The Artemis Complex

I finally got to reading Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (which is totally awesome and I’ll post more on that later) and I couldn’t help noticing the cover – another girl with a crossbow (Ismae actually has a larger arsenal than that).  This year with the release of The Hunger Games and Brave, girls with bows and arrows have become the new chic for YA heroines.  In my story, Aerie, my main character is a good archer to fit with the wind theme.  So what’s the deal with this set up?  Well, I think that as we move away from the virgin/whoring bitch dichotomy, we’ve set ourselves a new archetype – Artemis.

Even among writers, there’s a writing subtext and subconscious that we all play into – and the new ideal is the dark Greco-Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt.  Greek mythology was one of my favorite topics in school, and my favorite goddess was Artemis.  Of all the goddesses on Olympus, she was untouchable but unafraid of getting her hands dirty.  I think that’s why so many types are modeled after her now.  Artemis was the virgin goddess of taking names and kicking ass.  While being a virgin isn’t a bad thing, it’s still overused as a hallmark of female noble character.  We still end up with a new rendition of the virgin/whore song we’re trying to stop dancing to.  Most of the girls who sleep around in romance novels are either raped, crazy/evil or turned into props.  If a heroine has sex, then all of a sudden we’re in erotica.  I find this particularly grating when I see it in sci-fi and epic fantasy.  Can’t we have female main characters that aren’t oversexed or overly celibate?  Why are we unable to walk lines in fiction that we seem to live along in modern Western culture?

While I love reading and playing with the Artemis archetype, I hope that it doesn’t become the next version of Mary Sue.  There’s so much more that can be done with girls other than switching one type of bow for another.  I think this is part of the reason why there are so many YA novels aimed at girls – there’s still a lot of coping being done in feminism.  There’s so much conflict in the formation of identity – how much do we go by old rules and how much do we make up on our way?  I adore Margaret Atwood’s books on how to these ideas conflict and that we find ourselves at this turmoil of what we see ourselves as and how much of the past we allow to guide our identity.  Historical novels will always pose an issue because there is a precedent that can’t be ignored easily.  My family came from a fairly conservative culture, and it was obvious to see first hand the amount of hypocrisy and self-flagellation over women’s roles of those espousing those views.  I’m willing to bet  it exists everywhere.

Admittedly, Artemis is a better turn than Hera, and I think we’re moving forward there’s still a long road ahead of us.  Virgins aren’t bad people, nor does being a virgin make someone good.  The same goes for women who have sex.  There just needs to be a greater push away from the fear of female sexuality, especially among female writers.  I say this as I look at “creative choices” that make me not want to let any of my family know about my writing.  Recently, I was at a crossroads when deciding what direction to take the leading lady of Unhexed.  I was basing my character off Rogue from The X-Men, and the idea of Magdalene asylums came up, which was a setting I wanted to explore for some time.  I wanted her to experience living in one, but it was a place for whores — my character wasn’t a whore.  And then this  stupid voice in the back of my head asked, ‘Why not? She’s cursed and her life’s damn horrible and she’s a great character in spite of that.’  The more I thought about it, the more it gave so many different dimensions to her interactions with the other characters.  Also, I remembered so many “other women” that have gotten bad treatment to be the foil for the heroines in romance novel and thought – this was my chance to look at how women who aren’t virgins or wives don’t get taken seriously, how easy it is to write someone off as a “whore.”  It’s still an issue faced by most of the world today.

So girls with crossbows, take aim, you’ve still got a long fight ahead of you.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Other Reasons Why History Repeats Itself

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’m not sure how this happened, but I finally read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale this week.  Why it took me over seven years to get to it, I have no idea and am thoroughly kicking myself now for have letting it happen.

Atwood’s novel chronicles a woman, Offred,  living in a dystopic future where women have next to no rights and are used like chattel by older couples to have children.  It is the early days of the society, and  Offred (whose real name is never given as she goes by her Commander’s name) can remember the days before the U.S. government was hostilely overthrown by what appear to be backwater conservatives who don’t care for Jews and are looking to preserve the white race.

The story runs the contrast and complexities of the lives of women before and after the fundamentalist takeover.  There is an internal feminist struggle of what the boundaries are between women and how they see themselves in relation to each other.  Offred jokes that this is their female society and the irony of women working against each other like tools for men isn’t lost on her.  In the days before, Offred was the second wife of her husband, which was the excuse used to strip them apart.   However a pertinent detail was that Offred and her husband were having an affair when he was married, and her friend Moira pointed out that she had stolen another woman’s husband.

Later, at the training facilities where women are to become chattel for child-bearing, they are instructed by the Aunts, older infertile women who brainwash and reign them in.  Again it is ironic that it is women acting against other women.  This becomes more evident when the Wives are resentful of the Handmaids ability to have children.  Women will so easily sell each other out for status among men would best sum this book up.   If one ever read Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women, it would be easy to draw the parallel that women constantly have this need to one up each other in front of men in order to earn status, and that they cannot establish their own system of worth on their own.

Even though the novel was published well over twenty years ago, a large number of the issues retain their relevancy to the gender divide and the complex problem of being a “feminist.”  What I’ve seen in growing numbers of professional women sticking the disclaimer on themselves that they are “not feminist” in a desperate bid to seem… I don’t know, not a crazy die-hard feminazi?  I really think this plays into what Atwood displays about women and feminism in the twentieth century, it’s the idea that feminism, female assertion, is a threat that other females try to put down just as much as men do, if not to a greater extent in order to assert their status.  Contradictory and hypocritical?  Highly.  But it’s not an issue that feminists and anti-feminist women across the board seem to want to address.