Thursday, July 19, 2012

Revisiting Women and SF

I’m currently re-reading Shadow & Claw, a two-part collection of Gene Wolfe novels. This volume is only half of Wolfe’s highly-praised series Book of the New Sun, a science-fiction epic that falls somewhere between Frank Herbert and Jorge Luis Borges in terms of world-building and writing style. None of these authors take time to explain their worlds - just like in the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope, the reader has to figure it out. This novel lowers like cloud cover, and is one of my strongest recommendations for science fiction writers to see what exactly they should be trying to achieve.  I was also reading this, one of many articles that talk about the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel test is a simple way to show how women can be marginalized in narratives, and how easy it is to overlook that marginalization. The sneaky way media imparts values becomes clear when we notice that narratives treating women as main characters without a sexual component are extraordinary. Let my explanation of Shadow and Claw show what female characters are up against.

    I last read Wolfe's novels when I was probably sixteen, and re-reading it at twenty-three brings up some distracting trends.  Maybe it’s because I’m more aware now or because I’m not as awed by the writing style the second time, but the way Wolfe portrays his women is disturbing.

    Halfway through the novel we have been introduced to five significant female characters: an outlaw woman, a jailed noblewoman, a prostitute, a shopgirl, and a mysterious waif. The main character, a torturer (the gory nature of his job can mostly be ignored for the purpose of this essay: he serves as the student of a magical school) falls in love or lust with the middle three, while the “mysterious” girl declares that she loves him, and competes with the sensual shopgirl for his affections about fifteen pages after she is introduced. The outlaw woman appears in the first few pages and doesn’t come back until much later, but the torturer feels “touched…perhaps it was [another outlaw’s] willingness to die to protect her that made the woman feel precious”.

    Every one of the women is seen as a magnet for the main character’s love. It makes sense that the main character would be lusty: he comes from an all-male cloistered society. The disturbing trend to me is how often he succeeds. Four of the women in the first half of the story offer him physical or sexual contact, and the author makes clear to describe every accidental rend in their clothing. It’s not like this is new, especially for science fiction, but these occurrences are laughably common. The fact that this series is highly literary seems to blind people to the fact that it does not portray women any better than most science fiction.

    That is not to say that a woman as a sexual being is inherently a bad thing. The shopgirl is sensual of her own free will. However, it’s hard to discuss free will when the people under discussion are fictional. The (male) author is in control of them.

    At this point, it’s not the sexuality itself that bothers me. It’s that, in a book filled with spaceships and extinct animals and gardens that are bigger on the inside, it’s the fact that everyone is attracted to the main character that I have the most trouble believing. Just because an author (or a video game writer) has the power to make all the characters of one gender flaunt their sexuality doesn’t mean that they should. I bet that if you think of your group of friends (or, to more closely match the plot of the book, acquaintances you’ve met in the last few months) it isn’t the case that four of them have offered to date or sleep with you. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Then there’s the possible argument that none of this is supposed to be realistic: science fiction is about escapism, about making ideal worlds and characters. Even a dystopian world is, in a sense, “ideal” since it is designed to fun to read about, and a marked contrast to our world. Maybe for someone attracted to women, all of the women being half-clothed is a great add-on to the escapism. I don’t know. But I do know that, as a straight woman, if all of the men were running around half-clothed I would find it sort of silly. It lacks dignity, and takes away from the gravitas of the story. In the case of Shadow and Claw, the huge amount of inherent gravitas makes the disparity all the more noticeable.

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