The Problem with Midcentury Misogynists

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 11 December 2013

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.

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