Friday, October 18, 2013

Cliches Explained Part Four: Dangerous Sexuality

There is no doubt about it: sex is scary.

It’s made to look scary by Victorians, who deemed all bodily functions as low and disgusting, and thus installed a sense of fear into society which lasts until present day. It’s made scary because we live in a society that both fetishizes sex and forbids it. It’s scary because, in popular culture, it objectifies one or both participants, or is used to install fear and squash rebellion in the hearts of females.

Or, in an extremely ironic turn of circumstances, sexual displays by females are treated as a horrible transgressions over the viewers. As if a female's sexuality is so terrifying, it must be bottled up. (see also: Women making men lose their common sense; also, Miley Cyrus.) 

We can see traces (or full-on incarnations) of these influences in YA, and they make for interesting stories when deployed carefully. But I’m not going to talk about either of them, not directly anyway. Instead, let’s look at the books that take the expression “vagina dentata” to its most logical symbolic extreme.

That’s right. Let’s talk about virginity = supernatural powers in YA.

Now, the idea that virgin women can do miracles is not new. Priestesses in Roman and Greek societies had to be virgins because they couldn’t otherwise communicate with the gods. Diablo II was my first brush with the “bathing in the blood of a thousand virgins keeps you young” superstition (although you can apparently just sleep with them by your side and attain the same effect.) There’s a nice little list of superstitions for you here (my favourite is that if you give birth to seven kids, you regain your virginity.)

Notably absent: superstitions about male virgins, although I imagine it’s because they couldn’t think of a gender-flipped version of the unicorn. Or maybe because sex isn’t as distracting to men as it is apparently to women?

At any rate, nowadays the purity myths are less bombastic and more… icky. Jessica Valenti has some nice examples in her book of abstinence-only sex ed, and all I can say is, if I were forced to identify with a dirty piece of tape, I’d have hang-ups too. Much better to equate my virginity to amazing supernatural powers, which is what paranormal YA likes to do nowadays!

Deborah Cooke’s “Flying Blind” is a story about a girl being the only female dragon in her generation (something which is habitual) and the burden of expectation (as the female dragon has a ton of extra-special abilities that the male ones don’t). It’s a nice book about holding your own in a boys world and a very touching father-daughter relationship; it also sets the foundations of a possible romantic ship between a minor and a much older man. Also, it implies that, should she have sex, she will lose her super-special dragon powers. 

I have not read the “Vampire Diaries” series, but apparently Elena’s virgin tears have some kind of super-special impact. Fans of the series need to confirm that for me.

Gennifer Albin’s “Crewel” shows us a dystopian/paranormal society where virgins have the special ability to alter the fabric of space and time.

Steve Cole’s “Wounded” puts an interesting spin on this trope – instead of losing her powers, the female werewolf comes into them when she has sex with a male werewolf.

In UF, both Elena from “Bitten” and Faythe from “Stray” are extremely rare female shapeshifters, and though their virginities have nothing to do with their powers, the fact that they are female makes them automatically very precious.

Moving away from the book world, we also have “Claymore” an anime surrounding a group of super-powerful women warriors who fight ugly man-eating monsters. Why only women warriors? Well, Claymores are made by the fusion of human and monster – it gives them better endurance and strength and speed and overall awesomeness – but they must constantly fight from letting the monster side rule them. If they do, they turn into monsters themselves (a lot worse than a regular one), and here’s the kicker – turning into a monster is likened to sexual pleasure. So basically men succumbed to their monster side really quickly, while women were more adept at control because they could withstand the temptation.

(I’m having flashbacks of reading “What Makes Women Happy” and coming across a passage which basically says the female orgasm is useless in nature and thus sexual satisfaction should not be a matter of dispute in a romantic couple.)

Ana Mardoll has thoroughly explained why this is a bad idea in her deconstruction of the anime. I’ll just add this: This isn’t necessarily a bad trope.

Let me explain.

Fiction (especially the dystopian kind) is a very nice way to subvert and criticise aspects of our current society which are not so brilliant. It’s no secret that there is a lot of gendered BS surrounding sex – that women shouldn’t be seeking out lots of sex or even enjoying it because good girls don’t, that the female orgasm isn’t important, that a true woman’s fulfilment comes from childbirth and childrearing, yadda, yadda, yadda (and that’s just for the heterosexual cisgender bunch.) Even as marketers pedal the illusion of a strong working woman, society’s obsession with marriage and childrearing suggests that wifehood and motherhood are still the staples of a successful woman (I was recently told by a family member that I’ll be having children in the next five years. And no, she’s not clairvoyant. She merely assumed because It’s How Things Are.)

Women and division of power, denying yourself for the sake of others, is not a new thing. Susie Orbach’s “Fat is a Feminist Issue” provides an interesting spin on compulsive eating, anorexia and bulimia – the troubled relationships some women have with food reflect, at least in part, a troubled relationship with their mothers. As little girls are being raised to lower their expectations and suppress their creative energy, and putting that energy into taking care of others, food and feeding become the only aspects of her life where she has actual control (breastfeeding being the one biological difference between men and women which is used to justify the continued sexist division of labour and resources at the workplace.)

Sadly, Orbach continues, while a girl is taught that she will find fulfilment in taking care of her family, a boy is not properly taught to give care, only to receive it. Thus, when a girl finally reaches the first step of accomplishment (wifehood), she discovers that her husband will not give her what she needs. She therefore focuses her effort in the second step (motherhood) and raises her children into the same sexist ideals she has been raised in, because she does not know any better.

We have seen that of the limited roles that have been available to women in this century, motherhood is the only one in which women have legitimate power. Therefore, their personal success at being mothers results in their loss of power. Their personal success is a dead end; it does not lead on to the creation of a new, equally powerful role.
Orbach, S., Fat is a Feminist Issue, p. 38, Arrow Books, 1988

Replace compulsive eating with the power to turn into a dragon and you’ll have an almost perfect parallel. Such a parallel would be fascinating to explore in books, and you can see the markings of it in various YA titles.

Heroines at large have complicated relationships with their mothers. Their powers put them both on a pedestal (I’m one of the few; I’m one of the powerful) and restrict them (without my powers, everyone is doomed; if I come into my powers, I turn into a monster.) While their abilities are vital for their respective societies, the women are not, and thus they have very little freedom of choice to speak of. Sex plays a pivotal role in the stories, either because having it will mean loss of powers (and the society is thus DOOMED) or because possessing one of those rare women will mean that the bad guy will gain social advantage (and they will be DOOMED.) Either way, it’s the woman’s fault.

Again, fascinating story material. Where the problem lies is that modern YA, for the most part, takes an interesting concept and only uses it to set up abstinence porn. Or hammer in purity myths, depending on how much benefit for the doubt you want to grant the author.

I might have mentioned this once or twice or several times, but wasted potential is, to me, one of the worst things a book can do. And if the author doesn’t want to tackle those issues (not everyone is a political activist, I know,) then they should not dangle all the possibilities in front of our noses, only to resolve the conflict three pages later. Or, worse, dangle the possibility and then never speak of it again.

So how can you, young author, subvert this?

#1 Talk about it. Don’t just dangle the bait, have someone take it. Discuss, through dialogue and action, the consequences of this particular aspect of your world building, and have your character decide how they feel about it. They don’t need to be right – both in your book’s standards and real world standards – the important bit is that they need to have a logical line of argument and back it up. “Wounded” is a step in the right direction, as protagonist Kate makes the wilful decision never to have sex because turning into a bloodthirsty werewolf goes against her personal code of ethics (I just wish she’d explained where that code came from, since her family is shown to be very controlling and set in their evil werewolf ways.) Sure, some of your readers might not agree. They might even scream their outrage at the skies. But that’s not important. The important thing is that your character has character and they interact with other characters to make a complete picture. Which brings me to…

#2 Variety. Your protagonist may be in line with the rest of your society or go completely against it, but it’s nice to have another character play devil’s advocate, and it’s even nicer to have other characters filling the rest of the opinion spectrums in between. Again, interaction between characters is what makes a book interesting.

#3 Geese and ganders. Okay, so women are set to one standard, but what about men? Are they held to the same standards? Why? Why not? However you choose to do this – either by having the men abide by the same rules, or by the complete opposite – the act of creating a set of rules for the men as well as the women can create a new, interesting dynamic for your book. (Mary Stewart’s Merlin series has something like that, apparently.) How will it change things? How will the characters react? It’s the sort of thing which keeps readers’ attention in between the epic battles and plot developments, y’all!

#4 What everyone says may not be the truth. Ana Mardoll’s deconstruction of “Claymore” does this better than I ever will, but it’s worth repeating here: one of the best aspects of the series (both anime and manga) is how it starts off with a basic premise and systematically proves it to be wrong. So maybe in your world people believe virginity to be linked to magical powers. But is that really true? Or has everyone been too scared to find out for sure? Maybe the people who came up with this rule were biased. Maybe they were wilfully ignorant. Maybe their data sample wasn’t big enough, either because information didn’t travel fast or because they daren’t repeat the experiment. Whatever the reason, having your characters start off with an assumption and then slowly debunk it is a nice way to handle this aspect of your world because: a/ it proves that people don’t know everything, and b/ it provides a nice little commentary which I’m sure readers will appreciate.

So in what other ways can this trope be subverted? And what are the kinds of tropes that really grate on you?

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