Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles I

A few months ago, when the latest edition in the Twilight series (bearing the barely-connected-to-anything-really title Life and Death) was announced, I was intrigued enough to end up conducting an experiment of my own.

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Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you’ll know of the enormous amount of criticism the Twilight series has faced. This criticism has been founded on multiple grounds – being severely un-feminist, glorifying abusive relationships, providing impressionable young people with terrible role models, bad grammar and sentence structure, as well as tackiness and general bad taste all around.

Twilight also bears the blame for spawning the severely horrifying Fifty Shades series, which took everything that was bad in Twilight, laminated it, and hung it under a bright spotlight (with a ribbon on it). FSOG was a bald illustration of just how horrible Twilight really was, because it took away the fantasy elements and the teen softness that had served as a buffer between the book’s central and subliminal messages, and the reader’s conscious brain.

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If the average reader wasn’t roundly insulted by Twilight (because, SUBTLETY) then they really ought to have been when FSOG came around. Surprisingly (or not, really), the series had the opposite reaction. Women loved it. It hogged the top of the bestseller lists for so long that all the Ian McEwan books came together to plot its gruesome demise. [Citation needed].

The books were hailed as a revolutionary (and positive) expression of female sexuality – finally, we could bring it out into the open and admit that yes, we get turned on sometimes.

Riiight.

Since I’m not here to bitch about FSOG today, I’ll save that for later. Coming back to the criticism faced by Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that an author should become slightly defensive when her work is burned at stake so thoroughly. But then she went ahead and attempted to have the last laugh – to prove her detractors wrong by showing that there is no sexism in the Twilight books. Her argument was that the only reason Bella Swan is such an incorrigible damsel-in-distress is because she’s dealing with a superpowered family of vampires, around whom, duh, a human would be significantly powerless. She also decided that the best way to prove this would be to swap the female gender for the male and vice versa, and release a new version. This new version would show the female vampire, Edythe Cullen, as powerful and as always rescuing the hapless Beau Swan. Presumably.

It’s not a bad idea, really, assuming that EVERYTHING ELSE in the original book is left as is. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Changes were made, which have been discussed in detail in this video by Youtube vlogger marinashutup:

Stephenie Meyer however, did give me an interesting idea when she made her announcement. I asked myself – how would other books fare if given the same treatment? I chose none other than the most ambitious project for my newly conceived ‘Meyer Test’:

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YEAH. I WENT THERE.

The results of my little experiment were…

Shocking and creepy.

Yes, you read that right. I was saddened, of course. Jo Rowling is one of the last people you’d name as a symbol/ proponent of misogynistic patriarchy. [I wasn’t really surprised though, I mean, it’s impossible to be surprised if you’ve read her Cormoran Strike series.] And yeah, regardless of all of this, I’ll still be reading HP on my deathbed. Nothing and no one is perfect, but HP comes pretty damn close, I’ll say.

I’ll detail my findings in the next post, but first a few words on gender roles and why they’re problematic.

  1. They traditionally don’t take into account the non-binariness that is the true nature of ‘gender’. We have forever divided all of humankind – and animals and everything except for algae and stuff (and even they’ve had a close shave) into ‘male’ and ‘female’. Primarily distinguished, of course, by the ability of one of these ‘genders’ to produce (in one form or another) the next generation of the species.
    Pure stuff and nonsense, I gotta say, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us that we find it difficult to think outside of these boxes.
    Also thanks to said box, I’m going to limit the rest of my points within the traditional discourse of the gender binary – I just don’t know enough to talk about it more than that.
  2. The ‘males’ are traditionally designated as the protectors, the defenders, the hunters and providers. They’re the warriors, the brave, the powerful and the ones capable of hardness/ strength (used interchangeably, of course).
  3. The ‘females’ are traditionally designated as the weak and defenseless ones that require protection, along with the offspring they produce. They take care of the ‘home’ front – turn the raw material brought in by the ‘males’ into stuff usable for the comfort and utility of everyone in the home. They produce and bring up the children and are considered sensitive, loving, kind, compassionate etc. All these qualities are considered essential for someone who needs to ‘mother’ young ones and safely bring them into adulthood.
  4. I’m already getting a headache talking about this.
  5. These gender roles are now a lot less strictly enforced than they used to – took a couple of world wars to bring that about, by the way. But even in today’s world, they’re quite evident, quite omnipresent. Women do go out to work – but they’re typically paid less, perceived as less competent, and also as a liability because of the dual nature of their responsibilities. This is because even though they now go out of the home front, all home front matters are still firmly placed on their shoulders.
  6. Representation of the genders – in our culture and media, as well as in real life – is skewed in line with these gender roles. More males are portrayed as the main protagonists of extremely popular fiction. More females are portrayed as mere love interests, damsels in distress, and – if they’re lucky – less competent sidekicks. STEM professions, as well as those that require ‘logic’ and ‘hard-headedness’ are typically filled with more males. Conversely, males taking up jobs that are seen as requiring compassion, sensitivity and caring are roundly made fun of. [See male nannies and nurses].

Well… that’s enough talking. Next post reflects on the effect of a gender swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Until then, here’s another post by marinashutup raising a few questions about the Hogwarts houses that never occurred to me. (Have they occurred to you?)

Up Next: Feminist Analysis of The Effect of A Gender Swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Book Review: Bibliophile Mystery #2 – If Books Could Kill

Book Title: If Books Could Kill
Author: Kate Carlisle
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Bibliophile Mystery
#: 2
DNF? Yes
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.9
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 1

ifbookscouldkill

Note: This is the first Negative Review I’m writing for this blog. ‘Negative Review’ is a label I will be reserving for DNF (Did Not Finish) books, and other books that receive a Goodreads rating of 1 or 2 from me. For such books, I also plan on maintaining a Sin Count, because just as some books deserve to be held up as examples and recommended to everybody, so are there books that the reading public deserves to be warned away from. 

Plot Description: Brooklyn Wainwright is a professional book restorer who tends to get mixed up in mysteries involving books. Derek Stone is the charming and handsome detective who tries to solve those mysteries. In If Books Could Kill, Brooklyn is given a very rare book that could potentially anger the British Royal Family and asked to authenticate it. Shortly after she receives the book, the guy who gave it to her – Kyle, an ex of hers – ends up dead. She wonders whether the book is responsible for Kyle’s death.

So I didn’t finish this book. Which might be perceived as strange, because it has a great opening paragraph:

If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do.

I haven’t gotten very far in the book, which must be why I don’t know what happened to Brooklyn – can I call her BW? – to make her feel this way about herself. She’s a successful young woman, one of the topmost experts in her field, and she’s recently come into a lot of money. While it’s true that she’s grieving, has her mentor’s death affected her so badly that her ‘pages are loose, edges tattered and boards exposed &c. &c.’?

Ridiculous rhetorical questions aside, let’s move onto the story. Not having read the previous book in this series, I have to take other GR reviewers at their word on the fact that the cast of the previous book have simply been imported into this one. On purportedly lazy pretexts. Since I don’t have this on my own authority, I’m going to give this potential Sin a pass.

“Aye, you do, love. And for that, the [Indian Pale Ale’s] on the house.” 

She nodded judiciously. “Of course it’s jet lag if you say so.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. “But my woman’s intuition thinks ’tis a man you’re mulling over.”

Her eyes twinkled gaily. “Aye, I knew it.” She tapped the side of her head. “Can’t another woman tell when one of her ilk is suffering, then? And isn’t it always about a man. Damn their skins!”

“Haud yer wheesht!” she yelled over her shoulder, then smiled sweetly at me. “Enjoy your luncheon and take good care.” She turned and marched to the bar, where she bared her teeth at the burly bartender as she collected a tray of drinks.
I wasn’t an expert in the Scottish dialect, but I believed she’d just suggested to her boss that he shove a sock in his piehole.

Do the Scottish actually talk like that? I don’t know. Can’t comment.

The first character we meet is Helen Chin, one of BW’s friends.

Helen Chin grinned as she glided confidently through the bar, her glossy black hair cut in a short, sassy bob. She’d always been demure and soft-spoken, a brilliant, petite Asian woman with lustrous long hair and a shy smile. The haircut and the confidence were major changes since the last time I saw her.

Having to tell your readers that a character is doing something ‘confidently’ gives, in my opinion, the opposite impression. (Sins: 1)

I took a closer look at her, checking out the new hairstyle, her pretty red jacket, black pants and shiny black shoes. “You look amazing, and you’ve lost weight. Are you moonlighting as a supermodel?”

Commenting on someone’s weight gain or loss is not as much of a compliment as people would have you believe. (2)

[Yes, I know I’m being nitpicky, but these things didn’t actually bother me until I began to sense a pattern.]

Helen was right. I’d never liked Martin Warrington, and I wasn’t the only one. When she’d announced her engagement in Lyon, I hadn’t understood how such a smart woman could marry such an annoying man. Then I figured, with my own stellar record of bad choices and broken engagements, I was hardly one to criticize. 
At the time, I was more sorry for myself than for her, because I knew we wouldn’t be able to be friends once she married Martin. He didn’t like me any more than I liked him, probably because I’d tried to talk Helen out of marrying him and he’d caught wind of it.

Neither of these ladies are endearing themselves to me. Helen goes ahead and marries an ass, and BW feels bad for selfish reasons. Okay.

“Martin didn’t like me attending the book fairs.” She shook her head in irritation. “He said I flirted too much.”

Why would anyone put up with this? (3)

[Martin’s] smile disappeared as he confronted Helen. “I told you I’d meet you on the conference level.”
“And I told you I’d try to make it but probably wouldn’t be able to,” Helen said defiantly. (emphasis mine)
“We have to talk now.” He pushed up the sleeves of his linen jacket.
“I’m off to meet a client,” she said as she glanced at her wristwatch. “I can try to see you at two thirty.”

If you still need to be ‘defiant’ towards your soon-to-be-ex husband, that just implies that I was right with my comment earlier about the fake confidence. (4)
BW then has a run in with another figure from the industry – a Perry McDougal – who’s rude and pompous and has no issues with cutting ahead of a queue. He also doesn’t seem to have any problem with calling random women “silly wench” and “crazed bitch” when they call him out on his rudeness. Now, I know people like this exist out here in the real world. Yes, they can be terribly sexist, arrogant and entitled. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that a woman like BW, who is probably capable of recognizing said sexist entitlement, fails to call him out on it. (5) Indeed, I’m not even sure she does recognize the sexism, because she explains his behaviour as being a function of his narcissism and self importance. (6) And she’s constantly apologetic about her rather weak attempts at standing up for herself. (7)
Protagonist frightens herself with idea of turning into crazy-old-spinster trope. (8)
Protagonist tells herself standing up for herself isn’t such a bad thing. (8-0.5=7.5)

Without warning I was grabbed from behind, lifted off the ground and twirled around.
I screamed and swore loudly at my assailant. Then I realized who it was and swore even more.
“Despite that mouth of yours, you’re more beautiful than ever,” he said.
“Kyle McVee, you idiot!” I cried, and hugged him hard.
“Ah, you’ve missed me,” he crowed as he held me snugly in his arms.
“No, I didn’t miss you,” I said, burying my face in the crook of his delicious-smelling neck. “You’re a cad and a rat fink, remember? The Bad Boy Bookseller of Belgravia. I curse your name every morning.”
“I love you, too, my sweet,” he said with a laugh. “Besides, I’ve mellowed.”

Overkill much? (8.5) And whoa. Why would you be on friendly terms with someone with such little regard for personal space? (9.5)
Guy seems to think being foul mouthed should detract from a woman’s beauty. (10.5)

“Oh, stop it.” I stood back and looked at the man who’d broken my heart three-or was it four?-years ago. My breath almost caught as I stared.

This breath-catching business comes up a lot – usually every time BW looks at a good looking guy. It’s an annoying stereotype. Can I offer you an inhaler, Brooklyn darling? (11.5)

I straightened my shirt and jacket and tried to find some trace of decorum, but it was useless. My cheeks heated up at his blatant perusal. I tried to remind myself that if I’d been so darling, why had he felt so compelled to cheat on me more than once during the six months we dated while I lived in London? A simple question.
I knew the answer: He couldn’t help himself.

Female protagonist who feels extremely self conscious and gets flustered every time a good looking guy checks her out. I know this is supposed to convey the power in the guy’s stare, but honestly, she seems to respond to every attractive guy the same way (case in point: Derek Stone later in the novel). (12.5)
(Rich) boys will be (rich) boys stereotype. That’s just plain lazy, BW. (13.5)
Protagonist blames self for feeling hurt by the cheating ways of the cheater. (14.5)
Charming Cheater (CC) condescendingly encourages protagonist to consume more alcohol when she’s clearly not in the mood. (15.5) Protagonist consumes alcohol even though she’s not in the mood because it’s what she thinks she’s supposed to do. (16.5)
CC is condescendingly impressed when BW proves to be good at her job, even though he purportedly came to her because of her expertise. (17.5) CC reveals that BW wasn’t his first choice for the job, thus making his condescending approval from a moment ago self explanatory. (18.5)
Usage of crude terms that rob the female party of her agency to describe a consensual sexual relationship (“scottish bad boy diddling the english rose”). (19.5)
Giant plot hole if the reason people are getting killed is because either the British royal family or Robert Burns fans don’t want bad PR. (20.5)
Rampant fatphobia. (21.5)

Okay, I’m going to stop now. There’s no point, really.

Derek Stone seems to suffer from Christian Grey Syndrome, and BW is a veritable Anastasia Steele – except Ana wasn’t prone to fainting fits. I have an uncontrollable urge to slap Brooklyn Wainwright, and I’ve been swearing non stop at the book for a couple of hours now. The protagonist and her female friends are childish, immature and downright pathetic. They show an alarming proclivity for bitchiness, shrill screaming, and fainting. I’m glad I didn’t invent a drinking game based on every time one of these idiots faints. None of the ridiculously hot men in the book cry, or otherwise show emotion or vulnerability. Derek keeps assuming that every time Brooklyn gets hurt or is otherwise in danger, it’s somehow her fault. (And this happens a lot.) Now where have I heard that before?

Oh that’s right. Twilight.

A terrible book, and if this one’s anything to go by, the preceding book in the series is bound to be awful as well.

Sin Count: 21.5 (and counting)

Next: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Book Review: Penryn and the End of Days #1 – Angelfall

Title: Angelfall
Author: Susan Ee
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: Penryn and the End of Days
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.21
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Angelfall
Angelfall

I was going to review the Sisters Grimm series, but I’m having a major case of writer’s block with those reviews. While I figure that series out, I’m moving onto the End of Days series, which, unlike the Sisters Grimm, is right up my alley.

Oh yes, we’re talking young protagonists, supernatural elements, post-apocalyptic situations, seriously forbidden love… and of course, the best thing in the world – heroines who are bad-ass as hell.

Universe: Set in the San Francisco Bay Area soon after the arrival of the angel hordes, the story focuses on the terrified humans whose survival instincts are kicking in hard – and it’s ugly. I’m talking eat-or-be-eaten kinds of scenarios – sometimes literally. The humans not only have to contend with the angels who’re apparently bent on exterminating them as a race, but also with each other. Gang wars have erupted all over the place. Anything and anybody is fair game. And then there are those pesky rumours of shadowy killing machines – midgets? demons? just crazy humans? – who seem big on cannibalism. The apocalypse, it seems, is here, and no one seems particularly prepared for it.

Plot: We follow the seventeen year old protagonist with the unpronounceable name – Penryn Young – as she struggles to keep her paranoid schizophrenic mother and her paraplegic seven year old sister safe all of the dangerous variables they face. Their escape attempt is interrupted when they run into an angel brawl, and Penryn sees one of the angels have his wings chopped off. I know. Ghastly, right? Brace yourselves then – there’s plenty more chopping and cutting and cannibalism (did I mention the cannibalism) in this series. She intervenes and saves the angel’s life, but her sister is kidnapped in the process.
Penryn then forms an uneasy alliance with the heavenly creature – none other than the Archangel Raphael – in the hopes that he’ll lead her to her sister.

Characters: On their way to angel HQ, Penryn and Raffe (as he likes to be called) run into a semi militarized version of a human resistance which is preparing to try and eject the murdering intruders. Obadiah West, the commander of the resistance camp, is a real hero complete with old school honour and an unwavering belief in his cause. He’d have been the highlight of the book if he wasn’t so badly overshadowed by the heroic natures of our protagonists. On the other hand, the real scene stealing in this book is done by Tweedledee and Tweedledum – a pair of identical twins who double as Resistance Spymasters, bookies and over-all comic relief. Despite the fact that both of them are natural clowns, Dee and Dum are also wild card reassurances for the reader – they’re extraordinarily reliable, and – unlike most of Penryn’s plans – I haven’t come across a scheme cooked up by these two that hasn’t come off perfectly.

Language and Literature: After having recently put myself through a page of Grey (E.L. James) and having skimmed a couple of similar books, it’s honestly a relief to find a writer whose English is on point. That’s not to say there aren’t a few dubious choices that have been made regarding grammar and sentence structure – but they’re very rare, and hard to spot. Kudos Ms. Ee. I know the bar isn’t particularly high at the moment, but you’re a much needed spot of fresh air in a YA desert-scape.

Penryn is a very Katniss or Tris Prior-like survivor. Her ultimate goal is saving and protecting her mother and sister, but when she can save more people, she ensures that she saves as many as possible. She sort of accepts her heroic status – more or less – much quicker than most other protagonists, which is a relief. To be honest, both for the author, and for dedicated readers of this genre, this variety of plotline is a been-there-done-that-let’s-not-waste-any-more-time-rehashing-the-past-please kind of thing. We all know she’s a hero and that she’s supposed to do heroic things. Lets get with the program and kill monsters.

She’s also unlike Katniss or Tris (no offence to these esteemed ladies) in that she’s not a non-sexual or virginal heroine – something which has drawn criticism from feminist critiques, and rightly so. Penryn is obviously attracted to Raffe, and he to her, and the trains of thought that leave from Angel Crush station often wind around things like her appearance or her experience with dating, relationships and making out. And yet the romantic angle of the books is never a tsunamic wave of emotion that takes over everything else and obliterates the rest of the story under its weight. It’s more of a constant, rhythmic presence – a relationship that makes progress without anyone having to have long and painful conversations or fights about it. Like with any crush, she thinks about him all the time, but those thoughts come as daydreams to pass the time while she’s travelling from one dangerous location to the next, or while preparing for the next fight. Penryn never lets her crush go to her head – her priorities are always clear: her family, humanity, and then Raffe, if possible. (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you. Again.)
That she’s inexperienced is something of a disappointment – it’s almost as though you need to be inexperienced in order to be swept away by such an Obviously Higher Being. Why, though? Is it because a more experienced girl wouldn’t stand for half the over-protective nonsense these guys come up with?

Speaking of over-protectiveness, Raffe is continually dismayed when his attempts at self sacrifice in order to let her get away are rendered pointless by the fact that she comes right back to save his ass. They dance a never ending circle of passing the debt of life back and forth, and are – much to my delight – equally matched. What Penryn lacks in height, strength, wings and weaponry, she more than makes up for with her ingenuity, resourcefulness and knowledge of self defence. Much like Rose Hathaway, Goddess of my heart, Penryn has been trained in the ancient art of fighting. And not only does she manage to hold her own against opponents bigger and stronger (and mostly of the male and angelic varieties), but she also spells out these self defence lessons in her thoughts, making it a perfect spot for the target audience – young girls, mostly – to pick up a few invaluable tips.

Angelfall and its sequels make for extremely easy reads – I finished the entire series in a span of around six hours. The plots of each book are well developed and move from one important scene to the next. There is no rambling, no time wasted unnecessarily in picking up new life skills, meeting new people or planning. (Oh, Eragon, you utmost disappointment, you). Each successive book picks up from exactly where its predecessor left off, which was awesome for me, because I was in the middle of a marathon reading session – but that’s neither here nor there.

While Penryn and the End of Days will probably never achieve the cult status Vampire Academy has in my life, it’s certainly built out of the same mould, and therefore a definite must-read for anyone who’s into the YA and YA Fantasy genres.

Next: Penryn and the End of Days #2 – World After