Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Feminist Hackles

I've never thought of myself as someone who has feminist hackles, but lately I've been all bristly at things that I would normally have brushed off with a, "Yeah it's sexist, but is that such a big deal?"

I started this post intending to talk about the influx of Mormon women on the scene of YA fantasy--from the horrifying (Stephanie Meyer) to the fabulous (Shannon Hale)--but I don't know that I have anything interesting to say on the subject that hasn't already been said.  There's been an influx of YA fantasy by Mormon women in the past few years.  This is partly because they hit just the right note of wholesome and romantic.

For the most part, you wouldn't know their religion to read their books, which I respect from an author of any faith.  I love Shannon Hale, especially Princess AcademyI don't remember realizing that she was a Mormon.

EntwinedBut the book I recently read, Entwined, by Heather Dixon, sent me flipping forward to About the Author with a niggling suspicion.  And while the brief bio doesn't say she's a Latter Day Saint, it does say that she lives in Salt Lake City, where she grew up one of eleven brothers and sisters.  I'm making an assumption.  Look out, because there are further generalizations ahead.

The story was a lovely retelling of a fairy tale I loved--twelve sisters, locked up and forbidden to dance by their controlling father, find a secret passageway and sneak out to a magic garden where they dance each night away.  Their tattered dancing slippers give them away, and their father, determined to figure out how they're sneaking out, offers any man who can solve the mystery the daughter of his choice in marriage.

The retelling keeps just the right amount of fairy tale while adding just the right amount of depth.  The father is not cruel, but overcome by the loss of his wife and unable to communicate with or understand his many (many, many) daughters.  The gentlemen are not offered random hands in marriage, but a chance to meet and woo, should they and the young ladies be agreeable.  The magic is embroidered into the fabric of the world, the danger that the girls are trifling with sneaks up on them, and (always very important to me) their reasons for not seeking help when they're in over their heads are mostly believable.

I say mostly--let's work our way backward with my observations.  (What lies ahead are spoilerish, but not entirely spoilers.  No details, and most of the generalizations are eminently guessable.) 

Our heroine, Azalea, the eldest sister and the one most conscious of the danger they're in, is pretty much rescued by--well, all the men.  Her beau, her dad, her sisters' crushes.  The girls are all helpless--though
kicking up a fuss like the spitfires they are. Still, it's not until the fellas come to their rescue is the day saved.

Which is not to say they're fainting lilies.  There's some tomboyishness, some defiance, some stubbornness.  But the only grown woman to appear in the entire book is the sickly mother who dies in the first chapter, and a woman's virtues are her good character and her love for her family.

Family is a big part of this book, and in a nice way.  It's about being close to people who can't always show their feelings, and who you don't always agree with or understand.  It's about loving fiercely and belonging to each other, which is all lovely.  But it's also about the fact that a girl's job is to hold her family together, because her widowed father isn't capable.  Somehow, this incapacity is more than just a character trait of this one man; it's because he's a man.  I wish I could explain it better.

There are pettier things, too, which I bridled at while I was reading but can't really remember now.  I'll quote you my favorite one, though.  It's Clover's birthday, so she's wearing a corset for the first time.

"Do you like the corset?" [asked Azalea.]

Clover tried to keep from smiling, but her face glowed. 

"I...can feel my heartbeat in my stomach!"

"Aye, that's what it feels like to be a lady!" said Bramble, among the general riffraff and clattering of seat taking and plate getting.  "It's corking.  I love it."

I'm not 100% sure what to make of this.  But I'll tell you, it had part of me scratching my head.

I apologize if I'm generalizing about Mormons and strict gender roles.  I do know something about the LDS church, and I don't think I'm being outrageous, but I also know that everyone, everywhere is different, and that what a group professes is not what any individual adherent believes. 

Am I saying Mormons are sexist?  I might be assuming that.  But I'm definitely saying that this book sees "feisty" as the height of female vigor, and something you'll probably grow out of at that.  It's not like me to notice things like this; I wonder what other people thought.


Brenda Pike said...

My hackles weren't raised. I thought it was a creepy take on a fairy tale that I've always kind of liked. (Except in the Care Bear version I first read, the hero was an old pig farmer who, when offered marriage to the eldest daughter as a reward, said that he was too old for her, and anyway, she was in love with someone else, and he got his very own pig farm instead. I love the Care Bears.)

I recognize that this is making something that we wouldn't like in reality (patriarchy) more palatable, but every fantasy-type book does this. How many kingdoms are there in fantasy books? But feudalism sucked for everyone but the 5% at the top. The only halfway realistic (at least in terms of female roles) fantasy book I've ever read was Firethorn, and I wouldn't wish that book on anyone.

Also, the guys in the books are mostly idiots, including the father. There's no moral that if they'd just done what the father wanted they would have been fine. Everyone is flawed and I think that's cool.

Also, my mom grew up with 11 brothers and sisters. People have different experiences and I like seeing that reflected in books.

LibraryHungry said...

I completely agree about the fact that fantasy worlds are full of things that actually kind of stink in the real world, and one of the things I liked about this book was the kind of cheerful grittiness of their lives--the king doesn't have much money, and isn't really running the country. And as I said, I really liked that Azalea realizes that she should ask for help, but can't. It's not just "kids are good guys and adults just don't get it." The dad is a person with his own flaws.

But I think it's because of these notes of realism that I noticed things like the corset. They don't just wear corsets and not notice them--they love them. It's not just that the state of a girl's life is unexamined--it's embraced. Not a lot, but in little ways.

I did love the relationship among the girls, though. I think she did an amazing job of giving them each a character, making them distinguishable, and showing the sense of bustle and clamor, the closeness and comfort, and the teasing and annoyance. It's a really sweet look at family--especially girls.

Brenda Pike said...

The corset thing didn't stick out at all to me, because I think that's just a growing up thing. Don't you remember the first time you shaved you legs. It was Exciting. But now it's just a pain in the ass. And how many women still wear high heels even though they destroy their feet? My podiatrist told me that he's had women get bunion surgery specifically so they can fit in the same heels that gave them the bunions in the first place.