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Faye Bi: A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Faye Bi!

A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”
by Faye Bi

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “The Husband Stitch” published online in 2014 and is the first story in her acclaimed short fiction collection, Her Body and Other Parties. It’s the story of a woman with a green ribbon around her neck, who meets a boy who becomes her husband, and with whom she raises a son. Before I continue, Machado’s fairytale focuses on a cis-het relationship, so I will be using that language in my analysis. As a reader, I acknowledge the pervasive and structural nature of toxic masculinity. Male privilege affects queer, nonbinary and transgender people in ways that are similar, but often more violent.

Upon their first meeting, the boy asks the narrator if he can touch her ribbon. She says no. “There are two rules,” the narrator shares, “he cannot finish inside of me, and he cannot touch my green ribbon.” The ribbon represents a few things: her voice, given its placement around her throat; a piece of herself more sacred than her body, which she gives to her husband freely; and, with the introduction of other women with ribbons, an essential part of their identity women choose to keep for themselves and not to share with men, even their husbands and sons.

With “The Husband Stitch,” Machado has woven folklore, storytelling, and women’s pain and experiences—and men’s attempts to violate or invalidate them—in a social horror that too successfully captures the current zeitgeist in an era of #MeToo and #NotAllMen.

First, the green ribbon in “The Husband Stitch” is a reference to a European folk motif in which a red thread is worn around a person’s neck, which marks the place where their head was severed and then reattached. The most popular iteration of this motif—one that Machado may have borrowed from—is “The Girl with the Green Ribbon” in Alvin Schwartz’s 1985 children’s story collection In a Dark, Dark Room. There, too, a man (named Alfred) meets a woman (named Jenny) with a green ribbon around her neck, who agrees to marry him on the condition that he never touches it. Years later when Jenny is on her deathbed, she unties her ribbon and her head rolls off. The common adult response to this story from a cursory internet search is a) that it messed them up as a child, b) shock that it was published for children as young as four, and c) that Alfred had clearly been duped. Jenny was an “undead liar,” and Alfred should have pulled off Jenny’s ribbon far earlier!

Machado, of course, gives no fucks about Alfred. In “The Husband Stitch,” she reimagines “Girl with the Green Ribbon” solely from the girl’s point of view, our narrator. Given the strategic placement of the ribbon around her neck, it symbolizes her voice—and thus, her stories, perspective, truth, and literal speech. In the parenthetical introduction to the story itself, Machado’s narrator sets us up to read the story aloud, determining the voices to use for each character: for the boy who will become her husband, “robust with his own good fortune,” and for her father, “like your father, or the man you wish was your father.” For herself, the narrator tells us: “high-pitched, forgettable” and for all other women, “interchangeable with [her] own.”

We can deduce, then, that the narrator’s stories reflect a universality of themes women will recognize in their relationships.

Our narrator tells us then, how she meets a boy who both her parents are “extremely fond” of, and who they believe will be a good man. She tells us, too, that she and her boy have a lot of very intense, very consensual, very passionate sex throughout their courtship and their marriage, just in case anyone would try to read her boundary setting of not touching her green ribbon as withholding sex. By nearly all accounts, the narrator’s husband can be read as loving: faithful, polite to her family, a hardworking employee, an excited expectant father, and a supportive co-parent. Machado, in establishing a character who will eventually stand as a villain, has not depicted the narrator’s husband as a one-note misogynistic asshole. He has honorable qualities and these descriptions make him all the more recognizable as the dependable male family members in our lives: our husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons.

At the same time, the narrator’s husband’s words of love, romance, and family can equally be interpreted as ominous, persistent, and violating.

He asks her worst secret, and she confides in him the pain of her molestation by a teacher. The day he proposes, he tells her, “I feel like I know so many parts of you…And now, I will know all of them.” When she tells him she is pregnant, he is thrilled, but asks in the next breath, “Will the child have a ribbon?” Perhaps the most disturbing is the joke he makes with the male doctor after our narrator gives birth: “You offer that extra stitch, right?” He is of course referring to “the husband stitch,” when a doctor sews up a woman’s uterus after childbirth to make sex pleasurable for her husband. Doctors (a profession long dominated by men after midwives lost influence) have denied that the husband stitch exists, and to this day it remains a procedure of speculation… but wouldn’t we ask women who have lived these experiences?

Yet, the passage that’s most illustrative of these violations, and the most enraging, is when the narrator’s husband touches her ribbon without her consent. She has lots of sex—consensual sex!—with him in many, many places: on park benches, in the woods, mere moments before they walk down the aisle to get married, in train cars. But she is most upset and most vulnerable the times he touches her ribbon. When he tries to untie it in a bout of lovemaking, she feels so violated and stops immediately. He tells her:


– A wife, he says, should have no secrets from her husband.
– I don’t have any secrets, I tell him.
– The ribbon.
– The ribbon is not a secret, it’s just mine.
– Were you born with it? Why your throat? Why is it green?
I do not answer.
He is silent for a long minute. Then,
– A wife should have no secrets.
My nose grows hot. I do not want to cry.
– I have given you everything you have ever asked for, I say. Am I not allowed this one thing?
– I want to know.
– You think you want to know, I say, but you do not.
– Why do you want to hide it from me?
– I am not hiding it. It is not yours.

Her simple request and his dogged persistence here only magnifies the pervasiveness of his male privilege and entitlement. She has no secret about the ribbon, and answers none of his questions. But he sees this visible reminder of something to which he believes he has a right. That he has a right to what he believes is a secret, because he does not have access to it, nor can he claim ownership of it—and by extension, of her.

For the narrator, the ribbon is more than just a physical object; Machado suggests it’s sacred to femininity and more private even than parts of her body, even her uterus. This small piece of herself is essential to her identity.

The relationship between the narrator and her son changes, too, around the ribbon. When he is a baby, her son treats and touches her ribbon “no differently than he would an ear or finger.” But as he ages, more layers build between mother and son. When he tries to pull at it, she rebuffs him and shakes a can of pennies. Machado lets us know this moment is the same as shaking a can of pennies and startling the person next to you. “Observe their expression of startled fear, and then betrayal. Notice how they never look at you in exactly the same way for the rest of your days.” And finally, when he is old enough to ask point blank about it directly, she must refuse. “I tell him that we are all different, and sometimes you should not ask questions. I assure him that he’ll understand when he is grown.” And like the narrator’s husband, Machado does not depict her son as categorically bad or even ignorant, but as a kind, gentle soul, who fights bullies and waits to walk with a neighbor boy who is slower than the others. It’s that he must be taught boundaries—and to his credit, he respects them—though our poor narrator is constantly on guard to protect this part of herself.

With husband and son, Machado shows that even “good, loving” men aren’t exempt from transgressions, which is what makes “The Husband Stitch” a brilliant horror story and all-too-close for comfort.

Interspersed with interactions with her family, the narrator has “always been a teller of stories,” and Machado expertly weaves the tale with anecdotes and retellings of other horror stories or spooky folk tales. Even if you are unfamiliar with them, as I was, it doesn’t detract from “The Husband Stitch”; familiarity only contributes another layer of appreciation of her craft. These stories range from the narrator’s father telling her that there couldn’t have been stubby toes among the potatoes at the grocery store even though she saw them with her own eyes, to the daughter whose mother died from illness and the entire city gaslighting her so she might not believe she had a mother at all. Each story has the reader question women’s voices and experiences and whether or not they are to be believed. Many of them lead to a woman’s demise—whether she followed her own instincts and was right (“Graveyard Girl”), put her faith in a man that got them into deep shit (“Serial Killer Parking Lot”), or self-sacrificed her own comfort and pain merely to satisfy a man (“Where’s My Liver?”). These asides not only propel the narrator’s timeline forward, but force us to revisit her husband and son’s varying degrees of fixation with her ribbon and its eventual consequences.

When the narrator discovers women’s spaces, her perspective shifts. The text suggests that all women have ribbons somewhere—the fact that neither her son nor husband have ribbons—and the narrator meets other women with ribbons of all sizes and colors tied around various body parts. In every case, and like in Schwartz’s story, the ribbon is present, visible and never explained. She commiserates with another mother at her son’s school with a pale yellow ribbon on her finger. “It’s such a bother isn’t it?” she tells the narrator, as it gets constantly tangled when she sews costumes for the play. The narrator attends an art class, where a woman with a red ribbon around her ankle poses nude for a figure drawing session. The narrator and the ribbon-ankled model bump into each other at the coffee shop afterward, and the narrator is so captivated, both emotionally and sexually. The model says she has a daughter, and our narrator is afraid to ask the specifics of raising a “girl-child” as opposed to a son with no ribbon. When she reluctantly discusses details of the other woman’s ribbon after being prodded by her husband, she feels a burning shame and never goes back to that art class, as if she has infringed upon another woman’s privacy.

But while these ribbons are visible and tangible in Machado’s text, they stand in for any kind of boundary a woman might not want a man to cross.

Like a man feeling entitled to a woman’s body because she is his wife or because he paid for her dinner, or a son being old enough to ask about a personal matter that his mother does not want to tell him. It can be an anonymous internet commenter (likely male) invalidating a woman’s story with a “pics or it didn’t happen,” or especially, as this essay was originally written in Fall 2018, a group of white male congressmen questioning a psychology professor (through a female proxy, of course) about her sexual assault, making her relive her trauma on national television as she and her family receive death threats. And she is so calm, accommodating and helpful, while her assaulter shows up a few hours later and throws a huge tantrum demanding that his position on the nation’s highest court is owed to him. And that, even if we do believe her, what can we do about it? Any instance of a man demanding a woman’s smile, conversation, affection, or time. All manners of microaggressions such as not being called by the name you choose for yourself, or having a doctor, vendor, official, or other authority figure address a male spouse first. Even though our narrator in “The Husband Stitch” does literally everything—emotionally and sexually—to please her husband, he still feels that he deserves access to her ribbon. He still feels like he deserves to know.

This masculine persistence is so incredibly wearying it’s unsurprising that the narrator eventually gives in to her husband’s unrelenting obsession. Even after successfully and happily raising a son and sending him off into the world, milestone after milestone, he still wants to touch it. “Do you want to untie the ribbon? I ask him. After these many years, is that what you want of me?” When she, despondent, finally allows him to do it, he does so gaily and greedily. His ultimate betrayal is both infuriating and pathetic, though you could interpret his actions as at best, curiosity killed the cat or prodding a dangerous animal with a stick, it is much more plausible to read “The Husband Stitch” as a woman’s husband who becomes a monster out of his own male privilege by destroying the only boundary she kept, on the one thing she kept sacred for herself, and that didn’t belong to him.

By depicting the ribbon as a uniquely feminine feature, a shared experience yet individual to each woman, Machado skillfully defends a woman’s right to privacy and shows a man—the narrator’s husband and to a lesser degree, her son—sometimes ignorantly, often willfully, attempting to violate it. When we talk of hearing, believing, and heeding to women’s words, Machado shows even “good” men fail to do this through her sympathetic portrayals of men. As with great horror writers, she dramatizes the social horrors of the day and captures the intangible fear women have of not being believed and their experiences invalidated or called into question, not just from acquaintances or strangers, but from the people closest to us.


Faye BiFaye Bi is the director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and spends the rest of her time reading, cycling, pondering her next meal, and being part of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas. You can follow her on Twitter @faye_bi.

Emma Whitney: What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Emma Whitney!

What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?
By Emma Whitney

Girls of Paper and FireNatasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is a treasure to me. Not because it is a perfect book (is there any such thing as a perfect book?) but because it is the first YA fantasy work I have read in years where the monarchy is clearly the antagonist. There is no “good” monarch waiting in the wings to rescue their people, but instead a whisper of revolution and behind it the knowledge that government structured around a concept of inherent inequality can never offer true freedom.

Why is it that, in YA fantasy literature, we so often write about the “good” monarch? Not that we don’t have bad ones, too. But the answer to a bad monarch usually seems to be a good monarch rather than the dismantling of a system that creates people with such a mass of concentrated power. For every Girls of Paper and Fire, I have seen a mountain of books where the seemingly problematic monarch is “only trying to do what is best” or, if we do have an evil king, the problems will be fixed by returning the “true” queen to the throne. There are a hundred variations on this, but only one story in a hundred seems to take the time to ask if it could maybe be the power structure itself that is creating the fundamental problems.

I know my personal feelings of antipathy towards royalty are particularly strong, and I don’t at all expect that others feel the same way. But I am continually surprised by the prevalence of “good” royalty in—particularly YA—fantasy literature. In this era, where many are focused on fighting for the equality of all, why do we continue to centralize in our writing a system that raises some above others merely by factors of birth and access? Does the presence of “good” monarchy in our stories mean we are longing for a monarchy to lead us?

I don’t think so.

Certainly I think it means we are (at least sometimes) fantasizing about good leaders in general. I think this is a common fantasy. Many “realist” pieces of fiction are indulging in that fantasy. (West Wing, anyone?) But why monarchy? What is it about that crown?

First, I think that we are accustomed to seeing monarchy in fantasy. I think we’ve seen so much of it that those are often the stories that grow in our heads. It is hard to get away from tropes we think of as normal. (Just like internalized misogyny.)

Second is an issue of scope. When someone without significant power has a piece of property stolen the story might be a mystery, a revenge story, or maybe a minor adventure. The theft may encompass their whole world but doesn’t expand to affect many others beyond their immediate circle. When that same thing happens to a monarch? Suddenly it becomes important to whole kingdoms, realms, worlds. Sometimes drama feels more meaningful when it has these expansive implications. It amps up the tension a hundredfold. If our heroes fail, the nation may fall or the world may end. (By the way, this is the same effect you get with a chosen-one story.)

Third is access. People with power have access that isn’t available to people without power. It’s why there are more millionaire superheroes than superheroes with student debt. Millionaires (and billionaires) can create the access they need to build freaking spaceships. And in the same vein, royalty often has easily substantiated access to armor and weapons, magical histories and relics. They do not have to worry about the family farm when they go on an adventure; they have retainers and servants for that.

But we know that your characters don’t need to have access, don’t need to be in control of the world they’re trying to save, to create an enthralling story. We have The Fifth Season, The Diviners, Texas Gothic. Stories where, while people may have the power to control earth or to commune with spirits, they don’t have power over other people. So why in high fantasy do we so often default to royalty?

We seem to love the story of the struggle to be a “good monarch.”

We have it in television (The Dragon Prince, She-Ra) and in comics (Sailor Moon), and in books (The Goblin Emperor, The Wrath and The Dawn, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). Kate Elliot has done it and Patricia C. Wrede has done it and literally everyone who has ever had a go at writing about King Arthur has done it. But could you really have a monarch that is truly “good”?

Personally, I believe that the answer is no. Not without completely redefining the term. Not without letting “good” include a vast amount of systemic inequality. You cannot remake a system for true parity without undoing the structure that maintains a person or persons at the top, above their subjects. Monarchs, as we define the term colloquially, are people who live in a palace, who have resources that others do not, who take on the burden of final decisions when their main claim to the position is their birth, not their study, and if from their study, so often due to access available to the rich that is absolutely inaccessible to the people they supposedly protect. Good monarchs often “do the hard thing for their people’s good.” It is, regardless of the monarch’s gender, the ultimate paternal figure who sacrifices his daughters to save them from an evil greater than death. When the monarch “has to do a thing” to keep their country safe, why do we not question the power structure?

I’ve been watching The Dragon Prince. Besides being beautifully drawn and well written, it is generally a comfortably, and sometimes forcefully, liberal show. It explicitly prioritizes understanding and community over the slaying of any great enemy. It is one of the most diverse fantasy stories ever animated for a major platform (no shock as it comes from the people who created Avatar and The Legend of Korra). But why, in the midst of all this progressive storyline, do we still have Ezran held up as an idyllic “good king” who might save them all? Because when you really come down to it, a predominant factor in conflicts like this is the rulers. It was not the villagers of Katolis and the other human kingdoms who went to war against Xadia; it was people who wanted consolidated power.

Am I saying that every fantasy monarch is evil? I have to admit that my urge to say yes is strong, but no. It’s fantasy, after all. In a fantasy land anything is possible, including a ruler who truly is the protector and champion of their people. I still adore your classical Arthur (against all common sense), because in so many of the stories he is just trying to make a better life for everyone. I still cry when Boromir dies in Aragorn’s arms (and okay, if I’m spoiling that I don’t know what to tell you). But I believe that the vision of a “good monarch” is more fantastic than the possibility of dragons. (How is Archaeopteryx not just a small dragon?)

I do not want to discount what representation in the “classic” stories can give us. When I started reading Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars, having a classic princess scenario that I knew promised a queer romance warmed my cranky, bitter heart. I can imagine that is only a small part of the feeling others may get finally seeing a princess of color, a genderqueer princess, a disabled princess, all who lead the charge of their own stories. That warmth, that self-recognition, and empowerment, they are important. I do not want to ask for those stories to disappear.

All I want is to ask why we still tell these stories. Why do we want to relive the “romance” of the Tudors, when we have other history to revere in the shape of women like Dolores Huerta and Sojourner Truth, stories where no one was born to anything, but rather made their own fate?

Stories where someone took back a little piece of the power that had been hoarded by those with all the wealth, not by becoming part of their system, but by helping to fundamentally change it.

Ursula K. Le Guin famously said, “We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.” I feel this to the marrow of me. Why do we continue to write about power that has been consolidated under one person or family when we can fantasize about a world that destroys the oligarchy and offers a vision of a truer equality?

By the way? There’s more to that quote: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”


Emma WhitneyEmma Whitney is a math-brained aspiring accountant who would rather be thinking about dragons. She works as an administrative assistant but spends most of her time plotting to overthrow capitalism and making costumes for her niece (who is still a little too young to enjoy them). She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wonderful roommate, an exponentially growing yarn stash, and a robotic dinosaur named Dot.

 

Ren Iwamoto: A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Ren Iwamoto!

A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction
By Ren Iwamoto

In 2012, the movie Chernobyl Diaries hit theatres. Its most distinctive feature is that, objectively, it’s terrible. Its director, Bradley Parker, had never directed a feature film before. It’s ninety minutes of mutant threats just out of sight (presumably because the movie was produced on a budget of only US$1 million), and a drab, emotionless script. Jesse McCartney is in it, but did not sing “Beautiful Soul” even once.

Chernobyl DiariesWhat can be said about Chernobyl Diaries is its awareness of Chernobyl in the western mass consciousness. Chernobyl hangs like a cloud of “what if” in North America: What if our own nuclear projects go terribly wrong, too? What would the fallout look like? What creatures would it create? Nuclear radiation is a deep source of both anxiety and narrative imagination in North America.

When Americans are exposed to radiation, they become heroes. When foreign bodies – the Russians, the Japanese – are exposed to radiation, they become monsters; true “foreign bodies.”

Bradley capitalizes on this unconscious assumption, and the uncertainty of what these un-American monsters might be or do, and does so well enough to generate a sharp disparity between critics’ and regular consumers’ reviews of the film, which were notably more favourable.

Voices From ChernobylFifteen years before Chernobyl Diaries, in 1997, the first edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster was published in Russian. Alexievich was a journalist living in Minsk under the Soviet Regime in Belarus at the time of the accident, and her efforts in recording the aftermath of Chernobyl, amongst other wonderful writings, including her first monograph, The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.

The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which lay just outside the town of Pripyat, Ukraine. Alexievich, in the opening pages of her novel, shares a transcript of a monologue given by the wife of one of the first responders at the plant:

He [my husband] started to change. Every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers—as white film…the colour of his face…his body…blue…red…grey-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to describe! It’s impossible to write down! And even to get over. The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry. (Alexievich, 1997, 11-12)

We can clearly see here the transformative aspect which is so prevalent in nuclear fiction—the literal, grotesque shedding of the old self.

But the body is not a cocoon meant to be shed to give way to heroism, to something stronger and more complete. A body is a body; we belong in it and to it, and when it is stripped away, we die.

This story, which is only twenty pages long, moved me to tears three times. I put the book away for a while. But I could not stop thinking about it, and with my thinking, I recalled Bradley Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries. It seemed unbelievably ugly to me, that an American film maker could use Chernobyl as a springboard for a horror movie, and have not even the decency to make it a good horror movie. The young husband in the passage above died an ugly death – an objectively ugly, bodily death – and when he died remained nonetheless human. To seize upon the remainder, which is not the corpse, but the story of his life, and twist it into a B-list horror is a quiet and long-reaching appropriation difficult to see unless one thinks to look for it.

It would be extremely disingenuous, however, to say that all horror, sci-fi and fantasy “inspired” by real-life events are poorly done or made to capitalize on cultural trauma. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2018) engages directly with the horrors of the Sino-Japanese conflict during the twentieth century, particularly the infamous Nanking Massacre. The Poppy WarIn the Western mass consciousness, Japan has been rendered impotent. Its military, under the post-WWII constitution, can only exist for defensive purposes. Its global exports include franchises like Sanrio (the parent company of the ultra-cute Hello Kitty), anime, video games, and instant noodles. Stereotypes of meek, submissive women and quailing men run amok. But Japan committed some of the worst war crimes ever prosecuted, many of which are continually disputed by Japanese nationalists, who simultaneously wish to erase Imperial Japan’s atrocities and reinstate Japanese supremacy.

As a diasporic Japanese person, this knowledge was not readily available to me. Japan’s role on the global stage included: Pearl Harbour, the atomic bombings, and the North American concentration camps. I knew nothing about Nanking until I was in post-secondary, and took an introductory history class on the World Wars. Even then, Nanking was only mentioned in passing. The Poppy War has intrinsic value purely for bringing attention to the Nanking Massacre, which has dodged a deserved place next to the Holocaust in the western mass consciousness. (Why Chernobyl, widely accepted as a genuine accident, supersedes Nanking as an atrocity in the minds of many is an entire paper unto itself.)

That said, Kuang is herself a Chinese person. The Rape of NankingThe novel’s mere dedication – “This is for Iris,” referring to the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, the first monograph published in English that truly exposed the details of the Nanking Massacre to a broader Western audience – implies a closeness to the subject matter, a personal entanglement I can confidently guess Bradley Parker lacked with the Chernobyl incident. It may be argued it is her prerogative to internalize, reshape, and share a version of the Nanking massacre and the less obvious, but nevertheless present and important broader strokes of the Sino-Japanese conflict, including human experimentation and forced prostitution. My love for this book stems, I think, from this: the villains from the Federation of Mugen are human beings. They are not Parker’s mutants, rendered physically monstrous and mindlessly malignant.

In being “inspired” by atrocity, Kuang has maintained the most crucial aspect of the Nanking Massacre, which is that it was perpetrated by humans. It was humans who slaughtered and raped and stole and then tried to pretend it never happened, and it would be a disservice to reality to absolve human beings of that.

Anyway.

There is an unending supply of fiction “inspired” by real events, but speculative fiction in the posttraumatic context holds a particular place in this category, made famous by such literary giants as Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. The fantastic has long been a way writers can access atrocity without necessarily reliving it: Ghosts allow the dead to speak, allow forgotten and repressed memories to come to the surface. Beasts and monsters make convenient stand-ins for real-life oppressors, internal disorders of human empathy rendered bodily: fanged, clawed, winged and horned. A secondary-world brimming with magic obfuscates how closely faceless militaries mimic their real-life counterparts. South and Central America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and even the former Soviet Union have all produced novels engaging with the unreal as analogue to oppression, and in doing so legitimize speculative fiction as a genre capable of contending with and representing the real, and do so even more effectively than a genre like historical fiction. Historical fiction is, after all, a mirror, distorted, or perhaps a superimposition. In order to be “good,” the narrative must hold tightly to “the facts,” diverging only slightly, quietly and plausibly.

To be “inspired” by real-life events in speculative fiction is often to be in dialogue with conflicts both lesser and greater, and all the various manners in which humans are deficient in empathy and sagacity. That’s okay, I think. But some events feel like they belong to some people more than others – Chernobyl, Nanking, the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, residential schools, and on and on.

But is it fair to ask the colonized, oppressed, traumatized to rehash the details of their suffering over and over, just so western academics like me can be pleased with how knowledgeable and introspective we are? So we can look down on people who don’t know, because they were never taught, and say, “How can you believe colonialism is over? Racism is over?” Even in the speculative context, to recreate a trauma for consumption is a deeply unpleasant and deeply vulnerable position. I can only imagine myself in, for example, Kuang’s place: carefully demarcating the violence and dehumanization endured by the Chinese people and re-contextualizing it in a fantastic setting, a simultaneous reliving and distancing not everyone can or wishes to do themselves.

To tell a story is to be responsible for its effect, regardless of whether or not said effect was as intended. To tell a speculative story is the same, but with an added layer of nuance afforded by the fantastic.

When your trespassing American tourists are hunted by Russian mutants, whose real-life counterparts were good people who lived and died as human beings, what are you saying? When your villains mirror quite exactly the villains you know to exist in reality, despite the magic of the world around them, what are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?


Ren IwamotoRen Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications.

 

Gillian Chisom: Lost Girls and Open Doors: On Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Gillian Chisom!

Lost Girls and Open Doors:
On Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy

By Gillian Chisom

“Each of us has a private Austen,” Karen Joy Fowler wrote in her novel The Jane Austen Book Club. Fowler’s evocative opening line captures something of the complicated afterlife of an author whose books have become many things to many people: the idea of a private Austen suggests not only the ways in which any author’s stories can become a repository for the hopes and fears of a particular reader, but also the speculation about the woman herself that Austen’s own somewhat enigmatic personal life inspires in Fowler’s characters. “Private,” a word with deep roots in traditional ideas about femininity, evokes the related concept of (feminine) secrets: those that Austen herself kept, those that her characters keep or fail to, those that her modern readers keep from themselves and each other. At the same time, the private Austens that Fowler’s book club members cherish become sources both of individual strength and of connection with the group: while none of the characters in The Jane Austen Book Club read exactly the same Austen, they are still able to bring their private versions into the space that they share, with transformative results.

For those of us who grew up reading fantasy literature, especially those of us who grew up reading fantasy literature as girls, I would propose my own version: each of us has a private Susan Pevensie.

While by no means universal, the experience of reading C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia as a child or young adult and feeling distressed or even betrayed by Susan’s fate is one that many of us share. In The Last Battle, we are told that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia, dismissing it as a game she played with her siblings as children, and has shifted her interest to “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” While this brief explanation for Susan’s estrangement from Narnia allows for many possible interpretations, it seems clear enough that Susan falls from grace because she embraces the “wrong” version of adult femininity, though Lewis leaves us with few ideas of what the right version would look like. Given Lewis’s explicitly Christian worldview, one obvious interpretation is that Susan has lost her faith sometime between the end of Prince Caspian and the beginning of The Last Battle: in Narnia, in Aslan, perhaps even in her own memories. As a Christian child and young adult, that was certainly my own interpretation, though I found it difficult to believe that Susan actually forgot about Narnia: it made more sense to me that she simply convinced herself that it hadn’t been real as a means of self-protection. After all, not only had she and her siblings had to return to the real world after growing to adulthood in Narnia, but at the end of their second visit Aslan had told her that she would not be able to return, ever. It made sense to me that her grief might manifest in denial as an attempt to cope with the painful reality of losing an entire world, an entire life, that she and her siblings had claimed for themselves, even though I still believed that her response was misguided.

Other readers of Narnia have offered their own interpretations of Susan’s turn to “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Most famously, J.K. Rowling commented on Susan’s fate in an interview from 2005: “She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a problem with that.” Rowling’s comment implies that Lewis’s problem was an inability to see sex and religious devotion as anything other than contradictory, which seems plausible enough. The “nylons and lipstick” line certainly implies sex or at least sexuality, which in Lewis’s world are indistinguishable from adult femininity itself. Indeed, Lewis’s depictions of female characters, taken as a whole, imply that he could only understand adult women as either highly sexualized (and therefore frivolous at best and evil at worst), or sexless and therefore safe; in other words, the virgin/ whore dichotomy is alive and well in Narnia.

However, Susan’s characterization elsewhere in the series implies that she was in danger of losing faith even before she discovered lipstick.

In Prince Caspian, Susan spends much of the book refusing to believe that Lucy has seen Aslan, and has to be reprimanded by the Lion-god himself for “listening to fears.” The 2008 film interprets Susan’s attitude as caution borne of the fear of being yanked back to England again, an interpretation that adds some of the emotional realism that the book lacks. In The Horse and His Boy, which takes place during the adult Pevensies’ reign in Narnia, another character describes Susan as “more like an ordinary grown-up lady” in contrast to Lucy, who goes to war with her brothers while Susan stays home. In Prince Caspian, likewise, we learn that Susan excels at archery but is too gentle to fully enjoy competition.

Susan’s characterization up until The Last Battle suggests that the version of her who grew up in Narnia embraced a more traditional, and therefore acceptable, version of femininity. However, Lewis’s descriptions of the adult Susan also imply that even this purer version of female adulthood is virtuous only up to a point. Susan’s distaste for battle, in particular, contrasts unfavorably with “the Valiant” Lucy’s willingness to go to war for Narnia (even though Lucy’s gender relegates her to a role on the sidelines, healing the wounded); after all, no one wants to be “an ordinary grown-up lady.” Perhaps recognizing this, the 2008 film reinterpreted Susan as a warrior queen, a depiction that in one sense gave her more power, but in another simply reinforced Lewis’s negative attitude towards the idea of a woman choosing not to participate in war.

Susan’s ambivalence towards Narnia upon the Pevensies’ return in Prince Caspian also highlights a larger problem with traditional portal fantasy as a genre: its inability to grapple with the trauma that would likely result to the child protagonists of these stories from the experience of moving between worlds. However, a new generation of fantasy novelists has taken up these problems in their own versions of the portal fantasy, which come to the trope with an awareness of its inherent problems.

Laura Weymouth’s The Light Between Worlds responds directly to Lewis’s work, telling the story of two sisters, Evelyn and Philippa, who travelled from London to a magical land called The Woodlands as children during the Blitz and spent several years there. Evelyn, the younger sister, has sunk into an increasingly deep depression since their return; the book explores in painful detail how the loss of a magical world might affect the mental health of a child who had come to feel at home there. At the beginning of the book, the sisters have had a falling out, and Philippa is in college in the U.S., attempting to build a separate life for herself. When Evelyn disappears, Philippa returns to England to look for her, a task that forces her to reckon with their shared past.

Philippa eventually discovers that Evelyn has indeed found a door back to the Woodlands; in one sense, the story has a happy ending, as Evelyn is able to return to the world where she feels she belongs. However, Evelyn’s return comes at the price of permanent separation from her sister and the rest of their family. While Philippa accepts this separation as the only way forward for both of them, she also recognizes the loss: “My sister stands before me now, rooted in the soil of another world, and she’s always been more than I thought. She’s always been Evelyn of the Woodlands, whose heart called its way home. But I am plain Philippa Hapwell, and my heart belongs to no particular country. It belongs instead to all the people I’ve loved. A good part of it lies here and if I leave it behind, I will never be whole again. I’d be even less, though, if I stayed. More of me rests in the world to which I was born, and it’s time for me, too, to find my way home.” (P. 349)

Weymouth’s book explores the emotional and mental cost of having lived in two worlds, both for the sister who leaves for the magical land and for the sister who stays. The Light Between Worlds makes explicit what was only ever implicit in The Chronicles of Narnia: that choosing one world over another will always come with loss, and that that loss is even more painful when one does not have a choice. Weymouth’s counterpart to Aslan, a stag named Cervus, tells the Hapwell siblings that he will not call them back to the Woodlands, but at the end of the novel reveals that Evelyn has always had the choice to return if she chose, while Evelyn herself confesses that she only waited so long in the hope that she could adjust to being back for her family’s sake (p. 347).

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan tells the Pevensie siblings that “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a queen or king,” but the promise seems hollow when all of the Pevensies are eventually barred from returning; one can understand why Susan might have wanted to forget Narnia.

Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands also interrogates the portal fantasy, through the story of a thirteen-year-old named Elliot who’s recruited by a school on the other side of a wall in rural England that separates our world from the magical Borderlands. Brennan and Elliot are both self-aware about the tropes they’re interrogating, with poignant and often hilarious results. Elliot, for instance, is an avowed pacifist who works hard to propose diplomatic solutions to conflicts with various magical creatures, often meeting resistance from the militaristic Borderlands leaders. Brennan’s implied critique of the centrality of war to much of traditional fantasy literature, especially war fought by protagonists who are often children or teens, is incisive and refreshing. In Other Lands also grapples with the theme of choosing one world over the other, and the attendant loss: throughout the book, Elliot wrestles with the decision of whether to return to the Borderlands for good. When he does decide to go back for the last time, he confronts his neglectful father: “Do you know something else? If you’d loved me, I would have stayed,” said Elliot. “If you loved me, I would never have gone.” (P. 340)

Elliot’s confrontation with his father lays bare what traditional portal fantasies like Lewis’s often only hint at: that children would not need to go to magical worlds unless they were missing something in their own. Elliot’s choice to return to the Borderlands does not come without pain, but his only other option is stay in a place where he is unloved and unwanted. The portal world, while often becoming a source of loss in itself, can also function as compensation for children who have already experienced loss in their own world. While masquerading as simple escapism, portal fantasies have always at their core been stories about lost or neglected children looking for a way home. Weymouth and Brennan both highlight this theme by writing protagonists who are older and more self-aware then those of traditional portal fantasies, who understand the weight of their choices and the unfairness of having to make them in the first place.

In the end, Susan Pevensie does not only lose Narnia: in the final chapter of The Last Battle, we discover that the three other Pevensie siblings and their parents have all died in a train crash, and are now in the better, truer version of Narnia, Aslan’s country. What remains unspoken but implied at the end of the book is that Susan remains alive somewhere in the mundane world, alone, as a direct consequence of her choice not to accompany her siblings on their final mission.

My Susan Pevensie is a girl who lost her faith in Aslan but gained faith in herself, faith that allowed her to choose her own survival despite the loss that accompanied that choice.

As I have faced my own painful choices, most poignantly the choice to let go of my Christian identity in pursuit of healing and wholeness, Susan’s story has felt like the perfect metaphor for my own losses. As a child and young adult, I blamed Susan for her loss of faith; now, I blame C.S. Lewis for his failure to imagine a world where she never had to choose.

If the bittersweet heart of the portal fantasy is the loss that comes with choosing between worlds, then I find myself wondering: is it possible for us to imagine a world where our protagonists do not have to choose? In one sense, growing up inevitably involves making choices that come with loss; however, the choices that characters like Susan Pevensie must make in traditional portal fantasies often feel contrived, the product of a rigged system in which an all-powerful authority makes the rules. While books like The Light Between Worlds and In Other Lands acknowledge the pain and trauma of those losses, they still begin from the premise that it cannot be possible to live in both worlds. What would it look like, to tell a story where a girl like Susan Pevensie could move between worlds without sacrificing her full selfhood? What would it mean for us to imagine a version of the portal fantasy where the protagonists are able to find their way home and also remain whole? As portal fantasy continues to evolve, I hope that the next generation of writers will continue to find transformative answers to these questions.

 


Gillian Chisom

Gillian Chisom is a recovering academic and writer. A lifelong fantasy reader, over the last several years she has wrestled with the genre’s flaws and possibilities and become committed to writing fantastical stories which center queer voices. She was a Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult and Genre Fiction in 2013, and her work has appeared in The Toast, Global Comment, and Specs Journal. In her spare time, she likes to make her own clothes.

 

Shaista Fenwick: Fantasy literature, although a product of culture, has more freedom to transgress than other media

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Shaista Fenwick!

Fantasy Literature as Epistemological Frontier: Inclusion and Centering of Marginalized Voices as a Laboratory and Library of Experience
By Shaista Fenwick

Nonbinary understandings of sex, gender, and marginalized identities including gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, race and ability (among other flavors of difference) must be represented in fantasy literature in order for us to build an intersectional lens of sufficient complexity to imagine a future that has the possibility of approaching functionality for our real contemporary and future world. As Franz Boas held in the early days of American anthropology, psychology, not race or environment, was the core driver of culture and development. He also argued strenuously that differences in socioeconomic development were not indicative of cultural complexity and that cultures could not effectively be compared to each other in terms of relative development. This understanding is inherently oppositional to the idea of cultural hegemony and its related ideas of hegemonic masculinity as characterized by violence. The tool of fantasy literature is a natural home to explore complexities of nonbinary sex construction, gender, and intersectionality inclusive of historically marginalized cultures, specifically because it is unfettered by historic constructions of power. The power to reframe history outside traditional hegemonies is necessary in creating the language capable of imagining a future similarly unbound by limited understandings and perspectives of power. We cannot imagine a new way of thinking, feeling, and being without a place to explore that newness. Fantasy texts provide that space.

Sex is the biological construction and secondary sex characteristics of an individual, and provides a canvas for how gender is expressed in society. Sex and gender are two different things, but they inform one another. Sex and gender expression have a long history of being recognized as nonbinary in various cultures globally. The hijaras of India, the two-spirit people in indigenous Americans, and the Guevedoces in the Dominican Republic all occupy complex spaces between polar binary understandings of sex and gender. However, nonbinary understandings of sex have become controversial in the Euro-American context despite a long history of normalized nonbinary sexes in nonwestern and indigenous western cultures. The normalizing of western structures in fantasy and literature therefore reduces the complexity of lived gender and sex to an absurdly incomplete story. The dangers of a single story, as Chimimanda Adiche codified, is that the story becomes a vehicle for essentializing cultures and is never wholly complete. Single stories are rarely capable of containing the complexity of human experience and pluralism. On the rare occasion that they do, it takes a lifetime to tell and live them. Where fantastic literature enters the fray is through its flexibility of worldbuilding and norm-setting. The hegemonic forces of prescribed identity allow power to be designated as inherently restricted to specific social locations and siloed away from nonconforming social locations. This interlocking of siloed power and prescribed understandings of sex goes a long way to explaining the resistance to accepting sex nonbinaries as normal despite the well-documented failure of the dual-sex construct. Guevedoces (literally translating to “penis at twelve,” which is a form of androgen deprivation that leads to male sex-differentiation being delayed until after puberty) are accepted as unusual but still within the realms of normal development in the Dominican Republic, where a statistically significant percentage of children change sex at the secondary influx of hormonal development. Guevedoce kids who present as female prior to puberty develop a penis during puberty. Similar conditions have also been documented in Papua New Guinea. Pediatric urologists document that over one in a hundred babies present as intersex, and over one percent of those children are indeterminately sexed long after infancy. These numbers are hardly rare or inconclusive, and they have been obscured primarily as a reflex to the constructed need for siloed legitimacy of institutional power because those silos have been almost exclusively male, white, and cisgender. Any deviation allows power to leak, and that is dangerous for the status quo. The idea of a safe transgression of these norms is similarly dangerous.

Fantasy literature, although a product of culture, has more freedom to transgress than other media. The portrayals of science are, like other cultural products, couched in the language and trappings of power. The voice of science is couched in the power to change the face of the planet, our knowledge of the universe, and the long held understandings of what that power should look like. Art based on our understandings are themselves products of our culture, created to dig further into those constructions and nuances. Even when we reach for the sublime, we bear the burden of our years, and the softly repeated rivulets of history create channels through which our minds pass. DaVinci’s old bearded white male god dispensed knowledge and anima to someone cast in his image, just as the construction of that image is based on what we understand about power, inheritance, and what transferring power looks like. Fantasy itself is constructed on the differences between what we understand about how the world works and the way we believe it could work.

Fantasy not only plays on what we have understood and known to be real, but goes beyond the construction of our current world, delving purposely into the realm of the exoticized other and bringing it into the normalized now. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity for a reconceptualization of normal. Fantasy offers the opportunity for discovered histories to become forever-known histories. The worlds we find in fantasy offer power, reason, and the immanentization of what could always have been powerful in our own world. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity to try on futures and discover where we truly fit in the world that could be, and then migrates those possibilities into the world that is. Once they are there, those experiences aren’t exotic or other or different any longer. Instead of coding for otherness, the stories become touchstones that offer the opportunity for parallax shift. This shift in perspective from one social location to another isn’t a simple shift between what was and what is, but allows growth incorporating old understandings and blending them with new ones. One of the compelling ideas about sex is that it is reassignable against the interpretation and identity of an individual. That idea was based upon a study conducted by Dr. John Money, based on the Reimer twins. [Content warning: The linked article contains disturbing material.] That data was misreported, and the twins were unable to conform to sex reassignment contrary to their own sex identity as was reported, despite excessive and forceful compulsion by adults around them. The importance of non-sex binary thinking directly impacts survivability of adolescence, policy construction, and justice frameworks.

***

Gender is frequently thought of interchangeably with sex, despite being a wholly different construct. Gender is the expression of sex through the lens of culture, resulting in a vast array of practices and interpretations of what normalcy is for different sexes. What is “inherently male” changes vastly with location, class, security, and time. Even during western history, cultural markers like heel height, hair length, color choice have moved from being restricted to cismales to exclusive coding for cisfemales, to the point where transgression of those expressed gender norms is met with ‘corrective’ violence. Fantasy literature provides a mechanism of exploring different ways of being within one’s sex, no matter what it is, in a normalized context. The burden of history is particularly relevant here as women, nonbinary individuals, and nonconforming individuals of any sex have been consistently hamstrung and dehumanized in western colonial cultures. Fantasy allows for those differences to be explored, deconstructed, lauded, and overcome as limitations.

However, there is a strong dissonance between observed experience and shared experience. Cultural exchange where marginalized voices tell the story and are centered within it show an entirely different realm of established and possible histories to everyone who comes into contact with it. Joseph Campbell believed stories were at the heart of the human experience. Although those ideas of universal story are constructed in the very specific language of colonial classed masculinity, Campbell found archetypes, constructions, sequences of events that spoke to many people and revealed things we all hope for even across cultures. Although Campbell’s voice is limited, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ “Women who Run with the Wolves” picks up on similar parallels. When voices speak with authenticity and equal respect, the shared experiences common to humanity speak with them and are similarly heard.

Including marginalized voices in not only the story, but also as storytellers provides all audiences the richness of human experience and histories of multiple interlocking cultures to draw from. Centering those voices in their narratives and in genre similarly offers a more nuanced view of their stories for all readers. There is a qualitative difference to the experience a person within their identity can relate versus that which a person witnessing an experience relates. Both perspectives may be equally valid, but the lived experience provides a textured and nuanced richness relating directly to the experience that someone witnessing it cannot absorb in the same way. The bystander or witness experiences can be equally rich, but not equally related to the central concerns. Proximity matters. And the idea of being “a voice for the voiceless is bullshit,” as Indigenous American activist, Sarah Adams-Cornell said. Don’t speak for others, but use proximity to audience to instead pass the mic to marginalized people so that they may effectively represent themselves, then use privilege of social location to legitimize their viewpoint. Fantasy literature is doing a much better job of centering marginalized voices in publishing, even among the larger houses, and especially at events where those voices and their perspectives are being normalized. Like feminism, a rising tide does tend to lift all boats. The increase in representation and legitimization of marginalized voices can help many intersections of marginalization. The stories told by Native and Indigenous cultures of two-spirit people and other nonbinaries intersects with Indian subcontinent stories of hijaras and the Guevedoces of the Dominican Republic to provide historical context for the holistic legitimization of nonbinary people in the West. We turn ultimately to the fantastic to tell stories that speak to real experiences we feel unsafe telling in their original frame. Just as Sherri Tepper and Margaret Atwood told their feminist dystopic stories using real experiences while setting them in speculative worlds, fantasy allows us to skip some of the steps, and move directly into the whole ‘what if’ of alternate constructions. Fantasy allows us to center the margins from inception, instead of in apocalypse, and on a scale as grand as is needed to encompass the whole.

Sex and gender nonbinary persons are far from the only marginalized identities experiencing erasure. The process of radical inclusion involves the deliberate seeking out and centering of those with differing experiences. Underrepresented differences include differences in nationality, ethnicity, ability, class, and security. These intersections also need to be represented by those who understand the nuance of lived experiences. Although authors follow story, even to discussing and representing experiences they have not personally had, the risk of inaccurate representation my result in essentializing and a story which is less-complete and complex than the actual experience. Stories that misrepresent experiences of marginalized populations not only detract from the appeal to authentic audiences, but also absorb market share and may depress business prospects for authentic voices in publication if they fail to connect with audiences. In any case where marginalized experiences are incorporated or represented in a cultural text (movies, books, plays), the use of beta readers is extremely helpful to critically engage with the narratives and help point out significant areas of concern. It is potentially a higher bar than is frequently expected, but the payoffs are equally powerful. Purposeful representation matters. Moreover, powerful, purposeful representation matters. And it matters even more when marginalized identities are centered, made powerful, and portrayed with integrity.

Centering marginalized populations, plural gender, and sex nonbinary voices forms the beginning of another way of reading, experiencing, and speculating about the world. There are many voices which look at the newer policies of inclusivity in publishing and entertainment media, feel a loss of their previously unquestioned ownership of primacy, and are compelled to say, “This is enough, haven’t we ceded enough ground already?” These outcries are normal and unsurprising, because the loss of privilege feels like oppression. They highlight that the work of plurality and inclusion will never be fully done because of the shifting ascendancies of political power within society, but it is critical for the ongoing improvement of our literary body of work, and for our development as reasoning social primates that we think and process incrementally better and deeper with each iteration of examination and improvement. As we work to mitigate erasure of voices of color, gender, sex, security or class marginalization, it seems inevitable that we will identify new areas of difference. Change, it seems, continues to be the only constant. Difference is not any person’s central and unyielding story. Instead, difference feels internally normal. It feels holistic. The problematizing of difference through the smaller normal lens is what turns difference into marginalization. Fantasy gives us the power to normalize a whole history, reframe identities, and form new normals. Ultimately, that is what we strive for as readers, writers, editors, and thinking humans. We do not want an end to difference, but to move to a social space where difference is respected as a needed additional perspective. The goal is not an end to questions, but the advent of an incrementally more interesting set of questions and a broader toolset and horizon from which to explore answers. Fantasy thrives in that unknown universe, allowing us to create the language we need to create alternate epistemologies, and import those frameworks home.


Shaista Fenwick was born in Trinidad and Tobago to two economists who spoke nine languages between them, and has been involved in both politics and education since she was a toddler. She serves on the board of the Future Society of Central Oklahoma and is hotel liaison for SoonerCon. She earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology, her master’s in professional writing, and is currently pursuing her PhD in instructional leadership and curriculum. She is a founding partner of Cobalt Prairie Consulting LLC in Norman, working to elect progressive, justice-oriented candidates to public office throughout Oklahoma. She is an author, spouse, educator, student and adoptive mom to many furbabies, plants and wayward students. Her favorite hobby in addition to consuming and making stories, gardening, cooking, singing, sewing, and kayaking…is sleeping.

 

Casey Blair: There is a problem when the only way we can imagine women in stories focusing on action and adventure is to make them reject feminine modes of power

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Casey Blair!

Women Are Already Powerful:
The Problem of Privileging Masculine Modes of Power in Fantasy

By Casey Blair

The fantasy genre continues to change and grow in response to how we—the writers, book purveyors, reviewers, educators, publishing professionals, and most importantly of all, the readers—push it. When we challenge standards and accepted limitations of what we want to read and what sells, we shift the landscape of stories available to us. We have the power to effect change, when enough of us across intersections care enough to exert that pressure. We see that power in effect—that it exists, and that we have a whole lot more work to do—in the way the publishing industry is putting out and celebrating more fantasy stories by and about marginalized people, and in particular, more stories about powerful women.

Women lead revolutions, women wield unprecedented magical powers, and women punch gods and monsters. Women helm stories of action and adventure, the kinds of stories boys have never had to search for to see themselves in. Especially in the young adult space, we are swimming in stories of women starring in fantasy worlds, and that is a victory worth celebrating.

But what I don’t see as much of, and I wish I saw more, are stories that center women where masculine modes of power aren’t upheld as the pinnacle, as the most important, as the only power worth aspiring to. Women should absolutely star in stories of fantasy combat and commanding revolutions. As Kameron Hurley has discussed, women, in all ages of history and all around the world, have always fought—and we deserve to see that in our fantasy. But women have exercised lots of other forms of power, too, and they’ve fought in many different ways, and we are still all too often erasing those ways from our stories, as well as our conversations about and acclaim for why all those ways matter.

Publishing won’t put out those stories in greater percentages or put more marketing dollars behind them if we don’t demand it of them, so I want to dive into why these stories that uplift feminine-coded forms of power are so important, and what it means that they’re comparatively rare. Which is not to say they don’t exist at all, or that we should slow down on writing stories about women stabbing the patriarchy with swords especially now that people of color and queer folk are beginning to be centered in more of them. Just that feminine-coded power, and its problematic erasure or devaluation, gets a lot less attention or celebration even though it can be just as inspiring and revolutionary.

I’m going to be talking about “coding feminine” or “masculine” as shorthand, so let me define that briefly, if broadly: These are the acts, the work, and the presentations we, in our western social framework, traditionally and stereotypically associate with the male or female gender. Big muscles and taking up space are coded masculine; daintiness and humility are coded feminine. Solving problems by punching is coded masculine; with teamwork, feminine.

So a fantasy that gives us an outgoing and belligerent heroine who loves sports, excels at punching, doesn’t care about dresses, and refuses to work with people—this is coding her power as masculine. And that’s not a bad thing! Women characters wielding masculine-coded power challenge the gender stereotypes that only men are able to succeed with that kind of power, the swords and the aggression and the alone-ness. Women absolutely can too, and I love these stories. The problem is with trends, historical and current.

For decades, we’ve read troves of fantasy focusing on men wielding masculine-coded power and generally not even noticing feminine-coded power exists, or if it does devaluing it or even making it evil. And in our current era, while that kind of fantasy doesn’t eclipse all the other fantastic work out there, by and large most fantasy stories starring women cast them in roles wielding masculine-coded power. These women are dueling to the death. They’re breaking communities with revolutions. They’re throwing away their dresses and donning pants. And while none of those are problems in and of themselves, there is a problem when over and over feminine modes of power are consistently abandoned, trashed, buried, and erased.

There is a problem when the only, or even the primary, way we can imagine women in stories focusing on action and adventure is to make them reject feminine modes of power. There’s a problem when the vast majority of women our stories present as heroes, as powerful in their own right, are coded masculine. There is a problem when you have a whole lot of women in your story, and all the Aryas, the warrior women, are narratively favored, where the Sansas, who try to follow traditional paths for women, have the most horrifying storylines. Not all the heroes of any gender should have to wield masculine-coded power to be at the center of a story—whether or not the story focuses on action and adventure.

The problem, to be clear, is that we’re tacitly upholding toxic masculinity by not challenging the underlying assumption that women who don’t behave in traditionally masculine ways are not just as powerful and as capable and deserving of adventures, in our stories and in our reality. When the dominant trend in our stories is to privilege masculine modes of power over feminine, and those are the stories we dominantly celebrate, that’s the message we send, absorb, and perpetuate.

I don’t just want to see women in my fantasy books who decide they should be able to wear pants, too, and work to make that happen. I want to see women and people of all genders who wear dresses proudly in a pants-dominated world and are treated with just as much respect without working multiple times as hard for it.

Or, to put it another way: I don’t want women to have to reject dresses to be taken as seriously as the people who wear pants. Women shouldn’t have to reject femininity to be powerful, and that is just as important in our fantasy as it is in our reality.

Women are already powerful.

***

Stories are both mirror and window. They help us figure out who we are and who we can be. They help us cope with our reality and imagine other ways of being.

So when we see that our stories dominantly privilege masculine-coded modes of power—of physical strength, noncooperation, aggression—it matters. The prevalence of this trend sends a clear and awful message that traditionally feminine modes of power aren’t, in fact, worthwhile. That women who want to wear dresses and talk problems out instead of stabbing them in their fronts are weak, and passive, and can’t go on adventures. I reject wholeheartedly the premise that to have power in our stories, which reflect the truth of our reality and offer possible escapes, we have to reject femininity, too.

We do ourselves a disservice upholding traditionally masculine roles as modes of power for women without also modeling femininity as strength worth aspiring to—by which I mean not inherently evil—by not also modeling that men don’t have to be brilliant warriors and ruthless princes to be heroes or to be desirable as heroes. We can’t unravel toxic masculinity if we don’t value other kinds of power for all genders, and worse, right now our stories are helping uphold it by dominantly privileging traditionally masculine modes of power for everyone.

And we can’t value other kinds of power when we erase and devalue them from our stories.

***

What other kinds of power do I mean? What does this look like? Happily, examples do exist in fantasy, even if they’re not the majority, so let’s look at some specifics.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit subverts gender role expectations across the board. Our protagonist Balsa is a professional fighter not because she has to be, but because she chooses to be. She’s not the only female character, either: The Second Empress uses her political power, which functions differently than the Emperor’s, to thwart him and save her son; for contrast the oldest and most powerful shaman is a woman who is explicitly called ugly, making it clear her power is not connected to beauty or any kind of feminine wiles.

On another side, our primary healer character, who may or may not be a love interest, is a man, not a woman. And the character who is forced to give birth to a magical egg is a prince, not a princess. Balsa is our protagonist, but in this book she’s also just the bodyguard: The prince must do the work of bearing the egg, and Balsa couldn’t protect him without the work of the healer. With this framing, Uehashi makes it clear both that avenues for different kinds of women to exercise power exist and, importantly, that the traditionally coded feminine roles are valuable work, while simultaneously centering a woman.

So this is the first way to successfully navigate giving us satisfying stories of action and adventure while avoiding the problem of privileging masculine modes of power for women in fantasy: Center the women with masculine-coded power but still uplift feminine-coded power by granting it to leading male characters and making it integral to the resolution of the plot. Feminine-coded power doesn’t have to be the sole province of women, nor should it be, lest it function as a way to pressure women into exerting only feminine power, which is its own trap. But including feminine-coded power as a desirable mode for other genders is one way to keep from restricting valuation of that power.

Stories can apply this kind of reversal—subverting gender expectations for centered women while also valuing feminine-coded power—in a lot of ways. In Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above, our heroine is an airship captain who is very good at soldiering, while the male dandy assigned to spy on her is the one who is sensitive to people’s emotional needs. The story requires both their skillsets to get them out of trouble. In C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, our gay male hero is a healer, and it’s his sister, mindlessly following in the steps of her father’s masculine-coded ruthless heartlessness, that is the villain. In this case, victory requires a complete rejection of the dominant power system that subjugates others.

Trail of Lightning

In Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, our protagonist Maggie Hoskie is skilled and supernaturally talented at killing, while Kai Arviso is a medicine man still coming into his full power who needs Maggie to protect him—and he is also a love interest who is not preternaturally gifted at combat, and (BRIEF SPOILER) the one Maggie chooses (END SPOILER). Trail of Lightning is also in many ways a refutation of this kind of gender coding: others use the fact that Maggie Hoskie is a woman in possession of killing powers at all to make her out to be a monster, and unnatural, which she at turns embraces or rejects.

In Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, she sets up a similar dynamic in Magpie Windwitch, who is a champion because she’s the only faerie who can weave the tapestry of the world, but a hero not because of what she can do with magic or in battle, but because she’s committed to acting. And also in Talon Rathersting, who learns how to knit magic—so he can fly, and so he can keep his friend from being lost. Laini Taylor makes fiber arts and keeping people together, two skills traditionally associated with women, valuable in the world at large as well as for men specifically.

Sandry

In these stories, we get to have it all: action and adventure without privileging toxic masculinity. Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series shows us another way to do this with a group of four main characters: Sandry, a noblewoman whose magic is tied not just to fiber arts, but specifically to the perceived lower-class craft of weaving which includes weaving people together; Daja, who hails from a merchant clan—which is not coded as a masculine endeavor—and whose powers are tied to blacksmithing, which is; Tris, whose magic is fantastically destructive—which the narrative paints as problematic, not desirable—and who gets to be an explicitly angry, emotional woman without that making her less worthy or powerful; and Briar, our one boy, whose magic is tied to plants and gardening, which we traditionally associate with women. Every protagonist, taken individually and as part of a collective, challenges our understanding of gender-coded modes of power.

***

All these examples so far largely feature gender flipping, so before I go any further we have to take a minute to talk about matriarchies in fantasy, when it’s not just individual characters challenging gender roles but the entire fantasy society. Some fantasy matriarchies do a simple, blunt gender role swapping, having women exercise masculine-coded power and devaluing or subjugating feminine-coded power in men. Others take a more nuanced approach and bake the analysis into text with more subtlety.

Wings of Fire

We can talk about the outrageously popular middle grade Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, which follows a group of dragonets who think they’ve been chosen to save the world, and each book of the initial quintet focuses on one of them. Sometimes the female dragons are the strongest or best fighters, and sometimes they aren’t, but in this matriarchal world they are always assumed to be the natural leaders. The series evaluates the flaws of masculine-coded antagonistic, heartless, and physical strength-based leadership modes on the page, and ultimately, amidst all the combat and bloodshed and assumptions of their necessity, it’s the tiny female dragonet who wants everyone to work together who is able to figure out how to end the decades-long dragon war.

We can talk about In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan and its misandrist elves, how the narrative hilariously and blatantly critiques traditional patriarchal arguments by flipping them on their head. We can also talk about how our bisexual male hero navigates through and around his narrow-sighted, war-focused comrades with a combination of blithely ignoring rules, which is traditionally a men-only prerogative, but also a commitment to diplomacy, nonviolence, and bringing people together, which is associated with women.

We can also talk about Martha Wells’s Raksura series and its, as the author describes them on John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea,” “matriarchal bisexual polyamorous flying shapeshifting lizard-lion-bee people.” Her world-building is significantly more complex than a simple gender flip, problematizing and elevating different social roles, how they interact with gender coding, and what those consequences look like on both a societal and narrative level.

***

“This is all well and good,” you may be thinking, “but these are mostly women in masculine modes of power even if those modes aren’t privileged above feminine. Don’t you have examples of women centered and exercising valued feminine-coded power?” I do indeed, but not as many as I want.

Gender flipping and subversion is only one way to navigate the problem of privileging masculine modes of power. Some of the authors I cited above in fact operate in multiple modes: Tamora Pierce, for instance, gives us Alanna, who is not only a warrior but also a healer, and the latter is just as critical to her character even if people tend to focus on the swords. Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player gives us Elin, who wants nothing more than to care for magical creatures and stay out of world politics and battles. Authors can successfully center women exercising feminine-coded power in fantasy adventures in so many ways, it’s infuriating to me how few I can point to and how little I hear this highlighted.

Torn

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s start with Rowenna Miller’s Torn, which values feminine-coded work from top to bottom. In this book, our heroine is a professional seamstress who stitches charms into dresses. It’s protective work and homemaking in fiber arts in particular, disciplines traditionally associated with women. Moreover, she’s also a business owner and pillar in her community, sharing her knowledge and uplifting other women in feminine-coded skills when she can. When men discover just how powerful her ability can be, they try to control her and twist her ability, and she masters her power to subvert their violent goals without having to follow their toxic paths to power.

The thread of community-building leads me to modes of leadership that code feminine rather than masculine, based less on dominance than on coming together, and for this reason two books I will tell everyone to read forever are Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore and The Goblin Emperor by Sarah Monette writing as Katherine Addison. I group them together in this context because both are fundamentally about whether it is possible—and how—to rule, to exercise power inherited from a deeply toxic foundation and history, with compassion. In Bitterblue, our heroine learns how to bring people together to begin healing not by ignoring the past or forcing people to expose their pain, but by creating a space where it is safe to do so. The Goblin Emperor codes Maia’s power feminine, is clear that he has been and is punished for it, and nevertheless, little by little, inexorably, he learns how to use his power to build bridges, literally and figuratively. He learns how to accept the institutionalized and personalized traumas the people he wants to lift up are starting from, and he surrounds himself with women who are likewise committed to lifting each other up. Both books analyze the failures of privileging masculine modes of power and actively work to uplift feminine modes.

Bitterblue The Goblin Emperor

Mirage by Somaiya Daud, a Moroccan-inspired space fantasy, not only centers compassion, it includes an incredible variety of women in positions of power: princesses and fighters, old and young, from the ruling culture and from the oppressed. That variety isn’t limited to living women, either: Even in the world-building, revered cultural heroes are women, and they are both warriors and poets, providing acknowledged, valued paths for women to wield different kinds of power. In this book, our heroine Amani doesn’t lead a revolution. Her true power is borne out of her ability to understand and communicate with different groups of people, to weave the foundations of peace when no one else is even looking for it. And she still gets action, adventure, and romance out of it.

Listening, sharing, adapting, negotiating, and leveraging networks—all of these traditionally feminine-coded skills are incredibly powerful. The Inda series by Sherwood Smith, which is at once epic fantasy, military fantasy, and fantasy of manners, is a masterful example of the many different kinds of power women can wield, or are forced to wield, when dealing with patriarchal frameworks. There are women for whom beauty is a curse or a weapon or both; there are women who fight in quiet ways, smiling ways, or stabbing ways. There are women who take the lessons of power from one culture and then have to apply them or learn new ways in different cultures. There are women who form networks to work together to survive patriarchal systems as we simultaneously watch those systems, and the men who internalize their ideals, rot from the inside.

Empire of Sand

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand is one of my latest favorite examples of the different kinds of feminine-coded power women can wield in fantasy, one reason being she gives us multiple modes of feminine-coded power exercised at the same time, because why choose? In this book with its setting inspired by Mughal India, Tasha Suri gives us a window into what power looks like for women at court: those on the top, and those distinctly not, and how it functions differently within the sphere of other women and also more broadly—we see the power of controlling who sees women’s bodies, and we see women both lifted up and undercut by other women. We also see women’s power exercised outside the court: We see women leading nomadic communities, managing logistics, information, strategy, and social bonds. We see women in dangerous magical cults, as the enforcers and as the ones who create community bonds there, too.

More than that, we see our heroine Mehr with her complicated heritage navigate through these different spheres, finding her strength when people are always trying to control her, which is a narrative that rings deeply true to the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal world: survival and agency in the face of oppression. Mehr’s magical power, and that of her love interest, is borne out of dance, which is coded feminine—and it is in learning to exercise her power as a woman inside and outside these systems that she succeeds: she learns how to embrace her power but refuses to burn the world with it.

The Gilded Wolves

And last but the opposite of least is Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves, firstly because one of the best ways to accomplish everything I’m talking about here is just by having multiple important characters, and specifically multiple important women characters. Going back to gender subversion, even just among our group of main characters, there are boys who want nothing to do with violence and boys whose talents lie in communicating with others, which are feminine coded skills, and one boy who wants to rise to the top no matter what in traditionally masculine-coded fashion, which the narrative paints as tragic and flawed. Then there’s Zofia, an autistic Jewish girl who has difficulty understanding people, but she’s brilliant at mathematics, engineering, and explosions. And what more can you want in a heroine, right?

The answer to that is Laila, who doesn’t subvert gender roles at all except in the expectation of their comparative weakness, because she embraces her feminine coding powerfully. Her power is so fundamentally, fantastically coded feminine. Laila may not be human but understands people perfectly: her emotional intelligence is practically psychic, and she always knows what someone needs, whether it’s words or cake. She’s not just a genius at emotional management, but at baking, dancing, and consciously wielding her beauty and sensuality. Because that’s the critical second part of how The Gilded Wolves succeeds in navigating the problem of privileging masculine modes of power: it’s not just a matter of having multiple kinds of men and women; it’s how the narrative depicts that power. Laila, with her strong coding as feminine, is undeniably, unabashedly powerful, not only to the reader but within the narrative of the story, and the fact of her fictional existence is inspiring.

Domestic arts and crafts, logistical organization, physical appearance, healing, protection, compassion, community-building. Traditionally feminine-coded modes of power are power. And I think it’s worth pointing out, too, that every single book I’ve cited here features action and adventure while uplifting feminine-coded forms of power. Every. Single. One.

Power, adventure, and heroism for women do not have to come at the cost of feminine coding, because they are not mutually exclusive, and we need our stories to stop perpetuating that erasure and devaluation.

***

So again, I’m not saying that books that center feminine-coded power as worthy don’t exist; they clearly do. Nor am I saying that now that we have a lot of stories about women—and, let’s be clear, a lot of stories particularly about cisgendered, heterosexual white women—exercising masculine-coded modes of power that we don’t need or want more of them.

What I want, and what we need and deserve as a society full of women who have always exercised a wide variety of power, is a fuller variety of stories and appreciation of that diversity. We can read, value, and push for more than one kind of story at the same time. I don’t just want to be able to point these stories out as exceptions to the trend, for the work they’re doing to be so rare or rarely noticed that it merits highlighting. Because I don’t just want stories that say women can wield a sword as well as a man can; I want stories that say also that sword-wielding may not be the best way to resolve our problems. Women can lead just as powerfully in the ways they always have—and that includes fighting the way men are usually credited with, but it also includes ways we erase. We’ll never value feminine power if we don’t write it into our stories as valuable, and valuable to everyone.

The first part of that task is on all of us: It’s being aware of the messages we’re sending, whether we’re creating stories or promoting them, what we’re absorbing as readers and what we’re choosing to read, what those implications mean when we follow the logic all the way down, and what it means for these stories to be the exception rather than the norm in mainstream fantasy. I hope if nothing else this essay provides some tools to think about the ways we tend to privilege masculine-coded power in fantasy going forward and the many incredible other ways we can set up our stories, and demand from our stories, if we choose to.

Because it’s not much of a choice to wear pants or wield a sword if the alternative is passivity, victimhood, villainy, or the inability to be the star a fantasy adventure centers around. I want more worlds that understand that isn’t the only option. I want more stories that are able to see other ways, and value them, and model them for all of us—not just as a mirror to hold up to nature, but also as a door, to escape into what we all can be. And I hope that’s a direction where we can encourage the fantasy genre to grow.


Casey Blair

Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

This month’s Sirens Essays tackle the complexity of female relationships

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 7: July 2019

This month:

 

Programming Announcements

We are thrilled to announce the titles of this year’s accepted programming!

Click on the links to see what’s in store: Papers and Lectures, Panels, Roundtables, Workshops, Afternoon Classes, and Combination Presentations.

If you would like to support Sirens, our presenters, and our programming, we invite you to sponsor a program at $35 per presentation. The deadline is August 15 for us to include your name in this year’s program book with our profuse thanks!

 

Nia Davenport, A Master on Many Missions

We’re in the full swing of summer break, which means teacher and author Nia Davenport has swapped out her red grading pens and lab equipment for character profiles and plot building. We chatted with her this month as part of our get to know your Sirens Studio faculty series. Read the interview here to find out more about how she manages multiple disciplines in her work and demands the same diversity from her fiction. Fittingly, Nia will be leading a workshop “The Danger of the Single Narrative” at the Studio this fall.

 

New Sirens Essays Tackle Female Relationships

Introduced last month, our Essay series is a welcome breeze of fresh discourse from our community to keep you cool through the summer while we patiently wait for October:

 

Your Sirens Community

If you’ve been following Amy’s reading for even a little while then you probably know she’s not a big fan of science fiction. But why? This month, Amy spells out her problems with the genre in general and how Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories made it to the super elite pile of Amy-approved sci-fi on the blog and Goodreads.

Our review squad has been reading—and loving—illustrated texts!

Lani Goto offers up a fantastic list of comic books with nary a spandex suit or punch in sight, including collective volumes of webcomics, standalone graphic novels, and a D&D-inspired fantasy.

Bethany Powell analyzes the first volume of Yoshiki Nakamura’s Skip Beat series, a shojo manga starring a girl with multiple jobs struggling to make it in showbiz, and happens to have grudge-demon activated powers.

 

Books and Breakfast: Gender and Sexuality

Continuing our Books and Breakfast breakdown series, July focused on the two titles selected for bringing issues of gender and sexuality to the morning discussion tables: April Daniels’s Dreadnought and K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. Find out why we picked them, and why you should add them to your reading list here.

 

Hot-Hot-Hot New Books for July

Once again, we’ve rounded up a beautiful array of new titles in fantasy by women and nonbinary authors. Click here to look them over!

Erynn’s Pick:

House of Whispers

Though the issues of House of Whispers by former Sirens guest Nalo Hopkinson started coming out last fall, some people (me) may prefer to stock their shelves with a sleek volume edition. Part of a line of four stories chosen by Neil Gaiman to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his original Sandman Comics, House of Whispers is the sort of hybridized Afro-diasporan mythology that one expects from Nalo but set in the Sandman Universe. The tale starts when a Yoruba goddess, Erzulie, finds her otherworldly ship has veered off course and crashed into the Dreaming between the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets. Nalo’s goddess needs to find her way home while simultaneously solving a strange soul sickness breaking out among her people in the mortal realm.

 

Faye’s Pick:

Gods of Jade and Shadow

I have been impressed with Mexican Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia since reading her story collection This Strange Way of Dying from a years-ago Sirens Reading Challenge, and my reaction to hearing the premise of Gods of Jade and Shadow was instant obsession. Set during the Jazz Age in Mexico, it stars Casiopea, who opens a box while cleaning her wealthy grandfather’s house and accidentally frees the Mayan god of death. With a humble protagonist, a bargain with a god, and an odyssey that’ll take Casiopea from the Yucatan to Mexico City, this is bound to be an amazing blend of fantasy, fairytale, and Mexican folklore.

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Cass Morris: For women, isolation from one’s gender seems somehow an essential component of heroism

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Cass Morris!

“She’s Not Alone”—Or Is She?: The History of Idealized Friendship and the Limited Scope of Female Bonds in Blockbuster Sci-Fi and Fantasy
By Cass Morris

One of the greatest essayists of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne, wrote of friendship as “a general and universal fire, but temperate and equal, a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth, without poignancy or roughness.” He qualifies, however, that “the ordinary talent of women is not such as is sufficient to maintain the conference and communication required to the support of this sacred tie; nor do they appear to be endued with constancy of mind, to sustain the pinch of so hard and durable a knot.”

Montaigne was a brilliant man in many respects, but in this, I think we can all agree, he was staggeringly deficient.

Montaigne took his ideas from a long tradition of what the Romans called amicitia, a concept of perfect friendship: selfless, noble, virtuous, occurring between two men. Always two men. Women, the ancients and centuries’ worth of their descendants believed, were simply incapable of forming such flawless bonds. Not that women were considered entirely without merit—Aristotle spoke of marriage between a man and a woman as “a kind of friendship,” capable of providing delight, but still imperfect, born in almost all cases of the two lesser varieties of interpersonal bond, utility and pleasure, and damaged further by the inequality of status and power between husband and wife.

In some degree of fairness, true amicitia was thought to be rare even among men. The second century Roman author Seneca counted only six pairs of men throughout all of history up to that point who could fulfill the requirements, largely because the two men had to be precisely equal. Brothers could not truly be friends, in this mindset, because issues of inheritance would always come between them. A king could have no friends, since he had no equals—except among other kings, who would necessarily also be his rivals. Friends could not be indebted to each other, nor quarrel over romantic entanglements. Cicero thought friendships developed in maturity to be the best, stating that “friendships should be formed after strength and stability have been reached in mind and age.”

Despite these strictures placed upon it, the ideal of amicitia persisted in Western tradition throughout the classical era. It took on new tones in the medieval era, influenced by Teutonic stories of brothers-in-arms. Writers of the Renaissance blended these two traditions to create something both cerebral and emotional, and the concept has survived to this day in the concept of the “bromance.”

Obviously, people of all genders are capable of deep and true friendships. We know this. But popular fiction has been slower to represent those friendships, particularly in the franchises with the most money and media attention behind them. Forget classical ideals of amicitia; just getting two women on-screen at the same time, let alone bonding, let alone anything approaching a “perfect” friendship, has been a decades-long challenge.

In many cases, the dominant trope of “The Chick,” the inclusion of a token female character in a cast of male heroes, left those female characters adrift without even the possibility of forming bonds with other women. In the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia is scarcely ever in the same room as another woman. The original Star Trek gave us only Uhura on the main cast. In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn rejects female companionship along with traditional femininity, and while we may presume that the ethereally distant figures of Arwen and Galadriel interact with other female Elves, we never see those interactions on page or screen. In Marvel comics, Jean Grey and Susan Storm were initially the only female members of their respective teams. For women, isolation from one’s gender seemed somehow an essential component of heroism.

The same is not true for men. Even if we hold ourselves to the classical ideals, eliminating family bonds and those with significant power differentials, we don’t have to look far for an abundance of examples. Luke and Han, Han and Chewie, Poe and Finn, Steve and Bucky, Rocket and Groot, Merry and Pippin, Harry and Ron, Kirk and Spock—the list could go on and on.

Even in modern sci-fi and fantasy, where casts are more likely to clear the so-low-you-could-trip-over-it bar of gender diversity, it remains a rarity for the women to be shown forming significant bonds with each other. Particularly in the largest franchises, female characters are often divvied up like a resource to be shared among the various components of the story. Place a girl with each section of the team, someone to be the “heart,” the conscience, and/or the romantic interest/sex object, depending on the tenor of the story, and call it a day.

We can look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example: A 2018 list of twenty-five MCU friendships included only one example of a friendship between two women among twenty-four bro-pairs or male-female bonds, and that was from the Netflix show Jessica Jones, not any of the mega-blockbuster films. Most sub-components of the franchise feature only one major female character at a time. Tony’s circle includes Pepper Potts (conscience and sex interest) and initially introduces us to Natasha Romanoff, but their few interactions are spoiled by internalized misogyny. Natasha also forms part of Steve’s circle, but never at the same time as Peggy (romantic interest). Natasha herself, the only female Avenger in the main line-up for the first three phases of the MCU, never leads her own story, but serves as the romantic interest/sex object, whether explicitly in the narrative or merely teased for the audience, to Hawkeye, Steve, and Bruce Banner at various points. Thor’s circle gives us Jane Foster (romantic interest), Frigga (conscience), the Lady Sif (conscience/heart), and Valkyrie (who blessedly defies those markers; if anything, Thor serves as the heart for her), but only brief interactions between any of them. Black Panther is a notable exception, with Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia, who clearly have their own relationships with each other outside of those they have with T’Challa. And, of course, 2019 gave us Carol and Maria (a relationship heartily embraced by much of the queer community as perhaps having a romantic and/or sexual component in addition to friendship). These may indicate a move in a positive direction, but it took the MCU a decade of mega-hits to get even this far.

Black Panther - Shuri Black Panther - Okoye Black Panther - Nakia

We can also consider A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Both the books and the show are replete with female characters, to be certain. The split of point-of-view characters is representative. And yet those female characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to form close bonds or even to interact with each other—and almost never outside the bounds of family. The traveling pairs are predominantly either all-male or male-female—Ayra and the Hound, Brienne and Jaime, Jon and Ygritte. Ygritte is the only woman in her pack of wildling raiders; Asha/Yara Greyjoy is likewise singular among her Ironborn reavers. We are told that Margaery Tyrell has a flock of cousins and friends, but in the show, we never learn their names, and in the books, Margaery is never a point-of-view character, while Sansa, whose eyes the reader mostly sees Margaery through, is shunted to the outside of their merry circle, so we are never afforded the opportunity to know just what those bonds are really like. Show!Margaery makes more of an effort to befriend Sansa, but politics intervene, and there remains a troubling power differential between them.

Season Six of Game of Thrones offered us something truly tantalizing: not quite classically perfect friendship, but an opportunity to see multiple powerful women working together towards a common cause. Daenerys Targaryen forms a matriarchal alliance with Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, and Yara Greyjoy—and yet that gets smashed almost as soon as it is offered. Any potential friendships have no chance to succeed. Other relationships are held away from amicitia by those impediments enumerated by classical authors: differences in status, as with Daenerys and her handmaidens or Cersei and her courtiers, or the rivalries of kinship, as with the Sand Snakes. Catelyn and Brienne are closer-matched, and perhaps the closest the narrative comes to depicting amicitia between women, but there is still an element of rank in their dynamic; Brienne pledges an oath not to a friend, but to a lady of her parents’ generation whom she admires and feels she needs to do right by.

A Game of Thrones

Season 8 continues the trend. Sansa and Daenerys are set up as rivals, each jealously growling in defense of her perceived territory, rather than transcending such peevishness in the name of a greater cause. It seems such a woeful missed opportunity. Both women have suffered heinous abuse and come through stronger-forged; both know what it is to be let down and betrayed by the men they have trusted; both women have lost their systems of support and had to build new ones. They could enjoy a magnificent friendship, but instead, seem to have fallen into the “there can be only one female leader” mindset.

We might attribute all those fractured and fractious relationships to the nature of that fictional universe, if not for the camaraderie that is afforded to many of the men. When disaster threatens on the eve of the Battle of Winterfell, men come together, including those like Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth, who have previously fought against each other on the battlefield, and even those with personal grievances like Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane who literally fought to the death. They are allowed to reconcile, fight alongside one another, and share a laugh and a skin of wine. The women are not afforded the same opportunity. The night before battle, they are either isolated from other women (Arya, Brienne, Missandei, Gilly, Lyanna) or prowling snappishly around each other (Sansa, Daenerys). The show could have given us any number of significant moments between them: Sansa and Daenerys finding true common ground and setting aside petty jealousy in the face of adversity, Brienne and Arya and Lyanna bonding over their warrior skills and teaching other women how to defend themselves, Gilly offering comfort to Missandei as another woman despised as an outsider by the Northerners. But none of those were stories the showrunners found meritorious. The series closes with Sansa surrounded by male knights in the North, Arya by male sailors on her ship, Gilly alive and pregnant but unseen in the finale episode, and Brienne apparently doomed to a lifetime of trying to get Tyrion and Bronn to stop talking about brothels long enough to govern. Each surviving woman is entirely isolated from any other female influence.

I am weary of it.

Certainly there are authors out there writing magnificent bonds between women, plenty of them—as well as friendships between women and men, and between people of all genders. N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carriger, Kate Elliott, Sarah Kuhn, Roshani Chokshi, Tomi Adeyemi, Noelle Stevenson, and numerous others have produced works featuring not only multiple female characters, but female characters who work with each other, appreciate each other, enjoy each other, bond with each other. Yet blockbuster media seems reluctant to embrace such stories. 34 years after the initial development of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, we still find it worth commenting on when a major film manages to pass it.

Things may be on the verge of changing. Audiences cheered the all-female splash-page-esque shot in Avengers: Endgame, which brought together the amazing ladies of the franchise in an echo of the A-Force comics. If the MCU embraced that, rather than assuming we will be satisfied with a mere moment of fanservice and began developing films centering not just singular female heroes but coalitions of women, it would be a major step forward for narratives of friendship in Western media.

Captain Marvel - Carol Captain Marvel - Maria

I’m not suggesting we need women to match the ideals of classical friendship. Amicitia is an ancient trope that has influenced centuries’ worth of storytelling, but it’s restrictive and rather dispassionate. Wouldn’t it be amazing, though, if female and non-binary characters in major franchises were afforded the same opportunities for the full spectrum of emotional bonds as male characters are? Sisterhoods forged in fire and trials, wise mentors and plucky youngsters, enemies-to-friends, forbidden friendships, intergenerational friendships, healthy rivalries without malice—I want to see all the tropes, represented in as many permutations as men have always enjoyed, for the benefit of worldwide audiences.

And wouldn’t it be a fine thing if we could get some media might behind those stories that already feature these bonds and forms of friendship? And celebrate the authors who have already created them?

The question, then, is how do we put pressure on media conglomerates to tell stories which feature friendship bonds other than those between two men? We can vote with our dollars, of course. We can make sure we buy books featuring a variety of women with complex relationships to each other; we can run up the box office on Captain Marvel. Women spend more money on entertainment than men do across almost every form of media. So. How do we harness that collective power?


Cass Morris

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books.

 

Rebecca Kim Wells: I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.”

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome a personal essay from Rebecca Kim Wells!

How Tamora Pierce’s Books Saved Me from the Curse of “Not Like Other Girls”
By Rebecca Kim Wells

Alanna

I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.” I roughhoused, played competitive sports, wore oversize jeans and t-shirts every day of my teenage years, and secretly thought of myself as better than the girls around me who wore dresses or nail polish. I was encouraged to be strong, healthy, smart, and athletic—and I was all those things. I heartily encourage those things. But what I didn’t understand as a child was that gender presentation is a fluid exercise, not an either/or situation in which anyone who chooses incorrectly (and in my mind there very much was an incorrect choice) is “shallow.”

There are lots of reasons for this, and I don’t mean to say that being a tomboy by definition means rejecting “other girls.” One of those reasons almost certainly was the fact that I grew up in a house without an adult female presence, and as a result, felt as though the door that unlocked the secrets of womanhood—whatever secrets those were—had been hidden from me. I considered myself an alien among girls, and over the years my feelings of superiority mingled with feelings of insecurity as I wanted desperately to know how the girls around me seemed to effortlessly understand things that for me, might has well have been written in a language I didn’t understand. (When I bought my first razor, I didn’t realize that electric razors needed to be charged, and ended up locking myself in the bathroom for close to an hour as my family was getting ready to leave the house. It was dire.)

Then I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series.

The Tiger's Daughter The Woman who Rides Like a Man

Most of you are likely already familiar with these books—so formative to so many fantasy readers in the 1990s—but for those who aren’t, here’s the brief overview. Alanna (a dedicated, smart, physically capable girl without a mother) is determined to become a knight in a kingdom where (you guessed it) only men can hold that title. So she pretends to be a boy and trades places with her twin brother so that she can take his place at court. I loved Alanna, and devoured the quartet whole. From Alanna I learned dedication and determination and how to stand just as tall as any boy. But I also learned lessons from several other female characters in the series, lessons that were more important than I realized at the time.

Once at court, Alanna does pretty well at being a knight, but struggles with aspects of traditional femininity. When she gets her period, she doesn’t immediately understand what is happening. It takes an older woman, the mother of one of her acquaintances, to explain menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and birth control to her. “The talk” is a common occurrence in the lives of people assigned female at birth, but the scene as depicted in Alanna: The First Adventure sent the message home to me that there is a wealth of wisdom in traditionally female domains.

One can certainly argue with many ways in which gender is presented in the Song of the Lioness series. Alanna in particular struggles mightily with her own lack of understanding of things that are coded female in the world of Tortall, as well as the fact that her livelihood depends on her being as good or better than the boys around her—even after she is knighted and has proven herself worthy, gender aside. The third book in the series is literally titled The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. (What does a man ride like? Why is “like a man” the gold standard?)

Lioness Rampant

But later books in the series (and further series in the same world) begin to interrogate these boundaries. In Lioness Rampant, the final book in the quartet, Alanna encounters Thayet, a princess of a neighboring kingdom who is in desperate need of assistance. Though Alanna initially expects her to be a simpering princess (she is exceptionally beautiful), Thayet soon shows her principles and proves her own intelligence. She advises Alanna on romantic entanglements, refuses to be led anywhere by the nose, and, after marrying King Jonathan, founds the Queen’s Riders, a battle troop that accepts both women and men. Thayet is beautiful, intellectual, and formidable, a woman written into the world of Tortall in part to challenge Alanna’s—and my—assumptions about what a woman can look like and be.

First Test

Further books by Tamora Pierce press further upon this issue. The third quartet set in Tortall, the Protector of the Small series, features Keladry, the first girl to apply to become a knight since girls have been allowed to join. Though she is similar to Alanna in many ways, Kel also spent several years of her childhood in the Yamani Islands, and trained with the noblewomen there in the use of the glaive and fan. Though in the Islands the weapons are meant to be used primarily for self-defense, the fact that noblewomen are expected to be competent with them helps deepen the gender portrayals in the world.

Sandry's Book

Going beyond the world of Tortall, Tamora Pierce also explores the idea of strength in the traditionally “feminine” in the Circle of Magic quartet, wherein three girls, a boy, and two crochety guardians are thrown together to form one of the best found family series I read as a child. The series is notable for the connections it draws between magic and “feminine” arts—Sandry’s magic is tied to threadwork, Tris’s weather magic is deeply tied to how in touch she is with her emotional landscape, and Briar (a boy) finds his magic in greenery and growing plants.

Power and legitimacy in the feminine. Like many books published in this time, Tamora Pierce’s work is not immune from criticism—of its portrayal of different races, sexualities, and even gender roles. But immersing myself in these stories still meant finding all sorts of female characters to respect and to emulate—warrior women, intellectuals, empaths; women who wore dresses and finery and those who did not; women of all sorts, all with their own individual power. Reading Tamora Pierce’s books provided me with a lens through which I saw and understood new ways of being female, ways that complicated the “strong female character” mantra I’d lived by without interrogating since childhood.

I wish it were so easy—that reading a book could immediately undo every impression of gender stereotyping and internalized misogyny I’ve ever experienced or perpetuated. But understanding the world and my place in it is the work of a lifetime, as are the choices I make every day in expressing my gender when I decide how to dress, what to put on my face, how to interact with the people around me. I’ve grown a lot from who I was as a child (I hope we can all say the same thing about ourselves!). I no longer make assumptions about someone’s seriousness based on how they choose to express their gender. Though I’m still a t-shirt and jeans sort of person, I sometimes wear dresses—and when I do, I don’t feel awkward about it. I’ve learned, and am still learning, a lot about internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity, and the fallacies of gender essentialism. And I can credit many of the books I read as a child, especially those set in Tortall, as opening the door.


Rebecca Kim Wells

Rebecca Kim Wells is the author of Shatter the Sky, an angry bisexual dragon YA fantasy novel coming from Simon & Schuster on July 30, and its sequel Storm the Earth, forthcoming in Fall 2020. She holds a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Simmons College. When not writing, reading, or talking about writing or reading, she sells books at a fiercely independent bookstore in Massachusetts. She can also be found drinking tea, singing along to musicals, or playing soccer. (Usually not all at once.) If she were a hobbit, she would undoubtedly be a Took.

 

Robyn Bennis: I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome a personal essay from Robyn Bennis!

The Law of Large Numbers as a Substitute for Being Trans at the Hardware Store
A Treatise in Support of Calling Out Every Single Act of Petty Sexism in Your Life

By Robyn Bennis

I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

This is one of those things, I suspect, that cisgender folk don’t even think about, but it’s a background concern to most transgender people. My every interaction with a stranger starts with the unspoken question, “Does this asshole think I’m a woman or a fruitily dressed man?” There’s also the possibility that they read me as nonbinary, but if I’m in that sort of company, I can let my guard down. Otherwise, knowing a person’s read on me can make the difference between a pleasant interaction, an awkward ordeal, or even assault.

The Guns Above

Which is why there’s a silver lining to the gendered treatment I notice at the hardware store. Sure, I have to exert a supreme effort to keep from rolling my eyes while the orange-shirted sales associate explains that gypsum is not a type of plaster (it is) and that I probably mean drywall (I don’t), which is the ideal repair material for my vintage lath and plaster walls (it isn’t—that would be barbarism). And yes, it ends up taking five minutes for the guy to say, essentially, “No, we don’t carry that,” but at least I know he reads me as female. If, on the other hand, we have a pleasant interaction during which each of us learns something about building materials and home repair, I know he’s read me as male, and I know that I should take care to not disabuse him of that notion, lest things get weird.

At this point, you may be asking, “What the hell does this have to do with my life?”

The key question I’m interested in, however, is what the hell does it NOT have to do with your life? I’m not trying to be funny. (I don’t have to try.) I’m legitimately asking you to look at the difference.

The answer is, when you’re trans at the hardware store, you know when you’re getting hit with low-key sexism. In most other situations, you never quite do. I mean, maybe that reviewer on Amazon was disappointed by your book’s “YA writing” because of subconscious sexism, or because the last young adult book they actually read was in the Hardy Boys series, or both. Maybe your boss pitched your own idea back to you because he’s so used to taking women’s ideas that he doesn’t even notice anymore, maybe he’s merely oblivious, or maybe he’s just an asshole. The point is, you don’t know, and given the perverse way burden of proof works against the victim rather than the purveyor of bigotry—even when the purveyor is safely anonymous—you can’t even bring up everyday sexism in mixed company without risk of a high roading from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd.

By Fire Above

This, despite humanity’s ten-thousand-year legacy of subordinating and devaluing women. This, despite countless studies showing persistent bias all across the globe, even today. Seriously, do a Google Scholar search for gender bias and start counting. And while you’re counting, notice how many studies suggest that even the pettiest acts of everyday sexism can add up to fewer options, fewer opportunities, and fewer women in any number of fields.

Yet the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd acts as if this data was gathered in an entirely different universe. Sure, sexism is ubiquitous, but your specific complaints are invalid because you can’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. And, besides which, Creeper Larry is probably just socially awkward.

And hey, no one is denying that Creeper Larry is socially awkward, but that only forgives, like, four or five questions about your boob sweat. Six, maximum.

In defending Creeper Larry against your complaints, the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd is appealing to the fact that even a well-controlled scientific study can only tell us the aggregate effect. It can’t tell us whether any individual act is motivated by bias. Even within the study itself, any single observation can be put down to chance. And that’s true for Creeper Larry, too, even though—come on—it’s right there in his name.

So, if you can’t even call an individual act biased when it’s part of a study demonstrating bias, how is one to know? Without, you know, being trans at the hardware store.

The Devil's Guide

The answer, sadly, is you probably don’t. Cis folk lack my superpower, and as the Xanders to my Buffy, you’re just going to have to do what you can with your meager gifts. Which means you’re going to be wrong about some people. At some point, you’re going to think “sexist” when the person in question is actually just “Mr. Oblivious” or “Sir Random Variance the Third, Esquire.” And, given the fact that you’re going to be wrong some of the time, when should you call a putative sexist a sexist, if only with his name changed to protect the creepy?

The answer is related to the very same variance the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd wants to use against you: the law of large numbers. That is to say, the more often you speak up about everyday sexism, the more apt your hit-to-miss ratio is to approach its expected value. If you’re 90% likely to call an instance of everyday sexism correctly, then over time you’ll call 9 out of 10 instances correctly. Indeed, the appeal to variance from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd leads you inexorably to the conclusion that you should ignore the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd entirely and speak the hell up. Not only that, but your horrible friends and co-workers will have a hard time rationalizing Creeper Larry’s behavior as the incidents pile up.

So talk about everyday sexism, even if you lack the certainty of a trans person at the hardware store. Science compels you.


Robyn Bennis

Robyn Bennis is a writer and biologist living in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams. She has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration. She is the author of The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People (2019) and the Signal Airship series (The Guns Above (2017) and By Fire Above (2018)) from Tor Books and wrote her debut novel within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield.

 

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