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.

WWmachinegun

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.

Atiapissoff

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.

Harlotssisters3

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.

hoistthecolours

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

Pride and Profanity: On the history and application of foul language

I’d like to thank Mr. Mike Huckabee, self-appointed moral arbiter, for inspiring me to write this post. I’ve been meaning to for a long time, because it relates to one of my favorite facts about the development of the English language, but his most recent round of sexist nonsense prompted me to finally do it. It seems Mr. Huckabee is clutching his pearls over the fact that women, astonishingly, curse. Specifically, New York women, but as a born and bred Virginia belle, I’m afraid I have to break it to Mr. Huckabee that we Southerners, too, swear. Like fucking ladies. What’s more, this isn’t a recent development. Women didn’t start swearing at the same time they got all uppity with their whore pills and their wanting to vote. Women have been experts at the profane for pretty much as long as there’s been language.

1341798306124_7698241We English-speakers have the Dutch to thank for a lot of our profanity. A fair bit came from Germanic and Scandinavian dialects, but in the late 15th-century, we get an influx of new dirty words from the Netherlands. Why? Because swearing like a sailor is nothing new. See, in 1476, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, and it took off like a shot (particularly when Richard III eased restrictions on them during his brief reign). Printing presses need paper. The Dutch had a lot of it to trade. So English ships start spending a lot more time in Dutch ports. Literally and, we must suppose, figuratively. The English sailors, while picking up paper from the Netherlands, also pick up precisely the words you’d expect them to learn in taverns and brothels. They bring the words back to England, where they proliferate, not just mouth-to-mouth, but on that very paper, which helped English-speakers learn all sorts of new vocabulary — the nice and the naughty.

So, if Mr. Huckabee is troubled by our goddamn dirty mouths, he can blame William Caxton.

I learned a lot of this while researching a paper on sexualized insults in grad school — and part of what I learned is that women in the early modern period swore as profusely and as creatively as men. How do we know? Thanks to court cases for slander and defamation, well-preserved in ecclesiastical records. Frankly, the words that passed their pretty little lips would blister poor Mr. Huckabee’s fucking ears. Some of my favorites:

  • gull snowted whore
  • hott arsed Bitch
  • saddlenosed whore
  • scurvie fatt arst quean
  • gouty legged whore
  • burnt-arse whore
  • tinckers truell
  • curtaile jade
  • And, in one instance of breathtaking verbal stamina, a woman reported being called: “Tinker whore, tinker’s bitch, whore, quean, drab and scold, dronkard, dronken whore, dronken quean, dronken harlot, dronken drab, and dronken scold, a noughtie, an evell and a bad and lewd woman.'”

You may notice that pretty much all of those terms have to do with attacking another woman under the context of sexual deviancy. (There’s also a weird association of tip-tilted noses with transgression, which I find a bit concerning on behalf of my own face). When political, economic, and social systems deny women true power, words are often the strongest weapons they have — and it’s generally easier to attack each other than to attack the men holding the power — and when your value as a human being has been socially linked to your sexual chastity, then attacking that is the easiest way to make yourself of superior worth to another woman. That hasn’t really changed in 400 years, sad to say. Unfortunately, a lot of the profanity women use today is still in the service of tearing each other down thanks to the burden of internalised misogyny.

There’s a lot to unpack about why people use the words they do, how language can help you to claim or cause you to relinquish power, how certain words get coded as appropriate or inappropriate, whether or not some derogatory terms are worth reclaiming, and so forth. And certainly, there’s a time and a place for formal and informal language, and part of being a grown human is knowing when and with whom you can talk in certain ways. There’s been a big discussion in the romance novel community over the past few years about the value of saltier terms for body parts versus the oft-mocked epithets (bratwursts, indeed), and a lot of genre fiction has to decide whether profanity enhances the tone or takes a reader out of the story (particular in historical and fantasy genres — as though no one cursed before the Industrial Revolution). What can you get away with? When is the use of a single word a hill worth dying on? And then there’s the fascinating evolution of which words are “worst”. Once upon a time in Western culture, religious-themed cussing was the worst, punishable by law, but now, “damn” and “hell” and invocations of deities are considered the mildest curses. Thanks to the Victorians, we’re much more squeamish about profanity related to body parts and functions, and, of course, of those, we’re most troubled by the ones about sex. The dirty words themselves haven’t evolved much in a while, but the weight we give them ebbs and flows.

Language isn’t just the tool we use to negotiate culture; it’s part of what we engage with, feel our way through, and trip over as well. But I’ll be damned as a tinker’s drab-tailed whore if some busybody dude with his head still lodged in a half-Victorian, half-Leave-It-To-Beaver fantasy of female delicacy gets to pass judgment on me and my words based on what he’s decided is “trashy”.

Fuck that noise.

If anyone wants to read my full paper “”Thou art an whore an errant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche’: The Language of Sexual Slander in Early Modern England”, which delves into more of the details of why early modern women used these terms, who they used them against, where they stood when they used them (and why that matters), and why that developed as a ground for power-play 400 years ago, then download away! If you want to learn more about the history and grammatical application of swearing, I highly recommend the blog Strong Language, which examines profane predilections from a solid linguistic grounding. (One of my favorite posts regards just how many fucks one can give). Go forth and cuss better-informed, my friends!

I have access to the OED and I’m not afraid to use it

The thing about writing historical novels is that you have to be really careful about your diction. Word choice matters a lot — you don’t want to choose words that are too obviously modern or that refer to concepts that would have been alien to your characters. I often find myself running into walls where medical and technological terms are concerned, even if they’re only used metaphorically.  You can’t have your Tudor-era heroine say, “You nearly gave me a heart attack!” the way a modern heroine could, since the term “heart attack” doesn’t come into use until 1836. Other problems might involve geographical details. A Roman novel I read recently had Mark Antony referring to pumpkins — a squash only found in the New World. Apart from just plain being inaccurate, those slip-ups can jerk a reader out of the world of the narrative, and we never want that.

The situation’s more complicated when you’re not writing in the language your characters speak — especially when your characters speak, say, Latin. How do you translate linguistic intent out of a dead language? How to make dialogue sound colloquial without crossing that threshold of modernity? What to do about metaphors? All well and good for Shakespeare to have Cassius referring to the clock striking three, but you can’t get away with that sort of slipshod work in today’s industry of fiction. It’s particularly hard when it comes to idiomatic speech. If the word itself didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, because the language didn’t — could the concept for those words exist? Yesterday, for instance, I realized I had a character referring to needing an outlet for her energy — and it gave me pause. Did the word “outlet” pre-date electricity? Oh dear.

outletOEDThe OED is one of my best friends. I love that, since I work for an institution affiliated with a college, I retain my access to its wonderful online compendium. It means that it only takes me a few clicks to verify that, yes, the word “outlet” is older than electricity, and its original usage refers to the movement of water. (If I’d thought about it for a few minutes, I probably would’ve realized that on my own, but… this way I get to use the OED!) The word dates to the 13th century as a noun, all the way back to Old English as a verb, and comes to us via Dutch, but its concept is certainly something the Romans would’ve had familiarity with. Admittedly, the emotional sense of the word didn’t come in to English until the mid-17th century, but I think the metaphor translates reasonably well for my purposes. (Latona’s own word for it, incidentally, probably would’ve been emissarium, or else egressus, exitus, or even porta, the gate — though if she were speaking literally of a water-channel rather than figuratively of her emotions, it would’ve been effluvium).

Something I once looked up for another project was “automatic”. Initially, I thought this might date only about to the time of clockwork — but  no! Both the Greeks and Romans had the concept of the automaton! The root words refer more to plants, strangely enough, with more of a sense of “spontaneous, happening by itself” than the more mechanical connotation we give it today — though when you look at things like the Antikythera Mechanism, it’s certainly plausible that, at some point in time, at least in some parts of Greece, they might’ve had the concept in the mechanical sense as well.

Words are fantastic. I’m so happy I have access to a resource that lets me in on their secrets.