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.

 

 

 

SFF Novels/Series Written by Women: A Recommendation List

In honor of International Women’s Day and World Book Day, I’m keeping today’s post simple: a list of recommendations, as of this day in 2019, of my favorite SFF authors who happen to be women and my favorites among their works. This list will, of course, change over time as I discover new books and authors.

Juliet Marillier: Daughter of the Forest; Son of the Shadows; Child of the Prophecy; Wolfskin; Heart’s Blood; Dreamer’s Pool; Tower of Thorns; Den of Wolves

Octavia Butler: The Parable of the Sower; Wild Seed; Kindred.

Sharon Shinn: Mystic and Rider, The Thirteenth House, Reader and Raelynx, Fortune and Fate, Jovah’s Angel; Troubled Waters.

Kate Forsyth: Bitter Greens; The Wild Girl (historical fiction rather than fantasy); The Witches of Eileanan; The Pool of Two Moons; The Tower of Ravens.

Kate Elliott: Black Wolves; Cold Magic; Cold Fire; Cold Steel.

Patricia McKillip: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Alphabet of Thorn; The Bards of Bone Plain; Moon-Flash; The Sorceress and the Cygnet; The Cygnet and the Firebird; Ombria in Shadow; Winter Rose.

Barbara Hambly: The Ladies of Mandrigyn; The Witches of Wenshar; Stranger at the Wedding; Bride of the Rat God.

Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death; Akata Witch.

N.K. Jemisin: The Shadowed Sun; The Fifth Season; The Obelisk Gate; The Stone Sky.

Naomi Novik: Uprooted; Spinning Silver.

Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion; Paladin of Souls.

Karen Lord: Redemption in Indigo.

Mercedes Lackey: Phoenix and Ashes; The Fire Rose; The Serpent’s Shadow; The Fairy Godmother; Winds of Fate; Winds of Change; Winds of Fury.

Joan D. Vinge: The Snow Queen; The Summer Queen.

Elizabeth Bear: Range of Ghosts; Shattered Pillars; Steles of the Sky.

Robin Hobb: Ship of Magic; Mad Ship; Ship of Destiny; Dragon Keeper; Dragon Haven.

Violette Malan: The Sleeping God; The Soldier King; The Storm Witch; Path of the Sun.

Martha Wells: The Cloud Roads; The Serpent Sea; The Siren Depths; The Wizard Hunters.

Holly Lisle: Fire in the Mist; Bones of the Past; Mind of the Magic.

Jo Walton: The King’s Peace; Among Others.

Vonda McIntyre: Dreamsnake.

 

Male Heroes Aren’t Going Anywhere

Or, Why I Need Captain Marvel to Be Good

A few days ago, an interesting question came up in my Twitter feed: what is something you wished you liked, but don’t? After a minute of thought, I answered, “SFF books” — SFF stories, really — “with male-only protagonists. . . Whenever I read a book with no female POV, something feels off to me.”

I came to realize this when I finished Martha Wells’ The Edge of Worlds, the fourth novel in her Raksura series. Wells is a storyteller and world-builder par excellence, and I’d devoured her initial trilogy (The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and The Siren Depths) with gusto. All the books are written primarily from the perspective of the male protagonist, Moon, with only a few scattered sequences departing from it. When I read the first three, this bothered me not at all, but as I moved through the fourth one, I couldn’t escape the feeling that female characters had less to do than in the previous outings, and when, at the climax, only two female characters were active and both were villains, I decided I would not need to read this book again and put it in my sell-back pile.

What has changed between my loving The Siren Depths and my disliking The Edge of Worlds — the books, or my perceptions of them? The more I ponder the question, the more I suspect Wells’ books are not the problem. It’s me. I’m suffering from a case of Male Hero Fatigue.

This year I will turn fifty, and I’ve spent a good portion of my life consuming stories in which boys and men occupy the center of the narrative, make all the important decisions, and perform all the crucial actions. Some have had no female characters at all (e.g. The Hobbit). In others, women occupy small and/or incidental roles (The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, a big number of iconic geek-culture flicks from E.T. to The Last Starfighter to Ghostbusters to Back to the Future). Others, ranging all the way from the original Star Wars trilogy to last year’s Black Panther, have cast women as active, competent allies who get their moments to shine even though, at the end of the proverbial day, boys and men are still the saviors, the Messiahs, the Chosen Ones. In the last three decades I’ve found a better share of day-saving women, mostly in the pages of books, yet the balance of heroic leads has, throughout my lifetime, been skewed in favor of men. Perhaps if I were younger, if I hadn’t gone through my formative years in the 1980s, I wouldn’t feel this fatigue. But it’s there, and likely to lessen only as the balance is corrected. That’s why it is vital to me that Captain Marvel be good.

Yet some fans don’t want to see that balance corrected, and every move towards its correction (wait, Rogue One has a female lead? After The Force Awakens had one? Two female leads in a row? Feminists are ruining Star Wars!) upsets these fans no end. They don’t want Captain Marvel to succeed. They want the default lead for SFF and adventure stories to remain male, and my Male Hero Fatigue may be largely a reaction to their predictable, perpetual railing against change.

In the minds of these fans, more and better representations of women means less and worse representations of men. They cling to this idea despite overwhelming evidence that contradicts it. Back when they were railing at Mad Max: Fury Road, I wrote a post to show how this movie had not led and would not lead to a dearth of central roles for men in SFF and action films. Now it seems I have to do it again. Captain Marvel is but one adventure movie coming out in the first half of 2019. Let’s take a look at some of the rest.

April: Shazam!; Hellboy; Avengers: Endgame.

May: Pokemon Detective Pikachu; John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum; Aladdin.

June: The Secret Life of Pets 2; Toy Story 4; Child’s Play

And for the rest of the summer — Spider-Man: Far From Home; The Lion King; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw; Artemis Fowl; The Angry Birds Movie 2; Good Boys.

Every single title here has a male protagonist. Where will the women be? So far, the only things I know for sure are that the female lead in Hellboy is a villain and Artemis Fowl, if it’s true to its source novel, will feature a feisty heroine who gives the titular anti-hero a rough time (which he deserves).  But will there be awesome female allies to kick butt alongside Shazam? Will Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4 be as heavily driven by male heroes as their predecessors were? And will I be able to overcome my Male Hero Fatigue enough to enjoy them? As an MCU completist I will have to see Endgame, and I hold out some hope for Toy Story 4 despite my opinion that the third film had a perfect ending. Hellboy, John Wick 3, and Hobbs & Shaw I’ll stay away from. For the rest I’ll wait and see.

Yet as you can see, opportunities to see a woman save the world are thin on the ground. Men in Black: International will give us Tessa Thompson having fun in an action role, but she’s co-hero with a male lead. Dark Phoenix centers on a female supervillain and the men (if the franchise stays true to form) who have to stop her, so of course that doesn’t count. Up until Star Wars Episode IX appears, Captain Marvel is it. It has to be good. It just has to be.

Many rebuke this mindset. It doesn’t matter who the protagonist is, they say, as long as the movie tells a good story. A fair point, but I would take it more seriously if it didn’t so often come from the same people who complain about what they see as “too many” female protagonists. In their minds, Captain Marvel represents “radical feminism” because she occupies the sort of heroic role that has for so long been reserved for men. My good is their evil.

When the movie is finally released and the critics and wider audience have their say, we’ll see which side history will favor. In the meantime I will keep Martha Wells’ original Raksura trilogy on my shelf, waiting for the time when my Male Hero Fatigue subsides at last.

 

 

Sabotaging Captain Marvel

PART 1.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Hollywood executives can no longer claim that when an action movie centering on a female protagonist fails at the box office (e.g. Red Sparrow, the Tomb Raider reboot), it’s because the movie-going public only wants to see white men as the heroes of such films. The rousing successes of Wonder Woman and Black Panther have given the lie to that notion, and this time, they can’t be laughed off. Now, in early 2019, Alita: Battle Angel has done well despite a poor Rotten Tomatoes critics score, an encouraging sign that a mediocre movie with a female lead might be as critic-proof as, say, Michael Bay’s first two Transformers movies.

Yet still we see pockets of resistance to inclusive representation in movies and television, particularly in action-adventure and SFF, and those pockets cannot resist any opportunity to call attention to themselves. Just now, the target of their ire is the upcoming Captain Marvel, the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a solo female protagonist. According to more than one source, they have flooded the movie’s RT site to spew their hate, hoping to damage its chances of success two weeks before its release. These people have not seen the movie and have no way of knowing if it’s good or not, yet apparently the fact that it’s going to exist bothers them no end.

Why this same crowd didn’t launch a pre-release attack on Alita: Battle Angel as well is a puzzler. I can only conclude that they didn’t bother because no one expected that female-led movie to do as well as it has, whereas the anticipation surrounding Captain Marvel has been great. Alita may have slipped through the fingers of the “anti-SJW” throng, but they don’t want to let another one get away.

Just why does the impending existence of Captain Marvel bother them so? Plenty of the haters claim their objections have nothing to do with its having a female lead, but say instead that it’s “too political” or “forcing radical feminism down our throats.” Yet I can’t help wondering how they’d know this when, once again, they haven’t seen the darn movie. How much can they honestly know about it, except that it centers on a female hero’s story? Considering these attacks bear an eerie resemblance to those aimed at Wonder Woman, the Ghostbusters reboot, and Mad Max: Fury Road, the haters’ claim is disingenuous. It’s the presence of a female protagonist that renders a yet-unseen action-adventure movie “too political” and an example of Hollywood’s new “radical feminism.”

So from this, can we conclude that stories with white male heroes are safely apolitical?

Of course not. The truth is that all good storytelling is in some way political. The same questions come up again and again in all forms of fiction: What is power? Who has it? How does one acquire it? How is it used? Does it always corrupt? I’ve been teaching a Foundations of Western Literature course at LIFE University this winter, and I can tell you that the Iliad, Oedipus the King, Antigone, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales are all heavily political, as is every play William Shakespeare ever wrote. All center, in various ways, on abuses of power and efforts to restore a healthier balance.

Is Captain Marvel likely to be in that league? I doubt it. But I daresay it will raise some of the same questions relative to power. Naturally it will be political. I want it to be political, in the same way my favorite Marvel films — Black Panther, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, and Captain America: The First Avenger — have been. All we want from a superhero movie is pure entertainment, some will protest. Absolutely. And what could be more entertaining than seeing those who abuse their power get their well-deserved comeuppance?

So, a female hero is inherently political. Any hero, with any discernible physical or personality traits, is inherently political. The “too” part of the complaint, however, remains to be proven. And I’d just as soon wait for the movie.

(Next: Yet Again, The Male Hero Isn’t About to Disappear)

 

Dream On

My husband and I have been watching the Amy Sherman-Palladino-created The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime, and it ranks as my third favorite comedy on television (just behind GLOW and Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Bolstered by strong performances by Award winners Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub, and Alex Borstein, as well as Marin Hinkle, who has come a long and interesting way since she played the funny, lovelorn Judy on Once and Again, this show tells the story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a New York Jewish housewife and mother whose husband leaves her for another woman. (Maybe) because of this, she subsequently discovers she has quite the gift for stand-up comedy. We see her struggle to balance her duties to her family with her efforts to break into the male-dominated world of stand-up, the show being set in 1959. At every turn she’s faced with a conflict between what the world wants/expects her to be and who she truly is/wants to be. Midge (Brosnahan) isn’t always likable, but I’m interested in seeing what she does next and how she learns, or not, from her mistakes.

While I love this show, like almost all things we love it has its problems. Most of the time I’m fully on board with it, and then there will come a scene that leaves me wondering what the heck just happened and what I’m to make of it.

Season 2 kicks off with a brief arc in which Midge’s mother Rose (Hinkle), tired of being underappreciated, heads for Paris to discover who she really is; her time there ignites an interest in art. When her contrite husband (Shalhoub) at last convinces her to return to New York with him, he arranges for her to sit in on art classes at Columbia University, where he’s a professor. So far, so good, right? Regrettably the show squelches this arc pretty quickly, as if only one woman per series is allowed an ongoing journey of self-discovery. Even worse is how it’s squelched. When Rose finds out that the young women in Columbia’s art program have plans to teach, she points out that Columbia has no female art teachers. (And of course there are no other schools where women might teach.) One of the women mentions she wants to be an artist, whereupon Rose lets her know that no woman has any hope of succeeding as one. (I guess Georgia O’Keefe doesn’t exist in this universe.) She advises them all to cut their losses and abandon the study of art and join the Business School instead, which is full of potential husbands. The young women fall for this advice so completely that Rose is blamed for gutting the art department and denied the right to sit in on classes. She has neither expressed nor shown any interest in art since.

This, I will admit, is in keeping with Rose’s established character. Since Season 1 she has upheld traditional gender roles, so it makes sense that after a brief flirtation with feminism she would fall back into her old familiar perspectives. What bothers me is that not one single art student has sufficient courage of conviction to challenge her. Not one of them asserts that art might be worth studying for its own sake, as if that weren’t what Rose herself is doing. Not one of them expresses any real passion for creating. Instead they sit there crestfallen, their dreams having been exposed as useless. Rose’s past becomes their future, and the art faculty at Columbia will continue all male in perpetuity.

Here we get a message that sharply contradicts the prevailing ethos of Midge’s dominant plotline: Ladies, don’t dream — or else tailor your dreams to fit the world’s expectations. Dream of marriage, babies, and bake sales. Accept Things As They Are and don’t push for change.

A scene from another episode later in the season echoes that sentiment. Midge’s agent, Susie (Borstein), manages to get free room and board at the Catskill Mountains resort where Midge is spending the summer by masquerading as a plumber (which amounts to her walking around the resort with a plunger in her hand). As she beds down for the night in the female employees’ dormitory, the other women swap stories of the great things they hope to do. One aspires to be a Broadway headliner, another wants to paint, another wants to become the next Emily Dickinson, etc., etc. The whole thing has a pleasant sorority feel to it until, just before the lights turn off, Susie says, “You realize none of that’s ever going to happen, right?” Like Rose’s reactionary advice, this pithy dream-puncturing is met with stunned, dejected silence. Couldn’t at least one of the woman have come back with, “That may be so, but I’m still going to try”? Of course not. The last word must be Susie’s. Cynicism: 1, Aspiration: 0.

I’m left wondering: in a show that centers on a woman pursuing her dream of being a great comedienne, why this insistent skewering of the dreams of other women? Is Midge Maisel really the only one special enough to deserve to aspire to a goal that diverges from 1959’s gender norms? If this is what we’re meant to think, then the show is far from as feminist-friendly as we might have expected. I still love it and can’t wait to watch the next episode, but I’ll own I’m a little disappointed. Maybe more than a little.

When I see or read stories I love and notice certain problems in them, I naturally think of my own writing, and I am resolved never to prop up cynicism and/or the Way Things Are at the expense of dreams and the hope for change. Cynicism may have a voice, but it won’t have the last word. Because I’m that aspiring writer sitting cross-legged in her bunk in the employees’ dormitory, dreaming that her words can have an impact. It’s never going to happen, right? I don’t think so.

My publisher closed its doors last year, and now I’m venturing into self-publishing even though I have only a basic idea of what I’m doing. Still, I’m doing this, because it’s who I am.

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.

 

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.