Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday Review Post, 8/26/2011

Two books this week. Actually, only one, because I cheated. I started a book sometime a week and a half ago, and didn't finish it. I read the last chapter today. So, that counts, right?

Terry Eagleton - Why Marx Was Right

So, you've had this experience, I'm sure. You're engaged in a vigorous debate - possibly online - and you make a proposal about something that society needs; something that government, perhaps, could do. And someone else says, "no, that's socialism, and if we do that, we'll end up like the Soviet Union, and etc etc, blah blah blah." And you have no good response, because a) it might actually BE socialism, you're not sure and b) no one wants to end up like the Soviet Union. Well, I've got the perfect book for you! Eagleton is a Marxist scholar, and an entertaining author. He has assembled the ten most prominent critiques of Marxism ("it doesn't work", "it engenders laziness", "it renders everyone the same", "there's no time for art", "we'll all end up like the Soviet Union", etc) and refutes them. It's a slim little book, entirely readable, and utterly entertaining. It is a little Brito-centric, because Eagleton is British, but he explains the one joke which doesn't make sense unless you've been British for the past couple of decades, so that's ok.

The key thing I learned from the book is that Marx (and Engels!) wrote a LOT of books. Most internet critics of Marxism have read The Communist Manifesto - or not even that, you don't need to KNOW anything about a thing to be an internet critic of it - and that's not a good source of Marxist thought at all. Marx was alarmingly prolific, and many of his bigger ideas are only fully explained in some of his less accessible works. So, pick this up instead - you don't want to become a Marxist scholar, after all, you just need some solid points so that you can respond by saying, "no, that's NOT socialism, you stupid troll, and the Soviet Union is not a good example of a socialist society anyway, so nyah." And, probably, it won't help, because the sort of person who calls things socialism on the internet is unlikely to respond well to any sort of reason anyway. But at least you will have enjoyed Eagleton's dryly amusing presentation, and will have expanded your understanding of one of the most important (because influential) philosophies of the 20th century. Which is all to the good.

So, that's the book I had only 1 chapter left to read in. The book I actually read this week was

George R.R. Martin - A Clash of Kings

As you know, I'm re-reading this series before I read the most recent addition. (I'm not watching the show on HBO, because I don't have access to the show. I understand it's brilliant, and I'll probably see it on DVD at some point in the future, which is how I watch most of my TV these days. That, and in waiting rooms.) As with the first book, I don't really have much substantial to say. The series is overwhelmingly gloomy. You can tell who the good guys are, because they're the ones who are getting betrayed and killed by their friends and allies. There is no way to tell who the bad guys are. Martin has no qualms about killing off a character you've been following for 500 or 1000 pages; but the death toll in this book is substantially lower than in the first book. Martin continues his practice of turning villains from one book into sympathetic figures in the next book. And then killing them, naturally.

What I really wanted to do with this book, though, was look at the female characters. Specifically, I posted Julie McKenna's thoughts on roles for female characters last week, in which she says the following:

     Thankfully there have long been fantasies with strong female characters taking the initiative to drive plots forward, making their own choices and dealing with men as equals, even when their cultures frown upon it. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series andAnne McCaffrey’s Pern novels are all notable as such pioneers.
But this is still not enough. Those writers are all women, and research has shown that men and boys’ reading is so often unconsciously biased towards books written by men. The representation of women in fantasy is an issue that should concern all authors. We need a substantial list of male authors to cite after Sir Terry Pratchett, when the question of men writing effective, convincing women comes up.
     I want to read those stories myself. But this doesn’t mean I want to read about feisty servant girls who wake up, throw off a lifetime of cultural conditioning along with their blankets and decide it’s time to invent feminism. Any more than I want to read about honest farm boys who discover they’re a lost heir and regain the throne thanks to a great mage’s help, who won’t claim it for himself because he’s a decent chap.
     So somewhat paradoxically, the representation of women in fantasy must still include women leading circumscribed, subordinated lives, to remind all of us reading, male and female, why our grandmothers, mothers and aunts campaigned for the vote and marched for equal rights. To remind us what women’s lives are like today in so much of the world where their human rights are curtailed by culture and poverty. 
So, how does Martin hold up? Well, there are LOTS of women in these books. That's because there are simply lots of people. When you're writing thousand page books, you can have a cast of millions, and Martin does an excellent job of spreading the characters around - he has lots and lots of good strong characters in both genders. But what are the roles of women like in these books? There are queens and princesses - more on queens in a moment - whose lives are relatively circumscribed by duty and position. At one point, Tyrion Lannister argues that it is the purpose of his niece, the princess, to be married off for dynastically significant reasons. (This was, of course, true, during the period in human history when kings and queens and such were heads of government. Calling your daughter "princess" is an insult, or it should be.) There are wives, mothers and sisters (and incest - lots and lots of incest all over the place). Wives, mothers and sisters are largely significant due to the place of their husbands, brothers and sons, but Catelyn Stark is clearly a force to be reckoned with in her own right, and Arya Stark is an interesting character entirely separate from her brother, Robb. There are whores (lots and lots of whores) and rape victims (it's a war, and rape has been a tactic of war for most of human history.), and sometimes those categories cross over into wives and mothers, and often they do not. Martin often uses rape as a short hand to show that a character is, actually, not very nice - this is problematic, because it removes agency from some of the female characters in a way that male characters never suffer. Also, there are women warriors sprinkled through the books - Arya Stark is one, Brienne of Tarth is another, and Asha Greyjoy is a third. There are also women warriors with the wildlings north of the Wall.

So, that seems a fairly broad range of roles for women within the book, and not all of them are in "traditional" women's roles as keepers of the hearth and warmers of the bed (although there are plenty that are). But let's consider the women who fall outside those "traditional" roles. Let's look first at Queen Cersei and Queen Daenerys - two very different women. Cersei, widow of King Robert, and mother of King Joffrey, is conniving and manipulative. She considers that women have two weapons - their tears and their sex - and she uses both to full effect. She operates in the shadows, she intimidates, she uses her access to wealth to buy people, she uses people. She is, in many ways, a classic female villain - the Dragon Lady comes to mind.

Daenerys is a Queen because she commands loyalty through her actions. She is not content to sit back and manipulate circumstances - she is leading a band of people, she plans to lead an army from the front - she plans to have the assistance of a trio of dragons to do this, but she is not the femme fatal figure. In fact, I would not be surprised if she ends up being the big winner in all of this; the figure who imposes order on Martin's world at bloody war, and bring peace; even if that peace is under threat of dragon fire.

Let's also consider the way in which the female warriors are presented. Being a female warrior is clearly a transgressive act for much of the world. Brienne is able to be a knight because she is so clearly unsuited to be a lady - she is described as ugly and mannish, with no breasts, broad shoulders, and course facial features. She is mocked by her detractors as Brienne the Beauty (but never to her face; or at least, never twice). Asha Greyjoy, who is a viking princess with her own long boat, presents herself as married to her battle axe, and mother to a dagger she keeps in her bodice. This is clearly transgressive - she is not living out the proscribed life of a woman, and she knows it, and revels in it. Arya is largely out of the view of polite society for most of this book - and also, disguised as a boy for most of the book - but her mother despairs (from a distance) of Arya ever becoming a lady, like her sister. (Not that being a lady has done anything good for Sansa, but that's a different issue.) The only women who are presented as warriors in such a way that they are accepted by their larger society as the women wildings, up North past the Wall - barbarians who threaten to overwhelm civilized society if they can escape the confines of their frozen wasteland - and even they are described as "spearwives", which implies a certain transgressive relationship, married to a spear instead of a man.

So, the strong women, Martin suggests, are the ones outside of "civilized" society; indeed, they may actively be seeking to destroy that civilization. But, as I say, it's entirely possible that the destruction of civilization is the ultimate ending of the series of books - and, given the violence and rape and just plain brutal nastiness of this book, it's possible that the destruction of civilization should be seen as an entirely joyous thing, at least in the context of these novels.

Whoa. That's pretty heavy for a Friday night. Clearly, I need to go back to work - I'm in full lecture mode. That starts on Monday, incidentally - so I'll be taking it out on my students instead of you all.