Friday, August 14, 2015

Rant & Review: Casual Sexism in Fantasy & The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace

A new feature I've created whenever I feel the need to get more in depth in a certain part of a book without talking about the entire book. I was going to wait to talk about sexism in fantasy until I was able to get my point across better - but this book angered me so much and there will be plenty of time and material for me to revisit this topic whenever I want. I also noticed that I haven't had a rant since I started this blog, and I need a good rant.

(Possible spoilers for the first 138 pages of The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace.)

I'll spare you the backstory here. Let's just say I'm a fan of fantasy in all its forms and especially love fantasy books. Ever since I got introduced to YA fantasy though, I've had problems getting back into adult fantasy. Until just recently when someone mentioned something about adult fantasy to me, I couldn't figure out why I was having a problem.

In a passing remark, someone said that there really aren't a lot of women as important characters in a lot of adult fantasy. This is true. Of course, there will be some exceptions, but like everything, there is a more common and a less common. In adult fantasy, it is more common for the women of the story to either be an almost goddess pure and either something unobtainable or something to aspire towards, or nothing more than a prostitute. It is less common for her to be a character in her own right, independent for all actions by men. (This is especially more common in your epic, action oriented fantasy.)

But, you know, YA fantasy isn't immune to sexism either. While it is true that there are a lot more girls as main characters and in important roles in YA fantasy, just because of that, it doesn't mean they are feminist books.

At the end of last month, I was reading The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace. I was excited for this book because it sounded like exactly my kind of fantasy. We have magic and a missing heir - and bonus points for making the heir a girl!

So I picked up the book and read the first four chapters and everything was wonderful. Johanna (the missing heir) was dealing with the sudden death of her father and hunting to help feed her family. She was attacked by a man and did a good job of fighting back. Even the part where the attacked thought she was a he and realized she wasn't was not as annoying as it could have been.

Then chapter four comes with this little morsel.

Jacare should have been impressed both with Pira's skill and her sportsmanship, but as usual, watching her fight made him want to teach her a lesson.

So, Jacare is unhappy, not because the girl isn't a good fighter, but because she has skill and sportsmanship and it's wrong for a woman to have either of these? She just defeated three men while blindfolded. That's amazing. This is also the first time we're introduced to Pira, so now she will be forever linked to Jacare's insecurity that a woman could be a good fighter.

Let's continue on with Jacare and and his companions and talk about what else is wrong there, shall we.

A body lay sprawled across the tangled sheets.
"Too late for the girl?" Tex asked as he surveyed the scene with casual distaste.
"Isn't it always?" (Jacare)

Confused? Let me set the scene. The 'body' was a girl that was just raped to death. '*brushes hands off* "Move along folks, move along. Nothing to see here."' So we're now treating the brutal rape and murder of a girl with 'casual distaste'? Because it happens all the time. "Ho hum. This is just casual, everyday stuff."

The girl in the group, the aforementioned Pira, is one I actually mostly like, but she offers us this.

Pira's fists tensed at her sides. She couldn't stand flirty girls, which was just one of the many reasons she had chosen a male-dominated profession.

So...She didn't join the guard because she wanted to do the work, but to get away from 'flirty girls'. This is a case of belittling/writing off a girl/woman just because she isn't like you and what you consider a 'true woman' should be. If they're not feminine enough she's not a real woman. If she's not tough enough she's not a real woman. While I do admit that this is something that happens and should be addressed, I crave seeing a strong female friendship where the two are opposites but respect each other for what they can do. (Also, if it hadn't be for the other rubbish in this book, I could have forgiven this.)

Now, let's talk about Rafi, the boy that was...well...

Rafi found a male poacher on his land. He attacked him without ever proclaiming who he was and what he was doing. After he beat the poacher unconscious, he discovered Dark eyelashes fluttered against porcelain fair skin. Pink lips parted slightly in sleep. Loose laces exposed a long slender neck, the hard slant of a collarbone and a soft mound of...

Oh, my, it's a girl. First of all, this is problematic because it serves to objectify her and then the author shies away from saying 'breasts' as though it's a word to be ashamed of and because when Rafi thought she was a he, he was going to string the fellow up, but now he has to make reparation and take four times as many hits as he doled out.

Not only does this have the sexism of objectifying women, it also has the sexism of women being somehow different and more in need of protection than men.

So, Rafi takes his punishment in front of a small audience including Johanna.

She wore blue silk that clung to her chest and hips, revealing narrow curves that didn't belong on any boy.

Nice job objectifying her again!

Because Johanna doesn't like seeing Rafi getting beat, she stops the 'punishment'. Which kind of baffles me, because if a guy beat me unconscious, I'd take some kind of perverse pleasure at seeing him get beaten. But, Johanna's nicer than me and she wounds Rafi's pride once again and he now owes her twice.

His way of repaying her?

Rafi eyed her fitted breeches and the black vest she'd laced over a cotton tunic. "You have needs, and I think I can take care of them."

Now, that sounds like he's propositioning her, doesn't it? Well, he's not. At least, he's not supposed to be. He's talking about basic commodities. But for a book that shies away from 'breast' that's an extremely sexual innuendo.

But then again, Rafi's such a prince that we never expected this from him. Observe.

Rafi had never raised a hand against a woman - except by accident - but his fingers itched to slap the smug grin off her face.


You 'accidently' hit a woman. "Oh, I'm so sorry that your face hit my fist." How the hell do you accidently hit someone? You beat her into unconsciousness. I can totally see how this would be an accident. ('Please honey, it was an accident. I swear I'll never beat you again.' Yeah, I can totally see that.)

...trying not to notice the angle of her collarbone or the smooth scoops of flesh beneath.

So...I have smooths scoops of flesh beneath my collarbone? Funny, I always thought they were breasts.

I'd like to talk abou Johanna for a bit now. I'll tell you, she showed a lot of promise but...

Its wasn't fear, exactly. She knew he wouldn't physically harm her, but there was something in the way that he looked at her that made her feel...less.

He...already beat you unconscious. That's the first problem here. The second problem? This has the signs of an unhealthy relationship all over it. After all, you really want to hang around - or date, if it comes to that - a belittling guy.

It was the first time they'd touched without one of both of them smothered in blood or bruises, and her skin felt uncomfortably warm.

The blood and bruises he gave you! At this point I realized she was falling in love with him and I made it two more pages. Until...

Johanna was determined to impress him.

So, he beat you unconscious and makes you feel less still want to impress him? I blame her mother for being a drunk and unable to provide for her family. I mean, seriously, that woman's husband died and it's all on the eldest son to feed and clothe the family? This is bad parenting and writing off women as being 'less' once again.

I didn't actually read any more, but while finding the quotes, I also found two more that indicated the casual sexism continues.

"People say they kidnap children and tempt young girls to leave respectable jobs to wear those scandalous costumes."

Because, obviously, a young girl can't want to wear something different without being tempted to it. Because, obviously, she can't make up her own mind. And the 'they'? The performers that Johanna was a part of. The 'scandalous costumes'? I'm assuming the trousers Johanna wore.


Rafi hated to admit it; Vibora was good at finding the trail. She even...

I do not know the context. I could be totally inaccurate, but I see this as another case of the man being insecure when the woman can actually do something.

Sadly, this kind of casual sexism is not uncommon. It's the kind of stuff that can be easily ignored and missed because 'that's just the way it is'. Because it's unusual enough to have women taking an important role in fantasy books that how they are treated and thought of, is often seen as a non-issue. After all, you have women. Quite complaining.

I've never understood why this is the case. Sure, often the world is quasi-historical and in the past, (in some places, continuing to the present day) women were often looked down upon. But why change so much, why give the world magic and dragons and all sorts of fantastical things, and keep the one thing that oppresses half the population. If that's what the story is about I could understand it - I wouldn't read it, but I could understand it. But as it is? That's just the way it is, that's just the way it was meant to be.

While I dislike it in adult books, it's even worse when it's in YA. Why? Because the books are telling teenage girls that it's 'okay to fall in love with a guy that beats you and belittles you' and 'that it's just part of life to be raped to death'. This are normal, average things that happen.

This is not okay. Girls need to be taught from a young age that they can be friends with girls that are nothing like them. They need to know that it's okay to leave an abusive relationship and those are not the romances to look for. They need to learn how to fight back and be told that they should fight back.

It is my hope that one day, women will be enough of a force that they never think things like what goes on in The Storyspinner is okay.