Exceptional Joan

I don’t usually do this sort of thing.  Write about television or visual media.  I’m a book person.  I’m comfortable there.  But I suppose there’s a crossover, given that the writer for the most recent Elementary episode is Paul Cornell, whose fiction I’ve read and enjoyed here and there.  

Elementary is my favorite tv show.  It’s currently the only show I watch regularly and keep up with, as it comes out (online, 10pm is too late for me to stay up and watch it on the day).  One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Elementary is it’s ability to represent lots of different kinds of people, to never feel like it’s consciously excluding any one group.  It seems, instead, to make a conscious effort to include people from groups that are generally marginalized in mainstream media.  It’s not perfect, by any stretch, but it does seem to make an effort.

So, we’re back to this week’s episode, “You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got you?,” written by Paul Cornell and featuring a comic book hero as its main plot.  It was funny, don’t get me wrong, and enjoyable to watch the way Joan and Sherlock’s relationship seems to have really come to a point of mutual understanding and closeness.  

Except, where were all the other women?

Except for Joan’s friend running the charity for whom she’s doing the clothing drive, there are basically no other women in the entire episode with speaking parts.  Even Morland’s Russian seamstress doesn’t get a word in when he casually dismisses her so he can conduct his seedy business with Joan.

Bad enough this happens at all, but add to it the fact that the episode is about comic books and superheroes–two subjects that have been really, well, shitty, about their treatment of women characters and women in general–and overall I was left with a feeling that the creators of this episode just didn’t think women were necessary or belonged.  Which is a hell of a feeling to get about a show that up till now always made me feel welcome, whose main characters always cared about what happened to those generally left out.

Let’s break it down a little more, and really dig at what was so deflating about this episode.

First, Joan’s friend.  It’s great when we get to see aspects of Joan’s personal life, especially her friends who are women because she’s so constantly surrounded by men in the course of her work.  But the friend just happens to be the manager of a charity designed to help the disadvantaged–a very feminized form of work for the public good, especially compared to the very masculinized “heroes” we meet later on–and she’s the passive recipient of a huge amount of money from Moreland, who has a really bad history with women and is later revealed to have made the donation pretty much to manipulate Joan.  Oh yeah, and the clothing donation Joan is dropping off at the point happens to come from Everyone, in an embarrassing episode in which Sherlock forces them all to strip in his living room, and who is front and center in the shot while he’s explaining it all to Joan?  Of course, it’s a woman in black bra and underwear, who just happens to be very attractive, especially in comparison with the overweight and otherwise “undesirable” men she’s with.  And of course she’s the only woman.  Fun times.

After the revelation of the murder, we meet Joan and Sherlock in the waiting area of Superlative Comics, and Joan reveals that she knows a lot more than Sherlock’s recently acquired knowledge of all the Superlative heroes because her brother was a comic nerd.  Yeah.  Joan couldn’t possibly be a geek, and even though she’s not even claiming the title she’s put through the classic geek girl test, and by her partner no less.  Maybe the show’s creators just thought it was a clever way to “introduce” the Superlative brand, but it comes off as another example of a woman taking on the emotional labor of knowing everything about the activities of the men in their lives, while getting none of the rewards.

Of course, all the people Joan and Sherlock talk to at Superlative are men, because a woman couldn’t possibly be a writer for a comic, and definitely not in charge of anything so important as a publishing house.  A woman may have been glimpsed walking around the Superlative offices, but she was probably just getting coffee or something.  

Let’s talk about overall plot.  Plot A comes down, basically, to the fragile masculinity of the grandson of the Midnight Ranger comic’s creator (the superhero impersonated by the murdered “hero” of Greenpoint).  This is in counterpoint to the “heroes” themselves, who are typical representatives of masculinity you find in action movies–their physical prowess, particularly–which they use directly to stop crimes.  I practically laughed out loud when half the crimes were saving poor hapless women from purse snatchers.  The grandson and murderer, by contrast, only has an arsenal of weapons, and is characterized basically as a physical coward who just wants what everyone else has.

While all of this is happening, Moreland Holmes is trying to use the guilt and sense of obligation that women are socialized to feel towards anyone ever doing anything nice for them in order to get Joan–not just to work for him–but to have sympathy for him.  Moreland wants her to understand that he is not only wronged in business, but sorely misunderstood by his son, who really ought to just get over all that stuff with his mother anyway.  Moreland thinks, and wants everyone to think, that he is always in the right.  Joan’s secrecy about her meetings with Moreland didn’t feel right with her current relationship with Sherlock; she was portrayed as some version of a sneaking or cheating spouse; she’s like a woman expected to always get clearance from the man in her life, going against his wishes in poorly contrived scene after poorly contrived scene.

Joan’s decision to use the real mole to her advantage is in character with her previous actions and willingness to be more cutthroat than Sherlock, however because of the way it was staged I worry that it will not only go sour somehow, but the fact that it does go wrong will be used to put Joan in her place sometime in the future, to pull her back from the level of near-professional-equality she has achieved with Sherlock.  Once again, as long as Joan is supporting Sherlock, she’s fine.  When she oversteps her bounds, that’s when we have to start expecting punishment.  Just look what happened when she cheated on Sherlock with his brother.  She got kidnapped and almost killed.  

All in all, this episode gave the distinct impression that women have a defined role in this world, and it certainly doesn’t overlap with the affairs or interests of men.  Women are meant to be quiet, to be decorative, to fill their time in charitable activities, but above all not to presume they are owed equal place with men.  Joan was just one more example of the exceptional woman whose expertise is trotted out when it’s convenient or needed to verify the place of some man in her life and to serve his ends, and whatever experiences she has, whatever knowledge she has acquired, must first be vetted by a man before it can be accepted as real.  

And then there are all the intersectional casting issues with this episode, which I don’t even think I’m qualified to get into here.

Anyway, yes, I love this show, but this episode was terribly problematic.

I’ve been off Twitter a lot lately, but I did pop in a few days ago, and one of the first things I caught was a post from SciFiNow for an author I don’t know, but it was an “influences”-type recommendation list so I decided to check it out.  To my somewhat unsurprised dismay, the list created by a guy had only guys on it.   Which many in the SFF sphere may recognize as a pattern with male authors of any renown.  Even a guy I like, Alastair Reynolds, lists only males in his influences list at the end of his newest novella Slow Bullets.  And having read a fair few of his earlier novels, it’s pretty apparent to me that he has been influenced by someone who identifies as a woman because the way he writes women and about women is significantly different than your run-of-the-mill SFF dude.  

But on to the point of this post.

As I said, it’s been a trend lately that we’re noticing a lot more of these all-male recommendation lists.  Whether their appearance is the trend or our ability to notice is—as blogger/book/media critic extraordinaire @Renay noted in her retweet of my original tweet about that SciFiNow post

—males who point out only other males is a problem in a lot of ways, including what it says about the values and world-views of those particular authors.  Of course #notallmen are misogynists or sexists or idiots, and we’re not out to ruin their day just because they came across as a bit ignorant on their list but it does point to a lot of larger problems within the SFF world, and indeed the larger publishing world.

1. By only giving credit to male authors for influencing your work, or for participating in your genre, you’re marginalizing the great work that non-male, non-white authors are doing.  You could just as easily give the spotlight to someone who, due to systemic racism or sexism, has had a much harder time getting published or getting publicity for their work after being published.  More on this at Natalie Luhrs’ post “Examine Your Priorities,” after the whole Ernest Cline debacle.  As a successful author, you have a chance to give a massive signal boost to someone who really needs it, rather than boosting the same dead guys who have been recommended forever, in a genre that’s all about change and progress.

2. You’re short-changing your readers.  While it’s certainly true that some readers are only interested in a very narrow slice of whatever genre they read, many are looking for new and different and mind-bending and interesting.  While I see where Beaulieu might imagine a whole wagonload of diversity in his list because of the ways in which the novels on his list tangentially touch on the topic of metropolis, if your recommendation list contains a total of ten books and two are by the same author and all the authors are male, your idea of diversity might need a bit of an adjustment.  Think about what you’re really saying about the genre with an all-male recommendation list: Essentially, you’re telling your readers that this is what SFF is, so anyone not already up to their ears in SFF or not already actively looking for diversity, is going to take you at your word and keep on reading only white males.

Which leads us to perhaps the biggest reason to diversify your recommendation lists, especially if you’re a white male author:

3. As Renay stated in her follow-up tweet, it makes one question what that author really values, in terms of perspectives not only within fiction but without.  One might get the impression, from a list like that, that you the creator of the list view SFF as a boys’ club where the only people who have anything interesting to say about culture, the world, the future, are white males.  Or at the very least that the only ones deserving of credit for SFF, its future, and the ideas that come out of it, are white males.  Is that the kind of impression you want to give?  But then again maybe you just don’t care.

Because anyone who is actually looking, who actually cares, couldn’t help but at least notice N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and its companion novels in the series, when they came out, and the way that the capital city figures as not only a setting but a character in those novels.  Or Ursula K. Le Guin’s imaginings of an alien city on a frozen world and the ways that geography creates necessity in The Left Hand of Darkness.  Or how Elizabeth Bear built a steampunk city out of memories of memories of wild west frontier towns in Karen Memory, or Margaret Atwood’s dystopian metro sprawl in the MaddAddam series or David Anthony Durham’s re-centering of civilization in his Acacia series, or the way that Detroit plays such a crucial role as setting in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, if you feel the need to go back a bit further to Pratchett and Asprin.  And that’s just for novels that deal with the concept of metropolis.  

I don’t know who Bradley Beaulieu is, so I’m not trying to call him out or bring a mob down on him.  The point is, I don’t know who he is, but based on this list he’s created, I don’t plan to, either.

Feminism and The Sharing Knife

I thought of a lot of things to call this post, before I decided to settle with something simple and relatively straightforward.  Misogyny and The Sharing Knife was one of my first ideas, followed by A Feminist’s Manifesto in Bujold’s The Sharing Knife?  Needless to say, none of these seemed to fit what I really wanted to talk about, primarily because they just seemed way too… loud for an essay about Bujold and her fiction.  If you’ve read her, you’ll probably understand what I mean.  Bujold manages to speak softly–please to do not conflate softly with weakly–and yet incredibly powerfully about the issues she raises in her novels.  And if you’ve never read her, please rectify that by going to her website or your local idie and getting some of that.  Thank me later.

Anyway, I was doing a re-read of The Sharing Knife duology (which I mentioned a post or two ago), brought on by a new project I’d set myself to compare the descriptions and treatments of male and female characters in a sample of epic fantasy and in which I found myself finishing both novels instead of just tracking characters.  So.  Here I am, wanting to write an entire post on The Sharing Knife.  Most of it, though, will probably focus on the first novel, Beguilement, since that’s where the meat of the thesis, so to speak, is developed.

Also, by the by, if you’ve never read them and would someday like to, you might want to do it before you read any further, as spoilers will abound.  Also, as of this writing I have only read the first two of the now four-book series–being poor and going abroad for a year really cut into my SFF reading–so that is the focus, just in case I seem to be missing things that happened books three and four.

Beguilement begins, gets its very reason for being, because of misogyny.  There’s really no other way to put it.  The rest of the novel just keeps building on that initial plot point.  A young woman is punished for wanting to explore her own sexuality, both by the man who took advantage of her and by her society which devalues women who get pregnant from such ill-conceived liaisons.  Young Fawn–too apt, Bujold–not only gets pregnant, is not only cast off by the man with whom she has sex, but is then slut-shamed by him into keeping it all a secret.  She lives in a society that–as Dag, the male protagonist we’ll soon meet puts it–allows women no control over their own fertility, and is also rather puritanical in its views on sex and sexuality in general.

So Fawn runs away.

Because she’s been told all her life that she’s stupid and pretty much incapable of anything–despite what she eventually proves–she believes that it is better to hide her shame and leave her family wondering what happened to her, than try to seek help, even from her aunt who would probably understand.  At first read, I was a bit put off by the fact that Fawn is so small and childlike in appearance, but read as a metaphor for all women everywhere, who are repeatedly infantilized because they are female, it is in fact very skillful writing.  It is no wonder that Fawn thinks she is stupid, that she feels so alienated from her entire family, considering how she has been treated.  And really it’s no wonder that she breaks the code keeping Lakewalkers and Farmers from intermarrying, because by running away from home and attempting to circumvent the course of events that should have happened–she has broken the traditional paradigm of how people like her are supposed to act.  

And things happen.  Fawn is almost raped.  The bright side is that she at least can’t get pregnant!  She’s kidnapped and her child’s life stolen by a Malice, the destructive entities in the world whom Lakewalkers pretty much exist to kill, and Dag saves her a couple different times, eventually bringing her to where his patrol is staying at a hotel in Glassforge–the town Fawn was trying to get to anyway–and she meets his patrol leader.  And where Dag and Fawn finally start the physical part of their relationship, though the mental/emotional part had been going on almost since they met.  

We find out that it is culture which has delayed that physical relationship–Dag and Fawn each live in a culture in which the opposite gender waits for the other to make the first move–but it would be difficult to argue that had Dag not been so culturally restrained he would have initiated a physical relationship with her earlier.  The two just display such an honest desire to be together in a whole sense.  In short, Bujold does not condescendingly fall to a purity standpoint in their relationship, making Dag into the “perfect gentleman” character.  His comment, “how many nights would you say we have wasted here?” is more an acknowledgement of their differing cultures, and how taboos and mores can get in the way, rather than the rueful exhalation of a sex-starved male trying to “protect” a woman from his feral masculinity.  

Oh yes, and the sex is great, and not shameful, even when Fawn is just learning.

My favorite character?  Well, I don’t know if I have one, but if I did I’d want it to be Mari.  She is Dag’s patrol leader who is much older than most of her patrol, as she has had to wait until she was finished raising her family before returning to patrolling.  She not only proves that women desire and are capable of having lives outside of being a mother/wife, she also shows what it is like when women seek it out.  Lakewalker culture is much more open for women than Farmer, but it still isn’t perfect.  Bujold doesn’t gloss over how childbearing can affect women.  Much as I love a good story about pregnant women going into battle with the men, as though their bodies really–you know–belong to them even when pregnant, the acknowledgement that women in Lakewalker society carry the burden of making the next generation is a powerful one.  A matriarchal society cannot alleviate the fact that it is only women who can give birth.

Of course, Bujold simplifies the issues she deals with by leaving out race differences, and differences in gender identification.  Even gender expression is pretty bland in both cultures.  No one really even considers going outside the norms there.  It’s refreshing that there are no mysterious “dark” races used to add exotic flair, mystery, and a scapegoat for evil.  Bujold in fact interrogates the very ideas of coming to grips with a potentially horrendous birthright, such as the United States’ history as a slave-holding nation–this idea brought to you and me by a Tor.com blog post about the series having an American frontier theme–in Dag’s revealing that Lakewalkers themselves, or their ancestors, were the original source of the Malices they now devote themselves to killing.  

Fawn becomes the focus of much Lakewalker disgust with Farmers generally about their ignorance of history and just how much Lakewalkers do to protect the world they live in, but she still manages to keep her identity.  It’s at this point a that reader might either expect her character to devolve into a malleable vessel for Dag to remake her into a “real” Lakewalker, or to pull some Ms. Male power stunt that is supposed to win her the acceptance of the group.  She does neither, and in fact relies on her upbringing and her past to bring about the outcome she desires–I mean she figures out how to save Dag, not she gets her way with the camp decision on whether she gets to stay.  No matter what happens, Fawn stays true to herself.  

Well, this has been my rambling on The Sharing Knife, volumes 1 and 2.  I hope there are others out there with more to add, or opinions to discuss.