Monday, March 26, 2012

Sensible Clothing for Heroines

This week's guest on Heroines of Fantasy is author, Sandra McDonald. Kim's post last week sparked some thoughts for her--and oh! What thoughts! I'll let her take it from here.

Back in college, my friend Tony had a poster on his dorm room wall of a scantily clad fantasy-novel babe, all chainmail and chains, her improbably beautiful golden hair a halo around her come-hither expression, lush red lips, and big round tits. She also was wielding a giant phallic sword. That poster was one of the reasons I wouldn't date him. You can see similar images just by typing "fantasy woman warriors" into your nearest image search engine. Regarding Kim Vandervort's recent post about scantily-clad cheerleaders, athletes and convention fans, I think it's important to realize that many real-life women and female characters are still trapped on Tony's wall, adorned and posed to please the male gaze. They just don't know it.

A few weeks later, I attended a Margaret Atwood reading at my local university. On the way to the correct auditorium I passed through the lobby of a national dance competition. Girls of all ages flitted about in glitter, heavy make-up and tight, often skimpy uniforms. Power? Confidence? Sure, they had it. But real power and real confidence, in this brave new age of the twentifirst century, would manifest in being able to compete without the feminine trappings. Not being trapped, as they were, in an athletic version of Toddlers and Tiaras.

That this dance contest was happening adjacent to Margaret Atwood's talk – Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian vision of The Handmaid's Tale is coming true with ever- increasing restrictions in our nation regarding women's reproductive rights – ah, cruel irony.

Why was Princess Leia Organa, a member of the Imperial Senate and hero of the resistance, a woman who had survived torture on the Death Star, thrown into a skimpy metal bikini for Return of the Jedi? It wasn't to show her power or intelligence. It wasn't part of her cunning plan to rescue Han Solo—the plot required her to fail. She was stripped of her sensible, would-be-rescuer costume in order to make the fanboys drool. Carrie Fischer is said to have not enjoyed filming those scenes, duct-taped as she was into metal, rubber and leather, nearly naked on a set crowded with men. I certainly didn't enjoy seeing it as a ten-foot wide poster in my local movie theater. This is what genre women have to look like, that poster screamed. That Leia strangles Jabba with her chain is a great moment, but the bikini itself was irrelevant to her success.

Jedi was the first step in my disenchantment with princesses, queens and warriors packaged up in prettiness and sensual costumes. I preferred Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion and that great opening, with a young woman leaving home to join the army. (Check out the cover – there's a woman soldier for you!) Or Lois McMaster Bujold's Cordelia Naismith, battling the patriarchy in order to save her unborn, disabled baby. Or Nancy Kress's tales of Sleepers and Sleepless, Beggars in Spain, with Leisha Camden as a brainy heroine grappling with ethics. In fact, it took Kelly Link's awesome story Travels with the Snow Queen to lure me back into reading anything with "queen" in the title. Later I fell in love with Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen of Attolia, whose shocking punishment of a thief sets forth a story of redemption, transformation and love.  Today I approach female characters in speculative fiction with a wary eye; I hope I write them in a balanced, sensible clothing kind of way.

Ugly women are feminine. Women who dress in sweatpants are feminine. Men who dress in women's clothing are feminine. Feminine is a set of behaviors associated with gender, but associated by who? Why? When my thirteen-year-old niece wears a midriff shirt with her underwear poking out, it's because she's been raised on a steady media diet of airbrushed bodies and faces, of a sexualized culture where looks must exceed talent. She doesn't burn her bra because she doesn't know she can. She doesn't know why she should. I need to take her to see Margaret Atwood.

It is my hope, in this brave new age of independent and digital publishing,  that we'll embrace more definitions and examples of the feminine and move beyond The Warrior Babe.  I hope that some day she can put down the phallus, don a sweater and some pants against the chill, and maybe even enjoy the novelty of flat shoes. But somewhere right now there's fanboy like Tony, tapping on his tablet in a dorm room. What do you think is on his wall?

Sandra McDonald is a former military officer and recovering Hollywood assistant.  She is the author of five published books with two more on the way, and has more than fifty short stories in print.  Her feminist, apocalyptic, gender-bending story Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots was recently named to the James A. Tiptree Award Honor List.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On Short Skirts and Big Swords: Modern Feminism and Fantasy

Yesterday I attended WonderCon for the first time, which turned out to be a “Comic-Con Lite,” with fewer crowds, but the same geek camaraderie and creative energy as its big sister.  The most intriguing aspect of this con, however, was not the actual con itself; it was the fact that, rather than have the Convention Center all to itself, WonderCon shared facilities with both a high school cheerleading competition and a girls’ volleyball tournament.  This was either poor planning on Anaheim’s part or inspired, depending on one’s perspective. 

Suffice it to say, scantily-clad girls were in abundance yesterday.  Whether they were dressed as Supergirl , Xena, or any number of half-dressed manga mavens or trotting around in tight, barely-there volleyball shorts and cheerleading uniforms, the half-naked women at the convention center yesterday outnumbered the men, and at times, as geek fanboys snapped photos of underage girls in sparkly cheerleading costumes and volleyball girls posed with R2-D2 for pics of their own, the lines between fandom and reality became curiously blurred.

When I arrived home last night and settled down with the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly (Game of Thrones, people!  Get excited!) I came across an article about how Zoey Deschanel’s New Girl has come under fire from feminists for her silly, spunky, gushy girliness, and how producers have responded by “toning down” the very thing that has many viewers in love with the show: title character Jess’s combination of girlish innocence and silliness.

Cap this off with my near-constant questioning of how women are portrayed in fantasy art and on covers, and I found myself pondering the question: what does feminism mean in today’s society?  And what does it mean for the fantasy genre?

One thing is for certain: women and girls growing up in today’s society are not practicing our mothers’ feminism.  We aren’t burning bras, we’re embracing them, particularly the sexy, lacy, push-up kind.  And not because we have to, but because it’s what we want.  The cheerleaders, the volleyball girls and the bikini-clad woman warriors with swords aren’t scantily-clad to satisfy the male gaze of our patriarchal society; the former wear short skirts and tight shorts because they can more successfully compete as athletes, and the latter walk the halls with all the confidence their super heroine personas inspire, a confidence I wish I had as I slump around in my sweatshirt and jeans.  Jess of New Girl recently came under fire from feminist organizations because she’s just so girly, to which the producers and star say, “so what?”  Can’t a woman be girly and a feminist?  Is the bodice a constrictive symbol of male power if I choose to wear it?

This leads, inevitably, to how women are portrayed in modern fantasy.  Yes, women in Martin’s Game of Thrones are perceived by society as lacking power, but no one who crosses Cersei, Dany or Lady Stark would believe the truth of that statement.  These women are fiercely protective of their own, tough as nails, and able to manipulate the subtleties of power in ways their men cannot.  My Ki’leah from Song and Northern Queen prefers to wear dresses and do her hair, but they don’t define who she is or how she governs.  In fact, I would argue that women who present themselves as women in fantasy have more power because they are underestimated by both the men in their worlds and the readers themselves, whose preconceived notions of women in fantasy have been defined by the centuries of patriarchal expectations.  One answer is to put swords in the hands of women, send them into battle, and call it power, but must women give up our very nature in order to gain power and be viewed as strong?

And where do men fit in?  As I waited in line for the Snow White and the Huntsman panel (which I missed—argh!) I noticed a tremendous amount of men in line for the next panel, which was a sneak peek at the next Resident Evil movie.  At the panel, I watched clips of teeny tiny Milla Jovovich kick major zombie ass—while men clapped and cheered.  I was intrigued to discover that this video game-turned-movie franchise is ten years old, and RE’s Alice is the only female action heroine to carry an entire movie franchise.  When guys read my book, they tell me their favorite character is Britta, the female warrior.  Clearly, men aren’t threatened by women with power; so why do we continue to give them—and ourselves—a bad rap?  Isn’t it time to lay this particular argument to rest?

Like Princess Leia, who used her sexy slave costume to choke her captor and forever turned societal expectations of women in fantasy upside down—creating generations of fanboy believers in the process—I believe it’s time for feminism to accept that yes, women want to be taken seriously and we want to be heard, but not at the cost of what makes us female.  And not at the cost of men, either.  People, it’s time to bring balance to the Force.

by Kim Vandervort

Monday, March 12, 2012

No Woman No Cry

A closer look at a raindrop on Trillium reveals a world of
possibilities.  Would a closer look at tears do the same?
Photo by Rafael Aguilar
I have two anecdotes from two writers groups this week: one in which I am on the giving end of the critique; another in which I am on the receiving end. 

On the giving end:  We are reading a scene from an epic fantasy, wherein a knight frets over the unknown fate of his true love.  His distress moves him to weep copiously.  Among my comments in response to this author’s work, “I know I’m expressing some prejudice when I say this, but I do prefer my fantasy knights to be men of few tears.”

On the receiving end:  The chapter I’ve brought for critique includes a scene where a woman, confronted with a situation that brings on a rush of bitter memories, breaks down and cries.  Among the comments of my peers in response to this work, “Having your protagonist cry makes her look weak.”

These are the comments that inspired this week’s topic of discussion, tears and crying.

Seeing someone cry -- or crying in the presence of others -- can make us just as uncomfortable in fiction as in life.  Our interpretation of crying is laden with preconceptions and prejudices, even though most everyone would agree tears are normal, and that it would be a very strange person indeed who did not cry at least once during the difficult journey from birth to death.   

The acceptability of crying varies greatly from culture to culture, and even from generation to generation within the same culture.  

In contemporary U.S. society, crying is often associated with weakness or instability of character, and seen as the traditional domain of women and children (who then, by implication, are inclined to be weaker and more unstable than all those tearless adult males).  Perhaps it is for this reason that there is a tendency among fantasy readers to want the strong protagonists – both men and women – to eschew tears as a form of self-expression. 

Curious about the meaning and purpose of tears, I decided to bypass all the work out there that discusses societal constructs of crying, and cut to the biological core of the matter. 

What is the physiological function of tears? 

What do we know about the evolution of tears and crying? 

Can scientific research inform how we incorporate tears into our stories, whether we let our characters cry, when and under what circumstances? 

Unfortunately, my quest was hampered by the fact that we still know very little about the science of tears.  Part of the reason is that people have only recently started asking questions about tears from a scientific perspective.  But also, there are many obstacles involved in the scientific study of crying behavior, not the least of which is the difficulty of creating controlled situations that simulate the different social contexts in which tears might arise. 

Still, some interesting tidbits that have surfaced in recent years.  Here are a few:

Not all tears are created equal.  The eye produces three kinds of tears, and only one of these are associated with emotional stress.   In addition, there’s evidence that different kinds of emotional stress – joy, anger, sadness – may produce tears with different chemical composition; and that tears produced by adults and children, males and females, also differ in chemical composition. 

From an evolutionary perspective, the advantages of crying behavior are likely to be very different for babies, children, and adults.  In other words, while many people might associate crying with infantile behavior, the selection pressures that have favored crying in adults are not the same as those that have favored crying in children.  For example, one evolutionary hypothesis proposes that crying in infants evolved to signal strength.  The idea being that babies who demonstrated greater lung capacity were more likely to secure adequate care from their parents during hard times.  In adults, crying has been hypothesized to function as a signal of submission (which, by the way, is not the same thing as signaling weakness), as a mechanism to halt the escalation of conflict, and/or as a tool for social bonding. 

There’s evidence that tears might be a form of chemical communication and manipulation. This is where things get really interesting, but also unfortunately, where we have only tidbits of compelling data.  Here are a few of those juicy morsels:

What makes a male mouse sexy?  The potency of his tears.
Photo by Joel Sartore
It's been found that male mouse tears are aphrodisiacs. They contain a pheromone that makes females more receptive to mounting.   

Naked mole rats have been reported to rub their bodies with tears as a technique to reduce aggression on the part of other individuals. 

In humans, recent research indicates that just sniffing tears changes how men respond to photos of women, leading to all kinds of speculation as to whether human tears carry pheromones that lower sexual drive and/or aggression by affecting the production of testosterone. 

In short, the research has begun to indicate that tears may not be associated with weakness, but with a different kind of strength. They may, in some cases, be an effective weapon of pheromonal warfare expertly crafted by the evolutionary process, the history and power of which remain a mystery to us.

Countless questions remain, of course.  Do male and female tears differ in chemical composition?  Do tears produced by different kinds of emotional stress – joy, sadness, anger – carry different pheromones?  What are the chemical and physiological pathways involved in our response to another person’s tears?

So next time we judge a character by his or her tears, maybe we should think again.  There is likely much more to that tear than meets the eye.

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Want to read more about tears?  A good place to start would be these links to the National Geographic website:

Monday, March 5, 2012

In Like A Lion, Out Like A Lamb

It's March. Up here in New England, the days are gloriously grey and dreary; they make me feel raw and shivery like no other days in any other month do. Come those last days, things will be greening up, the air will be warm and moist; it will smell like earth and rain. No, this isn't another post about weather. Kim already did a stellar job on that one. This is about time and how it passes in fantasy fiction.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to using our own earth calendar (the Gregorian calendar, also known as the civil calendar--the accepted standard.) One is that, since we're using our own language, (and I'm going to use English as the standard here, since that is what I'M writing in) use it in its entirety. That includes the days of the week, the months of the year, the seasons and even "clock" termininology. This is the easier method, and probably the most consistent.

The second school of thought is to avoid the terminology the way you would idiom. This is where things get sticky, because, short of inventing your own way of measuring time from seconds to seasonal cycles, it's impossible to avoid them completely. For example, we all know that our Wednesday comes from Norse mythology: Odin's Day--Woden's Day--Wednesday. How, you ask, can there be a Wednesday in a world in which Odin doesn't exist? Grand--no Wednesday. So...does your world even have seven day weeks to appropriately name? Does it even measure time in weeks? How about the hours in a day? How long is a day? What about seasons? Does your world have the equivalanet of winter, spring, summer and fall? Or is it a tropical culture? And if so, does it exist within a civilization big enough to know what winter is in concept if not in reality?

See what I mean? Much harder.

While the first school of thought is easier by far, and, if done with consistency and no apologies, will cause the least amount of controversy among your readers, the second will enrich your world, make it unique.
So how do you go about it? Like the way you would use our earth terminology: drawn your line and be consistent.

Do you want to use minutes and hours, but not week or month? Does your world have all four seasons?Use your world's culture to create the names of those spans of time you want to make unique--like Woden's Day. And, like the heading on this post, create those idioms and sayings that will go along with your world calendar. Remember that holidays is a joining of holy + days, create and use them accordingly to give the feel of those your reader will recognize from their own existence. (For example, in Karin Gastreich's Eolyn, there are festivals and rituals that equate to, but are not exactly like, Christmas and Beltane.) 

As for me, I prefer the second method. How about you? As a reader? As a writer?