Monthly Archives: July 2013

A Manly Bookshelf?

Not too long ago, I was up in my attic where some of my books are bestowed; owing to a lack of space (I have a lot of books). While there, I found my copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the whereabouts of which, I’d been wondering about for a while. That, however, was accidental. My true purpose was to take a look at the state of my bookshelves, from a gendered point of view.

This is not something I usually pay any attention to. I rarely consider the author’s identity unless the author is one whose works I have already read or one who I was deliberately keeping an eye out for. I base my choices on the description of the book’s premise that is usually provided in the blurb. The sex/gender identity of the author is not something that I consider, nor is the sex/gender identity of the protagonist. Regardless, I had a pretty good idea of what I would observe; most likely, so do you. Before revealing my findings however, I will digress to provide some cultural context to my bookshelf perusal.

Apparently, the primary audience for fiction is women. This is, of course, a generalisation. Mark Twain is said to have said “All generalisations are false” and I hold that quotation in high esteem. Nevertheless, it seems to be a fact that statistically (yeah, yeah, “lies, damn lies and statistics”) women read more fiction than men.

Now within fiction-readers there are apparently more gender differences between readers of different kinds of stories. Science-fiction is usually considered a primarily male domain and that vague, amorphous thing called fantasy (or at least some of its more prominent sub-types) is only a little less male-dominated. So goes conventional wisdom, backed up by a few numbers and a lot of conversation in the media.

Perhaps ironically (depending on your own expectations), there is apparently a lack of female writers in fiction. Of those that do exist, many are labelled as part of that vaguely-defined yet much-maligned genre known as chick-lit. Now, chick-lit is more of a marketing strategy than anything else and so there may well be many great books receiving less attention than they deserve because they are packaged as chick-lit. The question is, what are the rest up to and why do we see so few of them on award-lists and best-seller charts?

The other question is, now that we’re over 400 words into the article, am I finally going to reveal what I was doing? Spoiler: Yes.

Discounting my non-fiction books, my graphic novels and my short-story collections and looking exclusively at my prose-fiction novels, I divided them into two categories (author and protagonist) and ‘awarded’ points based on the gender of each. I was not scientifically rigorous with the process, as the idea was to get a look at state of the forest, not to make sure I detailed each leaf on every tree.

To give some insight into how I did this, the Harry Potter series got 1 Female Author Point and 1 Male Protagonist Point (there’s not really any argument to be made that anyone other than Harry is the main character, even though I’d probably prefer Hermione’s point of view) while Dostoyevsky (1 Male Author Point) donated 8 Male Protagonist Points because I have several different books of his that all have a male protagonist (or are dominated by male protagonists).

Final results:

Male author: 55
Female Author: 9

Male authors on my bookshelves outnumber female authors approximately 6 to 1.

Male protagonist: 85
Female Protagonist: 38

Male protagonists only outnumber female protagonists a little more than 2 to 1.

Well, obviously feminism won’t be flying any flags over my reading material. It is possible that I am subconsciously choosing male over female despite my lack of conscious consideration. I do not think that this is what’s going on, however. I am an eclectic reader who will read practically any kind of book but science-fiction and fantasy are the two genres I gravitate towards most. As I mentioned earlier, they tend to be male-dominated in readership and fiction authorship in general seems to be male-dominated. I don’t know why this is so; I think it’s probably related to more general patriarchal structures but I’m baffled as to why this is so entrenched in what is a relatively recent phenomenon (the novel as we know it today is a very recent medium, historically speaking) and one where the differences between the sexes are practically invisible.

So, should I run out and buy a load of female-authored books just to make up for the disparity? No, I don’t think so. What books I have by any author, be they male or female (or intersex if I have any) are there regardless of such considerations; they’re there because they are good.

I’m not going to be more sexist in order to be less sexist. (Does that even make sense?)

So, should I ignore the difference entirely except maybe for hoping it goes away of its own accord? No, I don’t think so. I’m well aware of the problems caused by under-representation of women and the effects of a partially-devolved patriarchal society. If I’m not part of the solution et cetera.

The least I can do is raise awareness of the problem. Hence this blog post. Consider your awareness raised. You’re welcome. Another thing I can do is raise awareness of what you may be missing if you concentrate your reading on one sex/gender identity.

In that spirit, I’ll finish by recommending a book from each of the four categories.

Book with a Male author: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I only finished reading this recently. I loooooooved it; it’s fantastic. It’s an account of delirious events in Moscow when the Devil decides to visit, and it’s a love story, and it’s about a novel about Pontius Pilate, and it’s a satire of Soviet Russia. It is both brilliantly bizarre and bizarrely brilliant.

Book with a Female author: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

This is a very cleverly constructed book, where every tiny detail of the lives of the multiple protagonists add up to the ending, like a finely tuned machine. It’s about the horrific effects people can have on other people when they don’t really see them as real people. This book is really, really good; the magic is in the writing.

Book with a Male protagonist: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This is one of my favourite books: Child of the Gothic, first cousin to science-fiction, the premise needs no introduction. You know what it’s about, right? You might not know how eloquently the monster speaks, you might not know what the Irishman says when Victor washes up on the shores of the Emerald Isle, you might not know what a joy it is to read. If you don’t, you might like to find out.

Book with a Female protagonist: Sabriel by Garth Nix

I’ve had my copy of this for a long time and I’ve reread it over and over again. Crossing the Wall of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is nothing to crossing the wall into the Old Kingdom. But Sabriel does so anyway; she has to find her father, who is missing after being attacked by a powerful sorcerer of the Greater Dead. It’s difficult to say more without giving the plot away but it does contain magical bells and a talking cat-that’s-not-a-cat. Suffice it to say that this is a brilliant book and worth the reading.

Comments are welcome.

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A Rose by Any Other Colour would Smell as Sweet

Would a rose by any other colour smell as sweet? I am aware that there are roses of various (etymologically defiant) colours, as I’m sure Shakespeare was aware that there are other names for roses. I don’t actually know if the pigments affect the smell but it’s probably too pedantic of me to analyse my own metaphor like that so I’m going to move on to the real subject of this post once this paragraph ends.

While trawling through the murky waters of the internet, you may have dredged up some of what I intend to talk about. If you haven’t, then brace yourself for some of what I’m going to fish from the abysmal depths of cyberspace and dissect in the cold light of day. Also, I’m probably going to freeze the extended submarine metaphor now because it may become distracting deeper in the blog-post.

Anyway, Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 is set to swing onto screens somewhat soonishly (2014, according to the interwebs) and the sequel to that is apparently going to weave Mary Jane Watson into the story (she was originally set to be in 2 but is now being saved for 3, seemingly). MJ is to be played by Shailene Woodley, a casting decision which has drawn various creepy crawlies out of whatever dark places they inhabit to spew out the kind of venom for which the internet is infamous.

Principally, the primitive rhetoric is proposing that the actress chosen is not sufficiently attractive to play Peter Parker’s most iconic love-interest. Also, the language employed is not nearly as diplomatically worded as I’ve put it there. Rather than retyping any of the nonsense here or even linking directly to it, I’ll point you to an article in the New Statesman “Comics fans react with disgust at photos of a woman on her way to work” (available online) and to the satirical “Making Shailene Woodley Hot Enough To Play MJ In TASM 2” on comicbookmovie.com.

Now,  the lack of accounting for taste in physical features aside, the argument could be made that Mary Jane Watson is usually written as a supermodel/actress/entrepreneur, the first of which is (or will be, probably, if the films go in that direction) her primary career and practically requires that she fall into the category of conventionally attractive. It’s not a very strong argument and is more or less completely scuppered if she turns out not to be portrayed as a model in the film. However, the real reason this argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on (never mind the requisite eight legs) is that focusing on Mary Jane’s physical appearance or her professional career is wrong in the first instance, because neither of those things are substantial to her character.

MJ hasn’t managed to stick around for so long (she made her first full appearance in 1966) because she’s an attractive redhead, after all Marvel Comics is hardly short of attractive redheads. She has enjoyed and continues to enjoy her extraordinary popularity because of her personality, her actions, the content of her character, and the strength of her relationship to Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

Way back before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film came out (it was released in 2002), I remember reading an interview with Kirsten Dunst  where she claimed that she’d be wearing a red wig in order to avoid upsetting fans. This struck me as slightly odd more than a decade ago (I didn’t think that Tobey Maguire looked much like Peter so I didn’t get why MJ’s hair colour was a big deal) but really annoys me now, in retrospect.

On watching Raimi’s film, I found that despite the wig, Mary Jane Watson was barely recognisable (and becomes less so as the trilogy went on). Kirsten Dunst played a soft-spoken and demure damsel-in-distress who bore little or no resemblance to any version of MJ I’d seen elsewhere.

Would it be preferable to have a film where the characters bore more of a resemblance to the characters as drawn? I suppose so, but I’d rather have a blonde character who does act like MJ than a red-head who does not.

Another case of infidelity in hair colour adaptation is Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in Batman: The Animated Series. Catwoman in the source material has black hair while the Animated Series portrays her as blonde instead of black-haired. It didn’t matter though because she was still a costumed, cat-themed thief, skilled in martial arts and nursing a crush on Batman. She was substantially the same, despite a cosmetic difference.

Yet another example is the live-action film The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was not white of skin and green of hair as was the character in the source material. The interpretation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation was a monster in make-up, explicitly unlike the chemical-bleached Clown Prince of Crime from the comics. But Heath Ledger’s Joker was lauded, considered a brilliant portrayal of Batman’s archenemy, only a step below Mark Hamill’s as the greatest adaptation of the Joker off the printed page.

Why? Because Heath Ledger played the Joker as exactly the kind of demonic absurdist that the Joker is; a liar, a tempter, a corrupter, a murderer and a challenge to all established order, whether  moral, legal, epistemological or aesthetic. Next to this, the decision to feature dye and make-up, not permanent colour was but a footnote, a blip, a notion worthy of a large neon sign saying “NOBODY CARES”.

To tie all these disparate strands together: My point is that the vulgar, hateful, sexist, misogynistic discussion on whether someone is too ‘ugly’ to play a part is not just ethically wrong but it is also artistically wrong. Graphic novels are visual and static; all you get are motionless pictures and written words.

Cinema (while arguably a form of sequential art itself) is different; the magic is in the motion of the picture and in the juxtaposed sounds; the characters get to move and speak. Different Medium= Different Emphases. Even if that were not so, to focus on a character’s physical features rather than what they do is bad characterization and bad story-telling.

Nowadays we have the power to comment on whatsoever we like, whether upcoming film or up-and-coming actress and we can do so anonymously. However, we all know what comes with “great power”, right?

Post Script: This is only the second post but so far 100% of posts on this blog (all two of them) have been about cinematic adaptations of characters from ‘graphic novels’ (‘sequential art’ is a good technical term for the medium but it’s not in general use, while the more common ‘comics’ seems inappropriate for stories which are not meant to be comical). The next post will break this budding pattern (do patterns bud? Sure, why not?), I promise.