The Toxic Masculinity Thing

Just what is “toxic masculinity”? Which destructive and antisocial behaviors are presented as “manly” and are excused with the adage “boys will be boys”? Is critiquing these behaviors tantamount to attacking manhood itself? How can we go about critiquing said behaviors without seeming to attack manhood itself? Plenty of us have been scrambling for answers to these questions since Gillette aired its now infamous commercial “The Best Men Can Be” and set off a hailstorm of controversy.

I hadn’t planned to address this issue in my blog, directly at least, until a scene from the most recent episode of Masterpiece Theatre’s Victoria started me thinking about where toxic masculinity might come from, and how difficult it might be to root out.

Victoria showcases the stories not only of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert but a cross- section of people, nobles and commoners and servants, powerful and powerless, whose lives orbit and/or intersect with theirs. New to this season is Sophie, Duchess of Monmouth. A loving and devoted mother, Sophie worries about how much time she’s spending away from her children while she’s attending the Queen and is desperate for any kind of contact with them. Toward the end of the episode, we see her reunite with her little boy, and we hear him declare how happy he is to have the chance to spend some time with her at last. Then her husband appears and puts an end to the tender scene. He sends the boy away and tells Sophie that her “mollycoddling” will render their son unfit to be the next Duke. The time has come, in short, for the mother to step back from her active role in raising the boy and let men take over.

Examples of this once-common idea in action can be found everywhere, from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (in which a drunk and dissolute father seeks to instruct his tiny son in the “art” of ignoring and looking down on women, including his mother) to the 1950s big-screen potboiler Home From the Hill (in which Robert Mitchum plays a father who decides that too much time with and guidance from his wife has made their teenage son “weak,” and advises her to take up a hobby because “from here on out, that boy’s mine”) to Sharon Shinn’s underrated fantasy series The Twelve Houses (in which, when asked whether her two sons provide any consolation, an abused wife says her sons belong to their father, adding that they’ve had no interest in her since they could first hold a sword). Emotional ties between mothers and sons must be severed, or at least gravely loosed, as soon as possible so the boys can move into exclusively masculine spheres. A boy can only “become a man” if he is separated from women. If interactions with Mom are not reduced or even eliminated — well, you know what happens to “Mama’s boys.” At best, they turn into “sissies.” At worst, they turn into Norman Bates.

As I think about this supposed necessity of driving a wedge between mother and son — and by extension, any other female mentor and any space/environment perceived as “feminine” — I can’t help wondering, is this where it starts? Or how it has started for hundreds of years, the ripple effects of which we still feel today? Healthy interactions with the mother and/or other female elders could surely do as much as anything to help boys grow into young men who see women as people with minds and hearts and ideas that matter. Yet when those interactions are cut off in the name of “becoming a man,” should it surprise us when boys grow into young men who view women as a puzzling separate species? Not quite human, or perhaps a little less than human?

Times have changed. The idea that it’s imperative for the growing boy to be separated from the company of women and girls so that he can become a “proper man” is no longer as commonly accepted as it once was. Children’s and middle-grade stories frequently model strong friendships between boys and girls; even when the protagonist is a boy, like, say, Harry Potter, the female friend gets to be part of the action rather than cheering the hero on from the sidelines. The concept of “No Girls Allowed” has gone out of fashion, at least in the stories we tell about childhood. That’s progress, to be sure, even though descriptions of healthy and functional mother-son relationships remain practically non-existent in pop culture. Plenty of parents are raising their boys to view girls as potential friends and partners in adventure rather than as alien incomprehensible creatures. So I do have some hope for future generations.

But the past casts a very long shadow, still affecting the ways in which we view ourselves and each other. If I had to give toxic masculinity a nutshell definition, I’d say it’s a belief that simply being a cisgender male makes you more important, more valuable, and worthier of respect than those who are not. And progress notwithstanding, the world still offers plenty of choice tidbits to feed this idea.

When convicted rapists serve little or no jail time, and when judges and commentators fret over what will become of man-boys like Brock Turner and the Steubenville, Ohio rapists while expressing no concern at all for the fates of their victims, the message is clear: A boy’s or man’s future is worth far more than that of a woman or girl.

When people circle the proverbial wagons to protect powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, and R. Kelly from any consequences of their treating women and girls like sexual appliances even though they’re fully aware of the extent of these men’s reprehensible behavior — and thus make it possible for those men to get away with this behavior for years, even decades — what does that say but, The powerful man is more valuable and more deserving of protection than the women he’s exploiting?

When, in the midst and in the aftermath of the excruciating (whichever side you’re on) Brett Kavanaugh hearings, talking heads warn mothers to worry that their sons will face false accusations of sexual assault, yet can’t find it in their hearts to give even a passing mention of the dangers daughters face in a world where Brock Turners and R. Kellys still lurk, it’s hard not to hear, Mothers, put your sons first. Daughters come a distant second. (This TED Talk offers a disturbing example of what can happen when mothers internalize this “boys are better” message.)

The problem of toxic masculinity (or any other toxicity that results from someone taking a hand they were dealt at birth as a badge of honor and importance) is too entrenched to be solved by one ad or even an awesome classic R&B hit by the Four Tops. There’s no quick fix. The problem will recede bit by bit, as long-term abusers of women are finally called to account, and as more parents and other mentors help their sons grow into men who view others as just as valuable as themselves.

It’s in our hands.

 

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A Woman Goes On a Journey

“She suffered the woman to take her arm and stroll with her as if casually along the battlement toward he inner stairs, careful, Ista noted, to take the outside place between Ista and the drop. Content you, woman. I do not desire the stones.

I desire the road.

(Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls, p. 3)

This past year, I revisited Paladin of Souls on audiobook, and it didn’t take me long to remember why I love it so. Not only does it feature engaging prose and plotline, but in gods-haunted protagonist Ista, author Lois McMaster Bujold presents us with a type of female hero for which I have a distinct soft spot: the wandering woman, who breaks free of a sheltered, often confining existence to seek knowledge and experience in the wider world.

For Leo Tolstoy, “A man goes on a journey” is one of two foundational plot drivers (the other being “A stranger comes to town”). “Man” in the time Tolstoy was writing may have served as the generic for “person,” but for centuries, in history and literature, going on journeys has been the province and privilege of men. From Sir Francis Drake to Charles Darwin to Buzz Aldrin, men have been the ones to travel and make world-changing discoveries. They’ve been the explorers, the innovators, loosely bound (if at all) to a stabilizing home port maintained by women. While Odysseus’ adventures take him from the Cyclops’ cave to Circe’s island to the halls of the Underworld, Penelope sits at home, weaving, doing what she can to fend off the forces of chaos so that on his return he will find things much as he left them.

Where journeying is concerned, coming-of-age stories are frequently drawn along gender lines: while a boy’s transition into manhood involves facing the perils of the outside world, a girl’s transition into womanhood involves embracing, or at least accustoming herself to the realistic and often mundane responsibilities of home. When a boy, like, say, Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker, leaves home, he rarely looks back. Yet Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz ends where she began, at home, her expectations appropriately pared down to size. The other iconic female voyager of children’s literature, Alice, never truly leaves home at all; like Dorothy in the classic 1939 Oz film, she dreams her whole adventure, and in the end, she wakes up.

For many readers, the most challenging yet satisfying aspect of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is its ending: the title character, having come through one difficult adventure, strikes out for parts unknown rather than succumb to another God-fearing middle-aged woman’s efforts to “civilize” him. Huck Finn may strike us as masculinity incarnate, the embodiment of boys’ and men’s desire for freedom and perpetual adventure, change, and surprise; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s dramatic poem “Ulysses” offers another literary example with a more mature protagonist, one who has come home after much hard voyaging and finds he can’t stomach the stillness. Yet where are the female Huck Finns, the girls and women who choose freedom over security, surprise over stability? The impulse toward adventure has always been the element I’ve coveted most in male protagonists’ stories, yet the scarcity of equivalent stories about girls makes me wonder if exploration and discovery are considered things girls just aren’t meant to care about, even today.

That’s why Ista’s story thrills me to my core.

She isn’t really a female Huck Finn; she bears a closer resemblance to Tennyson’s Ulysses, an older protagonist who actively resists the life of constricting stability she’s presented with. And unlike Dorothy’s and Alice’s travels, her story doesn’t end with a promise of safe and secure normalcy ever after. She has discovered she’s the only one with the gods-given power to save her country from enemy invaders who use daemons as weapons, and in the end, she’s prepared to set out for those distant parts where her help is still needed. Her narrative doesn’t chastise her for her desire for the road. Rather, it affirms it.

Paladin of Souls may be my favorite fantasy story with a female protagonist inclined to travel, but it isn’t quite the only one. Rosemary Kierstein’s Steerswoman series features a female buddy pair, Rowan and Bel, who travel together, confronting and curing the evil magics wrought by wizards (steerswomen’s natural enemies). The recent highly successful Disney animated feature Moana presents audiences with a title character destined to be chief of her people; in leaving her island to cure the curse that afflicts it, she sets both herself and her people free to be the voyagers they were meant to be, and the final shot of her sailing with the breeze in her hair is a thing of beauty. These stories stand apart from those of Alice and Dorothy and all those early heroines whose journeys had to end at home. Even if the wanderers do go home, they won’t stay there. Home is a port, not a destination.

Yet there’s still a key difference between these female wanderers and the Huck Finns of the fictional world. The boys’ journeys are flights from the constraints of civilization and its rules. Shunning society and embracing freedom are still coded as very male. For Ista, Rowan, Bel, and Moana, traveling is (or in Ista’s case, becomes) tied to responsibility. Their wanderings are the means by which they do good in their worlds.

It would be nice if, just once in a while, we met with a female lead who embraces the traveling lifestyle for its own sake. For now, however, I’ll take my lady voyagers any way I can get them.

 

Things I Loved in 2018, Part 3

Movies.

I’ll get the disappointing news out of the way first: 2018 was regrettably low on female heroes, at least of the blockbuster variety. 2016 gave us Moana, Zootopia, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as standout female-hero stories. In 2017 came the one-two punch of Wonder Woman and Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. Yet what I’ll remember most about 2018 are the many interesting and competent female characters who could have been the central heroes of their own stories but instead had to settle for facilitating the achievements of male heroes — Nakia, Okoye, Shuri (Black Panther), Domino (Deadpool 2), Mera, Atlanna (Aquaman), Art3mis (Ready Player One), Spider-Gwen, Peni Parker (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), and Hope (Ant-Man and the Wasp). In the popular Avengers: Infinity War, female characters were even more painfully shortchanged; only Gamora got substantial screen time, and she turned out to be more victim than hero. The closest I saw to a heroic female lead in an action-adventure film was Elastigirl in The Incredibles 2, yet while I liked the movie quite a bit, certain plot wrinkles and thematic elements kept me from embracing it with my whole heart. I wonder how much of an accident it is that despite Elastigirl’s central role, the character that everyone remembers most fondly is Jack-Jack.

Then there was Star Wars. After giving us female heroes for three movies in a row, the franchise offered Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was apparently made to appease that segment of Star Wars fandom that has been railing against “SJWs” for ruining the series with too much heroic female representation. If that’s what it takes to shut these guys up, I’m okay with it.

Yet despite the dearth of heroic female leads in the hot-ticket genres and franchises, female characters managed to flourish in more realistic films: slices of life (e.g. Eighth Grade, Tully), dramas focusing on social issues (e.g. The Hate U Give, Leave No Trace), anti-hero stories (e.g. Widows, Can You Forgive Me?), and Oscar front-runners (e.g. A Star Is Born). The female protagonists in such stories may not have been heroes; rather, they were complicated, messy women, prone to mistakes big and small, doing their best to power through difficult situations. The most outstanding example, for me, was The Favourite, a take on All About Eve set in the court of the erratic Queen Anne, featuring three complex and outrageously unpredictable female leads. Fans of stories that center on female anti-heroes should eat this one up like double-dark chocolate mousse. We need characters like this, women who are allowed to be deeply flawed and, dare I say it, “unlikable” in the way that male characters have always been free to be. Like A Star Is Born, The Favourite is an Oscar front-runner, and although I’m not all that excited about the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper film, it does my heart good to see two female-centered films ahead in the race. (The Golden Globes awarded their top prizes to a pair of guy-centric movies, but hey, they’re the Globes.)

Yet as gratifying as it is to see these complicated ladies on the big screen, I can’t help wishing I could have my female heroes, too. Hopefully I don’t ask too much. Captain Marvel had better be good, darn it.

Without further delay, my awards for this year:

Best Proof that the Historical Drama Remains a Thriving and Relevant Genre: Colette, a story of a woman’s fight for creative agency set in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century France. This movie, despite amazing performances by Keira Knightley and Dominic West, hasn’t generated the kind of talk it would need to be a factor in the Oscar race, but it should help filmmakers see how much woman-centered history they could tap into.

Best Use of Comic Scrip On Screen: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Best Scene-Stealing Supporting Player: Shuri, as played by Letitia Wright, in Black Panther. Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death and Akata Witch, is currently writing a series of comics with Shuri as the protagonist. Hopefully this series sill find its way to the big screen within the next couple of years.

Best Musical Number: “A Place Called Slaughter Race,” from Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Character I Didn’t Expect to Love, But Did:  the desperate, courageous mother played by Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place.

Movie I Didn’t Expect to Love, But Did: A Quiet Place.

Movie I Would Have Loved More If It Hadn’t Been for That Post-Credits Scene: Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Movies I Hope I’ll Love But Still Need to See: Annihilation, Leave No Trace, The Hate U Give.

 

 

 

 

 

Things I’ve Loved in 2018, Part 2

Books.

“If you start a book, then you must finish it” is a principle I’ve long since abandoned. If neither my brain nor my heart is connecting with a book, I set it aside and pick up something else. If I finish it, that means I enjoyed it. Here, then, is a list of all the books I enjoyed, to varying degrees, in 2018:

Destiny Soria, Iron Cast; Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower; Katherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower; John Gwynne, A Time of Dread; Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia; Melissa Caruso, The Defiant Heir; N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky; Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit; Juliet Mariller, Den of Wolves; Kate Elliott, Court of Fives; Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver; Justina Ireland, Dread Nation; Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull; Lev A.C. Rosen, All Men of Genius; Ben S. Dobson, The Flaw in All Magic; Richard Barrios, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film;  Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun; Cass Morris, From Unseen Fire; Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War; Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows; Sharon Shinn, Fortune and Fate; Sarah Beth Durst, The Queen of Blood; John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire; Toni Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone; Anthony Ryan, The Waking Fire; Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Kate Forsyth, The Beast’s Garden (audiobook); Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch; Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter; Django Wexler, The Infernal Battalion; Kendare Blake, Three Dark Crowns; N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season; Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings (audiobook); Curtis Craddock, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors; Ken Liu, The Wall of Storms; Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer.

Yet I have my favorites, books that strike multiple chords of pleasure and satisfaction. Here are a few highlights of my reading year.

Book I loved: Spinning Silver (favorite read of 2018). Why I loved it: Not content with giving us one female hero, this novel presents us with three, women from different social strata whose lives intertwine. Bonds between women are emphasized. Kindness plays a key role in saving the day. Add to that Naomi Novik’s vivid, evocative prose, and there was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book.

Book I loved: The Parable of the Sower. Why I loved it: Here’s a book that manages to be shocking, disturbing, and uplifting at the same time. Set in a horrifying future, it focuses on a brilliant young woman and her growing understanding of the nature of God. (Religion, for once, is neither a source of infinite goodness nor the root of all evil.) I wasn’t crazy about the love story that cropped up near the end, but my admiration of both protagonist Lauren Olamina and Octavia Butler’s powerful prose carried the day.

Book I loved: The Infernal Battalion. Why I loved it: It’s a bracing conclusion to a series that seemed to be designed with me in mind, as it has pretty much everything I love to see in the fantasy genre: male and female heroes working together and forming friendships; strong bonds between women; sensitively handled romantic plots both gay and straight; scary forces of darkness; plenty of action. I would like to have seen a little more racial/ethnic variety in the cast — Khandari mage Feor should have played a bigger role — but that’s about all that’s lacking.

Book I loved: Dread Nation. Why I loved it: When it comes to supposedly “badass” heroines in YA fantasy fiction, my motto is, “Don’t tell me they’re tough and competent; show me.” Justina Ireland shows us repeatedly just how brave and formidable her protagonist Jane McKeene really is. But what I love most about Jane is how flawed she is, yet how willing to learn from her mistakes and grow. This one also foregrounds female friendship, always a plus for me.

Book I loved: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. Why I loved it: Like The Infernal Battalion, this one has a setting that evokes early 19th century Europe, but it adds some steampunk elements. The prose is light and deft, and the two central characters, Isabelle des Zephyrs and the musketeer Jean-Claude, are people of great intelligence and integrity, well worth rooting for as they navigate a dangerous magical/political maze. The sequel is coming out in the latter part of January, and I can’t wait.

Book I loved: The Defiant Heir. Why I loved it: How do you create a fantasy world rich in conflict without replicating real-world sexism and homophobia? Just ask Melissa Caruso. If I had my way she’d give a crash course in world-building to any budding SFF writer keen to avoid the usual cliches. Here we have two female heroes: Amalia, who struggles with self-doubt but is never made to feel her gender is a source of weakness; and Zaira, who goes through relationship drama that has nothing to do with her sweetheart being another woman. It can be done, everyone! Look and see!

Book I loved: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Why I loved it: Patricia McKillip’s dreamlike prose is perhaps the most beautiful in the fantasy genre. Here she employs it to tell the story of reclusive wizard Sybel, who must venture into the wider world and confront choices that will show her, and us, what she’s truly made of. Sybel is a powerful, complex, flawed hero, and clearly a woman, not a girl.

Book I loved: Den of Wolves. Why I loved it: Like McKillip, Juliet Marillier has a prose style I find enchanting, and this concluding novel of her Blackthorn and Grim series is lovely in all the ways I expect from this author. I adore the female lead Blackthorn, in all her angry, temperamental, messy, observant, and competent glory, and her partner, Grim, embodies the strength of kindness. The girl to whose aid they come, Cara, is also a memorable figure, who makes the kind of mistakes to which an adolescent girl is prone but has so much potential as she tries to figure out who she is and who she might be.

Book I loved: The Fifth Season. Why I loved it: Like Butler, N.K. Jemisin crafts a story both disturbing and beautiful, and I don’t recall reading anything else quite like it. It’s the first book in her Broken Earth Trilogy, and in my view, the best, as it shows us the journey of its complex, alternately heroic and messed-up protagonist at three different stages of her life.

Book I loved: Iron Cast. Why I loved it: Set in 1919 Boston (why don’t more writers explore this intriguing historical transition between the Great War and the Jazz Age?) this story introduces us to a group of mages called “hemopaths,” who can harness magic through creativity — poetry, music, drama. At this premise I’m already half sold. But Destiny Soria draws me further into the novel’s spell with strong prose, intriguing plot twists, deftly built romantic subplots (no insta-love here), and the sort of solid, supportive friendship between girls that should feature far more often in YA.

Book I loved: Oathbringer. Why I loved it: It’s the third book in The Stormlight Archive, which pretty much guarantees it a place among my favorites as it continues the journeys of characters I already know and love.

On to 2019!

 

 

Things I Loved in 2018, Part 1

Cats.

Since my husband and I brought the two tuxedo kittens home from Hall County’s animal shelter at the beginning of July, 2018 has been the year of Ross and Demelza P. Kitty. A quick look at the pictures on our iDevices offers ample proof of this. We’ve both become adoring and hyper-protective cat parents, and it’s not hard to see why. Once they start purring, we have no choice but to surrender to their charms

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Ross and Demelza are litter-mates, and when we found them at the shelter, they were sharing a pen. We chose them to adopt partly because we saw how well they played together when we set them down among the toys in the shelter’s playroom. We knew we were looking at a pair who loved one another, and over the past five months we’ve watched them wrestle with one another, groom one another, and snuggle with one another. They love hanging out at the top of the tower we bought for them…

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… or in the spot on the couch where I usually sit…

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… or outside our bedroom door, preparing to invade that forbidden space the minute one of us tries to come out…

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… or on the back of the couch.

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A couple of weeks ago, we put up our Christmas tree. When we introduced our cats to it, of course this happened. (This particular intrepid climber is Demelza.)

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No matter what kind of mischief they get into, we can’t stay mad at them for long. They’ve made themselves at home in our hearts, and they’re not going anywhere.

Merry Christmas to all, from our household gods.

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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.

Female Mentors and Female Heroes

(SPOILERS for Ralph Breaks the Internet)

 

Disney’s new animated-sequel blockbuster Ralph Breaks the Internet may not be a perfect film, but it has one element that wins my heart completely: the bond of friendship that springs up between the spunky racer Vanellope von Schweetz and Shank, the key player in the wild, gritty RPG Slaughter Race. Originally Vanellope wanted to steal Shank’s car so she and Ralph can pay for a steering wheel to fix her own outdated arcade game, Sugar Rush. But as the two engage in a hair-raising chase, each racer realizes just how cool the other one is. Afterward, Shank offers herself as a mentor to Vanellope. My favorite scene in the movie isn’t the famous one in which Vanellope encounters all the Disney princesses, but the one that shows her sitting with Shank on the hood of Shank’s awesome car and confiding in her new mentor her hopes and fears about the future. It’s been a while — too long by half — since I’ve seen two female characters from a family film have a conversation quite like that.

I’m not the only one delighted by this relationship. A recent episode of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour focused on the movie, and while opinions on the movie itself may have been mixed, two of the panelists singled out Vanellope’s friendship with Shank as a refreshing but sadly rare example of a relationship between an older and younger female character that isn’t a rivalry.

That got me thinking. Just how rare is this kind of relationship? And why should it be rare?

Rivalries between old and younger female characters of fiction since ancient times, when Venus sought to destroy a girl who had been proclaimed more beautiful than herself, only to get stuck with her as a daughter-in-law instead. Venus isn’t the only older woman has it in for poor Psyche; her older sisters, too, are driven by envy when they attempt to sabotage her relationship with her mysterious but obviously wealthy and powerful husband. (In fact, they hope to get her killed.) We see this again with Beauty’s older sisters in Leprince de Beaumont, while Venus provides a prototype for Cinderella’s and Snow White’s cruel stepmothers. Women’s jealousy of each other is so baked into our folklore that we keep re-introducing it into new stories, and so we keep feeding the idea that relationships between women are innately hostile.

Yet what of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, and the multitude of helpful fairies that populate the contes de fee of France’s Ancien Regime? What of the mysterious but kindly crones like the Grimm brothers’ Mother Holle, who help persecuted girls on their way to fortune? These figures are part of our folklore as well, yet for some reason, writers of subsequent generations haven’t been quite as keen to reproduce them. Sometimes they’re written out of the stories altogether, and at other times they’re changed beyond recognition. For example, in my favorite screen adaptation of “Cinderella,” Ever After, the fairy godmother’s role is filled by Leonardo da Vinci, a sign of a general preference for male mentors even in female heroes’ stories.

Consider some of the most popular leads in SFF fiction: Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Lyra (His Dark Materials), Vin (Mistborn), Phedre (Kushiel’s Dart), Sonea (The Black Magician Trilogy), Yelena (Poison Study), Lucy (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Maerad (The Books of Pellinor), Thirrin (The Cry of the Icemark), Althea (The Liveship Traders), Seraphina (Seraphina and Shadow Scale). With these belong the female leads in some of my personal favorite books of the last few years: Isabelle des Zephyrs (An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors), Essun and Nassun (The Broken Earth Trilogy), Hanani (The Shadowed Sun), Agniezska (Uprooted), Daleina (The Queen of Blood), Winter Ihernglass (The Shadow Campaigns), Shai (The Emperor’s Soul). What do all these characters have in common? Male mentors — as if somehow it makes more narrative sense for men to guide them on their journey. In movies and television, the preference for male mentors is even clearer. Where would Buffy be without Giles? (Female mentors in Buffy the Vampire Slayer come in two kinds: evil and doomed.) Or Daisy Johnson without Agent Coulson? Or Alex Danvers without Jonn J’onzz? Or Rey without Han (The Force Awakens) or Luke (The Last Jedi)?

Interesting, when sympathetic female mentors do appear — say, Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, Polgara in The Belgariad, Moiraine in The Wheel of Time, Sybel in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, as well as characters from more recent books/series such as Spellslinger, Age of Assassins, and Monster Blood Tattoo and movies such as Doctor Strange — they’re mentoring male heroes. Women may be wise enough to serve as guides and helpers, yet still, more often than not, older woman + younger woman = rivalry.

So when a story comes along that defies that equation, I’m primed to embrace it unless it has unquestionably deal-breaking flaws. Here are some of my favorite stories to include female mentors who offer help to female heroes:

Wise Child (Monica Furlong). Juniper, a young wise woman, saves the child of the title from her abusive mother and nurtures her latent magical talent. Short, underrated, and lovely.

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett). The cynical, practical-to-a-fault witch Granny Weatherwax recognizes a kindred spirit in the no-nonsense youngster Tiffany Aching after the latter dispatches an evil river-sprite with a frying pan.

Feet of Clay (also Pratchett). To say too much about this installment in the “Night’s Watch” sub-series of Pratchett’s Discworld may constitute a Spoiler. I’ll just note that werewolf police offer Angua turns out to be the ideal person to show an eager young newcomer the ropes.

The Witches of Eileanan (Kate Forsyth). Aged, powerful witch Meghan of the Beasts is first shown mentoring apprentice witch Isabeau, but as the book and the series proceed, she ends up giving guidance to just about every confused young person she comes across, including Isabeau’s fierce twin sister Iseult.

The Tethered Mage (Melissa Caruso). Here, Lady Amalia COrnaro is mentored in the arts of politics and persuasion by her intimidating but loving mother, the Contessa. In the sequel, The Defiant Heir, the Contessa has far less page time, yet she remains a powerful presence in her daughter’s life.

Age of Myth and Age of Swords (Michael J. Sullivan). Injured Fhrey (elf) Arion loathes being indebted to the humans who are caring for her, but when she sees the magic brimming in the “wild girl” Suri, she realizes that everything the Fhrey have always thought about humans is wrong. By the second book, Arion is Suri’s friend and protector as well as teacher. Human leader Persephone also plays an important role in mentoring the girl, so Suri is twice blessed.

 

The “Meh-ing” of American Animation

The 1966 television special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a masterpiece, and one of the elements that makes it work so beautifully is the narration by silken-voiced baritone horror icon Boris Karloff (who also voices the Grinch). This voice work is as strong a testimony to Karloff’s legendary talent as his star-making turn in 1931’s Frankenstein. Cast your mind back to the special’s beginning, after the charming Whos have sung their opening carol and the narration kicks in:

“Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot,” says Boris in his softest, most genial voice. “But the Grinch…” Here his voice drops an octave and his tone grows rich with menace. “…Who lived just north of Who-ville…” The menace grows as we understand this close proximity to the cheerful creatures who were singing a minute ago. “did NOT!” The stamp is sealed. From this moment we know, if we didn’t know already, we’re about to experience something awesome.

Some years later Hollywood made a live-action version for public consumption, a remake whose existence I steadfastly deny. Yet at least (from what I’ve heard) Jim Carrey made some attempts, albeit unsuccessful, to match Karloff’s deep, dark tones. The new animated remake from Illumination Studios makes very different choices. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch. Okay. He’s British and baritone, like Karloff. Yet someone at the studio advised him to flatten and Americanize his voice, apparently to erase any aural resemblance to the horror icon. As for the narration, that’s supplied by Pharrell Williams, the pop star best known for the peppy anthem (and theme from Despicable Me 2) “Happy,” about as far a cry from my beloved Boris as one can get. These changes were made, perhaps, to render the remake more distinctive from the original, more its own creature. That I can understand, sort of. Yet these particular changes still strike me as an attempt to substitute nonthreatening blandness for true excitement, to create a movie that will please children but offer little to parents or to adult animation fans.

I cannot see why a studio would remake a property for which they apparently have little affection. But then, the sad truth is that Illumination Studios has never made what I would call a good movie. The first Despicable Me is pleasant and amusing, but offers little to thrill or stir the heart; there are no “wow!” moments. The sequels, I’m told (I never bothered to watch), are even less inspiring. Nothing in Sing! or The Secret Life of Pets excited my interest enough to lure me into the theater, and the very trailer for Minions made me want to destroy something. Yet all these movies made the studio a tidy sum. The people there may not be geniuses at storytelling, but they know what sells. Why take the time and trouble to make good films when well-marketed mediocrity will make the green?

Illumination is only one part of a disheartening trend I’ve come to call the “meh-ing” of mainstream American animation, a genre I’ve loved a long time. I can remember when Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Moana thrilled me one at a time back in 2016. Sadly, I haven’t felt quite that level of excitement since, and the lack, for me, has two main sources.

The first will surprise no one who knows me: the disheartening lack of female protagonists since Moana. Last year, among American animation’s mainstream releases, only Coco generated an unquestioned positive response, and to no one’s astonishment, it took the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Yet I could never muster much interest in seeing it, as it struck me as very much one for the boys, with its misunderstood boy hero going on an afterlife adventure with the only ones who really get him, his male dog and his male guide through the land of the dead. The other nominees, with the exception of the non-mainstream The Breadwinner, were likewise male-centered. Things have gotten no better since then. This year’s front-runner is Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, with a boy protagonist surrounded by a squad of seven canines, all male. Why do writers insist on making all their important animal characters male when they could just as easily have been female without any change to plot or theme??

Next year we have The LEGO Movie 2 (Emmett Must Save Wyldstyle from Straw Feminists), Laika’s Missing Link (Bromance With Female Third Wheel), Spies in Disguise, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which, okay, I do want to see), The Secret Life of Pets 2, Toy Story 4, Playmobil: The Movie, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Abominable, Sonic the Hedgehog — a whole lot of guy-driven movies. (I do have my eye on a couple of potential bright spots: Wonder Park and Ugly Dolls. If only they turn out to be good.)

Some of you may be thinking: there’s always Frozen 2, right? And aren’t I forgetting this year’s The Incredibles 2, which shows Elastigirl finally getting her share of the heroics? I won’t lie: I liked The Incredibles 2 quite a bit, and I delighted in seeing Elastigirl in action, just as I’m keen to see tough smart-aleck racer Vanellope thrown back into adventure in Ralph Breaks the Internet (Matt wants to see this one opening night, actually). But my joy in them is tempered, in that they can’t offer me what Zootopia, Kubo, and Moana gave me in spades: the thrill of discovery of a completely new world and the chance to fall in love with a new set of characters.

This brings me to my second point of dissatisfaction: everything — or at least 80% of what we’re seeing — is a sequel to something else or an adaptation of some already established character/world. This isn’t to say that sequels can’t be good; I actually liked the second and third of the Kung Fu Panda films much better than the original. But after we’ve traveled to the same destination three or even four times, no matter how much we may love the place, don’t we start to hanker for something we haven’t seen before? If an animation studio were to present us with something fresh and different, wouldn’t we embrace it? Coco may not have been my tipple, but in it Pixar at least gave us something original, which they haven’t done this year and don’t plan to do next.

I’ve painted Illumination as the chief bad guy in this situation, yet it may not be the greatest offender. Those we love have the greatest power to hurt us, and I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a studio whose work I generally admire than I was when I learned Disney had decided to shelve their project Gigantic — a potentially delightful take on “Jack and the Beanstalk” — and then read their lineup of forthcoming releases, a long string of live-action remakes of their old classics with only a couple of animated features, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen 2, thrown in. How depressingly, cynically safe.

There’s the heart of both my problems. Mainstream American animation’s big-screen output reveals a staunch dedication to playing it safe, banking on our collective desire to seek comfort in the familiar (and not hurt their bottom line). How long will it be before fans start to become bored, and the studios realize they might need to start taking a few risks in order to reinvigorate the genre and reignite audience interest?

May that day come soon.

The Ongoing Trouble With “Powered” Women

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I never hit it off, since I bounced hard off world-building that included the ethos “Weak is women’s magic/ Wicked is women’s magic.” While the former precept bothered me, the latter angered me, because it matched so well with the way magical women had been portrayed in the stories I’d read and seen up to that point (that is, the late ’80s). L. Frank Baum’s Glinda the Good notwithstanding, the magical women I was familiar with always seemed to be manipulative, untrustworthy, and/or downright evil.

I grew up with the stories of King Arthur. I saw Excalibur multiple times. I read The Once and Future King and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series. I learned pretty quickly, though it only came to bother me as I grew older, that while magical men could serve as mentors for heroes, magical women invariably used their powers to deceive and ensnare men, even to the point of threatening their very lives. Only men could wield magic safely and wisely. While a few revisionist retellings such as Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon have popped up, plenty of recent retellings, including the BBC’s Merlin, adhere to the old prescription of “sorcerer good, sorceress bad” — which would explain why I bailed on Merlin around five episodes in.

Then we have the persistently popular The Chronicles of Narnia. I admit I enjoyed the most recent film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (a pity the sequels weren’t better) largely because I find “Queen Lucy the Valiant” an endearing heroine. Yet I’ve never been altogether happy with C.S. Lewis’s depiction of the Ultimate Evil as feminine. In Narnia, as in Arthur’s Camelot, what good magic there is comes from men, or at least male characters; female magic is entirely malevolent. This is why I’m not excited that Netflix is planning a fresh television adaptation of the series. I’ve seen it. I’m not sure I need to see it again.

These are old stories, true, but many storytellers can’t seem to get past the tendency to link female power with evil. I’d been planning to watch Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, having heard the show praised for its feminism, but after reading the following piece by Sonia Saraiya in Vanity Fair, I’m not sure I’ll bother. It may be as brilliant as a lot of people claim, but it’s not the kind of thing I need just now. I’ve read and seen my share of “power makes girls/women evil” stories already, stories that tell us that if you’re female you can be either good or powerful — but not both.

How many times must we see this false choice played out?

It’s true that Sabrina inhabits the same television space as Jessica Jones and Supergirl, both shows that depict powerful women using their gifts in heroic ways. This is a sign of progress, to be sure. Yet along with these shows, we also have The Gifted, set in the X-Men Universe. The heroes are the Mutant Underground, who hope to achieve some sort of peaceful coexistence with their human neighbors; while this group includes men and women, the men get the proverbial lion’s share of the attention and always seem to be out in front in leadership roles. However, the villainous gang of mutant separatists (villains by virtue of their comfort with the concept of collateral damage) is overwhelmingly female. It doesn’t help at all when we hear the telepathic Triplets of Evil say, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” a disquieting hint of straw feminism. Next year on the big screen, this same universe is serving up Dark Phoenix, the best-known girl-can’t-handle-her-powers story in recent memory. The trailer gives an idea of how this is likely to go. One woman is corrupted by her power. Another woman leads her down the dark path. Who will save the day (as always, in the X-Men franchise)? Men.

And so the ambivalent attitudes toward female power have continued into the present and will most likely persist into the future. Yet whenever I’m made aware of stories that present women’s power, particularly women’s magic, as inherently bad, I turn to antidotes to this attitude. By and large the most effective of these antidotes come not from Hollywood but from the world of print fiction, which has given us a delightful share of badass good witches. Here’s a Goodreads list devoted to such.

To prepare for this post, I asked my followers on Twitter to cite some of their favorite examples of heroic female magic in the fantasy genre. Some mentioned characters: Morwen from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles; Maskelle from Wheel of the Infinite; Sirronde from Diane Duane’s “Parting Gifts”; Jill Kismet, Dante Valentine, and Steelflower, all created by Lilith Saintcrow; the heroes of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword; Raederle from the Riddle-Master trilogy; Katsa from Graceling. Others mentioned book/series titles: Winter Tide, In the Vanisher’s Palace, Daughter of Mystery, The Queen of Blood, Iron Cast, Of Sorrow and Such. All these are excellent examples.

Yet I have my own personal favorites among fantasy’s magical women:

Agnieszka, from Novik’s Uprooted; Samarkar, from Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy; Senneth, from Shinn’s Twelve Houses (Mystic and Rider et. seq.); Sybel, from McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Ista, from Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; Eleanor, from Lackey’s Phoenix and Ashes, and Elena, from her Fairy Godmother, both Cinderella stories with a twist; Sunny, from Okorafor’s Akata Witch; Anyanwu, from Butler’s Wild Seed; Prunella, from Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

If you, like me, find yourself frustrated on occasion with stories that cling to outdated distrustful tropes regarding women’s power, check out some of the books cited here. They’re well worth it.

 

A Brief Word Before Election Day

I have tried, for the most part, to keep politics out of my blog. But today I want to offer a well-wish to all those going out to vote tomorrow. As you cast your ballots and consider what you want the character of our country to be, keep in mind what makes us, as human beings, special.

It isn’t the color of our skin.

It isn’t the faith in which we were raised.

It isn’t the language we speak, or the place where we had the luck (good or bad) to be born.

It isn’t our gender.

It isn’t whom we’re attracted to, or whether we’re attracted to anyone at all.

It isn’t any part of the hand we’re dealt at birth.

It’s our capacity to think, dream, create, and love.

This is what makes a person great, and each of us can aspire to and cultivate this greatness. It isn’t limited to those who look, talk, and act like us.

Let’s show we believe that.