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.
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.