Who Loves the Creative Woman?

One of my favorite animated features, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, opens with its hero, Victor, sketching a butterfly and then setting it free from the elegant glass dome that imprisons it. We see his pen sweeping over the paper, bringing the work of art into the world with soulful concentration. Later he watches as his subject takes wing and disappears, and he’s left with the memory he created. This establishes his character from the get-go, a gentle, awkward, introspective artist. A couple of scenes later, when he goes with his parents to meet his future in-laws, we learn that in matters artistic, Victor is twice blessed: he also plays the piano, and brilliantly too.

It’s here that we meet his love interest, Victoria, whose name suggests she is (or should be) his female counterpart. In some respects, she is. Like him, she’s shy and awkward. Like him, she doesn’t feel valued by those who should be closest to her. She also shares at least some degree of his soulfulness, as she’s drawn to the beauty of the music he’s playing. What she does not share, alas, is his creative ability. She doesn’t play the piano, her mother having deemed music “too passionate” for a young lady. It’s a safe bet she doesn’t sketch butterflies, either; the most “creative” thing we see her do is mend a blanket, which is framed as more like 19th century housework than art. Here, the ability to make art is a guy thing, something Victoria will love her husband for but never do herself.

This movie offers one of the more palatable (for me, anyway) examples of the Creative Man/Commonplace Woman trope, seen everywhere from Big Fish to Phantom Thread to Coco, in which making art is coded as male, particularly when it’s said to rise to the level of genius. Some of the women in this trope, like Victoria and the wife in Big Fish who is so colorless and underwritten that her name escapes me, find a measure of happiness with their artists. Others, like the “Muse” in Phantom Thread, suffer for loving the art-obsessed genius. But in all cases, we see the women drawn to the creative greatness of their men while aspiring to nothing similar in themselves. And for the most part, their men like them just as they are, simple and ordinary.

So what happens to the creative woman? A few of her are sprinkled here and there among the many men whose burning desire to create will not be squelched. The titular Corpse Bride does play the piano, and even duets with Victor in a delightful scene. But even though she’s drawn so that we like and sympathize with her, she can’t emerge the winner in the love triangle. For obvious reasons, the girl with the spark of creativity must give way to her ordinary rival.

Creative women, when they do appear in film and television, don’t tend to win romantic happily-ever-afters. The story of Emily Dickinson is already known; as told in A Quiet Passion, she secludes herself, suffering from an illness that grows steadily worse over the course of the film. The titular folk artist of Maudie does have a husband, but their relationship is problematic; he’s more hostile toward her art than supportive of it. In Crimson Peak, for aspiring novelist Edith, romance turns out to be a trap from which she barely escapes with her life. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, in a show of appeasement to editors and readers of its day, marries its creative spirit Jo March to an older man who doesn’t think much of her writing, and in the 2019 film adaptation, “Under the Umbrella” becomes Under the Question Mark, leading us to assume that like Alcott herself, Jo will go it alone. Meanwhile, her sister Amy, an ambitious painter, gets to marry the man she loves only after she has renounced her art.

For women on screen, are love and art incompatible? The 1980s miniseries Anne of Green Gables offers a counter-example, to a degree, but even there, the boy isn’t specifically won by the girl’s creativity. The only example I can think of in which a man is attracted to a woman’s art is 1954’s A Star Is Born, in which James Mason watches and listens to Judy Garland sing and both falls in love and perceives her genius — and that story ends in tragedy. For the most part, men aren’t shown to be drawn to creative greatness in women.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that my favorite movie about love and art doesn’t involve a man at all.

The 2019 French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of Marianne, who comes to a remote island chateau to paint a portrait of a young aristocrat, Heloise, who has been called home from a convent following her sister’s death and now must marry to preserve her family’s fortunes. The portrait is meant to attract a husband, but Heloise, still shunning marriage, refuses to sit for it. Marianne must spend her days serving as Heloise’s walking companion and observing her in minute detail, and then commit all that she observes to canvas at night. It’s a job that, given the story’s late eighteenth century setting, only a female artist could do.

As the film progresses, Marianne and Heloise discover a spiritual kinship as well as sexual attraction; these are two women who genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and eventually, Heloise does consent to sit for Marianne. The screenplay rejects swoony romantic cliches in favor of realistic dialogue, as the women first feel each other out and then come to admire and love each other. The aura of romance isn’t conveyed by a musical score — the film doesn’t have one — but by the camera and lighting. The soft- focus beauty of each shot makes it clear we’re seeing a story of love, not mere lust. And all the while, art is being created, as we see the paintbrush stroke the canvas.

Of course, the 1780s having been what they were, we can’t expect happily ever after. Yet the tragic ending we might have thought was coming is avoided in favor of a realistic conclusion that feels almost happy by comparison. I won’t give too many details, as I want you, my readers, to see the movie. But overall, Marianne and Heloise lift each other up. Each is better for having known the other.

Now I’m left to see just how long I’ll have to wait for the next good movie that shows a woman artist at work.

 

The Most Frustrating Time of the Year

After Monday, January 13, a friend of mine posted a Tweet that the most wonderful time of the year had arrived — the time to complain about the Academy Award nominations for 2019’s crop of films. The complaints have hit so hard and fast that much of what I have to say on the subject may seem redundant.

But I can’t help myself. This year I really thought things would change, as I noted the release of a number of strong, well-reviewed movies with female characters at their center — The Farewell (98% on Rotten Tomatoes), Booksmart (97%), Little Women (95%), Knives Out (97%), and some I’ve yet to see, Us (93%), The Souvenir (90%), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (97%). I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that scores like this would make these movies impossible for Oscar to ignore; surely, even given their long history of honoring man-centered movies, the voters might find just a little love in their hearts for high-quality stories about women.

They didn’t.

Of all the movies nominated for Best Picture, only Little Women focuses on female characters. The rest are about men. Some, like 1917, are simply about men — that is, male-character focused, but made without a specific demographic appeal in mind (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, and 90% of all war movies, good and bad). Others, like Joker, The Irishman, and Once upon a Time in Hollywood, are not only about men but for men, designed specifically with a male audience in mind. Movies that are about men may exclude women from major roles due to the practicalities of their settings. In movies about men, for men, the exclusion, marginalization, or shallow/stereotypical characterization of women is part of the point. Obviously I’m not going to favor the latter type of movie with my time or money, so this may be a year in which the Best Picture Oscar goes to a movie I have no intention of seeing, ever. Since Little Women‘s chances are slim, Greta Gerwig having been denied a Best Director nomination, I now feel obliged to root for either 1917 or Parasite, both of which I will eventually see.

The all-male slate of Best Director nominees has already been discussed quite a bit, so I’ll keep it brief on that point, and only mention that when protests of the exclusion of women like Gerwig and The Farewell‘s Lulu Wang appeared on Twitter, they were shouted down by Tweets (mostly but not all from men) claiming that the nominees were chosen because they were the best, and quality matters more than diversity, and those of us who thought Gerwig or Wang deserving of Oscar’s attention are just loony leftists who need to “get over it.” I couldn’t help remembering a discussion that had gone on on Reddit Fantasy just a day or two earlier, concerning why so many women have been winning Hugo Awards of late. Quite a few posters suggested the choices were politically motivated, a reaction against the notorious “Sad Puppies” campaign a few years back. So if I understand this correctly–

Only men are nominated for, and have a chance to win, Best Director Oscars for 2019: It’s because they’re the best!

Mostly women have been nominated for, and won, recent Hugo Awards: It’s political.

Maybe that latter view isn’t altogether wrong. Perhaps all tastes, all preferences, have a touch of politics about them. My own preference for a story of a Chinese-American woman confronting cultural differences within her own family as well as the impending loss of a loved one over a fresh serving of Charles-Mansonia may be motivated on a certain level by politics. But if that’s the case, might the nominations for Best Director, as well as the omissions, be political as well?

Take, for instance, one of the most puzzling snubs: the absence of Knives Out from the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Rian Johnson is a man, after all; why isn’t he up there with Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino? The popularity of Knives Out with audiences as well as critics — an original story, not a sequel, remake, or part of a franchise — has surprised and delighted many. Its success shows people do indeed want to see such films, as long as they’re well-made and entertaining. Besides, I have yet to hear a negative word about this movie from anyone whose opinion I have reason to trust. I thought it was a shoo-in. But no.

Instead, Academy voters chose to nominate the highly polarizing Joker and its even more polarizing director, Todd Phillips, who has made a whole career out of making movies about men, for men, and who not long ago claimed that he made a drama largely because he felt his bro-tastic comedies (e.g. Old School, the Hangover series) were no longer welcome in our current “woke” culture. Phillips’ name alone would suffice to keep me away from Joker, since all his movies have one notable thing in common: the view that women exist to make men miserable, either by cheating on them or nagging them or threatening to break up their Bro Gangs or simply expecting love and commitment. In the Phillips-verse, the only tolerable women are prostitutes, since they’ll give men the only thing men truly desire from women — sex — and will expect neither respect nor affection in return. As a review of Old School put it, “women are, if not the enemy, at least the mystery meat.” Based on what I’ve been able to ascertain from both reviews and word of mouth, Joker doesn’t depart from this: the driven-mad protagonist’s evil mother is the root of all his woes.

Why, then, did the voters choose Joker when Knives Out was right there? I have a theory I pray isn’t true. Knives Out exposes the poisonous hypocrisy of a super-rich family as the protagonist, a young working-class woman of color, is forced to deal with them in very dire circumstances. The voters themselves are super-rich, and it may be they saw themselves not in the put-upon, kind-hearted Marta but in the horrible Thromby family. Joker, on the other hand, especially considering Phillips’ “woke culture” complaints, could be seen as a finger in the eye of the #MeToo Movement that has shaken Hollywood to its core. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if at least some voters’ support of it weren’t a teensy bit political.

Whatever the case, I won’t feel the same surge of hope this year if high-quality woman-centered movies appear. It seems clear that the Oscar voters won’t be opening their hearts to films that tell women’s stories anytime soon, no matter how good those films happen to be.

Here’s a relevant video:

 

My Year in Review, Part 2

Books.

Aside from writing — because for me, the two can’t be separated — reading is my favorite activity. As long as there’s one good story I have yet to discover, I’ll always have something to look forward to.

But I don’t read very fast. Not only are the Internet and current affairs a distraction, but the reading I have to do, to prepare for classes, often supersedes the reading I want to do. Those who have managed to read a hundred or more books this year must forgive: I’ve only finished twenty-six, not counting a couple I didn’t manage to get through. But despite the lack of quantity, I call this a good reading year. Here are some of the reasons why:

I’ve discovered new favorites. This year, Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree takes my top prize, with Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns a near photo-finish second. Other standouts include Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, Jen Williams’ The Ninth Rain, Curtis Craddock’s A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery (why the heck are fantasy fans sleeping on this Risen Kingdoms series?), Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades, and Kate Elliott’s King’s Dragon.

I’ve been exploring some older fantasy works by women. It turns out that the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s produced quite a few epic fantasy series that have been unjustly neglected or forgotten, much of it written by and starring women. This past year I’ve set out on a mission to find them and give them a read. I started out with King’s Dragon, the first book in Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, since I already knew and admired Elliott’s later work. Afterward I gave Rowena Cory Daniells’ Beseiged and Jude Fisher’s Sorcery Rising a try, and finished up this year with Katya Reimann’s A Tremor in the Bitter Earth. I found all to be compelling, and I look forward to finishing their series. Just now I’m in the midst of Diana L. Paxson’s The White Raven, a stand-alone retelling of the Tristan/Isolde legend from the point of view of Isolde’s lady-in-waiting, and in the coming year I plan to make the acquaintance of Paula Volsky via her French Revolution tale Illusion, as well as dive into Katherine Kerr’s Daggerspell.

In one respect, the older books I read this year show their age; with the exception of King’s Dragon (which may be why it’s my favorite), they all lean heavily into the theme of misogyny, in both world-building and characterization. Beseiged introduces us to three races — human, half-human, nonhuman — each with their own religions and cultures, yet they all have one thing in common: men hate and fear women. Sorcery Rising seeks to contrast two societies, one where women are kept under strict confinement and another where they have considerably more freedom of movement, but even in the latter society, the heroine is nagged by her father and brothers to give up her dreams of exploring, get married, and start having babies. In A Tremor in the Bitter Earth, the protagonist, in order to rescue the man she loves, must travel from her home, where she has the freedom to be herself, to a country where women have no value at all, must like those “Planet of the Taliban” episodes that get on my last nerve in science fiction TV shows. I still found the books well worth reading and the series worth pursuing, but continued heavy emphasis on the misogyny theme is wearying for me, and I feel a deep sense of relief to see, in works like The Priory of the Orange Tree and Sam Hawke’s City of Lies and Melissa Caruso’s The Unbound Empire, that the epic fantasy genre may at last be starting to move away from it.

I got acquainted with some fun and fascinating people. I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn from fictional characters. This year I learned from Turyin Mulaghesh (City of Blades) that sometimes the best way to defeat evil is to tap into the darkness within oneself. I learned from Vintage de Grazon (The Ninth Rain) that it’s never too late to travel, explore, and discover. I learned from Nona Grey (Grey Sister) that kindness that can be a strong offense as well as a solid defense. I learned from Ead Duryan (The Priory of the Orange Tree) that compassion and the willingness to help should never be kept confined within a single insular group. And I learned from Mehr (Empire of Sand) that nothing is more powerful than a woman who knows the steps to the Dance of Life. Even if the lessons aren’t new — even if they’re driving home what life has already taught me — I love discovering what characters like this have to teach me, and I look forward to what I’ll learn in the new year.

I look ahead to 2020Among the books I got for Christmas are A Memory Called Empire (Arkady Martine), Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow), Realm of Ash (Tasha Suri), Ships of Smoke and Steel (Django Wexler), Starsight (Brandon Sanderson), The Red-Stained Wings (Elizabeth Bear), Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Tomi Adeyemi), and The Deepest Blue (Sarah Beth Durst). These and more will keep me happy, engaged, and ready to create.

Happy New Year!

 

My Year in Review, 2019 — Part 1

Overview

2019 has been a game-changing year for me in two vital ways.

First, when the graduates of Life University’s College of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies flipped their tassels from one side of the cap to the other at the December ceremony, it marked the finish of my first year as a full-time Life U employee. I’ve taught English there since 2009, mostly Composition and Public Speaking with the occasional Literature class thrown in. But toward the end of last year, when the opportunity for promotion came, I leaped. Now I no longer have to worry from one quarter to the next if I’ll be assigned enough classes to earn a decent paycheck; I have a regular salary and schedule. I have my own office. I get more chances to be social with my colleagues, a great bunch of people. In every way, it’s better.

Well, except one — but that problem has been solved.

A ninety-minute commute between Gainesville and Marietta, GA is tolerable when you only work two or three days per week, but not so much when you have to make that long drive every day. Thankfully, my husband and I got the opportunity to move to Woodstock, GA in early October. Moves always bring stress, but by now we’re more or less settled in, and my commute time has been slashed by two-thirds. Our new house is also much closer than our old one to all the stores, shops, and restaurants we need and want. And did I mention we now live within walking distance of a sixteen-screen movie theater? Once again, it’s better in all the ways I can imagine.

Only one thing has caused me disappointment this year (aside of course from social and political matters, which continue to emit the tincture of despair): with everything that’s been going on, I’ve had less time to write, which explains why I’ve been blogging much less regularly. But now that our situation has leveled off somewhat, I have every hope this will change. I still have a major novel project in the wind, an expansion on a script of mine the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company produced in 2018. I’ve also drafted a new play for ARTC, which I hope to workshop into a production-worthy state in the coming year. In addition, one of the company’s founding members has approached me with a suggestion of adapting Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” into an audio drama. At first I thought it couldn’t be done — after all, the whole thing consists of the internal monologue of a woman succumbing to madness — but the more I think about it, the more possibilities I see.

In other news:

After about a week-long adjustment period, our cats have been thriving in the new house, as loving and mischievous as ever.

The books I’m reading now are Steel Crow Saga (Paul Krueger), The White Raven (Diana L. Paxson), Jim Henson: A Biography (Brian Jay Jones), and News of the World (Paulette Jiles). All of them include plenty of elements to love, and I’m confident this Christmas, like the Christmases before it, will bring more literary joys.

Come January 2020, I’ll be teaching a course in “Studies in Science Fiction and Fantasy.” It’s the first time this course will be taught at Life University. I designed it myself. I’m excited, and I’m praying I don’t screw it up.

All in all, life is good.

Oscar Dreaming, 2019 Edition

I’m getting tired of blockbusters.

I don’t mean in a Martin Scorcese “Marvel movies aren’t cinema” kind of way. I can still enjoy the movies themselves. I found Captain Marvel tons of fun despite its flaws. I’m still thrilled Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture this past year, even though it had little hope of winning. And I hope that somehow the Black Widow movie promised us in the near future will turn out to be so good it will overcome my reluctance to invest emotionally in a character I’ve already seen die.

It’s not the movies I find so wearying, but rather the verbal diarrhea that all too often surrounds them, the inevitable junk talk that surfaces every time a big-budget SFF or action-adventure movie showcases a hero who isn’t a white man. Let the lead of such a project be a woman or anyone of color, and at once the movie becomes “too political,” or it suddenly has an “agenda,” or it’s fresh evidence of “political correctness run amok.” The guys who spout this talk — yes, it’s almost always guys — are quick to point out they don’t have anything against a women being action or SFF heroes, since after all they loved Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor (until Terminator: Dark Fate, at least). It’s telling that they have to reach all the way back to the early ’90s to find the last female hero they approved of.

This kind of talk makes it hard for me to look forward to Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker with unalloyed pleasure, even though I still want to see it. What I find myself looking forward to instead is Greta Gerwig’s upcoming adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s children’s-lit classic Little Women, which has garnered quite a bit of positive early buzz. It’s a bit hard to accuse a story that has centered on women for over a hundred years of being “PC culture run amok.”

The toxic noise that attends so many blockbusters makes me all the more grateful for the non-blockbuster films in my life. This year I’ve had the chance to see a number of movies, ranging from good to wonderful, that feature messy, complicated female leads, some brilliant, some defiant, some confused, but all interesting: Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (good); British import Wild Rose (good); Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore (very good); Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart (wonderful); and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, among the best-reviewed movies of the year (phenomenal). (Still on my need-to-see list: Fast Color and The Souvenir.) The women in these movies can exist, in their complex ways, without a legion of loudmouths crying foul. And what a relief that is.

This year I have Oscar hopes — more than I had this time last year, when I knew Black Panther was unlikely to win and I hadn’t seen The Favourite yet. Not all of them are, or are from, woman-centric movies, but they have all delighted me in one way or another.

Best Picture: Knives Out; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; The Farewell.

Best Director: Lulu Wang (The Farewell); Rian Johnson (Knives Out); Olivia Wilde (Booksmart)

Best Actor: Daniel Craig (Knives Out); Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood); Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse)

Best Actress: Awkwafina (The Farewell); Ana de Armas (Knives Out); Cynthia Erivo (Harriet); Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose); Julianne Moore (Gloria Bell)

Best Screenplay: Knives Out; The Farewell; Booksmart

Best Animated Feature (and Least Ulcer-Inducing Blockbuster): Toy Story 4

Movies That May Be a Factor, but I’m Not Interested In: The Irishman; Richard Jewell; Uncut Gems; Dark Waters; Cats; Ford vs. Ferrari

Movies That May Be a Factor, and I’m Curious About (besides Little Women): Portrait of a Lady on Fire; 1917; Clemency; Just Mercy; The Parasite; Waves

 

“Beauty in Thorns” and the Tragedy of Georgiana Burne-Jones

“If you eliminated all the works created by women throughout history, the impact on our culture would be negligible.” So runs the argument that women, by nature, are less equipped than men to be great artists, writers, poets, composers, filmmakers, etc. In the eyes of misogynist critics, if women do manage to make great art, it’s by accident; Joanna Russ, in her essay “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” shows how any impulse to give women the credit they deserve for their creative efforts may be stifled.

Perhaps if you count all the art created down the centuries, men’s work will outnumber women’s — at least concerning the works that have been preserved, celebrated, and labeled “art.” Yet the misogynists want us to believe that this dominance is a sign of women’s natural inferiority. This assumes that men and women, over the course of history, have been given the same tools they may use to make art — tools such as education, encouragement, exposure, and economic independence. It assumes the playing field has been level, when it should be obvious that it hasn’t been. Kate Forsyth’s novel Beauty in Thorns, which tells the story of the 19th century “pre-Raphaelite” community of artists, sheds a bright and often painful light on the ways in which women’s efforts to produce meaningful art may be diminished and dismissed, causing us to wonder just how many women, over many long, long years, have had their creative aspirations starved out of them.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones may be the artists whose work we remember and revere, but Forsyth’s narrative is told from the perspective of the women in their lives: Elizabeth Siddal, Gabriel’s tormented, tempestuous muse, longing to make her own artistic mark but defeated by self-doubts and lack of encouragement, as well as a wasting illness that saps her physical and mental strength; Jane Burden, a working-class beauty whose imagination buds when she becomes a model for Edward and Gabriel and, eventually, William’s wife and Gabriel’s lover; and Georgiana Macdonald, a respectable middle-class girl who yearns for a life more passionate and creative than her strict Methodist upbringing would allow, but who, as Edward’s wife, soon finds herself caged by Victorian domesticity. All three women are beautifully drawn and developed, with all their flaws and frustration, but Georgiana’s story, a tragedy of gradual wearing-away, haunts me most.

In the book’s first chapter, Georgiana, or Georgie, is introduced as a bright and curious girl constrained by the expectations of others: “Georgie’s whole life was bent and shaped to appease her mother’s God” (7). In young Ned Burne-Jones, whom she loves from the start, she sees the promise of a more expansive life, one that just might give her own imagination room to breathe and move. When she becomes his wife, for a while she finds married life suits her wonderfully: “Someone gave her a piano for a wedding present, and she was able to sing whatever songs she liked. . . When [Ned] was busy, she practiced drawing in her sketchbook. . . There was no one to frown at her and tell her such pastimes were a waste of time” (178). She may not hunger for renown, as Lizzie Siddal does, but she values her accomplishments, her efforts in music and art. Such “dabblings” may have made life bearable for many a middle-class Victorian woman with a creative spirit.

Sadly, while for Georgie Ned may represent freedom and art, Ned seems to look to Georgie to provide domestic stability and little else. Aware of her feelings for him, he knows she’ll be the worshipful and dutiful wife, mother, and caregiver, just what he needs to keep his life in order and make it possible for him to create. Once the children start coming, the romance goes out of their marriage, and he takes a dazzling, neurotic mistress — the kind of woman Georgie could never be — as an outlet for his passions. Georgie, meanwhile, finds her domestic duties leave her no time for the accomplishments she loves, as neither husband nor friends are willing to relieve her burdens. Forsyth explains, in perhaps the novel’s most painful sentence, “Georgie’s world narrowed down to a pinprick” (268).

Even after her children are grown, Georgie doesn’t really reclaim her life, though as Forsyth paints her, her strength of endurance is much to be admired. She survives her reverses with her dignity intact, which is more than can be said for her husband’s mistress. As I read, because I liked her, I kept waiting for a moment near the end when she would pick up a paintbrush once again — and that moment never comes. She does write a biography of her genius husband after he has died, but that seems less an expression of her own creativity than a tending of the Great Man’s flame. He’s the one who matters, the one whose thoughtless eccentricities must be humored and enabled in life an whose story must be told after death.

Yet in giving us Georgie’s perspective, in bringing her to life as an individual, Forsyth’s novel subverts this idea. Georgie does matter. It matters that her husband overlooks her needs while insisting she cater to his own. It matters that as a caregiver she is left without help, with no one to talk to. Georgie’s story is a tragedy of lost potential, and echoes of her sad story may be found in scores of overlooked women whose perspectives have yet to gain a hearing. I think of all the underdeveloped wife/mother and girlfriend characters in movies about men struggling to Achieve Great Things — characters like those played by Jessica Lange in Big Fish and Anne Hathaway in Dark Water — and I see the ghost of Georgiana Burne-Jones hovering behind them. What’s your story? What hopes do you cherish? What daydreams dance through your mind? What do you have, what do you cling to, that is absolutely yours?

The world Georgie knew is past, thank God, yet her tragedy may still be all too common. The story of #MeToo in Hollywood is, to a great degree, about stories never told, visions never shared, voices never heard, because they weren’t thought valuable enough in an industry that profits heavily from stories about men and their deeds. And even in this more enlightened day and age, mothers often still struggle without the help and support they need. Many of them must think, as Georgie did, that their worlds have shrunk to a pinprick. We’ve made progress, but we’re still pushing back against the habits of centuries.

Every story that brings creative women into focus is a step in the right direction. Beauty in Thorns is one such story, well worth reading.

Joyous Reading: The Priory of the Orange Tree

How lovely it’s been over the past year to encounter books that proved to be precisely what I needed when I needed them, as if they’d been designed for me. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver and Juliet Marillier’s Den of Wolves suited my ever-greedy taste for resourceful female protagonists in vividly detailed fairytale settings. Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand satisfied my longing for unique magic systems, magical female leads, and slow-burn romance. Just after I turned fifty, Robert Jackson’s City of Blades introduced me to Turyin Mulaghesh, a tough-as-nails, take-no-crap fiftysomething protagonist. And Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Margaret Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns have reminded me why I still enjoy reading YA — because a well-told story is always worth reading, regardless of the age of its target audience.

Yet I do believe Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree tops them all, since within its 800+ pages it manages to include nearly everything I love to see in fantasy. If it isn’t a part of next year’s Hugo Awards conversation, I’ll be most displeased.

Shannon’s epic tale takes us into a world divided by dragons. In the West, dragons are chaotic evil, fire-breathing destroyers, the worst of which is prophesied to emerge soon from his thousand-year imprisonment to put an end to all humankind. In the East, dragons are benevolent water-creatures who interact with humans and are worshiped as gods. West and East do not trade or negotiate with each other or even interact at all, as Westerners see the Easterners’ dragon-worship as anathema. (“Wyrm-lover” is a favorite slur.) Yet the Easterners and their dragons may be all that stands between the Westerners and their destruction at the claws of the terrible “Nameless One” once he rises again. At the heart of this story is the growth of understanding and acceptance among different peoples with different beliefs.

The narrative centers on four point-of-view characters, all complex and notably flawed. There is Niclays Roos, a disgraced alchemist exiled to the East; a bitter man whose great love is long dead, he thinks first and foremost of himself. There is Tane’ Miduchi, a lower-class Eastern woman determined to rise to the rank of dragonrider, whose ambition leads her to make a mistake that costs her dear. There is Arteloth Beck, a sunny-natured Western nobleman who discovers over the course of the story that everything he’s been taught to believe is wrong. And there is my favorite, Ead Duryan, a magically gifted priestess of the South, sent to guard and spy on the monarch of the Western nation of Inys, Queen Sabran. Ead’s religious faith is at odds with the dominant religion of Inys, and she’s forced to pretend to be a “convert” to win and maintain her position at court. But while she holds true to her beliefs, she finds herself falling in love with the beautiful Queen and challenging the isolationist outlook of her order, the titular Priory.

Slow-burn romance? Check. Ead and Sabran move toward each other gradually, and their growing attraction is effectively detailed. Yet the romance plot doesn’t swallow either character whole, and their goals do not begin and end with winning each other’s love. Another check.

Female friendships? Check. Here you’ll find nary a trace of girl-on-girl hate. Ead may be an outsider, but she forges lasting friendships with other women at Sabran’s court, particularly Arteloth’s sister Margret.

Male-female friendships? Check. Ead and Arteloth are close — he’s also a good friend to Sabran — and one of the few people Niclays Roos comes to care about is Laya, his fellow captive on a pirate ship. (A note on Laya: she’s the only sympathetic portrayal of an older woman in the novel. I hate to nitpick about my favorite book of the year, but the one thing that bothered me was that there are four irredeemable major human villains in the cast, and every one is an older woman.)

Female power presented sympathetically? Check. Female leaders are both good (not only Sabran but other female monarchs in the West) and evil (a pirate queen, a vengeful witch, a bigoted Duchess, and the current Prioress of the Orange Tree, who’s willing to let the world burn if her corner of it can remain safe). But whether they prove good or evil, their right to lead is never questioned on the basis of gender.

Female heroes? Check, in a big way. Ead and Tane’ consistently get back on their feet when they’re knocked down, and both are vital at the climax.

Detailed world-building? Check, with landscapes, customs, and religion coming to vivid life.

Diversity? Check, with a variety of races (don’t assume everyone, or anyone, is white), and sexual orientations represented. Best of all, the usual racial and gender divisions don’t feature in the story’s conflicts. Shannon finds new and different ways to put her characters and their countries at odds.

In your reading this year, please don’t miss this one.

Why Fantasy Needs More Gender-Egalitarian Built Worlds

I love my Twitter feed. I love the pet pictures, the life updates, the comments on pop culture, and most of all, SFF readers’ and writers’ thoughts on plotting and characterization, a welcome and often edifying distraction from the many, usually depressing political threads which make me feel as if I’m turning in the winds of a hurricane. The comments from fans and creators let me know I’m not alone in my questioning of certain problematic tropes that keep popping up even in otherwise good stories.

This past week, a couple of discussions came up regarding female characters and the cliches they’re often saddled with. One began with a Tweet expressing disappointment at many writers’ tendency to “break” female characters with some form of traumatic abuse, often rape, so that their kindness and optimism dwindle and give way to “toughness” — the implication being that kindness is a weakness that must be beaten out of a woman if she’s to become truly powerful. Another thread called out the “Not Like Other Girls” trope, starting with a plea for writers to be aware of it and avoid it accordingly. I came away from both threads agreeing heartily with the original Tweets and frustrated that some posters seemed to miss their points entirely. Yet after thinking about it, I could pinpoint at least one substantial cause behind these flaws in women’s characterization, particularly in epic fantasy: writers’ too frequent insistence on incorporating historical real world sexism and gender stereotypes into their world-building. The vast majority of fantasy societies are deeply sexist, and I admit that reading about them is starting to wear me down.

In sexist fantasy societies, kindness and nurturing are typically considered “feminine” and therefore weak. Often a woman’s very survival in such worlds depends on rooting such weakness out of herself and adopting a more “masculine” outlook and temperament. The men in those worlds, of course, don’t dare show kindness, lest they end up dead. What kindness they are allowed to show takes the form of rescuing unfortunate damsels, by which they show themselves as romantically attractive contrasts to the sort of men that did the poor girls wrong. (“Not Like Other Men” is also a problem trope.)

Sexist fantasy worlds pit women against each other. If a woman’s only power lies in their ability to captivate powerful men, then women are likely to be each other’s rivals even when they’re pretending to be friends. The natural state of affairs between women is depicted as competitive hostility; sometimes that extends even to mothers and daughters. This isn’t to say friendships between women are impossible in such worlds — just a bit less likely.

In sexist fantasy worlds, women’s movements are confined. Men travel and explore, while women stay within a narrow sphere, whatever curiosity they might have about the wider world wearing away from lack of satisfaction. The women moved to rebel against this immobile existence too often become the “Not Like Other Girls” types whose disdain for all things deemed “feminine” may spring from their dread and loathing of the confinement that women who follow the rules accept. Frequently, the rebellious Exceptional Woman’s only path to freedom — and recognition, and accomplishment — is to pretend to be a man.

Does it really have to be like this? I realize that some of the writers who build old-world sexism into their fantasy societies are trying to make a point about gender roles, and sometimes they succeed with brilliance and style. But I can’t help feeling this same point has been made again and again and again and again. What can sexist fantasy societies really offer us that we haven’t seen before?

Right now I’m in the process of reading Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. I knew when I picked up this massive tome that it would take me awhile to get through, but I’ve relished every minute of it, and I suspect I’ve been slowing myself down a little because I don’t want it to end. I won’t say too much about it since it will get its own review here once I’m finished, but the biggest part of why I’ll regret leaving it behind is the gender egalitarianism of its world. There are tensions and conflicts galore, with religious and political and cultural divisions, but gender roles just aren’t a thing. Character traits are not gender-linked. If a woman is foolish or impulsive or resentful, it’s due to her individual personality rather than to “being a woman.” There is no one prescribed way to be a woman, or to be a man for that matter. God, that’s refreshing.

The Priory of the Orange Tree, like City of Blades and The Ninth Rain, offers yet more proof that fantasy writers can create interesting, complex, at times even violent societies without weaving sexism into their pattern. Indeed, without restrictive gender roles as a major source of conflict, these societies can shine a light on problems that may not have already been covered ad infinitum. Gender-egalitarian built worlds have so much potential to move us beyond the same old, tired tropes.

In a gender-egalitarian fantasy world, kindness may be shown as the active strength it is, a virtue to which  characters of all genders can aspire.

In such a fantasy world, the opposition between the rebellious “masculine” heroine and the quiet “feminine” heroine could be nullified. If a woman chooses pursuits such as healing or sewing or weaving, it would be clear that the choice is hers, due to her own interests, skills, and talents rather than to social conditioning and/or enforcement. The athletic fighting woman wouldn’t regard her gentler sister with disdain, for there would be no point.

In such a world, a woman wouldn’t have to disguise herself as a man in order to escape confinement or pursue achievement. Her accomplishments wouldn’t be seen as anomalous; rather, they would be within other women’s reach as well.

The loathsome Smurfette Principle would be less of a problem as well, since if women occupy a variety of roles on different social levels, writers would find it harder to excuse having only one exceptional girl in a party of adventurers.

In short, creating gender-egalitarian fantasy societies would be a wonderful way to evade almost all the common fantasy tropes I find most exasperating. If we as writers can’t imagine conflicts and tensions for our female characters that don’t center on the familiar struggle against sexism, that’s on us. If we choose, we can do better. . . or at least we can do differently.

 

Toy Story 4: A Review

The last time I wrote about movies in this blog, I wondered what would tempt me back into the theater after I saw and enjoyed Booksmart. It turns out it was Pixar, a studio still doing solid work and now no longer besmirched by the presence of handsy John Lasseter. Toy Story 4 turned out to be a movie nobody needed but everybody wanted, and a movie that highlights an important place where the studio has improved since the release of the first Toy Story back in 1995 — female representation. Concerning the first film, I asked in an earlier post, “Whose favorite character is Bo Peep?” with the expectation that the answer would be nobody’s. Concerning the fourth film, I can now answer, Mine, as this series’ swan song finally gives the delightful Annie Potts the material she deserves.

A big part of the chance comes from the animators’ redesign of the character. In the first two Toy Story films, Bo Peep was crafted to play a limited, somewhat passive role; she’s porcelain from the top of her head to the hem of her spreading hoop skirt. The key issue was feet; hers weren’t visible, and she could only travel as far as she could slide across a smooth surface. She would never have managed among the party of male adventurers who crawled through air ducts to rescue Woody in Toy Story 2. But at some point between that film and 4, the creators realized her design was fatally flawed, so much so that they wrote her out of the third movie, since they could think of nothing for her to do. When she reappears at the beginning of 4, her skirt is cloth, and her legs and feet can be seen. She has mobility, the thing an active heroine needs, and the story lets her take full advantage of it. As a “lost toy” without an owner, Bo embraces her freedom with both a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. Through her, protagonist Woody finds the courage for a final confrontation with the question of what becomes of a toy whose owner no longer plays with them. In Toy Story 2 the answer is storage, a figurative death. But in 4, we see the promise of something more, and even better, on the horizon for Woody and Bo.

Bo Peep’s not the whole show when it comes to female representation. Female characters are sprinkled throughout the cast, both human and toy. Among Bonnie’s original toys we have Trixie the Triceratops (Kristen Schaal) and Dolly of the sunflower head (Bonnie Hunt), the latter of whom offers a voice of reason Woody too often ignores. Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), while she has less screen time than in the previous two movies, still gets her moments to shine. We also get to meet newcomer Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), Bo’s hot-tempered and wisecracking right-hand doll, who gets some of the movie’s best lines, and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the talking doll who can’t, who is, well, a little bit scary. The male characters from the earlier movies, aside from Tim Allen’s Buzz, probably get shortchanged most by the new narrative, but new characters like Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), a pair of midway plushies with comically violent fantasies, Forky (Tony Hale), a creature Bonnie constructs from a spork who’s convinced he’s trash and belongs in the garbage can, and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an action figure who’s ostensibly Canada’s greatest stuntman and who plays a critical role at the climax (Yes, we Canada!), more than make up for it. We get, all in all, a joyously well-rounded and balanced cast of characters, and I came out of the theater loving every one of them.

I further need to mention that in keeping with the film’s overall optimism, an element sorely needed, we get treated to an unprecedented redemption arc. I won’t say more. I’ll let you discover it if you’ve yet to see the movie. It’s been out for a while, and if you’ve been on the fence about seeing it, don’t let sequel-itis stop you. This one is that rare sequel that offers the pleasure of surprise.

 

 

Book Report: Recent Reads

Mark Lawrence, Grey Sister

Two mornings ago, I woke up to find a repellent news story on my Twitter feed, concerning a New Jersey judge’s argument that a 16-year-old boy accused of rape should be tried as a juvenile rather than as an adult. The basic stance that kids of 16 belong in juvenile court is understandable, but here was his reasoning: the boy comes from a “good family,” gets good grades, and is a Eagle Scout, and besides, to qualify as “rape,” at least two men and a firearm have to be involved. (Date rape, I guess, doesn’t exist.) It got even worse: the judge declared that before pressing charges, the boy’s victim should have considered what effect it might have on the young man’s future.

This is Brock Turner 2.0, proof that 1) judges have learned nothing from that notorious case, 2) for some men, and even some women, in positions of power, girls’ and women’s lives will always matter less than boys’ and men’s.

In times like these when just being a woman can be downright depressing, Nona Grey, avenger of friends and executioner of affluenzic rapist punks, is the fictional hero we need and deserve. At the heart of Mark Lawrence’s often violent and brutal Book of the Ancestor series, of which Grey Sister is the second book, lies the ethos that every person has value, regardless of wealth or bloodline. It’s a poke in the eye to the concept of privilege.

When we first meet Nona at the beginning of the previous book, Red Sister, she’s about to be hanged for attacking Raymel Tacsis, the heir to nobility who raped and nearly murdered her friend Saida. (Saida, regrettably, doesn’t survive.) She’s saved at the last minute by Abbess Glass of the Convent of Sweet Mercy, who believes (wrongly) that she’s a child of prophecy, and so begins her journey toward the arcane powers the Sisters can wield, solid friendship and ties of loyalty, and successful revenge. Nona — Spoiler Alert — does kill Raymel in the end, but vengeance comes at a price: because she enjoyed ending the slimebag’s life a tiny bit too much, the demon he harbored, Keot, enters Nona just as the young man breathes his last. As a voice in her head, Keot plays a central role in Grey Sister, constantly urging her to give in to her darkest impulses.

These books are not popcorn reads; no one in their right mind would shelve them or describe them as YA even though Nona is a teenager when we meet her. Lawrence isn’t afraid to put Nona through hell, particularly in the last two thirds of Book 2, as Raymel’s bitter and toxically privileged father plots revenge of his own, not only against Nona but against her protector, Abbess Glass. Nona is imprisoned in a dungeon, and her repeated failed attempts to escape can be frustrating. But we’ve seen Nona is willing to die as well as kill for those she deems her friends, and now we see how they have her back in return. One of the nuns, Sister Kettle, along with a fellow novice, Zole (Nona’s antagonist in the previous book), sets out on a hazardous journey to rescue her. Friendship prevails, and Nona, resisting her demon, manages to maintain the moral high ground in her battle against privilege. Unlike her enemies, she is capable of kindness and empathy, and it’s this that saves her from the dark, dangerous voice in her head.

Nona and her friends aren’t in the clear at the book’s end; we still have a third volume, Holy Sister, remaining. Yet all the same, seeing them take their stand and fight for each other against those who would dismiss them as worthless, valueless, and unimportant is gratifying. If you’re looking for high-octane girl power and female heroes who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, this is your series.