The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-2019). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

A Re-Read of the first 10 pages of Piers Anthony’s A Spell of Chameleon

After a December hiatus (tangential note: I blame Christmas for that; turns out it’s not a practical idea to make a handcrafted stocking for your baby while on maternity leave), I decided to mosey into the next decade with a re-read some of my favourite Fantasy books that I haven’t touched in years.

I’m now contemplating how many of these books I’m going to absolutely HATE now that I’m reading them as an adult; by which I mean, *not* as a person who disparages children’s fiction, but as a person who can think critically and is more socially aware. In most of my research to date I have focused on 1990-2010 literature, with a brief study dipping into the ’60s. When I started my postgraduate work, though I couldn’t put a finger on why, I knew that ’70s and ’80s Fantasy didn’t appeal to me. I’m desperately hoping as I continue my re-read that the horribly misogynist pattern that I discovered in Anthony doesn’t hold up for any other books I re-examine.

After re-reading the first 10 pages of Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon (all I can stomach really), it shocked me how blatant the misogyny was. Keep in mind that I’ve been studying ’90s and ’00s Fantasy for the last decade, where authors like Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are accused of misogyny because of flat, stereotypical depiction of women (Jordan), or because of their mistreatment of the gender (Martin). And then we have Anthony, who doesn’t believe that women are people in any sense of the word. They are objects, or creatures, designed specifically to fulfill men’s “needs.” That idea doesn’t get more blatant than the chapter where the main character plants and grows a nymph in order to have her as a sex slave. (I didn’t read that far, but it all came screaming back to me as I started the book.)

As early as page 2, we have the main character introduce the supposed love of his life (the woman he wants to marry, or, at least, the women he has to marry in order to have sex with her). The passage reads:

All plants had their enchantments, but no spell could eliminate the need for light, water, and healthy soil. Instead, magic was used to make these necessities of the vegetable kingdom more available, [….].

Bink looked at the girl beside him as she stepped through a slanting sunbeam. He was no plant, but he too had needs, and even the most casual inspection of her made him aware of this.

Piers Anthony, A Spell for Chameleon, p. 1-2

So here we have a man who has brought his beloved out to a romantic lookout point in order to ask for her hand in marriage, and the first thought on his mind when he sees her is how he has “needs”. Are you swooning with the romance of it all? And what a segue-way; contemplating the needs of a plant to a needs of a man. It’s an awkward transition because there ISN’T an nice, normal, respectable way of blatantly stating that women are there to be sexual partners for men.

There’s not much more I can add to this criticism that reviewers Jason Heller and Oren Ashkenzi haven’t already said in their detailed breakdowns on why the book/series/author is horrible. They’re both worth checking out, as they each bring a unique take on the misogyny. Heller dwells into some of Anthony’s other books to flag the pedophilia that keeps cropping up. And Ashkenzi uses the text to give practical lessons on writing; his paragraph-by-paragraph analysis gives a good idea of how Anthony’s novel could have been so much better.

The one thought that does occur to me in re-reading these pages is it’ll be interesting to see whether other ’70s and ’80s Fantasy books have aged well. While reading a handful of reviews posted on other blogs, the theme that kept popping up for me is people who read the work as a teenager and loved it, but re-reading it as an adult realized what a disgusting misogynist mess it is. I wonder if this has to do with maturation (although the main character is nearly 25, he comes across more as a teenager and may appeal more to an adolescent crowd), or whether we, as readers, have become more critically aware. I’d like to think it’s the latter; the young adults of today seem to be a much more socially-conscious group than earlier generations and I can imagine a number of young adults picking up the book and immediately objecting to the obvious male gaze and objectification of women. But I can’t help but contemplate the effect this hugely popular author has had readers in the ’70s. Among all the negative reviews, there are also a number that praise the book for it’s “refreshing” take on sexuality. The very idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I hope I’ll be able to stomach other re-reads as my great adventure continues.

The Voice in My Head Sounds like Martin Freeman

Thoughts While Re-reading Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide

Although I remember Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (book adaptation 1985) as a favourite read, I approached the prospect of re-reading the novel with a mixed sense of pleasure and hesitation. Although I couldn’t remember the specifics of plots and scenes, I recalled moments of amusement and contemplation from when I read the book the first few times.

Given all that, it took me awhile to figure out why I was reluctant to read the book again. It took me about 20 pages to put my finger on it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of those texts where the film adaptation (2005) has completely rewritten the imaginary world I had created in my head! Within the first page of chapter one, in fact, with Adams’ description of his main character, Arthur Dent, the image that leaps into my mind is that of Martin Freeman. From that moment, my inner narratorial voice itself speaks with Freeman’s voice. Now, this may be because Freeman has a distinctive voice that is easily recognisable, or because Freeman is a phenomenal actor, but the effect it leaves on me is one of resentment and discouragement. Despite watching the film only 1-2 times, as the first 20 pages unfolds, the story that runs through my head is the movie itself. Freeman getting irate in his bathrobe. Enter Mos Def stage right. And, given that Mos Def’s character, Ford Prefect, is described completely differently in the book (“His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backwards from the temples”), I think it’s understandable that I’m put out that his image replaces the character I had originally imagined in my own head.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Mos Def as an actor. He brings a charm to any role. And, I suppose in this day of inclusion, the thought to change the character stemmed from a requirement to make sure that all the characters didn’t look homogeneously the same (especially as half of them are aliens); although, of course, this moves risks casting Mos Def as a token character. (We won’t dive into my thoughts on the lack of representation for the ginger community, and the implications of re-casting the “alien” character with another visible minority.)

So I don’t necessarily object to casting Mos Def in the role of Ford Prefect. But I am dejected that my original picture of him has been lost.

Interestingly, Roger Egbert’s review of the 2005 film states that: ” You will find the movie tiresomely twee, and notice that it obviously thinks it is being funny at times when you do not have the slightest clue why that should be. […] I do not get the joke.” His review relays that the film was inaccessible for those who were unfamiliar with the book; indicating that those who remember the narrative and scenes were likely those who were already familiar with the book.

Did the movie (or other adaptations) replace the book adaptation version in your head? Or is there any book/film adaptation that was ruined for you as a result?