Sunday, 20 November 2011

Feminininininism in The Fireblade Array

Some argue that discussing sex/gender issues only serves to further ingrain the differences, but I prefer to thrash some of these things out. I thought I ought to blurb a bit about sexism in my books after my post on gender-linked genre fiction. It's not the major theme of The Fireblade Array by any means, and it's a bit naughty to discuss since I really ought to leave it to others to analyse my writings but... meh!*

I was born into the post-feminist generation, where the attitude has calmed somewhat from the so-called "bra burners." I would hardly define myself as an angry equal rights campaigner. I desire the ideal of equality; sexism is damaging to both sexes; but there's a weird conflict between awareness and forgetting all about the issue. I want to be able to ignore gender in most respects and simply do as I please... but there's the issue of biology that we have to work around. Further, if I am not aware of the differences between the ways in which the genders are treated, how can I ever hope to correct these differences or my own attitudes? A part of me wants to exist as if my gender wasn't important (and it frequently does - this is the unconscious gender rights persona), and another part of me knows that I shouldn't be so naive (consciousness is required).

This problem resolves itself in Morghiad and Artemi. Morghiad is the conscious feminist. He wants women in his army; he realises that his life has been adversely affected by the way in which the women around him are treated. He also knows that men are adversely affected because of their attitudes and the things that women do to them.

Artemi is the unconscious feminist. She is aware that gender roles differ, but she (eventually) believes that she can perform whichever role she pleases. It isn't through any conscious campaign against perceptions of her gender or an intention to help others who are discriminated against. As she sees it, she is only doing her duty. I think that, because she comes to accept what she is capable of and excels at it, others come to accept her too.

It is through this combination of conscious and unconscious effort that change comes about, and this change is slow to happen. The difference only really becomes obvious in the third book.

The first book starts off with a fairly formulaic, patriarchal society in Calidell, but it is implied that this set-up differs elsewhere in the world. I could have made it the other way around, of course... but I wanted the situation to be at odds with a far more important part of the environment in which the characters live. The thing I wanted to play with was their biology because I've always been fascinated with the ways in which societies rationalise their human bodies.

Gender differences are sometimes described as cultural elaborations on biological features. But amongst people, even these biological features can frequently be intersex/hermaphrodite. There's a spectrum: some men look more feminine and some women look more masculine. In western societies sex and gender tend to polarise around two categories (male-female) and we have trouble categorising the people in between. There are other societies that tend to assign specific roles to a third gender (e.g. hijra, Fa'afafine).

I decided to make things trickier by enhancing the differences between males and females with the addition of wielders and kanaala. Both are capable of killing the other and, it could be argued, are equally as powerful. Wielders (female) can kill through the old 'Species' method (I really shouldn't compare my book to that film - it's not where I got the inspiration!). It plays upon the old assumption that women are temptresses and men are innocent idiots. Then there's the kanaala quench-kill method, which is quite aggressive and therefore stereotypically male. In contrast to these two trope-y powers, wielders can also kill in a very aggressive, 'male' way (by blowing people up). Kanaala can't do this independently (I wanted an imbalance somewhere), but both sexes gain greater power through working together. Aaah.

Nalka is a funny one. Western society often idealises monogamy (and my romance wouldn't work if it didn't!) but one of the arguments posed about the problems of biology vs society is that men are pre-programmed to desire many mates (a big generalisation - I'm not convinced that this is necessarily true). But anthropological maps show that most human reproduction in the world actually occurs as a result of polygyny, and genetic/social monogamy is comparatively rare**. There are palaeontologists who consider the progressive reduction in sexual dimorphism through millennia as an indication of monogamy developing in humans, and some also cite the necessity for parenting from both males and females as a key catalyst for the development of human society. In this case it's really hard to extract biology from cultural expectations.

So in my book there's nalka, which affects men and women equally. I quite like the idea of monogamy, and I enjoy it in my own relationship - so why not force all the little people in my book to think more carefully about engaging in a relationship that would have a nasty sting once it ended? In the end I decided that it would cause more misery than it could prevent, as people would still desire the enjoyment that only sex brings. Nor does it prevent polygyny, really, but it does make it more difficult.

And that brings me onto their other, peculiar reproductive traits. First of all, I wanted the women to have some added freedom with the addition of a sort of in-built contraception. And, of course, this is a series of books which are designed to focus on the relationship between the two main characters. I could have made them grow their babies in a magical box, but I thought that was a step too far. Instead there had to be a way of making the man necessary for the survival of his partner and child - so that they both had direct and necessary roles in any pregnancy that occurred.

If you've read the book you'll know how Calidellians deal with their biology, how they fear it, how they still pursue casual sex even with the threat of nalka. I've made many assumptions with my books, but I think they're an interesting exploration into male/female roles and that ultimately their characters still act in a very recognisable, human way.

* I should add that there are many shapes of feminism: from celebrating gender differences to trying to pick those differences apart. To begin with, I use feminism as a broad term to describe the struggle against sex/gender discrimination.
** There's a bit about it in Wikipedia. Also, I don't think polygynous relationships are a bad thing per se, but I have seen how the involved parties can suffer in a society where they are not the norm.

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