Feminism and Fantasy (and other things that make me crazy)

This is what I’ve learned about being a feminist:

If you are born a woman, you should try really, really hard not to be abused. Because once you’ve been abused based on your gender—whether emotionally or sexually or physically—you will see the world differently from people who have not been abused. You will find yourself yelling weird things like, “hey, world, abuse is bad,” and people will look at you funny and say, “well, actually, your opinion is no longer valid now that you’ve experienced it and become angry about it. Now you’re too damaged to see things objectively, and we don’t have to listen to you.”

And if you make the mistake of getting abused and the double mistake of being frank about it, you should also be aware that you will forever have to work harder in every argument so that you can be calmer, more logical, more articulate, and better-prepared than your opponents just to keep from being dismissed out of hand.

This is not something I like to talk about (maybe for obvious reasons), but it’s something I’ve noticed before, and it’s something I noticed again today as I read a bunch of my friend’s links on Facebook about this online debate frenzy over whether or not the fantasy writer George R. R. Martin’s books are sexist and bad.

If you don’t know anything about Martin’s books, don’t worry. Neither do I. I’ve never read a single one of them, and I’m not going to talk about anything in the books or even whether or not Martin is a sexist, bad writer. (My friend says the answer to that question is no. He’s a smart guy. He’s probably right).

The original rant was written by a woman named Sady Doyle, and you can read it here (if you want. Full disclosure: I didn’t make it through either). The critique by Alyssa Rosenberg is here if you want (I did actually read this one, but since I’m not going to talk about it, you certainly don’t have to). The comments on the Rosenberg piece are actually what first made me care about the debate, because a fair amount of the chatter started to revolve around whether or not Doyle was “obsessed” with rape and how it was difficult to take her piece seriously because she “overstates her case” and even indulges in a little “hysteria.”

Yes. You have to love the (I hope) accidental irony of the poster who thought hysteria was a good word to interject into a feminist debate.

And then I saw a comment that was really interesting. Someone said, “while I’m not defending the article, I do defend [Doyle]. She was raped.”

Well, as soon as you see that you have to expect the automatic response. And, yep, there it was just below:

“I know that having something horrible happen to you changes the way you see things,” another commenter wrote, “but it doesn’t make your soapbox any taller.” (Followed by a couple of appeals to keep things “objective”).


But, see, my problem is that every year it gets harder to see the validity of that argument. It’s tricksy, and it’s circular. It’s designed to invalidate whatever heated opinion you might have while still claiming the high ground.

Let’s not use Doyle as an example, because I don’t know her, and I have absolutely no idea what did or didn’t happen to her or how she feels about it or whether it has anything to do with whatever opinions she may or may not hold. Let’s make someone up. Let’s invent a woman named Amber who grew up with a dad who shoved her around and told her she was a worthless little slut. Let’s say Amber loved to read and grew up to write a blog where she wrote about books. Let’s say she read a novel set in the wild west, where a bunch of the cowboys mistreated the saloon girls in graphic ways. And let’s also say Amber followed it up by throwing the book across the room and writing an angry screed online about how the book is just a bunch of sexist excrement.

Is she right or is she wrong? And, more importantly, what’s our criteria for deciding whether she’s right or wrong?

In our culture, we naturally honor the cool-headed person, and if you turn the volume down on two people who’re arguing, viewers tend to side with the person whose body language remains the most neutral. There are some good reasons for this, of course. It would be even more ludicrous to live in a society where the most excitable person was always considered right. And, of course, it would be more pleasant and palatable for everyone if Amber had calmly typed out her complaint about the way those saloon girls are portrayed in proper MLA format. No arguments there.

But my real question is this: are we willing to say that detachment and classic argument structures are really the only viable way to determine something’s value?

Or does it tell us something kind of interesting that Amber became intensely upset, defensive, and angry when she came in contact with that particular book? Do all Westerns make her angry or just this one? Do other female readers with a history of abuse feel the same way? What does it mean and when is it appropriate for an author to knowingly use material that triggers such intense reactions in his/her readers who have actually experienced the topic introduced? What does all of this tell us?

I guess I’m no longer willing to say that the only thing it tells us is that Amber is an illogical woman with a wounded past. Nor am I willing to say it tells us nothing about the novel she threw across the room.

Call me crazy.

This book triggered a major emotional response in her.

Actually, that might very well be a good sign. Maybe the author of that particular Western really wanted to discuss gender violence in his book. In that case, he’s clearly on the money. He’s got Amber’s attention. In fact, he’s hitting the mark so accurately, she’s already going into fight or flight. That’s not necessarily bad. Some of the most inspiring and empowering books I’ve ever read have also contained some of the most graphic and brutal descriptions I’ve ever read. It’s not about the specific acts portrayed in the book. It’s about what they’re used to signify and where the journey ends up taking you. Amber obviously couldn’t find a justification for the saloon girl subplot, and if we wanted to make a decision about the value of this particular book, it would probably be helpful to know whether other women who share Amber’s history also share her feelings about this book.

I don’t actually know any figures along these lines nor can I find stats on the rate or intensity of sexual violence in fantasy novels, and (maybe unsurprisingly) I can’t find that anyone cares enough to ask about it. What I can find are some basic facts about readership. Less than 25% of all fiction readers are male, and the majority of all fantasy readers are also male. When you keep the first fact in mind, the second one becomes even more remarkable.

So what is it about fantasy that attracts a male audience and (apparently) rebuffs a female one? Should we be concerned about that, or should we just assume that fantasy is the mirror image of romance—a genre we know has roughly a 90% female readership? Of course, you might want to rethink your strategy if you say yes, because romance fiction is generally understood to be wish fulfillment fiction. Are we willing to say fantasy is male wish fulfillment?

At the very least, the gender gap in fantasy is worth thinking about. There’s clearly something going on, even if it’s something as apparently innocuous as male “point of view.” Although how Martin’s point of view is “more” male than, say, Ian McEwan’s is a bit harder to explain.

It’s also hard to understand why women dislike fantasy when they show a very clear liking for historical fiction in general and all the current speculative fiction featuring werewolves and vampires is marketed toward women too. So if women enjoy historical settings and mythological creatures in general, why do so many female readers avoid the fantasy shelves?

Is it that women don’t like books that revolve around wars? That’s would explain why women have had such a hard time getting behind books like Cold Mountain, War and Peace, The Killer Angels, and Gone with the Wind… wait. No, it doesn’t.

Or is it the violence? That’s certainly possible, but do we actually know that or are we just relying on a stereotype that “makes sense”? Do women repeatedly shy away from violence in thrillers, horror books, or crime fiction?

Again, this isn’t an argument, and it isn’t an end point. These are questions I don’t have the answers to, ideas that make me curious enough to pay attention when the Internet erupts over a Sady Doyle diatribe about a bunch of books I haven’t read. Not because I care very much about Doyle or Martin. Not even because I care who’s “right.”

But maybe it’s time we looked a little more closely at the assumptions we make about whose opinion is more “credible”  and the lines of questioning nobody’s bothered to follow. Maybe it’s worth grappling a little more with the issues of art and responsibility instead of imagining that they’re little check boxes where you pick one or the other. Is historical accuracy trump or is it just another card in the deck, you know?

All I know for sure is I get really uncomfortable when people decide it’s ok to write women off for being too “angry” when they complain about issues of sexual violence or abuse. A rant belongs in a different category from a classically-constructed argument, it’s true,  but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t valid or doesn’t contain a truth worth engaging.

This post, for example, was going to be my attempt at a rational response, but given the topic and my general unwillingness to waste any more time tinkering with it, I think I’m going to have to settle for rant status. In which case, I probably should’ve just gone with my original and much shorter version:

OMG, I’m so tired of women being dismissed for being too “angry.”


2 thoughts on “Feminism and Fantasy (and other things that make me crazy)

  1. Thanks for sharing. I think you’re right, we ended up discussing two different things. This was helpful (and reasoned and entirely un-rant-like). Your statistics were especially helpful in framing the discussion. I tend not to think about the gender disparity in fantasy readership, as I’m married to a woman who has read Lord of the Rings several times (I made it through once, barely), and the viewing-parties of Game of Thrones I attended were evenly split down gender lines. While I disagree with Doyle’s critique of George R.R. Martin, I am approaching the texts with their depictions of rape and injustice as an individual (and a representative of a gender) that has no experience of rape and benefits from these injustices, and my experience (or lack of) influences my reading as much as Doyle’s does hers.

    I think that taken as a critique of the shortcomings the fantasy genre, I agree with Doyle (and you). Depiction of a fantasy world with a system of chivalry that reduces women to tavern wenches, damsels in distress, witches, and princesses is damaging, especially if it is simply accepted as historical set dressing, because like all insidious cultural injustices, it is invisible to those with power. Readers of fantasy tend to identify with the knights and kings who benefit from such power structures.

    And that’s why Doyle’s critique of Martin’s ripping back the veil on what fantasy literature has so long been (guiltily) silent about seems so unfair. Yes, he portrays rape and subjugation of women in his medieval fantasy world. But in doing so he says, This is what happened in the Middle Ages and happens in fantasy worlds, but nobody ever talks about it. This is what’s going on in your Arthurian legends and epics of the crusades. This is what women experienced under the reign of Richard the Lionheart and how Maid Marian was treated at the hands of the Sherrif of Nottingham and quite possibly the Merry Men (this also sheds new light on Neil Gaiman’s disturbing revisionist Narnia short story The Problem of Susan). And not only does his portrayal operate as a critique of the sanitized sexism in fantasy literature as a whole, but in the stories themselves, you as the reader are forced to identify with the female POV characters through whose eyes you see events unfold (and vicariously experience the injustices firsthand). The devastating effects of these injustices and violations are also keenly felt by the characters, their families, and societies. I can certainly understand why someone who has experienced rape would find this painful.

    I love a good rant, and Doyle’s was a fine example of the form, but it’s a shame she began by intentionally alienating the very audience who may have needed to hear what she had to say the most (and that she invoked the imagery of book burning, a particularly odious image that I found particularly repellent). However, I feel like our discussion today has been very productive, and if her rant prompts more of these conversations (and if ours did become an argument, I believe it was only in the classical sense of the term), then it will have been a force for good.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and making me think about one of my favorite genres in a new way.

  2. “I know that having something horrible happen to you changes the way you see things, but it doesn’t make your soapbox any taller.” Wrong. Actually, it makes your soapbox much taller. Actually, it is what gives your soapbox any credibility in the first place.

    Oddly enough, I was just thinking about this last night because someone was talking to me about a tiny, little spot that one doctor had thought might be skin cancer, and this person was going to get a second opinion. At first I thought, Eh, no big deal. If I had a little spot of skin cancer, I’d just get it cut out and I’d be fine. But then I had the chilling realization that I have no idea if I’d be fine. I have never had cancer. I have no idea what fears haunt you when you wake up in the middle of the night and remember that you have cancer or what it’s like to go in for a procedure and wonder if they really got it all. It reminded me of what happened to me a few years ago and how people who’ve never experienced it love to say how it wouldn’t bother them and give this or that easy “just get over it, why are you even upset?” type response. And I’m just not sure whether to bang my head against a wall or curl up in the fetal position and cry. If you don’t know what something is like, then guess what? You don’t know what that thing is like. So, therefore you are in absolutely no position whatsoever to say that it is not a huge, giant, knock-you-on-the-floor, big deal. And if other people who do know what it is like say that it is a big deal, then maybe you should listen to them. Seriously, it’s like saying “Over there is the Secret Room. We do not know what is in the Secret Room, but we suspect it is full of marshmallows, and that is why we are not afraid. Those people over there have been in the Secret Room and when they come back, they are always crying. They say there are terrible things in there, but we do not listen to them because they are stupid for crying over marshmallows.”

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