Tag Archives: critical thought

Pratchett’s Women: Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening.

Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett, is the best kind of fantasy novel.

For me, the best possible thing that fantasy as a genre can do is to say something important about our world and history, ideally while also commenting in some way on the traditions of the genre itself, and being a damn good read. Add to that a whole bunch of female characters who happen to be the central drivers of the plot and…

Oh, yes. Lords and Ladies is that good.

In some ways, this book is the last third of an unofficial trilogy (with Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad) featuring the original trio of Pratchett’s witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In other ways, it’s the beginning of an unofficial trilogy (with Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum) about the mortality and power of Granny Weatherwax, with bonus Nanny Ogg at every turn (she doesn’t just steal scenes, she gets them drunk and makes them blush with dirty jokes) and the growing pains of Agnes “Perdita” Nitt.

But this is also, like so many of Pratchett’s best books, a book about stories. In this case, having taken on Shakespeare and fairy tales, he looks at the role of women in English folk songs and folklore. This is a story about cold iron and fairy glamour; of midsummer rituals and blood in the snow and dodgy jokes about morris dancers and maypoles. It’s a story about how practicality trumps romance every time, if you’re lucky.

Most of all, while it has much to say about witches and wives and mothers, this is a story about queens.

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The Story of Cesc

The thing I wasn’t prepared for when I fell into this world of football fandom was how emotional it all is. From the outside, it just looks like little men running around a field, and the distinctions between teams appear entirely arbitrary. But when you choose your own team, when you get attached, you learn the stories that come with each player, and the threads of narrative weave together in deeply emotional ways. So as fans we follow the team, we learn their stories, and we retell them to each other.

When Zeft first started teaching Kaia and I about Premier League football, and the new team we had pledged to support, the first story she told us was the story of Cesc, her favourite player. How he had come from Barcelona to play for Arsenal as a young teenager, and was now one of the best creative midfielders in the world. Even before I knew what a midfielder was, I knew that Cesc was an exceptional one. He had been our youngest ever player on the first team, and youngest goalscorer. He was ours.

In my first year as Arsenal fans, I saw the developing legend of Cesc for myself. I learned to watch the games and to understand them, and it was pretty damn evident that Cesc stepping on to the pitch made a difference, to everyone’s game. Also, he was adorable. Then Arsene Wenger took the captain’s armband off the badly-behaving William Gallas, and Kaia and I shared Zeft’s utter glee that it was presented to Cesc – at only 21 years old, though he was a five year veteran of the team. He was our captain now!

The way football works, and I don’t just mean the media and reportage, but in fandom itself, it’s all about the narrative beats. The story practically told itself: with our new young captain and a new lease of life, we’d regroup our strength and win something, right? Only we didn’t. Cesc was struck down with a knee injury for four months, and the season ended with us barely hanging on to our place in the top four. It was the same story every year – periods of hope that this would be the year that our young, hungry team would fulfil their potential, then injuries and disappointment and a lack of silverware.

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Aliens in Your Science Fiction, Messing With Your Definitions

So there’s a new Galactic Suburbia podcast due to be recorded this week, and I have some homework left over from last time! That is:

Dear Tansy,

Howdy! Long time listener, first time emailer!

I just wanted to clarify the question from last night’s show. You said that if science fiction was to be innovative and inclusive (was that the second word you used?), it should be broad in its definition. I wanted to know if you thought that “science fiction” as defined not by the genre (ie fiction based on science etc) but rather those who have power to define the genre (eg reviewers, critics, editors, publishers and those who might see themselves as working to maintain the core) actually want and actively encourage innovation and inclusiveness? I guess I wondered if you thought science fiction, as it is currently published, really was innovative and inventive and inclusive?

Looking forward to your answer!



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The Wrong Kind of Green

Deborah Biancotti has written a gorgeous essay about how creepy, horrific, threatening and generally unfriendly she finds the Australian landscape. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, undercutting and at the same time contributing to a couple of centuries of problematic attempts by writers and artists to describe, capture and define something that is pretty damn alien.

I remember hearing a story of a “genius” English painter who came out to Australia to capture the landscape, only to discover that we had the wrong kind of green. Not in paint, you understand. The trees were the wrong kind of green. Traditionally, most 19th century Australian painters approached our landscape as if it was – well, England, only without the hedgehogs.

I’m sure every country and culture has an idealised literary tradition to rail against. (Have you read a Beatrix Potter lately? Jemima Puddleduck, for example, rivals Tess of the D’Urbervilles for a place on the list of “books that make you want to kill yourself.”) But there’s something about Australia – the combination of fear and dread and danger and shame… the fact that even someone my age was so swamped with British culture that I have struggled to understand or appreciate any of the Great Australian Authors.

I live in Tasmania, which is completely unlike most of the rest of Australia. The thing, though, about Australia, is that just about everywhere is unlike most of the rest of Australia. The idea of some kind of collective identity seems strange. I remember when I and the other ROR writers were putting our series bible and pitch for the Lost Shimmaron series – we all lived in different parts of Australia, but we needed a town to base all the stories in. For the sake of appealing to as wide a range of Australian kids as possible, we needed somewhere generic, but you know, there is no generic Australian town, or generic Australian experience. There’s a big difference between living in Queensland, or New South Wales, or Tasmania, and that’s even before you get to the great divide between the eastern and western states.

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Ruining Young Men’s Lives

On 27 February 2010, 19 year old footballer Aaron Ramsey had his leg broken in two places.

Over the last couple of years, Ramsey has worked his way up from being a Welsh youth player with great potential to signing for Arsenal, one of the top four teams of the Premier League, to playing with the first team. He’s very young still, but he was building momentum and there was much talk about the career ahead of him. On the day in question, he was tackled by the Ryan Shawcross, the 22 year old captain of the Stoke team, causing his tibia and fibula to be broken. The injury was so horrific that the game came to a halt, players were sick and visibly shaken, and the incident was not replayed. Ramsey was stretchered off the pitch, and Shawcross was given a red card – which took him out of the game, with a three match ban.

The backlash began almost as soon as the game ended.

Players, fans and pundits excused Shawcross’s behaviour, insisting that he didn’t mean it, he wasn’t that kind of player, it was a fair tackle, he was crying when he saw what had happened, he felt really bad… The story even circulated that the ref himself didn’t think it was intentional, and had only felt he “had to” send Shawcross off because of the extent of the injury.

A media storm unfolded, with one side pointing out that, you know, they had a player in hospital who might take 8-18 months to recover, and this was in fact the third similar injury inflicted on Arsenal players in under four years. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said that the injury was “horrendous” and “unacceptable.” Shawcross’s supporters responded with “he didn’t mean to do it.”

Indeed, the sympathy for Shawcross began to snowball, taking on epic proportions. It was suggested that Wenger should apologise for suggesting that breaking his player’s leg was unacceptable, well before Shawcross himself had apologised for breaking said leg (there has still been no public apology though apparently a private one has been accepted).

One of the best posts on the subject I have read is this amazing, powerful piece on the Arseblog, which points out that in fact no one is saying that Shawcross meant to break Ramsey’s leg, but that the kind of behaviour he exhibited on the pitch (“he isn’t that kind of player” was also trotted out in 2007 whenShawcross broke Francis Jeffers’ ankle) makes the injury his responsibility. Arseblogger also points out the collective responsibility of the media and culture that enable and encourage dangerous play.

When Arsenal fan, actor Alan Davies, suggested on Twitter (immediately the incident) that Shawcross should be kept out of the game as long as it would take Ramsey to recover, he was met with a hail of hysteria and abuse. As Arseblogger put it: “the Shawcross ‘is not that kind of player’ brigade have been out in force.” Complaints were made that the whole incident was spoiling Shawcross’s delight in being called up to play for England, the day after the leg-breaking incident. (one blog compared Google hits for ‘feel sorry for Ryan Shawcross’ vs ‘feel sorry for Aaron Ramsey’ and even including websites which are saying things like ‘how the hell can people feel sorry for Ryan Shawcross’ the results are a little startling).

There’s no way in a million years that he would ever, ever go out to hurt a person. He’s a lovely kid and he’s been exemplary since he’s been at this football club. It was breaking his heart coming off the pitch.”
(Stoke manager Tony Pulis)

It’s a disappointing challenge and as I say it’s so ironic that Ryan’s involved in it because of all the players that we’ve got here he’s such a gentle kid, such a gentle lad.”
(Pulis again)

“There was no malicious intent from Ryan, he’s not that kind of player.”
(Stoke midfielder Danny Pugh)

He’s a committed player, but he’s never going to go into a challenge looking to hurt someone.”
(Stoke player Rory Delap)

I was with him at United for a couple of years and he’s not that type of player.”
(Wayne Rooney, striker for Manchester United and England)

Shawcross has been called into the England squad and he doesn’t deserve the grief he’s getting.”
(Paul Parker, former England player)

I’ve got to say I felt sorry for Shawcross. Not just because of all the hoo-ha over the challenge, but the fact it overshadowed one of the greatest moments in his life after being called up by England for the first time… I suppose the furore over the Ramsey injury is a bit of a spanner in the works, but the call-up is still a feather in his cap and he should go there and enjoy the experience as much as possible.”
(Lou Macari, sports journalist and former Scotland player)

It’s worth noting that no one has actually accused Ryan Shawcross of being malicious in his tackle. No one, not even Ramsey and Wenger and Arsenal’s most froth-mouthed supporters, has said that he deliberately set out to break the Welsh teenager’s leg in two places. Saying that a violent result of a tackle is unacceptable and was caused by reckless behaviour is not the same as saying that the result was intentional. And yet the backlash continually fights this straw argument, insisting that Shawcross is so nice, sweet, honest, gentle and kind to his mother, and more importantly, he didn’t mean to do it.

As has been pointed out calmly and clearly by many people so far, intent is important, up to a point. It’s the difference between manslaughter and murder, for example (both of which are in fact crimes). But crude, clumsy and careless can still have some pretty horrific results without there being malicious intent. Think of the damage someone can do at the wheel of the car if they are crude, clumsy or careless, not to mention drunk, tired, distracted. If you hurt someone out of reckless behaviour you get punished for it by law even if you didn’t set out to cause injury. Everywhere except the football pitch, where intent can apparently erase even the most aggressively stupid mistakes. Where spitting at someone, swearing at them or breaking their leg in two places attracts exactly the same punishment.

But I can think of another example where, socially and through the media, intent can become the difference between an incident being considered ‘a crime’ and ‘something best put behind you, eh.’ It struck me right between the eyes when I saw the language being used. About how Shawcross wasn’t that kind of player, wasn’t that kind of bloke, that he meant well, he was a good egg, that we wouldn’t want to ruin his life over something that wasn’t his fault because, after all, he didn’t mean to do it.

It’s the language of the patriarchy protecting itself. It’s the language of the privileged, scrambling to excuse the inexcusable, on the grounds that he’s a young lad, a good lad, has his whole life and career ahead of him, you wouldn’t want to spoil it for him would you? After all, he didn’t mean to do it, therefore it doesn’t count.

(psst, can’t you see just by looking at him that he deserves special treatment?)

It’s the same language that is used to excuse rapists because the rape was “only technical” and his behaviour was “out of character” and he had “a good employment record.” The same language used when a judge is concerned that a man (who pleaded guilty) might be “marked with the grave offence of rape for the rest of his days” for having sex with an unconscious woman. Chris Brown’s sister told the media that he was “a good boy, never violent” shortly after he was arrested for beating and nearly strangling his girlfriend Rhianna, and it wasn’t long before she was being blamed for her own abuse. And let’s not forget how sorry we were asked to feel for child-rapist Roman Polanski when he wasn’t allowed to pick up his Oscar in person, let alone when he was finally arrested for his crime.

This is not in any way to equate recklessly violent football players with rapists. There is no comparison to be made in that regard. But it is absolutely worth looking at the way that certain people in society – those who are privileged for their gender or race or country of origin, and particularly those who are privileged because they belong to a particular class of celebrity (artistic geniuses and sports stars are pretty high on that list) – are treated differently when they do something wrong. It’s worth looking at the way that so many people flock to excuse them on the grounds of intent, past character, and in many cases, on the grounds that being called on their inappropriate or criminal actions might disrupt their incredibly privileged lives.

Apparently 300 Arsenal fans sent letters of sympathy to Ryan Shawcross. I can’t quite get over that.

Aaron Ramsey is young and white and good-looking and healthy (apart from the broken tibia and fibula, obviously) and a British footballer, so under most circumstances he would be the most sympathetic party in a media skirmish. But Shawcross is all those things and he plays for England. Which, apparently, beats Wales. So it’s not his fault, and he’s a good bloke, and the most tragic outcome of that particular game is that the experience of being called up for the England team might be spoilt. The patriarchy has chosen a side, and closed ranks.

The patriarchy is not just a cultural phenomenon that raises men and their values above women and theirs. The patriarchy harms men, too. Particularly men who step outside the culturally approved masculine behaviours. More importantly, it protects men against what others might see as appropriate consequences for inappropriate behaviours.

Intent matters. It’s important to have good intentions, and particularly important not to have malicious, violent or abusive intentions. But intent is not everything. And it really is time that people stood up and said – no, actually. You don’t get to feel sorry for yourself right now. You might have had a hard week, but your victim has had a worse one. The fact that you cried when you saw what you had done is in fact less important than the fact that his leg will take seven months minimum to heal and that his first season playing as a starter for a Premier League football club is over four months early. Assuming, of course, that he does come back as anything like the same player he was before. Injuries like this can ruin careers, and lives, before they’ve even got started.

You don’t get cookies for not meaning to hurt someone when you have, in fact, hurt someone. Whatever the circumstances.

And maybe, if you’re not willing to change after three incidents of seriously hurting people on the pitch, maybe you actually ARE that kind of player.

I had a tough weekend, but to come and join such a great team was absolutely fantastic. Just to have been involved with the squad has been great. All the England players have been fantastic about what happened with Aaron Ramsey. They’ve got my mind on football really, nothing else. I’ve enjoyed their company and it’s been a good experience… What happened will not be a factor when I next play again for Stoke. Whenever I pull on the Stoke shirt I have to be 100% committed and the same as ever. Hopefully, when I am back from the suspension, I can do well again.”
(Ryan Shawcross)

Strong Women

WendyIn my last post I talked about how there are many different kinds of strength in female characters, and it rubs me up the wrong way when an emotionless, damaged and violent ‘Ms Kickass’ is the only acknowledged type – as if that is the only alternative to the fainting damsel.

So in the interest of giving some actual examples, a variety of strong heroines I have been thinking about lately:

Emma Donohue in White Tiger and other novels by Kylie Chan

I once had a long conversation with someone about the lack of mothers in fantasy – and whether you could have a mother as an epic fantasy heroine. The problem with this of course (and the reason Xena didn’t get to keep her baby) is that taking a child along on a dangerous adventure is completely irresponsible. Chan was one of the first authors I found who had a solution – what if the child is immortal/powerful in her own right but still needs parenting? Emma develops powers and martial arts ability throughout the books, but which she isn’t technically a parent, she does fulfil that role throughout the books, and the juggling act of trying to sort out the school situation when you and your child are embroiled in a supernatural war was actually pretty awesome.

Briar Wilkes in Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Another mother hero! In this case, a woman almost entirely defined by her relationship with men – Briar goes in search of her teenage son, who is himself hoping to clear the names of his father and grandfather. I’m still only halfway through the book, but after reading so much steampunk centred around boy heroes I’ve been really enjoying the novelty of a middle-aged heroine with a complex past.

Polly & Eileen in Blackout by Connie Willis

The Blitz is famous as a time when everyday people had to cope with the most extraordinary horrors while still keeping the shops open, putting food on the table, and trying not to fall apart. In this time travel novel, stranded historians Polly and Eileen learn more than they intended about the fragility of life and survival in wartime. While their male counterpart Mike gets tangled up in the “manly” dramas of Dunkirk and military hospitals, Eileen and Polly show us the day to day stresses and challenged of living through the Blitz. Just something as simple as the constant interrupted sleep… with a new baby’s habits still fresh in my mind, I’m surprised the whole population of London didn’t just go insane.

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Kicking Arse and Taking Names

I’ve been thinking about urban fantasy and the kickass heroine lately, and chatting about her over at Marianne de Pierres’ Facebook page.

I first started turning this over in my mind when I read a piece on critiquing groups in one of the Wiscon Chronicles by a woman who struggled because her female characters, who acted logically within her own cultural context, were being criticised for not being more active, aggressive, “kickass”.

And I wondered if the kickass heroine had maybe become a millstone around our necks.

The kickass heroine has become a mainstay of SF films and gaming. She has led TV series such as Xena, Alias, Buffy. She is Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Lara Croft, some other characters played by Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsdale in Underworld…

She is tough, violent, uncompromising, ruthless, broken. You don’t mess with her.

There are many things to like about these women, particularly because they provide such a contrast to the kind of female roles that have generally been available in SF and fantasy. But it concerns me when these become the only kinds of women that there is room for in speculative fiction – particularly in SF films where Ms Kickass is the only female character, and her appeal seems to revolve around the fact that she acts like and is accepted by all the men, plus bonus boobs.

I talked about lone princesses here – I think the same can apply to Ms Kickass. Don’t get me wrong – if there’s only one woman on screen I’d rather she be kicking arse and taking names than throwing up, screaming and being rescued… but do they all have to be wearing leather trousers and tramp stamps?

There is a fine line between empowering, and objectifying. Sometimes the difference comes down to who is holding the camera, and who is sitting at the keyboard.

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Blackout, by Connie Willis


This is, quite simply, the Connie Willis novel that her fans have been waiting for. With novels such as To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book, with stories such as “Fire Watch,” her interest in World War II history and in particular the Blitz has been evident – but it has taken until now to produce her Great Blitz Novel.

The bad news for fans is, this is only half of said novel. The second half is being released as All Clear at the end of 2010. Little concession is made to the gap between publication, with Blackout simply pausing on a very minor cliffhanger, as if there has been a paper shortage. But, you know, those of us who have been waiting a decade for a Willis novel will naturally suck it up and wait the extra ten months or so.

Blackout covers familiar ground, introducing us to the gentle future England we have met in earlier books, the kind of science fiction that might be imagined while lazily punting down a river in 1930’s Cambridge. There has been no Spike in this version of the mid-twenty-first century, which is peopled with earnest time-travelling scholars so completely wrapped up in the minutiae of their favourite time period that they don’t seem to notice the lack of wireless internet and iPods. (I’m pretty sure they all write notes with fountain pens)

In charge of it all is Mr Dunworthy (does anyone else mentally subsitute that for Dumbledore?) who has obviously been so traumatised by his appearances in Willis’ earlier time travel books that he has become snappish and irritable, determined to protect his students, who are all equally determined to go back in time and get themselves blown up in air raids.

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The Princess and the Frog

Princess_Tiana_by_al305srBefore I went to see this film, I read this great post by Nnedi Okorafor which deals with some of the issues she had with the film (which she otherwise liked), particularly with racial & cultural themes. You should read it too, because it’s great.

My response to the film is not just as a woman, someone who generally enjoys Disney movies and a feminist, but also as the mum of a little girl who adores Disney Princesses and has bought into the brand lock stock and barrel.

The movie itself is great – beautifully drawn, with good crunchy characters and probably the best Disney romance since Hercules and Megara (or, if we’re talking romances for Disney princesses, Belle and the Beast). I have no way of knowing if 1920’s New Orleans is being presented here in an authentic way, but there was a surprising depth of cultural details that I certainly enjoyed. The music contributed to this, and blended very well with the story (more so than in most Disney movies of the last 15 years where a couple of ‘big’ songs are thrown haphazardly in between dialogue). Even the random stuffed-toys-in-the-making animal helper characters had interesting personalities and story arcs (I shed a tear over Ray the firefly).

But never mind the story, it’s the princess that parents everywhere will have to live with. Let’s look at Tiana…

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Happy Day of Awesome Posts About Gender

Mari Ness posts about gendered gaze, artistic assumptions and the way that women’s participation in the arts becomes so quickly forgotten, and made invisible. (via @Krasnostein on Twitter)

This is a great post, and raises one of the issues that I know I need to keep in mind – when complaining about the imbalance of women in the arts, it’s very easy to render invisible those who are and always have been a part of the scene. That’s one of the reasons that I like to review books that I read, even though it adds extra pressure to the whole reading-as-a-hobby thing (ha!).

The most memorable and important class I took at college (grades 11 & 12, not university) was Art Appreciation, which I chose purely because I had already signed up for the maximum number of history and english classes that could count towards university, and this was an essay-based subject. I had a great teacher, Wayne, who introduced us to a whirlwind of art history, and had a particular interest in pointing out female artists, and the use of women as subjects of art. His passion that year was artistic depictions of Judith slaying Holophernes, and this led me to Artemisia Gentileschi, still my favourite artist and the one who is most important to me. I chose female artists as my year-long project and wrote about Artemisia, and Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and Judy Chicago, and Georgia O’Keeffe. My eyes were well and truly opened to women in the world of fine arts, and the way they are so often overlooked, and that has always stayed with me.

Anyway, read Mari’s post, it’s awesome and layered with all sorts of things that I know I should think about more – like the way that people assume that any artwork that is anonymous is male, and that if it wasn’t made by women, it’s not art but ‘craft’.

And since apparently this is the day of awesome posts about gender, Overland have one over at their blog, too. (via @TalieHelene on Twitter, I love that people send me this stuff directly now!) This post picks up on a few other discussions about invisible sexism in literature and asks some important questions:

• Is there a difference between what women and men write?
• What do we judge as good writing?
• Where do we get these ideas about good writing from?
• How important is voice and experience to good writing?

All good stuff, and that distracted me nicely from my appalling strep throat and paranoia that the antibiotics aren’t kicking in for at least twenty minutes. Thank you, internet!