Gender, Power, and Violence
When I started writing Root of the First, I set down the normal guideposts (a short thematic statement, a one-sentence plot, and so on). But that was for the book. I set down a different set of thematic guidelines for the setting as a whole. They were more like conditions than thematic statements; they were standards that I wanted my setting to meet.
- Magic is not magical; at least not to the people of the setting. That is, to them, there is no “magic.” Everything that is magical to the reader has to have some—however fuzzy—grounding in the very nature of the world. No dancing elephants.
- The central conflict in the world can be boiled down to consumption vs coexistence.
- The indigenous population has a progressive view of gender and sexuality, while the conquerors bring with them the patriarchy we are all familiar with.
Number 3 is the tricky one, and has led to no small amount of navel gazing on my part. There were a number of problems with even setting out on that venture, not the least of which is that for all my good intentions, all it takes is a short chat with a friend of mine who studies these things to remind me how deep privilege really goes. I give myself some credit for trying, anyway (and major kudos to her for being patient).
I do my best. I make it clear that women are, if not equally represented, at least equally welcome in the armed forces, nobility, and old world clergy (the new religion is intentionally very patriarchal). Marital arrangements aren’t inherently biased against women; the protagonist has freely rejected more than one without shame or consequence (aside from her mother’s disapproval, which stems from an entirely different source). But that’s all the “easy” stuff.
Generally speaking, I’ve gotten better at spotting resulting problems, but after living 27 years with certain assumptions about the world, I’m still working on recognizing gender biases in the premises. Worse are the situations where a confluence of character motivations and plot points create a situation where even I, with my biased eye, can spot the issues, but find few meaningful or viable alternatives.
I came upon one of these navel gazing passages in my rewrite. Three scenes back to back to back near the midpoint of the novel:
- In one, a woman is stabbed by a gender-not-specified guard. To me, this one makes perfect sense because first, she’s a bodyguard, and second, it’s a swordfight. The only other potential victims are a child, and the protagonist, and someone needs to get hurt in that scene to motivate the next move. From an objective viewpoint, though, the injury robs her of agency, and puts her entirely in the hands of the protagonist, (highly arguably) only to showcase a heretofore unseen ability to muster courage.
- A female character finds herself entirely at the mercy of a male character. The power does shift back and forth between the pair during the scene, but she’s never presented a means of escaping the situation, and he most definitely “wins.” What that entails, I won’t detail here, but suffice it to say, if he doesn’t win, it short circuits Act II. The important fact here: the suffering does not happen to the protagonist, nor a faceless character, nor does it serve as motivation for the protagonist (directly, anyway. The protagonist knows the victim is in trouble, but has no idea what kind of trouble, and plays no role in rescuing them).
- The protagonist encounters an overbearing, physically imposing man who invades her personal space while speaking; the hitch is that she needs to remain on good terms with him or else risk losing her only (readily apparent) option for resolving the book’s conflict. He was always her fiance, but in the rewrite I turned up the heat, and changed the circumstances of their original break up, putting the power in her hands. I think the key here is that he is taking advantage of her need for aid in order to stay close enough to woo her, but she retains the power to refuse his advances. At the same time, it is also made very clear that she is not being wooed for his sexual gratification, but for political motives.
Still, taken in combination, the scenes paint a very . . . strange picture, even from my view with all the details filled in. It all sent me back to the drawing board because I couldn’t get over this one question:
Is any harm inflicted upon female characters (by male characters or otherwise) inherently misogynistic?
After all, in our culture, there is an emotional value in the suffering of female characters that is greater than that of male characters, and that it exists across genres and media. There’s a number of terms for it. Disposable Damsels, Women in Refrigerators, and so on. Simply subverting the trope doesn’t negate the underlying gender issue though.
My scholar friend shed some light on this with her response:
. . . consider how the emotional or physical pain of a female character is supposed to function in the course of the story. If it is being used to gratify someone else (even a female protagonist), then she is likely being objectified and made inferior to another.
I’m still left scratching my head, though. How do you handle the issue of objectification in a dramatic scene without intentionally violating a person’s subjecthood? How do you not violate one of Martha Nussbaum’s seven qualities of objectification?
Or the question of the day:
How does one inflict pain (physically or emotionally) on another without violating their subjecthood?
Because right now, I’m looking at that question, and saying: Well, if you’re the villain, and you are overwhelmed by the subjecthood of your victims, then you just stop being the villain. After all, if you suddenly realize their desire not to suffer has intrinsic value, that leaves one of two outcomes:
- You proceed anyway, because you just don’t care enough for it to stop you (and we are back to the beginning)
- You abandon your pursuit because it would be harmful to someone else.
Somehow, #2 just feels like an impossible quality for an epic villain to have. If their needs (power, glory, or even a misguided desire to help their own side) are not overbearing compared to the needs of the world they are confronting, then I don’t think they can be called a villain anymore.
In fact, isn’t that precisely why we’re supposed to dislike the villain? Because they violate the subjecthood of a character we identify with? Because they do something we would object to having done to us?
I’m not ready to concede this point just yet, but it certainly seems like the very nature of the story makes my third goal almost unachievable from certain perspectives.