From my bookshelf: Women who help other women

Be warned, all who read this blog: feminism and women’s roles in fantasy, science fiction, graphic novels, movies, TV, etc. is a very big concern of mine, and is likely to drive many, if not most, of my posts. Just so you’ll know. At issue today: does the presence of a competent, powerful heroine at the center of a story make the story “feminist”? If she takes on all comers and saves the day, is she automatically a feminist heroine?

My answer to both questions is “no.”

In my reading, as well as in my endless search for new things to read, I’ve found myself growing tired of novels that feature the “exceptional woman” — the lone female character who smashes through her society’s glass ceiling, throws off all gender-based restrictions, and wins the respect of the men around her. The operative word in that description, the crux of my impatience, is lone. The key to this character is that she is Not Like Other Women. She is the only woman who breaks the rules, the only woman who impresses and astounds, and her rebellion against society begins and ends with herself. She doesn’t want to live by the usual gender restrictions, yet she doesn’t consider that those restrictions could be wrong for other women as well as herself. More often than not, she holds other women — the “normal” ones — in contempt, and forges meaningful friendships only with men.

This “exceptional woman” can be fun to read about, and I’ve enjoyed my share of stories in which she features. A few examples include Deryn Sharp of Leviathan, Alexia Tarabotti of Soulless, Raine Benares of Magic Lost, Trouble Found, Jehane bet Ishak of The Lions of Al-Rassan, Aralorn of Masques, Menolly of Dragonsong, Sarene of Elantris, and Rosalind of The Fire Rose. I particularly admire the gifted budding composer Menolly, the skillful and determined physician Jehane, and the politically savvy princess/diplomat Sarene. But I can’t quite call their stories feminist when any substantial friendship between women is conspicuous by its absence. (In Soulless, Alexia does have a “particular friend,” but this friend is such a thoroughgoing dimwit that I found it hard to imagine the intelligent, sophisticated Alexia actually enjoying her company. I’ve been told the sequels fix the problem.)

This is why the Bechdel Test matters. It was never meant to be an indicator of a book’s quality; many superlative works of yesterday and today fail the Test. Rather, the Test is designed to make us — both readers and writers — aware of the limits placed on female characters, particularly when they’re forced to interact almost exclusively with men and when their competence and power are presented as “out of the norm” for women in general.

The works I find most meaningfully feminist are those in which women help each other — usually, but not always, to overcome gender-based oppression. (I have a soft spot for fantasy fiction in which the world constructed for the story does not reflect the sexism of our historic past, but that’s another blog for another time.) A few I’ve read recently are worthy of mention:

The Steel Seraglio by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey tells the story of a community of women exiled from their city when the Sultan and his family are slaughtered and a bitter ascetic misogynist seizes control. At first the women band together only to survive, but gradually they learn trades and skills and become an active working community, and in time they grow strong enough to return to the city and reclaim it. In striking down the woman-hating ruler, the women not only take back their lives but free other women from his harsh regime. In a good bit of speculative fiction, societies and governments led by women are shown to be as oppressive to men as the worst of patriarchies are to women, but the Careys don’t follow that plan. The order the women establish is an enlightened democracy in which both men and women enjoy full rights. Along with a strong, vivid style that evokes The Arabian Nights, the book features one of the most satisfying examples I’ve seen of female leadership as well as cooperation.

In Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn, we read of a town where all the menfolk are away at war, and of a nasty wizard keen to take advantage of that situation. Rather than languish in slavery, the titular ladies of Mandrigyn band together to become a fighting force; the suffering of one is the suffering of all. We see their struggle through the eyes of a male mercenary leader whom they kidnap and force to train them. Of course he responds with rage, but as he works with them, his respect for them, and their goal, grows, until at last he works with them out of a genuine desire to see them succeed. Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, his female second-in-command (Starhawk, perhaps my favorite of all the warrior women I’ve met in fantasy fiction) protects his mistress of the moment. Both women love him, but where we might expect claws-out rivalry, we get strong friendship.

Snake, the heroine of Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, is a healer, and as such is an advocate for all who suffer. Yet in the towns she moves through, women do most of the suffering, even though Snake herself, as a healer, commands respect. She lends her aid to several female characters throughout the story, most notably a young victim of sexual abuse. As a disfigured girl in a town that values beauty above all else, little Melissa has no one to take her part against her big, brutal victimizer. Snake liberates her, not only physically but psychologically. Through Snake’s kind treatment and example, Melissa learns to value and see the possibilities in herself.

There it is: the difference between the “exceptional woman” and the heroines I perceive as feminist. The latter may be exceptional, but they give other women around them the chance to be exceptional as well.

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Announcement: “Haunting Tales” now available in paperback

Gilded Dragonfly’s anthology of spooky Halloween stories, Haunting Tales of Spirit Lake, is now available in both Kindle and paperback! My short story “Sybilla diSante and the Sepia World” is one of many enjoyable stories in this collection.

Not much happens in the quiet Georgia town of Spirit Lake, yet when a masted sailing ship suddenly appears in the middle of the lake on Halloween night, mysteries swirl around it. What can it mean? Gilded Dragonfly’s authors offer a variety of possibilities. Check it out!

Romance and the Other, or, Why My Heroines Are Monsters

The current trend in romantic relationships in fantasy and science fiction seems to be the pairing of a human girl with a supernatural guy (vampire, werewolf or other shifter, alien, dragon, etc.). Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series offers perhaps the most famous (infamous?) example, but examples in YA fantasy alone are legion (e.g. Hush, Hush, Fallen, Warm Bodies, I Am Number Four, Tiger’s Curse…). Non-YA examples include Soulless, A Turn of Light, Song in the Silence, War for the Oaks, The Silvered, One Good Knight, the Kate Daniels series, the Anita Blake series, the Kitty Katt series, Aiken’s Dragon’s Kin series, and most of Linnea Sinclair’s work. These are just the ones I can name off the top of my head. Truthfully, I can’t browse Goodreads for even one hour without stumbling upon at least one book that purportedly tells of undying love between a human woman and a male Other.

I do not say these books aren’t good. They vary in quality. Three that I’ve read (Soulless, War for the Oaks, The Silvered) are quite good, and I’ve heard very good things about A Turn of Light and Song in the Silence as well. There is nothing inherently wrong with “human girl/supernatural guy.” But the sci-fi and fantasy landscape is so heavily saturated with these kinds of stories that I can’t help wondering: why do we almost never see it the other way around? Why can’t the guy be the human, and the girl be the Other, at least once in a while?

Female Other protagonists aren’t entirely unknown; some popular examples are Mercy Thompson of the Moon Called series, Elena of the Bitten (Women of the Otherworld) series, and Magiere of the Noble Dead series. Yet when characters like these are paired romantically, it’s usually with a supernatural mate, rarely with a human hero.* Do writers find it difficult to imagine a human hero falling for an Other heroine (as opposed to an Other femme fatale, like Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci)? Or are they simply giving audiences what they want?

The vast majority of these stories of human women finding love with supernatural men are written by, and marketed toward, female readers. The presumption is that women will identify more quickly and completely with the heroine if she’s human as they are. Sometimes, mostly in urban fantasy and science fiction, the human heroine comes equipped with mage-craft and/or top-flight butt-kicking skills. Other times, mostly in YA fantasy, great care is taken to make the human heroine as unexceptional as possible, a contrast to the exceptional boy who loves, protects, and rescues her. Her very ordinariness (words like “typical” and “average” crop up a lot in synopses) is part of her draw; any teenage girl, regardless of features, can imagine herself as the heroine who is loved, protected, and rescued by her fantastic Other mate. I once asked a girl shopping at a book counter with me, whether she ever wished the girl could be supernatural and the boy normal. Her answer was an emphatic “no.” If the girl were supernatural, the shopper explained, then she would be more powerful, and the boy should always be more powerful.**

So I learned the market for human gal/supernatural guy stories won’t run dry anytime soon. The fantasy is a potent one, likely to draw in many a reader: no matter how ordinary you think you are, you can win the love of someone extraordinary. Yet this has never been my fantasy, even in my teenage years. Being loved by someone extraordinary is all well and good, but I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to daydream myself into the shoes of heroines more remarkable than myself. I still do. My real issue with human gal/supernatural guy stories, even though I may enjoy certain specific ones, is this: no matter how badass she is, the woman is still only human, while the man can be anything. The wonderfully weird, monstrous qualities for which I’ve always had a soft spot are given to him, not to her.

So I’ve resolved that my heroines — even the human ones — should have a little monster in them somewhere. They should be the ones to test the usual rules of what is considered “loveable.” The first play I wrote for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, The House Across the Way, is a Cinderella retelling in which the heroine is a smallpox survivor with a horribly scarred face; the normal hero falls in love with her through the music she plays. (Music is a very big thing with me.) In my 2012 ARTC offering, The Wood-bound Werewolf, the titular werewolf is female, and the man she loves is human. My 2013 radio play In Need of a Bard features a rock musician trapped in a fantasy world. Naturally, like Dorothy of old, he wants to get home, but every step he takes toward finding his way back only draws him closer to the female dragon who serves as his protector.

My upcoming novel, Atterwald, is set in a society of human/animal shape-shifters. None of the characters are human. Position in society is determined by “Tribe,” that is, what animal serves as the shifter’s alternate form. The heroine, Nichtel, comes from the most despised of all the Tribes: she’s a were-rat. Her full name is Nicht Naught Nothing, and nothing is pretty much what is expected of her. But she refuses to let her Tribe dictate her identity. Hers is the struggle of free will against determinism. With her creative mind and generous spirit, the “rat” wins love.

I think a lot of writers must daydream from time to time about what sort of movies could be made from their books; I do it quite a bit. I can only envision my newest project, The Nightmare Lullaby, as an animated film (preferably in the style of Hayao Miyazaki) because no actress living or dead resembles Meliroc, my eight-foot albino giant heroine. This scary lass would be the villainess in many stories, but in mine — if I’ve done my work well — she’s the one we root for, as she fights to overcome two separate curses and chart her own path. She too finds love, with a man who calls her “large heart.”

These are the ones I know about, the ones to whom I’ve already given a measure of life. But my plans for future heroines include another dragon, an eagle shape-shifter, a goblin, and a gryphon. A few humans may get in there somewhere, but I doubt I will grow weary of creating monster heroines, and building struggles around them, anytime soon. My goal: to make it as easy for my readers to relate to them as to any human heroine.

*(Two exceptions are worth noting. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, starting with Men at Arms, two members of the Night Watch — werewolf Angua and human Carrot — are a romantic couple; Carrot is over six feet tall and very broad in the shoulders, but since he was raised by dwarfs, he thinks of himself as one. In Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, the titular half-dragon heroine catches the attention of a handsome prince. Both of these are well worth reading.)

**(Tanya Huff’s The Silvered gives us a human mage heroine who is actually much more powerful than the male werewolf with whom she is paired, so it doesn’t always follow that the supernatural guy has greater power. I recommend The Silvered highly.)

From my bookshelf: What I look for in a fictional heroine

As I’ve mentioned previously, I like to read epic/historical fantasy and science fiction that features women doing cool things. Since “cool things” is an awfully vague phrase, I need to elaborate a little more clearly about what that means. What do I enjoy seeing fictional heroines do, or be? What qualities do I admire most in them?

1) Competence. I always take pleasure in encountering a butt-kicking warrior woman in the pages of an epic fantasy or a sci-fi adventure, like Sulien in Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace or Starhawk in Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn or Cordelia Naismith in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor. But heroines don’t necessarily have to kick butt physically in order to make me happy. All I ask is that, whatever they do — whether they be courtesan-spies like Phedre in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart or rock musicians like Eddi in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks — let them be good at it. This doesn’t mean they can’t make the occasional mistake or two, but if they’re constantly making mistakes and needing others to bail them out, they’re going to try my patience. I have little love for a heroine who triumphs through luck rather than skill or courage.

2) Kindness. The heroines I like best are not afraid to display generosity and compassion, and do not perceive these qualities as weak. The competent healer Dreamsnake in Vonda McIntyre’s novel of the same name is one of my recent favorites, because of the kindness she extends to almost all the people she meets, even those who may not deserve it. The tough warrior Starhawk in The Ladies of Mandrigyn is large-souled enough to extend friendship and help to a romantic rival. When the mystic Senneth stands up for a mistreated woman and child in Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider, the hard-bitten soldiers with her are moved to reassess their views on mystics (people with magical powers) and on the value of compassion. Kindness can change worlds. My favorite heroines know this.

3) Courage. I define the word as the willingness to risk something one values highly in order to achieve something he/she values even more highly. The key word is risk. No character, male or female, who never puts himself/herself at risk in some way can be very interesting. We tend to think first of physical risk, but this is not the only kind of risk that matters. Anytime we love someone, we inevitably risk being hurt; we make ourselves vulnerable. All heroines (and heroes) who matter are in some sense vulnerable. Like kindness, this vulnerability does not undercut strength but instead adds to it. The greater the risk, the greater the courage.

4) Interests. Does the heroine have a “thing,” whether it’s literature, music, art, science, magic, or battle? Does she take an interest in, and form opinions about, the world around her? If so, she’s far more likely to win my heart than the blank-slate “heroines” who have neither aim nor ambition until a man comes into their lives. When most people think of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, they think of her tumultuous romance with the older, married Edward Rochester; I think of her talent for art, as well as her friendships with Helen Burns and the Rivers siblings. Jo March of Little Women cares more about finding her feet as a writer than about finding love (though I like that she finds that as well); another favorite of mine, the titular Anne of Green Gables, also has literary ambitions. These were characters with whom I connected when I was growing up. Some of the heroines I’ve admired with talents and interests in more recent young adult fantasy and science fiction include Harry, Aerin, and Rosie in Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Spindle’s End; Maerad in Allison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor series; Caitlin Decter in Robert J. Sawyer’s W.W.W. series; Hermione Granger in J.K. Rowling’s justly popular Harry Potter series; Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men; and pretty much any heroine created by Tamora Pierce. I wish I’d had the pleasure of their company in my teenage years, but I’m glad to know them now.

5) Resourcefulness. I don’t mind if a heroine needs rescuing once in a while — from time to time, we all need rescuing — but a perpetual damsel in distress, unable to lift a finger without help from a man, is not likely to gain my allegiance. My favorite heroines are as likely to rescue themselves, or rescue others, as be rescued. They may survive by the sword, by their wits, or by some awesome combination thereof; but survive they do.

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