July 2012 archive

If you love Arya Stark, you’ll love…

I recently got an email from a reader, asking for sci-fi/fantasy recommendations for books with main characters like Arya Stark. Prominent female characters who aren’t just badass swordswomen or magicians, but complex characters with limitations, a darkish personality, and a thirst for revenge, without being inherently evil.

I wish I could help. I’ve been wracking my brain for days, trying to think of books that fit the bill, and I haven’t been able to come up with anything. I have a few suggestions, but nothing that really fits. And this makes me sad, because a badass, damaged female protagonist on a vengeance kick sounds great.

My best suggestion is Graceling by Kristin Cashore, as a novel about a girl who believes she’s pre-destined to be a detestable killing machine, and struggles against this identity, and against the people who have used her for her whole life.

Another idea is The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan, which tells the story of a slum-dweller who despises the magicians and everything they stand for, and then finds out that she should be one of them. Gregory Maguire’s retellings from the villain’s point of view, particularly Wicked, might also be worth checking out.

Does anyone else have any recs? Any books with characters like this that they’ve enjoyed? Please comment and share!

Olympic Stories

I have caught Olympic fever.

The spectacular opening ceremony. The sense of global unity, and of individual achievement. Competition and cooperation, and everybody coming together for something emotional and celebratory and good.

And, of course, the stories. Because, to me, the Olympics are all about stories. The young Japanese swimmer who no-one expected to qualify, who beat Michael Phelps for the bronze. Three female cyclists who broke away from the group and worked together to stay away, in order to guarantee their gold-silver-bronze. Athletes competing under the Olympic Flag because their countries do not have Olympic committees. Countries that have never won a single medal, finally breaking through and winning the gold. It’s one of the few sporting events where male and female athletes are given equal footing and support. And it’s the first ever games when every single country brought both male and female athletes.

So I was delighted to see Britain celebrate stories — from history, from modern life, and from literature — in the opening ceremony. And they were diverse stories. They were stories of women fighting for the vote, of immigrants, of workers unions, of real doctors and nurses and children and teenagers. The UK’s most iconic female author (or author, period) read a passage from Peter Pan. Her own creation, Lord Voldemort, joined forces with Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Ville (creation of author Dodie Smith) and others, before being defeated by an army of Mary Poppins (creation of Pamela L. Travers). Whether a conscious effort or coincidence, it explicitly celebrated a rich and iconic literary history that was created by both men and women, and a history and culture that include and are driven by everyone, from famous political men to workers to immigrants to teenagers on Twitter.

The message was clear: the Olympics, and Britain, are for everyone. And I can’t wait to see what stories will unfold in the coming two weeks.

Link Roundup

After an article on CNN criticizing superficial girl nerds, Genevieve Dempre has written in defense of lady geeks.

Bitch Flicks had a Woman in Science Fiction Week. Articles include a discussion of the diverse women in Firefly, and reproductive rights on Battlestar Galactica.

Actress Carlo Gugino talks about show Political Animals and argues that TV pits women against each other.

The LA Times talks about women in comics and the “tricky art of equality.”

NPR currently has a poll to vote for the best ever teen novels.

Electronics Arts has spoken out against the Defense of Marriage Act.

All You Feminists

Show of hands: who thinks the Lizzie Bennet Diaries is sexist? I kind of love it, but some people have argued that its treatment of Lydia is problematic.

I would argue that Lizzie’s approach to Lydia is judgemental and problematic (as it is to all characters who aren’t her best friends), but clearly many people disagree.

How about A Song of Ice and Fire? Does it have kickass female characters, or does it revel in misogyny?

Is the lack of male protagonists, writers and readers in YA problematic, or is YA a haven for female readers and writers, in a literary world where almost every other category is mostly aimed at and written by men?

Whenever I get a comment that starts with the words “you feminists,” I know it’s from someone who doesn’t get it. Feminism is a movement, not a monolith. It does not come with a rulebook or a checklist that members must apply to every text and situation to judge its sexism. Every individual has a slightly different approach, because, despite what some media outlets seem to think, women (and people in general) are individuals, and no two individuals think exactly alike.

I disagree with a lot of feminists. Occasionally, a feminist article will make me angry… not because it’s feminist, but because the writer has applied feminism in a way that I deeply disagree with. I’m sure that some other feminists have similar reactions to my approach. And that’s OK.

My approach to this blog is simple: all people, including women, are individuals who deserve equal respect. For me, that means seeing complex, well-thought-out female characters who are allowed to be flawed, or tough, or girly, or scared, or fearless, or emotional, or evil, or kind-hearted… not just one type of character, not just a “token woman,” but present in many human forms. Female characters who are the center of their own stories.

But this isn’t the word of “feminism,” despite the name of the blog. It’s just my opinion. And others will surely disagree.

“Special” protagonists in YA Fiction

A few weeks ago, a post did the rounds on Tumblr, declaring that the reblogger was “not like other girls.” The idea that “girly” is negative is so pervasive that many young women  feel compelled to assert their worth by pointing out that they don’t fit those assumptions, rather than challenging the existence of that bias in the first place.

In young adult fiction, a genre that is mostly written by women for young women, I have found far too many examples of the “not like other girls” syndrome. Usually, this is part of a romance — the guy is attracted to her because she’s “special,” because she’s not like the other shallow, superficial girls he encounters every day. The stories work as a kind of wish fulfilment: girls who don’t fit in, or who see themselves as plain or unremarkable or “weird,” are considered superior, are more desirable, and so are more worthwhile than girls who are more “girly” or stereotypical. But in creating a relatable protagonist, one who doesn’t feel pretty or popular or special, these books often feed into sexist ideas about women, suggesting that “normal” women are not worth much, and a girl must be “different” or “extraordinary” to count.

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Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles

I picked up Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper, the first in her Rain Wild Chronicles series, in a post-A Song of Ice and Fire frenzy, when I was desperate for more fantasy with awesome female characters, adventure, and, of course, dragons.

The Rain Wild Chronicles deliver on all three counts.

For the first time in centuries, dragons have hatched in the Wilds. But the dragons are deformed, helpless, trapped on the beach where they were born and unable to feed or fight for themselves. Sick of caring for creatures that are more trouble than they’re worth, the council hires a group of outcasts and misfits to lead the dragons upstream on a suicide mission to find the legendary city of the dragons. Among them are Thymara, a “deformed” outcast herself who has never felt accepted at home, and Alise, the studious wife of a rich and cruel Trader who longs for more freedom in her life and who becomes the official “dragon expert” of the expedition.

Alise and Thymara are both wonderful characters. Alise is a pragmatic intellectual, a girl with crushed dreams of romance and a passionate love of dragons, and her story of a loveless marriage and her last attempts at independence is both heartbreaking and liberating. Thymara, meanwhile, is a scrappy and fierce young girl, a talented climber and hunter who struggles against everyone else’s expectations to figure out what she wants, in a world where she’s not supposed to want anything at all. They are standout characters in a vibrant and compelling cast of misfits, and although the book is also full of adventure and twisting plot, these characters really make it shine.

The series is set in the same world as Hobb’s other fantasy books, but I picked it up and followed it without any problems, and although I’m now working my way back through her other series, I still like this one the best. It starts a little slow (interesting, but a little difficult to get into), but by the end of the first book, I was completely hooked. When I finished the second book, I went into yet more fantasy-series-withdrawal, and I’m still in it now as I wait for the fourth and final book to be released.

If you’re looking for fantasy with compelling female characters, definitely check this out.

Female Characters in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who

I am not looking forward to the new season of Doctor Who.

As a mega-fan of “New Who” since it started airing in 2005, this is unusual to say the least. Normally I would be counting down the days, giddily rewatching old episodes, bouncing up and down in my seat whenever I saw a trailer, and discussing endless theories and hopes with my friends.

This year, I’m just cringing, hoping it’s not as bad as I expect.

Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who has many great features, and even many improvements on the Russell T. Davies era. I love Matt Smith as the Doctor, and I think Amy Pond is a great companion. The cinematography is lush, and its riffs around fairy tales and memory play right into my analysis-loving ways. The plot has become nonsensical and convoluted, but earlier episodes also had their moments of “what??” (Jesus Doctor, anyone?), and although that leads to lowered expectations, it doesn’t prevent the show from being mindlessly enjoyable on a Saturday night.

But unfortunately, as Season 6 played out, it became increasingly clear that the show doesn’t respect its female characters. And that is not acceptable.

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Link Roundup

Hatful of Napalm offers a summary (with links) of the abuse Anita Sarkeesian received over her proposed new video series, Tropes vs Women in Video games (TW: … pretty much everything, esp. rape and physical abuse)

Laura Penny writes in defence of 50 Shades of Grey for the New Statesman.

The Vulture offers a critique of Aaron Sorkin’s drama The Newsroomarguing that it is incredibly hostile to women.

The Salon praises Bunheads as a charming show “about nothing”

In fun news, check out Underground New York Public Library for a peek at what everyone’s reading on the subway.

Power is Power: Cersei Lannister

This post contains spoilers through A Dance with Dragons.

There’s no getting around it: Cersei Lannister is a horrible person. Although, thanks to the extreme cruelty of some of the series’ villains, she isn’t the worst character in A Song of Ice and Fire, she is ruthless and petty and cruel, and she appears willing to sacrifice anything (except her children) to bolster her own power.

Cersei is also the only “villain” character in A Song of Ice and Fire who  gets chapters from her point of view but isn’t redeemed or made likeable in any way. Although readers may have different reactions to Jaime in A Storm of Swords and Theon in A Dance with Dragons, the books certainly attempt to make them into compelling, sympathetic characters, but Cersei’s chapters in A Feast for Crows only confirm the idea that she is an unhinged, vindictive, selfish, and spiteful woman.

Yet Cersei is also one of the most intricate and interesting (if also detestable) characters in the series. We just have to dig deeper into her motivations to find the compelling details underneath.

Cersei is far from a feminist character. However, she is a fascinating character to examine from a feminist perspective, because her entire life (and much of her personality) is a reflection of the misogynistic nature of Westerosi society. She’s an ambitious woman who has had to fight against limitations her whole life, and who has been made hard, cruel and bitter as a result.

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Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore’s Graceling is a novel with a bad-ass female protagonist done right.

Katsa has been Graced with the power to kill. Her instincts are sharp, her strength and speed unbeatable, and she responds to threats without thought or hesitation. The king uses Katsa as a hired thug, and Katsa, full of loathing for herself and her Grace, believes she isn’t worth anything more. To counteract the king’s cruelty, she starts a movement of citizens dedicated to providing help to those who need it. When she begins to investigate the abduction of a member of a foreign royal family, she becomes caught up in an unravelling scheme that challenges her ability to survive.

Graceling ticks all the boxes that many stories of literal “strong female characters” seem to miss.

Believable reason why Katsa is able to destroy all comers in battle? Check.

Protagonist must deal with negative reactions to her strength? Check.

Friendship with other female characters? Check.

No underlying message that “fighting = good, femininity = bad”? Check.

Protagonist who says she doesn’t believe in marriage, falls in love, and still doesn’t want to get married? Check.

Quality writing, wonderful characters and a plot that is difficult to put down? Check, check, check.

Katsa is a wonderfully drawn character: physically strong but confused about her identity, stubborn, kind-hearted, intelligent and brave. She is certainly no damsel in distress,  but she has her flaws and insecurities, and Graceling is the story of her coming to accept and believe in herself.  To fight for herself and her own rights, instead of just the rights of others. Despite her powers, she is deeply human, and deeply compelling.

If you’re looking for an action-packed fantasy novel that still manages to be character-driven and emotion-filled, Graceling is an excellent pick.

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