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Of Talons and Scales: 8 Things Books about Dragons have taught me about Feminism

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Of Talons and Scales: 8 Things Books about Dragons have taught me about Feminism

My relationship with reality is complicated, my hold on it tenuous at best and the light of my understanding of it far too dispersed by the prism of experience and expectation. This is probably the reason why my reliance on fantasy – to make sense of interactions the worlds within and without have, is rather high. In short, I read a lot of fantasy literature. Since Harry Potter opened up my eyes to the nourishment, nay feast, on offer to a hungry mind through the simple act of reading; fantasy has been my poison of choice.

Of late, I’ve been reading a lot about dragons. Three primary series, all written by women. (why my reading list isn’t more coloured in terms of gender and race is a discussion for another time, promise)

  1. The deep, provocative and sensible Rain Wilds Chronicles by Robin Hobb
  2. The super-cool-give-zero-fucks Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
  3. The ridiculously stunning Temeraire series by Naomi Novik

Do note, I have not finished reading any of these series (What? It’s called delayed pleasure and it works like hell). And have done my best to avoid spoilers, but hey…

So here are just a few of the important lessons and at times painful reminders, these books have brought to me, making me that much better at being a feminist and that much closer to bartering my soul for a dragon egg.

1. Sex is Great, but only Women have to Deal with the Consequences

HTTYD 1

This might seem like a bad lesson to start this list with – it’s one of those painful reminders I spoke about. But what sex can do to a person, both metaphorically and literally, is a reality we need to keep in mind. During the Rain Wilds adventure of young dragon keepers relocating their dragons to a rumoured mythical city, Robin Hobb points out again and again the sheer unfairness of free sex in any given group of individuals. Even in the absolute absence of social and cultural censure, it is inevitably the females who get slut-shamed and who ultimately have to pay the physical cost of pregnancy, malformed babies, labour, breast-feeding – the blood let during an abortion is essentially, entirely theirs.

While we lie back and throw our legs in the air (or whatever position you prefer), it pays to remember this hard truth – men can be cavalier, women have to be careful – but we need to remember it mostly so WE CAN CHANGE IT. Because our sexual privilege is still undermined by the lack of safe access to medical abortion for millions of women across the world. Because in India, the ease of access to pregnancy termination is determined by patriarchal mores. Because sex and the consequent choice to be pregnant or not,  shouldn’t become a reason to clip our wings.

We need to rise above all this shit. That’s where the dragons are.

2. Babies aren’t for Everyone

Dragon Baby 1

Continuing in the same vein, it is embarrassing how connected to the “miracle of birth” the idea of womanhood is. I think, it’s one of the main reasons the red states of the world have such a problem with transwomen and why “gender neutral” is still ridiculously male-like (that’s a whole separate post, wait for it). But, this super-patriarchal assumption that all women must want to birth a squalling infant before their ovaries dry up needs to be given some rest.

I mean take Lady Trent for example. She clearly isn’t made for domestication. But she has her first husband’s child anyway. Then proceeds to go romping about the world on the stuff dreams are made of, leaving said baby to be cared for by wonderfully convenient relatives / house-help. Yes, she does spend about 2 minutes feeling guilty about the whole deal, but life goes on. And of course I haven’t reached the birth of her second child or found out how her children grow up to be – but I have the feeling that Mommy Issues will flash in my head a couple of times as I read the rest of the series.

Malta Khuprus, from the Rain Wilds, is desperate for a child. She’s had several miscarriages, but finally carries something to term, only for it to be born in the middle of a storm during an assassination attempt. The child spends the rest of book on the verge of death. And through its every painful breath, Malta is by its side, as is her husband and father of the child. Now, I don’t even pretend to understand the sheer trauma of having a child born with a life-threatening congenital condition. But, I don’t need to understand in order to respect the choices and fortitude of parents who face these situations. And to know that wanting so very deeply the child in question and being with someone who is just as invested in parenthood, makes a very, very big difference.

Captain Catherine Harcourt of Lily got pregnant while having a secret affair with the captain of the ship carrying her formation to Africa.

And she hated every minute of it.

And all she cared about was that she give birth to a girl (you heard that right) who could be groomed to take over her dragon when she was gone. Alas, Harcourt delivers a boy. And leaves him to caregivers to go off to war (white women seem to be surrounded by people who exist for the express purpose of raising unwanted children in books, I mean why wasn’t there ever a tribe of such minions to take care of Onyesonwu?).

Moral of the Story: Have a kid, don’t have a kid… It’s like Caitlin Moran says, “If you want to know what’s in motherhood for you, as a woman, then – in truth – it’s nothing you couldn’t get from, say, reading the 100 greatest books in human history; learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it; climbing hills; loving recklessly; sitting quietly, alone, in the dawn; drinking whisky with revolutionaries; learning to do close-hand magic; swimming in a river in winter; growing foxgloves, peas and roses; calling your mum; singing while you walk; being polite; and always, always helping strangers. No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence, and were the poorer, and crippled by it.”

Humanity will survive the Single Non-Mother Apocalypse. Go back to sleep.

3. Women need Men like Fish need Bicycles

“Yes, I sent for him,” Jane said flatly, “And you may leave off your coughing and your insinuations, if I wanted a man between my legs that badly, there is a camp full of handsome young fellows outside, and I dare say I could find one out to oblige me.”

– from Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

Dragon-Dragons-GIF.gif

One of the happiest things about reading the Temeraire series (trust me, there are so many) is the relationship between protagonist William Laurence, through his various misadventures and Jane Roland, who goes from being a Captain of a single dragon formation to Admiral of the Air, in a world where women riding dragons is kept mostly secret due to a serious fear of embarrassment. Laurence’s admiration of Jane, his complete confidence in her abilities, and the sheer practicality with which their liaison commences and continues (haven’t reached the end of the series, so I don’t know if it ends or not yet, but that doesn’t matter and that’s kinda the point) and the absolute circumventing of mushy ridiculousness (we are in the middle of a war and we have a job to do mate) is so very liberating to read. During the books so far, Jane and Laurence have barely spent any time together, their regard continues through straight-forward letters and no one, not even other aviators (Naomi Novik’s version of dragon-riders) talk about it too much.

My very personal aim in life is to use feminism to render all relationships (sexual, romantic or otherwise) as simple as Jane and Laurence’s.

And thereby end the media-fed dominion of ‘romantic love’ over our collective senses.

4. Conversely… Sometimes, Men can lead the way to your Emancipation. But don’t count on it.

Dragon & Donkey

Most of the books I have referenced here have some kind of throw-back to Victorian England. And Victorian England, like most of the UK’s history, was a lousy place for women. They had no right to anything, no legal protection from depredation and barely any access to education and opportunity. Marie Brennan’s Isabella rises in this scenario from being a social pariah due to her scholastic inclinations to becoming Lady Trent, explorer and dragon researcher extraordinaire.

The book paints a dire picture of life for Isabella before her great adventures begin. And one does not know quite what to make of the fact (at least in the book’s timeline) that were it not for her first husband’s support and crazy love for her, Isabella would not have gotten the start she needed to be who she was and became. He not only encouraged her passion for dragons (very unlady-like), he married her because of it and financed what was for the most part unlikely to be a profitable venture to unknown corners of the world. He did it because he was different – an outlier in a society that had reached a standstill in terms of cultural evolution.

If you’re lucky, you’ll meet such a man. Someone, who by the skilful application of male privilege, will get you the freedom you long for, whether it is that extra hour out at night or the freedom to work (stop making a face, you know that’s a thing) or even access to networks and resources that can give you the platform for ground-breaking discoveries that will change the face of the world. When you do find such a man, use him shamelessly, and work really hard to be genuinely grateful for opportunities someone who married in to the wrong family (everyone in India has one such arranged-marriage buddy) is never likely to get.

But, do not – for Chrissakes! – put your dreams on hold while you wile away time wistfully wishing for your Knight in Shining Armour to come and kickstart your life for you. That only happens in the movies, and only because CAPITALISM LOVES EXPLOITING INSECURITIES OF WOMEN IN ORDER TO MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO!

5. Materialism, Vengefulness, Self-centredness: Bring it On!

Smaug Meme

One of the features that all these books share in common is the difference in motivations for dragons and humans. Robin Hobb’s dragons are as diverse in nature as their human counterparts as are Naomi Novik’s, though the former’s can hypnotize people to do their bidding and the latter’s are more physically powerful and focussed in life. Marie Brennan’s dragons are biological entities, a new species of animal for each book, which essentially just emphasizes their motivations being in complete opposition to ours. The main point though is that dragons are complicated and they don’t really give a damn about what you think of them. If you insult them, you will be squished, if you pick a fight, they will fight till the bloody end, if you treat them like reasonable creatures, they’ll return the favour (or not, depends on their mood). And they never, ever apologize (for situations where they messed up, sure, but definitely for being themselves).

Sintara is beautiful, intelligent and incredibly mean. Iskierka shamelessly covets riches and doesn’t sit around waiting for opportunities to come her way. Lien knows loyalty and will go to any lengths to win the war. Perscitia loves math and hates fighting, but will happily help others figure out how to kill effectively in battle. None of these female dragons bend over when asked politely. They are not nice. They don’t need to be. They have not been fed centuries of stereotyping that makes them doubt their own identity every time they don’t conform.

We women need to get on board with this behaviour immediately.

6. Blood

Bleeding Dragon

2016 has been my year of bidding bye-bye to the dread of menstruation. Switching to menstrual cups has helped a lot. Making me comfortable with dipping my fingers in to a cup-full of my blood, taking away fears of ‘staining’ (to believe white-pant wearing chicas in sanitary napkin adverts, not even death could be worse) menstrual cups have given me the freedom to get over the whole period-issue.

However, what I in my privilege can ignore is constantly used by society to put bleeding women in their place (which in some villages in Nepal can even be loo-less, door-less huts located some distance from the house). So when Marie Brenan dedicates certain attention to menstruation in The Tropic of Serpents – how different cultures view it, how a woman of a higher-class/caste can face greater prejudice than women of a lower class – it drives home the period-shame that stratifies society, especially in places like India.

7. It’s Harder if You’re a Woman. But that’s okay.

Dragon Blast

This one’s pretty straight-forward. No one, especially women, needs to be reminded that women make less money than men, are more prone to being victims of violence, more likely to be interrupted and disrespected even in academic careers.

But sometimes, in the world of urban, educated privilege (or in my case, post-colonial English-speaking, fair-skin privilege), we can forget how many battles are yet ongoing for gender equality across the world. We forget that just cause some of us have supporting families and fulfilling careers, a lot of others are being denied basic opportunities just cause they happen to have vaginas or otherwise subscribe to a female identity.

So when Jane Roland has to bust some serious chops to have her battle-plans approved, or when Lady Trent is ostracized for choosing to pursue her dreams or when Thymara’s choices are undermined by boys fighting for her attention or when Alise Kincarron is abused by her husband – it reminds you of the reality you lock outside your door every night and must wake-up (at cock-crow if you’re a traditional housewife of any sort) everyday to change. It reminds you that even if you are defeated by the patriarchy today, you live to roar another day.

8. Basically, Roar… Roar with the Divine Wind, Embrace the Dragon Within

I’ve always found the lack of serious female villains in the world of fiction disturbing (enough to make me embark on a project to talk to women in prisons and research ‘evil women’ {if that’s an acceptable term} in the world – I’ll write about that process soon as well). Fantasy fiction in fact, provides some of the evil female archetypes: The Snow Queen and the Stepmother for instance.

Which is why I find Lien so very intriguing. She’s a dragon, of course, and strikes me as very similar to Azula – another amazing evil woman (permit me a fan-girl moment) from Avatar: The Last Airbender. And just like Azula, Lien sets out to destroy the titular character of the Temeraire books with cold precision. I don’t know if being a 200 tonne vengeance machine is necessarily a good thing – for you or the world – but there has to be some room in our collective lives to throw conditioning in to a Holi bonfire and move on to just being – whatever that means to you.

I think that’s the reason why women write such brilliant dragon stories (6 of the top 10 dragon books on Goodreads have been written by women, how’s that for gender parity?) because the dragons on paper are but reflections of the spitfire within and our very personal struggles with it. Whether we tame that dragon, quell its flame (or poison) or unleash it and burn this whole world down is a choice we make every single day. And maybe what draconian fiction really wants to tell us – is to stop lying down and wallowing in the mud.

We are dragons. We are meant to fly.

Flying Dragons

 

* In case you’re wondering why the Game of Thrones (what with the Mother of Dragons) isn’t on this list, the reasons are fairly simply – I find the books really well-written, but very poorly told. If that doesn’t make sense to you, we should probably refrain from hooking up in any sense of the word, even if we are really drunk at a party.

**None of these gifs are mine, there are all linked to their original sources. Please don’t sue me.

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