Let's Talk About the Menz

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 12 December 2013

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.

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