Sara Reads no. 12

A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.

I wanted to offer my apologies for the sporadic nature with which I’ve updated this blog in the last few weeks; I’ve been on a cross country trip to visit friends and relatives that (owing to the completion of my graduate degree) I haven’t seen in years. I’ll be continuing my travels for the next few weeks, and so I can’t promise anything more than occasional updates, but I hope to get back into the swing of things by mid-October.

Kings of the Underworld (and the Queens Who Depose Them)
During a recent stopover in Portland, OR, I picked up a copy of Peter S. Beagle’s most recent novel, Summerlong, at Powell’s City of Books. Beagle is one of my favorite authors, his seminal novel The Last Unicorn being one of the single most impactful reads of my youth, and I make it a point to keep up with his work as much as possible. This latest novel had a most intriguing premise: a found family (a man, his lover, and her child) living on a little island in the Puget Sound have their lives turned upside down by the arrival of an extraordinary young woman who turns out to be the goddess of spring on the run from her god-of-the-underworld husband. In running from, and ultimately being reclaimed by Hades, Persephone has an irrevocable impact on the lives of those around her, and her story (and theirs) serve to underscore the importance of cycles: of a spring and summer that give way to autumn and winter, of loves that grow and endure and inevitably end. It was an interesting take on the myth, but it was not my interpretation.

The Persephone story is, I think, often misunderstood. There is a strong tendency to see the story from a perspective that largely deprives Persephone of her agency. In this interpretation, she is a young and naïve girl, taken against her will and forced into a life that she did not choose. Beagle follows this interpretation in his story, portraying his Persephone as a battered and psychologically damaged wife who lives in terror of her husband and his kingdom. In the earliest versions of this myth, however, it is Persephone who makes the decision to descend to the underworld out of compassion for the dead, and in later versions it is clear that—though she is, indeed, tricked or stolen into Hades’ kingdom—it is by her actions, and her decisions, that she remains with him. It’s a story of female empowerment, of escaping the confines of what is expected of you and seizing the life you want for yourself; a story whose ending is not what you would expect based on its beginning. While she may find herself in the underworld through no fault of her own, once there Persephone thrives. Indeed, she becomes an even more powerful and feared figure than Hades, ultimately coming to rule the underworld not in his shadow but in his stead.

Though this is a less typical take on the story, it’s one that has found its way into some retellings. Tanith Lee, for example, incorporated the myth into her Tales of the Flat Earth series, in which a human queen, Narasen of Merh, strikes a bargain with Uhlume, the lord of Death, in exchange for one thousand years of afterlife service in his kingdom. When she dies prematurely, Narasen takes his kingdom for her own, staying well beyond the allotted thousand years and coming to be known in the world of men as Naras, the Queen of the Dead. The flexibility of myths makes for a vast array of interpretations and retellings, from the romantic to the horrific, and—I would argue—how writers choose to interpret them says more about said writers than it does about the myths themselves. Though battered wife is not an invalid interpretation of the Persephone story, I myself prefer queen and conqueror.  Although this, of course, was not always the case.

Wanting What You Cannot Be
The myriad of possibilities at play in the interpretation of a story is a favorite topic of mine. More than almost anything else, I love to rewatch, reread, and rediscover narratives at different times in my life to see how my interpretation of them changes as my life experience shifts. Finding a new perspective, or a new piece of evidence for an old perspective, in a beloved film or book is always cause for celebration.

I went to see the Labyrinth 30th Anniversary screening last week. Labyrinth has always been a touchstone for me. Seeing the film at the age of seven was a formative experience that shaped not just my aesthetic sensibilities, but my approach to storytelling as well. So many of my ideas about myth and monsters have developed out of my various interpretations of this film, and I am always discovering something new. There is one aspect of the film, though, about which I have never changed my mind: that the Goblin King is not actually in love with Sarah—and does not, in fact, care about her in any way beyond an abstract (and fleeting) interest in her as the latest victim to fall into his net. I’m pretty certain that I’m in the minority with this opinion, but I’ve never been able to shake it, and on this most recent viewing I noticed something that really reinforced this perspective.

It’s easy to overlook the coldly calculating aspect of Jareth’s character because he’s played to perfection by a David Bowie in tight pants (and at the height of his powers of sexual magnetism). Thus, in order to understand his motivations, and understand how utterly unconcerned with Sarah he actually is, you have to look not at his interactions with her but at the interactions he has when she is not present, and there’s a scene toward the end of the film that makes his unconcern abundantly clear. When Sarah arrives at the Goblin City and gets past the gate, a herald arrives in Jareth’s throne room to inform him of the fact:

“Your Highness! The girl!”
“The girl who ate the peach—who forgot everything!”
“What of her?”

About ten minutes before thirteen o’clock, a herald arrives to inform Jareth that Sarah is close to breaching the castle, and he has—by that time—practically forgotten her existence. He dropped her into a dream world with an avatar of himself to keep her company and figured that was that. When he need not perform for her, when he need not play the game, he has no feeling for her one way or the other. Jareth’s temptation of Sarah is ranged along sexual lines but his desire has nothing to do with sex or romance. In the film’s denouement, in which he sings the painfully poignant “Within You,” he watches Sarah with a longing that’s easy to confuse for unrequited love, but his sorrow is not over her. It is over his inability to be her—over his inability to love anything the way she loves her little brother, and therefore to be loved as she is by those around her. Jareth doesn’t want Sarah; he wants to be Sarah. And failing that, he wants to prove to himself (and to her) that she isn’t capable of a love, and consequently a greatness, that he himself will never attain.

The superficial trappings of the Labyrinth story read very much like a Persephone retelling: a beautiful young girl tricked into a dark kingdom by a tired and lonely god who seeks by subterfuge to keep her there. In truth, however, it is more akin to a classic jealousy tale: the “man” who resents the goodness in others that he cannot not achieve himself. And in the end what is a monster but someone tormented, not merely by what they can never have, but by what they can never be?

Final Thought: Good Suggestions
I’ve always traveled with the philosophy that I’m much more likely to read something if I take it with me than if I leave it home, a philosophy that tends to result in some pretty heavy baggage. For this most recent trip, I made the decision to lighten the load by depending on the suggestions, and book loans, of friends. (Not to mention their tips for movies, TV shows, and recreational activities.) Here’s a list of my favorite suggestions to date:

How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis
Supermutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki
Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
vacationing in Las Vegas (poolside jello shots, y’all; ’nuff said)

Sara Reads no. 11

A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.

Why Are We So Afraid of Angry Women?
In the July edition of the Milkfed Criminal Masterminds newsletter, a semi-regular status report from writers Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, DeConnick mentioned a fan interaction that took place at this year’s Heroes Con. Though DeConnick did not go into particulars about the conversation, she did explain that it centered on whether or not her critically acclaimed comic Bitch Planet condones violence. She maintained that the series, being a satire, does not. Nevertheless, the conversation led her to pose a rhetorical question: Why are we so afraid of angry women? And, moreover, why are we so afraid of them when we are not, as a society, equally frightened of angry men?

It’s a question that’s stayed with me through recent readings.

There are different kinds of anger: controlled and chaotic, rational and irrational, righteous and unjust. Regardless of impetus or justification, the ability to express anger is an act of independence, of autonomy, and of will—all things that society has rarely been comfortable with when it comes to women. Evidence of society’s discomfort with female anger litters history, from the vicious and persistent harassment of women who dare to critique the trappings of modern sexism in pop culture, to the witch hunts of seventeenth-century England and America, and all the way back to the implementation of laws designed specifically to police female behavior. So pronounced is this discomfort that it feels almost inescapable, and finding examples of it requires a bare minimum of Internet searching. One need look no further than the double standards presidential nominee Hillary Clinton faces to find it, but other less sensationalized examples abound and always have. Sometimes you find yourself confronting them in places you wouldn’t expect.

I recently picked up a copy of Poltergeists: Fact or Fancy, a deliciously earnest academic treatise by the British baronet, and jack of all (eloquent) trades, Sacheverell Sitwell. I expected to find an interesting, if silly, exploration of one of my favorite brands of supernatural phenomena. What I actually found was a man who couldn’t stop himself from rambling on about the Salem witch trials and who argued for the conflation of ghosts, poltergeists, and witches. For Sitwell, these seemingly disparate cases are linked by the presence of women, who he believes either inadvertently cause or deliberately engage in the troubling antics that have been variously interpreted by outside observers as supernatural phenomenon and/or the practice of witchcraft. In posing his hypothesis, Sitwell effectively lays blame for a variety of social disturbances—both private and public—at the feet of women, who are expected to maintain rather than disrupt the status quo and whose refusal to do so is cast as evidence of a hysteria not found in men.

These comparisons may seem incongruous, and much removed from one another in time, but, in fact, they’re far more closely related than any of us would like to admit.

Scolds, Witches, and Bitches Through the Ages
In an online lecture for a course on historical fiction that I’ve been auditing, Geraldine Brooks—author of Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague—identifies old court documents as the best sources if you want to find historical records of women speaking on their own behalf. Women are often missing from history, and it is regularly necessary therefore to find them on the margins. As a historian myself, I am no stranger to this reality. Nevertheless, there was one surprising fact from these court documents that caught my attention: many women who appear in the records were brought to court on the charge of being a scold.

Being accused of being a scold was a serious charge—a type of disorderly conduct particular to England and the colonized Americas and restricted to women. Essentially, a scold was a woman who publicly criticized others, and such women were punished first by ducking (being forcibly submerged in water) and later by monetary fines. Though scold cases had largely died out by the twentieth century, scold laws remained on the books in England and the US until well into the 1960s and 70s. Similarly, laws against practices associated with witchcraft, most notably divination, also remained on the books for much longer than might be assumed. Anti-divination laws weren’t done away with until the mid-1980s, when Zsuzsanna Budapest successfully fought for the repeal of the law and the overturning of her own 1975 conviction for tarot reading.

Of course laws are only one aspect of societal control. Cultural attitudes, reinforced by family values and media representation, serve to police the behavior of women as well—sometimes in lethal ways. In the seventeenth century a Massachusetts woman was put on trial for being overhead to criticize a laborer whose work was late, of poor quality, and over-budget. Thus, in the simplest terms, it was—at that time—against the law for a woman to raise a legitimate grievance in public, and while it’s true that such behavior is no longer a legal offense, it’s hard not to see echoes of that mentality—some more extreme than others—in operation today. After all, the persecution of a woman who tried to demand fair service from a paid worker in the seventeenth century is not a far cry from the twenty-first-century case of filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, who was brutally murdered by a construction contractor after they argued.

And it’s not a far cry from the crimes of non-compliance for which the protagonists of Bitch Planet are prosecuted. It is no longer illegal for women to speak their mind in public, or for them to fail to conform to social norms, but to do so remains a practice that can be met with significant hostility.

bitch planet no 3 (crop)
Bitch Planet no. 3 (2015)
Kelly Sue DeConnick and Robert Wilson IV

This is what struck me when reading Kelly Sue DeConnick’s account of her encounter with a male fan at Heroes Con: that Bitch Planet, though a feminist fantasy set in a scifi-style future, is a reflection of a past that many people forget (or would like to forget)—a past that existed not that long ago. At the same time that the series satirizes the lingering anti-“scold,” anti-“witch” attitude that characterizes many contemporary conversations about proper feminine behavior (so many of which begin and end with “Don’t be such a bitch”), it is also an exploration of what our world would be like if the laws against scolds and witches were never repealed, or were reinstated, or were augmented by even further restrictions of behavior. At the end of the day, the social oppression portrayed in Bitch Planet is not really all that far-fetched. Is it any wonder then that critics of the series worry about its portrayal of angry women and the revenge they might seek against their society?

Write a story. A story about yourself. A story about your life.

Now, believe it.

Now write another story, same subject. A better story. More interesting. Stronger characters.

Now, believe that.

Just keep writing. You have plenty of time.

~ Eleanor Davis, How to Be Happy

It cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronise the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of them we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone. Of the rest, some we know to be dead, though they walk among us; some are not yet born, though they go through the forms of life; others are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six. The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute. Indeed it is a difficult businessthis time-keeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts…

~ Virginia Woolf, Orlando