Fantasy’s Race Problem and Racism IRL

Hiya, everyone! I hope you’re liking our new look, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. As you can see, we’re planning a full-on takeover of the interwebs. Without further ado, here is our return post!


A problem I’ve always had with high fantasy is the way that entire races of sentient creatures apparently share character traits. I can accept that it’s possible to generalize about people who live in a particular region, because cultures shape our attitudes and behaviors. (As long as those generalizations stop at comments like, “Germans really like being punctual” or “Chinese culture is more collectivist than the US’s individualist culture.” Obviously people can also make pretty harmful generalizations, that dance along or outright cross the border of racism.) These aren’t rules that are set in stone, but rather observations that aren’t necessarily meant to be applied to every single individual within a culture.

However, high fantasy’s racial attributes tend to transcend geographic or cultural location and, perhaps more dangerously, reflect the moral and ethical outlook of an individual within this race. This means that, within fantasy worlds, the goodness or evil of an individual is predetermined by her or his race. Within the context of these fantasy worlds, we accept this, because the rules have been laid out for us. When reading fantasy novels, watching fantasy movies and TV shows, or playing fantasy RPGs, there is a certain level of trust required on our part; we prefer fantasy worlds where things “make sense” given their internal logic. This means that all of us have, at some level, internalized the fact that in some worlds it is possible, even logical, for race to predestine an individual’s morality.

And I have to say, that’s really messed up. As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t really start to think about the implications of this until the out-of-character casual racism of certain D&D party members was juxtaposed with the in-game comments NPCs made about specific races. My party encountered a Rakshasa (essentially a tiger person), who was running an orphanage where everyone seemed suspiciously happy. As the DM and various NPCs made clear, the peculiarity of the orphanage was emphasized by the fact it was being run by a Rakshasa, who are typically evil. Despite this apparent racial red flag, I tried my best to have my character ignore the fact that the orphanage owner is a Rakshasa, because I’m pretty tired of racism getting a free pass in fantasy worlds. (That part of the story hasn’t been concluded yet, and I’m hoping that this character turns out to be good.)

Of course, the major race that isn’t associated with rigid moral attributes, that is allowed ethical ambiguity and individual alignment, is human. And human, in most fantasy worlds, isn’t much more than shorthand for “white.” White is seen as the default in storytelling, but it is especially typical of fantasy to create various nations of diverse white people, including other humans and their countries and cultures as background noise or obstacles for the white protagonists to overcome. The attribution of rigid racial characteristics is especially problematic given the freedom humans have to be good, evil, or neutral as they will.

If we allow ourselves to settle for fantasy worlds that dictate behaviors and morality by race, are we settling for a real world that is unconcerned with allowing any individual of any race the opportunity to be as good or as evil as they wish to be? Are we suggesting that race can determine a person’s ethical core? It seems that way. While race, like gender, certainly influences the way that we as individuals see the world, it’s not because it’s encoded that way through our melanin count. It’s because, living in the society we live in, race is still important. Racism and white privilege are constants. But while race may affect our perceptions of the world, it does not provide us with the ethical blueprints that high fantasy provides for its non-human races.

The two casually racist members of my D&D group think they can get away with saying offensive things about Martin Luther King Boulevards and Latinas wearing lipliner, because within the internal logic of their world, that’s fine. It’s not racism if you aren’t wearing a white hood or throwing a brick through someone’s window. While my boyfriend and I use our characters to stop NPCs from making casual comments that reinforce this fantasy world’s racist logic, we are also getting better at trying to get those players to understand that we aren’t going to tolerate out-of-game racism either. We refuse to allow the racism of fantasy worlds to reinforce the racism of real life.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem important, given the pervasiveness and dangerousness of real-life racism. Perhaps it seems frivolous to suggest these instances of RPG racism have lasting consequences in our lives. But I can’t help noticing that my D&D party is equally indifferent to NPCs asking my character “what’s a Kalashtar doing here?” and to someone suggesting that black people are dangerous. The logic of fantasy worlds does not create racism or sexism, but rather reflects the mindset of the society in which it is made. In a society so mired with racism, it is no wonder that our fantasy worlds, the ones we escape to, the ones we dream in, would maintain even stricter racial laws than are possible in real life.

-Joanna

Hobbitmania!

Here’s my take on The Hobbit trilogy, or Why I Don’t Actually Care Whether Or Not Peter Jackson Is Manipulating Me For My Money.

I’ll admit I was rather cynical when news first dropped that The Hobbit would be in two parts. Ever since HP7, it seems every studio is realizing they can exploit fans into spending more money without getting better movies in return. And, though I may love Tolkien, The Hobbit isn’t quite as long or complex as would justify two films. Then the cast list appeared, and I began to realize this adaptation might not just be The Hobbit. Otherwise, what are people like Galadriel and Saruman doing in it?

Now that it’s been confirmed that The Hobbit is becoming a trilogy, it’s also clear what else Jackson et al. are using as sources, namely appendices from LOTR. Some people are complaining that this somehow devalues The Hobbit as a work on its own, others are just too mad about the existence of a third movie to really say much else.

But you know what I say? Bring on the trilogy. Yes, I’m skeptical of the idea that Jackson et al. just thought they needed more time to tell the story, that money didn’t even sort of cross their minds. But honestly, I don’t even exactly know what that story is, other than that it’s based partly on The Hobbit and partly on LOTR appendices. So I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here, especially because Peter Jackson is like Christopher Nolan in that he’s completely incapable of making a movie that’s shorter than two and a half hours. So it’s possible he really does think he doesn’t have enough time.

You know what else? Three movies gives me three opportunities to dress up like a dork at a midnight showing with BatCat here. And it gives me three opportunities to see Aidan Turner’s beautiful face (even covered in dwarf beard) on the big screen. It gives me one movie to be really excited about, each year for the next three years.

So maybe I’m just being an easily-duped Tolkien fan, and maybe those aren’t good enough reasons for me not to care, but I’m completely indifferent to what Jackson et al’s reasons are for making The Hobbit into a trilogy. I just want good movies. And if the Peter Jackson team delivers with The Hobbit like they did with LOTR, I’ll be more than happy to spend my money on all three movies.

-Joanna

An RPG For the Rest of Us

Are you tired of medieval RPGs reflecting a Eurocentric view of everything? Of how uncreative developers can be with their universe’s cultural mythos? Of having only one humanoid race of non-white people to choose? Of the fact that everyone in the game is presumably heterosexual and cisgendered?

Introducing The Arkh Project. The Arkh Project is a video game whose developers seek “to make a game that focuses on queer people and people of color as main characters, and beyond that, allow people who are tired of mainstream gaming to have something completely off the wall and step into a new role.” The developers also intend to work with queer and/or PoC artists and programmers.

Basically, this is the RPG of my dreams. The concept sounds pretty cool, too:

“Follow the story of a deity bored with life amongst the gods, who leaves to find a purpose in life and seek out a lost love. Reincarnate your deity onto numerous worlds, live through the lives of others and gain life experience…but watch your God Energy, you need a lot of it to continue your astral journey.

Fight monsters only you can see, sometimes around very particular civilians who refuse to get the heck out of your way. Collect world-specific plants to enhance your healing items, and acquire numerous different kinds of weapons and scrolls from all different cultures.

The game draws inspiration from real mythos, from all sorts of different cultures, and each world reflects the culture it draws from.”

The character concept art looks pretty amazing. My favorite is Queen Zahira:

See that fancy dress? It’s made “from ethereal components that she reconstructed to exist in more planes.” She made the cloth herself, meaning she manages to be intelligent, badass-looking, and super pretty all at once. I’m on board.

In case you’re wondering what armor might look like:

The game is still in the development stage, but expect it to be released for the PC at some point.

Though there is more information which I could post, I’m stopping here because frankly I’m tired of navigating the hell that is tumblr. I’ll leave that to you, intrepid reader. In any case, I look forward to following the project’s progress (via their Facebook group), and hopefully playing the finished product.

In other race/fandom news, Racialicious has broken down Comic-Con for us in The Racialicious Guide to San Diego Comic-Con. I’m sure that one day, when I finally get to go to Comic-Con, there won’t be amazing panels that year, like How to Better Understand the Sociology Behind Cosplay or Subaltern Counterculture and the Strengths of the Underdog (which talks about Storm!). Sigh. Or I can be hopeful that talking about these issues at places like Comic-Con will become normal by the time I could go. But that would be optimistic.

-Joanna

Dragons and Vampires and Dragons, Oh My!

Today, Bethesda released the trailer for Skyrim’s downloadable content, called Dawnguard. Seems like it’ll be a vampires vs. crossbow-wielding townsfolk storyline, with shadow-flame horses you can ride and dragons swan-diving into frozen lakes. Makes sense, right?

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the DLC release, so when I first heard that it was about vampires, I was a little disappointed. The vampire part of Skyrim was one I paid little attention to, because I was too busy slaying Alduin, World-Eater to care. That and I didn’t accidentally catch vampirism, being a Redguard and having already been accidentally turned into a werewolf. (“Hey, guys! I definitely want to be a Companion. You guys are so cool! Meet you in a secret place at night? Sure! … Uh… you mean I have to become a werewolf now?”)

That being said, at least the vampires turn into gargoyle-looking bat creatures. And mounted combat? Hell yeah! It was always a bit of a buzzkill to have to dismount before fighting anything. (“I’m gonna get you, troll! … In a second!”) I’m also excited to see that demon horse? and some Dovah (or one, anyway). One of the most disappointing things about finishing the main storyline was not having any more dragon-related things to do. Despite the vampires, I look forward to playing Dawnguard, after I wait first for the release and then for the end of the cruel 30-day period in which Xbox has a monopoly over it.

In other video game news:

As I’ve said before, I fucking love dragons. And any game where dragons exist, I will want to play. So when I saw the trailer for Dragon’s Dogma, I thought to myself: omgomgomgdragonsdragons. I found out that it’s basically the Capcom answer to Skyrim, with you playing as the Arisen (code for Dragonborn), but this time with chimeras and griffins thrown in the mix too.

When I played the demo, the first thing that I did was go to the character creator. I expected a fairly limited level of modifications, thinking my character would have the obligatory double -D’s and weird hour-glass armor. (Seriously, even if a woman had a perfect hour-glass figure, her armor wouldn’t be form-fitted to her body like a too-small tank top. Anyway.)

I was enthusiastically wrong. Not only is there an enormous number of details you can change, the presets and how you can modify their bodies actually reflects a wide range of body diversity. You can make an actual fat woman, put actual wrinkles on her face, or make a muscular woman with 34Bs. I’m in character creator heaven. This link leads to the best video I could find that walks through the whole creation process:

Dragon’s Dogma Character Creator

As you can see, there are only a couple dark-skinned presets, which is a little disappointing. But given how amazing the rest of the creator is (and that you do get a variety of skin tones once you’re doing further edits), it’s a small blemish.

One thing I’m not thrilled about is the fact that, in the game, you have three companions who are called “pawns.” This makes me feel super awkward and classist. To make matters worse, I’ve been told that pawns are basically a race of people in another plane of existence who are incapable of making their own decisions, until I guess I summon them and tell them they’re going to fight with me now. After that big decision is made for them, they are loyal to their “master” and are willing to help you out/serve you. Pawns definitely sound like human pets. If I think of them as human-shaped spirits this might creep me out less.

Weird classism aside, the rest of the demo was fun, and I look forward to playing the real game soon. And before I play, I will make a 6-foot tall, 250-pound, 65-year-old woman warrior, and I will rejoice.

-Joanna

Samuel R. Delany and Literate Fantasy

For some reason, unlike science fiction, fantasy (especially high fantasy) is treated like it’s always escapist nonsense without any possibility of having substance. To most people, sword-and-sorcery fantasy will never have depth, and it most certainly will never be literary. Even when fantasy sweeps the nation (see: Game of Thrones fever), it’s because the books are enjoyable, not because they say very much about anything.

Being someone who loves sword-and-sorcery fantasy, “serious” literature, and social justice, the role of high fantasy in literature and in life is sometimes a sticky one. Yes, the majority of fantasy is escapist nonsense that, if it says anything, uses its voice to reinforce the sexist and racist norms of our society. However, that isn’t something inherent in the fantasy genre or in genre writing. You’d certainly have a case for arguing that much of literature, regardless of genre, reinforces all the bad things in inequitable societies like ours.

But for whatever reason, fantasy gets to bear the brunt of this injustice. Perhaps it’s because the covers of books, even ones with interesting things to say, ones you might even be tempted to call literary, often look like this:

I personally find nothing wrong with this cover, but I can understand why an ordinary person might pick this book up and think they know what they’ll find inside. Actually, they have no idea.

The plot synopsis probably doesn’t help: “For Pryn, a young girl fleeing her village on the back of a dragon, Neveryona becomes a shining symbol just out of reach. It leads her to the exotic port city of Kolhari, where she talks with the wealthy merchant Madame Keyne, walks with Gorgik the Liberator as he schemes against the Court of Eagles, and crosses the Bridge of Lost Desire in search of her destiny.” As interesting as I find it, others might read it and just think, oh just another book about dragons and destinies.

Of course, I didn’t choose this book randomly. Samuel R. Delany has a reputation for being one of the more literary-minded fantasy (and science fiction) writers, and for good reason.

Neveryona‘s chapters begin with excerpts from the likes of Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, and Barbara Johnson (all women, as well as dense thinkers, which I think is important to note). If so inclined, you could very easily write a postcolonial analysis of the novel, particularly since the novel spends a lot of time deconstructing the real meanings of civilization and barbarism.

For example, Delany presents the now fairly well known idea that nature is an idea constructed by civilization. At one point, a character (Gorgik the Liberator) notes, “except some of the more primitive shore tribes along those bournes where civilization has not yet inserted its illusory separation of humans from the world which holds them.” This statement is a postcolonial goldmine. Not only does it include the civilized/barbarous dichotomy, but it clearly is nudging at the certainties civilization has invented and imposed on the world. This apparent knowledge is described as “illusory,” or deceptive. Civilization does not know everything it thinks it knows.

Pryn, the main character, is often confused about where the divisions between country, suburb, and city lie. This, for the sake of the story, is because she is new to the area. However, the subtext deals with not only the physical boundaries between the civilized and the barbarous, but also the ways in which it is difficult to tell which is which, without civilization there to explain it to you.

The novel begins with an interesting incident regarding language, one that I think is significant to consider in the context of the definition of civilization. Pryn writes her name in the dirt, but writes it “pryn,” “because she knew something of writing but not of capital letters.” It is important to note that she is a girl of the rural mountains, not of the city. It takes a woman who has traveled to “civilization” to teach her about capitalizing the first letters of names. Civilization bestows this knowledge onto barbarians, who are expected to learn civilization’s ways.

Although she is not from the city, Pryn is also not a “barbarian” as such. There are specific people who are known to be barbarians, namely the tribes to the south. Thankfully, these tribes seem to be white. (I say thankfully, because I’m tired of desert “barbarians” being represented by brown people. Of course, Delany being black himself, it would be strange for such an otherwise self-aware writer to lapse into racism.) These tribes are apparently nomadic, do “barbaric” things like weave copper wire into their ears, and talk with funny accents. I’m interested in whether or not the geographic position of the barbarians was intended to signal back to modern-day America. After all, the Northeast defines its own civility by the perceived barbarity of the Southeast. In both cases, the South is the Other by which civilization defines itself.

I’m also interested in what role sexuality plays in the novel. (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually finished the novel yet.) From what I’ve read about Delany, he has been known to write frankly about sexuality, calling some of his work or parts of his work pornography. Because it’s very clear Delany is a thoughtful writer, I would like to compare this work with the sorts of misogynistic sex scenes of other writers, and figure out what (if anything) makes Delany’s empowering or equitable. I’m also interested in looking at how Delany’s own sexuality (he’s gay) may or may not have influenced his writing of sexuality. I’m hoping that Neveryona delivers in that respect, because otherwise the Bridge of Lost Desire is a bit of a tease.

I also hope to see whether or not race plays a larger role in the deconstructing of civilization and barbarism. So far, Delany seems to be unpacking a general definition of the two loaded terms, but not approaching the racial definitions. There are plenty of people in Kolhari with undisclosed ethnicities, as well as people described as pale or darker, so it’s hard for me to tell right now if he will approach race directly or not.

I can’t imagine that the rest of the novel will disappoint me, however, because not only is the worldbuilding wonderful, but the novel features a well-drawn, dragon-riding, 15-year-old girl protagonist, and I have no gender-related complaints about the characters. Don’t be too surprised if I follow up this post with a more in-depth analysis of the novel.

For now, though, I am confident enough to say that, while Neveryona would probably be enjoyable for your average fantasy reader, it is also a rewarding experience for more academic or literary-minded people. The subtext is rich and thought-provoking, and it lends itself to various kinds of analysis, not just postcolonial. While many people may still deride swords-and-sorcery fantasy for being fluff, Delany’s work makes it clear that fantasy can be so much more than people think.

-Joanna

Roll for Initiative, Universe

Recently while I was perusing the comic book section of Barnes and Noble, I found a novel tucked in the shelves looking really out-of-place. It was called ‘Everything I Need To Know I Learned from Dungeons and Dragons’ by Shelly Mazzanoble, and I was instantly sold. Essentially, it is a self-help (or elf-help) book written by someone who believes that Dungeons and Dragons, not Dr. Phil, holds the secrets to overcoming life’s difficulties.

In the first chapter we are introduced to Judy, Shelly’s busybody mother who sends her every self-help novel she sees offered on television. When Shelly gets a job for Wizards of the Coast (the creators of D&D and God to many nerds), an argument about the D&D stereotype inspires Shelly to go forth and prove her theory that D&D, and not Oprah, can lead you on the path to enlightenment.

Shelly conducts an interesting experiment in an attempt to find religious/spiritual resolution. For one week, every day she is devoted to a different D&D god. Monday, Avandra (God of Change), Tuesday, Kord (God of Battle, Wednesday, Ioun (God of Knowledge), Thursday, Moradin (God of Creation), Friday, Pelor (God of Sun and Summer). While I don’t think this experiment was exactly successful, it might be an interesting one to try. Even if you don’t achieve spiritual salvation, you may learn something about your personality that you didn’t realize before by making the conscious choice to act a certain way.

The chapter on relationships was the most interesting to me. Shelly points out that you can learn a lot about a person by what character they create and how they handle different in-game situations. This can be applied to other RPG gaming as well. For example, I always play a big, badass tank who is all righteous fury, when in real life I am much more laid-back and prefer to settle my fights verbally rather than a bar brawl. When analyzing her boyfriend’s character, Shelly says that she would definitely never date him. While she loves Bart, his character is apparently an asshole. When creating a character we have to ability to focus on one aspect of our personalities and emphasize it, while detracting others. D&D is also a great way to meet new people. In another experiment, Shelly had her recently single and attractive friend go jogging wearing a D&D shirt. The first time out was apparently attracted the wrong kind of nerd, while the second time she met a really nice guy, they got along well, spent the day together- then she found out he was a Dungeon Master and it was over. :(

Which brings us to the next subject: “Oh Those Charming DMs” Shelly, trying to improve her own talents when it comes to winning friends and influencing people, decided to study the behavior of the DMs. She chose four DMs (who all happened to be named Chris) and observed how they conducted themselves both at the game table and when giving presentations at the office. Shelly then used these observations and was able to convince everyone in her apartment building that they needed to spend the money to make the building repairs it sorely needed. (The previous encounter ended with Shelly punching a cookies and storming out in tears.) Needless to say, the traits she observed are exactly the traits that thousands of self-help books are dedicated to teaching. Only for these people the experience was gained through a game that they love.

For people who live life by a certain schedule or who always like things to be just so, D&D can help you too. For another week, Shelly tries to live life like her adventurer, Tabitha. Instead of carting around a purse and a bonus bag just in case of a natural disaster, Shelly cleans her life of the clutter and only lives with the basics. I am definitely guilty of these over-prepared traits, and this chapter really made me want to loosen the reigns- especially when it comes to my always obese backpack! Shelly did this experiment because Bart was finally moving in, and for someone who had been living in a space for 10 years and who is already anal retentive, allowing someone else’s stuff to occupy your shelves is a big deal.

Obviously as we have discussed before on our blog is that games like D&D are empowering. Not just for adults, but for children as well. Since I am normally on the soapbox about little girls and gender-specific children’s activities, allow me to make this brief: Little girls who play D&D can learn to be strong, monster-battling heroes- not helpless maidens.

Overall, I think this a book everyone should read. Although this may surprise you, I did not give away the gory, life-changing details. I definitely recommend picking up a copy of this book, even if you aren’t in need of any elf-help at the moment.

- BatCat

PS: Shelly wrote another book ‘Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress: A Girl’s Guide to the Dungeons and Dragons Game’. I am not sure how I feel about the title, but I am willing to give it a chance.

Winter is Here

As most of you should know, HBO’s Game of Thrones returned on Sunday for season 2.

I have a love/hate relationship with this series. On the one hand, there are some pretty rad characters and plots. On the other hand, there is a lot of unnecessary rape and sex. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned Medieval violence? Part of me wanted to continue watching the series because of certain characters, and the other part of me wanted to have nothing to do with their stupid over-sexualization of everything. I can say over-sexualization because I did read the first book. Sex in the book was handled much differently, but the show completely played it to the male gaze. I am sick of this shit. How about last season we got to see a full-on lipstick lesbian sex scene but the camera cut out when two guys started going at it. (Also turning Drogo and Danny’s first night into a rape was not cool HBO.)

Anyway, so when season 2 started I wasn’t really looking forward to it, but felt compelled to watch. Do my duty to the blog and all nerddom.

I was pumped for THE DRAGON! Danny is perhaps my favorite character. Although she wasn’t in the first episode of season two very much, I still danced around every time she was on-screen. Also, there is something I noticed: The wild woman who is with the Starks mentions that falling stars don’t fall for men, but for dragons. Also the red-headed oracle lady mentions that: “The night is dark and full of terror but fire burns them all away.” I have reason to believe that both these women are alluding to the rise of the dragon. The red-head was portrayed as evil because she is going against the pre-established religion, but for once I don’t think she can be placed in the typical ‘women who do magic are evil’ category. I say this because the system is already so fucked up and evil, that the Dragon coming would actually be amazing.

The Imp was another character I looked forward to seeing again for all his witty one-liners. He told off that little prick of a king, told the dumbass queen she was useless, and was totally appalled that they ‘lost’ the little Stark girl. “One? One! How? Did she disappear in a puff of smoke!” Even though he is a Lanister, I don’t think he is a bad person.

What made me the most happy about this first episode was that there were not sex scenes every three seconds. In fact, the only time they showed stuff happening was in the brothel which was then shut down by the Queen (Little Finger tried to threaten her and she was like: Ha! Bring it).

A couple other things I noticed:

The wolves are finally getting huge! They are a much bigger deal in the books than in the show, but I hope we see more from them.

When Rob needed to send someone as an ambassador, he chose his mommy! Aw. He said she was more capable and trust worthy than all the men who were with them.

Although season one was terrible for women, I hope this season is much better. The lack of boobs in the first episode are promising- but we shall see.

-BatCat

The Easiest Way to Break My Heart…

… is to misrepresent the books of Tamora Pierce, my all-time favorite young adult writer, with new covers meant to appeal to this post-Twilight generation of young readers.

The cover of the first book of the Song of the Lioness quartet that I read looked like this:

It’s a pretty decent representation of what you’ll find inside the book. A young girl posing as a boy so that she can become a knight. It’s young adult, girl power high fantasy at it’s best. Pierce’s work, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, influenced me enormously when I was young, and I have a place for her in my heart. I will forever and ever have that place in my heart, because Tamora Pierce showed me over and over again (in all her gazillion books) that girls, like me, were multi-faceted, strong, brave, kind, intelligent, capable, loving people (who could also have sex as teenagers, and that was fine).

So, I go into a bookstore a few days ago and happen to see the Song of the Lioness quartet on display. I’m all for new covers, new representations of my beloved books, but not when they look like this:

What? Since when does Alanna wear a cute faux-medieval belted tunic and strike feisty little poses? Alanna doesn’t lean sweetly on her sword, she wields it! But that’s far from the worst.

This is the worst:

Is this a Tamora Pierce book or the latest installment of the Twilight Saga? It looks like the same cute little kohl-eyed heroine (again posing with her sword stuck in the dirt), but this time she’s torn between two brooding young men. I promise this book is so much more than Alanna choosing which boyfriend she wants.

Compare to the cover of the book I read:

This is also an accurate representation of the story inside.

I understand that marketing strategies change. But I also understand that saturating the young adult fantasy market with Twilight knockoffs and supernatural romances does no good for any young adult, female or male. I resent this attempt to market Pierce’s work as a supernatural romance.

What about kids like I was, who needed high fantasy and its swords, sieges, tournaments, and castles? What about the girls like I was, who needed high fantasy that would inspire me, empower me? Maybe some of those girls will, distraught amongst the rows and rows of vampire circus masquerade romances, decide not to trust this cover and give Pierce a try. Maybe some of those girls will ignore Pierce’s work, thinking they’re the only girls on the planet who want to read about knights. It’s not that Pierce’s books are devoid of romance or sensuality; but this is merely a facet of these well-rounded books, with the romance and sex usually taking a backseat to the protagonists’ other accomplishments and conflicts.

The new covers, beyond simply being misrepresentations of the books, diminish the importance that strength and being well-rounded (and frankly, being medieval) have to the series. If there is one thing I’m sick of, it’s how desperate our culture is to tell girls and young women that they aren’t strong, that they’re one-dimensional.

Pierce wrote the Song of the Lioness series in part to prove that swords are for girls, but these new covers tell us that swords, for girls, are only a prop with which to simper.

-Joanna

The Girl-Friendly World of Studio Ghibli

Though women and girls in anime can be very problematic, one kind of animated Japanese import doesn’t make me worry about the portrayal of female characters. These films are imaginative, beautifully drawn, highly successful, and usually feature good portrayals of girls and women. This group is, of course, the films made by Studio Ghibli.

So, I’m personally pretty excited about their newest film, which comes to US theaters February 17. Even though Ponyo, the last Studio Ghibli film released in the US, was a little disappointing, I’m still looking forward to The Secret World of Arrietty.

Like the trailer says, the film is based on the novel The Borrowers, a book I remember reading as a child (though I can’t remember how much I liked it). It also features a girl protagonist, like many Studio Ghibli films. Though it doesn’t seem like it will be on the epic scale or have the same adult appeal that movies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke have, it looks fun and the kind of movie you’d want to take your daughter to see. It seems to keep with the studio’s tradition of realistic, not stereotypical, female protagonists and quality storytelling.

(Incidentally, if you live in the Boston area, consider checking out the Museum of Fine Arts’ series of Studio Ghibli film screenings happening throughout February! They’re showing many of the beloved Ghibli films (14 in all), as well as the often-forgotten The Cat Returns.)

-Joanna

The Relevance of Tolkien

With the release of the first official trailer for The Hobbit, the nerd and cinema worlds are once again abuzz with Tolkien-related hype. For those of you who haven’t seen the trailer:

It looks like it’s going to be everything I could hope for and more. I’m so excited that I wish they had a specific release date so that I could start planning my December 2012 accordingly. Because a year just isn’t enough time to prepare.

As a fantasy fan, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile amazing, classic fantasy with the desire for strong female characters. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, fantasy, even classic fantasy, often portrays women as evil, sluts, or both. The subject of women in Tolkien is a little tough, or at least not as simple as I’d like. In The Hobbit there are zero female characters. That’s a pretty low blow, sure, but nothing we twenty-first century people can’t handle; we might actually be more confused as to why Bilbo doesn’t bag some babe at the end. I’m going to make a broad statement I not-so-secretly hate that I feel I have to make: sometimes I’d prefer there not be women in literature and movies, rather than have to deal with a misogynistic or just plain ignorant portrayal of women. This fact contradicts all I feel about inclusion, women, and the fantasy world, but sometimes it’s just easier that way.

In this adaptation of The Hobbit, there are two women on the cast list: Galadriel and Tauriel, a Mirkwood elf invented by Peter Jackson. Interestingly, it appears that Galadriel will play a decently-sized part in the films, despite her absence from the source material. From what I gather, the presence of characters not in the book relates to an attempt to frame The Hobbit in the larger context of its relation to LOTR and the War of the Ring, without being a prequel. I, despite my previous statement about exclusion, can appreciate Jackson’s decisions to add or increase the importance of female characters in his Tolkien adaptations. While sticking in two female characters hardly constitutes a breakdown of traditional gender ideas in modern fantasy, even that little bit helps. It shows that someone is thinking that women should be present in fantasy, that it’s not a stretch to try to be inclusive, even when it means parting a bit from the source material.

We also have no concrete reason to believe that Tolkien didn’t like women, and didn’t want them invading his books. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are basically only three women: Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel. In the books, Arwen, the idealized woman in the classical tradition who is more of a goddess than a person, barely exists until Aragorn is set to marry her. People cite Arwen’s strength as lying in her willingness to sacrifice her immortality. These ideas are both obviously problematic. Yet in the context of LOTR, I’d prefer the female lover to be otherworldly, untouchable, and making sacrifices for those she loves, rather than wearing hip-high slits in her skirts and cleavage-squeezing bodices, while not thinking much of anything. While chivalry is dead for good reason, there is a respect in the former view of women that the latter lacks. It shows the reverence with which Tolkien saw women and their love, especially in light of the fact that amongst the elves, women and men were seen as equals, according to the Laws and Customs of the Eldar, published in Morgoth’s Ring.

As for Galadriel, she occupies a strange, gender-neutral place that I can’t really disapprove of. While she is beautiful, it is a distant beauty. In the films, she is portrayed as wise and revered; everyone respects Galadriel. While she is not going on blade-wielding adventures, she is hardly a weak character.

With Eowyn, Shield-Maiden of Rohan, Tolkien could have done what C.S. Lewis liked to do: give girls daggers they are told not to use, with Father Christmas making the admonition that “battles are ugly when women fight.” Though Tolkien wasn’t exactly a destroyer of traditional gender roles, Peter Jackson also wasn’t exaggerating Eowyn’s importance and badassery in the film adaptations.

Sure, at first Eowyn is scared, confronting Angmar. Anyone would be. But then, after her declaration to the Witch-King that she is no man and the ripping off of her helm, this happens:

Indeed, Eowyn’s reply to the Witch-King that, “I am no man” is one of the most empowering statements from a female character that I can think of, regardless of genre. She doesn’t slay Angmar in spite of being female, or because her femaleness wasn’t important right then, but essentially because she is female. Sure, she has some help from Merry, who stabs Angmar in the knee, but even he isn’t exactly a man. He’s a hobbit, a little halfling equally unfit for battle by the standards of the time and place. Besides, it’s not Merry’s wound that kills the Witch-King, but Eowyn’s. The fact that they work together is doubly empowering, proving that to Tolkien you don’t have to be a big, strong tough-guy to kick ass. I would even go so far as to say the moment is more dramatic in the book than in the movie; the movie doesn’t show the Witch-King realizing, oh man I’m about to die, the way that it should. In fact, it should look a little more like Matt Stewart‘s interpretation of the scene:

(Actually, all fantasy art should look like this.)

I suppose I should ask the question of whether having one female badass, who resists the orders of everyone around her not to fight, compensates for the fact that she is just one woman. I would say yes. Characters like Eowyn set the example for women and writers, male and female, to appreciate the sheer awesomeness that all women have within them. It may sound trite, but in a way, all women are Eowyn. And if more people recognized that all women have the capacity to whip off their helms and stab the Witch-King in the face, the world would be that much better.

-Joanna