Recently the British Library released over a million images to the public domain. They were taken from 17th, 18th and 19th century books that Microsoft digitized and released via Flickr Commons. These images should be free of copyright restrictions although it doesn't hurt to consult a lawyer if there are any concerns.
When I was looking through the collection, one book caught my notice pretty quickly, Sketches of England. By a Foreign Artist, Mons. Myrbach ... and a Foreign Author, Mons P. Villars, etc. Published in 1891, the book features a number of sketches from England, including a fair number of crowd scenes. What caught my eye was the number of women in them. For example:
From what I can tell from just the images (I haven't had time to read the book yet), women make up a decent percentage of the crowd scenes and a number of the smaller group pictures. While I realize this is just one book, I still found it interesting in comparison to a recent report that among the 101 top grossing G-rated movies from 1990 to January 31st, 2005, just 17% of the crowds were female. That would be approximately 1 in 6. While I haven't sat down and counted every person represented in these sketches, it seems like women constitute a much higher proportion of the crowd than that. In my quick count of the first 19 images with people in them, I counted approximately 60 people who appeared to be male and 47 that appeared to be female.
For more info on the research on the numbers of female characters in media aimed at children, check out this video by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
I think these images could be useful in a number of gaming encounters set in the 1890s, especially in England. They also can serve as inspiration for people seeking to draw more gender inclusive crowd scenes.
Sometimes I feel lied to.
I'm still trying to formulate more coherent thoughts on this, but I recently read Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies and am reading their Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. Both talk about women, their roles in their societies, and the like, although obviously the latter focuses more on general topics with some references to women's contributions to technology and the effects of technological innovation on women's lives.
The more I read, the more I feel lied to. My primary and secondary school education all focused on the limited role of women particularly upper class women. It primarily focused on their reproductive roles and often, if not always, left out their roles as overseers of the household and often of the estate when their husbands were not present. It left out their education, the importance of the arts they produced, and more. Furthermore, while it mentioned the dowery system, it left out that many girls and younger women worked to earn their own doweries, thank you very much.
In addition to just leaving out the lives of women lived, it left out many of the philosophical movements at various times during the Middle Ages that advocated for better lives for women, for education, for seeking their council and the like. It left out that there were in fact women's guilds and that women could be members of mixed or men's guilds, especially after the death of their husbands. It left out that women at times could be apprentices and could take on apprentices themselves. It tried to masculinize the women they called exceptional while leaving out hundreds if not thousands of women who also threatened the tidy narrative.
When I got to college, it was not much better. We read the works of what were called the early feminists. They talked about things that would have been important to those medieval women, sure, but they also left out that many of these same ideas had been uttered before. That this hasn't been a struggle of the last 150 years or so but one of many thousands of years.
Now, some might say, "Tracy, these books are so new, how could you possibly expect people to have known?" The problem with that line of reasoning is that the book on medieval women had a first edition printing of March 1978. It's also decently sourced with other books and papers, meaning that the scholarship behind it had gone on for a while. Christine de Pizan wrote about women's contributions to society during her career that spanned from 1399-1429. Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The histories of many of the women in Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism have long been known. Much of this research was available during the fairly early years of D&D and definitely would have been available when my later elementary, middle, and high school textbooks were all written.
Today I live in a world where we constantly find new "exceptions" that lead, at least me, to question what I was told was the status quo. Yes, the society was patriarchal. Yes, men were favored over women except for in limited circumstances. But this fallacy that it was due to women's nature or lack of women's skill or interest is, in my opinion, being shown for the farce that it is. It's important to recognize this when we try to give excuses for others behavior. Yes, they might not know about these books or this research, but that is on them. It's there to find it if they want to. But it's more convenient, I think, to hold on to false notions of historical accuracy than it is to question one's education and upbringing.
In my last post, I talked about my reaction to the female characters in The Godborn. I'd like to talk about my reaction to the male characters today. There will be spoilers as I'll go beyond the prologue for this (although I'll mention now that I haven't finished the book but am about 70% in).
The men in the book follow rather traditional constructions of masculinity, particularly US masculinity. These same constructions can be found in other places at other times and include some of the virtues of say, Roman society. It's a rather patriarchal society where men are the ones who make decisions and they tend to their families and protect them. The groups in the novel show many elements of patriarchal societies including rather strict hierarchy, men holding the positions of authority, and men as providers.
For instance, we can look at the interactions within the Abbey of the Rose. The Oracle, even as he is portrayed as an older, senile man at times, is the shepherd of the flock. He makes the decisions that others obey, often keeping information from those closest to him. Their safety is his concern and he, like father, knows best. Under him we have the blades, men sworn to protect the Oracle and the faith. Within them we even have that same sort of strict hierarchy. Vasen Cale, the first blade, overrules other blades, especially when he decides that he will take Elle and Garuk to the abbey in hopes of healing her and stopping those who threaten the Oracle.
In all of these cases, both on the side we identify as "good" and that we identify as "evil," we have hierarchies and singular men who make decisions without seeking consensus. They will sometimes hear recommendations or advice, but they do not seek consensus on things, especially when women are involved. This bothers me. It feels like it comes from my grandfather's generation. I never met him but overall he was a good man. But I remember my mom telling me how lucky I was because she and my father involved us in family decisions. Her father would often come home and announce to the family (including his wife) that they were moving. No input. No discussion. No agency on the part of my grandmother. Just a firm decision.
We see this multiple times in The Godborn. Varra is barely listened to at first when it comes to her decision to save the life of her own child. Elle and Garuk don't have a discussion about him hunting or them leaving, he has made decisions already and it's more a matter of informing her of what he has decided. Elle, who is the one woman we see make a firm decision so far, is punished horribly for it.
Not only does this decision making setup harm women, but it hurts men too. There's a lot of pressure that comes from making decisions for your family, especially when they aren't going to be the same ones that the rest of the family want to make. This can lead to resentment and viewing others in the family, including those who should be your equal as petulant and perhaps as children.
Besides decision making, the male characters are expected to protect their loved ones. The scene when Vasen comes upon Garuk and Elle is supposed to be heartbreaking because, in this construction, Garuk failed as a man. His duty is to protect his wife and unborn child. We know this because that is why he goes on the hunt in the first place and later why he decides that they must flee his ancestral home. That is why he is there just minutes after the town has been attacked. Just in time to see his wife, his pregnant wife defiled by another man. The two brothers, Sayeed and Zeeahd, even know that he will feel a sense of failure and shame and thus decided that instead of killing him, they'll let him watch as his loved one turns into an abomination.
It's the introduction of Vasen Cale who gives Garuk hope. At first, there is hope that against the odds they'll be able to save Elle if they rush to the Oracle. What this process really seems to do is give Garuk a chance to get over his shock and say goodbye. When that process is complete, that is when he decides to kill her. She is, during this time, nothing but an object that helps propel him from protective husband ready to flee Sembia to an angry man bent on revenge.
She doesn't even get to speak during any of this. No, "Dearest husband, I had hoped to get them to go away before they found you." No honorable or heroic death for the woman who stood up to evil and corruption. With her death, the only way that Garuk can reclaim his masculinity is by destroying those who killed her. It's madness, which the book itself points out when Sayeed and Zeeahd point out that their presence, their corruption, their curse, is the result of the man the townspeople revere. While in this case, destroying those who destroyed her can be framed as a fight against good and evil, in the real world, where this construction of masculinity is used as well, what it really does is set up a neverending cycle of violence and revenge.
(The whole time I read Garuk's attempt to save Elle, all I could think about was Women in Refigerators. Imagine if we did that for these novels!)
This view on the purpose of men, on the sacrifice of men, harms men greatly. They don't understand when their sacrifices, sacrifices that often reduce or reject the agency of the other people in their lives especially women, aren't met with appreciation. It also often leads men to die in situations where it makes no sense, making them feel disposable, and makes at least some of them feel like the only value they bring to the world is their sacrifice.
I honestly think you can have heroic people without it being like this. There is no reason why this has to be so gendered. There's no reason to perpetuate many of these conflicts. It's time for people of all genders to be released from their roles and allowed to be full people, to learn how to communicate with each other, allowed to show valor at times and at other times to seek consensus.
Recently my husband shared with me an article that helped explain my reactions to both The Companions and The Godborn, the first two novels in the Sundering line. The article, “It Was Like a Pile of Kleenex”: Women Writers on Reading Literature's "Midcentury Misogynists" discusses the reactions of writers who are also women to a lot of the midcentury literature that is held up as good or exemplary. Those reactions are often nuanced, emotion-wrought, and contradictory. But the also point to a deeper problem, one that I often seen in fantasy literature.
There are many reasons why people read books. Sometimes it's pure escapism, an attempt to distract ourselves from the trials and tribulations of this world. Other times it's to find ourselves, to safely explore different aspects of ourselves and the myriad ways to experience life in a way that we still have a modicum of control over and isn't physically dangerous. It might also be experimental, to think through how different ways of living might be perceived and where the negative outcomes might be.
When the books tend towards a masculine point of view, however, this can leave many readers out in the cold. For those women who wish to escape, the books can be near useless, especially if the women in the novel are treated poorly. If it's to safely explore the world, then the books again fall flat. The reader, regardless of gender, will find that they cannot explore certain avenues because none of the novels cover them. Finally, if it's to experiment, the overall message again and again is that it's men who matter, and not women.
And that is the problem I have with The Companions and The Godborn. Both are written to the detriment of their female characters. In The Companions, we have 3 (re)births and childhoods presented. In the end, only one has a two-parent family and that's the one for the female character. For one of the male characters, his new mother is killed in childbirth, her husband's knife clumsily cutting open her womb and slicing off Regis' thumb. It felt like it was written that way purely to drive forward Regis' story. She is nearly entirely meaningless except for the special ability her blood gave Regis and the effect of her absence on his father.
For the other character, Bruenor, his new father is killed soon after he is born. His mother raises him but seems to have little to do directly with him or his training as a warrior, even though it's repeatedly mentioned that she knows how to fight. When Bruenor gets to be too much one night, instead of disciplining him herself, she goes out to get the king to handle the matter. Imagine trying to do that to a father figure. But yet it is done to the mother without blinking an eye.
And then we get to Catti-brie who in her past life had been a warrior. She continues her journey towards magic and faith in this book, even saying that it's probably best that she doesn't go the warrior route because as a girl she would be too weak. Um, really book?
The Companions made me unwilling to read any more Salvatore books and it is with that as a backdrop that I read The Godborn. The prologue opens with a pregnant Varra, a character I had issues with in the Erevis Cale trilogy and I don't like her presentation any more in this novel. She's being chased by legions of undead. A dark man appears, places his hand on her stomach, and she feels a tremendous amount of pain.
Suddenly she is transported 70 years into the future, near an abbey. The guards of the abbey see her, and attempt to ascertain what is going on. One of them, Deregg, finds himself drawn to her immediately. He calls for a midwife and a priest knowledgeable of child birth. This is the first instant I am thrown out of the novel. Why wouldn't the midwife also be a priest, if this is an abbey?
The scene is quickly set that she isn't going to make it. There is too much blood on the makeshift birthing bed. I'm then torn out of the book yet again. The priest, not the midwife, is between Varra's legs trying to save the infant. This makes no sense. That midwife should have been just as capable, if not more so, than the priest. Yet, we don't even learn her name. She's set up like a nurse in some 1950s movie. She's presented as little nonsense, it is her who starts the cut after all to remove child from Varra's body, but it's again and again the priest who is presented as knowledgeable and given the credit for actions. This seems more like reiterating sexist portrayals of midwives rather than actually researching what midwives did throughout history. It bothers me because within the past year I've fallen in love with Call the Midwife, a BBC television series, and a novel called The Midwife's Revolt.
The portrayal of the pregnant woman also bothered me. Varra is first infantilized. She is told she is wrong multiple times during the scene first about whether or not she was going to make it and second regarding her willingness to sacrifice her life for that of her child's. Then the scene is framed with Derreg literally treating her as a child, "Derreg's hand returned to Varra's head, cradling it as he might an infant, as he might a daughter." The feelings he has to her are later presented as romantic feelings but here he views her as a child. After death she's treated as an object, "Derreg had slain many men in combat, had seen battlefields littered with corpses, but he had to force himself to look on Varra's body, at the bloodsoaked bed, at the opening in her abdomen out of which Erdan, the priest, had mined the child." (Emphasis mine)
Later in the novel, we're treated to more infantilization of women. A couple expecting a child live in the Sembian wasteland. The husband decides on his own that he will go out to hunt as they have little food in their larder and his pregnant wife needs something real to eat (not those vegetables she helped grow, but real food). He decides this. He doesn't talk it over with her. She doesn't see the wisdom in it but knows she cannot stop him.
Later on, during the hunt, he makes the decision that they are going to leave. He wanted to stay only because it was the land of his family. Strangely, nothing is really said about her connections to the place even though we know she came from there as well. Again, it's the men who make the decisions, the men's lives who matter. He makes this decision because he runs into an foul creature and kills it before realizing that the creature was once a little girl from his village. This changes him. Again, something awful happens to a female character to propel forward the story of a male character.
And thus the even greater problem with the midcentury misogynists and many of the books that are held up as exemplary literature. They often provided a one-sided and misogynistic view of history, one that gets passed on through our literature with each new generation of writers. Both Salvatore and Kemp are likely to have been influenced by these works, just as I know Kemp is heavily influenced by Roman works which also aren't known for their good treatment of women. Both The Companions and The Godborn are rehashings of old stories and the beats around the female characters remain the same. There's a huge disconnect between the female characters in the novels and a large percentage of the women in the real world. Fantasy literature and gaming needs to change that not only if it wants to get more women involved but also just because these are horrible lessons to teach our sons.
I demand more. I don't want to read 1950s novels and movies rehashed into present day fantasy novels. I don't want thinly-veiled misogyny in the Realms. I don't think these authors mean to do it. I just think they haven't really thought about what they've been doing. I want something more.
By the way, I hope to write about this in a separate entry, but Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe gives some examples on how women can be presented in a fantasy story without diminishing, sexualizing, or infantilizing them.
Imagine for a moment that we did away with 80% of the male super heroes. Across all media formats, we had just 2 or 3 male characters and any particular year you were lucky to get a movie that headlined just one of them. How would that change your relationship with the characters? Your views on how they were portrayed?
Given the plethora of male characters, this scenario is hard to imagine. However, when it comes to female characters, it's pretty much the status quo. And that, is the problem with Wonder Woman and discussions of which actress is picked to represent her.
For women with geeky interests, Wonder Woman is often THE comic book hero you are taught to honor and revere. With the lack of choice, strong bonds form between many girls and women of all different bodies, interests, outlooks, wants, and desires. These various views on Wonder Women are often diametrically opposed to each other.
Now many of these diverse and divergent groups can find what they need in the myriad of representations of Wonder Woman on the pages of comic books. You can follow her adventures in her swimsuitesque outfit or you can read the books where she wears pants. Maybe she's thinner in some and more muscular in others. You often, but not always, find her presented in a way that matches your relationship with the character.
The same is not true with movies. It's been how long since Wonder Woman has appeared in a movie? (Try never.) So not only do we have the issue of many diverse groups having to agree on a singular representation of a fictional character, we don't have many alternatives to look forward to in order to sooth our souls when our representation of Wonder Woman isn't chosen. It is, for some, even harder when it feels like the woman chosen seems to reinforce certain messages that we receive all the time from Hollywood about which women are suitable to be represented (although in the case of this particular choice, it's even more complicated).
Normally we could just talk about our feelings but speaking about women's bodies is itself problematic. There's an awful lot of body policing out there. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish discussions about the lack of diversity in the representation of women's bodies with those that are intended to police those same bodies, decreasing diversity.
It's tempting to say that we shouldn't talk about women's bodies at all. I mean, isn't the writing and acting so much more important? But that lack of discussion is what allows the lack of diversity to continue.
Yes, I'm saying there are no easy answers. I'm also saying the problem isn't with Wonder Woman but rather the fact that we lack diversity and use her as a crutch. We don't let her be an individual. The lack of other female characters that can gain the same level of broad appeal means that she will continue to be an amalgam rather than a true character in her own right. And that makes me the saddest of all. We need to discuss these limits. We need to both discuss the representation of Wonder Woman for this movie, directly referencing the body of the actress. We also need to talk about how those discussions are also symptomatic of the issue. The complexity of the problem requires a complexity in approaching it.