Saturday, March 26, 2011

"chivalry": because it really does need scare quotes

I think feminism gets asked this question a lot: where does chivalry fit into your idea of equal rights? This is my two cents; not so much from a feminist angle, although it's my personal take on it and I am undeniably feminist.

If you read the chivalry article on Wikipedia, you'll see that the origins of chivalry are 'usually associated with ideals of knightly virtues, honor and courtly love', of which duties to ladies are only one aspect of it. Chivalry started out more as a means of identity for men, and despite the shifting focus to courtesy towards women that defines chivalry today, I think it still reflects its origins. Because, let's not kid ourselves -- anyone who has to put a label on good manners towards specific members of the human race is more concerned about how what he's doing defines him than anything else.

Call me judgmental, but if you think holding doors open (only for women, because how else can the chivalrous you be distinguished from the merely good-mannered who hold doors open for men and women alike?) means you're 'chivalrous', if you think that means something...I think less of you.

Yes, I have a thing against people who brag about chivalry or upholding it. To my mind, it has the same effect as the annual breast cancer awareness meme that goes around social networks (tell us where you like your handphone!) -- it makes people feel good about themselves by thinking they're doing something to 'support' a cause, when in fact they've not made any meaningful contribution. It's harmful in that it lulls people into imagining they've done their bit for charity and they need not do any more. That's what chivalry, or at least people who think they're being 'chivalrous' for these little bits of courtesy, does. They think they're pro-women, and they think doing it elevates them somehow, even if just a little bit, and it shows in their 'Well I hold doors open for girls! So I'm nice to girls' or something. Few of them think beyond holding doors open.

Let's not even go into the classist origins of chivalry (you didn't think chivalry was reserved for anyone but ladies, did you?), because 'chivalry' in our modern enlightened times today is just as discriminating. Remember these two videos? Heartwarming in one beat, disgusting the next.

My point, to you 'chivalrous' men out there, is this: do you really care about women? Then stand up for the drunk girl at the party who is clearly in no position to consent to your friend's advances, regardless of what she's wearing, how she's responding to those advances, what her reputation is, whether your friend will ever talk to you again. Make a stand against physical and emotional abuse, especially if it's a display in front of you, if only just to show that no, people are not okay with this, you are not okay with this. Even if you think she's a prostitute. Even if you're not physically intimidating enough and all you can do is call the cops or make a public scene. I can't promise you your help will always amount to something. I can't promise you that the women you help will always be grateful. But if you care, that shouldn't matter.

Most importantly, perhaps you should start by examining your own possible prejudices and double standards where women are concerned. Because that's what really stops men from being a help: thinking she might've deserved it, thinking she could've prevented it if she really wanted to, justifying, justifying, ad nauseam.

There is no doubt that there are men out there who stand up for women, but see, these men don't usually define what they do as chivalry. For good reason, because it's so far removed from the original applications of it. Plus, I often hear guys talk about chivalry in response to oh noes feminism! or expressing disgruntlement at the lack of 'proper appreciation' (i.e. accepting his gestures). Talk about a sense of entitlement. Even then they keep harping on the ridiculously minor acts of holding doors open, offering a coat, etc. Is it any wonder that I have such a poor opinion of chivalry and those who espouse it?

And maybe some of you would like to be honest -- that you've never thought about chivalry in terms of helping women, just being preferentially good-mannered to them. To that, I really have nothing much to say, except that why you would imagine it is something to be proud of is quite beyond me, since I cannot see it taking much strength of integrity and values to be polite to only half the human race.

tl;dr Chivalry is obsolete. Universally good manners is king. If you really love women, help them where it counts.


Further readings for the interested:-
On Chivalry : A feminist analysis of chivalry.
Stuff What Boys Can Do : Encouraging anecdotes of men helping women. Kind of like a givesmehope of men and feminism.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Daughter of the Forest

Book: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier


Sorcha is the seventh child of an Irish lord, after her six brothers. When her father remarries, her new stepmother, the Lady Oonagh turns out to be a beautiful and malicious sorceress. After several engineered mishaps befall Sorcha and her brothers, they convene and attempt to do something about the enchantment holding their father in thrall. Instead, they are interrupted by Lady Oonagh, who casts a spell to turn them into swans. Sorcha however manages to run away and thus escapes the curse. Wrought with despair over her brothers' fates, she accepts the only solution given by the Fair Folk of the forest: to weave six shirts of starwort (a plant with barbed and poisonous stems) for her brothers, while keeping absolute silence. But love comes and complicates her mission.

This is a retelling of the fairy tale 'The Six Swans', and it stays pretty faithful to the Grimms' telling. It's a historical fantasy set in 9th century Ireland and incorporates the Celtic myths of its day. There are some mentions of early medieval Christianity, but the pagan lores are what drives the story, what with all the capricious Fair Folk running around messing with ordinary people's lives. I'd heard many good things about this book and I love fairy tales, so I really wanted to like it, but...it was a bit of a letdown, thanks to several things that lowered my overall enjoyment of it.

First off, there is a somewhat graphic rape scene in this book. Sorcha goes to hell and back in her quest to save her brothers. Now, I'm not against bad things happening to characters in general, but there's no denying that rape is a sensitive issue. I hadn't noticed any mention of it in the reviews I skimmed, so it came as quite a shock to me when it happened, and that probably cost me. It was all the more viscerally upsetting because I'd gotten quite emotionally invested in the character by then, and I had to put away the book for a day or so before I could pick it up again.

I don't think that the disclosure of this will in any way 'spoil' the book for anyone, so I believe it might be better if readers are given a trigger warning beforehand. Some may believe the 'shock value' of it might induce more empathy on the part of the reader, but sorry, I just can't see rape being used cavalierly as a 'plot twist'. There is no doubt that I would've enjoyed this book better if I'd been warned and knew to gird my loins (horrible pun not intended). So. If you're reading this, you have been warned.

Secondly, I found the change in tone, or rather, the shift in focus, hard to follow. The brief summary I gave above is actually quite misleading about its pacing. The events that set the tale in motion don't happen until about 100 pages into the book. It didn't start out as a romance (the love interest only turns up around the halfway mark), but it ended as a romance. Ironically, the half without the romance was my favourite, despite me picking up this book for its promised romantic elements.

I have always said that I'm not much of a prose person, and that I'm a very reactionary reader -- what I left out is that I find it much easier to articulate what went wrong than what I liked. For the latter, I'm not sure what to say beyond readthisreadthisreadthis! So this next part is kind of hard for me to write. I have to say, as little as the attention I pay to prose, that I like Marillier's. Daughter of the Forest is written in omniscient first person, almost like a memoir, and it worked for me. I cared about the world she introduced to me, I cared about what happened, and I cared, period.

It's precisely because I liked it so much in the first half that I cared much more about the characters introduced to me then, and the romance took second place. All I felt was a strong sense of urgency for Sorcha to complete her task so she and her brothers would be saved, and everything else, especially the romance, just got in the way. Well okay, that's not fair -- it didn't get in the way, I just wasn't very invested in it. I was much more invested in the completion of her task, and thus I didn't empathize with the love/family dilemma. The hero's confession at the end was romantic, or at least I know I would've thought so in another book, but I'd stopped seeing this book as a romance by page 202, and really didn't care so much about that aspect.

My apathy towards the lovers' fate carried over to the ending, and all the loose ends made it extremely dissatisfying. In fact, the only thing that's resolved is the love story, which is why I said the book ended like a romance -- since it was as if the only thing that should matter at that point was that the hero and heroine lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, as I've explained, that obviously wouldn't be enough for me. I felt like I was left hanging. I know that this is part of a series, but I just don't feel like I got any emotional payoff after sticking with Sorcha's story for so long (it felt really long, okay) and I'm a bit leery about trying the sequels because of that. Plus, they deal with a different set of protagonists.

Some minor caveats: I had a bit of a problem with the heroine being in a completely helpless and vulnerable situation for majority of the book, but since that's how the original fairy tale goes anyway, I was willing to overlook it. The heroine starts out 13 in this book and finishes it aged 16. Some people might be creeped out by that, but I considered it largely in keeping with the mores of her time, and also she sounded way older than a 13 year-old.

There is a twist on the old romance rule of the first strange man the heroine encounters being the love interest, and I found that bit intriguing. Kudos to Marillier for that.

Final thoughts: I'm a bit traditional in what I expect in my reading, which is probably why I like genre fiction so much. So despite the many things I enjoyed in this book, the experience is dampened by the things I didn't. 3/5 on goodreads for me.

I have plenty of other authors I want to try before I'll think about getting back on board with this one. (but I'll be checking reviews for any possibility of sexual violence when I dip my toe in again.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

mirroring

I dreamed that I was trying to get to somewhere by bus, but wherever I ended up, I couldn't recognize the area at all, and I couldn't ask anyone for help.

    Get a fucking map.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Nicholas Sparks

"(Romances) are all essentially the same story: You've got a woman, she's down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he's got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after. ... (t)he themes in love stories are different. In mine, you never know if it's going to be a happy ending, sad ending, bittersweet or tragic. You read a romance because you know what to expect. You read a love story because you don't know what to expect."
--Nicholas Sparks via USA TODAY
Hmmm. Let me put it this way: if romance novels are guaranteed happy endings, then Nicholas Sparks guarantees tragic, bittersweet endings. So I honestly don't see how one formula is superior to the other. If I'm going to have to choose between two equally predictable and formulaic genres (yes Nicholas Sparks, you are predictable), then I'm going for the one more likely to leave me smiling (guaranteed emotional payoff, okay!). Also,

Sparks says: "I'm going to interrupt you there. There's a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It's a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it's very rare that it works. That's why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It's all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power."

Really? Systematically killing off one main character in every book kind of screams emotional manipulation to me. In my opinion, fiction is supposed to try to tug on your heartstrings. The difference in whether it works, is when the reader realizes they're being manipulated and feels swindled. That's when it doesn't work, and that is precisely why I haven't bothered to read his other books and watch his other movies after A Walk to Remember and The Notebook. 'Genuine' or 'manipulated' emotion on the part of the reader, of all people, is not the distinction. All emotions from reading fiction are manipulated, somehow. It's all in the story, and whether or not the reader can be strung along thinking that the events happening are a natural progression of what they're reading.

Of course, it is a fine line to tread, and you can't please everyone. Even though I don't adore Nicholas Sparks, I know many people who do. That being said, I have nothing against 'Greek tragedies' or Romeo and Juliet. Having a preference for happy endings is just that, a preference. If bittersweet tearjerkers are up your alley, by all means grab a Sparks novel.

And, odd -- I noticed he has Jane Austen on his shortlist of people who are 'doing what he does' (mind, it is a very short list). If love stories are spotted by their unpredictably tragic endings, how the heck did Austen make the cut?

But what especially amuses me is how Sparks tries to distinguish his works from romances (a genre he is often tagged with for obvious reasons) by linking himself exclusively with big literary names (cue: Austen despite her decidedly untragic endings) while playing down the romance genre as frivolous and adult versions of fairy tales. Because we all know only sad and tragic things ever happen in real life.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

ticking time-bomb

Some days (every day) I feel like I'm brimming with potential for failure. That I will spend the rest of my life defining its moments by how closely I skirt the edge of it.

And then on even rarer days, there is a fatalistic urge to jump (fall) anyway and see what I can do with all the pieces left after. (answer: nothing)