Friday, August 29, 2014

"Hey, We Kill People Too!" or How Our Narrative Privileges Violence

The Nonfiction Hugo Award recently went to an essay by Kameron Hurley, "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative." I heard it on PodCastle the week it won the Hugo. It's a good essay, and an important one. Central to the essay is that in every war, women have played a combat role. This is contrary to the way it is portrayed in much fiction, where women are portrayed as only side characters or victims. If the importance of this wasn't clear before, the disgusting treatment of Anita Sarkeesian when she challenged the role of women in video games shows how this victim narrative needs to be challenged. I am saying all this because I don't disagree with Hurley's essay or doubt its importance when I ask a question that has been bothering me since I heard it. Why do we have to show women can kill too for them to matter in our narrative?

No one I know personally has ever killed anyone (that I know of). Even if you know people who are military veterans, and even if they've seen combat, it is statistically likely they've never killed anyone themselves (most soldiers in combat don't). If they did, it was likely a traumatic and damaging experience.

The warrior, in the literal sense, is central to our narrative, and not just in science fiction and fantasy. To demonstrate this wastes my words; look at the bestseller list and top grossing films. And yet almost none of us have ever met an actual warrior. A warrior is not just a soldier. A warrior isn't even just someone who's fought  and killed. It's a person who does it regularly as a vocation. A non-figurative warrior is a person whose central identity is that he or she kills people.   I'm going to speculate that even most soldiers that have seen combat, that have had to kill, would likely resist this identity (perhaps especially so, given their painful experience).  

In "old-fashioned" narratives of the warrior, women are pushed into secondary roles. At best they're wives and daughters kissing brave warrior men off to battle. More often they're pawns and targets to be protected and rescued from the bad guys. At worst they are sexual playthings or helpless victims of physical and sexual violence. Clearly something needed to change.

The implicit solution that one could draw from Hurley's essay is the path that has been pursued by more and more authors today: make the women do some fighting too. From science fiction to fantasy to video games, more and more authors find a way to add in female warriors. Some are realistic and believable, like Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. Others are ridiculous male fantasies, like the tramp-stamped vampire killers on the cover of so many urban fantasy novels.

I like a good female warrior as much as anyone. And particularly in speculative fiction, even if Hurley's main point was wrong, there is no reason not to have female warriors. We're imagining other worlds, not our own, we can imagine them however we want. Showing women can fight is one good response to the victimization narrative.

But, forgetting the issue of victimization for a second, what about women who really are "just" wives and mothers and daughters? How easily do we allow ourselves to assume that that is naturally, obviously, a secondary role. And yet we (hopefully) don't see actual women we know whose central identity is caring for a family as unimportant. And yet in most narratives that aren't primarily targeted at women, it's assumed that such a person plays a minor role.

I think of my own mother when I write this. My mother is a talented artist in many different media, a deep and wise thinker, an exceptional gardener, and a valuable friend to a large number of people. And yet from society's view, the most impactful role of her life is being an emotional core to our family. My brother and I wouldn't be the people we are without her love and guidance. And my father, who is a successful businessman who built a business worth millions of dollars, would quickly volunteer he'd be helpless without her. And yet in much of the narrative on which our country is based there is no "important" role for her.

Of course, action adventure narratives wouldn't have a role for most of us. We're not warriors, and we don't do dangerous or exciting things. And there are plenty of narratives of people living relatively non-violent lives, such as Mad Men. And yet I don't see those stories shaping our society in the same way, especially with a younger audience. For this audience, especially for young men, the narrative privilege is with the people who commit violence.

Does it matter? Again, it's just one strain of our narrative. Does the privilege of the killer matter so much? I say that it does.

Liberia is currently experiencing a terrifying Ebola epidemic, one that could theoretically spread to threaten us and the whole world. Now, suppose I were to say that we need to send a huge force of doctors and construction workers over to Liberia and create a hospital of the quality of a major New York Hospital like NYU in order to treat the victims of ebola and get the epidemic under control.

Many people would point out the logistical difficulties: it would cost billions, the people who travel would be putting their lives at risk from Ebola, and it might not work. Imagine me saying, "Very well, what would you do? If you don't have a better idea, then we have to do it."

It's a hard conversation to imagine, especially on television. Most people would say it would be nice, but we just can't go everywhere and solve every problem.

But if I propose spending a similar amount of money and put an equal number of people at risk to deal with the situation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, I might be taken seriously enough to be put on a Sunday morning talk show. And if I said that unless people had a better idea we have to bomb, George Stephanopolous might acknowledge I have a good point.  

Both situations involve alleviating great suffering. Both situations involve trying to stop a problem that potentially puts us at risk. Both would be quite expensive. But one is priveleged over the other because it involves killing people.

So should we stop watching action adventure stories? No, the truth is I love them. So what would I like to change?

Here is a challenge I'd offer to people who are writing any genre of adventure stories. Absolutely, acknowledge that women fight too, as do gay people, transgender people and people with disabilities. But...make a role for some men and women that don't fight. A real role, a role where they make a difference.

This can be done. The show Sons of Anarchy, though not always perfect, does this well. It is a show with a lot of violence. The Sons usually kill several people per episode. But it also features as major characters Gemma, the "old lady" of SOA President Clay, and Tara, the girlfiend of VP Jackson.

Though Gemma and Tara occasionally are forced into situations where they have to defend themselves with violence, mostly they are "just" wives and mothers, and certainly not "warriors" like Jax and Clay. But their roles are not secondary. Their actions have as big an impact on the events in the show as that of the men. Unser, though originally a policeman, remains important to the plot even when he is retired and dying of cancer.

Even "heroes" don't need to be warriors. Some of my favorite stories feature fairly regular people forced into dangerous adventures and having to survive using just the skills and knowledge they have. Bilbo Baggins is the most famous example, but there are many others.

So Hurley is right. Women have always fought, and our narratives should acknowledge this. But most women, like most people, haven't fought, and even the men and women that have fought have usually done it because they had to.

But when you're writing an adventure story, try to find a way to make someone that is "just" a wife or mother, or janitor or barista or retired security guard or hairstylist, matter as much as the people with swords, laser guns and automatic weapons. 

1 comment:

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