Archive for August, 2007

Because Women Feel Things and Men Just Do Them - Stereotypes in Fantasy Novels

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

A friend of mine lent me a book a while back and I hate it. Not in that “I enjoy loathing this book” sort of way, but in the “I wish someone would take the author out back and give him a beating stern talking to about writing in cliches and how when you have a whole world to set up maybe you could break gender stereotypes” sort of way. And what really really really annoyed me about this book was, simply enough, that it could have been so much better if he had put as much thought into his magic system as he did into the way people swore.

Let me show you what I didn’t like about it:
Like a lot of fantasy novels set in a magical age, this novel has its magic system based around the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. Earth elements give the people who control them great physical strength and control over the earth, air allows one to fly and control the wind, fire allows one to make rooms and tempers very hot, and water allows one to heal, read emotions, and similar such things.

Ask me how these seemed to “coincidently” break down by gender. Go on, ask.

That’s right! The only people with any strong earth or fire magic in them were men, and the only people with any strong air or water magic in them were women. What an amazing coincidence! I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked to see such a difference from the usual fantasy story.

Oh wait.

In fairness to the author, I should point out that there’s at least one important male character who has water magic. I should also point out that he’s effeminate, goes against the male character trying to save everyone and has him thrown in jail, and is considered weak and someone to work around by everyone else.

One of the things I keep bringing up in discussions about these things is that none of this happens in a vacuum. This book, with its gender roles set up this way, isn’t precisely unique in the realms of fantasy. The female character in video games who is a healing priestess-type character continually makes “top cliches in fantasy video games”; the white-robed mystic woman who has a closer link to The Gods and yet can’t do anything on her own shows up all over the place; the woman who is overwhelmed by her own empathy and thus can do nothing was clich├ęd well before Deanna Troi was telling us, “I sense great sorrow, Captain”.

In a world of the author’s own creation, why is it so rare for the Aunt to search the woods for her lost nephew, wielding her earth magic against her enemies, as opposed to being kidnapped and threatened with rape and enslavement? Why does it seem, so often, to be the Uncle?

To be frank, it’s been a while since I picked up a fantasy novel or played a fantasy video game. I just don’t want to anymore. It gets frustrating remembering playing so many of them and giving the main (male) character a female name and weaving in my own back story about a woman who wants to be an adventurer but has to hide her gender in order to do it properly - bonus storyline points when there’s a romance and I get to have hidden lesbians who doubt their sexuality. I’m tired of story lines set in a Galaxy Far Far Away or a Land Before Time or A World Shaped by Magic where women are always waiting and men are always doing. I’m tired of rape threats or actualities against female characters and so rarely against male characters outside of homosexuals (Hi, Mercedes Lackey! Welcome to my blog!). I’m tired of women who have to dress like men in order to prove themselves in a fantasy world.

Writers have the whole world in their hands - let’s see more female characters who can walk it with their heads held high and their braids blowing in the wind, shall we?

[Books and Movies I’m Aware Break This Cliche and thus recommend: The Tarma & Kethry novels by Mercedes Lackey, although they do have rape as a major plot point, twice. I haven’t read a lot of MZB, but her “Firebrand” novel has a pro-active Cassandra. It has a tendency to go with “but all men are evil” a lot, which annoys me, so I’m not sure I’d recommend it because of that. The “Man of His Word” series by Dave Duncan, which while having a Princess who is Beautiful and Everyone Wants, also has her being very pro-active, has an even more pro-active aunt, and breaks so many cliches of the fantasy genre that I think every one in the whole world should read it. And buy it new, because Dave Duncan is totally my hero and deserves more sales. Also, Cordelia’s Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold also has a very pro-active set of women, but it’s the only book by her I’ve read so I can’t speak for the rest of her work.]

[See comments on LJ]

[Previously: Heroes, Heroines, and Fandom]

What Do You Do About A Problem Like Elizabeth? - Heroes, Heroines, and Fandom

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Ah, Elizabeth. Heroine of the Pirates movies, she starts out the series waiting for her life to begin, and ends the series waiting for her lover to return. In between, she learns about sword play, pirates, curses, and goddesses, and is thought of as the Mary-est Sue to Ever Mary Sue. Bring up Elizabeth and a large amount of the Pirates of the Caribbean fandom will roll their eyes and point you to their favourite slash fic. Elizabeth is too perfect, too amazing, too over the top - and too obviously set up as the love interest. {The term “Mary Sue” is defined at the bottom of this essay, for those unfamiliar with it.}

But is the problem that Elizabeth is too perfect, or that we have no one within the movie itself to truly compare her to?

In a series of movies where we’ve got a blacksmith’s apprentice who made a sword so amazing that noting it goes so far as to get men killed, who is the best swordsman and can hold off men who would have been living by their skills in swordplay for their entire adult lives, who manages to cross and double cross everyone in an effective effort to free his father from a curse, marries the governor’s daughter, and ends up as Captain of the Flying Dutchman and living forever ferrying the souls of the dead, Elizabeth is the Mary Sue?

Or is Will’s character not seen as a Mary Sue in comparison to Jack, who somehow manages to effortlessly get everything he wants, manipulates events to the point where characters say “Do you think he plans it, or it just happens and he takes advantage of that fact?”, who bargains his way out of multiple situations, is brought back from the dead (one could argue twice), happens to be one of the Nine Pirate Lords, the son of the keeper of the Pirate Codex, holder of a compass that points in the direction of one’s greatest desire, and ends the series holding a map to the Fountain of Youth and a bottle of rum, off for new adventures?

In comparison, Elizabeth helps break pirate curses, hunts down her love in order to help save him, learns swordplay and how to run a ship, is loved by two men (Will and Norrington), becomes infatuated with Jack (who becomes infatuated with her), realises her true love is for Will and marries him, is kidnapped, bargained over, and stows away on various ships, becomes a Pirate Lord due to mistaken identify, becomes a Pirate King in order to further Jack’s plans, and ends the series almost exactly where she began it - waiting.

The problem with Elizabeth isn’t her storyline, or that she’s beautiful, or that men seem to love her. The problem is, quite simply, that there’s no other women with agency in the series with which to compare her. The only other major female role is that of Tia Dalma/Calypso - a woman with such little agency that she can’t break her own curse, but has to wait for Barbossa to break it for her. She can neither direct the characters in how to break her curse, nor given them real direction on how to save Jack from Davy Jones’ locker. All she can do is cast her bones, send out her crabs, and cause the maelstrom that helps kill the lover that betrayed her and bound her. Every other character with any form of story arc in the series - Norrington, Davy Jones, Beckett, Governor Swan - is male.

The problem with characters like Elizabeth is that there are so few actual heroines in fantasy, adventure, swashbuckling or action movies to compare her to, and those that exist tend to have at least some plot that is around how attractive they are to the hero, the villain, or both. Every one stands out, and every one looks larger than life, over the top, Mary Sue-ish.

The answer is so simple to me: We deserve more strong female characters who do more than stand around, look pretty, and wait to be rescued. More Fionas who lead Princess Revolts, more Mulans who fight Mongol Hordes, more April O’Neils who fight crime. More Elizabeths, who make rousing speeches and become Pirate Kings. Even better, we can have more than one strong female character in a movie, so they can be judged on the various roles they play within the movie, instead of compared to female characters who have no agency at all. Heck, we could even go so far as to have female characters that somehow avoid being love interests!

But how do we go from deserving strong female characters to actually getting them on the big screen? That is the big problem. Solutions that occur to me are supporting movies and other forms of media that show multiple strong female characters - be they comic books, novels, television shows, video games, or whatnot - with your dollars and your enthusiasm; supporting organisations like See Jane [which lobbeys for more female characters in children’s media]and Girl Wonder [which agitates for less sexism in comics]; writing Joss Whedon and ask him why he keeps putting strong female characters in his shows (YouTube link - do watch the speech, it’s marvelous); talking about issues with movies like Star Wars: Episode III: Rise of the Sith, the amazing disappearance of Padme’s personality and the sudden lack of speaking roles for women; writing your own stories where women kick ass, take names, and then come back and kick more ass. Being critical, while still being a fan.

Elizabeth seems a Mary Sue because she is unique in the PotC universe. Let’s solve that problem, so that our Heroines get to be just as kick ass, over the top, and heroic as our Heroes.

[discussion about this entry on LJ]
[Below is a definition of Mary Sue, for those not familiar with the term]