I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books (all six of them), and I’m sad that there are no more. The Earthsea books have magic and dragons, but what really impressed me is the depth of the female characters. As much as I enjoy Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it’s really a story about dudes. Sure, you have Eowyn disguising herself as a man and killing the witch-king, but by the end of the story she’s given up fighting to settle down as a healer and wife. I’ve also enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has many well-rounded female characters, but the world in which they live is so brutal. You wouldn’t wish it on your ex-girlfriend (I hope!). Thus it was a welcome change to read Le Guin’s series, especially the books in the series that treat the roles of women as interesting.
The first and third Earthsea books have familiar quest narrative plots, the kind of thing Tolkien made famous and has been copied time and again in the fantasy genre [e.g. a young man, raised by his uncle, growing up on a farm, always dreaming of the world beyond the horizon and feeling different from the other kids, meets a mysterious stranger and suddenly his life is an adventure with elves and magic and stuff]. That’s not to say that Le Guin doesn’t do a good job with the quest trope: the narrative in the first book follows naturally out of the main character’s personality and motivations (his name is Ged, by the way, a deliciously ridiculous fantasy name). By the third book he is older and wiser, but again on a typical fantasy quest to the land of the dead. However, it’s when the series departs from the exploits of Ged and focuses on women, especially Tenar, that it really shines and stands apart from the fantasy that I’ve read.
The second and fourth books focus on the lives of women and the options that they have in the world of Earthsea. The stories are about the daily lives of women instead of merely writing another quest with a woman in the role of protagonist instead of a man. The second book focuses on the childhood of Tenar when she is groomed to become the high priestess in a mysterious religion on the outskirts of Earthsea. As a priestess she is isolated from everyone, especially men. She has nominal power, but two old priestesses really run the show at the temple. None of them have actual power anyway. The fourth book is primarily a domestic novel. Years later Tenar is a widow living on a small farm by herself. Her children are grown, but she takes in an abused and abandoned girl and adopts her. Their life together constitutes much of the book. The contrast to the male quest narratives is stark. Ultimately, the climax of this mostly quiet and excellent book is the most important revelation of the entire series. It turns the patriarchal world of male wizards and monarchs on its head, setting up a conclusion of ultimate reconciliation in the sixth book.
The series can be described as feminist in a genre not known for its progressive attitudes towards women. And it’s good, too. The writing is strong and economical (the books are short compared to the usual heavy tomes associated with the genre). It definitely deserves its place in the Fantasy Hall of Fame. But its respect for female characters definitely makes it an outlier. And it got me thinking about my enjoyment of other genre fiction. When I’m not reading serious books, I enjoy getting swept up in a spy novel, a hard-boiled mystery, or some super-hero comics. I try to be discriminating and find out which are the best of the best in these genres and stick to those. But it doesn’t change the fact that these genres by and large have trouble with their depictions of women.
The A.V. Club had a feature up yesterday about the state of superhero comics in regard to gender and minority representation. The panel discussion highlights some positive steps the comics industry has made (like a new teenage Muslim Ms. Marvel), while also talking about how much better it could and should be in the area of in its representations of women and minorities (seriously, check out the Hawkeye Initiative to see how ridiculous the representation of women can be). Some of my favorite superhero stories of the last decade or so involve female characters (e.g. Renee Montoya in Gotham Central and later in Fifty Two, Batwoman first introduced in Fifty Two and then later getting her own series, and the most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello). But all of these stories were still written by dudes. Not that dudes can’t write good women characters (but they usually don’t), but there should be options. DC and Marvel need to hire more women writers (and editors, artists, and colorists, etc.), not just to write women characters, but to tell good stories.
So what does that say about me? Looking at the rows of comics on my bookshelf, I suddenly have the urge to trot out my feminist bona fides. Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather are two of my very favorite authors. My wife works while I stay home with the kids. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer (thanks to my wife). I believe pay inequality is a real issue that needs correcting. I listen to Lucinda Williams and Cat Power. I think we’re long past due having a woman president. I accept influence! Really! But I can’t shake off my disturbed feeling at how much enjoyment I have derived from literature that does not treat women with adequate respect. Just reading Ursula Le Guin doesn’t make up for it.
Often the only role a woman plays in a spy or detective novel – another of my (now guilty) pleasure genres — is the love interest. Or the femme fatale. And I usually gloss over the sad representation of women as I try to figure out who committed the murder or if the hero will get the intel out from behind enemy lines. Sometimes I’ll notice how cliché or predictable the women characters are, but I forge on, even relishing the sad loner-ness of our anti-hero protagonist in his fight against the injustice of the world. But mostly I sleepwalk through the stories, turning pages to find out what happens.
I’m waking up to it. A lot of this escapist reading goes back to the type of reading I did as a kid. Reading cold war spy novels or X-Men comics in my room. It’s comforting to try to return to that seemingly simpler time. A few years back I reread some of the authors I liked in high school and I was embarrassed for myself. That’s nothing new, I suppose, but it was like cold water on the face. The stuff I read now, more highbrow than what I read then (spy novels by le Carre or mysteries by Benjamin Black), still can hardly be called feminist lit. It’s a good thing it’s not a large percentage of my literary diet.
Maybe reading is like the food pyramid. It’s important to have a diverse and wide-ranging diet of authors and genres. And it’s okay to have dessert, but not too much, or I’ll get sick. Or to try another food analogy, maybe sexism in literature is like MSG. It’s not good for me, but it’s in lots of yummy foods so I eat it anyway, hoping it won’t harm me.