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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