But isn’t this a girl book?

My favorite book to recommend to readers of a certain age, or those shopping for them, is Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. It’s a perfect rec for middle grade readers with an interest in fantasy who have already consumed the “big” titles at that level — Warriors, The Unwanteds, Land of Stories, Percy Jackson — but who might not be ready for full-on YA yet. It’s great because, despite being an award-winner with a special place in the hearts of many, it is an older book, and so it doesn’t have the marketing splash that the big series do. But I read it as a kid, and it stuck with me, so I absolutely love recommending it to others.

The protagonist, feeling constrained by the expectations their life defines for them, embarks first on a quest of self-betterment. They learn all sorts of useful skills from the palace staff, everything from fighting to cooking to Latin, because they don’t just want to sit around and be waited on all the time. But when their parents try to force them into a life they think is too small, too tedious, too ordinary, they run away and decide to become the “official captive” of a dragon. They then end up having to figure out how to defeat a wizard who’s trying to steal the dragons’ magic and poison them. And that’s just the first book — the rest of the series has more tricks and twists, surprising rescues, and dashing feats of heroism.

Did you notice that I used a gender-neutral pronoun throughout that description? That’s because the protagonist is a girl, Cimorene — and that fact alone puts parents off buying this book for their sons. Never mind the fact that this is, at heart, an adventure story. Parents frequently take one look at the cover, as I’m pressing this book I’m telling them is amazing into their hands, and dismiss it. “But isn’t this a girl book?” they ask me.

Y’all.

Your sons can read a book with a female protagonist. It won’t hurt them. I promise.

In fact, evidence suggests it’ll be really good for them. It’ll teach them to empathize with the girls and women in their lives. It’ll help them see that it’s not just boys who are the center of stories. It’ll help normalize female protagonists for them, so that female-led stories can stop being rarities for us to cling to and can instead be just stories, like male-led stories have always been.

So please, stop asking me, “But isn’t this a girl book?”, because I die a little inside every time you do.

Pro Feminae

Today is International Women’s Day, and a group of the Authors 18 are writing about what that means to them and how feminist ideals have influenced their work.

I wrote From Unseen Fire long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements caught fire, but my heroine, Latona, would be all about them.

Ancient Rome was far from the worst time in history to be a woman. You had legal rights. You could own property. You could run a business and make quite a bit of money doing it. Unlike the Greek women, you had freedom of movement outside the house. Raping you was a severe crime (as long as you were a free woman, that is) and punishable by the loss of a man’s hands or genitals. If you were of middling or above social class, you probably got some sort of an education, at least enough to be considered literate. You could hold religious office and earn great respect for it. You could wield phenomenal political power behind the scenes, as women like Cornelia, Fulvia, Livia, both Agrippinae, Plotina, Sabina, Julia Domna, and Helena can attest. And, since Rome had decent sanitation and health care, as well as a plant that was so effective as birth control it was eventually driven to extinction, you were somewhat less likely to die in childbirth than other women before modern times.

So, not the worst.

But not, like, ideal.

You had rights, but you still weren’t, y’know, a full citizen. You couldn’t vote. You couldn’t speak at the public rostrum (except in a few extreme circumstances). You still belonged to a man, usually your father or husband, but if they were both dead, then perhaps a brother or uncle. Only if they all died and the courts couldn’t find anyone to take you on might you be named a woman in suo jure, in charge of herself. You might wield power behind the scenes, but if you came too far out into the open, you were considered a monster of some kind, derided either as mannish or as a succubus. Beating you was frowned upon, but legal. If you were lower-class, your career options were limited; if you were upper-class, they were nonexistant. Wherever you were, unless you were a Vestal Virgin, you were expected to be fruitful and multiply. Rape still, of course, happened, and if you didn’t have more money and influence than the rapist, bringing the violator to court and getting justice could be challenging-to-impossible; if you were a slave, absolutely impossible. Social expectations hemmed in your behavior pretty much everywhere.LatonaAesthetic

This is the world that Latona of the Vitelliae finds herself chafing against. Aven adds the component of magic, and Latona is incredibly gifted. She’s never been allowed to discover just how talented she is, though. Her parents were fearful for her, worrying that if she made her powers known, she would be a target for use and abuse by unscrupulous men. They’re also worried about her emotions; the Vitellians are known for their tempers, and Latona’s elements, Fire and Spirit, can so easily run out of control. They try first to hide her in a temple, but when her mentor dies, the new High Priestess, worried that Latona’s power and influence will outstrip her own, sends her back home. So her parents marry her to a wealthy but unimportant nobody, hoping it will keep her beneath notice. It doesn’t work. As readers will learn in the prologue (so this doesn’t really count as a spoiler), Latona is too fiercely devoted to her family to stand aside when they’re threatened. She uses her magic to protect them from a vicious Dictator — and while she keeps the magical manipulation secret, she draws the Dictator’s attention for her earthly attributes. She considers it a bargain she makes for her family’s lives; we would certainly call it rape. As though that weren’t enough trauma to be getting along with, her relationship with her husband, never more than dutiful, deteriorates after that, from cold and distant to outright emotionally abusive.

So this is where the beginning of From Unseen Fire finds her: wound so tightly she’s about to explode. She’s been gaslit into believing she’s dangerous, that she can’t control herself, that her emotions will cause chaos if expressed; she’s been told that claiming her power will only make her prey; she’s been abused and traumatized and has rationalized it all to herself as sacrifice; she has stood by while others were abused because she couldn’t save them without endangering herself and her sisters, though she hates herself for the inaction; she’s unhappy in her marriage and has been unable to conceive a child, and so she worries she’s a disappointment to her patron goddess Juno; she knows, deep down, that she is capable of so much more than the confines of her life have allowed, but at every turn, she gets nudged, coddled, bullied, or outright shoved back inside those suffocating parameters.

Her whole life, Latona has tried to make herself smaller, so that she’ll fit into the world around her.

She’s about to burst.

I think that’s a feeling a lot of women can relate to, no matter when or in what conditions they live.

From Unseen Fire debuts April 17th, 2018; you can pre-order it now from Amazon, B&N, or your local indie bookstore

And be sure to check out these other 2018 debuts featuring women taking action against injustice in society: 

intlwomensday

From Clarissa Harwood: New Novels to Celebrate International Women’s Day

From Samantha Heuwagen: International Women’s Day with Debut Authors

Constant Vigilance

The theatre I work for just closed a new play, Shakespeare’s Sister by Emma Whipday, which explores the life of the hypothesized Judith. Whipday’s concept came from Virginia Woolf and her style was heavily influenced by Shakespeare in Love. I’m not sure what I was expecting going in — something lighter, more on the Shakespeare in Love side of things. What I got was an emotional gut punch.

Without giving too much away, Judith dares to write and is punished for it. So are all the women who help her. Her one male ally is temporarily embarrassed but suffers no real consequences. Some of her final monologues, responding to all of this, hit me really, really hard.

I am a woman who writes in what is still considered, in many ways, a man’s genre. And there are men in the world who wish violence upon me because I am there.

This is something that’s on my mind a lot, because of the world we live in, but it struck me particularly hard today following a Twitter exchange.

In the replies, women shared their dreams — the things I guarantee you most men take for granted. Walking home alone. Going to a bar by yourself. Star-gazing. Taking public transportation. Going for a late night run or dogwalk. Grab a snack from the convenience store. Wear high heels at night. Leave my keys in my purse until I actually needed them to unlock a door.

Simple things.

The replies also featured men who could not wait to remind us that we are not even allowed to imagine a world where we live without threat.

“You think rapists would obey a curfew?”
“Man-hating feminist bitches”
“This is sexist against men”
“You still wouldn’t be safe in the daytime.”
“Men want to be safe, too!!!”
“#NotAllMen”

And so forth.

None seemed to appreciate the irony that they were proving themselves the very threat that women fear — not just at night, but any time we dare to be female in public.

Of course not all men. But any man.

We walk with our keys between our fingers because we don’t know which man is benign and which is a threat. We look over our shoulders, we move briskly, we avoid eye contact because while we might not know which man is safe and which is dangerous, we do know that if something happens to us, we will be blamed for it. Why was she walking alone? Why was she on that street? Why wasn’t she paying better attention?

We’re not paranoid man-haters. We are living beings that have adapted to our circumstances.

Circumstances where men are so angry at a thought experiment that they feel compelled to remind us that we are never safe. That we should expect violence and harassment just as a basic condition of living.

I think conversations like this are important to have, because even good men so often don’t realize what the women in their lives go through on a daily basis. I’ve had male friends and boyfriends utterly horrified to realize how I’ve been conditioned to respond to potential threats. I know who the good men are by who listens, who modifies his behavior, who takes active measures to help women feel safe instead of threatened.

But I am exhausted of living in this world. Literally exhausted. It takes a literal and physical toll on our bodies, performing a thousand threat-checks every time we step outside (or voice opinions on the internet, for that matter). The stress and adrenaline are wearying and damaging.

So when one of the angry men came after me on Twitter, I did disengage. But not before asking him to examine himself. Asking him why women imagining their safety made him angry and violent. Asking him to figure out what poison in his soul causes him to react in the way he did.

Did it work? Of course not. I had no expectation that it would.

But if enough people speak up enough times — if enough women testify their experiences, if enough male allies call out their bros — then maybe the world gets a little better, a little safer, one dude at a time.

Meanwhile, it’s two hours later, and my hands are still shaking from the adrenaline spike.

DanyFFSmate

 

“In them and in ourselves our safety lies”

So the safety pin thing is starting to take off, and, naturally, the internet being what it is, so is the attendant backlash.

I understand the argument. This can’t be slacktivism. This can’t be the only thing someone who cares about what’s happening to our country does. But I don’t think it’s a meaningless gesture.

I think about my recent trip to New York. I was in the city for less than three hours before I almost got into a fight on the subway. Some jackass was going after a woman in hijab, shouting as loud as he could about “Arabs aren’t American” and how his military service supposedly gave him the right to decide that. And I swear, I wasn’t trying to engage. But I asked if she was okay, and then I stepped in between them to cut off his visual access. I was glaring pretty mightily, but I kept my mouth shut. So, naturally, he turned on me. “What are you looking at? Oh, you think I’m a big racist?” Well, yeah, ’cause you pretty clearly are. But I held my tongue. “You don’t know! I did four tours! They’re all dangerous! They don’t belong here!” If that’s even true, then you’re a shame to our military, not a hero. But I held my tongue. “Where you from, blondie bitch? You even American? Where you from?”

I have a temper. And that’s when I lost it.

“Virginia. Where they teach manners.”

The lady in hijab got off at the next stop, and though I was still far from my destination, so did I.

No one else in that car said anything. Everyone else avoided eye contact, looked down, looked at their phones, looked anywhere but at the racist asshole trying to intimidate a woman on her way home from work. I can’t help but think, maybe, just maybe, if there had been some visual sign that there were others around, who wouldn’t stand for that kind of talk, someone else might have. It’s easier to be brave in numbers. (Certainly that’s the message the racists and bigots have taken away from Trump’s victory).

I live in a place where I’m less likely to encounter situations like that one, situations that morally require my intervention. Not that there aren’t bigots here — the gods know there are — but the population density is less, so there are fewer incidents on any given day, and thus it’s less likely that I’ll be the one to witness something happening. It’s also, frankly, a less diverse area than a big city like DC or New York (though more diverse than many people would give rural Virginia credit for being).

It’s a small town in the mountains of western Virginia.

On Wednesday, it felt funereal.

I live in a blue dot in a red part of a purple state. We managed not to embarrass ourselves by the skin of our teeth in this election, but that was cold comfort on Wednesday, as we attempted to reconcile ourselves to the reality that our President-elect is a misogynist, a racist, a bigot, quite probably a criminal, quite probably in league with foreign rivals, and quite definitely someone who had stoked the flames of hatred for his own personal gain. Our President-elect is someone who is making our world less safe. Our President-elect is a direct threat to many of us.

This blue dot has a lot of women in it. A lot of LGBTQ. More POC than one might think at first glance. A school for disabled children. As such, on Wednesday morning, it had a lot of very worried people in it. People who now felt vulnerable, because we’re looking at a President-elect who has demeaned us, who doesn’t think we have a right to be here, a right to our own bodies, a right to our words, or, really, most of the rights afforded to us by the Constitution. The city was in mourning.

And I realized… I had women younger than myself looking to me. For words, for direction, for hope. Apparently, I’ve reached the place in my life where… that’s the position I’m in. It bestows a responsibility.

Wearing a safety pin is not all I’m doing. I’m figuring out how to join protests, marches, and upcoming political campaigns. I’m amplifying the voices of those who are already suffering because of Trump’s hate-mongering. I’m pressing electors to become faithless in an attempt to save our republic. I’m holding the media accountable for their deficiencies. I’m re-configuring my budget to allow for donations to important organizations. I’m figuring out how to use my position as an educator and an artist to have a positive impact, to create a world where more people value pluralism, think divergently, and question what’s handed to them.

But I can also do this. I can wear this safety pin so that those around me know where I stand. If you have been left frightened and vulnerable by this election, I share your fears and concerns. I am someone you can talk to. Someone you can ask for a hug. And if, gods forbid, something happens to you, I am someone who will do everything I can to protect you. I will stand at your side, and if necessary, I will stand between you and what threatens you.

Two (Wonderfully Feminist) TV Recommendations

This past week, I’ve been taking a brief break from writing as a sort of brain-cleanse, now that the manuscript is off with Connor and my betas. As such, I’ve been letting television occupy my attention, and I wanted to pass some recommendations on to y’all:

Bomb_Girls_S2First up is one I actually watched a couple of years ago: Bomb Girls. This is a Canadian show about women working in a bomb factory during World War II — the real riveters. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds — typical middle-class, working-class from the Canadian prairie, and one blue-blooded girl through whom we get the “fish out of water” perspective. It’s a tight-knit group — protective but competitive, exploring the challenges and freedoms of having their own incomes and their own lives.

The second I just started this week and have been binging every chance I get: Call the Midwife. It’s set in the insular and impoverished neighborhood of Poplar in the London East End in the late 1950s and follows the stories of the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House. It has a feeling sort of like a post-war ER: few patients appear in more than one episode, and each one has its own little mini-arc rather than the larger, season-wide arcs that are in Bomb Girls. The midwives don’t just deliver babies; they provide almost all the medical care in the neighborhood, including prenatal and geriatric, and they also often serve as de facto social workers and therapists. As I gather, it’s based on a book of true stories in an area where, before birth control pills were available, the neighborhood saw 80 to 100 births a month (and less than a dozen a month afterwards).

Despite the differences in location and era, these shows seem to be in conversation with each other in a lot of ways. Both are primarily concerned with the lives of working women. The desires that matter are theirs. The pride and dignity that matter are theirs. We see family life and working life through their eyes. I don’t think I can overstate how important that is. Women are often so overlooked in history, as are their contributions in both the public and private spheres. In one episode of Call the Midwife, a character outright talks about how much women’s health matters. It doesn’t sound anachronistically feminist — it’s simply the natural result of a show focused on female characters who are, themselves, primarily concerned with women’s lives. There are male characters, of course — but they’re all in support roles. The husbands and boyfriends of the main characters are all portrayed as recognizing the amazing qualities of their wives and girlfriends, and the ones who don’t get it are shucked off unceremoniously.

Call the Midwife … 'We don't go out on bikes.'They also both tackle a lot of tough issues — including many that are still relevant, generations later. Abortion, access to contraception, PTSD, workplace harassment, equal pay, mixed-race relationships, abusive relationships, physical and mental disabilities, and so forth. And they all get handled with compassion and grace (which isn’t to say that all of the characters always do — but the storytelling does). Bomb Girls does better on the racial diversity front on the whole, with a major recurring theme surrounding an interracial relationship. Call the Midwife doesn’t have a diverse main cast, but has a few episodes that deal with racial tension of the late-50s. More of its focus is on deprivation and socio-economic divides. For all that Call the Midwife takes place in an Anglican convent, too, it’s remarkably free of slut-shaming narratives. Women who get pregnant out of wedlock are pitied, not in a condescending way, but because it’s hard enough to raise and provide for children with help — doing it alone in those conditions is nigh-impossible. Neither the nuns nor the nurses chide their charges for how they got “in the family way”, and more than once, they physically put themselves between pregnant women and aggressive or abusive men. They stand up for the girls and women entrusted to their care — and they encourage them to look out for themselves and for each other.

Both shows are also unflinching when it comes to the physical realities of their depicted careers: Bomb Girls involves several injuries and mutilations at the factory, and Call the Midwife doesn’t shy from showing the gore and fluids attendant upon childbirth. Bomb Girls has a darker tone overall than Call the Midwife, which is almost relentlessly optimistic. It takes some getting used to, as someone who’s grown up steeped in the “dark and gritty” era of storytelling — but it’s nice, actually. Bomb Girls makes no promises that all will turn out well for the people it makes you care about, but in Call the Midwife,  you’re almost always left with a good sense of hope. People tend to end their stories a little bit better than they started. Even when tragedy strikes, there’s always an uplifting message attending it. Not quite as realistic, perhaps, but I’m actually okay with that. I prefer my fiction optimistic.

So: If you’re interested in television that fights against some of the most common gender-related complaints about the medium, check out these shows. The women in both are all fully-realized characters with their own identities, all strong in their own ways, all vulnerable in their own ways — like, y’know, people. And it’s just delightful.

Early Exposure to SF/F

I read a comment on a Fantasy Faction article earlier today that made me sad. In an article about how women are systematically under-represented and under-marketed in the SF/F genres, some dudebro felt the need to comment asking, and I quote, “Honestly, who really cares if there aren’t as many female authors as male authors…?” Apart from the obvious answer — the person who wrote the article, the many female authors, their fans, and anyone else with two brain cells to rub together — he then somehow managed to top his own ignorant, entitled self by explicating that fantasy is male dominated because things like adventure, exploration, self-realization, and wanting to protect and provide for a family are experiences that are particular to the male gender.

Yeah.

This attitude is both depressing and offensive. It’s almost bewildering to me that people can still actually think that in 2014 — but, then again, it’s not, because I’m all too familiar with just how little so many people think of women. Being politically active will dispel you of any illusions to the contrary real quick, as will just, y’know, being a woman in public.

But it still baffles me that this attitude can be sustained in the world we live in now. The blinkers that someone has to put on not to see women for what they are must just be astonishingly large. To so wholly fail to understand that half of the species has hopes and dreams and desires just like your half… I understand that many men (and some women) can do this. I just don’t comprehend how they manage it.

And it got me thinking about my very first experience with the fantasy genre and how that may have shaped my own outlook.

I'm readyMy earliest experience with fantasy, at least that I can remember, wasn’t Disney. It wasn’t the cherished book of fairy tales I had, whose illustrations are still what pop into my mind first when anyone mentions Rapunzel, the Snow Queen, or the Princess and the Pea. It wasn’t My Little Pony. It was The Last Unicorn. The film, not the book — but when I later discovered the book at age 12, I thought it was one of the most brilliant things that had ever happened to me. I know I wasn’t any older than 3 when I first saw the movie, though, and it had a profound impact on me. I wanted to watch it over and over again. I memorized all my favorite lines. I had my cousins playing “free the unicorns” with me in the crashing waves of the Outer Banks. Over the next few years, the games got more complex. I have vivid memories of, age 5 or so, essentially role-playing a sequel to the book in my grandmother’s backyard. Schmendrick had gotten kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and we plucky band of young girls had to go save him. There was much climbing of trees and scraping of knees.

These memories are important to me for a lot of reasons. It one-thousand-percent discredits the notion that fantasy is a boys-only genre, that little girls don’t like adventuring, that women fundamentally lack those relationships. And it discredits the idea that little girls can only see themselves as damsels in distress. It never even occurred to me. Probably because the women in that story, my first exposure to the genre, were anything but helpless maidens waiting for a rescue. Molly and Amalthea smash that trope all over the place. It may have been written by a male author, but it’s definitely a female-centric story. Molly is a cantankerous mature woman, far from virginal and innocent, who up and decides that, yes, she is joining this adventure. Just shows up and says, “I’m ready.” She works hard, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty, and says what she thinks. For her, the reclamation of herself comes later in life than the stereotypical coming-of-age, but it’s no less important for that. (Indeed, as I close in on 30 myself, I think it may be even moreso). Amalthea is, as a unicorn, proud and standoffish, yet somewhat reluctant to embrace her destiny as the last of her kind. When she gets turned into a woman, she spends a while looking like the stereotypical damsel in distress, maybe even wanting to be — but it doesn’t fit. Her destiny — her birthright, which that commenter believes only male characters are endowed with — catches up with her. She has to stand up to evil. She has to drive the Red Bull into the sea and free her people. She has to avenge Prince Lir. No one, least of all the ladies themselves, suggests that their female bodies preclude them from these experiences.

Would my outlook have been much altered if this hadn’t been my first experience in the genre? I doubt it. I grew up with such supportive parents who were equally happy to buy me dolls or dinosaurs, to take me to dance classes or to teach me to rappel, that I developed an immunity to a lot of the gender-coding that affects kids. (Which is certainly not to say I never internalized any misogyny, just that it wasn’t of that particular girls’ toys/stories vs boys’ toys/stories type). But I’m still glad that The Last Unicorn was my first introduction to the genre. It meant I never had to doubt if there was a place for me in it.

Yes, All Women: Cultural Misogyny from a Writer’s Perspective

First off, if you are somehow on the internet and not yet aware of the #YesAllWomen phenomenon going on over on Twitter, then you need to check it out. If you’re a woman, you will probably feel some combination of depressed, heartened, proud, scared, and totally unsurprised by the stories being shared. If you’re a man, especially a man who wants to think of himself as a good guy, as a feminist ally, as someone trustworthy, then you need to go read, absorb, learn, and resist the temptation to put your two cents in.

YesAllWomenTweet3

I have a lot of thoughts on this. A lot. It’s certainly no secret that I am an outspoken feminist, and this issue is one that cuts deep. It would at any time, but after the UCSB tragedy, after the girl who got stabbed to death when she wouldn’t go with a guy to prom, after the girl who got kicked out of her prom because her dress was considered impure by a bunch of gross fathers… it’s particularly timely.

I was ten years old the first time I feared for my safety because of sexual aggression from men. Boys, really — they probably weren’t much older than 16 or 17. But I was 10 years old, walking my dog, and they were following me in their car and shouting things I didn’t even understand yet. They circled back around again and again, until I, terrified, took a shortcut between several backyards to get home. I didn’t tell my father, because I was afraid he’d hunt them down with a gun.

It started when I was ten. It has not stopped.

I have friends who have been raped. I have friends who have narrowly escaped rape. I have friends who’ve been physically assaulted. I have been physically assaulted. I have been emotionally abused. I have friends who have been abused. I have friends who have been followed by men, on the street, in cars, in hallways, in hotels, in dorms, in museums, in libraries. I have friends who have had to resort to physical violence when men wouldn’t take the message. I don’t think I have a single female friend who doesn’t have a story about a time a man made her feel unsafe.

So I have a lot of feelings.

YesAllWomenTweet2

I’m also a writer. So I think about this issue as it pertains to storytelling.

And just as an exercise in that, it’s enormously powerful. The stories being told on that hashtag are emotionally moving — some are so sad, some are enraging, some are empowering, but they’re all getting my heart rate up. And as depressing as the stories are, as hard as they can be to read — particularly when the stream just keeps throttling, when the tales of misery and fear just. keep. coming. — it also makes me proud, and happy in a perverse, backwards sort of way. Because women so often feel silenced. Women don’t always get the space and the attention to tell their stories — and there are plenty of people out there trying to take this one away, to shame and silence what’s happening. (A note: If you’re a man arguing against this hashtag, you are part of the problem. If you’re a woman decrying it and claiming to be “not like those others”, you have some internalized misogyny that needs examining).

But I’m also a writer of fiction. So I’m thinking about that as well.

Media perpetuates these problems, but it can fight them, too — if done right. Some media tries and fails. Some — a lot — doesn’t try at all. And some stories — generally those told about women, by women, for women — succeed, at least in some measure. We can fight through stories. We can tell our own, we can tell each other’s, we can tell imagined stories that illustrate the reality.

YesAllWomenTweet4

I write fantasy and science fiction. When I write fantasy, it’s generally historical fantasy — but that means AUs, which means I could change any rules I want. And in futuristic sci-fi, you get to make it all up anyway. So could I write a world without misogyny? Could I write a world where women felt safe in public? Where sexual violence was not the first threat an opponent would think to make? Where it wasn’t something women just expected to have to guard against?

I don’t think I could. Because I wouldn’t believe it.

I have to believe what I write in order for the story to work. Not in a literal way, but in the “things need not have happened to be true” sort of way.

And while I can believe in the possibility of elemental magic, of starships and moving through dark matter, of alien races and alternate words, of the dominos effect in history that could create a whole new reality… the misogyny of the world that I live in  is so ingrained that I don’t know that my imagination stretches far enough to undo it. I can hope for it, but not really believe in it, and that would out in the writing.

And I doubt my readers — at least, my female readers — would be able to believe in it, either.

There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend.

YesAllWomenTweet1

Why Do I Care? (On gender disparity and the Star Wars VII casting news)

The Star Wars VII casting news has caused a lot of disappointment and not a small bit of outrage on the internet today, largely related to its lack of diversity. And a lot of that is focused on the fact that of all the newly introduced cast members, exactly one is female. This stings. I’m not so much angry as just disheartened, because I was hoping for better. It’s hard to say I expected it. My awareness of the way this industry works is a little too acute for that. But I hoped.

Detention cellTo be fair, I suppose it’s possible that that one female (Daisy Ridley) will be the central figure, the Luke of this trilogy. I’m not overly optimistic about that, but it’s possible. Far more likely from the current buzz, however, is that that primary protagonist role is going to John Boyega. This post articulates a lot of what I’m feeling about the casting news itself. Does it mean this will automatically be a bad movie? No. But I think it means it’s not going to be as good a movie as it could’ve been.

I’m proud of how much outcry there’s been, from both men and women, about this. I’m glad my geek sisters are standing up and shouting together, and I’m glad so many of our geek brothers have our backs. I’m glad to be hearing stories of little girls who, like I did, want to play with lightsabers and get into blaster shoot-outs in defence of the galaxy, and of little boys who are learning that, yeah, female-led stories can be just as fun as the male-focused stories they’re used to.

But of course, this is the internet, with all its attendant troubles. So in addition to those displays of solidarity, there’s also been a lot of bro-culture nonsense slung all over the place. At worst, it’s… well, exactly what you’d expect. But even the more benign responses are insulting and aggravating — the men asking, “But why do you care?”

So, just in case anyone’s honestly asking that question, not just using it as a roundabout way to get we silly women to shut up, here’s why I care:

  • Because I have loved this series since I was 11. Despite its problems, I have continued to love it. I have an emotional investment.
  • Because this series was a lot of what shaped me as a writer. As I’ve discussed before, this was the impetus for choosing this career path, and I honed my skills in the Star Wars universe. It means a lot to me professionally as well as personally.
  • Because this series was a lot of how I identified — and was identified by others — as a geek. My formative years were tied up in it, and as a girl, that experience was different than it was for my male friends. I was even more of a freak than they were. I was fighting the “Fake Geek Girl” nonsense a generation before that was the name anyone put to it. I had to work harder to prove my devotion, had to earn my stripes, and I damn well did so. I proved a long time ago that I get to care about this.
  • Because representation matters. Girls have as much a right as boys to see themselves represented in the stories they love, and they deserve better than a single default character to choose from. Girls should get to decide if they want to be the princess, or the cocky smuggler, or the clever scientist, or the intrepid explorer, or the grave and noble leader, or the wise mentor, and they shouldn’t have to strip themselves of their femininity to do it. (It’s also well worth noting that an interest in science fiction can easily beget an interest in science — and we need more girls to grow up into women who work in that field).
  • Because it’s important to our world that boys learn to see girls as more than just one thing, too.
  • Because girls can have heroes’ journeys. I seriously saw someone on one site trying to argue that the main character had to be male because “that’s just the archetype.” As though women don’t struggle with issues of identity, conflicting priorities and responsibilities, and determining their destinies. As though girls can’t go on adventures, wrestle with the question of death, overthrow darkness, and come out on the other side bruised and battered but stronger and wiser, too. As though men have a monopoly on good stories.
  • Because Star Wars, thanks to its sheer size and force, does a lot to set the standard for the genre and as such, I feel, has a responsibility to the genre. The original trilogy did so much to innovate technologically. Now is the time to be innovative when it comes to storytelling.
  • Because Star Wars has never been great about gender representation in the past, yet I keep naively hoping for better. The original trilogy had The Chick. In fact, The Chick who would pretty much come to define The Chick in the genre. And don’t get me wrong, I love Leia and still sort of want to be her when I grow up. But she was what we got. Other women were relegated to a spare few lines in a single film of the trilogy (Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma) or were alien slave dancers (sorry, Oola). And things didn’t get a whole lot better in the prequels. We get Padme and we sort of get Shmi. Shmi gets blatantly (and brutally) fridged in order to provide Anakin a reason to go to the Dark Side, and Padme never lives up to her promise (despite Natalie Portman’s efforts to triumph over the script). Other than them, there are some background Jedi and counselors, sure, but no other figures even approaching what you’d call central. They do a lot better character-wise in the EU (Mara Jade! Bria Tharen! Jaina Solo! and so forth, including expanding some of those background figures from the prequels), but, as I noted a while back, the content creators? Still overwhelmingly male. So we still tend to see female figures through the male lens.
  • Because this is a missed opportunityStar Wars is one of the most popular franchises of all time, and now it’s backed by freaking Disney. They’re safe. They’re going to make piles of money on this no matter what. They could tell any story they wanted to. Not branching out beyond the familiar is an error in judgment.
  • Because I’m a woman trying to write in the SF/F genre. I know. Shocking. Yet we do exist! Lots of us! So to anyone saying, “Well if you want to see X represented, just write it yourself”– Trust me. We’re trying. It just ain’t that easy. SF/F is still a boys’ club overall. Much of the female-oriented success, at least by broader media standards, in the genre has been in YA — which is, not coincidentally, also dismissed by many of the Powers That Be as inferior to the adult, “serious” side of things.  Trying to tell a female-oriented story and actually have it heard, published, put out into the world — that’s hard. You’re at a disadvantage before you even begin. So many great stories by women get shunted to the side because they “don’t really fit the genre”. It’s well beyond time to change what those narrow boundaries of “in the genre” mean. Star Wars could be helping that, and instead they’re reinforcing the status quo.
  • And finally, if all that weren’t quite enough, I care because I am a human being with emotions, and those emotions have validity. Dismissing the outcry against this casting news as a tempest in a teapot is patriarchal gaslighting nonsense, and believe me, I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go re-read The Paradise Snare in an attempt to make myself feel better.

Book Meme (with bonus matching game and sociopolitical commentary)

So, I stole this meme from Facebook, but decided to post it here because I wanted more of a chance to pontificate about these books — specifically, what sort of a reader and writer I think they’ve turned me into.

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ books just the ones that have touched you.

  1. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmunska Orczy
  2. Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
  3. Deathless – Catherynne Valente
  4. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
  5. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  6. Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman
  7. Kushiel’s Chosen – Jacqueline Carey
  8. Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J K Rowling
  10. Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman

First off, I’m pretty pleased with myself that the list features six female authors. I walk the walk when it comes to supporting women in media. (Numbers 11 and 12, for what it’s worth, would probably be Gone with the Wind and Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. And The Handmaid’s Tale probably comes in at 13 — so there’s three more female authors who rank highly in my esteem, all for very different reasons). I don’t know what it says that of the three male authors, two of them are featured twice, except that I really like what those guys write. I’m also fairly pleased with myself for not copping out and listing entire series, as I often do with these memes. Narrowing it down made me think harder about what it is that has stuck with me, even out of those series that I most cherish. But the list came easily, for the most part. These are all books I revisit frequently, old friends who always welcome me back.

So what does this list say about me? I like epics. I like sweeping romance, but I like it complicated. I like the middle volumes of things, where it’s dark and twisted and unresolved. I like history and fantasy, and I have little interest in modern reality, so far as my pleasure reading goes. A lot of these books have stuck with me for a really long time. I first read Catherine, Called Birdy when I was nine and The Last Unicorn when I was twelve (though I’d seen and loved the movie since I was two). A good chunk come from my mid-teenage years: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mists of Avalon, Good Omens. The most recent addition, Deathless, I only read last year, but it made a huge impression.

I’m certainly attracted to an elegant turn of phrase. While not all of these authors write in the same style, I would say they’re pretty much all writers who really love language for its own sake — and that lends itself to a similar felicity of expression, even if it manifests in dissimilar ways. I can definitely quote all ten of those books off the top of my head. Which is making me want to play a matching game. So we will! Because it’s my blog and I do what I want.

  1. “Things need not have happened to be true.”
  2. “A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.”
  3. “If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.”
  4. “…muttering prayers and love-words like a curse…”
  5. “And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.”
  6. “‘All this time, and you speak to me as though I were a flighty pinprick of a girl. I am a magician! Did you never think, even once, that I loved lipstick and rouge for more than their color alone? I am a student of their lore, and it is arcane and hermetic beyond the dreams of alchemists.'”
  7. “Pride, she thought drearily, was a cold bedfellow.”
  8. “The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.”
  9. “‘They deserve their fate, they deserve worse.  To leave a child out in the snow…’   ‘Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be the prince.  Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?'”
  10. “‘Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.'”

I also (shockingly) like heroines. Of the ten books on that list, only two, maybe three, don’t have what I would consider central female characters — Harry Potter, since no character manages to be as central as he does (but we do still get, y’know, Hermione and Minerva and Luna and Ginny, all of whom shine so brilliantly in that book in particular), Good Omens is such an ensemble work (but still features Anathema, Pepper, War, etc), and Sandman, since if it has a central figure, that would be Morpheus, but that particular volume is even more ensemble than most of them. Of the rest? Marguerite Blakeney. Phedre no Delaunay and Ysandre de la Courcel. Morgaine and Vivivane. Amalthea and Molly Grue. Birdy. Marya Morevna. Esme and Gytha and Magrat. It’s a wide spectrum and no mistake. There’s not just one way to be a heroine. The only thing all those women have in common, really, is that they act. And this has always been true, in other media as well as in books. My heroines growing up were Princess Leia, Xena, and Queen Elizabeth I.

There’s a chicken and egg thing here, I think. Did I like these books with these amazing heroines (and anti-heroines, and occasionally female villains) because of the type of person I am, or did reading books with those characters shape me into that person? A little of both, probably. I can credit my parents with the fact that I think I internalized a lot less misogyny than a lot of women of my generation. Not none, mind — I’m not sure that would be possible, even in the most liberated of environments. But it was never, ever implied that there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl, whether it was playing with dinosaurs or learning to rappel at the age of five or dressing up like Disney princesses for Halloween. I could do all of those things — and did. And that spread into the media I consumed, too. My parents bought me books by both male and female authors, with both male and female characters. When they made up bedtime stories, it was always a little girl going out and adventuring. And so that’s what I sought out as I grew old enough to choose my own media.

I can look back at my very earliest writings — the stories about the people inhabiting my Playmobil dollhouse, the Star Wars fanfic — and from the very beginning, I was writing ensemble casts that were at least 50% female, if not weighted even more heavily to the distaff side. I was too young then to have done it to prove a point — that was just the way I saw my word, and so it was the way I sought to tell stories. It startles me sometimes, to remember that some people actually have to put conscious thought into that — that the idea of more than one prominent female character in a story is still radical in some ways.

Now, what I know I’ve had to get better at is racial diversity. That’s a very white list up there, both for authors and characters. That, I did internalize. I certainly never sought to be exclusionary, but I started off with some default assumptions that needed interrogation and, often, demolition. And so, the past several years have been a quest to better educate myself on those cultures that don’t derive from western Europe and to incorporate them — and I’m damn sure my stories are better for it.

I think a lot of narratives about writing focus on the writer discovering him or herself, but I think you get better stories when you’re more interested in discovering the world.

On David Gilmour

Just a quick note regarding the ongoing David “I only teach real manly manly men, no homos, no lady bits, you understand?” Gilmour controversy — this post by Anne Thériault is one of the best things I’ve read on it so far. So go read it.

Because the thing is, if you’re not a cis white straight male, you are constantly expected not just to expose yourself to, but to immerse yourself in media that is not about you, not written by someone like you, not written for your experience. Gilmour’s flat-out refusal to examine any experience other than his own (and his promotion of that viewpoint to his students) is, well, a lot of what I feel is wrong with modern culture, really. Our world needs a greater degree of empathy and a greater capacity for divergent thinking. Gilmour — and the many, many others like him who deserve but aren’t receiving equal castigation — have a lesson to learn about that.