Darning the Socks of Humanity

I usually try to avoid mentioning authors and their work by name when I talk about them here in a way that could be possibly considered critical.  In this case, though, I think it’ll be worth mentioning.

I’ve just started The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams.

I’ll start by saying it’s very good so far.  I’ll continue by saying the prose is exceptional and the pacing is frustratingly brilliant.  And I’ll go on to preface that I only just started this book, so my opinion should be taken with that into consideration.  However, I’ll further preface that this post only tangentially involves the book, so please take that into consideration, as well.

Anyway, around the beginning of the book, we meet the character Mesema, daughter of a prominent chieftain of a tribe within the Felt.  Within her chapter, we are introduced to her sewing along with some other women, gossiping about marriage, men and having children.  By the end of the chapter, she is promised as a bride to the Cerani, a people to whom the protagonists belong.

And I very nearly put the book down.

Update: Mazarkis actually wrote on this subject and his post is well worth taking a look at.

And this is where things start getting a little more tangential.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Mesema is no simpering, wilting damsel.  And the next chapter she’s in has her coming to grips with her situation and focusing on how she’s going to deal with it, emotionally and mentally.  And that’s great and all…

…but it almost feels like we should be past this.

Not past women characters coming to grips with situations, mind you, but past women characters having to come to grips with the same situation over and over.  That situation being the life of a woman.

Let me clarify for a moment.  In a lot of fantasies, I’m noticing the same theme of women generally being considered second-class, disempowered and otherwise not in control of their own destinies.  It’s quite often honestly portrayed as a very unpleasant situation by the authors and that’s great.  I certainly am not accusing any of these authors of being sexist by putting their characters in that sort of difficult situation.

But what I wonder is why we keep revisiting that situation.  The situation where the character’s biggest problem is being a woman, where she’s not in control of her own destiny (at first), where she is always struggling from that position to overcome the burdens placed on her by masculinity.

I agree that it’s an important subject to tackle and well worth discussion, but I’m wondering if that’s the only discussion we can ever have.

I’ve heard a few arguments in response to this.

But that’s what women are most concerned about!” some say.  “Babies and sewing and being ladylike!

To which I say: shut up.

But that’s historically accurate!” some say.  “Women weren’t treated equal in those times!

To which I say: read this excellent article by Tansy Rayner Roberts and then shut up.

But sometimes, the author wants to talk about that!” some say.  “Sometimes, this is how the character or society is portrayed.

And that’s true.  Like I said, it’s worth having this conversation.  I just wonder if we’re not retreading the same territory over and over by suggesting that women don’t have problems other than male expectations.  I will definitely agree that such a thing is a problem, but should we be asking other things?

I don’t know.  It’s possible I’m doing it wrong in the first place.

My writing with women characters is largely represented by my own two most prominent ones: Kataria and Asper.

Now, Kataria doesn’t start from this position.  She’s a warrior in a group where they all tend to be equally loathsome in society’s eyes (her maybe more so owing to her belonging to a race with a historic conflict with…well, everybody).  As she can solve a lot of her external conflicts easily (usually via one of several arrows through someone’s face), most of her important conflicts are internal: where she fits in with her people, where she feels she should fit in, where she feels she wants to fit in, how she should look at people she’s historically and culturally supposed to despise, how much time she can spend with a guy who probably harbors at least some resentment toward her for what she is and the like.  I leave her gender largely out of that conflict.

Asper is somewhat more fun to write (especially lately) in that her external conflicts aren’t easily solved.  She’s a healer (which, I admit, is usually the role reserved for women characters in fantasy), but rather than having it be something she does, it’s something that defines her.  Her job is her past is her life and when she can’t solve her external conflicts (say, saving someone who needs help), it affects her internal conflicts (wondering what good it is to devote her life to this if she can’t help those who need it most).  Again, her conflicts mostly aren’t gender-related.

It hasn’t been a big deal in my world and it’s not likely to become one.

Like I said, maybe I’m doing it wrong.

And I recognize the conversation keeps on going, regardless of whether I’m choosing to use my book to talk about it or not.  But maybe we’re not yet at the point where we can afford to step away from this conversation.  Maybe the problem is still so big that we all must still keep talking about it?

And yet, I can’t help but think that, even if we are still having this conversation, we aren’t making a lot of progress.  We’re acknowledging that life is unfair and that it often requires a lot of struggle and that it should often end with that struggle being overcome.  But we seem to do that a lot.

And yet, maybe that’s just my own experience talking?  Maybe this is easier for me to move past because I’ve never had any meaningful discrimination leveled against me because of my gender and thus, the conversation seems less close (though certainly no less important).

This is one of those blog posts where I’m really more asking than telling.  What do you think?  Where do we stand as readers, gamers, consumers of fiction where women characters are taking a more prominent role?  Are we at the point where we can afford for gender to be less of an all-pervasive issue?  Or do we still need to work on this more?

25 Responses to “Darning the Socks of Humanity”

  1. Bryce Dayton

    I feel like when it comes to writing in general, we’re all retreading ground for the most part. Very rarely (maybe never?) does a book come along that is something completely new when it comes to its themes.

    Now, I will admit (much to my shame, since I good-naturedly rib Maz on twitter every now and again) that I haven’t yet read the book. If that theme is the main one, then maybe it’s retreading some ground that’s a little more worn, but I’m okay with it if it covers the ground in a way that’s satisfying and I feel like the author intended to start this character in this situation because the way that the character grows or changes throughout the novel would not have been possible in a different situation. If that character is just in that situation because “that’s the life of a woman,” then maybe it wasn’t such a great idea.

    Still, I’m in no position to judge, as I dust off my half-finished novel once a year for a week or two and think about maybe making some progress. 😛

    • sam

      As I said, I haven’t finished the book yet (or even gotten very far), so I don’t think it’s a “main theme.” Certainly, it’s not a theme treated crassly and the character reacts to it in a believable way that doesn’t render her moot, but it did give me pause.

  2. Anne Lyle

    From a reader’s standpoint, I agree with you – I too enjoy Maz’s books, but I don’t want all the books I read to have this type of female protagonist. Any trope becomes boring with repetition, no matter how cool (or necessary) it was the first time around.

    With my writer’s hat on…

    1) In the case of female authors, there’s the “write what you know” factor. It’s tough being a woman in what’s still largely a man’s world, so for a female author that’s an easy character arc to write. Sure, there’s no reason to make your secondary world sexist, but sometimes you have the creative tension of wanting (needing?) to tell this character arc but your fantasy plot just doesn’t fit into a real-world setting. What’s a gal to do?

    2) Just because someone else has already written this kind of story, should that make it off-limits? As a writer, I wouldn’t want to be told “oh you can’t write that, we’ve done that story in fantasy, it doesn’t need to be said again”. Maybe voracious readers notice trends and repetitions, but what about readers who are new to the fantasy genre? Should they be denied these stories because the last such one is now out of the public eye (maybe even out of print)?

    3) Having female characters for whom their gender is no obstacle is laudable, but that risks veering into “genderblind” territory – of brushing women’s identity under the carpet by presenting a world in which they are little more than guys with boobs. I’m not saying that’s what you do, Sam, but it could be one reason why some authors are reluctant to make the sexes totally equal in their fantasy world.

    Are these answers? I feel like I’ve just opened up more questions *sigh*

    • sam

      Yes, but more questions are good.

      I certainly don’t think that this kind of story should be off-limits. I’m more asking is it mandatory that we do it every time? Is it mandatory that every woman have to face her gender as an obstacle in every story?

      • Anne Lyle

        Absolutely not – but I think it’s almost unavoidable not to at least touch on it at some point. If you have a female character in a low-tech setting, at the very least she’s probably going to have to think about contraception/reproduction a lot more than her male counterparts, simply because the consequences of pregnancy are likely to be far more profound for her. Even in cultures where women have equal rights and legal status, this simple biological fact can throw a big hefty spanner in the works!

        • Mur

          Great post Sam, but I want to cheer at Anne here. I would LOVE to have a woman be totally into the idea of sex with a guy, but thinks, “huh, I could get pregnant if I do this wonderful thing right now. Maybe not…” That almost never happens.

          • sam

            I don’t know. Something about the phrase “realistic women” irks me. It always seems to suggest that there is such a thing as a “real” woman and women who deviate from that are not real, thus “real” women only do activities A, B and C, and if a woman does D, then she is not real.

            Which is kind of shitty for women who D in real life.

          • Anne Lyle

            (In response to Sam, because this thread is nested too deep for a reply button!)

            I’m not saying that there’s some standard that all women have to adhere to – Lord knows I’m not “a real woman” by some people’s standards, since I prefer computers to babies – but as a writer your women need to be varied and take in a bunch of different ways of being female if they’re going to be believable. And if you only have one female character,

            a) Why?

            and b) You have to be extra-careful she isn’t a cliché in either direction

  3. Adrian Faulkner

    To quote Joss Whedon

    Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
    A: Because you’re still asking me that question.

    In my own country we still have institutions that are outwardly sexist (Church of England and women bishops) so you can understand why anybody who writes in a medieval-based fantasy society would add sexism as a defacto. Weapons are swords, transportation is by horse, sexism is standard. Doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done differently but the danger is that turns the characters into ‘men with boobs’.

    For as long as sexism is a very real thing, I think we’ll need to revisit the issue in our literature.

    • sam

      Oof. I don’t know how well I like the whole “men with boobs” argument. It seems to imply that men and women have problems, characters, personalities that never intersect. Like, I wouldn’t consider a bitter, hard-drinking veteran who was a woman to be a “man with boobs” type character. Stuff like PTSD, alcoholism, general displeasure with life is hardly exclusive to males.

      • Anne Lyle

        It’s not that they don’t intersect, but men and women (on average) tend to approach problems a bit differently. Women tend to be more cooperative, less confrontational – sure there are exceptions, but in that case it becomes a major point of the character. And a woman who resembles a man in some respects might be totally girly in another. Take the example of Kaylee in Firefly, who is an ace engineer and generally “one of the boys”, but has hidden yearnings for pretty ballgowns 🙂

        If all your female characters could have their sex changed with zero effect on their storyline, they’re probably not very realistic women.

  4. Faith

    “Maybe the problem is still so big that we all must still keep talking about it?”

    Just one example– A friend of mine recently shared this article with me. After reading it I felt like wretching and was left with a sadness in my chest. It was written by a woman–in our time, this year.

    “…I’m wondering if that’s the only discussion we can ever have.”


  5. Navi

    since my comment is still awaiting moderation I’ll retype it and ask that the original not be published. ha. ha.

    oh haha the “men with boobs” in the comment got me. My teenage daughter likes to draw genderbended versions of her friends. Two of them, end up not being terribly different. One is herself (she has a soft spot for dresses but typically dresses fairly gender neutral, except she’d be the annoying dude in skinny jeans – but then she’s skinny so regardless of her gender she could also get away with it, without looking too pretentious) and the other is one of her guy friends. Most of the others, based largely on their personalities, have slightly different clothing styles. of course she tends to always make her genderbent boyfriend’s clothes fit his personality, rather than his style…

    Also, I know a hell of a lot of women who are confrontational. It’s not an exception, they just get called a few names, when a man who acts that way doesn’t, just like a man who acts what we consider effeminate also gets called names… Most of the things we consider exceptions to the way a gender acts, have more to do with society’s gender norms, and less to do with the gender…

    It’s frustrating. I walk into a bookstore and I have to explain to my seven year old why the doodle book she likes the most is considered a boys doodle book, and come up with a half assed answer of well some times people won’t buy a doodle book for a boy, quietly grumbling to the teenager about gender norms.

    The younger one likes her share of princesses and pink but she also likes her share of action and adventure, as well. Gender norms, mean kids treat the little girl at my daughter’s school who dresses gender neutral (not my daughter, as I said she likes her share of pink) differently. It’s sick. We’re still hashing out these story lines because they’re classic and our society still has a long way to go.

  6. Kathryn/@Loerwyn

    I think this is why Tangled and Brave broke the… thingy a bit. Rapunzel’s gender wasn’t particularly relevant to her story beyond cultural expectations of women having longer hair (‘cos on men that’s just a bit “gay”, right? Now go say that to Amon Amarth…). You could genderswap that film and it would largely work the same. Brave? Well… not so much, I think Merida’s gender was a crucial point BUT the way it was represented was important. She didn’t feel that the tradition was right, so she sought to change it, and in a neutral way. It wasn’t “girls should choose the boys they love”, it was “we should be with those we love”.

    I too read The Emperor’s Knife, and whilst there’s a character in there who isn’t a faint-at-the-hint-of-manhoodness girl, it all feels… done. The magic system is different, the setting is a little refreshing, but the interactions and the character types are all *done*. There’s the crazy guy who wants power, the blood-weary assassin, the lady mages WITH TITS GUYS THEY HAVE TITS, the girl who gets forced into a marriage, the woman who is so confident and self-proud she walks around with her teats out (literally), blah blah blah. Vom. Something different, PLEASE.

    This is why I liked the Ciaphas Cain books (Warhammer 40,000). The way women are depicted is genius. You have, in some of them, a lesbian pairing. One is a fairly ‘typical’ female soldier (I don’t mean butch, I mean just your average woman but a soldier), her partner is short, redheaded, packs a punch (she roughhouses and takes down a guy MUCH bigger without so much a blink), yet she goes into shock at one point in Caves of Ice (awesome novel) and it leads to one of the most touching, human moments I’ve ever read in a book. Their genders are not irrelevant, IMHO. I think they’re important for countering the sexism (which is why the fight I mentioned started), but that touching scene wouldn’t happen with men because, well, it’s not macho, is it? That’s another issue, but one for another day.

    Women are, well, women. They’re as capable in every regard, yet so many writers cannot fathom that. They have to stick to their Disney roles. The woman as the victim, the man as the saviour (but also the abuser but let’s ignore that because here comes Mr Perfect Princely Prick on his perfect horsey-worsey), the woman as second-class, the man as supreme. Gender need not be an issue. Why not have a female blacksmith for, well, why not? Why should it matter if she’s a woman? If she can swing the hammer as good as any guy, what’s the problem?

    • Anne Lyle

      I don’t agree with all this* but yeah, female blacksmiths. I loved the one in “A Knight’s Tale” – thought she was far more attractive than the drippy princess love interest.

      * Particularly the bare breasts in The Emperor’s Knife – to me that was an interesting expression of how non-Western their culture was. We make a big deal of women’s nakedness, they don’t – I didn’t see that as sexist in the least, especially as I don’t recall it being treated from a “male gaze” perspective. It was just a tradition for them, as normal as, say, wearing a wedding ring.

      • Kathryn/@Loerwyn

        I didn’t mean it as sexist, Anne, more… she’s the woman who expresses her sexuality in a big way. It’s said in the book she bares her breasts to show where the Emperor suckled as a babe, i.e. she does it to remind him where he came from, but also to remind others. But it does – even in the text – have a sexual element to it. Or maybe it’s because it was another one of those books fascinated with telling us about breasts. But one or two of the characters were definitely said to be looking at them.

  7. Mazarkis Williams

    Is it OK for me to comment? I don’t want to stifle discussion but I thought I might be able to add something – or else make it worse 🙂

    As someone with a history degree I’m familiar with the stories of young women being shipped off to marry this or that prince. No statement on the world we currently live in, or statement on how things should be or how I wish they could be. I just ripped off history. If I had to do it all over again I’d give it more thought.

    Being surprisingly not very well-read in the genre, I didn’t realize it was a common theme.

    But that’s not really what The Emperor’s Knife is about, or not precisely. It’s about people who are trapped in their roles who nevertheless find a way to do what they need to do and fight the bad guy. All the characters are trapped in some way – not just the women.

    I think it’s worth mentioning that women can be strong characters and accomplish a lot of things even when the secondary world that’s been created is a sexist one. In fact that gives her more to overcome, and creates more challenges for the protagonist. It’s not a better way, but one valid way, to write the story of a woman.

    • sam

      Absolutely it’s okay! The conversation is going very well!

      And let me take a moment to reiterate: I never found it to be a commentary on the world we live in (though, as I said in the blog post, the conversation continues whether we’re in it or not). It was mostly a commentary on the genre we’re a part of. I definitely don’t consider Mesema to be a weak character and I certainly wouldn’t deign to tell anyone how to write their story. And, as I’ve said, this conflict is important to her and it’s handled quite well. But at the same time, I can’t help wishing for a story where we had another sort of conflict going on.

  8. Mazarkis Williams

    PS thanks for reading the book!

  9. Kathleen

    I recently had a conversation with an author about the way females are traditionally written, especially as heroines. According to her she has written a strong female character that isn’t saved by a male (I have yet to read her books, so only going on her word).

    I think the example of Merida from Brave is a good one where the character was not a) a demi-god b)possessed magical powers c)was saved by a male hero. In real life, well, we have a long way to go as gender repression is still a strong factor in our society. We only need to look at religion, politics and paychecks to know that!

  10. Master Cortana

    I would have to agree with the “men with boobs” comment… sometimes I wonder if that’s all that people think that women are. We do a disservice. If we’re to honor the feminine, we have to first recognize that it exists. It’s this sort of this weird, reverse sexism – that if there IS anything in a female character that’s well… feminine, then it’s called sexism. That there’s this pressure to write female characters as men with boobs, otherwise… they’re not real some? “Uh oh, she’s thinking about raising a family.” Political correctness gone amock.

    There’s plenty of ways to write great female characters while not stripping them of their femininity, or the other, writing them as if they’re a package of nothing but.

    • sam

      I always cringe slightly when someone trots out the “political correctness gone mad” line, so bear with me.

      I’ve never really considered femininity and masculinity to be all that exclusive. I know that sounds odd, but to me, the problems of men and women often intersect at an emotional and philosophical level. I think that we must honor the character before we honor the gender.

      • Master Cortana

        I largely agree, but while I think there are varying degrees, I do think that on some level men and women do have differences, and that helps inform our character. It’s not the scary, horrible thing people make it out to be.

        If the experiences of a woman are different in every single culture on this planet, why is it so horrible that such would be the case in a second world? Doesn’t mean you have to treat them like second-class citizens.

        I see what you’re getting at, but a lot of girls LIKE to read stories about women dealing with these expectations because it reflects the ones that we do here.

      • Anne Lyle

        They might intersect, but people are very varied – you get women who are very traditionally girly and others who are, for want of a better word, tomboys, and likewise macho men and those who might be considered more feminine (or at least, “in touch with their feminine side”). If a book only has stereotypical genders, or only has people whose gender is irrelevant to their story, it’s going to be unrealistic.

        Obviously not all these types are going to be represented in your protagonists (unless you have a huge cast like ASOIAF) but your tough female warrior is likely to encounter a more conventional woman at some point – which gives you an opportunity to deepen her character by contrasting it with how other women in her culture think.

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