Why Fantasy Needs More Gender-Egalitarian Built Worlds

I love my Twitter feed. I love the pet pictures, the life updates, the comments on pop culture, and most of all, SFF readers’ and writers’ thoughts on plotting and characterization, a welcome and often edifying distraction from the many, usually depressing political threads which make me feel as if I’m turning in the winds of a hurricane. The comments from fans and creators let me know I’m not alone in my questioning of certain problematic tropes that keep popping up even in otherwise good stories.

This past week, a couple of discussions came up regarding female characters and the cliches they’re often saddled with. One began with a Tweet expressing disappointment at many writers’ tendency to “break” female characters with some form of traumatic abuse, often rape, so that their kindness and optimism dwindle and give way to “toughness” — the implication being that kindness is a weakness that must be beaten out of a woman if she’s to become truly powerful. Another thread called out the “Not Like Other Girls” trope, starting with a plea for writers to be aware of it and avoid it accordingly. I came away from both threads agreeing heartily with the original Tweets and frustrated that some posters seemed to miss their points entirely. Yet after thinking about it, I could pinpoint at least one substantial cause behind these flaws in women’s characterization, particularly in epic fantasy: writers’ too frequent insistence on incorporating historical real world sexism and gender stereotypes into their world-building. The vast majority of fantasy societies are deeply sexist, and I admit that reading about them is starting to wear me down.

In sexist fantasy societies, kindness and nurturing are typically considered “feminine” and therefore weak. Often a woman’s very survival in such worlds depends on rooting such weakness out of herself and adopting a more “masculine” outlook and temperament. The men in those worlds, of course, don’t dare show kindness, lest they end up dead. What kindness they are allowed to show takes the form of rescuing unfortunate damsels, by which they show themselves as romantically attractive contrasts to the sort of men that did the poor girls wrong. (“Not Like Other Men” is also a problem trope.)

Sexist fantasy worlds pit women against each other. If a woman’s only power lies in their ability to captivate powerful men, then women are likely to be each other’s rivals even when they’re pretending to be friends. The natural state of affairs between women is depicted as competitive hostility; sometimes that extends even to mothers and daughters. This isn’t to say friendships between women are impossible in such worlds — just a bit less likely.

In sexist fantasy worlds, women’s movements are confined. Men travel and explore, while women stay within a narrow sphere, whatever curiosity they might have about the wider world wearing away from lack of satisfaction. The women moved to rebel against this immobile existence too often become the “Not Like Other Girls” types whose disdain for all things deemed “feminine” may spring from their dread and loathing of the confinement that women who follow the rules accept. Frequently, the rebellious Exceptional Woman’s only path to freedom — and recognition, and accomplishment — is to pretend to be a man.

Does it really have to be like this? I realize that some of the writers who build old-world sexism into their fantasy societies are trying to make a point about gender roles, and sometimes they succeed with brilliance and style. But I can’t help feeling this same point has been made again and again and again and again. What can sexist fantasy societies really offer us that we haven’t seen before?

Right now I’m in the process of reading Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. I knew when I picked up this massive tome that it would take me awhile to get through, but I’ve relished every minute of it, and I suspect I’ve been slowing myself down a little because I don’t want it to end. I won’t say too much about it since it will get its own review here once I’m finished, but the biggest part of why I’ll regret leaving it behind is the gender egalitarianism of its world. There are tensions and conflicts galore, with religious and political and cultural divisions, but gender roles just aren’t a thing. Character traits are not gender-linked. If a woman is foolish or impulsive or resentful, it’s due to her individual personality rather than to “being a woman.” There is no one prescribed way to be a woman, or to be a man for that matter. God, that’s refreshing.

The Priory of the Orange Tree, like City of Blades and The Ninth Rain, offers yet more proof that fantasy writers can create interesting, complex, at times even violent societies without weaving sexism into their pattern. Indeed, without restrictive gender roles as a major source of conflict, these societies can shine a light on problems that may not have already been covered ad infinitum. Gender-egalitarian built worlds have so much potential to move us beyond the same old, tired tropes.

In a gender-egalitarian fantasy world, kindness may be shown as the active strength it is, a virtue to which  characters of all genders can aspire.

In such a fantasy world, the opposition between the rebellious “masculine” heroine and the quiet “feminine” heroine could be nullified. If a woman chooses pursuits such as healing or sewing or weaving, it would be clear that the choice is hers, due to her own interests, skills, and talents rather than to social conditioning and/or enforcement. The athletic fighting woman wouldn’t regard her gentler sister with disdain, for there would be no point.

In such a world, a woman wouldn’t have to disguise herself as a man in order to escape confinement or pursue achievement. Her accomplishments wouldn’t be seen as anomalous; rather, they would be within other women’s reach as well.

The loathsome Smurfette Principle would be less of a problem as well, since if women occupy a variety of roles on different social levels, writers would find it harder to excuse having only one exceptional girl in a party of adventurers.

In short, creating gender-egalitarian fantasy societies would be a wonderful way to evade almost all the common fantasy tropes I find most exasperating. If we as writers can’t imagine conflicts and tensions for our female characters that don’t center on the familiar struggle against sexism, that’s on us. If we choose, we can do better. . . or at least we can do differently.


Toy Story 4: A Review

The last time I wrote about movies in this blog, I wondered what would tempt me back into the theater after I saw and enjoyed Booksmart. It turns out it was Pixar, a studio still doing solid work and now no longer besmirched by the presence of handsy John Lasseter. Toy Story 4 turned out to be a movie nobody needed but everybody wanted, and a movie that highlights an important place where the studio has improved since the release of the first Toy Story back in 1995 — female representation. Concerning the first film, I asked in an earlier post, “Whose favorite character is Bo Peep?” with the expectation that the answer would be nobody’s. Concerning the fourth film, I can now answer, Mine, as this series’ swan song finally gives the delightful Annie Potts the material she deserves.

A big part of the chance comes from the animators’ redesign of the character. In the first two Toy Story films, Bo Peep was crafted to play a limited, somewhat passive role; she’s porcelain from the top of her head to the hem of her spreading hoop skirt. The key issue was feet; hers weren’t visible, and she could only travel as far as she could slide across a smooth surface. She would never have managed among the party of male adventurers who crawled through air ducts to rescue Woody in Toy Story 2. But at some point between that film and 4, the creators realized her design was fatally flawed, so much so that they wrote her out of the third movie, since they could think of nothing for her to do. When she reappears at the beginning of 4, her skirt is cloth, and her legs and feet can be seen. She has mobility, the thing an active heroine needs, and the story lets her take full advantage of it. As a “lost toy” without an owner, Bo embraces her freedom with both a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. Through her, protagonist Woody finds the courage for a final confrontation with the question of what becomes of a toy whose owner no longer plays with them. In Toy Story 2 the answer is storage, a figurative death. But in 4, we see the promise of something more, and even better, on the horizon for Woody and Bo.

Bo Peep’s not the whole show when it comes to female representation. Female characters are sprinkled throughout the cast, both human and toy. Among Bonnie’s original toys we have Trixie the Triceratops (Kristen Schaal) and Dolly of the sunflower head (Bonnie Hunt), the latter of whom offers a voice of reason Woody too often ignores. Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), while she has less screen time than in the previous two movies, still gets her moments to shine. We also get to meet newcomer Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), Bo’s hot-tempered and wisecracking right-hand doll, who gets some of the movie’s best lines, and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the talking doll who can’t, who is, well, a little bit scary. The male characters from the earlier movies, aside from Tim Allen’s Buzz, probably get shortchanged most by the new narrative, but new characters like Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), a pair of midway plushies with comically violent fantasies, Forky (Tony Hale), a creature Bonnie constructs from a spork who’s convinced he’s trash and belongs in the garbage can, and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an action figure who’s ostensibly Canada’s greatest stuntman and who plays a critical role at the climax (Yes, we Canada!), more than make up for it. We get, all in all, a joyously well-rounded and balanced cast of characters, and I came out of the theater loving every one of them.

I further need to mention that in keeping with the film’s overall optimism, an element sorely needed, we get treated to an unprecedented redemption arc. I won’t say more. I’ll let you discover it if you’ve yet to see the movie. It’s been out for a while, and if you’ve been on the fence about seeing it, don’t let sequel-itis stop you. This one is that rare sequel that offers the pleasure of surprise.



Book Report: Recent Reads

Mark Lawrence, Grey Sister

Two mornings ago, I woke up to find a repellent news story on my Twitter feed, concerning a New Jersey judge’s argument that a 16-year-old boy accused of rape should be tried as a juvenile rather than as an adult. The basic stance that kids of 16 belong in juvenile court is understandable, but here was his reasoning: the boy comes from a “good family,” gets good grades, and is a Eagle Scout, and besides, to qualify as “rape,” at least two men and a firearm have to be involved. (Date rape, I guess, doesn’t exist.) It got even worse: the judge declared that before pressing charges, the boy’s victim should have considered what effect it might have on the young man’s future.

This is Brock Turner 2.0, proof that 1) judges have learned nothing from that notorious case, 2) for some men, and even some women, in positions of power, girls’ and women’s lives will always matter less than boys’ and men’s.

In times like these when just being a woman can be downright depressing, Nona Grey, avenger of friends and executioner of affluenzic rapist punks, is the fictional hero we need and deserve. At the heart of Mark Lawrence’s often violent and brutal Book of the Ancestor series, of which Grey Sister is the second book, lies the ethos that every person has value, regardless of wealth or bloodline. It’s a poke in the eye to the concept of privilege.

When we first meet Nona at the beginning of the previous book, Red Sister, she’s about to be hanged for attacking Raymel Tacsis, the heir to nobility who raped and nearly murdered her friend Saida. (Saida, regrettably, doesn’t survive.) She’s saved at the last minute by Abbess Glass of the Convent of Sweet Mercy, who believes (wrongly) that she’s a child of prophecy, and so begins her journey toward the arcane powers the Sisters can wield, solid friendship and ties of loyalty, and successful revenge. Nona — Spoiler Alert — does kill Raymel in the end, but vengeance comes at a price: because she enjoyed ending the slimebag’s life a tiny bit too much, the demon he harbored, Keot, enters Nona just as the young man breathes his last. As a voice in her head, Keot plays a central role in Grey Sister, constantly urging her to give in to her darkest impulses.

These books are not popcorn reads; no one in their right mind would shelve them or describe them as YA even though Nona is a teenager when we meet her. Lawrence isn’t afraid to put Nona through hell, particularly in the last two thirds of Book 2, as Raymel’s bitter and toxically privileged father plots revenge of his own, not only against Nona but against her protector, Abbess Glass. Nona is imprisoned in a dungeon, and her repeated failed attempts to escape can be frustrating. But we’ve seen Nona is willing to die as well as kill for those she deems her friends, and now we see how they have her back in return. One of the nuns, Sister Kettle, along with a fellow novice, Zole (Nona’s antagonist in the previous book), sets out on a hazardous journey to rescue her. Friendship prevails, and Nona, resisting her demon, manages to maintain the moral high ground in her battle against privilege. Unlike her enemies, she is capable of kindness and empathy, and it’s this that saves her from the dark, dangerous voice in her head.

Nona and her friends aren’t in the clear at the book’s end; we still have a third volume, Holy Sister, remaining. Yet all the same, seeing them take their stand and fight for each other against those who would dismiss them as worthless, valueless, and unimportant is gratifying. If you’re looking for high-octane girl power and female heroes who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, this is your series.

Good-News Reboots in TV Cartoonland

Reboots have a dreadful reputation. Rarely do they gain much respect from critics or garner anything but derision from fans of their originals. Even if they have their own virtues — The Amazing Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield, for example, has its defenders — they can’t quite seem to measure up to What Came Before. And heaven forbid those behind the reboot find flaws in the originals and try to repair them. The full wrath of earlier generations will descend on them with angry-mob shouts of, “You’re ruining my childhood!”

This is why I feel a little queasy whenever anyone talks about rebooting a beloved property from the 1980s. We Gen-Xers seem especially protective of the movies and shows we grew up with, problematic as they might have been, and I’m just not up for all the inevitable drama.

But there is good news: sometimes it’s worth it.

When details first started to emerge about comics creator Noelle Stevenson’s reboot of Filmation’s She-Ra, reaction from those who remembered the 1980s original was predictably venomous. The designs of the characters looked unreal and overly “cartoonish,” they said. Worse, when the new Princess Adora transforms into the mythical warrior She-Ra, her outfit now includes a pair of shorts under her tiny skirt. Those shorts seemed to make the crowd especially angry, as if they couldn’t handle being denied the privilege of at least imagining the panty shots they’d never actually get. Yet when She-Ra and the Princesses of Power finally dropped on Netflix, the naysayers’ yammering started to die down, though it didn’t altogether disappear. The show confronted its critics by the best possible means — by actually being good.

The feminist elements of the show are obvious, though no less welcome. We have a female hero at the center of things, and rather than being a bland and featureless paragon of virtue, she’s a flawed, intense character with a snarky sense of humor. We have a corps of female friends and allies surrounding her, as well as a male friend who is not a love interest and gets his own moments to shine. We have a crew of female villains as well, led by an evil counterpart whom Adora must repeatedly confront. All the characters are unique and individual, though inevitably some get more development than others. It’s a show that every girl between the ages of 8 and 13 should be watching, and this Gen-Xer can’t wait for new episodes to emerge later in 2019.

But my most pleasant surprise came when I realized, after a particularly good Season 2 episode, that I enjoy watching every single character on the show, both good and bad. There aren’t many shows I can say that about. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Charles Boyle gets on my nerves. I cringe every time Stacy Boss shows up on iZombie. (Can’t that character just die already??) Supergirl‘s villains are too viscerally infuriating for me to get much pleasure from their screen time, though it is a relief to see them get their butts kicked. But on She-Ra, all the characters delight me in their own ways. The villainy of Catra and Shadow Weaver is complicated and fascinating rather than revolting, perhaps because we rarely if ever see them attack innocent non-combatants. Bow and the princesses are all funny and quirky as well as capable. Even characters who have only shown up once so far — e.g. Glimmer’s aunt Castaspella, Bow’s two dads — are endearing. Hordak, the Big Bad, may be a one-dimensional embodiment of evil, but at this point his screen time has been kept to a minimum, leaving the more complicated and interesting characters to dominate the scene.

I do have one concern: Scorpia, the big Horde force-captain who just wants to please her BFF Catra. (Of course, all the BFF-ing is on Scorpia’s side; Catra barely tolerates her, though she doesn’t hesitate to use Scorpia’s devotion to her own advantage.) I like Scorpia, but I don’t like that on a show that’s generally good about representing a variety of female body types, the only brawny, muscular woman is on Team Bad. “Woman + Big = Villain” isn’t a message we need to keep sending, though Scorpia may yet surprise us with a Heel-Face Turn.

In contrast to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the reboot of the Disney Channel’s late ’80s cartoon series DuckTales emerged without much “ruining-my-childhood” outcry. The pitch-perfect casting of David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) as Scrooge McDuck — the first Scotsman ever to voice the role — may have done much to turn away wrath; this alone would have assured fans of the original that the new show would be true to the spirit of its lead character, and thus made them more accepting of the more drastic changes, such as casting different voice actors to play Huey, Louie, and Dewey rather than using the same Russi Taylor voice for all three triplets. Still, like She-Ra, the new DuckTales has quieted potential critics by being very good indeed. Here’s another show in which I enjoy watching every single character it puts before me, from Scrooge and his nephews to the awesome Webby Vanderquack and her housekeeper/secret agent grandmother, from the dimwitted pilot Launchpad (his attempt to imitate Donald Duck is priceless) to the dastardly Flintheart Glomgold to the nerdy superhero Gizmoduck (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda).   And speaking of Donald Duck, his presence has increased compared to the 80s versi.  Even Don Cheadle gets to voice Donald in the first season finale.

I mentioned in my last post that I find the new DuckTales one of the most feminist shows on television, and I stand behind that. Webby, the most important female character, has brains and bravery and a spirit of adventure to delight the heart of my inner twelve-year-old — God, do I wish someone like her had been on TV when I was growing up — but what I love most about her is that not once does anyone try to leave her out of an adventure or hold her back from danger because she’s a girl. In fact, all the cliched “but you’re a girl!” shtick is blessedly absent from this show. The boys may find Webby strange, but it’s due to her nerdiness and hyper-energetic personality, not to her gender. Likewise, none of the other female characters on the show are called upon to prove their worth because they’re female. Nobody questions Mrs. Beakley’s being both a competent housekeeper and a badass secret agent. The boys’ mother, Della Duck, wants to succeed as both a mom and an adventurer, and nobody tells her she can’t. Even Gandra Dee, a drippy damsel in distress in the first DuckTales, is a brilliant but sneaky scientist in this one, and her intelligence is never shown to be surprising. These ladies are all wonderfully themselves in a post- sexist world. In them we get a glimpse of the freedom that could follow if we’d just leave all those nonsensical gender roles and gendered expectations behind.

If more reboots can be like these two shows, I say bring them on and devil take the whiners.


Books Make Me Happy. Movies, Not So Much.

These days, for me, the news has become suffocating. Scarcely a day goes by that I don’t see at least one item about a woman, or women in general, being abused, mistreated, disregarded, or underestimated. If it’s not a story about a convicted rapist getting off with a wrist-slap, it’s an expose’ on a proposed federal government appointee who claims women shouldn’t play or announce or referee sports (unless they live up to acceptable halter-top standards of hotness) because sports should offer men a “vacation from women.” If it’s not an eleven-year-old girl potentially forced to give birth to her rapist’s baby, it’s a well-known talk show host mocking women as “basic” and “primitive.” We’ve been putting up with these and similar stories in a seemingly unending flood ever since the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal broke, and with each one, I lose a little oxygen.

Stories about women are the fresh air I need — about women saving the day, fighting for change, helping those in need, creating great art, exploring new territories, making discoveries, devising new inventions, curing the sick, and in general being active and awesome in a variety of ways. I long to see women making a difference, both in real life and in fiction. I long to see them as the heroes of their own stories, vital as who they are in and of themselves rather than just as the wife, mother, daughter, or love interest of some man or other. Thankfully, we see more women-centered stories now, particularly in print fiction. In my favorite genre, SFF, at least 174 books with female leads or co-leads are scheduled for release in 2019, and every year brings more. Some 2019 releases near the top of my To-Read list are Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree, Mark Lawrence’s Holy Sister, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Virtue and Vengeance, Zen Cho’s The True Queen, Django Wexler’s Ship of Smoke and Steel, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Legend, Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever, Juliet Marillier’s The Harp of Kings, and Tessa Grafton’s Lady Hotspur. Once I factor in those books that caught my attention some while ago but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, I should have plenty to keep me busy.And I couldn’t be happier about it. As long as I have a long reading list, I need not fear suffocation.

I only wish other media were equally obliging.

To be fair, television does a decent job. I have quite a few woman-positive shows to love, including Supergirl, the recently returned iZombie, and on Netflix, Jessica Jones and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. DuckTales, one of the most feminist shows on television (more on that in a future post), just finished its second season and has a third on the way, and new seasons of GLOW, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Orange Is the New Black are in the offing. It’s hardly the fault of these shows that right now all everybody wants to talk about is Game of Thrones, which just wrapped up its final season. I haven’t watched that show since its fifth season, when it chose to kill off a particularly innocent and sweet-natured character, a girl whose gender made her expendable, in a gruesome and gut-punching way. But I know, whether I want to or not, that the show’s last season centered on yet another of those “girl-can’t-handle-power” story arcs that writers can’t seem to get enough of. (I’m even less enthused about Dark Phoenix now than I was before.) Plenty of fans are outraged, but it mightn’t have been so problematic if the TV landscape included a few more female authority figures who use their power with wisdom and justice. Few things are problematic in isolation.

Take Avengers: Endgame, a movie with so much going for it — very little of it involving female characters. All the satisfying girl-power moments — Valkyrie joining the climactic battle on her flying steed, Scarlet Witch taking on Thanos, Captain Marvel going meteoric — are confined to the three-hour-plus movie’s last forty-five minutes. To get to them, you have to wait through a loooong stretch in which the only proactive and successful thing a female character does is die. In and of itself, it might inspire only mild disappointment rather than teeth-grinding frustration. But it becomes one more on the list of Marvel’s team-up movies (the first Avengers being an exception, maybe) that have not known what to do with the women. A single “power shot” in the final battle sequence serves as a signal that better days are coming. But I’d really like my oxygen now, thank you very much — and between the release of Jordan Peele’s Us back in March and the release of Booksmart on Memorial Day weekend, not a single well-reviewed mainstream release has featured a female protagonist (except maybe Long Shot, but in that, glamorous Charlize Theron has to share protagonist status with shlubby Seth Rogen in this bit of shlub wish-fulfillment fantasy in the Knocked Up mold). Movies I’d kill to see, like Fast Color and The Souvenir, remain out of reach in (very) limited release, so that often I don’t even hear about them until too late. The case of Fast Color remains a sore point for me, as the oxygen quotient in that one might well have been off the charts.

Booksmart, at least, is a bright spot, despite problematic elements that have been pointed out. For a film about teenagers, it’s surprisingly good natured, with few stereotypes left untweaked and no complete villains (with the exception of a veeerrry minor character who is not a teenager); its heroines are allowed to be flawed as well as smart and funny. I’ll admit the character of Molly won me over the minute I got a look at the decor of her bedroom in the very first scene, and I enjoyed watching her make mistakes and then learn from them. It also centers on a strong friendship between two girls, something I can’t see often enough. So I got some good deep breaths out of this one.

Unfortunately, to get to it, my husband and I had to sit through a series of trailers, the cringiest ones being for Child’s Play (a remake we were all desperate for, right) and The Good Boys (it’s like Stand By Me, but with misogyny!), that served as a reminder that, despite the movie we were about to see, Hollywood remains indifferent to me as a prospective audience. I’m not sure just when I’ll find myself at the movies again, unless an opportunity to see a limited-release movie like The Souvenir or The Third Wife presents itself.

But I’ll always have books.





Wanted: More Female Animals in Fantasy

My life as an adult fantasy fan began when I read Lord of the Rings near the end of my undergrad years, but I first dipped my toes in the water of the genre much earlier than that, with a different kind of story. The first books I recall reading and loving were those Little Golden Books in which the main character was something nonhuman — Scruffy the Tugboat, The Poky Little Puppy, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, Little Cottontail, and more. As my fascination with nonhuman protagonists matured, I moved on to the big classics of the “animal fantasy” subgenre: Winnie-the-Pooh (yes, they’re toys, but they’re animals nonetheless), The Jungle Books, The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down.

I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for my favorite childhood reads. From them I learned how much fun the fantastic can be. Yet they taught me something else as well, something I like far less — the concept of “male as default.” In all these books, characters were only female when and if the story demanded it. Characters whose gender wasn’t central or crucial to the plot were always male. The few female animals that did show up always played roles consistent with the gender stereotypes we find in human society, e.g. the mother (Kanga in the Pooh stories, Raksha in The Jungle Book), the damsel/bride (Hyzenthlay and the other Efrafan does in Watership Down). For the most part — exception: I always liked Hyzenthlay, even though she didn’t show up until the book’s last third — I ignored them and focused on the male characters, who were much more interesting and who played much bigger roles. I expect most readers did as well.

Yet still I adopted that character-gender-flipping habit I’ve discussed in previous posts. I now suspect this was my earliest rebellion against “male as default.” Even then, though I couldn’t have articulated it, it felt wrong to me that a nonhuman character could only be female if she was playing a specifically “female” role.

When I was young, “male as default” seemed generally accepted. No one questioned it or tried to change it; it was simply how things were. Yet it kept female characters confined to the least interesting or engaging roles. My tween years saw The Smurfs arrive on the scene, and of course it’s the show from which the “Smurfette Principle” takes its name. Smurfette, the only girl character, plays the typically female role of getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. Not only do the more active and resourceful characters default to male, but her being the sole female, being defined by her gender and little else, is an actual plot point. In the years that followed, other and better shows adhered to the Smurfette formula, as if the writers were not even conscious of it. As if the tendency to write characters as female only when they had to be weren’t even worth thinking about.

In more recent years, thankfully, some writers have started to think about it, and we’ve seen some steps forward. For example, Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, returned to the world and characters of his most famous novel in 1998 with a collection of short stories called Tales from Watership Down, in which he deliberately gave female characters bigger and more active roles to play. (Sadly, these stories don’t come near the original novel in terms of quality.) Brian Jacques’ enormously popular Redwall series of animal fantasies centered on male heroes for its first three books, but in the fourth, Mariel of Redwall, a female hero appeared at last on the scene, and other significant female characters have followed, including my favorite, Dotti the haremaid in Lord Brocktree. Other female-centered animal fantasies have also emerged, some of my favorites being Diane Duane’s The Book of Night With Moon (cats!), David Clement-Davies’ The Sight (wolves!), and Dorothy Hearst’s Promise of the Wolves (more wolves!). Those who, like me, enjoy female nonhuman characters should check out this Goodreads list.

Yet with these signs of progress we also find evidence that some folks just don’t get it. In June of last year, Christine Michaud Woods published an article in the Washington Post: “Children’s Books, give me a female squirrel, a female duck, a female anything.” “When the characters are not human, as is often the case, females are often strangely absent,” she points out. Her opening example: in a 2010 book called “Chick ‘n’ Pug,” every single character is written as male, including a chick who wants to escape a routine of laying eggs all day — reminding me of those horrible udder-baring male cows in the animated fiasco Barnyard and the masculine hens in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. The comments are particularly telling, a classic case of Missing the Point. In an effort to prove that the problem Woods describes is not that bad, posters list lots of female characters from children’s literature (as if pointing out that such characters exist disproves the notion that there’s an imbalance), and half of them are human. Human female characters, awesome as they might be, are nearly always female because the story insists upon it. Bringing them up as examples ignores the heart of the problem, “male as default.” That they just don’t see it offers a reminder that we haven’t come as far as we need to.

Even stories that often get labelled as feminist suffer from Default-Male Syndrome, including some of my favorite Disney movies. In The Princess and the Frog, two characters who are naturally animals offer to help the transformed humans, and both are male; only humans, transformed or otherwise, get to be female. All the animals in Tangled are likewise male. In Frozen, apart from the two sisters and a couple of trolls, everyone and everything is male. Even in Moana, perhaps the most feminist-friendly of all, the not-all-there chicken and the super-cute pig are both male, as is the villainous sea turtle. Then there’s Beauty and the Beast (animated version — haven’t seen the remake), with its roster of inanimate objects. Three are female, but all play gender-coded roles. Mrs. Potts, the most important of them, is a mother. The wardrobe talks like a gossipy hairdresser. The feather-duster is around to give suave candlestick Lumiere someone to flirt with. I love these films, but I can still love them and wish they’d had at least one or two more female nonhumans. Among all Disney’s nonhuman characters since the “Disney Renaissance,” the only females I can think of that didn’t really have to be are Shenzi the evil hyena in The Lion King and Terk the chimpanzee from Tarzan — until Zootopia came along, but even that delightful movie doesn’t quite make up for the earlier lack. When The Lion King was adapted for the stage, it took a step in the right direction by taking a male character whose gender wasn’t dictated by the story — the wise mandrill shaman Rafiki — and rewriting said character as female. Yet in the big-screen remake coming this summer, Rafiki is once again male. Darn it, couldn’t Disney have let that one positive change stand?

Default-Male Syndrome needs to be challenged more often and more consciously. As long as it’s in play, male characters will outnumber female, perhaps not in every single story but in stories in general. Unconscious adherence to the Smurfette Principle will continue, even though we ought to know better. Worst of all, it will be difficult to impossible for girls like I used to be to find female characters whose identity isn’t linked, either loosely or tightly, to their gender. It’s time to see more female squirrels, female ducks, female everything.


My “Please-Be-Good” List of Post-Endgame Movies

The wait for Avengers: Endgame, the wrap-up film for this set of the Avengers, is over, and I have seen it. That’s all I mean to say on this particular movie at the moment, since plenty of other writers are taking it apart, Spoiler warnings dutifully included. But since Endgame‘s release marks this year’s opening of the “summer movie season,” I’m wondering what not only the summer but the rest of the year might hold for me, movie-wise. Most of the big blockbusters in the offing do nothing for me. So which films am I hoping like hell turn out to be good, as they seem very much like the sorts of stories I can enjoy?

  1. Fast Color (directed by Julia Hart). The female-superhero-movie-with-a-difference starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw already has a 79% critical score and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. If only its release were not so painfully limited!
  2. Bolden (directed by Dan Pritzker). I first heard about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden on PBS’s Ken Burns’ Jazz, and I’m glad to see the cinema is telling his story.
  3. The Sun Is Also a Star (directed by Ry Russo-Young). I usually ignore teen dramas, but the director and cast for this one have me curious.
  4. The Third Wife (directed by Ash Mayfair). The 19th century Vietnamese setting of this drama is a draw for me; I love period dramas in any case, and I don’t recall having seen one quite like this.
  5. Booksmart (directed by Olivia Wilde). A movie centering on a solid friendship between girl-nerds — how could I not be on board?
  6. Late Night (directed by Nisha Ganatra). Emma Thompson makes me happy.
  7. Men In Black: International (directed by F. Gary Gray). Did I say I wasn’t interested in the big blockbusters? This one is an exception, thanks to Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth; this one feels more woman-friendly than most of this summer’s action films.
  8. Wild Rose (directed by Tom Harper, written by Nicole Taylor). Will this movie about a country musician be one of those movies about creative women I so love to see?
  9. Downton Abbey (directed by Michael Engler). Sure, it’s a September release, and September tends to be one of cinema’s “dumping grounds.” But hey, it’s Downton Abbey, so I’m interested.
  10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (directed by Marielle Heller). Having seen last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I really, really want Tom Hanks to hit a home run with his performance as Fred Rogers.
  11. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (directed by J.J. Abrams). Suck it, haters.
  12. Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig). Lousia May Alcott + Greta Gerwig + decent reviews = me in the theater seat.

So what’s on your “please be good” movie list?

Gendering Traits: The Unending Discussion

April is a special time of year at the Fantasy Book Cafe. It’s Women in SFF Month, a time when women who write and/or read science fiction and fantasy get their chance to post essays on everything from the state of the genre to their own personal favorite or most inspiring books. Each year their commentaries offer fresh food for thought, even on issues that have been contemplated and scrutinized over and over again.

One of these is the notion of gendered traits, the coding of particular characteristics of personality as “masculine” or “feminine.” We’re all familiar with the usual breakdown. Physical strength and courage, aggression, assertion of authority, and high-adrenaline risk-taking are “masculine.” Caregiving, the desire to please and concern for the comfort of others, interest in clothes and hair and other facets of appearance, nurturing, ease with talk of feelings, and selflessness sometimes to the point of self-abnegation are “feminine.” Guys like action movies; gals like romantic comedies. Guys like Walker: Texas Ranger; gals like Sex and the City. This coding has been covered and questioned hundreds of times, but somehow no one manages to have the last word.

Because, I’m afraid, there is no last word to be had. Ideas about gender keep changing, and so the conversation goes through endless permutations.

Fantasy novelist Sam Hawke, author of City of Lies (a book that has been on my To-Read list of a while, and that I will read this year, I swear), writes about how her ideas regarding gender and gendered traits have evolved in her essay for Fantasy Book Cafe, “The Sewing Test.” She explains the test is failed “when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving a female character is than those silly other women by making her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other female-coded activity]. . . It’s a statement that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them.” While she may have grown up loving stories of the rebellious tomboy who fights her way free of restrictive gender roles, she says, she’s come to see that other forms of strength need to be valorized, hence her decision to write a heroine she describes as “kind, emotionally intuitive, clever, and psychologically if not physically resilient.” What she has created, and what makes me eager to read City of Lies, is a story in which these characteristics can save the day, in the face of the dominance of narratives where fighting is the primary path to victory.

Science fiction novelist S.L. Huang, author of Zero Sum Game, offers a different take on gendered traits in her essay “Being a Woman.” She describes the ongoing debate over what qualities a “strong female character” should have: “the pendulum would swing from ‘more strong female characters!’ to ‘stop writing women as if they’re men with boobs.’. . . Too often I saw people’s arguments devolving into telling people to stop writing exactly the women who were most like me, framing them as ‘not real women’ . . . A big step to figuring all this out was coming to question whether I was a cis woman at all.”

I may not have questioned my own place on the gender spectrum in quite the same way, but her words strike home with me, as I read this post only a couple of days after seeing a comment on Reddit Books complaining that the heroes in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, Shara Khomayd and Turyin Mulaghesh, were poorly written because they weren’t feminine enough. Since I just finished City of Blades and enjoyed every minute I spent in Mulaghesh’s company, this incensed me. How exactly is Mulaghesh insufficiently womanly? Because she can fight? Because she won’t put up with idiocy? Because she’s not overly worried about making everybody else feel good? Because she doesn’t get a romantic subplot foisted on her? I love her for all that! Like Huang, I want to see more characters like her, not fewer.

Oddly enough, I suspect that what makes Mulaghesh work so well for me is one of the things that makes Kalina work for readers of City of Lies: different as they are, both characters inhabit works relatively free of recognizable sexism. As a military woman, Mulaghesh is not an anomaly; many of the soldiers we see in secondary and tertiary roles are women. Kalina struggles with her disability, not gender expectations. In these worlds, women can do pretty much anything their individual capacities will allow, and strengths like kindness, empathy, courage, and confidence aren’t attributed to one gender or another. As a result, both characters are free to be themselves.

And it makes me think: do we writers concern ourselves a little too much with culturally gendered traits when we shape our female characters and try to endow them with life? How often do we let our awareness of the coding slow us down, or compromise our vision?

I wasn’t a tomboy like Hawke or Huang when I was growing up, but neither was I a girly girl. I hated sports and was lousy at them, yet I didn’t share the interests a lot of the girls in my class seemed to gravitate toward. I didn’t like make-up. When it came to clothes, I cared much more about comfort than fashion. My favorite pastimes were making up and acting out stories, and I couldn’t see those activities as belonging to a particular gender. Most of the fictional characters I admired most happened to be male, but they were boundlessly creative (if neurotic) storytellers like Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen, peculiar prophets like Fiver in Watership Down, wise and insightful teachers like Mr. Chips or Rudyard Kipling’s Bagheera and Kaa, or energetic clowns like Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain. I saw no reason why the qualities that drove me toward them shouldn’t be found in girls as well as boys. That made it all the more frustrating that I had such a hard time finding girl characters with those traits — I only discovered Scheherezade, Mokey Fraggle, Matilda Wormwood, and Doreen Green much later — so that I saw no alternative to making up my own.

Between “masculine” and “feminine” coded traits we find a host of wonderful qualities up for grabs: intelligence, imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, integrity, honor, humor, idealism, competence, confidence, determination. None of these traits should or would render a character “too” masculine or feminine, and it’s this pool of characteristics I like to draw from when I’m fashioning my own characters, whatever their gender.

Bring on the female bards, artists, musicians, and neurotic storytellers. Bring on the female loopy inventors, and fearless, fanciful explorers. Bring on the female mentors and guides. Bring on the female eccentric seers. If we don’t like the gender-coding we’ve been given, challenging and changing it are in our hands.


My Reading Life: Early 2019

2019 has been a busy year for me so far, and I haven’t been able to finish books and start new ones quite as quickly as I have in the past. I may not manage to read as many books this year as I did last, but quality matters more than quantity, and thus far I’ve found plenty of delights to savor in my reading life. It’s a good time to share a few highlights.

Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand (finished February 24)

Suri’s debut novel is likely to please those of us eager to explore fantastic landscapes other than the castle-dotted meadows of medieval Europe. Suri brings the deserts of a quasi-India to life in lyrical, vividly detailed prose and gives us a heroine, Mehr, who makes a believable journey from frightened, confused girl to powerful savior. Romance is on the menu here, as Mehr is forced by a power-hungry religious leader to marry a mysterious outcast, in the hope of taking advantage of their combined magical abilities. But Suri avoids the annoying “insta-love” trope in favor of a slow-moving and steadily building relationship whose progress cannot be taken for granted; the two captives come together, over time, through their mutual capacity for empathy. Also, the romance does not wipe other relationships from Mehr’s mind, as happens too often in fantasy novels where a romantic plot plays a central role. She interacts with other female characters at crucial points in the story.

One aspect of this novel that fascinated me most was how Mehr accessed and worked her magic through dance. Suri’s post on the Fantasy Cafe website helped me understand exactly why I was so drawn to it.

Jen Williams, The Ninth Rain (finished March 22)

The pleasure of transitioning from the perspective of the young, out-of-her-depth Mehr to that of the mature, confident Lady Vintage de Grazon is one of the reasons I love reading multiple books at once. Vintage is a woman of great knowledge and even greater curiosity, whose desire to learn intersects with the foreboding that an ancient evil is about to be reborn. Another character after my heart is Noon, a young “fell-witch” who falls in with Vintage and her bodyguard Tormalin after she escapes a hellish captivity. Her power to draw life from the living things around her would make her a formidable villain, but, inspired by the kindness and trust Vintage shows her, she aims for a heroic destiny. Among the vast array of female fantasy characters so often tagged with similar personalities and struggles, Vintage and Noon are refreshingly unique. Another plus: while this is only the first book, Williams’ series, The Winnowing Flame, promises good queer representation. Vintage herself is queer, although (Spoiler alert) it takes a long time for us to meet her love interest.

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades (currently reading)

Like Vintage, General Turyin Mulaghesh is a protagonist who seems almost designed to be loved by me. I met her at just the right time in my life, the month when I turned fifty; Mulaghesh is also fifty, and full of toughness, insight, and humor, far from too old to engage in life-saving heroics. She appeared in the previous volume of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, City of Stairs, and even there cut a charismatic figure, but here she takes center stage to confront a goddess of war not quite as dead as previously thought, as well as the saint who wreaks destruction in her name. If she is to defeat them, she must come to terms with her own dark and bloody past. Is she up to the task? Well, here’s what she says at the beginning of the book, regarding a pair of thugs who would like to run her off her land: “It’s a symbiotic relationship: those two excel at being idiots, and I excel at shooting idiots. Everyone gets what they want” (8). This lady will not suffer fools, divine or otherwise, and I’m confident she can handle pretty much whatever life throws at her.

Curtis Craddock, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery (currently reading)

I enjoyed the previous book in Craddock’s Risen Kingdoms series, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, because I was intrigued by the world-building and charmed by the protagonists, the outcast genius Isabelle and her musketeer guardian Jean-Claude. But the villains in that book, I thought, were too one-dimensionally evil to be truly interesting. In this sequel, however, we have a villain who threatens the existing power structure for reasons it’s not at all hard to understand. That power structure, which asserts that those with magic are blessed by God and therefore their rule is divinely ordained (and, conversely, those without magic are rejected by God and therefore have very few rights under the law), could use a little shaking up. Both Jean-Claude, as a non-magical “clayborn,” and Isabelle, as a woman, are essentially non-people in its eyes, yet still they are bound to defend it, as the means the villain uses to achieve his end are as grotesque and cruel as the actions of those he deems his enemies. Where is the moral high ground? I appreciate when, once in a while, it’s not so easy to find. Yet Jean-Claude and Isabelle remain as worthy of rooting interest as ever. While power systems may be full of moral rot, kindness and personal loyalty can still carry the day.

Kate Elliott, King’s Dragon (recently begun)

Elliott is one of my favorite authors, and I need to fill the time between now and the release of her sequel to Black Wolves. The six-volume epic fantasy series Crown of Stars should help do the trick. I’m two hundred pages into the first book, and Elliott’s capacious world-building skills and strong, solid prose style have me hooked. I’m still feeling out the characters and I’m interested in seeing how they go on.

Crown of Stars is one of those multi-volume epic fantasy series that some short-sighted people claim women don’t write. One of my reading resolutions is to devote time to exploring series by Michelle West, Katya Riemann, Rowena Cory Daniells, Mickey Zucker Reichert, Jude Fisher, and Janny Wurts, among others — series that may not have gotten enough attention but promise abundant pleasure.



A Tale of Two Superhero Movies

Before we went to see Captain Marvel last weekend, my husband showed me Spider-Man: Homecoming, one of only two MCU movies I hadn’t seen (the other being Ant-Man). He was concerned that the theater would air the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home, which he knew to contain a Spoiler for its predecessor. A perfectly reasonable concern, I thought, so I watched it. The lowdown: it’s an entertaining film with a flawed but likable teenage protagonist who learns quite a bit along his journey, and it’s anchored by a solid performance by Tom Holland. I can understand why critics praised it and why the public made it a box-office success.

It wasn’t for me.

The movie has three noticeable female characters. One is a kind-hearted maternal figure who might have a touch of sass about her (to judge by a certain spark in Marisa Tomei’s eye) if only the screenplay would give her a chance to show it. (Despite the fact that she’s clearly supporting herself and her nephew Peter, the movie offers not so much as a whisper about what Aunt May does for a living.) Another is a love interest who is longer on legs than on personality; kudos to the movie for casting an actress of color, but shame on it for failing to develop her character enough to make her matter. The third is a figure who hovers in the background, of whom we see just enough to know she would have been awesome if only she’d actually been given something to do.

Therein lies the problem. None of them does anything useful or important from the first frame to the last. They’re window-dressing, the “what-we’re-fighting-for” while Peter/Spidey and his buddy Ned do all the fighting, which makes far more sense in a story set during the First or the Second World War than in one set present-day. The girls/women represent the normal life the hero can’t quite manage to enjoy. This has been the job of female characters in decades upon decades of male-superhero lore, Aquaman and Black Panther being recent exceptions.

Spider-Man: Homecoming reminded me not so much of other male-led MCU films — heck, even Doctor Strange, my least favorite, has better female representation — as of those popular movies from the 1980s in which girls were symbols and rewards more than characters, and were rarely if ever very interesting. Who remembers anything about Dana from Ghostbusters before she gets possessed by Zuul, other than that Sigourney Weaver played her (and probably took the role because she’d get to play Zuul)? Or Jennifer from Back to the Future, other than her pouty-lipped gaze? Or Jennifer from War Games, other than that she was played by a cute teenage Ally Sheedy? Or Kate from Gremlins, other than her Really Creepy Christmas Story? Or Ali from The Karate Kid? Or Maggie from The Last Starfighter? I’m astonished I can even recall their names. The ladies in Spider-Man: Homecoming are on that level. Zendaya’s Michelle, in particular, is disheartening because she could have been so much more — a smart, snarky, funny girl that the equally smart and adventurous girls in the audience would want to identify with.

Back in the 1980s, filmmakers in general (with notable exceptions, e.g. those behind Labyrinth and The Journey of Natty Gann and the last two films of the first Star Wars trilogy) didn’t seem too conscious of girls as a demographic worth appealing to. They made movies centering on teenage boys that were sure to draw huge crowds of same, and their idea was that girls would “go along to get along” since they could relate to different-gender protagonists, which was too much to ask of the boys. How many girls thought about what they might be missing? How many told themselves, “I want to be the computer genius, not the normal girlfriend. I wish I could be the one traveling through time and space rather than the one waiting at home. I wish that for once I got to be impressive, not just be impressed”? A great many, I imagine, for otherwise nothing would have changed. Around the same time, Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley were writing YA fantasy fiction that catered to the girl audience’s desire for adventure and daydreams of being heroes in their own right. The girls who grew up reading this fiction, and maybe noticed the contrast between what girl characters got to do in those books and what they got to do in most movies, are grown now and creating stories of their own. More and more, we’re seeing signs that mainstream pop culture is coming to understand that girls have dreams, and those dreams tend not to be about waiting on the sidelines while the boys do everything cool.

That’s where Captain Marvel comes in. Spider-Man: Homecoming might have felt right at home in the ’80s, but I find it unlikely that those in charge of Hollywood back then could have conceived of something like Captain Marvel, or 2017’s Wonder Woman. (The old effort to bring Supergirl to the big screen is best forgotten.) Now the cinema’s powers that be have decided we’re ready for women with superpowers to headline as heroes in their own solo films — their own good solo films. Whatever flaws they might have, both movies are meaty wish-fulfillment for girls, including the inner girls of grown women like me. We get to fly! We get to fight! We get to save the world!

One of the interesting things to me about Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers — SPOILERS AHEAD — is that the world she saves isn’t the one she initially sets out to save. Her character arc reminds me somewhat of another tasty wish-fulfillment dish, Netflix’s new animated series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: in flying off course, she lands in a place where she discovers she’s been fighting on the wrong side, and where she has a chance to discover who she really is and what she’s meant to do. She has to reconnect with her lost identify, to know herself, before she can be a hero. Brie Larson plays this journey of self-discovery beautifully, imbuing the character with flashes of humor and spirit even from the beginning.

But as much as I love Carol and Nick Fury and want to give sweet kitty Goose a scratch behind the ears, the character who resonates most strongly with me is Monica, the daughter of Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau. She’s an incarnation of my inner twelve-year-old, smart and funny and wise in ways the adults aren’t. At a pivotal point, Maria must decide whether to fly with Carol on a dangerous mission or stay at home and protect Monica. Like most kids, Monica doesn’t think she needs protection, but that’s not how she puts her case when she convinces her mom to go with Carol. Instead, she points out that Maria has a chance to play a key role in important events, and no way should she pass that up. She should think of the example she’s setting for her daughter.

In a way, Monica says to her mother what I wish I could have said to all those bland, passive girlfriend characters from 1980s movies: don’t just send the boys off on adventures with a plaintive and teary-eyed plea to “be careful.” Put on your boots and join the fun. Take a stand. Don’t wait for others to solve all the problems; go out and do something.

In the comics, Monica becomes a superhero. I can’t wait to see that happen in the MCU.