Let the Past be Past

In my reading and writing, my preference for second-world and historical fantasy over the urban and contemporary varieties is really all about the clothes.

I have a strange and outdated fashion aesthetic: I think more clothing looks better than less. I don’t judge anyone harshly or make assumptions about their character when they wear outfits that show a lot of skin; I just don’t find those kinds of outfits as pretty as Lady Mary Crawley’s scarlet Edwardian gowns or Demelza Poldark’s spreading green eighteenth-century skirts. When I read, as well as when I write, I like picturing the female leads in long, flowing, sumptuous dresses with eye-catching colors. Mini-skirts and cut-offs, not so much. So I gravitate toward books that let me look in on a visually gorgeous past, for a little while.

But “for a little while” is the operative phrase. I might love to visit the past, purely in my imagination, but I would never want to live there. I like it now. I like that I live in a world where Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the film Wonder Woman, and the DuckTales and She-Ra reboots can exist. I like that it takes less time than ever to get from one place to another, and that I live close to a city where people of different races, genders, ethnicities, and creeds live and work together. I like that we have more choices than ever before, even if some people may find those choices confusing or even frightening. Above all, I like that we’re moving away, slowly but surely, from the idea of “roles” conferred on us at birth by our gender, race, or both. If the “stability” that nostalgiacs yearn for means “everyone knowing their place,” they can keep it. From what I can tell, when the attitudes of the past encroach upon the present, it’s almost never in a good way.

In particular, the past is not a good time to be a woman. I’d like to highlight three stories I’ve seen/read recently that, for me, bring the truth of this home:

  1. Battle of the Sexes (2017 movie)

As this movie paints him, Bobby Riggs (well played by Steve Carell) is a washed-up gambling addict whose glory days as a tennis pro are behind him, eager to do anything that would get him back into the spotlight. When he beats Margaret Court and challenges Billie Jean King, he exaggerates his chauvinism to the enth degree, knowing it will get him attention. How much of it was an act? In the movie, we’re never quite sure. But the sports commissioner, played with expert slimeballery by Bill Pullman, is dead serious in his efforts to undermine women’s tennis and to see that women like King (Emma Stone) receive neither the pay nor the press they deserve. His attitude isn’t unusual, as we see in the number of people who encourage Riggs in his chauvinism. The story takes place in the early 1970s, not all that long ago — during my lifetime, in fact. The success of the feminist movement was by no means assured, and when I watched the movie, even though I knew the outcome, I couldn’t help wondering at times, with a shiver of horror, what might have happened if Riggs had won.

A while back, a Sports Illustrated commentator Tweeted that women’s sports were not worth watching. Back when Bobby Riggs beat Margaret Court, that statement might have been taken seriously. Now, it’s met with ridicule. The present beats the past.

2. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

You may have read this one in school. It’s a landmark piece of 19th century feminist literature, written by a woman who, while she may not pass muster as a forward thinker by today’s standards (her ideas on race may be best left unexamined), challenged the limiting roles and expectations placed on women in her time. She drew upon her own experiences with mental illness to write “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a disturbing depiction of a popular treatment for women suffering from neurasthenia, the “rest cure.” The protagonist is instructed to do nothing at all — she’s especially not to write, the activity that makes her feel most like herself — and her strong imagination, starved for an outlet, leads her to obsess about the pattern of the wallpaper in her room, with the end result that she loses her mind completely.

The story strikes home for me, as I wonder what I would do if I were told never to write, were persuaded (almost) that writing was bad for me and that it shouldn’t matter much in the first place. It’s a look back at a time when women were told that any work they did for themselves, for their own pleasure and fulfillment, was unimportant at best and dangerous at worst. Girls growing up were not encouraged to think about what they loved to do as playing a significant role in their futures; indeed, the query, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was hardly relevant for girls, since their futures would be basically the same, if they were “lucky.”

This was the theory, at any rate. In practice, the 19th century was full of women who did great things, from Florence Nightingale to George Eliot to Elizabeth Blackwell to Mary Anning, not to mention Gilman herself. Still, the practice had to butt heads with the theory, as these women who stepped out of their domestic roles were met with ridicule and/or scorn, and in the saddest cases had their contributions erased from history. Now, their names are being recovered. Now, little girls as well as little boys have some chance to decide what they want to be when they grow up, rather than having that decision imposed on them. For all the progress we have yet to make, now is certainly better.

3. The Girl in the Tower (Katherine Arden)

Arden’s historical fantasy series, of which this is the second volume, is set in “Rus,” an analog of 15th century Tsarist Russia complete with rigid gender roles. It’s actually quite a good read, with brisk, fluid, engaging prose and an active heroine worth rooting for. Yet it’s also disturbing, as existing as a woman in this society seems little better than hell on earth.

A woman of heroine Vasilisa’s social class is expected to marry well, and afterward live a cloistered existence apart from her husband, who enters her world only once in a while for the sake of procreation. The spheres of men and women are so separate from one another that a marriage for love seems impossible; what emotional connection could be forged between two people who barely see or speak to each other? Men value their friendships with other men and barely think about their wives (at one point, the Grand Prince casually dismisses his wife as a “barren bitch,” and no one notices) as they go about their rollicking, happily mobile lives. Women, meanwhile, never stir from their terems except to attend worship services. Even motherhood, the one possible bright side to their existence, is a remarkably cheerless proposition, as boys must be whisked away into their father’s world and girls must have their nascent senses of self extinguished, both with all due haste. Vasilisa survives with her spirit intact the only way she can — by pretending to be a boy. Those  are her choices: be a boy, or be a slave. There is, as yet, no liberating third option.

Therein lies my regret with this book. It doesn’t hold out any hope for change. In the first book of Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns, hero Winter Ihernglass disguises herself as a boy to join the army and escape being married off to a repulsive husband. Yet by the end of the series, she has helped to change her world into one in which women are free to be themselves, or at least far freer than they were at the beginning. But Arden paints her world along more strictly historical lines, which means hundreds of years may pass before life for women in general becomes a bit more bearable.

Again, this is not to say the book is bad. It’s quite good. In one crucial way, it improves on its predecessor, The Bear and the Nightingale: while in the former book, another character saves the day, in this one that honor belongs to Vasilisa herself. Also, in characterizing her lead, Arden avoids one of the worst pitfalls of the Not Like Other Girls trope, that of girl-on-girl hate; Vasilisa is much more inclined to help other girls/women than to judge them, and indeed, when she can, she hints to them that they don’t have to take this enforced passivity any more than she does. (I particularly love the moment when she lets her boy disguise drop for a girl she’s just rescued from bandits.) Like the other two works I’ve discussed here, this book has a feminist message. Yet still, despite our hero’s victory, her world remains unchanged, the strict gender roles as fixed and solid at the end as at the beginning. Perhaps Arden is saving the glimmer of hope for progress for the next book. I’ll read and find out.

It’s true that the past is more complicated than we might think, and there have always been women who have made a difference, even despite social barriers. (Jason Porath’s book Rejected Princesses offers a fun and intriguing look at some of these.) Yet when I’ve spent time there, I’m always relieved to return to the present, where I have the freedom to move and where our popular culture is growing more and more comfortable with the notions that women can be heroes and that stories by and about women can be as compelling and important as those by and about men. The present has its own problems, and there’s still plenty of progress to be made. But we need to keep our eyes turned toward the future, and resist all temptation to look back with longing to the past.

Even if it did have prettier clothes.


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