I was going to write a post about good dialog being important to a story, which I’ll get to at some point, but right now I want to talk about beautiful women.
Plenty has been written about the depiction of women in sff, not just physically but also in terms of characterization. I ran across a great series of posts from Fantasy Faction from last year, you can start with the first one, Your Heroine is Too Beautiful. It provides a good breakdown of what it means for readers to constantly encounter the perfectly beautiful (Eurocentrically speaking) female protagonist. Over and over. I heartily agree. But what about when every single female character in every single novel is described purely in terms of their outward appearance, and that appearance is even made to stand in for their mental and emotional capacities? Or not even that, just their emotional state?
I’ve been reading an ARC by the name of The Falcon Throne, which is due to be published in September of this year, and while I’ve never heard of her (that I can recall), the author has apparently written more than a few sff novels, and has sold “over 500,000 copies of her previous books” (quote from back of ARC). More about that later. Now, the book is your basic Eurocentric “medieval” setting, with all that’s strange, incomprehensible, and “magic” coming from the exotic, well, I’m just going to go ahead and call it East, since there’s no map and she doesn’t really make much effort to physically place all the nations in her world-building. Magic, in this book, is a thing to be feared, practiced by witches, and from the way she seems to be setting up the story will hit these good ignorant white people when and in a way they least expect at some point, much later, if we ever stop talking about fucking and breeding, and get round to advancing the plot.
But I digress.
As I said, all the women are beautiful, and if they’re not we’re told exactly how and why and have their emotional/mental shortcomings described. And anyway these non-beauties exist to advance the story arcs of male characters so they serve another role. Then there are the foreign women, the witches and sorcerers. They are also not really described, other than to be much more highly sexualized, to speak with lisping accents, and just generally to be dark, scary, and weird. As the story progresses, they only exist to advance the dark plan of Salimbene, introduced and then immediately disappeared at the very beginning, whose mother was a sorcerer and summarily died to advance the arc of Salimbene himself.
So, for the women anyway, outward appearance basically sums up the character, and only highborn women are allowed to in any way approach the ideal of beauty in this world. My favorite example, by far, is the character Jancis, who is the wife to the sinister bad boy heir Balfre and is, coincidentally, the first woman who is actually introduced and appears in the novel, on page 35. She is thin and pale, apparently without breasts (because what good is a woman that doesn’t provide something for men to look at?) and unable to get pregnant. Well, she does have a daughter, but of course that’s not good for anything. She is in fact only introduced in order to uphold the manliness of her husband, recently accused of murder, by being available to him to beat and rape in a drunken rage, only he makes the choice not to. Because of some line about how his mother would react (she’s dead, of course), and the fact that real men don’t rape their wives when there are perfectly good servants to whom they can do that sort of thing. Otherwise, we could probably get through the entire book without Jancis needing to drag herself through her torturous life for our dubious amusement.
So at this point, in my reading, I was trying to slow down and understand: is this novel a portrayal of misogyny, or does the writer actually seem to believe in her tired sexist/misogynist tropes? I honestly have a hard time deciding between the two, having read so much sff that just treats women the same, but in the last few years, reading many more good, talented sff writers who are women, I’ve come up with some strategies. Applicable to this book, women are always described through the male gaze. Always. Their worth always comes down to how men value them, even in the rare occasions when one woman is looking at and talking about another woman. Jancis’ counterpoint and sister-in-law, Mazelina, is beautiful and charming and vibrant (and also married to the good brother, Grefin), and even she looks at Jancis as though she were a man. She considers only how to help Jancis get pregnant, how to please her husband, rather than how to make herself happy in any way. And when Mazelina looks at Balfre, she is able to see how handsome he is, despite her suspicions over his character and intentions.
Which brings me to the men. Are men in the story subject to the same inward/outward appearance requirements? Men, it turns out, can be pretty much whatever they want to be. Balfre is extremely good-looking, and also the most sinister character (so far). Another character, Vidar, of the neighboring duchy, is introduced and immediately described as being horribly disfigured from some battle or other, with a previously shattered hip, missing an eye, and a host of other ailments. At first, Vidar seems like a bad guy for ordering the death of an infant and heir to the throne, but as the story progresses, we are allowed to sympathise with Vidar, who has had his inheritance taken from him and just generally never gets his way (his way being the ability to choose who he gets to breed with). Even when he chooses to do something questionable, the reader is privy to all his motives and gets to choose whether to find him good or not.
And it goes on and on.
Of course, this is not the only book I’ve ever read, or will read, in which gender tropes are so played-out. And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. If this really is a story about far flung sorcery and the motivations of a hastily introduced, dying son of a dead sorcerer who passes on her gifts and expects him to become a great and powerful sorcerer in his own right, fine, that’s an interesting story. Intrigue and puppetry can be carried out in pretty much any type of society, so long as there are cultural norms to be played upon. Those norms don’t have to be “medieval” and misogynistic. It’s lazy storytelling and boringly detracts from otherwise good scene-writing. Because this book is full of great dialog and the author has an excellent grasp of consistent characterization. She’s just consistent about the wrong things.
Oh yeah, I was going to talk about the fact this author has already been published multiple times. Ok, I’ll talk about that in the next post, the dialogue one, because after all that I just don’t have the energy to break down this trend I see where women sff writers who uphold the patriarchal standard keep getting published, over women who are good writers and choose not to keep that standard.