kaberett: Photo of a pile of old leather-bound books. (books)
[personal profile] kaberett
So I have finally got around to reading the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce - and, um, I am kind of horrified?

Like, I kept seeing it recced places because the protagonist is a woman who fights damn well, and who wants sex and who has it and who isn't shamed for it, and as far as it goes that's true, BUT.

... pretty much the entirety of the first book is a trans* narrative, and it barely touches at all on the dysphoria that induces (there are many things wrong with Self-Made Man but it does give some insight).

... the relationships between Alanna and George and Jonathan are REALLY SKEEVY AND COERCIVE AND PRESSURE-Y.

... I am part-way through the third book, and I am not off the top of my head recalling any convincing Bechdel passes. Maybe there have been some in the third book. Maybe.


... and that is before we get onto the racism. I mean, wow, these books are racist. Holy (literally) Magical Negro [TVtropes], my word. There is an entire race (yep!) who live as tribes (yep!) in the desert (yep!) and have no written history until whitey asks for it whereupon they deliver (yep!) and are described in character voice with the phrase "Your people seem to be wise and old" (!!!) and by the narrative as ~proud~ and as being ~walnut-brown~ and they have clearly Arabic-coded names (UNLIKE WHITEY WHO HAS ~FANTASY NAME~) and are explicitly identified as being distinctly in awe of at least one god who is explicitly described as having SPARKLING WHITE SKIN. In the book I am currently part-way through, colonial whitey prince is about to become the Voice of the Tribes - a kind of spiritual leader - having had approximately no contact with them... apart from when he & whitey protagonist ~fulfilled a prophecy~ in book 1 and delivered the Bazhir from an ~evil curse upon their lands~.


So now you know, and I hope never again to see an uncritical review of those books, because WOW I was not expecting any of that going in. Like, I'd be kind of fascinated to know what explanation people have for the uncritical recs apart from "BUT IT'S NOT RACIIIIIIIIIIST", but I sort of suspect there isn't one.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 12:28 am (UTC)
joshuaorrizonte: (Default)
From: [personal profile] joshuaorrizonte
... As a long-time superfan of Tamora Pierce's work, I never saw the books that way (in terms of the racism). To my defense, when I read them, I was a depressed teenager who thought he was a girl and was just happy to see that there was someone else who didn't think that a girl in a "boy" role was disgusting. Also, being white and not knowing a damn thing about racism at the time, I didn't see the racism, either. Pointed out, YIKES.

Jonathan and George's behavior did always make me uncomfortable and I really felt that Alanna's relationship with George, other than being coercive, was kinda shoehorned into the narrative.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 12:38 am (UTC)
joshuaorrizonte: (Default)
From: [personal profile] joshuaorrizonte
Holy shit, yeah. THAT is a load of fail. There's no way that a publication like Bitch Magazine should have given the series an uncritical review. I've never heard of The F Word, so I'll take your word on it there... Anyway, Tiny Me was never totally unaware of some of the issues with it, just not the whole package. Fifteen years of life does a lot for a person's perspective. But not talking about teenagers looking for "themselves" in media and nothing else, talking about a professional feminist publication, they really, honestly thought that there was NOTHING problematic with it?


(and I hope that paragraph above wasn't as much of a mess as it looks. Not very concise, I know, but I can't figure out how to improve it right now.)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 12:39 am (UTC)
stormerider: (Default)
From: [personal profile] stormerider
So, disclaimer up front: I know the author and consider her a friend, so I do have a bias.

I think it was initially written in the 80s and there wasn't as large a social justice scene back then to say "hey, this kind of trope is not ok". The Bazhir are rather two-dimensional in the SOLT quartet and get fleshed out a little bit more in the successive books as Jonathan's kingdom/empire expands. That part always bothered me, but when her book was classified as YA by the publisher it got split into 4 and there was a length limit imposed, so some things got a bit squished in the process. I'm not sure if she would have expanded upon them otherwise, like she starts to some in 3/4, but to a large degree authorial intent doesn't matter nearly as much as the finished product. I don't have any doubt that she intended it that way, but... yeah, I can definitely see that being there nonetheless. (I read it as a kid so that kind of thing wasn't on my radar back then for sure, and that is likely to be the case with many people recommending it as well.)

I don't necessarily see it as a trans narrative, because Alanna isn't a boy, and doesn't want to be a boy, she just wants to be something everyone is insisting only a boy can be. She deals with the uncomfortableness of the breast bindings and hiding her sex from the other pages/squires, but also learns how to be comfortable as a woman from George's mother, from dealing with periods to dresses and such. She's always been a tomboy, doing what she's doing as a knight in training, and actually has a harder time accepting how to be a comfortable in her skin as a beautiful woman than acting like what people expect out of a man. I think that this is also a more prominent theme in books 3 & 4. However, that's my viewpoint and I very well may be wrong. I do believe that it was intended as a narrative about gender equality rather than gender identity, but again, intent isn't always what matters.

Jonathan is an entitled prat; I never really liked him and Alanna. (Though his eventual wife does end up putting him in his place, but I think that's either book 4 or a later quartet.) The way that I read things between him and Alanna is that he was an example of what's not ok in a relationship, and how it's easy to fall for someone that really isn't good for you-- and an example of when to say "no, I will not change who I am to become who you want me to be". I think that might come to surface in book 4, though; I can't remember when she leaves him and goes to George.

All that said, her later books are better in terms of social justice aspects, I believe. Alanna's series is just often pointed out because it was a strong feministic character at a time where there weren't many to be had. There's actually a blogger that is doing a blow by blow review as he reads through them, and Tammy has been wincing at some of the appropriate critiques he's been raising... critiques that she's agreeing with. I do believe that many things would be different if she had a chance to go back and do a rewrite of the series.

I'm trying not to come across as defensive, as it's a series that I love by an author that I love, but you're right that it has issues and it falls under the category of "liking problematic things".

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 12:44 am (UTC)
stormerider: (Default)
From: [personal profile] stormerider
Also, I've been meaning to reread her books again (I haven't in a while, and every so often I go through and do so... last time I reread the Circle Magic books instead of the Tortall ones, so it's probably been a decade at this point). Thanks for giving me some food for thought when I do get around to doing so again, I appreciate that.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 12:58 am (UTC)
joshuaorrizonte: (Default)
From: [personal profile] joshuaorrizonte
On (rather shallow) thought, I think I agree with you about the trans* narrative issue. I'll admit to hoping that Alanna decided that she was content living as a man but that wasn't what happened; she was a woman the whole time. That said (and it's been years since I read it so I might be remembering incorrectly) I think Kaberett has a point, too, in that Alanna didn't seem to deal with any confusion about her identity at all- like, she spent four years (?) living as a man and not once that I can recall, expressed frustration that she couldn't present as she identified because that wasn't what society expected of her.

(also, insert possibly inappropriate squee at you being friends with an author that I have always looked up to as a young writer, problematic material or not! That's awesome!)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 12:45 am (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
+1 re: this is not a book that ages gracefully on the social justice front.

For myself, and I suspect many people, books we read and love as children acquire blind spots of handwavium from sheer sentiment unless we reread them as adults with a critical, rather than nostalgic, mindset.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 12:50 am (UTC)
forthwritten: stained glass spiral (Default)
From: [personal profile] forthwritten
I'm very fond of the Song of the Lioness but at the same time, yes, it is intensely problematic. And yes, coming to the books as an adult I agree entirely with what you've said about Pierce's depiction of the Bazhir - but at the same time, I remember being 12 or 13 and reading the books for the first time and being startled and pleased that there were actually people who were brown like me in the books.

I'd read everything the library had to offer in fantasy aimed at children and young teens and everyone was so damn white in them, with their sparkling blue/golden/green eyes and pale/creamy/alabaster skin and finally there were people who had dark skin and weren't part of the typically homogeneous Northern Europeanish landscape.

So while I absolutely wish she'd done better, I'm mostly sad that even a rather stereotypical portrayal was something astonishing and new and welcome.

Hi, I have complicated feelings about this.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 01:09 am (UTC)
forthwritten: stained glass spiral (Default)
From: [personal profile] forthwritten
tbh, Pierce is pretty weak when it comes to writing about race and other cultures.

I quite like the Wild Magic quartet but The Emperor Mage takes it to Not Egypt and while she does do reasonably good things with the university and centre of learning bit, it's still something I wince at. Also another relationship with a big age difference, hurrah.

The Protector of the Small quartet does much more interesting things about the process of rebuilding a kingdom, the various alliances that have to be built and maintained and the main character is a girl training to be a knight as a girl, so experiences much more sexism. However, it's also the quartet where Pierce Discovers Japan and...yeah. Not good.

I tend to read Alanna as a straightforward, pragmatic character not really given to introspection. She wants to be a knight and the only way to do that is to be a boy, so she'll live as a boy then. She's not doing it as a meditation on gender - it's because she wants something and it's the only way she can get it.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 05:38 am (UTC)
hairyears: (Woolly Moustache)
From: [personal profile] hairyears
Thanks for that: you read 'em, so we don't have to.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-21 01:14 pm (UTC)
inoru_no_hoshi: The most ridiculous chandelier ever: shaped like a penis. Text: Sparklepeen. (Default)
From: [personal profile] inoru_no_hoshi
I have to admit I've never read them with my Discerning Critic glasses on, so I admit that I have few things I've had problems with; one is Johnathan in book three. He becomes an absolutely entitled prick for a good 2/3 of it, which colors my viewpoints to the point where I am completely incapable of picturing an AU where Alanna ever accepted him. (Although I think he and Thayet together are adorable and perfect but #biased so maybe ignore me.) Another is Alanna's Relationship Choices in book 4 - though not George. George is cool. #biased (...Admittedly the plot in book 4 is a little improbable upon rereads but whatever, fantasy is fantasy and funtiems. xD)

George... Yeah, I can see the stalkerish tendencies, but IDK, it's never felt blatant enough, or at all intending harm, that it ever pinged anything for me? And I know people have problems with the age difference, but that has, literally, never been a problem for me. Anyway, I've never gotten the impression that it was more than 12 years at the max, and Daine and Numair (The Immortals quartet)? Easily at least 16 years difference, PLUS teacher-student. I don't mind it, in fact it makes me squee more (yes I am weird, which you knew ♥), but I do know people twitch over it.

The Immortals is, hands down, my favourite quartet. I'm a sucker for all things Daine and Numair, and Kitten, and the Not Egypt (I am forgiving. Or possibly just someone that loves Ancient Egypt enough to cheerfully gloss; slight differences, eh? xD), and, well. Favourite. I AM BIASED AND ADMIT IT.

I detest Protector of the Small because Kel never felt rounded to me, while also, in some ways, being very Sue-ish, IDK. I've never managed to re-read Protector of the Small, because it just never sat right. *shrug*

I think, though, that you might enjoy the Beka Cooper books; they're much more recent than any other Tortall book, and are generally tightly written and Conscious Of Issues. I do have to say that the genderqueer drag performer (...am honestly not sure what gender they prefer although they answer readily enough to "female" onstage and "male but very effeminate" offstage) feels handled a little ishly but I'm not sure if that was me reading with too much expectation or what. (The sole plothole I noticed on my readthrough was that the dog was mentioned to be spayed in book 2, but was magically NOT spayed in book 3.)

(The book covers having some interesting anatomical issues are not plot holes, sadly. >_>)

ANYWAY lots of pointless TL;DR rambling, sorry!

I am sorry that SOTL is making you D:-face a lot! *offers hugs and ♥*

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-22 08:48 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] noldo
duuuuuuuuuuude TELL ME when you are gonna go and read the RACIST GODDAMN BOOKS I THREW ACROSS THE ROOM WHEN I WAS A CHILD and I can tell you about them being the r g bs I t across the r etc etc. I basically unqualifiedly loathe Tamora Pierce's take on race issues -- always, always skeevy at best and downright fucking awful at worst.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-22 10:32 am (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
This is just a 'me too' comment, really, and everyone else has said it already, but

a) people are short sighted. As a white woman, I'm more likely to see the awesomeness of Alanna than the fail of the way the non-white characters are handled. This is not an excuse.

b) people were _young_. Even the authors of the bitch and f-words reviews are writing a) through a large lens of nostalgia and b) about a book we all mostly read before our consciences were raised.

c) it was so much better than anything else we had in the 80s.

d) People really really really loved Alanna. And it's easy with something you love to go 'I love this so it must be perfect', rather than 'I love this even though it is flawed'. This is also not an excuse.

I'm glad you're calling people on this, and making us think more about what we like. I'm comfortably uncomfortable with liking problematic stuff (I think really there'd be vanishingly little left to read that doesn't have any problems, because really, this stuff seeps deep) but I'm also grateful when someone makes me stop and think about it all.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-10-22 11:36 am (UTC)
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
From: [personal profile] liv
The Lioness books definitely have social justice suck fairy issues, no doubt of that. More generally, though, there is a trope of girl runs away from home, dresses up as a boy and has adventures, and it's not clear to me that those are always trans narratives, which consequently are erasing because they don't address dysphoria. It's very possible that I think this because I'm not trans so I'm not the one who is being hurt by these stories being told badly. But it seems to me that not everybody who spends some time living as a different gender from what they were assigned at birth would understand themselves as trans (in the 21st century anglosphere gender rights sense), and not everybody on the trans spectrum experiences severe dysphoria. If you think it would help, I'm happy to warn for cissexist girl disguised as boy stories, but I'm not sure their existence is inherently awful.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-12-31 05:43 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
I'm sooooo late coming to this (from kaberett's end-of-year round up)

I think the problem highlighted (and please do correct me if wrong) is less "people with vaginas who dress as men are trans men and please write them as such" and more "cis-women who live their lives in a male role might expect to experience some gender dysphoria from presenting as male when they are actually female".

I'm not sure I think that is always the case; partly because I don't think everyone has an equally strong internal feeling of what gender they are, partly because I think taking on a male persona is easier if *chosen* than if forced onto you. But I've not tried presenting as male for more than a few hours at a time.

But that doesn't even start on the race fail.


kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)

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