GRACELING and comfy “feminism” for men

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Yes, yes I know I’m picking on an article from fucking 2009, and I will give that Daniel Hemmens may or may not still hold these views strongly, whatever. But let’s pick on a white dude anyway! Nothing personal, Dan. You were just the springboard.

Around the time Kristin Cashore’s book was still new and shit (didn’t get less shit since, though) Daniel Hemmens of Ferretbrain wrote about it in glowing terms.

On the other hand part of the reason for this is that Cashore spends no time whatsoever trying to make Katsa attractive to straight men. There’s little or no description of her naked body glistening in the moonlight, or of her bending over to present her buttocks for chastisement.

[...]

Katsa is a sublimely realised female character. So sublimely realised that I can’t really relate to her. The experiences that shape her are not my experiences. The issues that concern her are not my concerns. The qualities I look for in a female fantasy figure are not qualities the text shows any interest in. My fantasies are not what the book cares about fulfilling. Katsa is not for me and the fact that I even expected that she should be is evidence of how profoundly important this book actually is.

The thrust of Hemmens’ argument is that the book is Awesome Feminist Literature because it doesn’t concern him, a man, or the male gaze, or care about him as the reader, therefore it is alien and new and stupefying to him.

To which I can only ask, Dan: in 2009 had you never read a single book by a feminist, ever? Hell, let’s be charitable: maybe he meant this was the first ever fantasy or SF book he read that didn’t pander to him as a man?

So not Butler? Not Hopkinson? Hell, I’ll make this easier on him: not even big-name white women? Not le Guin, Russ, Valente, Vinge?

Not a single one?

Really? Those aren’t obscure authors, you know.

The thing about Hemmens’ thing with Cashore becomes pretty obvious: it’s not that Graceling is particularly great feminism, it’s that… apparently… he didn’t read books by women much. I won’t bother listing all the books that predated Cashore’s and which engage with issues of gender and feminism at a far more sophisticated, nuanced, mature level–it was 2009, not 1609 (though there were medieval texts by women that were more confrontational about gender roles than Cashore’s, sorry).

And here’s another thing which makes Cashore palatable to dudes who (apparently) have never been exposed to actual feminist literature before: it’s extremely safe. It’s the safest version of “feminism” there ever is. Katsa is beautiful, royal, magically gifted, straight, and–in all probability–a shining shade of white. It’s the face of “feminism” that dudes have no trouble nodding along to. She’s, in King Kong Theory terms, eminently fuckable. Yes, yes, Hemmens makes a big deal about how she doesn’t pander to the male gaze, but I’ve trouble thinking of too many SFF female writers who write “description[s] of her naked body glistening in the moonlight, or of her bending over to present her buttocks for chastisement” (what the fuck was he reading, Gor? Terry Goodkind? Robert Jordan?). Katsa doesn’t pander to the male gaze by being written as a sex object, but she nevertheless remains someone men–straight white men especially–will easily sympathize with, especially if these men are looking for no-effort “feminist” cred. Nor does she, or Cashore for that matter, approach the issue of gender with any real confrontation: compare with Russ or even Tanith Lee. Or le Guin’s Wild Girls. Or Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox.

Graceling is, well, pretty meek. Safe. Not too angry. Not even a bit angry, really. It’s not going to upset a dude who thinks he’s a pretty great feminist supporter already. It might upset a dedicated MRA or redditor. Maybe.

There are arguments to be made that books like Cashore’s are good for their intended age group to toddle through early feminism or whatnot, and that’s fair. But Hemmens is an adult. So is this guy. So is Larry. So, basically, we’ve a book that presents the nicest, least confrontational, not-too-angry version of “feminism” ever and a bunch of white dudes love it and credit it with deep, sophisticated meaning and what it has to say about gender roles.

Oh.

Is angry feminism the only valid feminism? No. But what does it tell you that safe, comfy, nicey-nice feminism is the one universally lauded by liberal dudes? Not “this is the only feminism that works!” incidentally.

My Mighty Penis tells me that this is a flaw in the book, that it is Cashore’s job to make me believe that these guys will have a reason to find Katsa attractive. Of course it’s actually a flaw with my attitude. We don’t need to know what specifically Giddon and Po find attractive about Katsa, we only need to know how Katsa feels about them being attracted to her. This is actually fantastically disorienting to read about, because it’s a perspective I have no experience with and seldom if ever see represented in fantasy fiction. To be presented with a situation in which a man is attracted to a woman and to be asked to view it exclusively from her perspective is incredibly unusual and actually faintly discomforting. The notion that Giddon’s attraction to Katsa simply does not matter, that not only is Katsa under no obligation to validate it, but neither is the text nor the reader, is genuinely alien to me.

You know, there’s another book that does exactly that. What was it? Ah yes–Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. No descriptions there of nude gleaming female buttocks either. No real effort to justify just why Bella’s attractive to creepy Eddie. I’m just saying.

Again, I keep getting the impression that Hemmens rarely read books by women in 2009 (whether he does now is anyone’s guess). Like Larry, he keeps picking up on fairly common stuff and keeps getting blown away, just blown away, by baby’s basics. It’s the reactions of men who think they’re decent supporters of feminism but… apparently… never consume media made by women? That’s from women’s perspective? Let alone explicitly feminist literature? Hmm.

Cashore has been criticised from a number of directions for her portrayal of men. Some reviews have argued that Katsa’s relationship with Po boils down to her being “emotionally rescued” by a man, and there was recently an extremely long discussion on Kyra’s article about whether Cashore was wrong to include so many male supporting characters, and whether the book would have been better if one or more of them had been a woman instead.

Both of these things confused the hell out of me, because I found Cashore’s portrayal of men to be one of the most positive, most important, and most subtle things about the text.

[...]

Raffin is also a good man, and his relationship with Katsa is genuinely supportive, but even so there are some things which he simply can’t do for Katsa, because there are some things about her life he simply doesn’t understand.

Katsa’s relationship with Raffin in particular highlights the fact that no matter how nice a man is, a relationship with him can never be literally equivalent to a relationship with another woman.

Remember how I said that Katsa’s formative experience was influenced (minimally) by one, singular (1) woman? Whose advice to Katsa is literally “put on a dress, daaaarrrling”–a solution that’s useless in text, evidently useless to readers, and supports the idea that feminine girly things like dresses are bad while Katsa’s fighty physical abilities are great, and men are much better at helping Katsa develop emotionally? Such that you can’t even argue “Katsa is fucked up exactly because she didn’t know any women growing up” (because Po is so much better at liberating her from herself than Helda, that stupid feminine fool with her dresses!). What relationship with another woman? Bitterblue isn’t Katsa’s equal, and taking care of a much younger, more vulnerable girl isn’t the same thing as “meaningful friendships with other women.” What is this shit, Hemmens? This is such a stunningly bad reading I can’t even wrap my head around it, and only explainable if Hemmens has bars for gender relations in genre fiction so low you can’t fucking see them without digging through Earth’s molten core.

The notion that it is somehow unfeminist to suggest that women can have relationships with men which are loving, supportive and help them to grow and mature as individuals is frankly mind-boggling. The point is not that her relationship with Po was something that Katsa needed the point was her relationship with Po was something that Katsa wanted and that the way Po treated her, supported her, trusted her and helped her was the way she had the right to be treated.

In short, Cashore’s portrayal of the relationships between men and women the most aware, most nuanced, and most flat out sorted that I have ever read. Graceling says that women need the company of other women, but can also enjoy the company of men, that they have the right to interact with men as equals, and without fear.

[...]

Kristin Cashore, you wrote a book that wasn’t about me and wasn’t for me, and it’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever read in the genre. Thank you.

Yeah, that’s the point where I became convinced he’d never read anything else by women ever.

His review devolves into a lot of stuff about how this or that is male-centric by-men-for-men while roundly dismissing media created by women that express those views, so… good job, I guess? Well done. About as great as men who go around proclaiming that if you hate Twilight you must hate women while ignoring that many women have plenty of valid reasons to hate Twilight (or find Graceling merely mediocre at best, nice-pandering at worst). It presupposes feminism as monolithic, and all women as a hivemind, and anyone who disagrees about them–the men–on these particular points of feminism must be Bad Men or misogynists.

It’s tedious. It’s tiresome. It’s utterly predictable. It’s not being a good ally. This is why men shouldn’t hold forth so much, or with so much pretend-authority, on issues pertaining to women. Men should talk less. Way the fuck less. Actually, it’d be best if they shut up about complex feminism period unless they’re hacking apart other men, like Joss Whedon or Neil Gaiman or something.

It’s like Graceling is some kind of token feminist-cred read. Babby’s first feminist book! Read it, give it great praise (while hissing at dudes who dismiss it out of hand due to girl cooties), and ever after you’ll never have to read another book by a woman because you’re a Good Male Ally now, mmkay. It’s not that these dudes are being misogynistic. But there’s an element of trying waaaaay too hard to champion a text that’s ultimately nothing special (and not particularly well-written or complex if you’re over fourteen) because it offers comfy feminism up on a silver platter. No rage. No intelligence. No awareness. No intersectionality. Just a straight white girl who’s supernaturally gifted, royal, and has it Really Hard, You Guys, White Tears Please. The author? A white American woman, natch.

Perfect for straight liberal white men.

37 thoughts on “GRACELING and comfy “feminism” for men

  1. This isn’t a new story–the Lioness Rampant books by Tamora Pierce did a very similar type of YA fantasy 20 years ago (royal-ish girl from Western European-ripoff kingdom has special powers! she likes to fight! but she has problems, too!) There’s probably other examples, but that’s the closest I can think of.

    Not saying that a story can’t be told again, just that this isn’t a breakthrough in the genre. The fact that it’s treated as such scares me a bit.

    • Tamora Pierce’s also one of those authors who get recommended a lot as Awesome Mind-Blowing Feminist when, as far as I’ve read, the feminism in her writing is pretty basic and non-confrontational.

      • Yeah, Pierce’s message is basically along the lines of “Women can do stuff!” and “Women don’t have to marry the first man they have sex with!” (although the story ends with marriage).

        It’s interesting that the series is mentioned in the comments to the Hemmens piece–which I didn’t even look at before making my first comment. It’s also a bit sad that adult readers are using YA lit as a source for nuanced discussion of gender politics. The debate never extends beyond what an American YA editor thinks is appropriate for a 13-year-old child, and the protagonists are always teenagers… so it’s like the concept of sex stops forming at age 16.

      • I remember thinking that when it first came out. I was also about 14 at the time. And even then, the entire story is painted with pretty broad strokes; the bad guys are Bad, the good guys are Good, and there’s very little nuance.

  2. I generally think Tamora Pierce does some good work for the age group she aims for. She’s not genre bending but I give her credit for tackling and presenting certain ideas that are generally accessible to YA. I read them when I was much younger and haven’t read them since. Mainly that’s due to the fact that, as an adult, I’d probably find them lacking. So maybe I should say I’m conflicted about them. On the one hand, I do agree that they aren’t Octavia Butler; but on the the other, I think there is some utility in her Lionness Books and the other ones set in Tortall.

    That said, I did not like her Circle magic series. It was not good. I think they had an interesting concept, but it was executed in a bland and sometimes offensive way.

    • Yes, I think that Pierce is quite good stuff for a relatively young age group. I recall liking her very much from 9-11 and my younger sister enjoyed her when she was ~8 and going through a Joan of Arc phase. You outgrow them pretty quickly, of course, but at those ages there aren’t a lot of options for children who already feel uncomfortable with the awful pap shoved at them by the publishing industry, but who aren’t ready to start picking through the grimdark sea of rape-gore-n-violence-against-women that is common fantasy/scifi. I had to launch from Pierce into le Guin/Pratchett and cling there like a limpet.

      It was pretty hard to find books to read at that age, so I won’t put Pierce up against the wall when the revolution comes – but there’s not much value there for an older kid.

  3. I remember reading Daniel Hemmens’ article back when you originally reviewed Graceling. Without reading Graceling, I still found it a bit condescending and too “I’m patting myself on the back” and “I’m really self-aware”. I don’t think I judged him harshly because I hadn’t read Graceling but those were the impressions I got.

  4. What the hell is that guy on? “I didn’t fancy her at all.” Do you fancy MOST OF THE HEROINES YOU READ ABOUT?

    Because all else aside that’s kind of fucked up.

    • Yeah, he’s decent when he’s ripping apart Jay Lake or Whedon or even Rowling, but in this case his arguments range from badly formed to ridiculous to fucking bizarre and alarming. It reads, as Shard said, condescending as well as trying waaaaay too hard to be the great authority on what’s feminist. Not something a cis dude should ever do.

  5. Wow. I’m a fan of Ferretbrain and even Dan Hemmens himself, but this is a side of the guy I didn’t know about. It’s like someone else wrote it, or he had a concussion and went temporarily insane.

    And to have that ecstatic a reaction to *Graceling* of all things…..

    I guess if I was going to be charitable I could assume he had maybe been immersing himself in terrible fantasy prior to this for some reason then had a stronger than warranted reaction to something that wasn’t completely awful? The bizarre “presenting her buttocks for chastisement” comment certainly seems to indicate a heavy Jordan overdose.

    • Going to have to flag this up for potential ableism re: “insane” (use of word and similar I’ve also been guilty of), but not sure. Anyone more aware than I am, feel free to say if this is ableist.

      Otherwise, yeah that could be, but that’d also assume he’d never read anything but terrible Gor-esque/Jordan (same difference) fantasy. Which would be pretty weird.

      • “Going to have to flag this up for potential ableism re: “insane” (use of word and similar I’ve also been guilty of), but not sure. Anyone more aware than I am, feel free to say if this is ableist.”

        Ooh, you’re right about that actually >.>

        I don’t know whether it’s ableist but it’s certainly making light of/stigmatizing mental illness. That word gets thrown around too casually, I should have known better, particularly since I’ve worked with mentally ill people.

        Thanks for pointing it out.

      • Yes, it is ableist to use ‘insane’ as a negative adjective. See here and here on use of ‘crazy’ (and synonyms) on Disabled Feminists. It positions an unwise, ignorant, yet fully considered sociopolitical opinion as something which is like suffering from a particularly intense episode of mental illness. This can take many forms, but writing an alarmingly ill-informed book review isn’t one of them. Unlike opinions, you can’t educate yourself out of having disabilities, and you’re not lauded by society for having a mental illness and/or neuroatypicality.

        On that note, I hope I am not going to hear whining about how there are no insulting words left to use. I can see that Ronan was conveying his surprise at Dan’s loss of reason in this piece and I agree with him in concept, there was just absolutely no need to use ableist language. If Ronan had stopped at the ‘concussion’ bit it would have been fine because it’d just be referring to a temporary injury. Sorry if it seems like I’m sinking my teeth into you a bit, Ronan! It’s certainly not personal but I just want to impress the point.

        About Dan–obviously I’m not here to defend Dan, because what he wrote can be roughly summed up as ‘SO VERY MANY NOPES’. If I’d read this article before I started getting to know him a few years ago, I would have the usual amount of confidence in his improvement as I do in all other white cis dudes who are new to me, i.e. none at all. If he messes up in this way now of course I wouldn’t hestitate to call him out as strongly as possible–lovely as I think he is, he is still a white western cis dude, and must therefore be shouted down if he is wrong. It’s what you simply have to do to create safe spaces if you’re going to be friends with people like this–not to imply it’s our responsibility to keep ‘em in line, it really isn’t, but if it comes up then we’re within our rights to rage at them until they do not enrage us anymore.

        I can only hope he continues to be better than what he displayed there.

        • Don’t worry about sinking your teeth into me :)

          I was absolutely in the wrong on this, I appreciate you taking the time to set me straight.

  6. Those are some pretty amazing quotes. I mean, had he never read McKinley? Tanith Lee? Frcking ANNE McCAFFREY?

    Kristen Cashore did nothing revolutionary by failing to describe her heroine’s breast size or buttocks or whatever.

    Or, for that matter, having characters who weren’t necessarily the designated love interest.

      • Yeah, I read an omnibus of three of McCaffrey’s novels (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon) and, to be fair, they were written because the author saw a lack of strong female characters in science fiction.

        However, by today’s standards, F’lar shaking Lessa all the time raises a few eyebrows, and there’s that one section where Lessa pretty much says what he’s doing is rape, and there’s the fact that she totally backs off when it’s painfully obvious that a great deal (or even the majority( of the male dragonriders are most likely gay or bisexual, and apparently there are no lesbians on Pern.

        It’s one of those “product of its time” things. I read it for the “historical value” and then I just stopped because the characters were just annoying.

  7. Uh…

    Me pointing out that Cashore does not endorse patriarchal values in toto is more a case of me damning with faint praise (that it is somewhat more decent than the pre-dominant social message that women should suborn themselves to men and their desires) than it being a reflection of my personal views. For that, I would say Emma Goldman comes closer. Not quite a “safe” feminism, to say the least, nor a “liberal” one :P

    The rest I’m not disputing.

  8. The thing about Graceling that really made me foam at the mouth was that EVERY SINGLE ACTION Katsa took “for herself” was instigated by Po. People can yap all they want about how empowered and badass Katsa is, but the story argues otherwise. She’s always someone’s loyal attack dog. First it’s Randa, whose service she leaves because of a conversation with Po. Then the investigation of Leck, motivated by Po. Next she escapes with Bitterblue, because Po told her to. But now she’s away from him, right? Maybe she can take some action under her own steam? HAHA NOPE. Sure, she saves everyone, but it’s not like she did it on purpose. She had to protect Po!

    It’s such a toxic idea of feminism. Sure, she’s a strong, tough, frightening warrior. But what does that matter if she never gets to do anything on her own behalf? Hell, I’d settle for her doing something for another woman, but with the possible exception of Bitterblue we don’t even get that.

  9. Oh, Pern. It embodies everything I have ever liked and disliked about Anne McCaffrey. She is very problematic and, more than any other author I have read then or since, I am conflicted in how I view her work. Something involving a female protagonist would happen and you’d be on board and be rooting for it and then something else happens and you swear McCaffrey took everyone back 10 steps and it tainted everything forever and always.

    Also, yes, the rape stuff passes by adolescent minds (mostly) and it isn’t ever really explicit…until…there was this short story, IIRC, and it just puts it out there that when dragons get horny, so do their riders. Which, something everyone knew in the background. The story took it a step further by highlighting that this particular female rider of a green dragon was approached by a dude because he wanted to be there when her dragon went into heat and the female protagonist is literally thinking “I am trying to avoid all men because if I am around them when my dragon goes into heat, I will have no choice but to have sex with whatever dude is around if my dragon chooses to mate with his dragon.”

    It was profoundly gross and disturbing to have that on top of the background noise of problematic that series had as a whole and certain books had in particular.

    • It passed by my adolescent mind. I read loads of those Pern books growing up. It was only years later that I realised what I had read and wanted to scrub my brain out with a nailbrush. Rapey, homophobic and filled with patronising faux-empowerment claptrap – yay!

      • I was introduced to McCaffrey’s Pern books by Dragonsong (which for some reason I thought had a different title, it’s been a very long while since I’ve read it), which was apparently aimed at a younger crowd and so lacked, as far as I can recall, any of her problematic sex stuff. I like it enough that when I saw some other McCaffrey novels set in Pern in the scifi racks at the library I read them. These were aimed at an older audience, and even my high school age self noticed the rapiness inherent in even the protagonists’ relationships. And there is that whole “dragon mating makes their riders horny too” thing. I don’t know what it is about scifi writers but too many of them were (and still are apparently) obsessed with this “mating imperative” that overwhelms the reason.

    • One thing that definitely didn’t pass by my adolescent mind (I think I was thirteen) was the scene in which a woman is raped and it’s presented as being for her own good. Even at thirteen, that really got my attention, and it horrified me even more when I went back to it as an adult.

      . . . ew. I just googled the scene I was thinking of and found an entire message board claiming it wasn’t rape because she came around in the end. Despite the text itself saying that she fought him and he wouldn’t stop. I think I need a shower, and possibly a new culture. I don’t like this one.

  10. I’m not sure about Pern, but I distinctly remember the series (the Rowan?) where one of the protag acts as a surrogate father to a young girl and then later marries her and she is super happy about it! Ewwwwwww incest wwwwww
    (I liked Pern when I was young, not sure how I’d feel about it now)

  11. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds it creepy that he only seems to judge a character’s worth by if he’s attracted to them. I like characters because they are clever or badass or they make me laugh or I just love to hate them, so much, and some characters I like because I would totally get in their pants if they were real and our orientations were compatible, for all the reasons outlined above.

    I also don’t really understand not being able to relate to a character because they’re not exactly like you. I mean, I won’t be able to relate to a black man in terms of having to deal with racism or being a man (because I am a white woman), but there are so many other ways to relate to a character. Did he lose a pet? Does he love his family? Is he stuck in a job he doesn’t like? Does he have a favourite food? Maybe it’s one of mine. Is he gay and currently in the closet? I can relate to that, I know what that’s like, I’m living it.

    I’m so sick of this “Wah! I can’t relate to someone because they aren’t a perfect clone of me!” thing.

  12. Pern is most definitely messed up in sexual politics. But it also doesn’t describe women primarily for the male gaze (well, I don’t remember it doing so). If we’re comparing like to like, then the YA Pern novels (Dragonsong and Dragonsinger) happily skip the skeevy dragon-related sexuality as well.

    I have just read so many fantasy novels which predate Graceling by decades, and yet have “little or no description of her naked body glistening in the moonlight, or of her bending over to present her buttocks for chastisement” that my mind boggles at the idea that this is supposed to be some kind of fantasy norm.

    • It’s been years but IIRC the women in the early Pern books were all described in male gaze terms (refs to breasts and slenderness or voluptuousness and so on). Maybe later McCaffrey moved away from that but I’d stopped reading her books since I’d grown tired of “romantic” sff. (One thing of LOTR that still appeals to me is that most of the romantic subplots are relegated to the background, even if it’s for reasons of sexism. I’m just… not very romantic I guess.)

  13. I’m so glad to read this review! I find it so incredibly frustrating when we are told to find certain protagonists and fantasy/ YA fictions “feminist” and “empowering” just because there is a girl, and she’s not a dishrag.(Or at least, she’s a dishrag who Kicks Ass.) I never understood why Graceling was considered decent, nor how Katsa was in any way feminist. The other recent “feminist”, Katniss Everdeen, is a PASSIVE character who doesn’t actually have to kill a single person in The Hunger Games – apart from in revenge for Rue. And it’s still incredibly rare to find a female protagonist who isn’t white, skinny, beautiful/pretty/striking, and doesn’t possess some sort special gift/ability. (Apparently if you give a female character some sort of generic super-power, she immediately becomes a strong, well developed character.)

    … I’m ranting, so I’ll stop. Just wanted to thank you for the review though! My discontent with the genre has been building up for a while, and this blog vocalises many of my thoughts!

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