Damsel & Co.

It is a common belief that fairy tales are not in keeping with feminist philosophy. There are various arguments around this point. The most entrenched ones that I personally have heard sum up to a) princesses are poor role models because they are weak and passive and dependent on the men around them, and b) witches and wicked stepmothers are misogynistic caricatures. These are indeed tropes to handle with care, and awareness of their weight.

HOWEVER.

There are a lot of fairy tales out there. Like, honestly, a lot, if you’ve been thinking ‘she has to stop talking about fairy tales eventually, she will run out of material one blessed day’, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. There are, interestingly enough, plenty of wicked enchanters and terrible fathers whose motivations go unquestioned; there are a long list of princes in dire need of a rescue, and a matching list of heroines who roll up their sleeves and get on with defeating the forces of evil.

The American Disney dream of white spires, sparkling frocks and blonde curls is but one aspect of the fairy tale kaleidoscope. That is by no means an attempt to diminish it: while I do not always agree the alterations that Disney movies have made to the original fairy tales, I have a hearty respect for their popularity and staying power. This is a brand empire built with fairy tales as its cornerstones. From glass slipper to plastic Barbie princess shoe, Cinderella keeps running.

I would argue (I argue often and loudly) that Disney princesses are rarely as weak or dependent as they are widely reputed to be. Tiana is, of course, a powerhouse of indomitable personality and Elsa is a literal whirlwind of barely controlled anxiety who nevertheless overcomes her worst fears to help her sister, but the older princesses are no pushovers either. Ariel is an unstoppable explorer who assembles a hoard of lost artefacts to try and understand another culture; Snow White survives an assassination attempt and comes through the other side as a ray of goddamn sunshine, refusing to let the betrayal harden her against any new chance at friendship; Cinderella endures day after day in an abusive household and still manages to hold onto her hopes for a better life. To dismiss their strengths, to perceive their stories as lesser because they are nearly always love stories, is in my opinion based on the same type of thinking that dismisses anything loved by and popular among young girls. Because it’s fine to tell stories about women until you’re telling stories about those women. And no one ever really escapes being that woman, because if you’re already looking for something to hate, you are going to find it.

But I’m not here to talk about that today. No, really, I wrote a whole series of posts on this a few years back, I can move on now. Deep breaths.

Fairy tales are shapeshifting creatures by their very nature and the women in them are equally variable, depending on the ideas and intentions of their storyteller – and to a certain extent, the wishes of their reader. Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, Lang, Manning-Sanders, Carter, you, me, everyone has a different slant on how the story ought to go.

In honour of International Women’s Day, here’s a round-up of seven of my favourite ladies from fairy tales. They are not always pleasant, they are not always safe, but damn they know how to make a story their own.

  1. Tatterhood, from ‘Tatterhood’. Rides around on a goat, armed with a wooden spoon, decidedly not beautiful unless she’s busy seducing a prince. Took down a coven of witches that one time in order to rescue her sister.
  2. Tokoyo, from ‘Tokoyo’. Daughter of a disgraced samurai, she heads off to rescue her father and ends up fighting a sea monster to save a beautiful maiden, in the process saving her dad as well. If anyone knows a movie version of this story, hit me up.
  3. Kate Crackernuts from ‘Kate Crackernuts’. In a similar vein to Tatterhood, Kate takes on the job of defending her much prettier stepsister after her own mother’s mean-spirited magic disfigures the girl. Follows an enchanted prince into Fairyland three times, restores him to himself and does not change her appearance one iota.
  4. Snow White and Rose Red from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Raised to high moral standards by their stalwart mother, these girls adopt a bear into the family and repeatedly rescue an exceptionally rude little man, until the day the bear eats the man and turns into a prince. The girls are always armed with scissors, because you never know.
  5. The Sun Princess from ‘The Sun Princess and the Prince’. Lives in an enchanted tower full of astonishing things, locks up her suitors for centuries because she can, completely amoral. She is basically Lady Bluebeard, with a team of henchwomen. I would never ever want to meet her, but wow, she’s an interesting character.
  6. Catalina from ‘Black, Red, Gold’. Gets kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave but uses the gift of her sorceress sort-of-godmother to not only save herself, she frees the other slaves in the household as well.
  7. Princess Blue-Eyes from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’. Much like a witch-maiden, the princess has a habit of stealing people’s eyes. When a prince tries to liberate his father’s eyes from her hoard, she chases him down but decided to get hitched instead of killing him; she puts up with him less than a month after the wedding before deciding she’s got other things to do, but rocks up three years later with their terrifying toddlers in tow when her husband’s brothers are slandering him. Princess Blue-Eyes is not a woman to cross if you value your life.

These are only seven on a long, long list. Here’s to heroines everywhere.

Of Cockroaches and Kings

“One of the things about equality is not just that you be treated equally to a man, but that you treat yourself equally to the way you treat a man.”

– Marlo Thomas

Quick question! What is your definition of a strong male character?

Second question: would you ever describe him as feisty?

It is amazing how blatant sexism has to be before it raises eyebrows. The same theoretically positive words often applied to female characters – feisty, spirited, strong-willed – are barely ever applied to male counterparts. It often seems to me that much of the language used to describe female protagonists is trying to set them up as an exception; ‘not like other girls’ being the phrase that springs first to mind. You hear that a lot, either stated explicitly or woven through the subtext. According to this way of thinking, the best compliment a female character can receive is to be unlike other girls. It’s basically an extrapolation of the ‘as good as a boy’ philosophy. That’s where centuries of patriarchal culture tends to get you.

For millennia – actual thousands of years worth of storytelling, from myths and legends to medieval ballads to more recent literature – people of all genders have been pushed into very small boxes, and women in particular have had a hard time kicking their way out. I used to consider the term ‘strong female character’ as praise, a simpler way of saying ‘she’s not a one dimensional stereotype propped on the hero’s arm’. I’m not sure when it became the be all, end all, an arbitrary standard that can be raised infinitely high so that no one will actually meet it. Women have to defend their place in a narrative. They have to hit harder, think faster, prove themselves.

That’s not to say there are not unhealthy expectations laid on male characters too, but that’s at least partially wrapped up in the distorted view of women. Let’s go back to the box metaphor. By the current social standard, women can use things from the male box (and wow did it take some effort to get to that point), but men tend to be shamed (especially by other men) for daring to use anything from the female box. Traditionally female clothing, for instance, nail polish, cosmetics, the colour pink. And from a certain perspective, that’s logical. This box has been graffitied over the centuries with words like ‘weak’, ‘frivolous’, ‘hysterical’, ad nauseum. Femininity has always come with consequences, many of them painful.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick to death of these boxes. Today is International Women’s Day and I have some unpacking to do.

I can remember the first time I read my gender being described as ‘the weaker sex’, in an otherwise wonderful E. Nesbit novel. By then I had absorbed enough positive female stories to build up a degree of immunity – thank goodness for Princess Leia and Liz Shaw – and knew better than to internalise the message, but how many little girls did? How many boys do the same thing, and treat the women in their lives accordingly? These are messages papering the walls of our lives, constantly reinforced from the earliest possible age. Why else has LEGO produced a spinoff brand specifically for girls instead of just making more female minifigs? Why are boys given heavily armed action figures while the best weapon their sisters are likely to get is the sharp end of Barbie’s high heel? Does no one expect these children to play with each other?

I’ve said before that I believe fairy tales are only sexist when they are badly told. There are, however, some that even I don’t know how to salvage. I think of these as cockroach stories – that is, however strong your defences, they always come scuttling back. These are the ones no one bothers to update because it’s just so damn hard, but they’re never quite lost. ‘King Thrushbeard’, for instance, which is essentially a Grimm brothers version of The Taming of the Shrew, or ‘The Red Shoes’ by Hans Christian Andersen, in which angels torture a little girl to death. And let’s not forget the glorification of domestic abuse in ‘Patient Griselda’, from the collection of Charles Perrault.

Actually, let’s forget that, let’s bury it under a volcano for the lava snakes to eat.

All this misogyny is conveniently obvious, because in the days these stories were first told there was no reason to hide it. It’s easy to point out and ridicule. But the thing about stories like these is that they don’t go away. We build ourselves out of stories, our sense of normality and natural order, and with misogynistic narratives layered into our cultural strata, there is an inherent conflict about what normal ought to be. Sometimes the cockroach stories take new shapes – think the mythical Fake Geek Girl, or the deliberate misappropriation of the term Mary Sue to denigrate all female protagonists. Other times they scuttle and rustle quietly in the background, pinpricks of unease that are difficult to identify. Something is wrong, you just don’t know how to articulate what it is.

Which brings me back to the strong female character.

I read a lot of books written by women, many of them about women, and I read a lot of articles about women writing about women, which is not nearly as meta an activity as it sounds. And somewhere in the midst of all this reading, a word surfaced and I finally had a way to describe a recurring pattern I’d been seeing and hating for a long time. Shaming.

Slut-shaming is blaming girls for not hiding their sexuality; fat-shaming is a way of punishing people – again, usually girls – for not being a socially accepted shape. These prejudices show up in stories of all mediums with depressing regularity, but they are not what I want to talk about today. What I’m thinking of is strength shaming: girls lauded for their ability to take care of themselves, but punished when they actually do.

Most of the examples I’m about to list make sense within the context of their individual plots, and this is categorically not a disparagement of the writers involved. It’s a rare piece of media, be that a book, film or TV show, that is completely devoid of problematic aspects, and what I’m referring to might easily be dismissed individually. When looked at together, however, there is a distinct pattern.

Yelena, protagonist of Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study, is haunted by guilt for killing the man who raped her. Kady Cross’s heroine Finley Jane from The Girl in the Clockwork Corset is forced to defend herself against a distrustful ally (a man who feels she hasn’t ‘proven’ herself), but is horrified when she wins the fight. The titular protagonist of Kristin Cashore’s Fire has the ability to manipulate people’s minds and is also a dab hand with a bow, yet throughout the book goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid protecting herself. These are women being punished within the narrative when they defend themselves, as if that is an unnatural thing for a woman to do. I’m quite sure this is not the message any of the authors wish their readers to take away; that unintentionality makes the trend all the more disturbing.

Feminine martyrdom is another aspect of the shaming narrative. You’re probably familiar with the idea; the villain of the work takes a sadistic interest in the female protagonist and offers her a chance at saving her loved ones if she’ll give herself willingly to him. From the moment the device crops up, you know it will be followed through. Bella from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, Tessa from Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess, Emma from Kylie Chan’s Blue Dragon, Ember from Pamela Freeman’s Ember and AshKate Elliott’s Cat, from her Spiritwalker trilogy, bucks the trend by actually having a plan to get away, but given that she is subjected to the demands of multiple antagonists that’s really for the best.

It’s actually very interesting how interactions between significant male and female characters are framed. Many books from all genres have some element of romance, and there is naturally a wide spectrum of relationship types, as there should be. It makes me uncomfortable, though, how many present domineering behaviours as attractive. Rude or aggressive male leads are nothing new – Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mr Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are eternally popular examples – but there’s an important difference here that I should point out. The heroines of both these novels never lose their ability to call out their love interests for bad behaviour. When Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s proposal, he is forced to examine his attitude and is mortified by the unintended impact it had on those around him. Rochester loses Jane because of his lies, and she only returns on her own terms. These are relationships founded on mutual respect.

The modern love interests I’m talking about don’t tend to change. Matthew, from Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, exhibits a pattern of controlling behaviour that noticeably changes the personality of the female protagonist to be more compliant. Calla, from Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade, is routinely dominated by pretty much all the men she knows. The titular character from Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series is experiences something similar, constantly self-monitoring so as not to rile the volatile men in her life. Even smaller gestures of control, like the way Cat from the Spiritwalker trilogy is constantly framed as being fiery for simply saying what she thinks, or the way Mary from Y.S. Lee’s A Spy in the House loses her professionalism when her love interest enters the scene, are concerning.

Of course, it is the legitimate choice of a writer to portray a fictional relationship in any way she or he chooses. Widely varied depictions of all character types are vital to literary diversity. It’s also important, however, to remember that the stories we tell do not come from a vacuum, nor do they go into one.

As I said earlier, the individual stories listed here are not the issue. I may not like a particular plot thread, but that doesn’t mean the book is automatically bad or the writer is being deliberately sexist. My problem is with the prevalent use of shame as a narrative device. Stories that reinforce the idea of male dominance and female subordination have a real world impact; women are shamed for so many reasons, held to an impossible double standard in so many mediums, that anything adding to the pressure requires very careful scrutiny. Is it really necessary to tell the story that way? Is this an intentional and considered choice on the part of the author, or an internalised and unexamined bias? A female character should not have to prove herself worthythrough humiliation and martyrdom. Giving a girl a weapon is not the same as allowing her to use it; describing her as strong is useless if you are afraid of unleashing that strength.

At the beginning of this article, I asked what definition would be given to a strong male character, and this is my answer: he has or develops the self confidence to be who he really is. That’s it. That’s all. And that’s how I define my strong female character too.

If either needs to shame or control the other, something is broken.

Let’s Have A Rousing Discussion About Truth, Dragons and Historically Authentic Sexism

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.

– Virginia WoolfCranky Ladies logo

Tomorrow is the first day of Women’s History Month. Throughout March FableCroft Publishing are running a Pozible campaign for their new anthology, Cranky Ladies of History, and co-editor Tehani Wessely has organised a blog tour to explore the legacy of women who were unconventional, rebellious, or outright revolutionary. Which means we get to talk about HISTORY!

Most girls grow up surrounded by storybook princesses. The ones I liked best were Elizabeth, Victoria and Cleopatra, thanks to a series of fictional autobiographies in my local library’s children’s section. Having been consuming period dramas and documentaries from a very young age, my brain houses a disordered archive of historical detail, from the failed strategies of the Battle of Hastings to what wealthy Tudors used for toothpaste (sugar, if you really want to know. Don’t try this at home!)

History is, after all, one long, unpredictable story with countless fan fiction spin-offs, and I am easily hooked into a good story. All my life I’ve been fascinated by the past, but I have never had the slightest desire to actually go there. It is, as they say, a foreign country, and not a particularly pleasant one if you happen to be female. That we need a dedicated month tells you everything you need to know about the way women have been treated by humanity’s (mostly male) record-keepers.

There was some debate online in late 2012 about ‘historically authentic sexism’ in fantasy and science fiction, kicking off with this article on the Mary Sue and continuing with glorious sarcasm from Tansy Rayner Roberts and Foz Meadows. To summarise, if you find giant fire-breathing lizards more credible than women as active participants in a narrative, you may have problems. The best narratives, naturally, have both, but I digress.

History is a vast mosaic of human experience and for a very long time the pieces about women have been treated as insignificant. The very word woman, derived from Old English, is an amalgamation of wīf (wife) and man (person). According to the actual language, if you weren’t male, you were not really a person; you could only be married to one. Over the course of generations, women’s experiences and achievements have been belittled, forgotten and ignored, sometimes out of deliberate malice but more often from a pervasively misogynistic mindset. The wives of Henry VIII are still forced into the boxes they were given during their lifetimes, their contributions to the Tudor dynasty dismissed, while the nine days queen Jane Grey is held up as a martyr to the ambition of others instead of the intelligent and politically aware young woman she was. The dispute between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots becomes a beauty contest. Cleopatra is treated as a seductress, not a politician. Nuance, automatically granted to male contemporaries, is something women have had to win.

Which is incredibly frustrating, because there are SO MANY amazing women throughout history. If you want leaders, there’s the Iceni queen Boudicca, who struck fear into the heart of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra, the only Ptolemaic monarch who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. The African warrior Amina Sarauniya Zazzua, who led military campaigns while her mother governed then inherited power for a thirty four year reign. Not to forget Elizabeth, the ultimate politician and devastatingly brilliant academic, or Queen Victoria, who ruled over an empire so vast it was said the sun never set on her lands. Then there are the revolutionaries: Harriet Tubman, who escaped a savagely abusive plantation owner and went on to rescue more than three hundred slaves. Joan of Arc, the teenage girl who led a French army with force of conviction alone. Constance Markievicz, an Irish activist and the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons. When asked to give fashion advice, her reply was “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.”

In the sciences, there was Hypatia, inventor of the astrolabe and hydroscope; Maria Agnesi, so committed to mathematics she wrote solutions in her sleep; Marie Curie, who won a Nobel Prize for her investigation of radioactivity. In literature, well, take your pick. Aphra Behn was one of the first female playwrights in Restoration England and part-time spy for Charles II. The Brontë sisters created heroines fuelled by incontrovertible self-respect. Mary Shelley arguably invented the science fiction genre; Murasaki Shikibu arguably invented the novel.

I don’t require my favourite ladies of history to have been nice, or even on the paler side of moral grey. All it takes to get on my radar is to be interesting. Ching Shih, for instance, a former prostitute who became a pirate queen so unstoppable that the only way to end her marauding was to offer her a comfortable retirement – just knowing she existed makes me happy. But she wasn’t the only female pirate in history, not by a long shot. Every time someone says, ‘women never did that!’, I guarantee you there was a woman who did.

Writers of historical fiction incur an immediate responsibility, because the stories we hear are the realities we believe. Writing about real people from history is an even greater challenge. However detailed the account of their life, there are gaps where fiction can only conjecture – but it can also breathe life and soul into the names of people who died centuries ago. I’m glad those ‘autobiographies’ were waiting for me, and all the other stories from history I have read since. They are an important part of reclaiming women’s lives, so long belittled and dismissed. They remind us of the remarkable achievements of the past, and the limitless potential of the future.

And that being ‘cranky’ isn’t always such a bad thing.