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.

Failing to Fawn: How early experiences shaped my ‘fight’ reflex

An interesting article ran across my eyes this afternoon: “The Cowardice of White Women”, by . It discusses the tendency of white women to want to fit in, to receive our power secondhand from white men, and to ingratiate and adapt in order to survive, and how that learned behavior often makes us poor allies to WOC. I found it fascinating, because while I understand that point of view, it is very far from my lived experiences.

The part that struck me was this:

I have little access to my fight mechanism, because as a middle class white child I was brought up to kowtow to power or be outcast. Conflict or confrontation with those higher up the social scale than I risked rejection, abandonment and ignominy.

This was not the lesson I learned. Maybe it was the lesson the world was trying to teach me, but it was not what I synthesized.

I’ve always been a weirdo. I was a strange kid, but in a sort of a cute way (or so my parents assure me). I grew into a strange pre-teen and teenager, and at that point, idiosyncrasies of personality become less adorable and more a reason to get shoved into lockers. I developed quite early (hit my full height at age 12 and was a heavy B-edging-into-C cup by the same time), I had horrific acne for several years, I had no idea how to dress fashionably, I was intelligent and too proud to hide it, and I was obsessively into geeky things like Star Wars and role-playing games before the stigma against them had softened. As a result of all that, middle school was, quite frankly, hell.

I was a privileged child and no mistake: white, upper-middle-class, access to good education and a comfortable life. But I never felt that urge Leontiades talks about, to fawn in the hopes of fitting in, of getting a share of the power, possibly because it was made abundantly clear to me from the start that that was never going to be an option for me. Within that privileged sphere, during my formative pre-teen and early-teen years, I was so far at the bottom of the social power ladder that I knew it was useless to even try to reach for higher rungs. Fawning wasn’t going to do me any good no matter how much belly I exposed. Rejection and ostracization were just… givens.

So, instead, I chose fight. I snapped back. I unleashed verbal tirades, much good that it did me. It almost never worked, but I could at least console myself with the knowledge that I hadn’t rolled over and taken the abuse. I banded together with other kids who got picked on for similar reasons, and we made ourselves a tribe — and a tribe that I defended ferociously. (I am, as I have ever been, a pack animal at heart). I diverted bullies’ attention from my friends onto me. What I learned early on was that ignoring the bullies didn’t make them stop, no matter what people of a conciliatory nature might tell you. When you’re wearing a half-dozen targets, jerks are going to take aim at them no matter how small you try to make yourself.

I’m not sure I’ve consciously realized just how much that has shaped my somewhat pugnacious tendencies over the years. I did not learn to fawn; I learned that I might as well fight.

Would it have been different if I’d been prettier, more popular? Would I have learned the lesson of fawning, or is that temerity an intrinsic part of my personality? It’s hard to know. I hope that’s who I am at my core, but we’re all shaped by our experiences. If life had been easier for me during my most impressionable years, would I be more complacent? Assimilation is an adaptive trait; so is resistance.

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It took me many, many years to learn the lessons of “don’t read the comments” and “someone will always be wrong on the internet”, and let’s face it, I still backslide a few times a year and end up in vicious textual quarrels. But I’ve also had a few experiences that let me know that my response is fight in real life, too. I am someone who steps in. Between my friends and the guy that won’t stop following us down the street, between the lady in hijab on the subway and the jackass braying racial slurs, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her, between the drunk guy and the car he’s trying to get into the driver’s seat of. I confront. I don’t let things slide. I cannot just stand by and watch something terrible happen.

This probably sounds self-congratulatory, and maybe it is, a bit. I like knowing that, yes, I am someone with the courage of my convictions. I also know that I had and still have a lot of work to do. I internalized a lot of misogyny in the “not like other girls” sort of way — again, a defense mechanism. I was never going to look like them, so it felt safer to reject entirely being like them. It felt good to try and raise myself up by putting them down. That was a rough lesson to un-learn. I also know for damn sure that I grew up marinated in the particular form of racism that gestates in white folk who want to think of themselves as liberal and “good”: embracing “colorblindness” — and wondering why POCs can’t just do the same and “get over it”. Another lesson I had to unlearn, and still one I have to check myself on from time to time. So not fawning certainly didn’t make me flawless. It did, though, shape a lot of who I am.

Another thing the article touches on is how fawning ties in to couple privilege and how that affects working women.

In more modern times Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In advised finding a husband who believed in equality because the most successful women have a supportive man. But murky undertones marred the superficially feminist message. Because whilst a supportive man was helpful, more helpful still was having a man at all: the most successful women in the business world, she said, are married. Western countries confer couple privilege in the form of tax breaks, social lubrication and respectability. Single women without children are stigmatized, single women with children face more stigma and an even slimmer possibility of rising in the workplace without adequate or any childcare – a truth that even Sheryl, as rich as she was, had to find out the hard way. Social stigma, guilt and shame abound but in each case the conclusion is the same. Without a man, your survival will be far more difficult. Find one, keep him or be damned.

I think of ways boys and men (whether I was dating them or not, whether they professed to love me or not) have described me since the age of thirteen — difficult, high-maintenance, headstrong, independent, bitchy, scary-smart, terrifying, indomitable — and I wonder if failing to learn the lesson of fawning is also the reason I’m still femme sole.

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Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Hell, I don’t know. I like living alone and being in charge of my own life, but I also wish I had more constant companionship than an LDR affords me. I’m proud of my ability to pay for and take care of myself, but I also get tired of the choices and sacrifices that can mean I have to make. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to my independence. And it would absolutely be easier to be a writer if I had a spouse to rely on financially. That’s just a fact. An annoying, regressive-feeling fact.

I don’t know that I have any particular point I could use to put a button on this post, but that article got me thinking about the ripples in my life now caused by pebbles thrown twenty years ago.

Rooms of Our Own

I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit lately about writing communities — and particularly about those which are composed entirely or primarily of women (and, in many cases, transgender individuals and enbies).

As someone who was supposed to debut in 2017 and is now debuting in 2018, I belong to a few different groups of debut authors. None of them have any kind of gender requirement for entry, but all are primarily composed of women. In these groups, a joyous spirit of mutual admiration and celebration dominates. The gender split seems largely true, as well, for the writing community in the Twitter-verse. I don’t think it’s quite as pronounced there — these particular FB groups seem to run about 90-10, whereas the participants on hashtag games, I’d probably put more at 70-30 — but it’s still extant. And, on the whole, in the Twitter writing community, women seem more likely to favorite and RT each other, more likely to turn a single tweet into a discussion. I’d be incredibly interested to see a sort of connection map to visualize that: I suspect that the womenfolk would have more connections and more extensively interconnected networks than the men.

Recently, a new member joined one of the FB groups — a member who happened to be male. Without ever having contributed to group discussion or helping to promote the other members, he began posting several items a day to promote himself. There was an air of assumption — and an obliviousness to how the group operates. Certainly there was no sense of contribution, no indication that he would be lifting others up as he expected to be lifted. It was… jarring. Didn’t he know how we behave? What would make him think that behavior was okay? Didn’t he realize how rude, ham-handed, presumptuous that was?

The thing of it is, though, I’ve just gotten used to the delightful nature of these particular groups. Some other groups I belong to but rarely spend time in are much larger and have a much higher percentage of male participants. These are places where promotion is a self-driven free-for-all, not a cooperative game. There is no expectation of mutual exchange. They tend to be un- or lightly-moderated.

I don’t spend as much time in they because the conversations tend to be unnecessarily combative. Threads get started that can only be described as “shit-stirring”, and a lot of time they’re retreading the same tired topics. (The one that really makes me want to light my hair on fire is “Do you really have to be a reader to be writer?”, which rolls around every few weeks. The answer is yes, and it’s not even a question in the groups that are populated with more pros than amateurs). Blanket assertions get made. A lot of opinions get stated as inviolable fact. Condescension rains down. As a result, these groups aren’t a lot of fun to be in; I confess, I’m really only in them out of a desire to make my name as Seen as possible pre-launch.

Is it always the male members starting trouble in these groups? No. But 9 times out of 10, yeah.

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This is, of course, not to denigrate the guys I know who are lovely and supportive and generous. The smaller, cooperative FB groups have some excellent menfolk who have participated in conversations, organized promotions, and celebrated everyone’s successes. The Twitterverse has dudes who not only engage in conversations sensibly and respectfully, but who will step in when they see some other dude being a jerk and set their bros straight.

But then, they don’t need me to point that out. They know I’m not talking about them (don’t y’all?). Take the Sirens conference, for example. Last year I think there were all of three cis men there. Those guys were totally welcome, and the best part was, not a one of them abused that. They all understood that they place they were in was not for them. It was not designed with them in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. They all understood that they were guests in a non-male-focused space, and they all behaved like polite guests ought to. They didn’t monopolize conversations. They didn’t mansplain. They listened. Sometimes they asked questions. But they never tried to assert themselves over others. And it was awesome. Towards the end of the con, several different women commented something to the effect of “Wow. I just realized I went four days without hearing the words ‘Well, actually’.” The relief was palpable.

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Anyway — This recent incident got me thinking: Why do these female-dominated groups have such a tendency towards compassionate discourse, willing cooperation, and enthusiastic cross-promotion?

The one possible answer of “Women are naturally more sociable/compassionate/cooperative” would take a lot of unpacking, positing theories of evolutionary psychology against the massive weight of cultural norms and societal conditioning. A worthy exploration, perhaps, for someone with a more scientific brain than my own.

But I also think there’s an aspect of: Female authors behave like this because we have to.

What I’m talking about, really, isn’t the behavior of any individual man as much as the gender disparity in these groups. Far fewer men seem to feel the need to congregate in such a tight-knit fashion, where mutual advocacy is either an explicit or unspoken component of the group. Many, many women do, because we have to. Our publishing survival depends on it.

Male authors are still more likely than female authors to get the heavy marketing arm behind them. They’re more likely to land reviews from major publications. Male-heavy genres (“literary” fiction, thrillers, academic nonfiction) are treated, on the whole, as “worthier” than female-heavy genres (romance, historical fiction, creative nonfiction, the bulk of YA). I’ve talked about these pervasive schisms before. In SFF, despite how many women are writing in it — talented women, writing innovative and visionary novels — it’s still largely perceived as a male genre. Male authors are still the ones pointed to as the giants, the gold standard. Men still get the bulk of the attention.

 

Women don’t have the advantages that men — particularly straight white men — benefit from. So we band together. We aggressively affirm each other. We give each other the lift that the industry doesn’t always provide. Helping each other becomes sort of like herd immunity — we all become more visible by connecting with each other, and the more visible we are, the less easily we can be dismissed.

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And we can feel safe with each other. We can vent. We can admit ignorance and ask questions. We can be self-deprecating! A vulnerability it’s straight-up dangerous to expose in most male-dominated writing groups. For this, if nothing else, I’m glad we can carve out these spaces for ourselves, decide which male colleagues get invited in, and decide who plays nice enough to stay.

I love these spaces. They’re cozy. But at the same time, part of me wishes they weren’t so necessary, and another part really hates the feeling of surfacing from them.

Wonder Woman, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy Fulfillment

A few days ago, I finally saw Wonder Woman, and it was as delightful as the internet had promised me it would be. I want more movies like this. I want sequels. I want prequels that just focus on the Amazons kicking ass thousands of years ago. I want spin-offs. And I want more heroines, all over the place. More movies focusing on women as central characters, unapologetically, from all kinds of stories and backgrounds and cultures and facets of the multiverse. I want princesses and generals and princesses who grow up to be generals.

I love that the major sentiment women have expressed after seeing this film has been: “Is this how guys feel all the time?” What a powerful thing it is, to come out of a movie feeling like you can take on the world.

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This dovetails with another thought I’ve been having lately: how much articles like “Not in this day and age: when will TV stop horrendously airbrushing history?” and “Women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history” annoy the living daylights out of me.

The basic premise of these articles (both of which appeared this summer) is that women couldn’t express feminist ideals before feminism existed — that writers should stop ascribing “modern” viewpoints to pre-modern female characters. Apparently not wanting to marry a guy who makes you miserable is a “laughably liberal” 21st-century ideal.

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Let’s set aside that such complaints register a pretty narrow and (yes, I’ll say it, despite the esteemed source quote of one of those articles) uninformed view of women in history. I could point to example after example of women throughout time and across continents who demanded some degree of agency and control over their own destinies — and, in fact, I’m doing so over on Patreon!

And let’s also set aside that these complaints about ahistoricity are always centered on women‘s supposed societal transgressions: whether it’s sexual agency, domestic and economic power, disobeying their husbands, whatever, the thinkpieces always want to complain about women not behaving as they expect. Funny, isn’t it?, how the complaints about historical realism are never about suspiciously literate stable boys, the unlikelihood of landless rogues being able to afford the upkeep of warhorses, or the preponderance of male tavernkeepers in an age when brewing was a primarily female occupation.

But even if we grant the articles’ premise that modern historical fiction creates anachronisms in the independence/sexual agency/snarkiness of its female characters — Why in the name of Juno shouldn’t it?

Women are finally beginning to get their own degree of fantasy fulfillment in sci-fi and fantasy. Yet in historical fiction — a genre that has long placed female characters front and center, showcasing their emotional journeys — writers are disparaged for doing the same. Though, I suppose, it’s also worth noting that historical fiction is a genre where male authors have long been taken “seriously” and female authors have been dismissed with the same derision as romance novelists.

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I resent the implication that my modern fiction — the books I read and the shows I watch for pleasure, for personal enjoyment — shouldn’t reflect the sorts of heroines that modern women want to see and enjoy. I resent the implication that any girl discovering history through a fictional lens (as most of us do) should be denied the sorts of role models she deserves.

I’m a historian. A persnickety one, sometimes. I twitch when New World fruits and vegetables get mentioned in Old World stories. I flinch when I see patterned fabrics in pre-industrial-manufacturing societies (looking at you, Hobbits). I’ve spent hours combing my own manuscripts for words that wouldn’t be conceptually available to my characters, even though they’re speaking another language (it is shockingly difficult to discuss energy-based magic without the language of the atomic age — another upcoming Patreon post).

But let me state quite flatly: if my historical fiction features an unusually high proportion of smart, sassy women, I have no objection whatsoever. I’ve no doubt that some will take umbrage at the Vitelliae and their patriarchy-challenging transgressions — and I simply could not care less.

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Give me fantasy fulfillment in every genre — just as men get and have always gotten.

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.

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My Princess, My General

I was always into princesses.

It was natural. I was born in 1985. I was the perfect age during the Disney Renaissance of Belle and Jasmine. So from the start, my heroines were women who read, women who stood up for themselves, women who did what was needed instead of what was expected.

But Princess Leia was a revelation. Long-time readers already know the story of how I found Star Wars and how it changed my life, and Leia was a huge component of that. I was eleven years old, and I wanted to be Princess Leia when I grew up. She wasn’t just outspoken and independent — she was in charge. She was ready to sass her way to her execution, if that’s what it took to protect her people. She grabbed the gun from the idiot boys who weren’t being effective with it, and she made her own escape route. She led a rebellion and she fought in its trenches, so devoted that she had to be dragged out of Echo Base while the ceiling was caving in on her. She saved the man she loved, and when a sexist creep tried to humiliate her and punish her for her daring, she choked him to death with absolutely no mercy or remorse.

She also was the proof that there was space for me in that universe. My middle school friends and I all sensed that, even if we couldn’t put the words of feminist criticism to it at the time. We just knew that the boys couldn’t tell us we weren’t supposed to play Star Wars, because Leia was in it, and not as an accessory or a trophy. She was there and active and wouldn’t have stood for anyone telling her she shouldn’t be.

Because Star Wars was what launched my determination to be a writer, Leia Organa set the mold for my heroines. The first one basically started out as a blonde version of Leia, but as I grew, so did she. For twenty years, I’ve been exploring myself through the leading ladies I write, but there’s a little bit of Leia at the core of all of them — that heart of kyber.

I did grow up — at least, I grew into adulthood. “Up” is debatable, and I certainly never outgrew Princess Leia or Star Wars, but I did discover the woman behind the legend.

Carrie Fisher was not a porcelain perfect princess.

Carrie Fisher helped me realize — continues to help me realize, because it’s a process, not a moment — that I am beautiful and more importantly, worthy, no matter what my weight is, no matter that I am, let’s face it, getting older every year. That I am clever and worth loving, even when depression and anxiety get in my way. That I need not be ashamed of who I am, flaws and all, because I am here and I am trying. That striving to be the best version of myself doesn’t mean I have to flagellate myself when I fall short. That I should be gentler on myself sometimes, and harder sometimes. That I can — and will — produce good things, good work and good art, even in the midst of personal crisis or chaos.

As Leia Organa and as herself, Carrie Fisher was the heroine so many of us needed, as girls and as women. Losing her was never going to not suck. Losing her now, at the end of this gods-forsaken dumpster fire of a year, just seems like insult to injury. Losing her when this world’s equivalent of a Hutt crimelord is taking charge of our erstwhile-democracy, to thunderous applause… I struggle to find words for the unfairness of it.

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She was only 60. She should have had so much more time, more years to create and to inspire and to love and be loved. And we should have had her, the hopeful symbol of rebellion from our childhoods, a shining beacon of “no-fucks-given” for our adulthoods. We should have had her to help us through what will be, no doubt, a dark time for the Rebellion.

But the thing is — we still do. We have her work and her words. We have Princess Leia and General Organa and Carrie Fisher, there to inspire us — and now part of the Force surrounding us and binding us together. From her enduring legacy, we can remind ourselves to fight evil wherever we see it, whether it’s a fascist regime with matching hats or the hateful voices in our own heads, trying to tell us we don’t matter.

2016 took our heroes from us.

In 2017, we will be the heroes.

Time to step up, y’all.

And may the Force be with us.

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How is Lady Pole?

So I’ve finally watched the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell adaptation, and I love what they did with Lady Pole. So much so that I feel the need to blog about it. (Spoilers ahead for both book and TV series).

JS&MN is a book I enjoyed… eventually. I freely confess that it took me three tries to get all the way through it. That’s not as much due to the density of the writing style, or the decidedly odd turn the third act takes, as it might be. I can get through dense writing and weird plots, and I loved the footnotes, but I had trouble attaching myself to any of the characters. If there’s not someone I can empathize with, root for, see myself in, I have trouble connecting to a story. And in JS&MN, a lot of the problem is that the women are frequently such non-figures. Even Arabella Strange, who gets the most on-page time, is almost always seen through someone else’s eyes. She is commented upon, rather than given her own voice, and she is more often acted upon than acting.

The TV adaptation did a lot to beef up Arabella’s part, but it did even more with Lady Pole. In the book, Lady Pole is brought back from the dead by Mr Norrell, who is hoping to get in good with her husband, a prominent politician. Unfortunately, Mr Norrell rather botches the deal he makes with the fairy who brings her back. Norrell promises the fairy (known as the Gentleman) half of her remaining life — thinking that she’ll get to live another 35 years or so, and then get taken away. But that’s not the fairy’s game — he starts taking her nights. When she sleeps, she goes to his castle, Lost-Hope, to a never-ending ball where she must dance and dance.

Unsurprisingly, this exhausts her. She goes through a brief period of mania before sinking into a deep depression. Worse still, the Gentleman has put a curse upon her, so that when she tries to speak of what is happening to her, the words come out as nonsensical fairy tales. No one knows what to make of this — and no one but Norrell knows of the bargain he made — and eventually it’s given out that she’s still “unwell”. No one is willing to put a name to it, just a genteel gloss of “illness” that discourages further investigation. All forms of acknowledgment, of recognition, of validation are denied her.

In the book, Lady Pole sort of fades away into a magically-induced stupor. But in the tv series, she fights back. Though her mind is fracturing, she keeps trying to tell her story. When she manages to get some little bit of it out, that the bells summon her to the dance, she is told that she is overtired and must need to sleep — despite her protestations that sleep is precisely when she is tormented. She expresses herself through fabric-working — a woman’s art — but then that, too, is taken away from her. And she starts to go mad indeed. Anyone with experience being gaslit knows how that can go — get told you’re crazy long enough, and you’ll start to believe it, and Lady Pole has more reason than most, because she’s constantly getting dragged back and forth between two different worlds.

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When she tries to take her own life to end the pain, she is prevented. Norrell goes to her to explain himself and her predicament, but then, fearful of what she might reveal, he advises her husband to keep her secluded and not allow her any visitors — which results in Arabella Strange, who might have been able to help her, particularly given her magical husband, being turned away from the house. Lady Pole is thus denied even compassion, even companionship. (Norrell, it should be noted, resorts to classically sexist language to convince Walter Pole to keep the ladies apart, saying his fear that they “excite each others’ emotions”). And so she attempts to assassinate Norrell, the engineer of her suffering, and when she fails, her husband sends her her to what he thinks is a madhouse. Lucky for Lady Pole, it’s really where two would-be magicians are trying to sort out the truth.

At first, they tend to her as one would any invalid. She’s still strapped into her chair, to keep her from hurting herself. They’re begging her to eat (though not forcing her to do so, nor dosing her with laudanum, as had been happening to her in London). At this point, Lady Pole makes an eloquent statement in defense of her agency.

I’m sick of men in coats deciding what is best for me. I may very well hurt myself, but I belong to no one but myself. Half my life, I am in chains. The other half, I deserve to be free. Untie me.

When Childermass comes for her, Segundus defends her with brilliant passion — and Honeyfoot aims a blunderbuss at him. Childermass actually gives him a clue in parting, and it’s not long after that that Segundus decides to follow his own instincts and remove her restraints. And following that, Lady Pole declares for herself “I shall feel more comfortable here.”

Unsurprisingly, she stabilizes. Mr. Segundus can see a rose at her mouth — a magical symbol of the stories she cannot tell — and though he does not know what it means or what’s going on with her, he at least believes that something is happening. He can see the residue of magic on her. And bless him, he listens to her, even when she’s spinning mad stories. He treats her kindly, not with a mix of terror and disdain (which is how most men in JS&MN, as indeed in life, respond to women who are beyond their comprehension).

 

Lo and behold, when she is heard and believed, she is healthier. The series does a great job visualizing this. Her skin looks healthier. Her hair is neater. Her eyes are more focused. She still has frantic moments, but her desperation is more controlled and clear-eyed. She’s not restored entirely — the Gentleman still torments her nights, after all — but she definitely improves.

And it’s then easier to get to the root of what’s happening to her, what’s tormenting her. When Lady Pole isn’t caught in such a struggle just to be heard, it becomes apparent that even through those seeming-nonsense stories, she’s till trying to find a way to communicate. The Gentleman has her telling fairy tales, so she starts picking out the ones that speak to her situation in some way. Segundus and Honeyfoot start to figure this out, and they start to unravel the mystery — unfortunately, their well-meant intervention pulls Lady Pole out of a plot she had willfully entered, to remain in Lost-Hope long enough to show a by-then-bewitched Arabella the way out. It’s another neat commentary on her agency and how it is hobbled — they think they’re helping a fragile and entrapped woman, only to discover that she knew exactly what she was doing and had chosen it for herself, and they made a muck of everything.

Lady Pole in book was something of a non-entity. The basic beats are more or less the same, but whereas the book’s Lady Pole is passive, her story related to us second- and third-hand, on the screen, we see her more frequently. We see her alone. We hear her shout and scream. We see her act, or try to, and we are her confidantes.

And so it was Lady Pole in the TV series who spoke to me in a profound way. She’s gone from being a catatonic object in the background, a mere symbol of one man’s poor judgment and reckless ambition, to a wretchedly beautiful commentary on women’s stories being silenced — and how hard women will fight to be heard. Her frustration, her agony, her tenuous hold on sanity are both powerful and achingly familiar.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Women’s Voices in History

I read an article earlier today discussing the historical silence of women. It addresses both past and present, in a way, drawing from many of the current issues where women are verbally abused, insulted, and threatened (especially on the internet) if they dare speak up on “men’s matters” — whether that’s politics, video games, comic books, or anything else men have decided is theirs. I certainly know how this feels. I have a bad habit of getting into political discussions on Twitter, which pretty much just puts a target on you for sexual slurs and vague death threats. The article, however, delves into the historiography of women’s voices, and seems to posit that not only have men always attempted to silence women from participating in public speech, but that they have always succeeded in doing so.

L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I disagree.

Yes, women have historically been discouraged from public speech and from publication. But there have always been women who spoke. In defiance of their cultures, in defiance of stereotypes, often even in defiance of the law, there have been women who spoke. And what’s even better — they were not, as the article suggests, always derided as freaks or androgynes. You need only look at what was written about Hortensia the Orator, as I discussed a while ago, to prove that.

But you want more? I got more.

  • Sappho was one of the most popular poets of the classical age; Horace named her as “worthy of sacred admiration” and Catullus used her as inspiration for his own works.
  • The women of Sparta were famous throughout the classical world for having razor-sharp wits.
  • Agrippina Major not only went with her husband on campaign (and once held a bridge against an attacking force), but when Germanicus was murdered, she publicly pursued justice for him. It was dangerous and ticked off Emperor Tiberius, but it won her a lot of acclaim from Germanicus’s supporters.
  • Cleopatra spoke somewhere between six and nine languages, depending on the source you’re looking at. She was definitely the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, and she also spoke Hebrew, which came in damn handy when dealing with her Judean neighbors. Yes, the surviving Roman sources condemn her for it — but of course they would, they were her political enemies. She held the Egyptian throne for a damn long time against incredible odds, and very often she did it because she could talk her way into or out of just about anything.
  • Empress Theodora, a much stronger ruler than her husband, began her career as an actress, but after marrying Justinian, went on to participate in Byzantine government councils, shaping many of the empire’s legal and spiritual policies. Famously, during the Nika riots, she told the men (including her husband), who wanted to flee, that “purple is an excellent color for a shroud”, which shamed them so badly that they stuck around to get things under control. She is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. (How there has never been a major movie about this woman, I simply do not understand).
  • Not only was Wu Zetian one of the most impressive rulers of the Tang dynasty, but most of the stories about her, especially in her early, pre-imperial life, start with her standing up and saying something unexpectedly in public. Often suggestions about a better way to do something. And mostly people went, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive, let’s let her try that.”
  • The key diplomat behind China throwing off the rule of the Huns? Also a woman. She was working with her husband, a military strategist, and a scientist, but she seems to have done the bulk of the talking. And yet we’re now not even sure of her name.
  • When Oxford and Cambridge told Mary Sidney Herbert that she couldn’t contribute to their elegies for her own brother, she took herself to a commercial printer in London instead. She went on to publish more of her own works, her brother’s works, and her translations, as well as funding poets and scientists to work in her home.

And those are just a few of my favorite ladies.

That list doesn’t even touch the myriad voices heard by never written down, and so unknown in the modern age. Some times and places have been more friendly than others, to be sure, but social history reveals a lot more than traditional, chronological, top-down history does. Women have always run businesses, participated in politics, and influenced religion — officially or not, sanctioned or not, recognized by textbooks or not.

I whole-heartedly agree that more needs to be done to address the disproportionate representation of male voices in media, and I really enjoy the part of the article examining the words used to describe female speech, particularly those which are dehumanizing. Gendered slurs are a horrific but sort of linguistically fascinating study. In fiction and in life, women have so often been and so often continue to be the targets of belittlement, gaslighting, dismissal, and violence, all in the name of shutting us up.

But erasing the wonderful women who have made their voices heard throughout history does them — and us — a grave disservice, not least because it also erases the reasons it’s sometimes so hard to hear their voices, and ours.

And it isn’t because they weren’t speaking.