Fantasy and Gender Equality

I grew up on Tolkien. My mother has been a fan of Lord of the Rings since high school and I was raised on a healthy diet of Middle Earth and never really questioned the lack of female characters. It was the male characters I cared about. The friendship between Aragorn and Legolas I understood, the beauty of the moments between Frodo and Sam I loved, but I didn’t see the purpose of Arwen, and though Eowyn is a joy to read and watch I never felt I could connect to her nature. I never loved her as a character. It has always been the male characters who were the ones I related to, and generally that is still the truth.

But, as much as I would love for this blog to just be about Tolkien and the amazing world he created, I want to talk less about gender disparity in Lord of the Rings and more about a lesser known fantasy series I came across over the summer. Now, I had pretty  much given up on Fantasy. After Lord of the Rings it’s difficult to be impressed because you see imitations everywhere. I had gotten sick of the hero-on-a-magic-quest series, or worse, the strong-female-lead-on-a-magic-quest-who-stops-being-strong-when-romance-is-involved. Romance is always involved.

As such, it was a breath of fresh, though slightly disturbing, air to read Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series.

Melusine is the first novel, followed by The Virtu, The Mirador, and Corambis. For the purposes of this blog I’ll be focusing mainly on Melusine. The story is heavily character driven with the two main characters, Felix and Mildmay, sharing first person narration that alternates with each section. Surprisingly enough this is never confusing because the two speakers could not be more different in their voices. Felix is a wizard in the city of Melusine, but before he gained this status, he was a child prostitute bought by a man named Malkar who, in an abusive (to put it mildly) relationship, trains Felix to be a gentleman. Mildmay is a kept-thief and ex-assassin turned cat burglar, who lives in the Lower City of Melusine and lives off the money from his crimes.

The plot begins when Felix goes back to his former lover and master Malkar who rapes him and uses Felix’s magic to break the Virtu, the orb that holds and channels all the magic of the wizards in the city.

So what does this have to do with feminism? On the surface, nothing. The two main characters are both men and there are few female characters to be found. Yet although this might seem like a androcentric novel it does more for gender equality than I have seen in almost any fantasy series.

To start with, Felix is gay. The brilliance of this move is that his relationships are never sensationalized because he is with a man, and his sexuality is treated as being perfectly normal. This is helpful for feminism because gay men are given ‘female’ status and ‘female’ characteristics contributes to the notion that being a woman is a terrible thing. If you are a woman it means you are not a man and therefore you are less. By treating Felix and his relationships as as normal as Mildmay’s, who’s straight, Sarah Monette promotes equality between the sexes.

She continues to subvert tropes of male and female stereotypes with her use of abusive relationships and conceptions of rape. In Mildmay’s case, he grows up a kept-thief (a child owned by a Keeper who uses the children to scavenge around the city making or stealing money) under a female Keeper who sexually abuses him when he is in his teens. In Monette’s world rape is not always male on female, but is just as damaging if it female on male (Mildmay) or male on male (Felix). The trauma of these experiences follow the characters throughout the series because rape is rape no matter who the rapist or the victim is.

Perhaps the biggest stereotype that is debunked is that men cannot be emotional. The story is told from the first person point of view of two men and though they often deny what they are feeling in dialogue, there can be no mistake that they do, in fact, have emotions and these emotions are never played for laughs. Both Felix and Mildmay go through harrowing circumstances, both before the story begins and throughout their journeys. Their emotions are never ‘feminized’ even by other men in the story.

And there are a lot of men to keep track of. As I mentioned before, there are still few female characters but the ones who play a role are never stereotypes. The main female character is Mehitabel Parr, an actress with a shady past who comes into the story in The Virtu and plays a major role in The Mirador. Though she has a relationship with Mildmay it is understood that though she sleeps with him it is because she thinks he would enjoy it and that she might as well. She is the I-take-no-bullshit-from-anyone type of woman who, when she gets her own passages of first person narration in The Mirador, is shown to be just as complex as she seemed when Mildmay or Felix would describe her in The Virtu. She was well rounded, and though she had sex, it was not her defining characteristic. In fact,it is refreshing that she had sex because she wanted to and owned her sexuality.

The other female character is Corbie, introduced in Corambis. She is a prostitute who wants to be a wizard, but has no training. It does not help that the Wizarding schools in Corambis are sexist and will barely admit her once Felix becomes her teacher and she shows an aptitude. Her learning is the focus not her prostitution. This is also the only time in the series where sexism is directly addressed and though it is addressed overtly I think it is for the best. In order to position Corbie’s character so her arc was on her learning to be a wizard she had to overcome the sexist institutions that were keeping her uneducated, in poverty, and in prostitution. She fought the patriarchy to a certain extent and this did not need to be subtle.

Subtlety is when Sarah Monette creates two male characters in a world dominated by men in power, and still creates a series that promotes gender equality. If you get a chance read the series. I had a difficult time at first, because there is graphic sex and multiple graphic rape scenes. If you are interested in new ways to weave feminism into fiction though, stick with it, the characterization is great and no matter how graphic and disturbing it might be, every scene serves a  purpose. Read it for the characters and read it for what it does to promote equality.

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