There’s an odd and disturbing trend I’ve noticed recently in my preferred form of brain candy; e.g.: smart female protagonists within the genre of urban fantasy. From what I can tell, when the author wishes to demonstrate via emotional shorthand just how repugnant a villainous group is, or needs to hastily add a bit of tension in the background for the protagonist… a generalized and sneering misogyny is added.
Invariably this is not a genteelly over-protective patronization, either – no, this is misogyny so pointlessly widespread, so two-dimensionally vile, as to be worthy of a group of mustachio-twirling Snidely Whiplashs. I find this disturbing because I do not like my social group becoming not only the accepted victim du jour in modern fiction of this type, but also the preferred group – rather like the Russians were in all the early James Bond movies.
I first noticed this “effect” in a movie, oddly enough: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Set in an alternate world in about 1900, where characters from our literary classics are real people, we see Mina Harker treated repeatedly like crap because she’s a woman… but despite the world ostensibly being in the Victorian age, men of color are treated as peers of white men. What a great message: all men should have the right to treat women like dirty laundry!
To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the story-tellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people.
— Ben Okri, The Joys of Story-Telling
I’m not sure if it’s fair of me to do so, but I have mentally tagged this effect as “cultural woman-in-the-refrigerator.” To me it says the author is — often through simple lack of imagination — (ab)using a (sub)culture’s women for either oppositional or motivational tragedy for the (usually female) protagonist. How do we know these guys is de bad guys? They beats up women! Oh, well then — that’s all settled! No two-dimensionality here, nopenope!
Let me state up front that I would not be satisfied with some other social group becoming fiction’s chosen scapegoat, either. What I want is fictional backgrounds with some thought put into them: yes, women may be an oppressed class, but so are other classes of people as well. Oppression does not exist in a cultural vacuum, after all – it is never so neat and tidy as to declare only the aged, or the disabled, or red-haired women, or albinos, or whatever, as socially anathema.
Further, if we’re reading fiction, shouldn’t there be at least a little bit of imagination included? Instead of it always being women who are relegated to the social and legal status of children and furniture – except, of course, for our plucky heroine! – couldn’t the authors try for something a bit more complex and thought-provoking?
What sort of culture might result if, say, there was a form of birth control for men that was easily visible? Maybe it turns their eyes a brilliant pink, or they glow in the dark, or something similarly obvious. I’d be intrigued by an exploration within the story of how the still fertile males were discriminated against — both subtly and overtly – as, say, the socially recognized perpetrators of violence against women – even if the individual men in question haven’t actually done any such thing. Everyone knows, after all, it’s those sick individuals who have a “thing” about their personal sperm, who are the ones who try to violently impregnate bunches of innocent women. If those men were emotionally healthy and normal, like the rest of us, they’d have donated a bunch of their sperm to the banks, so the women they loved could deliberately choose when a pregnancy should occur, right?
In such a world I imagine families of more than one to three children might be ostracized due to wondering if the male of the family is perhaps sneaking off the pill on occasion. Maybe naturally sterile males might be shunned too, due to their eyes not changing color on the birth control drug. If the drug was expensive, it’d be yet one more excuse to discriminate against the poor as well. After all, everyone knows only the sick and guilty men don’t take their pills!
A proper fairy tale is anything but an untruth; it goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder. It speaks of these things in a symbolic language that slips into our dreams, our unconscious, steeped in rich archetypal images.
— Terri Windling, Snow White, Blood Red
So tell me: why is the “punching bag du jour” always women? Can’t authors come up with anything new and interesting? I’ve been told this effect is due to historical accuracy. Really? As a single example, one misogynist book I read had dragons in it — and yet misogyny apologists are still trying for that tattered old “historical accuracy” joke-of-an-excuse?! For that matter, do authors realize how insulting it is to simply erase all the historical abuse suffered by other groups?!
Casting women as the perennial and only cultural punching bag is emphatically not historical accuracy — which even the simplest of research would reveal. If anything, this bit of plot shorthand is a blatant attempt to rewrite a new and false history. False histories are not truth — they are a virulent disempowerment of the group which is constantly hammered on! Please, let’s try for and encourage more interesting complexity in our fiction — not less.