Sometimes, even books I enjoy very much include one or more of my Unfavorite Tropes. A good case in point is Cinder, the first book of the Lunar Chronicles, a popular YA science fiction fairytale retelling series by Marissa Meyer. As one might guess from the title, this novel offers Meyer’s take on the Cinderella myth, yet this Cinderella is a cyborg mechanic, a competent hard worker who takes pride in what she can accomplish, unafflicted with the subservience we see in many Cinderellas. Also unlike most Cinderellas, she has female allies, among them a wisecracking but ever loyal AI. Moreover, this Cinderella saves Prince Charming’s life. I won’t give details, lest Spoilers persuade anyone away from the book. It’s well worth a read. Yet even as I enjoyed it, I ran against a trope that makes me cringe.
This first volume sets up the conflict the whole series will cover, the struggle between the heroic Earthlings and the despicable Lunar invaders. Earthlings are as one might expect, salt of the earth. Lunars are dangerously beautiful aliens with dangerous powers of mental manipulation, who in general should be trusted no further than you could throw your average spaceship. Earth’s supreme ruler, the one who must protect the people from the world-devouring Lunars’ atrocities, is a stalwart, upright Emperor, father of the Prince Charming Kai. His advisers are all men. The Council of Rulers under him is made up of men, with the single exception of the silly figurehead “Queen Camilla.” The Emperor’s consort, Kai’s mother, is long dead and not even an afterthought in the minds of father or son; it’s as if she did her job and produced a male heir and then died to get out of the way of the male bonding. On the side of Good, there is not one single solitary woman of power.
Luna, by contrast, is an Evil Matriarchy. Not only is the current Queen a loathsome, venomous woman with designs on both galactic domination and Kai’s hand in marriage, but all the preceding Queens have been similarly evil. Her advisers are women, and likewise evil. Here we have a classic case of “God Save Us From the Queen!” — or, in equation form, “Woman + Power = Evil.”
I have some hope that Meyer may be setting up this equation for the purpose of overturning it in future books in the series, though in the second book, which I liked much less than the first, it remains firmly entrenched. Yet I strongly suspect a good many authors who use this trope are working from an unconscious association of female power with malevolence, fed by centuries of myth and legend and generations of pop culture: the evil witch-queens Morgause, Morgan le Fay, and Nimue from the stories of King Arthur; the wickedly ambitious Queen Medb, mortal enemy of the Irish hero Cuchulain in the Celtic epic The Tain; the countless evil Queens and witches of fairy tales, so horrifyingly visualized in Disney’s Snow White. Female power has traditionally been presented as destructive, with the message, spoken or unspoken, that authority belongs in the hands of men, since apparently only they have the strength of will to resist the tendency of power to corrupt.
Not every writer who employs the “God Save Us From the Queen!” trope is being deliberately anti-feminist. Sometimes the story demands it, so that even an avowedly feminist writer like Mercedes Lackey must employ it (in The Black Swan and One Good Knight). I’ve used the trope myself, in The Challenges of Brave Ragnar, a comic fantasy series of radio plays I wrote for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company; the story needed a tyrannical monarch, and I wrote the character as female solely to give our wonderful ARTC actresses a shot at the role. The trouble comes when sympathetic female authority figures are so hard to find.
Some would say that authority figures, male or female, are usually villains, the good guys being those who defy that authority. But where are the female counterparts to M*A*S*H‘s wry, wise Colonel Potter? Or Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s dour but good-hearted Captain Holt? Or Blue Bloods‘ honorable and uncompromising Frank Reagan? Or the brave male commanders of science fiction television, Captains Kirk and Picard and Sisko and Archer, Captain Sheridan, Commander Adama, Captain Mal Reynolds, and the Doctor himself? My friends might point to Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager when I make this protest, but she is only one drop in an ocean of malicious queens, tyrannical “harridan” commanders, and shrewish, short-sighted boss ladies, the sort for whom the term “ball-breaker” — a term that points up the view of female power as unnatural and oppressive — was invented.
When I come across a book that subverts the usual “Woman + Power = Evil” equation, I cherish it. I recently finished reading one such book: Joan D. Vinge’s The Summer Queen. This book is the successor to her earlier The Snow Queen, which employs my unfavorite trope out of necessity, being a compelling sci-fi retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale. But the courageous heroine Moon Dawntreader who defies the corrupt authority in the first book must be the authority in the second. Moon is a complex character who makes mistakes and often finds herself on shaky ground. Yet she is a principled ruler who won’t back down from a challenge, who will persuade and negotiate whenever possible but can and will kick butt if the need should arise. While I’ve seen sympathetic female authority figures in a few other novels, so far only Moon has served as a protagonist, which means the reader gets her point of view, and through it a detailed look at the complexities of power and how difficult it can be to wield, especially for a decent person like her. Even when we see her at her most flawed, we’re never given reason to doubt her devotion to the physical and spiritual well-being of her people.
What would I love to see in speculative fiction? A few more Moon Dawntreaders.