An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (7, Lingering Presence of 19th Century Misogyny, as Highlighted by Bram Dijkstra)
3.23.14 An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (7, Lingering Presence of 19th Century Misogyny, as Highlighted by Bram Dijkstra)
Good Morning, Everyone!
We’re in the midst of Sophia’s Spring Cleaning 2014, but she just turned her back & wandered off to rehang a picture in another room, so I dashed into the office to jot off another blog. If I get…ahem, “called away,” please forgive the interruption & chalk it up my fighting the good fight of completing a list of 100+ “Honey, Do-s” that I’ve let accumulate over the past decade…grrr.
Anyway, in honor of Women’s History Month here in the U.S., I’ve been assessing how females are depicted in the epic fantasy genre; however, in recounting my early introduction to this type of literature, I had to take a few-blog detour into comic books of the 1970s & 1980s because that was the teenaged milieu for me when I first discovered both forms of entertainment.
I’ve really enjoyed the trip down memory lane, but by the late-1980s and into the 1990s, there were changes apparent in both comic books and fantasy literature that were beginning to bother me. Perhaps the unease came from my first year in college, when I took a Romantic Literature class & introduced to the works of Bram Dijkstra, an English Lit prof who also delves into critical assessment of art. One of his works, Idols of Peversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture (http://www.amazon.com/Idols-Perversity-Fin-de-Siecle) changed my life both as a person and a writer because it opened my eyes to a pervasive problem with western culture that remains to this day. To quote the review in Publisher’s Weekly,
“Idols of Perversity is one of those … books that … changes the rules forever, engaging the full sweep of fin de siècle European painting right alongside the aggressively political feminism that stormed campuses in the wake of the women’s movement of the 1970s.” (PW, 1986).
Ah, before I continue with showing how this professor and his work influenced me, I better let him introduce himself & his book, Idols of Perversity [note: bold-faced emphases are mine for relationships I’ll show later to exist still within the epic-fantasy genre]:
[from the Preface, 1986] This is a book filled with the dangerous fantasies of the Beautiful People of a century ago. It contains a few scenes of exemplary virtue and many more of lurid sin. Much of it deals with magnificent dreams of an intellectual achievement doomed to wither before the tempting presence of woman, who, throughout these pages, is to be found dragging the man into a grim trough of perversion. In short, this book is about what and how, during the second half of the nineteenth century, men came to think about women — and why.
As I hope to be able to show, scientific advances, economic developments, and the cultural environment conjoined to create a unique set of intellectual conditions which were to have a fundamental influence on twentieth-century modes of thinking about sex, race, and class. Flushed with the sense of possibility which inevitably accompanies poorly digested and partly understood new knowledge, the artists and intellectuals of …[late 19th century] saw themselves as standing in the vanguard of a new era of evolutionary progress. Science had proved to them that inequality between men and women, like that among races, was a simple, inexorable law of nature.
When women became increasingly resistant to men’s efforts to teach them, in the name of progress and evolution, how to behave within their appointed station in civilization, men’s cultural campaign to educate their mates, frustrated by women’s “inherently perverse” unwillingness to conform, escalated into what can truthfully be called a war on woman — for to say “women” would contradict a major premise of the period’s anti-feminine thought.
If this was a war largely fought on the battlefield of words and images, where the dead and wounded fell without notice into the mass grave of lost human creativity, it was no less destructive than many real wars. Indeed, I intend to show that the intellectual assumptions which underlay the turn of the century’s cultural war on woman also permitted the implementation of the genocidal race theories of Nazi Germany.
…Over the past fifteen years I have done a great deal of archeological spadework among the exhibition catalogues and art magazines of this first period in the history of art for which there exists an extensive photographic documentation…During these explorations I was struck, time and again, by the endless recurrence of what I soon came to recognize as a veritable iconography of misogyny.” [end quotation]
When I started college and discovering a much larger world than the one in which I’d been comfortably collecting comic books and voraciously reading epic fantasy, Dijkstra’s work taught to me to turn a critical eye upon both genres, and — no surprise — I was alarmed and dismayed at what I saw.
Next time: Disturbing Themes in the Epic Fantasy’s Depictions of Women in the Works of the 1980s and 1990s