Pleasant surprise!

Well, what do you know. I froze my fingers off on a trip to the letterbox just now, and lo and behold, my copy of Medieval Feminist Forum Winter 08 has arrived! Had a quick look through the index, and there’s a promising-looking article called ‘Gazing at Gawain: Reconsidering Tournaments, Courtly Love, and the Lady Who Looks’, by Elizabeth L’Estrange. :D:D
So, er, there. I have proof that the Society For Medieval Feminist Studies does still exist. And there shall be tangible benefits from having won that student essay prize – namely, the periodic arrival of journals in my mailbox.

Now, I should probably try (again) to contact them and find out what happened to the other part of my prize, the bit where they were going to publish my essay in the online version of their journal. Someone’s very good at not answering their emails…

In which Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general

One of the things I’ve been doing with my brain in my spare time / while entering things into the government record-keeping system is madly analysing random bits of pop culture from gendered perspectives. I’ve learnt about things like the Bechdel Test; read about your chances of death in the BBC Merlin according to race and gender, and… well, pretty much anything else LJ has decided to teach me.

While archiving a bunch of correspondence the other day, it occurred to me to wonder: why do we so rarely see, in modern fantasy, protagonist groupings where friendships between women are given as much screen-time and weight in plot/character development as are friendships between men or between men and women?

I can think of a lot of modern fantasy, both good and bad, which has strong female characters. However, the most common plot set-ups that I can think of involve:

* A strapping young lad and his best (male) friend(s) or older male mentor(s). Random example: Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.

* A brave young woman kicking arse and taking names in a male setting. Random example: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet.

* A lone girl or woman and boy or man on a Dangerous Quest. (There will be Bad Fantasy Sex.) Random example: JV Jones’ Sword of Shadows trilogy (note that I haven’t finished reading yet, and I think when I stopped the characters had parted ways).

* A mixed group of men and women, in which there are usually fewer women than men. There will be a high level of character development through m/f relationships, not all involving sex (there will be lots of Contrasting Gender Roles happening). If the protagonist is male or the book has mixed POV, a substantial amount of plot and character development will occur within homosocial relationships: if the dominant POV is female, it is more common to develop character in the context of heterosocial and heterosexual relationships. Random example: David Eddings’ Belgariad.

* Two or more strong or supposed-to-be-strong female characters who are set up in opposition to each other. Their relationship, or the comparisons the reader draws between them, will be very important to the plot and character development, but they’re not friends or allies; each exists primarily in her own sphere. Random example: Morgan and Guinevere in Mists of Avalon.

Where are the books about girls working together? Why, in a mixed bag of protagonists, are female homosocial relationships always the last thing we hear about? I did a quick and unscientific scan of my brain, and came up with a few books that score highly in this regard: Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic quartet; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian (granted that the reason Susan and Lucy’s relationship stands out as distinct is that Lewis organises the children’s roles in the adventure by gender); Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series…

and Chretien de Troyes Chevalier au Lion. Ok, Yvain’s our protagonist, and his character development swings on his attempts to balance his homosocial relationship with Gawain against his heterosexual and heterosocial relationships with various women (and his relationship with a lion. WTF IS THAT LION DOING, anyway?). I could go on about this at length. I did go on about this at length and got rather pleasant marks for it, too. But even while sticking almost exclusively with Yvain’s POV, Chretien still manages to pwn most 20th and 21st century fantasy when it comes to strong female homosocial relationships.

We have:

* Lunette/Laudine. We’re left in no doubt that Lunette is the biggest influence on Laudine’s life – and Laudine appears to be the only strong claim on Lunette’s affections. There’s that gorgeous inversion of the courtly blind promise trope, and has anyone pointed out that Lunette’s negotiation of Yvain’s marriage to Laudine is a genderswapped version of the m/f/m triangle, with the man as the token between women?

* The Dame de Norison and her maid – a small-scale reproduction of Lunette/Laudine, delicious triangle dynamics and all.

* The tag-team of Questing Maidens on behalf of the Disinherited Sister.  I can never remember how many of them there were, exactly. They don’t have names and they don’t have direct dialogue, but they’re there and they’re a major plot device. A bunch of women (or was it just two? SOME WOMEN, anyway) recognising that another woman is in trouble, and setting out to fix it. That the only way, within Chretien’s social construct, for them to do so involves going and fetching a man, shouldn’t undermine the fact that they’re a bunch of women actively collaborating in the interests of one of their fellows and putting themselves at considerable physical risk to do so.

And in case we thought that everything was all happiness and roses in female homosocial-land, Chretien goes and adds tensions and misunderstandings to the female homosocial relationships he’s set up: Laudine blames Lunette for her betrayal and throws her out; the Feuding Sisters bicker their way across the narrative climax; and even at Norison (which, for a bunch of reasons I shan’t go into here, I think is meant to function as an example of good and harmonious social relationships, as opposed to Yvain’s unbalanced home situation), the Lady gets temporarily cranky with her maid.

What’s more, female homosocial relationships contribute to the narrative not just as plot devices but as character development. There have been reams of paper spent on the question of Laudine’s motives in first marrying and then re-marrying Yvain – does she love him? Is she manipulated? Does she really care? No matter what the conclusion is, no one can attack this question without examining the relationship between Laudine and Lunette, and the changes in their public and personal relations as evidence for Laudine’s feelings and choices.

But wait, it gets better! Or I think it does. I have a rather hazy thought that I swear I will chase up one day, to the effect that the female homosocial relationships in Le Chevalier au Lion also contribute to male character development. I think we’re supposed to read Lunette/Laudine in particular, but also the women of Norison and the tag-team of Questing Damsels, in contrast to Yvain/Gawain. Which homosocial relationships work to preserve a balanced social order? Which are compatible with balanced and mutually beneficial heterosexual relationships? And which homosocial relationship causes constant discord and demands preference above all other loyalties? I’m not sure if Yvain learns anything from the women around him, but I’m fairly sure the reader is supposed to use the examples of the women in the story to evaluate Yvain’s choices and character development.

In short: Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general. But I’m sure we all knew that already ;).


Well, that’s extrapolation. You see, I just got around to watching the Dr Who Easter Special, during the course of which episode, the Doctor asserted that:

1. He speaks all languages.


2. He was at the court of AEthelstan in nine-hundred-and-something.

Ergo, the Doctor speaks Old English.

Just give me a moment to properly savour this fact.

On the other hand, The Doctor thinks it’s appropriate to bash up priceless medieval relics in order to make an anti-gravity bus. FAIL, Doctor, FAIL.

Medieval relics > anti-gravity buses.  Someone send a memo to the BBC.

Blogging in all directions at once!

Eep, third post in two days, what has gotten into me?

This is a heads-up to say that I’ve posted the fourth review in my Banned Books Meme.  Some time last year I got hold of the American Libraries Association’s data for books most frequently banned or requested to be banned, 1990-1999. A bit out of date, but I couldn’t find later data at the time, and no one keeps this data in Australia at all. I had only read seven, so I set out to read another ten by the time Banned Books Week rolls around again.

Review Number Four is of The Color Purple, and in it I talk about Alice Walker’s choice to narrate the story in first person, in (possibly an inaccurate representation of) black patois, and the effect of this on the reader. I also talk a bit about the novel’s polyamorous dynamic.

Momentary google penance

Ok, i just checked my incoming google results, and as well as the usual ream of unusual ‘naked’ searches, there was this:

what’s wrong with fantasy literature

What’s wrong with fantasy literature? As a whole? Well, based on my wide reading therein, but granting that I haven’t read much new fantasy in the past four years, the major problem with the genre is this: Really Dreadful Sex Scenes. And a reluctance to fade to black. Seriously: weird dodgy sex scenes are what you expect from weird dodgy fantasy novels, but even among the very best fantasy authors I’ve read, there’s this terrible weakness for Incredibly Cliche Magic Sex, or Over-Descriptive Anatomy, and various other sins.

There, O Google, is your answer.

I spy a logic!fail…

One of the many excellent things about Academic Remainders in Canberra is that I’ve been able to pick up a couple of good books on feminist and/or feminist queer studies. One of these, which I’ve just started in on, is Feminism and Masculinities, ed. Peter F.  Murphy. It’s part of the Oxford Readings in Feminism series (I also picked up Feminism and  Renaissance Studies, which I’m yet to read).

Feminism and Masculinities is an interesting book. I’ve read two of the articles, browsed a few more, and read the editor’s introduction. I love the concepts it explores: the relationship between patriarchal masculinity and homophobia; the ways that patriarchal masculine social structures are bound up in competition and power struggles; the common interests of gay rights activists and feminists (but also their different needs). Flicking through the contents list, it also looks like the collection is going to look at racial factors, which should be interesting.

Here, have my favourite quote from Jack Sawyer’s chapter, ‘On Male Liberation’ (quoted from pg 27):

In the increasing recognition of the right of women to participate equally in the affairs of the world, then, there is both a danger and a promise. The danger is that women might end up simply with an equal share of the action in the competitive, dehumanizing, exploitative system that men have created. The promise is that women and men might work together to create a system that provides equality to all and dominates no one. The women’s liberation movement has stressed that women are looking for a better model for human behaviour than has so far been created. Women are trying to become human, and men can do the same. Neither men nor women need to be limited by sex-role stereotypes that define ‘appropriate’ behaviour. The present roles for men and women fail to furnish adequate opportunities for human development. That one-half of the human race should be dominant and the other half should be submissive is incompatible with a notion of freedom. Freedom requires that there be no dominance and submission, but that all individuals be free to determine their own lives as equals.

Yeah. I could go on about why I like this quote, but let’s move on to the logic!fail.

This is a book entitled Feminism and Masculinities. It is a book which, in every chapter, enjoins men to work together with women to restructure the power-lines on which our society runs. It is a book which addresses other issues of oppression, such as homophobia and race.

It is a book with twenty chapters. Seventeen of them are written by men. None of them are co-written by women *and* men. The chapters written by women are bundled together at the back of the book, as sort of special guest panel.

I quote from John Stolenberg’s chapter, ‘Toward Gender Justice’:

In this model [the heterosexual model, which he is defining], men are the arbiters of human identity. From the time they are boys, men are programmed by the culture to refer exclusively to other men for validation of their self-worth. A man’s comfort and well-being are contingent upon the labor and nurture of women, but his identity – his ‘knowledge of who he is’ – can only be conferred and confirmed by other men.

Granting this fact (which I’m not sure that I do, given the number of men I’ve known to be dependent on their wives/girlfriends for validation): isn’t it just the tiniest bit counter-productive to produce a book about ‘feminism and masculinity’ which is dominated by male writers? In which none of these male authors have done what they advocate other men do, and actually worked with women in looking to define masculinity?

I’ve yet to get to the second half of the book – the half where the three chapters by women are found. But so far, it seems to me to be a book about masculinity, in the context of feminism. I’ve liked every single chapter, as a stand-alone item. But they seem to be strung together in a spirit of ‘what can feminism do for teh mens’, which, last I heard, was not what feminism is for.

Find me a book on feminism and masculinities which is co-edited by men and women, which has at least 1/3 female authors, and in which male and female scholars work *together* on co-authored articles in their respective disciplines… and then I’ll be impressed.

ed: well, hello, I don’t have a feminism tag or a gender tag. Or rather, I didn’t. Hello, new tags.