December 16, 2011

Feministing Fantasy: One Does Not Simply Sausagefest Into Mordor

       As a fan of epic fantasy novels and series, one becomes somewhat inured to the sausagefest that is nearly definitive of the genre. Characters are male by default; by which I mean "a farmer", "a soldier", "a traveller", "a blacksmith", "an apprentice"-all stock characters in any epic fantasy- are by default male unless otherwise specified, and these exceptional women are always a Big Deal, by which I mean their femaleness bears importance or is a catalyst of some sort to the story. Inversely, other stock characters like "a whore", "a tavern wench", "a innkeeper's progeny", or "a milkmaid" are default female unless explicitly stated otherwise, and are also tools to further the plot or character development of a male character unless explicitly stated otherwise. In this adventure, I plan to take a look at the treatment of male and female characters in various fantasy series that I have experienced, and explore the incredibly diverse dimensions possible for gender in the human imagination through the vehicle of genre fiction. And I'm not talking Rowling or Tolkien; I'm going for the shameless, basement-dwelling, throat-bearded, myopic fiction that spawns stereotypes like few other genres are capable of.
       One of the most enjoyable facets of epic fantasy for me as a reader is the immersion into an entirely created social system. An author in this genre is free to create any sort of social system that takes their fancy, and I've come across customs of slightly silly created cultures that include everything from governments based on institutionalized BDSM to those based on the favoritism of magical telepathic horsies, modesty habits from veiled males to hand-burkas, and family systems that range from medieval chattel exchanges to polyandrous group marriages. I must admit that a sticking point that infringes on my enjoyment nearly every time is that in a medium that allows for so much freedom, so many authors choose to relegate female characters to the subordinate/exceptional model of women in epic fantasy. And I cannot emphasize enough that the rape-and-revenge trope of the wronged/damaged/outraged woman who decides to pick up a sword or a spellbook and wreak some havoc of her own hasn't progressed any since the days of Conan the Barbarian, and is as worn out as a 1950's elastic menstrual belt complete with pube-plucking metal clips.

       Often what happens in these books takes place in the context of a loving recreation of patriarchal society, sometimes intentionally arranged in order to criticize, but most of the time just as a sort of default thing loosely patterned after medieval Europe. Laaame. Also, lazy. Sometimes you'll get a society that is loosely based off feudal China or Japan, and even occasionally the Middle East, which is refreshing, but I must say treatment of women characters seems to suffer even more in these settings. Women become cloistered myths that resemble nothing so much as Helens of Troy, or quite literally commodities to be packaged up and disposed of conveniently.
       One of the longest-running and most popular fantasy series of modern times has got to be The Wheel Of Time, authored by the late Robert Jordan, and currently being finished by the hand-selected author Brandon Sanderson. WoT presents a very interesting take on gender in fantasy because in its own way, it flies in the face of many fantasy tropes, and although of double-male authorage, it does indeed pass the Bechdel test. Gender relations in the current events of the novels are a result of a gendered magic system-one divided into a male half and a female half. This theme of a gendered division in humanity runs through nearly everything that happens in the novels regarding both plot and character development. Many people have mentioned that the behavior or men, or of women, is odd, stereotyped, and gender differences are exaggerated to an extreme degree; my argument is that this is true, and makes perfect sense within the context of the story.
       You see, about two thousand years previous to the current events of the plot, the male half of magic was irrevocably tainted, which resulted in male users of magic going insane, killing everything, and then dying themselves. This led to a society with a massive power imbalance that influenced the entire structure of society. Kudos to Jordan that this did NOT result in some sort of evil dystopian matriarchy(although I guess some could argue that this IS the case; there are some that see anything involving women with political power as such). What you end up with is a very polarized view of the genders, with both men and women convinced that their sex is the bastion of logic, pragmatism, good sense, and that the other gender is a slave to their emotional and hormonal reactions. They both end up more or less right on both counts.
       I must say that WoT features some of the worst cover art in the history of Fantasy Fiction, and whooo, that's saying something. It seems odd to me that for a series that features plenty of strong and central female characters, the cover art depicts them staring in awe at an overwhelmingly powerful male(at least three), cooking (one), or not at all(at least four). Bitching about the covers of fantasy novels really is pissing into an ocean of piss, but I think I may be incapable of talking about a series I have been reading since age eleven, have read aloud to my mother, and convinced just about everyone close to me to read without at least mentioning the absolute horror of these "paintings". None of the cover paintings actually resemble the characters described in the actual text of the books, and not to get utterly sidetracked, but the cover paintings are also whitewashed to a degree that is nearly criminal. As much as it crushes my soul to say it, I highly recommend checking out Wheel of Time fan art in order to see depictions of extremely central characters that realistically reflect having been described over and over as "dark", "dark-skinned", "Copper-skinned", "black" and "dusky".
       Aaaanyway. The treatment of gender in WoT is very even-handed, and quite ridiculous, especially when you look at the sheer amount of sexual tension between members of the same gender. Homosexual relationships in WoT are certainly present, if you know where to look, and before overt references to them begin to appear somewhere in the sixth or seventh book, I think. Homophobia seems to be pretty irrelevant in this universe, you just have the umbrella of inherently hilarious sexual prudery that runs through the whole thing, and it is pretty openly mocked as an almost Japanese degree. Sexual subtext in the books is always pathologically subtle, and often eclipsed by some really silly BDSM-ish cultural practices, especially in the several all-female institutions. Although many argue that this is nothing more than a voyeuristic women's-prison-schoolgirl-pillowfight trope, I argue that presenting women characters as fiercely competitive and intensely hierarchical (as well as capable of nearly inhuman determination, cooperation, and unbreakable loyalty) almost completely independent of the presence or influence of men is a mind-blowingly progressive angle when you consider the larger context of similar lengthy and influential fantasy series.
       Speaking of lengthy, the world that contains Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar, Velgarth, is an incredibly well-realized world that spans nearly 40 novels and story collections. Lackey, in an attempt to shake free of some of the restrictions facing fantasy authors, decided to write about a magical world where people didn't use magic. Arrows of the Queen, published in 1987, introduces us not only to a magic system that eschews spellbooks, incantations and magic swords for powers of an entirely telepathic nature, but a female hero named Talia. This is an example of various recreations of patriarchal society in various forms and combinations, since Velgarth is a world full of countries that can be quite different from each other. Also, magical telepathic white horsies of possibly divine nature that run about like cunts saving misanthropic, bullied preteens. So there's that.
       The biggest theme running through just about all of Lackey's Valdemar novels is emotional damage, and how much it influences or behavior, decisions, and relationships. In fact, Lackey wrote a short story in which she addresses her tendency to "drop a mountain" on her characters, in which denizens of Valdemar visit her dreams and wryly complain about the gang rape or having their feet crushed medieval-torture-style.(1) Transgressively, her novels depict male characters as victims of various forms of abuse just as often as female characters, whether that abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual. Precipitous journeys out of the abyss of insecurity, emotional trauma, and various forms of loss form the real narratives of her tomes, although plenty of political intrigue, messy wars, magical apocalypse and even love stories are the fodder upon which these narratives feed.
       I have to confess that the cookie-cutter structure of Lackey's tales, whereupon we are introduced to our hero at the cusp of a difficult puberty (which in Velgarth almost always is accompanied by the onset of magical powers or trauma, or often both), is as accessible and delicious as a palely-frosted horse-shaped cookie with blue-and-white Valdemar sprinkles. The use of language stays at Young Adult level, but the rather ubiquitous juxtaposition of some serious awfulness like war crimes and child prostitution keep these bite sized novels in the grown folks section. I have to admit although the discourse in these novels remains at a decidedly non-elevated level, this does not detract from their quality whatsoever. There is a great deal to be said for accessibility, relevance, emotional tone, and some good old-fashioned camp.
       To be fair, although many of the novels do not feature the talking white horses, they universally feature some kind of animal companion that is telepathic and intelligent to some degree, nor are they immune to the rape, beatings, and murder that have a tendency to happen sooner or later in the magical realm of Velgarth. The perpetrators of the abuse have a very strong tendency to be male sociopaths, but there are definitely female sociopaths sprinkled in there, as well as female enablers and facilitators of said abuse. Lackey's novels fall pretty firmly into the traditional good-versus-evil binary of epic fantasy, and there are few characters who tread the line. That is no to say that the heroes are in any way unflawed; often they are practically crippled with indecision and torturous second-guessing, as well as of course dealing with the aftermath of their tribulations and traumas.
       The treatment of gender in the Valdemar series is interesting because it does vary so much between the countries. The eponymous Valdemar is nearly egalitarian, although sexism and misogyny do indeed rear their ugly heads with relative frequency; homophobia has a strong thread there, too. In contrast, the nation of Rethwellan, which I might say is the second-fiddle country of origin, is strongly patriarchal and homophobic, and more closely resembles a land from a more typical genre book. Then you must add on the facet of the books moving about along a timeline which sometimes involves a millennia or two; it is interesting to see the flux and flow of gender relations through time-especially when a later age doesn't mean more enlightened.
       So, here I've explored two fantasy series that more or less follow a heavily trodden path, but with an unusual treatment of gender specifically. The structure follow the necessary tropes: good versus evil, swords and sorcery, horse transport, technology from the middle ages, and lots of boiled potatoes and beef stew (one of the in-jokes I have with friends who have read WoT is a reference to the "Eye of the World Special" which consists of bread, cheese and dried meat, which is all the characters in that novel ever seem to eat... ever). For the most part the novels of Jordan and Lackey are both more or less working inside the system, but creating some very interesting and enjoyable paradoxes, juxtapositions, and sexual dynamics in the meantime. In Part Two, I plan to explore a few series that radically deviate from the norm in the realm of gender, including some novels by Laurie J. Marks and Tanya Huff. Later, I may gird my loins and wade into the morass of some seriously problematic genre fiction, look at depictions of alternative genders and asexuality, and perhaps even stick my hand into some wasps' nests.

(1) I could cite the print publications of this story, but instead I'll say just go read it for free on Mercedes Lackey's official website. It's pretty short.

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