I enjoy props at a table and I find that toys can often make for wonderful props. For example, at a variety store a few years ago, I bought a miniature Stonehenge set.
Inside the box there are three groups of things: puzzle pieces for creating the base of Stonehenge complete with numbered areas to help you with placement of the pieces, the "stone" pieces, and a booklet of information about the site.
Even without the stone pieces on top, the base could be used to help describe an area in a game. Anything could be in those numbered squares. For instance, they could be statues (or living things turned to stone). You also could hand out the puzzle pieces over time as pieces of a map or an ancient scroll that showed how certain artifacts had to be placed in order to complete an intricate and ancient ritual.
In addition to the base, the construction of Stonehenge could be used in multiple ways. For instance, it could be off to the side as a form of clock to show how much progress an adversary has made towards obtaining their goal. Or the PCs could be tasked with finding some or all of the pieces of Stonehenge and put it back together. Or maybe the dragon they fought had knocked the pieces down and it is up to them to set everything up right again. Additionally, the fully finished model could be used as part of a puzzle that involves how light would shine on the location at a certain date and time.
The Stonehenge set was made by a company called Running Press. Amazon has a number of their kits.
Similar to this set is another toy I found (although I didn't buy it quite yet). At a local store, I saw a toy penguin that is made up of seven stackable wooden pieces.
As with the Stonehenge set, this could be used as a clock for either the PCs or their adversary and help illustrate their progress towards a goal. Similarly, one could take the image of an important NPC or location in the game and create a puzzle out of it using card stock or cardboard. The nice thing about the puzzle is that it's possible that the players can guess it before the final piece but it helps keeping you from giving too many clues at once. However, if they still can't get it after they have all the pieces, it may be time to allow them access an expert or take 20.
What sorts of toys inspire your games?
When we talk about women fighters in medieval-inspired fantasy games, people will often go on about how we're really trying to reinvent history. In some ways, they are right. Few women fought in organized armies at the time and most of history was written about those armies. However, in many ways they are missing the point.
Most Men Didn't Fight
A combination of ancient and modern warfare clouds our understanding of much of Medieval Western European combat and armies. We're used to large standing armies and large drafts to create larger and larger armies, especially in the two World Wars. We're used to large percentages of young men and smaller percentages of young women shipping off to war.
This view of war would have lost many Medieval wars. The simple reason: food. We have much higher crop yields today, coupled with machines to make harvesting easier, and this frees up more hands for the war effort. I read on one site that we're talking about something like 1 in 30 seeds would mature to feed us in Medieval Europe versus 1 in 2 to 1 in 7 today.
Lower crop yields required much more land and labor than today. To send significant numbers of men, especially young men, off to war would have put the fields and harvest in jeopardy. The exception to this would be the sons of nobility. Since one of the defining characteristics of the nobility is that they didn't work with their hands, they often didn't work the fields. And since titles couldn't be shared or split and a titled family often needed as many resources as possible, spares didn't always have much of a future to look forward to.
Since the overwhelming percentage of men were commoners tied to land and were needed to farm it, the vast majority of men simply wouldn't have been involved in the formal military campaigns of the period, the very same campaigns we often rely on for our information about medieval warfare. We ignore this for games like D&D because it's just not exciting. If it's not exciting for male characters to keep to historical realism, I might suggest it's not exciting for female characters either.
Overlooked Combat Opportunities
With the focus on formal military campaigns, other sources of combat experience often are overlooked. For instance, we know of a number of peasant uprisings during the period. Rebellions have long recruited whomever they could get and have been a source of opportunity for women who yearned for something more. Likewise, when under attack, women could be employed in a variety of defensive positions. They could pour boiling water from above.
In addition, women have long provided combat support roles throughout history. Wives, daughters, and other women might accompany a military campaign. Some would have been noble women, often attempting to get pregnant since that was their and their husband's duty.
Why Do I Find This Important?
There isn't as much documentations on women in these positions in part because it just wasn't that important to the people at the time. Portraying women as independent and strong went against the typical narrative of the day. But when we look at the vast amount of data from the past 300 years, we see plenty of evidence that the formal narratives of the time often differed from women's lived experiences. We should keep that in mind as well as remind ourselves of the limits of history:
- Someone had to find the information important enough to record.
- Future generations had to find the information important enough to save.
- Our generation has to find the information important enough to seek out.
With all of that said, I'm not arguing for historical realism in the majority of games, such as D&D. Instead, I'm suggesting that we cease using inaccurate "historical realism" as an excuse to perpetuate the gender bias and stereotypes we have today.
To celebrate my birthday, Fred and I decided to try out a new boardgame cafe in Brookline, MA called Knight Moves. We met a coworker and his wife there and played a game of Shadows over Camelot. I had a lot of fun and it's a wonderful space.
The cafe has three rooms. The front room has the cafe area including Equal Exchange coffee, pastries, tea, hot cocoa, and chocolates. There are also at least 4 game tables, the game library, and a chess table in the window. Most of the tables easily sit four, although we had to put two of them together to play the Shadows over Camelot game.
The middle room has a bunch of science decorations including a microscope. It also has a nice looking fireplace with mantle. I didn't take a picture of the table because it was in use but there was one decent sized table in there and room for more. Devon, the owner, said that there were additional tables for the room that he could bring out when needed. There's also a curtain between the front room and middle room so that area of the store can be reserved for special events and the like (more on that later).
The back room has one large table as well as the facility's restroom. One thing to note about this place, they put in a fair bit of time and energy to make it look nice. Since it doesn't serve double-duty as a retail establishment, there's lots of room and the emphasis is on you and you being able to try out a bunch of games. Since they don't have a retail portion, though, that means that there is a cover charge. The price for a single entrance is $10, but for that price they don't mind if you pop out for a bite. As far as I can tell, there's no limit on how long you can stay so compare that to say a movie ticket. If you want to save some money, you can buy a pack of 6 of entrances at once for $50. If you're likely to frequent Knight Moves often, they also have memberships. The casual membership is $15 a month and it lowers the price to $6 per entrance or gets you 3 additional entrances if you buy the multipack. You also get a free coffee per visit. A premium membership is $120 per month but gets you unlimited visits. Additionally, you get a free coffee plus a free snack per visit. At least the casual membership also gives you a 5% discount at Eureka! up the street.
Overall the cafe was inviting and Devon has a love for games and, from what I could tell, was good at explaining them. The selection seemed pretty good although I'm half tempted to get copies of some of the games they don't have. I know the price may seem steep to some, but when I thought about what I spend on other venues, I think it's pretty reasonable and may help keep overcrowding to a minimum while keeping them open. He also mentioned that if I wanted to throw a special event that we could work out a deal, so keep that in mind if you have a monthly get together or if you want to do a launch party for a game you designed. I'm looking forward to visiting again in the future. Next time I'm going to bring Race to Adventure so he can try it out.
I recently found a profile of Samantha Swords from the Fight Like a Girl blog (part of Combatant Magazine). For those who are unfamiliar with Samantha Swords, she is a Western Martial Arts (WMA) fighter, actor, prop maker, stuntwoman, and more. Earlier this year she won the long sword competition at the World Jousting Invitational in New Zealand.
I particularly enjoyed her insights into fighting and I think it could be useful to gamers and other creators of fantasy stories. Too often I hear that women are just smaller and, thus, have no chance in combat. She talks about this a bit but points it out as an advantage.
We ladies have a unique advantage over our sword brothers. As well as having a lower centre of gravity, we’re predisposed to be physically inferior, which means that we have to work harder, be accurate and quite cunning to maintain the edge against most of our competition.
It may sound like an illogical advantage, but developing these attributes should happen anyway as a fighter; it’s just necessary for women to get a headstart because we have less to offer in the brawn department. Due to WMA being in the infancy of its revival and having no solid divisions of weight or gender, we’re allowed to be outmatched in competitions. This is good, it teaches humility for learning proper defence. We need to apply tireless dedication to getting things right, because the result is much more obvious when we don’t.
While I know a number of women who are physically bigger and stronger than the vast majority of men out there, I agree with the overall point that not being to fall back on brawn means that women fighters often have to dedicate themselves to their craft. While I don't always find it important to replicate our sexism based on differences in physical size in fantasy literature and games, I do think the concentration on training and practice would be important to anyone of a smaller size regardless of gender and especially among women.
Additionally, Swords points out a number of martial arts that work well for people who aren't as large or physically strong.
I’d advise any female fighters to look at aikido, kumi uchi, goju ryu, and all the fighting guides you can find that use biomechanics to take a pressure or force, and redirect it to compromise your opponent. This will enrich your understanding of historical European combat, because they all point to the same concept: that effective martial arts don’t rely on speed, strength or agility, but an artful understanding of physics and how to apply it to the human body. If your technique doesn’t work because “you’re not fast or strong enough”, you’re doing it wrong!
Often in fantasy stories, we often think that only the strongest or best capable served in combat. The reality was far more complex. We have many different combat styles in part because we were at the mercy of who happened to be available at the time and their capabilities. The challenge put before those responsible for martial maneuvers was how to use what they had to get the result they needed or wanted. We know women have always fought, we just don't always have records of who they were and how they fought.
In a world that didn't tie leadership to combat and/or didn't believe in the natural inferiority of women could easily be set up to teach people of all genders how to fight in a way that used their natural attributes and skills to the best possible advantage. This often didn't happen in the middle ages, at least in the rhetoric, because women's supposed inferiority was an important part of the governance structure, which relied on divine right to rule combined with patrilineal and patriarchal customs. If your fantasy world doesn't have those same strictures, it's harder to argue for the continued lack of women warriors in a society.
I'd like to ask you to consider one further reason why you should include at least athletic girls and women if not women warriors in your stories. Earlier pulp novels could assume an audience that reflected the sexism of the time. This is becoming less and less true. For instance, since the introduction of Title IX in the US, women's athletics has increased dramatically with a 560% increase at the college level and 990% in high schools. Additionally, around that time self-defense courses grew in popularity as a rape counter-measure. Few girls and women my age and younger want to hear that they are physically incapable of defending themselves or others and fewer people, regardless of gender, are used to a world in which girls and women are kept from physical exertion. It does not reflect our reality and will break suspension of disbelief for many, disregarding the fact that many of us want to be strong when we use literature as escapism.
So, if you want to include more women fighters but also want it to make it feel "real" enough given our society's current views of women, this might be a good start. In fantasy literature, Arya from Game of Thrones is a good example of this. If you want more examples of warrior women, especially those who study WMA, the Fight Like a Girl blog highlights more. I also know quite a few women who fight in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) such as Jeanie Davan.
Also, while I'm on the subject of women fighters, I must point out these awesome sketches by Tess Fowler. Here's an example and you can find more here.
Patriarchy seems to be a difficult concept for some and so I’d like to present what it means to me and, in particular, how it influences fantasy literature and games, particularly those influenced by medieval Europe.
First, I want to say that this article by Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog has an excellent breakdown not only of patriarchy but also kyriarchy. Both are ways of organizing the power structure of a society in an hierarchical manner. Here are the definitions for both that the article references.
Kyriarchy – a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.
Patriarchy – Literally means the rule of the father and is generally understood within feminist discourses in a dualistic sense as asserting the domination of all men over all women in equal terms. The theoretical adequacy of patriarchy has been challenged because, for instance, black men to not have control over white wo/men and some women (slave/mistresses) have power over subaltern women and men (slaves).
- Glossary, Wisdom Ways, Orbis Books New York 2001
So basically, patriarchy represents the preference of men as a group over women as a group, especially in terms of power and authority. When we look at history, it’s hard to argue against this being an element of most if not all of the civilizations referenced commonly used as inspiration in fantasy games and literature. For instance, in many sects of Christianity women are often forbidden from holding leadership positions, especially over men. We talk about founding or town fathers but rarely founding or town mothers. Until relatively recently, male heirs were preferred over female heirs when it came to succession for the British throne, and other titles still follow that preference structure.
However, it is also easy for it to be argued that this view is incomplete. The English didn’t go through every living man before settling on a woman as regent, women were still allowed to rule. Better someone with royal blood rule than a commoner after all! Likewise, African-American males in the US often had a lower social status than white women, especially white women of the upper class. That is why it’s important to look just beyond gender, which is part of the concept of kyriarchy.
Examples of the influences of a patriarchal system
Now, for me, it’s quite obvious that we have lived, and continue to live, in a patriarchal culture. Take, for instance, the founding of a city. A group of people, often lead by one person or a small group of people, travel from one place to another and decide to set up a community. Many times the leader or leaders are married men and their wives perform duties expected of them due to their status as spouse of a founder. However, the history books often don’t record what both of them did, but rather record the man’s name as the founder. Both of them were there at the same time. Both of them were often instrumental to the success of the endeavor, and yet the man is the person who gets the credit, the statues, etc.
Likewise, if you ever do genealogical research, especially in the US, you’ll see that it is often difficult if not impossible to trace female lines. Wives often were referred to only by the husband’s name. I have one obituary for my great-great-grandmother and her surviving family is listed as follows: “She is survived by a sister, Mrs. Frederick Westphal and three daughters and one son: Mrs. Herman Schnoor; Miss Dora Gandesbergen, of Bremen, Germany, and Mrs. William Puetz and William Fillmer of Newburgh Gardens, also by three grandchildren.“
Similarly, if you look at the US Census before 1840, you’ll notice that the only name listed is the “Head of Household.” There are columns for males and females where census takers were expected to enter the number of each age group living under the head of household, who was usually male. Slaves were kept under a separate list and, of course, were listed under a white head of household.
Additionally, sayings like “it’s a man’s world,” “who wears the pants in the family,” and the like point to an assumed male head and female subordinate. In a gender equal world, no gender could claim ownership and, even if clothing was gendered, it wouldn’t matter who wore what.
But many men don’t have it easy!
Besides arguments that patriarchy does not, and has never existed, the second most common argument I get is that many men don’t have it easy and, therefore, I need to stop talking about how women have it so bad as if it’s men’s fault. There are multiple issues with that argument. First, no one says that only men reinforce patriarchal systems. We’re all raised in them from the time we are young and we have a bias to the status quo.
Additionally, while patriarchal systems tend to favor men as a group over women as a group, there is still a hierarchy and not all men are going to come out at the same level in that hierarchy. For instance, sons are also expected to be subservient to their fathers (“Honor thy father and mother”). Men without families of their own might never find a time in their lives when they rule the roost. Likewise, if you read Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, you’ll see that too much subdivision of property meant that a resource such as farm land or manors would cease to support the family. Thus, often the eldest son would inherit the land and other sons may be left out.
By the way, if you’ve ever heard of concepts such as the disposable male (the belief that men’s lives are expendable whereas women’s lives are not), this is where it comes from, meaning the blame rests on the natural results of a patriarchal/kyriarchial system, not feminism. But the belief that we would have to get rid of all of the negatives groups of men face as a result of these hierarchies before we can start on women’s equality is also a result of patriarchal thinking which values male interests above those of other genders.
But this woman I’ve heard of supports patriarchy!
If the system was set up to favor men in these ways and you were a woman, it was in your best interest to reinforce the hierarchy in ways that provided benefits to you and/or your male guardian. When we wonder how it is that women can reinforce a system that restricts them, it’s important to remember this.
What does this have to do with fantasy games and literature?
Understanding how our society’s hierarchies formed and function is important when creating new worlds that make good on their promises. For instance, I’m often told that the Forgotten Realms is a gender equal place. But as I look through the content being created for that world, I see the content often doesn’t match that vision.
The difficulty of course is that it can be difficult to write fantasy worlds for readers in a way where they feel at home and can identify with the characters. Books can’t give us every detail for life and when details are left out, we substitute our own experience in. Since these products serve a wide range of backgrounds, especially ages, and we’ve had a fair amount of change since the end of World War II until now, it’s hard to create the worlds that each broad group expects.
For instance, someone born in the US before the women’s lib movement might find it disconcerting to be in a world where one’s gender wasn’t called into question when it came to business, education, or combat. On the other hand, someone who grew up with stories of the Night Witches and the other women who fought in WWII might find it difficult to believe that women would be excluded purely on their gender alone. People like me might find it unsurprising that some people question whether or not a woman can do “x” but may also dislike highly gendered occupations and societies, especially when we’re asked by the writer to identify with characters who espouse those beliefs. I know many people much younger than me find the gendered messages in early D&D modules strange and disconcerting. Details that were provided as hints that a woman was evil, for instance, don’t resonate with them in the same way.
By understanding how the patriarchal and kyriarchial nature of our society influences us, we can more easily separate out what is reliant on those beliefs being commonly held and which are truly based on sex-based or gender-based differences. I believe that can help us in providing content that speaks to a wider range of audiences and also helps us create worlds closer to what we say we want.
For a closer examination of the lives of women in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend Terry Jones' Medieval Lives : S1 Ep 3 - The Damsel and Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies. I've also found a bunch of examples of warrior women from the time period in Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism. Also, after my last post, David Donnelly recommended Nancy Godstone's Four Queens: The Provincial Sisters who Ruled Europe, Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, and Susan Ronald's Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion.
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.