Willful Suspension of Disbelief Only Goes So Far

Warning: Contains Feminism.

Second Warning: I am not an accomplished feminist scholar, a fault I lay at the highly successful feet of the women who have gone before me.  I don’t always recognize when I’m being marginalized, because it is a bit of a foreign concept to me.

So… I finished A Game of Thrones. It took me three tries over about nine months, but I bested the beast. As expected, I was not overly fond of it. I’m currently reading the second book and I’ll read the rest of the series, because I am invested in a few of the characters, not all of them, but a few.

I was surprised when I didn’t really struggle with the content of the books, but rather a lack of desire to keep reading.  It killed my second attempt at Game of Thrones when I left the book at my parents’ house right around the halfway point and never bestirred myself to go get it so I could finish. My parents live 10 minutes away and I’m over there a few times a week, all of which is to say it wasn’t lack of opportunity, it was lack of desire. A Game of Thrones is at least the fourth book I’ve put down for such an extended period in recent months and that is so unusual for me that I’ve mulled it over for a few days trying to puzzle out why it happened.

Today, however, I had a breakthrough. I was in the shower (a magical place for thinking) and I decided to take the Bechdel Test to a few books that were on my mind. This led to me doing something you’re not supposed to do with the Bechdel Test: use it to classify the overall feminism of a work.   Some books, including A Game of Thrones passed with flying colors, others, including what I’ve read of A Clash of Kings (the second book in the series), made me rack my brain to come up with an example.  When it comes down to passing the test versus passing it well most of the books I’d struggled to finish fell in the latter category. After a lot of thinking and trying on different definitions I have an explanation for what they share and why it is so frustrating.

I like to call this the isolated female protagonist or the isolated female.  Look at your shelf of fantasy novels and think about how many of the female protagonists in those novels interact with other women of their own free will. I’m not suggesting that the female protagonist needs to be sent to the kitchens or anything, just that they have a frustrating tendency to be set apart from other women in a way male protagonists are not set apart from other men. Sometimes this is because comparatively normal women don’t exist or aren’t present in the books, but more often the female protagonists tend to  throw off traditional roles in a way that isolates them.

The worst part is that I completely understand one part of why the isolated female happens, especially in a work trying for historical accuracy. Men hit harder than women, so the big army you’ll use to fight the epic battle is going to be made of men and your research is going to focus on depicting those men. If you’re good you’ll research not just the stuff your heroes are doing but how the cavalry, infantry and archers work, maybe even delve into what kind of men they might be when they aren’t fighting.  This in turn leaves you with little to no time to even think about the half of the population not in your big army, so you ignore them, not out of spite, but because they aren’t as necessary to your writing as a whole.  This means that when you write one of your female characters in a down moment you can either surround her with well-researched men or poorly researched women. It’s hard to fault the choice there.

The whole situation, both the isolated females and the lack of common women in proportion to common men is so jarring for me, personally. I know exactly what I would be doing in any other historical era.  If you doubt me on this, try to find a museum without a single spindle. The idea that I and my skills wouldn’t have a useful place in a fantasy world is is a major turn off for me.  It’s not really something I think about consciously, but I react positively when books show all kinds of women making things or doing things, that includes having laundresses and cooks, nurses and seamstresses.  It’s a fault in a lot of books, including some by authors I love (cough Mistborn cough).

I have more thoughts on this, I’ve got examples that I’d pull out if I didn’t have work in the morning, hell, I’ve got half a mind to coalesce, gather references and look into publishing, but I mostly wanted to start a conversation so have at it! I’ll see you all on the other side of MiniCon!

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8 Comments

Filed under Books, Ponderings

8 responses to “Willful Suspension of Disbelief Only Goes So Far

  1. My brother and I have this discussion often. We really want there to be a movie or series with female characters in historical situations who are NOT trying to be more like men/modern women. Why can’t a seamstress be a strong and interesting character? It just takes a little more effort and originality.

    • That whole, “why can’t a steamstress do stuff” idea was why I absolutely fell in love with Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers books and it’s a big part of why the Wheel of Time appeals to me so very much. Women are an important force and capable of taking independent action in both worlds. it’s much more engaging than the other alternative.

  2. This is a REALLY interesting take. (seriously, please come to the WisCon panel and say some of this stuff ;))

    My own perspective on the issue is that an ACTUALLY isolated female doesn’t bother me — that is, I personally find the dynamic of a female character in an male-dominated environment to have lots of interesting potential. But I don’t want the woman to be in that environment because she’s ‘the special one’ and (unless this attitude is depicted as a PROBLEM) because she has contempt for the things other women are doing. So, using GoT as an example, I adore Arya Stark, but it makes me sad that the root of her estrangement from her sister seems to be “Sansa is silly and likes frilly girly things.” Sansa’s gradually getting some development of her own but unless (and I’m still only halfway through book 1) the eventual resolution is ‘both sisters are able to learn something from each other I’ll feel kind of cheated by the either/or setup (and honestly I don’t EXPECT it to get to the kind of resolution I’d like).

    This plays into your larger point, I think, that writers aren’t necessarily giving thought to all the places within the universe that women have a potential to show up in. The one pleasant surprise I’ve had so far in GoT is the climbing-guide that Catelyn runs into at the Eyrie, who is a girl ‘for no reason’. She DOES talk to Catelyn about her boyfriend, but it’s part of a larger introduction to who she is and what she’s doing there. I’d like to see more instances like that, where women are just part of the world (preferably in some role other than ‘whore.’)

  3. You know I’m in like Flynn for that WisCon panel, Bechdel Testing things is one of my favorite games.

    I like your point a lot. I don’t mind the Mulan scenario, but the Arya one does bother me, at least when it’s an adult making those judgments. It’s fine for a kid to think in extremes, because they don’t know any better, but it’s hard to take in adults. I really want to do a very spoiler filled post about this someday, so I can go into examples, but I think there’s about one person out there who wouldn’t be spoiled for at least one of the books I’d refrence (No Twitter Nat).

    I have… words about the general use of women in aSoIaF, but I’m such a WoT fan that I worry about bias. There’s fandom rivalry at work as well.

    As for the climbing guide, Mya Stone, well… I wish she was just some random woman. She’s not. I’m kicking myself for not figuring it out, which you can do when she first shows up, but no, I got wiki-spoiled while researching this post.

  4. Oh, I figure she has some significance, I just don’t know what it is yet. . .

    I know nothing of ‘Wheel of Time’ so I would be interested in the compare/contrast (though this may be more an ‘over drinks in Madison’ thing than ‘on the internet).

  5. kenality

    Interesting post and interesting discussion. I’ve been a fan of the fantasy genre for a number of years and enjoy both the Wheel of Time series and the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones is Book 1) series. Hopefully as a male fan of the series I can contribute to this discussion in a way that’s both constructive and respectful.

    One thing I believe is especially true in the SoIaF series is that the main women depicted are really women of power. Whether it is Catelyn Stark (devoted wife and mom, but as much an advisor to her husband as any Maester or Castellon or Master-of-Arms), or Cersei (Lannister) Baratheon, King Robert’s queen, both of them represent powerful women who at the same time remain feminine.

    Strong women in this series are feared almost by everyone (some for their suspected cunning and treachery, others for their wisdom) but it is clearly a male-dominated society and many fewer men actually respect powerful women than fear them. The attitude of most men seems to be that women are not equal to men. And without giving away any spoilers, be assured that in the families of powerful houses in this series, even the most powerful women are not asked but told whom they are going to marry for the sake of aligning their father’s house with other powerful noble houses. As you get deeper into the series that begins to come out and begins to add to the depth and complexity of these richly-drawn characters.

    George R.R. Martin should be applauded for writing strong female characters that are intelligent, caring, capable, and powerful in their own right. But the majority of women in The Seven Kingdoms seem to accept (out of ignorance or in suffering silence) the fact that they should not expect to be leaders or hold any power in their own right. I think it’s that “reality” of the world the story is set in that sets most of these powerful female characters apart from other women. In some cases their power is derived from having to compete with all the powerful men in their sphere of influence or their family; in other cases those immediately around them respect their intelligence and rely on them for important counsel when making critical decisions.

    But the OP’s point is well taken–it’s rare that a powerful woman in this series has other powerful women around her to share her thoughts and feelings with. While it is a noble goal our society should continue striving for that men and women truly are treated with equal respect by other men and women, when creating a story with a “realistic” medieval society, it would seem contrived and jarring to find such egalitarianism present. And part of what makes George R.R. Martin’s series so darn good is the political and military intrigue and chess game played by the various major and minor houses as they vie for the best position to secure their holdings and see if they can expand their influence.

    In a way that’s not unlike what early feminist pioneers in the US and Europe faced. And I’m not naive enough to believe that many women still face that in the 21st century, even after women like Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton have proven they are capable of leading entire nations, while the number of female CEOs of major corporations continues to grow.

    In the Wheel of Time series, it seems like strong women are almost always feared more than respected, with the exception of one kingdom that has traditionally had a Queen as its monarch and not a King. But in that series, women who are strong in the use of the “One Power” (the “magic force” of that series) are thought to be witches by most uneducated people, and are actively hunted by an all-male society that sounds disturbingly like a cross between the Spanish Inquisition and the KKK.

    There are several strong female protagonists in the Wheel of Time, and they are respected and their wisdom is sought by their friends and by educated and enlightened people, and because the story swirls around these main characters so much they avoid a lot of the antagonism faced by other powerful women. But again, you get the sense that in this world, the vast majority of women are in very patriarchal societies and aside from perhaps the respect of the occasionally enlightened husband they are not seen by most men as equals.

    Still, readers of fantasy can be glad that series like the Song of Fire and Ice and Wheel of Time include and acknowledge powerful female characters that really help to drive, shape, and direct the plot. In much older fantasy like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, female characters were highly marginalized and almost non-existent. I think the Song of Ice and Fire series probably has the best mix of strong female characters of any fantasy series I have read, each of whom have complex and various motives for their actions, and all of whom are critical for advancing the plot and not only acting on their own, but influencing the actions of those around them.

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