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.
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?