I’m thinking a lot about women these days. It doesn’t have to do with the fact that last year a presidential candidate dismissed a female rival with the remark, “Look at that face… would anyone vote for that?” I’m neither thinking about the deluge of profane voicemails and text messages, littered with the words b*tch and c*nt, that were sent to the State of Nevada’s Democratic Chairwoman; nor media coverage of female politicians that tends to foreground their appearance, marital status, and ability to fulfill traditional gender roles. I’m definitely not thinking about a 2008 camping trip I took where campers argued about America’s readiness for a female president, and one of the campers, a woman, argued vociferously that women are too emotional and weak to be the President of the United States.
No, I’m not thinking about any of those things. I’m not bitter at all. This has nothing to do with the election. Not one bit.
I’m actually thinking about all the stories we tell ourselves about women: who they are, what they value, what their value to the rest of us is. How rigid and entrenched those notions can be, especially when they’re reinforced by the stories we consume daily through text and images. In our October post Against the Current, Gemma and I vented about our frustrations with the representation of female characters in popular streaming shows. Today, I want to raise up two recent reads that challenge all the nonsense we write and say about women.
This quote is an apt entry point to discussing the representation of women in Beth Cato’s “Breath of Earth” and V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic.” Not only are both of these books immensely entertaining, they are also refreshing departures from storytelling that can’t wrest itself from deeply entrenched gender stereotypes. Damsels-in-distress, beautiful trophies, duplicitous sirens, humanity’s stories are filled with women who need to be saved by men, flaunted as status symbols by men, and destroyed if they dare obstruct the heroes’ journeys. Even when we render women as powerful beings, they are instruments of men (i.e. Circe in the Odyssey or Eleven in Stranger Things).
Cato and Schwab, however, resist these tropes and have created three dimensional female characters whose motivations are wholly independent of the stories’ male characters. Constrained by poverty, Delilah “Lila” Bard of “A Darker Shade of Magic” strives for freedom and adventure in unknown lands. Restrained by oppressive social norms, Ingrid Carmichael of “Breath of Earth” seeks to openly be who she is and have her magical talents acknowledged by her community. The character arcs for both women remain true to these motivations, and the characters resist the roles projected upon them.
Returning to the earlier quote from “Breath of Earth,” a palpable tension in both books involves the women’s need for secrecy and the openness required to trust and bond with others. The social contexts in which both women live require them to hide: Lila as a masked male thief and Ingrid as a docile secretary. Being present with both women as their secrets come to light is part of the pleasure of reading these books, and I love that both authors explore how these concealed identities impact relationships with others. Lila has to learn to trust and be vulnerable, but her starting point is perfectly described in this exchange:
Ingrid has to dismantle internalized oppression to grow into who she wants to be:
There’s a bit of humor in how Schwab and Cato subvert tired tropes about women. I’ll leave you to discover and enjoy their treatment of the damsel-in-distress trope on your own. Instead, I have to point out their inversion of the male gaze, where women are the invariably objects of attention. Both authors present the male as the object of gaze. In “A Darker Shade of Magic,” Lila taunts the other protagonist of the book, Kell, by conjuring a twin version of him:
Cato pushes this even further in “Breath of Earth.” Written in the close third person, the reader follows Ingrid and experiences the world through her point of view. The reader experiences a supporting male character, Cy, as an object of Ingrid’s gaze:
These examples invert the woman as sexual object trope that is so pervasive in storytelling and presents instead men as instruments of female pleasure.
In what world is it ok for political leaders to assert the right of celebrities to assault and violate women? Apparently a world where stories populated with two dimensional female characters abound, where female characters are the objects of male gaze, the instruments of male power and pleasure, characters whose motivations are inextricably bound to male self interest. Only in a world where its inhabitants consume and perpetuate these messages daily is such a thing possible.
This world needs more stories that represent the diversity and complexity of women. Women like Lila who will slice off the hand of any buffoon who dares to grab her genitalia. Women like Ingrid who are willing to dismantle and resist the structures of patriarchal oppression. V.E. Schwab and Beth Cato are delivering. So too are shows like The Fall and Jessica Jones. The film Advantageous is a godsend.