Change The Pattern
Feminist author Katha Pollitt wrote an essay after 9-11 in which she called her own daughter “jingoistic” for wanting to fly the American flag out their Manhattan window after the Twin Towers came down. The family lived within a few blocks of the World Trade Center, and her daughter was a student at Stuyvesant High School – only three blocks from Ground Zero.
Katha has no lack of platform. People give her credit for being “out there” and “cutting edge.” Little could be farther from the truth. I recall reading an essay or story by her in my college English class regarding ironing (“To think I spent all those years ironing his underpants!”) years ago. I thought the essay was a little harsh, and interpreted it as being the story of a woman married to a selfish, unappreciative husband. Most recently, Katha has been writing about the benefits of abortion.
As if these are the only stories about women that can be told.
In publications aimed at women, there are a few basic stories that can be told. In recent years, the evolution has been to be able to tell stories about women’s sexuality, within certain parameters. In books that speak of romance, often the sexuality is edited out. For example, in many Christian romance books, love is well-portrayed, and sex is kept in the reader’s imagination. Of those stories that do include explicit sex, genuine deep love is often given a back seat. I cannot think of any highly popular books and films that show both in equal measure. I’m not saying this is “necessary,” just that the romantic aspect of women’s experience is something that’s often featured in fiction, and the fact that women do enjoy sex is no longer a taboo topic, but it appears that a balance between the two is difficult to find. A popular theme in “paranormal romance” is the promise of a sort of power and freedom women seldom have in real life. Women in these types of stories are paranormal creatures themselves, to whom regular social rules do not apply, or all-powerful “hunters.” My favorite such title is an anthology called My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon (a collection of novellas by popular paranormal authors).
But Amy! What about all the mystery and suspense books and films featuring females …
Yes. Women who fit the profile of a male detective (quirky, twisted, unusual, loner) are able to be the protagonists of their own tales. My favorite such character in novels is the tough, hilarious, Jersey Shore-ish (long before the MTV series) Stephanie Plum. Television has adapted Dr. Watson to Lucy Liu in Elementary (and films have made him into ultra-hot Jude Law), so being a decent person with some semblance of a life is no longer a barrier to being a popular detective hero. Are there stories with older female sleuths? Of course. First, there was canny old Miss Marple. Then, canny, sweet, widowed Jessica Fletcher. Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher do not typically have sex (Jessica had a few boyfriends as I recall – I think she might have even had a marriage proposal or two which she regretfully declined). On television now, one of the most realistic characters is Olivia Benson on Law & Order SVU, played by my sister-in-arms Mariska Hargitay – a stunningly beautiful woman who sometimes gets flak because she’s healthy and beautiful, no longer 25, and not emaciated. Then there’s “Bones” (also the star of novels written by her inspiration Kathy Reichs), and Catherine Willows on CSI, also played by one of my age-mates, the ageless Marg Helgenberger.
I think the reason women, including many over age 25, are accepted as “stars” in crime stories is that crime is a special sub-category of storytelling which exposes the dark side of human nature. The moral of these stories is always “crime does not pay” and sometimes women are the best administrators of justice.
As to stories about crime itself, one of my favorite books is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. In one slim novel, pretty much what everyone has internalized about women in our culture occurs. The message of The Lovely Bones is that people were ready to read a story told from the perspective of a 14 year old girl who was the victim of a horrendous rape and murder. I couldn’t write such a book, because what happened to Susie Salmon could well have happened to me. I have more in common with Law & Order SVU’s Olivia Benson than just being the same age as Mariska Hargitay. The story does do respect to Susie and her family, particularly her father (portrayed in the film version by Mark Wahlberg). It even does a little respect to the idea of heaven, and to the idea of forgiveness and moving on. It examines the question of salvation. It does not examine justice. There’s no excuse for what the killer did, and the book (and film) do in some ways attempt to humanize him. As if Susie needed to cede even more of her story to this monster, who destroyed not only her life, but also her family. The Lovely Bones is of its time, but it’s hardly a cultural plus that such a sensitive portrayal of a 14 year old girl, her hopes, feelings and dreams, was required to be lensed through vicious serial rape and murder. Susie had to die in order for her story to be told. Living Susie? Hardly a bestseller.
Which brings us to science fiction and fantasy.
Often people mention the Honor Harrington books by David Weber as examples of a strong heroine. To this, I say “the stories include a mechanism by which Honor is ‘forever young’ and beautiful.” Honor, I am told, is presently in a plural marriage – and would it be Honor with two hot guys? No, it’s Honor, her husband, and his disabled wife, which necessitates his relationship with Honor. I can think of people desiring such a relationship, but the people who would do so … aren’t primarily women.
Let’s just say I write a story about a military heroine who’s in a plural marriage and it is a mature, badass type woman like Mariska Hargitay, Marg Helgenberger, or … me. Am I going to be the next David Weber?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Everybody knows I can’t write a hundredth as well as David Weber. Give me a break! Pure fantasy, baby.
Although somebody did do that. She wrote about a real marriage and a real, deep, true love, and real military action and adventure: Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar books. I recently re-read these books and realized what an amazing achievement they are. Not just exciting, engaging stories and characters, but Lois actually portrayed a couple from different cultures who were deeply in love from both perspectives: Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan. Cordelia and Aral’s story is what men and women who do love each other experience, and it’s two heroes, not one. Cordelia is hardly the “shrinking violet.” And the biggest part of their story, Barrayar itself, did win the Hugo and Locus awards. In 1991. Issues like honor, courage, love, and right and wrong are what every page of all of these books are about. In terms of science-fictional speculation that SF/F readers enjoy, Lois packs every page with so much speculation and deep world-building that readers enjoying the fast-paced stories may not realize just how much work was involved in creating these worlds and characters.
So, it’s been nearly 25 years. Surely there must be other award-winning books and stories with characters like Cordelia Vorkosigan. A principled, courageous, loving, decent, powerful woman who’s married to the love of her life and given birth to a child (everyone’s favorite Bujold character – Miles Vorkosigan).
Gee whiz. Oh! A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin!
Most familiar with the television show and books know what happens to the most-decent, admirable characters. A great end for Ned Stark, and especially for Catelyn Stark … at least she “survived,” didn’t she? They didn’t cut her head all the way off. There’s even a Miles Vorkosigan-like character – everyone’s favorite – Tyrion Lannister. Twisted, messed-up Tyrion fixes his family issues … with his crossbow.
But … but … Daenerys! She’s 13 when her brother tries to get it on with her, and then she marries doomed barbarian Khal Drogo. Fiction has come a long way, because readers can enjoy this budding young female’s sexual awakening. In detail. I might quibble a bit with George about how much 13 year olds would enjoy the type of sex Daeneyrs has exactly as described, but what the heck would I know? It’s not like I’ve been there, done that … not like George anyway. The Dothraki dragon princess is still a teen throughout all the action. Everyone also loves Arya, who’s supposed to be something like age 10 when she witnesses her father’s beheading. But there’s that good-looking, loving couple, Jaime and Cersei Lannister. But – they’re not married? Well, they are closely-related as brother and sister.
Oh man, but what about …
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice? The characters aren’t gendered, which is one way to get around The Pattern and Ann’s pretty darn smart.
Or what about Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars”? Having cutting-edge babies. Regular and starship variety.
What about “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” by Rachel Swirsky? If this gay young man who was beaten were only a dinosaur he could have fixed all those guys who did the bad deed! Justice served.
What about “The Weight of the Sunrise” by Vylar Kaftan? “So you ask for the story of your origin, beautiful boy, and why you and your father are different from those around you. You are fourteen and nearly a man …” This is alternate history about Incas and an alternate Marco Polo, featuring a shit-heel American villain.
Hey, Susie Salmon (The Lovely Bones) was fourteen, wasn’t she? Nearly a woman until Harvey the serial killer got hold of her. Why not an alternate history, where Susie became like Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space? Except Christa died. That’ll need to be changed.
But – but – Hermione Granger, the mudblood witch!
Excuse me for the spoiler, but Hermione married Ron. Harry married Ginny Weasley. All in the family.
It’s the expected. The familiar. The pattern of the stories of our lives. These expected stories are those made by our society around the world — a collection of cultures which are struggling to emerge from an early adolescence marked by cruelty, violence, domination and brutality, cupidity, mendacity, duplicity — a society seeking to emerge from its early teens into some semblance of adulthood.
Faulkner said it best, in 1950 (his Nobel Prize acceptance speech):
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
Faulkner included both young men and young women. What kind of world is it, when the most popular writer of our day, J.K. Rowling, marries Hermione to Ron, and Harry Potter to Ginny? And fundamentally leaves Hermione, the best friend to Harry Potter, the girl who courageously battles anti-Mudblood prejudice – like one of the main motivators for Evil Voldemort – out of most of the final action of the huge, encompassing “good v. evil” story?
It’s my world. It’s your world. It’s the world where my role models, my heroes, are utterly forgotten. Where their ultra-dramatic, extreme stories were par for the course. My great-grandmother, born 1865, graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, MO with a degree in math. She was the youngest of seven daughters. Soon after her remarkable college graduation, the family farm burned to the ground, killing both her parents. She rescued her sisters and came to California on the train with one of them, my great-aunt Sterling, who met John P. Baumgartner on the train and married him. He later founded the Santa Ana Register (now the Orange County Register) and ran for governor of California. My paternal grandmother Mary came to the U.S. at age 12 on a boat from Russia, fleeing pogram during which her entire village was burned to the ground. Speaking little English, she assumed her cousin’s program of pharmacy at Columbia University in New York, completing school at age 14. She later became the first licensed female pharmacist in California, and was one of the founding members of the American Communist Party — in a day and age when that would have been reasonable for someone in her position and with her knowledge of immigrants, workers, and employment issues. My mother Sterling was one of the first female animation artists and created the looks for the animated Mr. Magoo and Charlie Brown among many others. The way she drew, informed many of today’s cartoons and artists.
She was, by all accounts, quiet, shy and caring toward others. Never would she have fought as I have fought for a voice and platform. That feistiness is, I think, more akin to my grandma Mary, who used to sew up gangsters who came in riddled with bullets in Hell’s Kitchen. When my mother died at age 40, her work was cannibalized, ripped-off, credited to anyone and everyone else but her. Her courage was more on the human level. She had pancreatic cancer, probably because of the early acrylic paints she worked with in the animation studio. When she learned she was pregnant with me, she stopped all treatment to give me a chance. I was born three months premature and she died when I was three months old, so she did what she set out to do: she gave her life for me.
If only I’d been born a boy. Then it would have mattered.
That was then. This is now.
It’s time for us to tell our stories. All of us. Men and women. It’s time to stop glamorizing crime and hate and cruelty, misogyny and malaise. It’s time to stop accepting that the “best we can do” is a 13 year old girl sold in marriage to an animal, and who’s brutalized into having no trust for anyone else at all (justifiably so), utterly lacking a childhood, is “your heroine, young readers.”
You know how they talk about “being honest” in writing, and writing “what you know?” Well. Like that. Male, female, whatever your color, whatever your beliefs — because — as Faulkner said — courage and honor and love and sacrifice, these conflicts of the human heart with itself: These are all that is worth writing about. All that is really worth reading.
Addendum: This is written from a female perspective, but I want to address the decent men out there who are writing about men who have some semblance of honor, courage, decency and dignity. I think that nearly every male character I have written is of this nature, and now, more consciously-so, since I am basing characters on real people I know and care about. It can hardly be uplifting for men to learn that the one character in books like George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire they might identify with or aspire to, Ned Stark, is destined for beheading. Just in case that wasn’t “good enough,” Ned’s whole family is flung to the winds and devastated, with little to no chance even for his children to survive. His beloved daughter Arya is brutalized, wandering homeless, in constant danger, her only friends stone-cold psycho killers. His son gets it soon enough, along with his beloved life-partner and widow. His other daughter – well – she gets battered as well, and is egregiously abused, sexually and all other ways. Yet another son is permanently disabled by one half of the loving Cersei-Jaime incest couple. The story as a whole features not one, but two, loving brother-sister pairs. There’s not a functional family in the thousands and thousands of pages. Any bit of kindness or courage is immediately stamped out in favor of viciousness, psychosis, animalistic urge for power, or just plain-pig-headed stubbornness. Then there’s the murdering witch, and the relatively decent chap who gets to watch all of his sons blown to hell by Tyrion’s amazing use of semi-forgotten magic. And – Tyrion – little, somewhat human, somewhat brave – for a time.
It’s no easier to be a real man in fiction than it is to be a real woman.