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Misogny and fantasy: inextricably linked?

Historically authentic sexism in fantasy? Let's unpack that

This is an interesting and thought-provoking article about the role of women in fantasy and about the idea that misogynist fantasy worlds are somehow "historically accurate" and therefore should be taken for granted. Mostly I find it hilarious how people are all for "historical accuracy" when deciding to make their fantasy society horrifically misogynist, but somehow they don't worry about that in any other area of their worldbuilding. Apparently a society with sentient flying firebreathing lizards who collect sexually inexperienced women and bling is more believable and realistic than a society where women are treated like human beings.

George R. R. Martin is the flagship series that gets used as an example in these kinds of arguments. I am torn on the subject of Martin's work. On the one hand, his books are set in an incredibly rapey, misogynist world. On the other hand, it's also crappy for men too. On the other other hand, there's a LOT of rape and rape threats against the female characters; and as someone who studies the medieval period, I have serious issues with his characterization of "ERRBODY ALL GETTIN RAPED UP IN HERE" as "historical accuracy to the Middle Ages." On the other other other hand, his books are actually in some ways very anti-sexist, in that a good half of the viewpoint characters are female and go through some fairly awful shit. On the fifth hand, a lot of that rape comes off creepily like sexual fantasy (see a few of the scenes with Dany in the first book). On the sixth, the female characters are fairly well-realized, well-motivated, and seem like actual people. Et cetera et cetera et cetera. Suffice it to say that I am conflicted about GRRM, and his books are not the only ones making the "misogynist world is HISTORICAL WORLD" argument but are certainly the most high-profile to do so.

In related news, that's actually one reason I really like the Dragon Age games; they're very much GRRM-inspired in their crapsack-worldness but also fairly egalitarian. Your character's life may suck horribly for a myriad of reasons, but it's rare that anyone implies that you can't do something because your avatar has breasts and a uterus (and if they do, they are probably an awful person whom you can slaughter horribly and then loot the body).

Anyway, reading articles like this makes me headdesk at the different ways society conditions us to think about things like race and gender. Because really, THERE IS NO REASON THAT RACISM OR SEXISM SHOULD EVEN BE A THING. We're all human beings, we all learn things and feel insecure and are proud of ourselves when we do something good and poop when we have to poop...why is it that these fairly tiny differences manage to overwhelm all the things both genders have in common and somehow make this huge divide? It just seems so needless.

The comments on this article are also interesting. Some of them broaden out beyond sexism, and are fairly enlightening and/or make you think. For example:

"I think my son only has two books in which PoC chara's feature, which is a shame. We live in a town which is predominatly white (changing a bit more recently) and an incidant when he started school really bought home to me his inexperiance with various shades of skin. There is a black skinned boy in his class (just started school). On his way home he pointed out how very, very dark he was. He seemed upset, which concerned me. When I asked him why he told me he thought he must have been attacked by a dragon. Why? Becuase when a dragon attacks you (lots of demonstration and description of dragon) it burns you with its fire breath and your body turns black and you die. Is he a zombie? I was a bt shocked-needless to say. My son was more familiar with dragons, zombies and the state of burned to death bodies that PoC!"

What does something like that say about our society? What does it say that we live in a world, and are raised in a society that trains us to think overtly or covertly, that dragons are more believable/familiar/easy to accept than the idea that women could potentially be treated equally to men, or that people of color exist?

Not all the comments, however, are as useful. S. M. Stirling weighs in, and wow but is he super-mansplainy. It makes me not want to read his books (not that I particularly did before). He's basically saying, among other things, that an egalitarian society has never really existed (which, yeah, probably true, though I'm not sure I buy his claim that modern Western culture is the best women have ever had it; certainly there have been cultures that esteemed women quite highly, such as the Cherokee, in ways that I feel modern American culture STILL refuses to do). But he also says that such a society is basically inconceivable without exhaustive supportive reasoning or vast leaps of logic. Again, THIS IS A PERSON WHO WRITES SPECULATIVE FICTION, WHICH IS ALL ABOUT THINGS BEING UNLIKE THEY ARE IN REAL LIFE. So time travel, aliens, and psionics - all of which he has written about - are fine, but suggest a society where women are not getting a raw deal and it becomes SHOW ME THE RECEIPTS. Sigh.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
bobthetrout
Dec. 15th, 2012 12:22 am (UTC)
THIS REMINDS ME OF THIS CLASS I TOOK AND I TOTALLY WOULD HAVE RAMBLED AT YOU AND YOU WOULD HAVE HAD INSIGHTS AND TOLD ME TO SUCK IT UP BUT I COULD NOT CONTACT YOU TO BE WHINY.

No, seriously, one of my classes was Women in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The prof (and at least me in one of the papers, if not the rest of the class) argued that women had it better in the late medieval period than reformation/early modern.

And I would have whined at you about the library being slow on my book request so I had to read Margery Kempe in middle english because that's the only free version on the internet, and you would have told me to suck it up.
yoshitsune
Dec. 17th, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
Ahahaha YOU ARE ENTIRELY CORRECT IN YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THE SITUATION

And yeah, women did have it better in late medieval than early modern, IMO; there was much more support for females owning businesses, for example, and widespread numbers of convents offered options for women who did not want to marry and wanted to be educated, options that were mostly gone post-Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.

And hahaha, I do sympathize - Margery Kempe is a trip even in translation, let alone in ME - but still SUCK IT UP, AT LEAST IT'S NOT JULIAN OF NORWICH IN MIDDLE ENGLISH. THAT WOULD MAKE EVEN ME WANT TO SLIT MY THROAT, IF SHE WOULDN'T READ IT AS A LACTATING BREAST-VAGINA
bobthetrout
Dec. 17th, 2012 05:48 am (UTC)
Part of it too was the reformation created this moral backlash that hit women far harder than men, meaning that if a woman was not married and raising a family she was instantly suspect.

Honestly I didn't used Margery Kempe for any of my papers. Christine de Pizan all the way, yo. XD
bluewoodensea
Dec. 22nd, 2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
I read the article the other day, and yeah, seconding all of this. I tend to steer clear of any writers who prioritise misogyny in their created universes, unless there's a very good reason for it - but on the other hand I don't feel any particular need to read a book which has "misogyny is bad" as a central message either, because I already knew that thankyouverymuch. And while I think it's good and necessary to discuss the links between violence and sexism, a focus on violent misogyny risks trivialising other forms of misogyny. I'm reminded of The Rejectionist's review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: "The worst thing about this book is that it seems to be saying the only violence against women that counts is the kind that ends up with us dead. The rest of us, I guess, are just complaining."

/ramble
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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