Thursday, September 14, 2017

Same Shoes, Different World

In our last episode, I talked about YA novel The Black Witch, and the accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other non-PC themes that launched an outpouring of vitriol from people who judged it before reading it. Having read a portion of it and skimmed the rest, I personally concluded it suffered from a plot that would have been radical back in the 1960s but felt trite and worn out in the 21st century. At least it did until the GOP took over. Now that we appear to be fighting those civil rights battles all over again, the book’s right in step with the times.

I’m okay with that. What got my hackles up was another hoary theme, one I’ve been seeing in the current YA bestsellers gracing bookstore shelves.

Thanks to the success of Game of Thrones, we’re seeing a lot of court intrigue plots set in fantasy worlds, with elves and magic and the usual irredeemable bad guys lifted from Lord of the Rings. Thanks to the success of The Hunger Games, the heroic leads in these books are primarily young women. A plucky girl rises from the underclass, defeats the evil king/government/invading army and frees the people from oppression. It’s a tale as old as time, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, the classic Hero’s Journey. The last time this plot swept through the collective consciousness, it was called Star Wars and a dude was in the lead. After Hunger Games made a ton of money, the Chosen One underwent a sex change.

So did the way the hero (now the heroine) is treated by the story.

For some reason, no matter how alien these fantasy worlds are, no matter what or how many magical races populate it, women in general remain second-class citizens, there to support the men, get married and pop out (preferably male) children. In The Black Witch, women are forbidden from holding high positions in government. Girls are expected to be betrothed to promising young men while in their early teens. During the course of the story the law changes and these betrothals become mandatory. No heroics for you, missy. You’re gonna get married whether you like it or not. You can save the world after you cook dinner. Our Heroine’s grandmother, the Black Witch of the title and the strongest sorceress ever, is revealed to have been a genocidal maniac. See what happens when a woman gets too powerful? That’s why we can’t give ‘em any responsibility. PMS hits and they go off the deep end. Best to leave the important work to men.

Oh yeah. This civilization, like almost every other alien/fantasy culture I’ve encountered in recent YA literature, has independently discovered the concept of high heels. For women only, natch.

There was so much more in The Black Witch that I felt like I was reading for the thousandth time. Our Heroine has special powers but she’s never been taught how to use them. She’s been raised to believe she has no magic. She ends up in a school setting where of course she runs afoul of the resident mean girl, because OH’s caught the eye of the boy the mean girl wants. OH goes to a party where she wears a pretty gown that’s described in great detail, and the aforementioned heels. And she finds a cute boy among the oppressed classes. After 600 pages of story she still hasn’t discovered her power, let alone been taught how to use it. Maybe in the next book.

These are the books being marketed to teenage girls, and these are the messages they’re sending: sure, you can have adventures, but you still have to go to school and put up with girl bullies and jerk boys who treat you like crap and still expect you to fall in love with them. Good luck finding someone to teach you how to use those special powers you’ll be needing to save the world. Be sure to go to fancy parties and wear really pretty dresses and too-tight shoes with heels. And you will find a boy. That’s the important thing. It’s the Disney Princess version of the Hero’s Journey.

It’s like the Women’s Movement never happened. Well, maybe parts of it did. Girls can aspire to save the world, as long as they remember what really matters: being pretty, being popular, wearing nice clothing, and pairing up with a boy, despite him acting like an abusive a-hole and even if he tries to kill you. He’ll change once you marry him, promise.

Might as well get used to it. You’re going to find it wherever you go throughout the multiverse, elves or no elves. Promoting outdated sexist views in worlds and societies not even remotely connected to Earth is apparently still acceptable. I’ll bet if there was a queen in these books, she’d either be the evil type, or shown vacuuming the throne room in an evening gown and a strand of pearls. And heels.

I don’t recall Luke Skywalker attending fancy balls, or lots of time devoted to what he was wearing. He was too busy getting trained in the Force so he could save the galaxy. Yeah, there was a girl, a Princess, even, but she turned out to be his sister. Good thing he wasn’t being pressured to get married so he could sire a line of new Jedis. And what about Leia? She was Vader’s offspring too. Was she ever trained, or even tested for the Force? Apparently not. She did what was expected of her: married Han Solo and had a son. He got trained as a Jedi, which didn’t turn out very well.

That was over 30 years ago. Here we are in the 21st century, and girls, even heroes, are still expected to do what’s expected of them. Maybe Rey will buck the trend. We’ll see if she gets a boyfriend in the next installment.

In short, when it comes to current YA literature, the worldview for women has barely budged beyond the image of the 1950s housewife. We’ve just dressed it up in Middle Earth trappings. This is what we’re selling to our daughters. That was my takeaway from The Black Witch. Maybe the world will change for Our Heroine, once she saves it with those powers nobody’s taught her how to use. I suspect the story’s going to end with her happily married to her boyfriend, and living in a mansion surrounded by children in a world that now has racial equality. Gender inequality will still be subtly enforced, especially for the readers.

Dammit, times like these I really miss Buffy. And Xena. They took the world by the throat and had adventures and weren't defined by their boyfriends and didn’t give a damn what anyone said. And Xena, at least, wore sensible shoes.

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