Finding the Words

My apologies for the spotty posting recently. I can’t give any particularly good excuse, other than my (temporary) mindless minimum wage job. In general, the issue is that I’ve been finding it hard to muster the appropriation indignation for events like the Mark Millar “rape doesn’t matter” incident. My reaction was basically: am I going to get really angry about this, or am I going to just throw up quietly somewhere because this man is an actual, real writer of comics who has more cultural power than I probably ever will? I basically chose the second option. His comments went into the deep recesses of my brain, to join similar incidents whose deeply tonedeaf wrongheadedness have made me nauseous. (I’d give examples, but the specifics have become ether and joined the “background radiation of my life.”)

As for what hasn’t been making me want to find a hole to live in until the world is no longer terrible, I could very easily turn this site into a Pacific Rim fan blog, but I won’t.

Today, in light of my blogger’s block, I will consider the benefits and pitfalls of being able to find the words.

Being able to identify and express harmful aspects of our society by using precise terminology can be extremely empowering. For better or worse, words hold power. Language reinforces and influences culture. This is one of the reasons that, every so often, the internet finds itself in a debate about the real, quantifiable definition of sexual assault. Armed with the specific words to describe an incident, it can be easier to cope with. Being able to say, “that is sexist” or “this is racist” helps to reinforce the idea that inequality not only exists, but marks our everyday lives. We can point it out, say This Specific Thing is Bad.

But language is not always enough. When we lack the discourse and actions required to solve the problems we are able to point out, we remain as powerless as we are without the terminology. It seems that we, culturally speaking, have the vocabulary for identifying racism, but lack the teeth to enforce the punishment that should logically result from saying racist things and holding racist beliefs. We all, at some level (excepting extreme cases), think that racism is a real phenomenon, even if we think it means only Jim Crow or apartheid. Even if the definition is woefully inaccurate or incomplete, we believe at some level that it is real.

By contrast, it is much more common to hear women identifying sexism without ever using the word. Women will say things like, “if men got pregnant, abortion wouldn’t be an issue.” Or, “women have to work twice as hard as men do to get just as far.” But they will rarely say that sexism is the cause of the problems they are identifying. And I think that a lot more women would deny the existence of “sexism” than people of color would deny “racism.” Yet, I would argue that the US’ cultural discourse on gender is (marginally) better than its racial discourse, if only because mainstream media outlets are free to frame gender discussion around upper-class white women.

So is it better to have the terminology, even without the power to enforce it? Or is it better to be able to state the problem without naming it? Do they leave us ultimately in the same position culturally? I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I figured I’d offer these somewhat coherent thoughts to you, O Internet, to consider. Next week, I promise to return to more tangible analysis. Until then, be glad this didn’t turn into “Mako Is Tha Best!!!!!!111 Part Two.”

-Joanna

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Where’d that 6-year-old get an AK-47?

Seriously. Where.

While the rest of the internet is in a tizzy about Sexy Noun costumes being the only ones available to women in Halloween stores, my Halloween-related moral panic is CHILDREN! WITH GUNS!

As I strolled the aisles of a Halloween store last weekend, I was struck by the sheer volume of military costumes for boys. And not just any military costumes. Military costumes like this:

If that one wasn’t gross enough, I was treated to this gem as well:

I’m sure parents all over the country are thinking: Finally! Now I can teach my young son how to be racially insensitive AND hypermacho at the same time! Yes!!! Spirit is the best Halloween store EVER!

I also saw a toy AK-47 (hence this post’s title) that had a picture of a young boy on the package. I can only assume this is meant to signal that this is an AK-47 meant for children, not adults, thus saving all of us the embarrassment of showing up to a party with a little kid’s gun. (Bullet dodged! ha… ha..)

Now, I’m not saying that a child dressing up as a soldier for Halloween is necessarily a cause for moral panic. As much as it might make me uncomfortable to see a 7-year-old in military fatigues, I can’t say it’s all that much different (to a child) than dressing up as a firefighter or a cop. And if this child has a parent in the military, I can understand why he or she might want to wear a military costume.

What I don’t understand is the two costumes I posted pictures of. However, they make more sense in light of the fact that United States culture seems to be pressing hypermasculinity on boys earlier and earlier. That same weekend, I was in a Game Stop and heard a boy no older than seven ask his father if the new Call of Duty was out yet. He could barely pronounce Call of Duty, he was so young. Of course, the problem of Call of Duty and its effect on other games, and what effects they all have on our society (especially when younger and younger children are playing them) is a complex enough issue for its own post.

As much as we as a country pretend to be concerned with keeping guns off our streets etc etc, where’s all the moral panic about 6-year-olds carrying toy guns and wearing weird dreadlock wigs? What are we teaching little boys about violence? Why does Call of Duty have to ruin every non-fantasy game series I enjoy? Who the hell would let their kid wear a “Dreads Commando” costume?

I can’t answer any of these questions, at least not in so small a space. In any case, deconstructing the hypermasculinity sold to boys is just as important as deconstructing the hyperfemininity being pushed on girls. Both are extremely detrimental to society and to individual boys and girls. So, consider raising hell about these at the same time that you’re complaining about cutesy pink Batgirl and her sidekick cutesy tutu Batgirl.

-Joanna

‘Gambit’ and the Female Gaze

So, I banned myself from writing about comics this week, but here we are anyway.

Before I read the first issue of Gambit, I was curious what I would find between its covers. In an interview with Comics Alliance, writer James Asmus said, “Gambit really is one of the few explicitly sexy male characters in mainstream comics, and that’s a major part of how I envision this book. Luckily, our artist on the book is Clay Mann. And he completely taps into the easy cool and good looks that help make Gambit such man-candy to his fans.” (Also, Asmus said he has actually lived in Louisiana and known actual Cajuns, and therefore won’t have to rely on “other fictional portrayals of the culture,” which is amazing for a whole ‘nother set of reasons, fit for a whole ‘nother post.)

The idea of putting Gambit’s sex appeal at the forefront of the book was extremely interesting to me, for a probably fairly obvious reason: superheroines are primarily sexy all the time, regardless of how much sex appeal their characters actually have, but superheroes are rarely sexy first and foremost, even when their characters have a lot of sex appeal. Also, James Asmus thinks that Gambit’s “fans” think he’s man-candy. This means Asmus understands that not every single comics reader is a straight man. Which blows my mind in the most unreasonable way.

And then there were hints of a shower scene! Be still, my beating heart!

Fast forward to the release of issue 1. What do we open with? Naked Gambit in a naked shower! Hurray, world! Four thousand points to feminism, right?

Sort of. What I find most interesting about the way Gambit is drawn is that his sexiness manages to be both overt and subtle at the same time. His character also manages to be sexy without being objectified.

Let’s go back to that shower scene.  In the first panel, we get all of naked Gambit that’s fit to print. (Meaning, he’s positioned so he isn’t facing us, so sorry, but no genitals.) Then we see various body parts of Gambit as he gets out of the shower, all leading up to the panel where he’s toweling off his hair in the buff, with a picture frame covering (just) his crotch. This panel is extremely erotic, I think, and in part because it balances subtlety and overt sexiness so well. The placement of that picture frame at the same time conceals and emphasizes what we all know is there anyway. And then the final panel gives us a gleaming shot of Gambit’s muscley manly-man back.

First page of Gambit #1

This is all pretty hot-and-bother-inducing, yet, does it differ from superheroine shower scenes? Do I find this portrayal sexy, but not creepy, simply because I’m not a man and am unused to seeing naked men in comics?

I don’t think so. One of the major reasons why objectification of women’s bodies is so harmful, is that it teaches us that women are interchangeable. The eroticism associated with a woman’s body is unrelated to her as a person; she is sexy because she has a cis woman’s body, not because she is a sexy person. And yet, in this first page, this snapshot of Gambit is very intimate, in every sense of the word. It’s not just that we’re seeing him naked, it’s that we’re being introduced to him as naked, and, while he is naked, we are putting together pieces of his life. In the panel with the picture frames, we’re looking at Gambit’s not-penis while also looking at the picture in the foreground of Gambit and Rogue. These things are associated directly. We’re not just looking at a naked attractive man; we’re looking a specific naked attractive man, one who we are trying to get to know. His naked shower scene is actually advancing story and character. This is inherently different to the idea of objectification, which, in addition to being gratuitous, teaches us that women (or men, but usually women) are sexual objects, not sexual people.

Throughout the first two issues, most of the time Gambit keeps his clothes on, and leaves his sex appeal to be channeled through his words and actions. However, even when clothed, Gambit’s posture and placement are much sexier than that of most male comics characters. He’ll lounge topless, looking devil-may-care, while having a conversation about that thing that got stuck in his chest (long story). Which brings me to another distinction between the sexiness of Gambit and the traditional sexiness of women in media, particularly when catering to the male gaze. Women’s sex appeal usually slows down the plot, allows for a pause in the story, and is never used for the advancement of anything, really. But Gambit’s sex appeal functions as part of the story. It keeps pace with the story, rather than slowing it down. Consequently, it seems natural and necessary. I can hardly imagine this book being the same without these poses and angles.

The one reservation, sex appeal-wise, I have about this series is actually his female antagonist/partner. In the first issue, I actually liked how she looked. She had a cute, rockabilly sort of style, and she wasn’t drawn in gratuitously sexy poses or angles.

But, I’m not sure that’s going to stay that way. Issue 2 had a cover which, though hardly the creepiest cover I’ve ever seen, was still somewhat problematic, with the shot of Gambit surrounded by the cut-out silhouette of a sexy woman, presumably his new acquaintance.

Cover of Gambit #2

When we met this woman, she had personality and style, but now that’s she’s on the cover, she’s just a hot body. Next week’s #3 isn’t looking too much better, considering that apparently she decides to wear short-shorts and a belly shirt when they go do secret-adventurey things in Guatemala.

While the objectification of the female character in the series is tremendously less bad than in most mainstream comics, it’s still objectification to some degree. The series manages to make their male character a sexy person, yet fails to emphasize that the sexy woman is a sexy person. It leaves me to feel disappointed and strangely apologetic at the same time. I’m forced to say, “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, because it’s not that bad, but it’s still noticeable!” Which is an annoying thing to have to say.

My theory is that they excel at keeping Gambit’s sex appeal without objectifying him precisely because he is male. When female objectification is the norm, it’s difficult to make a specifically sexy character without falling back to the same old tropes. And when you’re a man, I imagine it might be more difficult to spot the difference between mild objectification and sex appeal.

I’m not opposed to sex appeal in comics, especially when that seems to be at the heart of the series. And I really am enjoying the “man-candy.” But objectification, male or female, is something comics needs to learn to avoid. My suggestion? Do what you’re doing with Gambit, but do it with the female character, too. Include her sex appeal in ways that are interesting and advance the story or character. Cater equally to the male and female gazes, so that sexiness seems natural.

Or, at least, put Gambit in booty shorts and we can call it even.

-Joanna

The Vatican: UN Member Circa… Never?

Another day, another week full of things to say. Man, does this War on Women and the general shitty misogynistic culture we live in ever give me a horde of topics to write on! What do I choose when day after day, I have so many possibilities?

How badass Rep. Lisa Brown is for performing the Vagina Monologues on the steps of Michigan’s state house? How that whole situation makes me want to run through various legislature buildings, yelling “VAGINAVAGINAVAGINA! I HAVE A VAGINA AND I VOTE!”? What about the serious crush I’m developing on Mr. Jay Smooth, eloquent video blogger extraordinaire whose total awesomeness is finally going viral? Or how lazy writing is claiming Lara Croft as its next victim, by using the age-old ill-advised plot device of sexual assault as a way to make a female character more sympathetic and give her a big obstacle to overcome? How, if we have to spend our time squabbling about basic legal rights women should already have, we’ll never get to other stuff that matters, like the absolute travesty of justice that is the CeCe McDonald case?

I could talk about these. But I won’t. Instead, I’ve linked to websites that are already doing excellent work on these topics.

Today I’m moving the discussion to Brazil. Specifically, to Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. As Zonibel Woods at RH Reality Check explains, the conference, which began in 1992, “was the first of a series of United Nations global conferences that sought progress on sustainable development, including human rights, population change, social development, women’s human rights and gender equality.”

The 2012 conference attendees are currently negotiating the Future We Want document. The contested portions of the document surround– what else? –reproductive rights and other rights unique to women and sexual health. According to the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, “This morning [June 19] the draft text compiled by Brazil does not include any reference to Reproductive Rights, it has been removed.”

Youth SHRH goes into further detail: “Yesterday the G77 proposed to remove references to young people in paragraph 147 which outlines commitments to reducing maternal mortality, improving health of women, men, youth and children and reaffirming commitments to gender equality and language on youth having control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including access to sexual and reproductive health.

The Holy See, Russia, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile, Syria, Egypt, Costa Rica all spoke against including reproductive rights in the Gender Section of the draft outcome document. This was the ONLY reference to reproductive rights in the 80 page document. These governments not only questioned reproductive health, they also claimed to not understand the relationship between sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights within the context of sustainable development. They claimed that reproductive rights go against national legislations and constitutions, and that reproductive rights was a ‘code word’ (for abortion) and they have to protect rights of unborn and right to life.”

After reading this, in addition to being upset, I was confused by the idea that the Holy See has any say in this. I have since discovered that the Vatican is what is considered a “permanent observer state,” which apparently means it is a “Non-member State having received a standing invitation to participate as observer in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly and maintaining permanent observer mission at Headquarters.”

Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure that attempting to prevent reproductive and sexual health is really observing. In any case, G77 members are also guilty of this push to refuse to acknowledge that empowering women can help lead to a sustainable future. Achieving a sustainable future, after all, is ostensibly the purpose of Rio+20.

I have no idea when the Vatican will get its head out of my and everyone else’s uterus, but I can tell you that a future without global reproductive health, sexual health, and women’s rights is not a future I want. So please spread the word all across the internet, so that activists and G77 leaders alike can be told that sustainability means including women’s human rights and reproductive justice.

-Joanna

Gender and Creation in Prometheus

My quick, spoiler-free review of Prometheus goes something like this: It was incredibly enjoyable, despite a few minor script-related flaws. I want to write books and books of feminist analysis about it, and I plan on seeing it several more times. It was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while, partly because it managed to deeply disturb me while also raising fascinating questions about creation, creators/the created, and the place of gender in all of this. 8.2/10

Now for the in-depth, spoiler-ridden version:

The difficulty of writing this post

This post has gone through several re-writes, way more than I usually bother putting in for a blog post. (Sorry, blog and blog readers, you’re unique and special and deserve good writing, but I don’t have the time to write the same blog post five times every week.)

The issue wasn’t so much that I couldn’t find the best way to order and phrase my thoughts, though that was certainly a factor. The issue was that, initially my impulse was to write this grand, feminist psychoanalysis of the film, because, after the credits started rolling, that’s exactly what I felt it deserved.

But then I went on the internet. I found out that for whatever reason, Prometheus was as viciously polarizing as Pepper Potts wearing denim shorts around her house. Probably more so. So then I thought, even if it means dumbing down the blog, I must point-by-point defend the (often hyperbolic) attacks on this film! People are overreacting, and damn it I will stop them!

But then I realized that IMDB is IMDB, and me posting that the critics are allowed to dislike the film, but they need to relax about it because this was hardly the worst movie ever, really isn’t going to change much. It definitely won’t change the minds of ultra-super Alien fans who probably wouldn’t have been happy with the film regardless. So now this post is a hybrid analysis/defense/general speculation collection. Enjoy!

All these questions!

One of the primary criticisms launched at the movie is: plot holes/they raised all these questions that were never answered! I think this is partly because Damon Lindelhof is an easy target, having been one of the writers responsible for ruining one of my formerly favorite shows with total nonsense.

One of the enormous problems with Lost was that the writers became infamous for introducing a whole bunch of bat-shit things that they never explained. So from now on, every time Lindelhof writes a script that doesn’t explain every single thing, people are going to wave the Lost flag all around.

I’m not going to say this is entirely unfair. After all, my bitterness about Lost runs so deep that whenever I see that a former writer for or producer of Lost is working on a project, my instincts tell me not to bother. So I can understand where people are coming from. However, there is a major difference between the questions that Lost didn’t answer, and the questions that Prometheus didn’t answer.

Lost made you ask questions like, Where did that polar bear come from? Why are they weaving that tapestry? Wait, so who’s Jacob? Are they all dead? These are all storyline and plot-related questions; questions the writers should already know the answers to. Unless I’m forgetting some major unexplained plot points, the questions raised by Prometheus were more like, What is the purpose of creation? How do the created react when they encounter their creators, and vice versa? How does this relate to real-life parent-child interactions? These are fascinating, thematic questions, ones that I’m sure Damon Lindelhof doesn’t have the answers to. Because no one does. I would have found it condescending of him to attempt to answer these questions, as though he is somehow privy to the secrets of the universe.

There were a few storyline-based questions I had (i.e. what David’s motivation was for putting the worm thing in Charlie’s drink), but I still had enough evidence from the film to allow me to arrive at a few possible conclusions. I may have wanted one particular motive to be hinted at the most, but I’m also content with being able to choose which one I prefer. Similarly, both sides of the “is Vickers a robot?” debate have plenty of logical arguments in their arsenals. Giving the potential for many answers is not the same as giving no answers.

Blah blah realism

Another accusation pointed at the film surrounds the believability or realism of various characters/situations/motivations. This is usually my least favorite criticism of films and books, and it remains so for Prometheus. Ignoring the debate as to whether a scientist actually would approach a strange, seemingly hostile creature on an alien planet, etc., I have this question to pose: Honestly? If we’re going to talk about realism… what is realistic about Ripley taping her two guns together at the end of Aliens? Furthermore, why do I even care about whether or not Ripley could feasibly tape together and carry around two heavy guns, and then fire them? It was incredibly badass when she did. Similarly, I don’t really care how after a present-day Cesarian, no one could run around and what not. Not only is this the future, but it looked badass as hell! I don’t care if Shaw would have been, realistically, fainting or stumbling everywhere or dying out of exhaustion. This is a movie, not real life. And if Ripley is allowed to tape two guns together, Shaw is allowed to run around and be awesome after just having a Cesarian.

Body autonomy, gender issues

This now-infamous Cesarian scene was one of my favorite scenes in any movie. Everything about that scene was horrifying. My mouth hung agape as I watched, and I have a fairly high tolerance for gross things. What I found even more intriguing about the whole situation is how it reflects and comments on the current state of women and healthcare.

This picture describes the current state of women and healthcare.

Like many authoritative men with ulterior motives, David was being rather shifty in giving Shaw all the information about her pregnancy. He was uninterested in giving her a clear-cut objective answer to her questions and request to see the fetus. When she demanded to have the fetus removed, she ultimately had to do it herself because he would not, even though it posed a health risk to her. Sound familiar? Of course, it wasn’t necessarily an abortion, but the subtext of the ability of women to make their own health-related choices despite facing resistance from men was definitely there.

Which brings me to how this “health-related choice” was described as a “Cesarian” (terminology I’m using for the sake of clarity and because I’m on the fence about the whole “abortion” thing). Right before Shaw told the machine the procedure she wanted, I was practically on the edge of my seat waiting for her to say “abortion.” But she doesn’t. She chooses a Cesarian, not an abortion. While that doesn’t erase the fact that Shaw still chooses not to be pregnant, I think it it’s a significant point. Abortion or not, the fact is that she, despite David’s efforts, chooses to be un-pregnant and will be damned if he stops her.

Furthermore, the med pod being programmed only for men’s bodies is a larger statement on the healthcare system in general. The American healthcare system refuses to acknowledge the existence and particular needs of women by allowing special interest groups (like David) to get involved by telling women what they do and do not want to do with their bodies.

So even though that scene grossed me the fuck out, I was cheering for Shaw not just because I didn’t want her to die, but I didn’t want anyone telling her she couldn’t have a life-saving medical procedure done to her body. Of course, the fact that birth/quasi-birth scenes are usually portrayed in film as disturbing and traumatic definitely underscores the idea that to men, the female body is mysterious, terrifying, and very much an Other. The female body is a disturbing place full of gory weirdness. Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress made an interesting point about this scene, which was evidently why the rating got pushed from PG-13 to R: “It’s funny, how we have a tendency to treat damage done to women by other people as less threatening than women asserting their own autonomy over their bodies.”

Creation

In addition to raising questions about women’s body autonomy, the movie raised interesting questions about creation and the creators/created. What is the purpose of creation? For what reasons do entities create? What do they intend to do with the created? How do the creators treat their creations? How do creations treat their creators? Is it worth knowing who created you and why? These questions are developed not only through the human quest to discover the Engineers, but through David’s unusual position as quasi-human created by humans. I could write a book on all the fascinating things about David’s character, but I think that deserves a separate post. Suffice to say that, just as sometimes your creators don’t turn out the way you hoped, the same happens to your creations. When David says, “Doesn’t everyone want to kill their parents?” I could have stabbed out my eyes with Freudian excitement (ha, Oedipus joke, get it?). That comment alone significantly raised the quality of the creation subtext.

The questions about creation can all be further applied to gender theory, since women are traditionally seen as the creators. (Despite Judo-Christianity telling us that a man made the universe.) Speaking of that: the gender or lack thereof of the Engineers is rife for exploration. Were they actually intended to look male? We saw no genitalia, but the Engineers certainly had a typically masculine look to their bodies. Was this an attempt at gender-neutrality, or were we supposed to assume they were in fact male? If they were genderless, we would need to decide why a genderless race would create a gendered species. If they were intended to be male, we would need to figure out why female Engineers were absent, other than because Hollywood is sexist. Was it an intentional inversion of the typical notion of women as creators? Was it a thoughtless omission of women? Was it meant to make a statement about patriarchy? I can’t really answer any of those questions, but I find them interesting to consider.

Men with boobs

One final gender-related thought: There were some complaints that Shaw is nothing to Ripley, Shaw’s two-dimensional, would get her ass kicked by Ripley, etc. etc. Ignoring the obvious “she wasn’t supposed to be Ripley” and “I don’t see why Ripley would fight Shaw unless Shaw started murdering her crew” arguments, I’d like to pose a question: Are those people angry because Shaw isn’t Ripley, or are they angry because, unlike Ripley, Shaw displays more “feminine” characteristics?

I like Ripley, I like her a lot. In fact I love her. I think she’s one of the greatest examples of how to write an effective female lead in an action role. Effectively, Ripley is gender-neutral in Alien. We don’t see her being overly-macho/purposefully unfeminine (see: Men with Boobs) or being overly feminine. Even the motivation in Aliens of saving a child is sometimes shared by male leads.

More women in movies should look like this.

However, Shaw is very much a woman, sometimes doing the kinds of things that men mock women for doing. She cries about being infertile (this was actually a scene I hated, but not exactly because of what she was doing), she has a visible male love interest, she displays the irrational aspect of negative female stereotyping because she holds on to her faith, etc. And, as important as un-gendered female action stars are, it is perhaps even more important to write action protagonists who are consciously women. I mean to say that instead of ignoring the fact that the character is female, embracing her feminine qualities, for example the ability to create life (another big theme in Prometheus). Now, this isn’t to say that I think all female action stars should paint their nails while wearing frilly pink dresses and reproducing. They don’t have to be caricatures of femininity, and certainly the apparently inherent link between women and motherhood is one that not all women desire and does not describe all women’s experiences with femininity. I’m simply saying that I commend Prometheus for being daring enough to occasionally remind the audience that the hero was a heroine, rather than ignoring it.

Furthermore, the fact that some people mocked Shaw for not being supa-tuff like Ripley reflects the way society stigmatizes female and/or feminine behavior. They don’t want to see a woman in an action role acting like a woman. They want to see a woman in an action role not acting like a woman.

There are practically a million other things I’d like to say about this movie, and about gender in it. Perhaps, upon a second viewing, I will revisit this topic for a later post, one that includes Vickers.

But for now, I a million percent agree with Tally Art:

-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

#YesToFemaleDoctor

Internets! I just found the most amazing website ever!

Doctor Her is a website dedicated to fan posts about Doctor Who from a feminist perspective that is also concerned with not alienating (dis)abled, trans*, genderqueer, GLBQ people, and people of color. They paraphrase bell hooks in their About page! They use the term “kyriarchy!” I can’t handle this!

I stumbled across a totally awesome post Courtney Stoker wrote called “NuWho, poverty, and class: Or, the poor women are totally screwed.” In it, she examines the lives and fates of Rose, Martha, and Donna, arguing primarily that Donna and Rose get totally shafted because of their lower class status. If you’re interested in insightful anti-oppressive commentary on Doctor Who, visit this website. Now. Well, finish this post first. But then go.

And now to explain the title of this post, I also found out today that SFX Magazine started #yestofemaledoctor and #notofemaledoctor.

These two basically sum up my position:

https://twitter.com/erinpuff/statuses/184043723674488833

I would also add that I’m sick of lazy science fiction that is only willing to challenge norms like “Time travel’s not possible!” and “Aliens aren’t real!”, but never heteronormative assumptions about gender and sex. (I also just realized that Courtney Stoker, author of the aforementioned article, also is responsible for that first tweet. Is she just the coolest person ever?)

If you have a Twitter account, please tell the world, Yes to a Female Doctor! (I’m not going to be mad if you say no, but I will wonder why you read this blog.) Even if this is never, ever going to make the producers of the show let the Doctor regenerate into a woman, the world needs to know you support challenging heterosexist norms that place men at the center of the universe! (That’s right, the whole universe!)

-Joanna

P.S. If I seem a little excitable today, it might be the cold meds talking.