Posts Tagged ‘Traditional’

It’s strange how the simplest chain of events can lead to an epiphany.

For instance: while reading this post over at gaming webcomic The Trenches yesterday evening, I clicked on a link to an eight-year-old blog post written by someone using the handle EA_Spouse. Finding the post to be extremely well-written and curious about the woman behind it, I did a quick Google search and learned that her real name was Erin Hoffman, that she was a game developer and – as of  2011 – a published fantasy author. Naturally, I looked up her work on Goodreads, where the synopsis of her first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, piqued my interest enough that I headed straight over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. Though it didn’t take long to read, I found myself so caught up in the story that, rather than relegate the book to my Wish List,  I bought the whole thing on Kindle outright. It was already late, but even so, I kept right on reading until 3am – which is when the epiphany struck.

Because as much as I was enjoying the book, a part of me was confused by my enthusiasm for it. Of all possible stories, why did this one appeal so strongly? To contextualise the personal significance of that question, it’s perhaps necessary to explain that I am, at present, nearly eight months pregnant with my first child, which state has played merry hob with my attention span and energy levels ever since the first trimester. Writing – and particularly creative writing, as opposed to blogging and essays – has proven increasingly difficult, but so too has reading: despite my best intentions, I keep drifting away from stories, unable to achieve my usual, crucial state of early immersion. Most likely, there’s a biological reason for this, or a combination of them – altered hormones, increased exhaustion, all the usual culprits – but it also seems to be an issue of increased sensitivity. By which I mean: while pregnancy hasn’t magically changed my personality, it’s definitely sparked a loss of patience, resulting in what I’ve taken to referring to as a drastically decreased tolerance for bullshit. Things that would irk me ordinarily are amplified in their irksomeness, and being aware of the dissonance hasn’t stopped it from influencing my decisions.

All of which is a way of saying that, when it comes to bugbears and errors in narrative, I’m currently much less inclined than usual to forgive, ignore or otherwise exempt them. Instead, they achieve a new emphasis which, when combined with my decreased attention span, leaves me much more likely than usual to abandon the book altogether. Or maybe being pregnant has nothing to do with it; maybe I’m just evolving as a reader, and this particular evolution has simply manifested at a time when the particular vulnerabilities and stereotypes of pregnancy have left me open to endlessly second-guessing myself, as though my thoughts and opinions have necessarily become suspect by virtue of being generated in proximity to a fetus. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see, though even if my current impatience does wear off, that shouldn’t render all decisions touched by it invalid. The point being: why, when I’ve spent months giving up on novel after novel, should Sword of Fire and Sea prove so dramatically exceptional? At the risk of damning with faint praise (which I don’t want to do, as I’m genuinely enjoying the book), it’s not a breathtaking, original masterpiece. Though fluidly written, neatly characterised and solidly worldbuilt, both setting and plot are nonetheless comprised of familiar, if not borderline generic fantasy elements – not an inherently negative quality, but one still relevant to analysis. On the technical side of things, the characters smile too often, the romantic acceleration feels both overly rapid and oversimplified, and at times, the prose verges on purple, as per Hoffman’s unique habit of describing the sound and timbre of voices using food and nature-heavy metaphors. At base, though, Sword is a solid, well-paced adventure with strong RPG-esque roots (unsurprising, given the author’s professional background) – not gamechanging, but respectable and, for my money, quite good fun. (I especially like the gryphons.)

And so the niggling question remained: if I really am hypersensitive to narrative flaws, then what makes Sword exempt? And that’s when I realised: I haven’t been taking issue with all flaws, universally, but rather with a particular subset of flaws whose presence in SFF narratives is so ubiquitous that, up until last night, I hadn’t rightly distinguished them as belonging to a separate category. Further complicating matters, my decreased attention span has been skewing the data: some books I’ve been setting aside, not because I dislike them, but because their complexity and depth requires more cognitive energy than I can currently muster.  But once I removed them from the equation and focused solely on books which, regardless of whether I’d finished them or not, had all bothered me in similar ways – novels which, overwhelmingly, could be fairly categorised as light or easy reading – the similarity of their flaws was obvious: All were stories whose treatment of gender, race and/or sexual orientation had rubbed me the wrong way, most usually through the use of unhelpful stereotypes and problematic language, but occasionally exacerbated by poor or inconsistent worldbuilding. And once I made that connection, I realised my current tendency towards sharper criticism and decreased patience was part of a trend whose origins demonstrably predated my pregnancy; and yet being pregnant was still a relevant factor, in that my lack of energy had prompted me to look for more lighter, easier books than normal – exactly the sort of material that was proving so problematic. Which meant that Sword stood out to me, not because it’s thematically original, but because it’s a fun, straightforward adventure fantasy that doesn’t demean its female characters.

Which isn’t to say there’s a dearth of amazing, thought-provoking, gender-positive (or race-positive, or sex-positive) fantasy available for consumption. Certainly, there’s less of it than the alternative, if only by dint of historical volume; but even so, there’s definitely been a recent surge of awesome into the market. But simply by virtue of being in a minority, such works are overwhelmingly (and rightly) conscious of their status as counteragents. As many recent arguments have shown, there’s a demonstrable schism in SFF between those who view the racial, social and sexual homogeneity of the classics as being integral to the genre, and those who argue actively for the importance of diversity and the respectful representation of a wider range of cultures, characters and settings; and though the latter argument has considerable traction, the former still tends to represent the base fantastic default. As a result, while both positions are fundamentally representative of different political stances, members of the former camp tend to think this is only true of their opponents: by their definition, the traditional position must also be an inherently neutral one. According to this logic, then, politics cannot be subconsciously enforced through narrative: if no political judgement was intended, then none can be rightly taken. By contrast, actively seeking to incorporate one’s politics into one’s writing is unambiguously a political act – and therefore the antithesis of neutrality. And as the default is deemed to be neutral rather than equally political, then consciously political writers aren’t seen to be redressing a narrative imbalance, but rather needlessly seeking to create one.

That being so, the concept of light or easy reading is suddenly cast in a whole new perspective. If, not unreasonably, we classify such light novels as being stories which exist primarily to entertain, and whose base construction and principles are deemed to be uncontroversial when measured against the genre’s traditional values – stories which, by implication and intention, should be fun and easy to read – then what we’re also saying is that, in an overwhelming number of instances, such light stories are also traditional stories. Because if we accept that political SFF novels are written, not just to entertain, but to subvert both our real world expectations and the traditions of genre, then to a certain extent – or at least, to a certain readership – they cannot possibly qualify as light, because the act of being consciously political disqualifies them. By dint of striving to change or challenge our assumptions, such stories actively encourage introspection in ways that, quite arguably, light books don’t. Which isn’t to say that traditional novels can’t be complex or introspective – clearly, many of them are. But the whole point of default narrative settings – of elements which, by virtue of their traditional weight, can exist in a story unchallenged – is that the audience isn’t meant to question them. Instead, we’re simply meant to be carried along by the novel, engaging in a purely escapist or entertaining narrative – and as a process, that state of passive, unintrospective enjoyment is exactly what light stories are  meant to invoke.

This, then, is my epiphany: that all too often, describing an SFF novel as easy reading is functionally synonymous with describing it as traditional, in the very specific sense that, by definition, easy novels are neither subversive nor politically difficult. Which is why my current search for easy reading has resulted in so many failures and a significant loss of tolerance: because invariably, the light books I’ve picked up have been written in the belief that certain of their default settings, which I find to be both irksome and problematic, are inherently and inoffensively neutral. And because I disagree, it’s impossible to be passively carried along by the story: instead, I wind up reading actively, angrily, in a way that the author doubtless never intended. Under those circumstances, trying to find a light novel to read has proved virtually impossible. By definition, stories which don’t employ the traditional defaults tend overwhelmingly to be challenging and complex, while novels which do are either intentionally cerebral or unintentionally aggravating.

And that, to cut a long story short, is why Sword of Fire and Sea so particularly caught my interest: because it manages to be that rare creature, an SFF read that neither exemplifies the traditional defaults nor strives for political significance beyond the simple fact of this divergence. It is, quite simply (and yet not so simply at all) an adventure story that neither demeans its female characters nor makes a narrative point about not having done so – a light, easy read that nonetheless isn’t traditional. And right now, that feels like the most refreshing thing in the world.

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In what will come as a shock to absolutely no one, I have a contentious opinion to put forwards.

Tentatively.

I’m not a hundred per cent on any of this: it’s something I’ve been chewing over for the past while, and I’m writing it up because I’d like to hear what other people think. But this is not a definitive statement of my beliefs – rather, it’s an attempt to tease out an idea that may or may not stand up to actual criticism. Still, I think it’s an interesting problem, and I’m going to make an effort.

So:

As things stand, female notions of male sexiness in our culture are deeply problematic, particularly as relates to feminism. Traditional concepts of masculinity – and, by extension, patriarchy – hinge on the three P’s of strength: protectiveness, power, and physique. Feminism has sought to challenge this ideal, emphasising equality, intelligence and agency for both sexes. The P’s aren’t just for men, this argument goes, but even so, they need not and ought not be the defining characteristics of society. Women have taken charge of their own sexuality, and feminists are fiercely – and rightly – determined to protect that agency. And yet, when it comes to male sexuality as coveted by women, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

To be clear: I am not saying that feminists have never argued against traditional notions of male sexuality, nor that they’ve argued badly. In that respect, what I’m saying isn’t new. But what has struck me recently is the extent to which the three P’s are still used as the basis for male sexiness in narratives written by feminist women – and worse, that the sexiness of female characters is frequently expressed as the ability to provoke those characteristics in men. I do not excuse or exclude myself from that statement. Part of what has prompted me to sit down and write this out is the fact that, in planning romantic and/or emotional encounters between various of my characters – something I do to do help me fall asleep – I’ve been hitting a wall of cultural preconceptions. Like it or not, I have a learned version of sexiness stored in my head, a set of rules to which I’ve subconsciously been adhering, but recently – perhaps because I’ve been thinking about feminism and writing – I’ve started to see that they’re there, and to poke at them.

Here are some of the tropes I’m talking about:

1. A strong female character surrounded by men who find her attractive and a smaller number of rival women will demonstrate her strength by showing up one or more of the women in front of the men, frequently through a refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine (negative) way. This proves she is better than the other women, and therefore more deserving of male companionship, because she does not Play Games.

2. A variant on the above, where the strong female character is picked on by other women in the sight of one or more men who find her attractive, such that her dignity in coping with the situation and/or her subsequent stoicism in refusing to complain about it becomes proof of her strength. In this instance, it is important that the male observer(s) remain concealed and not intervene, ostensibly to show that the woman is strong and can deal with things on her own, or that the man respects this about her, but in reality to ensure that he is later able to confront, comfort and offer to protect her.

3. Male love interests who are physically dominant, who always initiate the first kiss, the first touch, and who might go so far as to hold the heroine’s wrists or push her forcefully against a wall. This would perhaps be less detrimental if it weren’t a default setting – if we saw a comparable number of narratives, or really any number of narratives, where the woman was physically dominant, the first to initiate everything, who pushed or held the man. Instead, the reigning logic says that male dominance is sexy, while female dominance is wanton and potentially pitiable.

4. A more chaste version of the above, but still with sexual overtones: the protective male character who, in response to whatever plot-specific necessity, will grab the heroine, carry, push or embrace her in the name of ensuring her safety, such that the heroine must reflect positively upon and ultimately be made grateful for his physical strength. Again, this would be less detrimental if the reverse situation was equally as popular, but where male protectiveness of women is permitted, female protectiveness of men is seen as emasculating.

5. A strong heroine is shown to be strong by her decision to confront the villain alone, always for noble or altruistic reasons, so that we cannot suspect her of being headstrong or rash. Inevitably, she is injured or overcome in the subsequent confrontation, such that she must be rescued, healed and comforted by a male character, whose protectiveness of her is (of course) sexy. This shapes the heroine as decisive, brave, competent and selfless while still allowing her to be a damsel in distress.

6. A male love interest must be two things: traditionally strong and non-traditionally sensitive. If he is just strong, he is a villain; if he is just sensitive, he is the geeky best friend who lusts after the girl and never actually gets her. (Sidenote: this is one of my LEAST FAVOURITE TROPES EVER.) The combination of strength and sensitivity is explained by trauma in the man’s past, such that the female character, even if she’s the ostensible protagonist, is ultimately bound to a narrative arc designed to orchestrate his redemption. Note that the female character will probably have trauma of her own, but because she is female, her behaviour is never bad enough that she needs redemption: instead, it makes her stoic, so that the male character, as part of his own emotional development, can comfort and protect her.

And so on.

The thing is, though, that what I’ve just described are some of my favourite narrative devices – and I’m not alone in that. It actually hurts me to mock them, on which grounds I’ll beg bias and say that, despite the way I’ve painted them above, they can be done well, to a purpose, in a way that genuinely works. But the problem I’m trying to identify isn’t that such tropes are being used badly. It’s that they’re being used exclusively. They enforce the idea that the only viable definition of male sexiness is the traditional definition of male sexiness. This is tempered and excused in the narrative by the fact that the woman is strong, too, and maybe the man’s a bit sensitive, but what it excludes is the idea that women protecting men is sexy; that men who are just sensitive are sexy; that any alternate permutation is sexy.

I understand the popularity of these tropes: I really do. They appeal to me, and on some level, because I am a product of our culture, I can’t help that. At best, they represent a balance between traditional masculinity and feminism: scenarios where women are strong and competent, but in ways that allow for male protectiveness without emasculation. It’s the perfect compromise. Everybody wins! But at worst, the definition has become a subconscious default, and not one possible option among many. Men can’t be sexy in different ways, this trope says, any more than female strength can be derived from sisterhood, rather than the ability to keep up with and/or impress men by the adoption of traditionally masculine traits. There is only one proper way, and we ought not question it.

In the end, I’m left thinking about this ad, wherein the perfect man is discussed with no small degree of irony. In these tropes, men are shown to be a faultless combination of everything – strength, support and sexiness – while women derive their agency, not from their own selves, but through their ability to attract a man who is strong, supportive, sexy. And when that happens, it stops being female agency, and starts being female worthiness. And that is, I believe, entirely antagonistic to feminism.

So, people: what do you think?