate Beaton is awesome.)

2. That this preoccupation is not only detrimental in terms of encouraging the production pulp, adventuristic works rather than meaningful narrative, but actively problematic in terms of glamourising a deeply flawed Empire: a Dickensian time characterised by the oppression of women, minorities and anyone not actually an Earl; an expansionist and militarised culture; the gruesome rise of industrialisation and crippling factory-work as was frequently undertaken by the disenfranchised masses, especially children; and prohibitive sexual mores. Furthermore, the -punk suffix of the genre itself should imply an innate receptivity to counterculture, and that by ignoring these issues, steampunk is effectively betraying itself.

3. That the end result of all of the above is yet another fad being pounced on by the Great Marketing Machine, resulting in the premature cheapening of something that could have been good, if it had only been kept in the hands of those interested in doing it well, but which has instead become a cheap, conglomerate, prepacked affair with as much sub- and counter-cultural cred as Ronald McDonald, pandering to steampunks who all dress the same while trying to be different. There are no more heroes, etc. (See again Kate Beaton, re: hipsters ruin everything.)

Pro-Steampunk

1. Yes, there is a visual element to steampunk. And it involves goggles! But the presence of a coherent aesthetic style does not prevent meaningful social discussion within the genre, any more than wearing a pretty pink dress prevents a woman from holding intelligent opinions. By critiquing steampunk foremost on the basis of how it looks, rather than providing concrete examples of what it does – and by using aristocratic female fashion as the lynchpin of this argument – its detractors are committing the same sin against which they are endeavouring to protest, viz: the use of corsetry to conceal a lack of substance.

2. Examining mainstays of the current canon, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, it is undeniable that steampunk is far from inimical to adventure. However, these are also stories with a strong focus on female characters negotiating the perils of Victorian society, which question militarism and the potentially perilous uses of science, the consquences of poverty and industrialisation on children, and the place of minorities within that society. On this latter point, it is also important to note that steampunk afficionados are by no means exclusively white/privileged, and that there is a great deal of discussion on all of these issues within the community itself.

3. All genres have problems. To contend otherwise is ludicrous. Specifically within the wider fantasy/SF subset, however, to act as though issues of class privilege, race and suffrage are unique to steampunk purely by virtue of its relationship to Victorian society is deeply inaccurate. Beginning with the works of Tolkein and moving forward from there, these are questions that the entire SFF fandom is concerned with on all fronts, and has been for some time. That doesn’t mean that none of the criticisms leveled specifically at steampunk are invalid, but in the current climate of people claiming genre fatigue, such apostasy begins to smack of the elitist proposition that once something has become mainstream, it is made fundamentally irredeemable, or at least deeply untrustworthy, and therefore void of meaning.

So!

Allow me to lay my own cards on the table. Some of my favourite stories of recent times have been steampunk – not only the titles mentioned above, but also Michael Pryor’s fabulous Laws of Magic series (featuring a female character who is both a suffragette and a ninja); Stephen Hunt’s ongoing Jackelian sequence, which begins with The Court of the Air; and Sydney Padua’s brilliant and stunningly researched comic 2D Goggles, about the further adventures of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. There has also been Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which is unashamedly a lighthearted mashup of romance, steampunk and urban fantasy; and, at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Kate Elliott’s brilliant Cold Magic, which the author describes as an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy with Bonus! airship, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.”

Re this last, and specifically the word icepunk: it is not uncommon nowadays for certain members of the geek community to flinch and/or start foaming at the mouth whenever -punk is appended to something else in order to – hopefully – coin a new genre term. Others, like Valente, have no objection to the practise, so long as the work in question, in her words, “is as punk as it says on the tin.”

Which is fine: but as many a pub debate about the motion of linguistics has long since made clear to me, what a word means originally and how it develops over time are two different things, and while there are some instances where fighting against the change is a fine and noble thing, there are some battles better left unfought. I’m not yet sure into which category steampunk (and all the other suffixd -punks) will eventually fall, but being as how I’m not consciously a fan of punk music and have never particularly noticed any connection between the one and the other – unless we’re talking in a generic, rebelling-against-the-norm sort of way, rather than as is specifically relevant to stories about countercultures fighting the dominant trend – then my money is, for now, on the former. The point being, I’m not really fussed about the whole suffixing issue in this instance, because for whatever reason, it’s never flicked my Rage Switch. But I get that it does for other people, and so am willing to credit their outrage as something more than just preferential aggravation. (By way of solidarity, the record is fairly clear on my hatred for -gate being appended to not even mildly shocking political scandals. I mean, seriously. GAH!)

All of which, to come to a point, puts me in the pro-steampunk category. Yes, there are problems. Authors and fans alike are working on them, thinking about them and generally paying attention. Yes, steampunk often involves adventure. That’s not a sin! Part of what I love so much about fantasy is its versatility in this respect: that what would otherwise be a purely issues-based story if set in the real world can take on a dimension of swashbuckling, humour and magic to balance out the social grief and piercing moments of inequality. Also: the fact that Tor.com has struck its flag is less a sign of the Apocalypse than it is the turning of the world. What was once an obscure subgenre is now a more well-known and popular subgenre, with all the attendant perils and pleasures that implies. That’s all.

And you know what? I like the goggles.