Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Mundane Middle Stretch

All right: we're in post 2 of a three post series. Yesterday covered some of the differences between the Disneyfied Little Mermaid and its original; today, we'll take the final point, the marginalization of women, and run it into the ground. Be warned: this post is definitely the "Empire Strikes Back" of the bunch, as it comes to a fairly negative conclusion. Negative in the way it reflects me, I mean. My only defense is that I hope to be somewhat redeemed with tomorrow's blog equivalent of Return of the Jedi. (I can promise no Ewoks, so that's already an improvement.)

Anyway, while The Little Mermaid rekindled my decision to do a feminism-issue series of posts, the seed was originally planted when I attended a lecture Elaine Showalter gave at my university a few weeks ago. The lecture essentially presented a case for her upcoming book, a history of female writers of North America. This history, especially in the United States' early years, really hadn't been told. She gave a particularly striking contrast. When Walt Whitman first tried to publish his seminal "Leaves of Grass," he absolutely couldn't get anyone to buy it. The single book store that accepted a few copies couldn't move one of them, and no one else was biting. So he actually sent a few fake, raving reviews to literary magazines and suddenly the work no one would read became one of the pillars of American poetry. At the same time, a woman published a book of poems to huge acclaim, but was forced to write under a pen name so her husband wouldn't find out. When he did, he gave her an ultimatum: either she give up public writing forever, or he would divorce her and take the children. So she literally had to choose between her family and her writing. She acquiesces, and becomes virtually forgotten. Showalter's point is that men were allowed to go to extreme measures for self-promotion; women who did the same were vilified.

That I can't even remember the name of the woman she used lends further credence to her argument.

Anyway, the talk got me thinking about influential women creators in my own field. In video games--well, the pickings are rather slim. That isn't to say there's no one. It was a husband and wife team that were behind Sierra, who made some of the best computer games of the 20th century. Another woman was behind Sierra's popular Hero's Quest series. And I know it was actually a female who coded the arcade classic Centipede. But while I'd recognize the names if I saw them, I can't actually name any of them off the top of my head. In contrast, the big historical male names in video game history--Shigeru Moyamoto, Warren Spector, American McGee, John Romero--immediately roll off my tongue. In this case, at least, it can be partly contextualized. Video games are--excuse the gross overgenralization--heavily masculinized. There are exceptions, and I believe there will continue to be more exceptions, that the field will change with the greater expansion of the form, and with the increasingly popularity of, um, pop games and sim games, but for now... well, how many women would WANT to be associated with a character like Duke Nukem?

Maybe some prominent female role-models can be found in the actual games.

...or maybe that's not a productive area of discussion. (Sorry, Samus.)

One area of video games that does have a prominent female presence is its scholarship. There's a lot of women who bring some of the more useful anthropological approaches into game studies: see Suzzane de Castell, Mia Consalvo, and Lisa Nakamura (all right, she's more digital media at large, but there's crossover.). Brenda Laurel and Janet Murray are often cited as the founders of the narratology-side of the video game debate. There's also Karen Collins on game sound design, Katie Salen on game design, and Sheila C. Murphy on the game artifacts, such as cell phones and the Intellivision. So yes, pretty good representation there.

But just as I satisfied my white liberal conscience with the above list, I came upon a new question: what female creators have had a personal influence on me? This one was... harder. I recently did this Facebook thing, where you name 15 authors who influenced you, as quick as you can. And once I was pretty advanced in the list, I realized I didn't have any women on there. I threw Virginia Woolf on near the end, but I couldn't say definitely that she wasn't a token addition. To be honest, my list of high literature doesn't include a lot of female writers. A large part of this is my educational background. My undergrad university split the humanities in such a way that many of the modern female writers were under the purview of the Women and Genders Studies department. Split between a double English and Math major, I didn't have many electives to spend on outside classes, so I just never experienced the modern female writers. And before the 20th century, you start running into the lack of support female writers have faced for centuries. Gaskell and Austen are fine, but really not my bag. I think Elizabeth Heywood is amazing, but I came across her after my scholarly interests turned elsewhere, so her impact too was less on me than it might of been. And so on.

Well, fine. If I'm being honest, I've been influenced at least as much by my pop fiction reads as by my high literature forays. Admittedly, this area skews heavily towards fantasy for me, but I can't be faulted for good taste. And if you turn towards this area, favorite female writers crop up pretty quickly. Fay Weldon's combinations of postmodernism and chick lit are awesome. Diane Duane's Wizardry series always formed a must-read for me, and her Star Trek stuff is good too. Robin Hobbs plays with the fantasy genre itself in ways that need to be read by any fan of the form. Anne McCaffrey's Pern series have been a staple for decades. Marion Zimmer Bradley, likewise, is a cornerstone for her work on Arthurian legend. When you're talking urban fantasy, Charlaine Harris' Vampire books deserve some grudging respect, though for my money, Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series is infinitely better written. Hell, I did my MA thesis on Tamora Peirce's young adult series. This is just a representative sampling, but yes, my list of influential female fantasy writers is fairly well stocked.

But... can I say that any one of these writers has been personally influential on me? The problem there is that for every writer above, there's one writer, one male writer who fills the same sort of niche for me, but one better. I'll take Italo Calvino over Fay Weldon (which, sadly, probably elevates Weldon in many people's eyes, even to lose by comparison), Peter David over Diane Duane, Stephen Donaldson over Robin Hobbs, David Eddings over McCaffrey, Guy Gavriel Kay over Bradley, Jim Butcher over Briggs and Harris, and Lloyd Alexander over Peirce. I know these comparisons don't map exactly, but my basic point is that, for my personal oeuvre, the top of the list is an overwhelmingly male presence.

So what's the explanation for this imbalance? Is it a reflection of the chauvinism in the various narrative industries that I'm invested in (Good lord, I didn't even get to the machismo-fest that is the comic book industry)? Or a reflection of what I've been exposed to, and narrowly limited myself to? Am I a mysognist? A chauvinistic literary snob? Do I have any female influences in my background at all?

Full story tomorrow, but for the short answers: Wait for it, yes, partly, no, a bit of one, and yes; yes of course.

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