Insidious Patterns: With Poison and Spite

If you recognize this painting, you know where this is article is going already. NO SPOILERS.

As I’ve developed my writing skills further over the years, I’ve started noticing more and more patterns. Some of these are deeply hidden things and I’ll get to them in due time. Today I’m going to go full male author and belatedly catch up with decades of feminist discourse. I mean, I’m pretty sure that’s how far behind I am on this one; I just haven’t seen it talked about as much as other overtly sexist ideas in writing.

Full disclosure: this post started because I saw a woman writer–I think she was a writer? Guys, I’m tired–make a Twitter post roughly a week back. This post stated some tips to be beautiful which seemed to involve a blend between tips for an assassin and real estate advice for a witch. Good stuff. Thematically and in principle, I am on board with such advice. The larger portion of my brain, the one raised by a woman officer/doctor/supermom, applauded.

It was not quite loud enough to drown out the ragged portion in the back chortling, “Indeed, more power to her, but… wouldn’t date her. I’d prefer not to be poisoned.” I hope most of you, dear readers, do not often find yourself required to bellow “Who asked you, you misogynist prick?” at yourself. I have to do this more frequently than I like to admit. Victory is that I steal a few fractions of a decibel from the idiot-voice and none of the women around me are exposed to its stupidity. Whether I have been publicly defeated on this count recently is, I think, theirs to decide.

For a while now this voice has caught me off guard. “Where the hell is it coming from?” I wonder. My writing is full of strong female characters–some quite literally strong, all strong in writing terms. Or, y’know, I hate my execution of these characters marginally less than everything else I do. They’re strong enough that they manage to assert themselves without ever once going on a generic “Oh, you men” rant. These have mercifully gone out of fashion, and I maintain they’re usually bad writing. These tirades tend to be hamfisted and less effective than other methods (not necessarily subtler methods, mind you).

So, fine, I think they’re a writing tool that’s often been used badly–it’s not like, for example, the woman going on these rants runs a preparatory school for young women and is infuriated by the obscene disparity in standards of conduct across genders (I told you ANYTHING can work if handled right). Yet it’s difficult for me to evaluate these sorts of misused tools objectively because, wouldn’t you know it, there’s that idiot voice in the back of my head saying, “Yes, it certainly is unfortunate that these uppity women can’t manage to express themselves without referring to their sex. How terribly tribal of them.”

God, fuck that guy, right? Euphemistically. (As an inside source, I can confirm there is zero risk this voice will ever get laid. Maybe in his dreams, except I happen to control those.)

It’s only recently that I began to realize this voice has been so damned difficult to get rid of because it’s not wholly intrinsic to me. It’s implanted, a cerebral parasite feeding on doubts nurtured by outside forces–or perhaps it’s more a virus. Oh, I have built-in doubts, to be sure, and I was no more immune to schoolyard pettiness about Venus and Jupiter than any other child (is that rhyme even still in use? Maybe the digital age has at least killed that particular troll.) I’ve even got my own enduring brand of ugliness, but that’s the one that prompts sudden edgy posts about how I fight alone.

Which is technically true, but I’m in a decent mood right now and able to admit that’s more the result of a childhood and teen years spent traveling, then an introverted life in college. Anyway, that’s for later–edgy remarks can be a sign of toxic masculinity, but not here. (Edge-North is turned on by all the poisoner-women, which might carry shades of a different sexism and is definitely a problem, but a digressive one.)

Before we go any further: I’m going to be writing “coding” and “allegory” a lot in this post. I am using the understanding of these things bestowed upon me by analytical goddess and fellow day-drinker Lindsay Ellis–to paraphrase: coding is incidental, allegory is deliberate, and a story which can be interpreted as a metaphor or thematic vehicle for a certain idea may be doing so incidentally (coding) or with the author’s full intention (allegory).

Back to the fun/enraging bits!

I can’t begin to guess where this filthy foolishness germinated. I know it goes back at least as far as the Greeks and the myth of Medea, but I don’t really believe this started with them. Fundamentally, a large portion of men are intimidated by women. Maybe it starts with those first scoldings from our mothers; I think this is the case for me. But then, if a woman tells me off as my mother would and I’m intimidated, that’s a good thing; my mother has never actually scolded me when I don’t deserve it. This is likely why I fold a little quicker before women when I’m in the wrong. Which is good! Why in hell should it be praiseworthy to stick to my guns when they’re aimed at a throng of metaphorical kittens?

And this is where our pattern finally comes into play. If a man gives ground to another man when that man calls out his mistakes, the first man is praiseworthy: he’s doing the rational thing and owning up to his shortcomings. It’d be pigheaded and childish not to concede to–oh, shit, Commander Breskowicz is actually a woman under that helmet? Never mind, my genius assault plan of charging headlong at the enemy and pulling the pins on our grenades in a synchronized line with no suppressing fire is flawless!

This book is written by a male author, so Katarina will find my stubborn horseshit weirdly endearing for some reason–also we’re in the military and she went through four years at the academy, but I’m still gonna call her Katarina at least five times before I acknowledge her rank, and she’ll secretly find this unearned familiarity charming instead of direly insulting!

I would like to extend an apology to the hypothetical Commander for having to appear in this terrible analogy. Hopefully I can at least give her a short story later. Now, you may be wondering how this relates to women with poison being hard to date–or you’ve already grasped that the key thread here is (say it with me in your best megatext narration voice):

M A L E    F R A G I L I T Y

Is that font too big for writing on a professional blog? Whatever, we can at least squeeze a compensation joke out of it. Yes, it’s the old sweaty-balled, shaky-handed nemesis who we can’t manage to kill because he’s cloned himself roughly 4 million times and effectively taken over society, but is still frightened by a sexually-aggressive woman. Aside: I guaran-goddamn-tee you the reason slut shaming exists is that every man’s first instinct is: “oh god, she’s experienced, her standards must be super high and I have no idea what I’m doing!” See, I also feel this (by proxy; sexually-aggressive women have higher standards than I can meet), but I’ve developed this weird trick where I take a deep breath, punch myself in the gut a couple of times, and realize that’s sort of a me problem.

I was going to say “no, I don’t expect this to get me laid”, but that in itself is acquiescence to this brainless insipid pattern! There’s a tacit belief in far too much media that a man should only give ground to a woman when she’s a prospective sexual (if lucky, romantic) partner, therefore any man who gives ground to women is desperate to get laid. Don’t get me wrong, it’d be nice, but if I were really desperate I’d scan my Bi-card at the nearest gay bar and see who taps that bank account.

I think that line illustrates why I’m still a virgin. So what is this pattern which, er, I’m still talking about in terms of its effects?

A huge portion of works featuring female characters still use what I’ll call, for brevity’s sake, The Medea Slander. See what I meant about the picture above implying spoilers? I’m sure there are some terms like this in broader feminist discourse I could use, and I’m genuinely sorry I don’t have time in my life right now to look for them. Between script-reading and trying to stay in shape, I barely have enough time to decompress in the evenings–also, I still have to write these articles before I can post them! Research is, sadly, a luxury for me most days.

Now, obviously Medea’s reaction in the myth is disproportionate–can’t just kill your shit husband, gotta take the kids out and leave him alive? You know he’s a Greek Hero, right? He can basically just pull his errant penis out and walk until he impregnates a nymph by accident.

That’s the whole point: these female characters are depicted acting in incoherently evil ways which reflect the anxieties of the men who invented them more than anything else. The idea here is simple: if a woman has any level of power which the men around her do not, a disproportionate number of works will call into question her suitability to hold it. Again, the presentation here is often explicitly gendered: the seductress Blood Mage Idunna from Dragon Age 2, for example, who is masquerading as a prostitute when the player character encounters her. None of the numerous male Blood Mages in the series feel impelled to use their powers in sexually-coded fashion in a sexually-overt environment this way.

See the above about slut-shaming: this character, even if written by a woman (I mean, I doubt it, but I’ve done enough editing by now to know it can happen), is a direct projection of male anxiety surrounding sexual performance. Prostitutes or characters pretending to be prostitutes are especially fun this way because they invoke both concerns of under-performance with veteran female partners and the even greater bugbear of being found Unworthy to Mate. You can often hear this one echoed by men–even those who may not show any sexist opinions otherwise!–who insist that they’re not interested in sexually available women because they’re “too easy”.

Newsflash, fuckwits: you haven’t acquired new worth because a “difficult” woman decided to have sex with you. You’re just a dumbass coding female sexual autonomy as a “challenge” to overcome, a “difficult battle” you have to fight. If I seem pissed about this, readers, it’s because I’m keenly aware that toxic masculinity hurts men–it’s certainly made things a pain in the ass for me!

Let’s come back to that thing I just typed, though: the coding of female autonomy as a challenge to be overcome. The types of female characters most likely to be stigmatized are those, like Medea, who have asymmetrical powers relative to their male counterparts–poison, for example, which completely circumvents the masculine culture of confrontation and manly face-to-face combat so prized among male characters.

I suspect in some cases this is full-bore allegory; in the rest, it’s coding for male anxiety around women who know more and can do more than said males. Again, there has never once been a male fantasy protagonist in this situation who says, “…can’t I just read up on poisons and herb-lore and develop some countermeasures? Why am I freaking about about this?” Huh, jeez, that guy sounds a little cool. Look at him, being challenged and learning from it–

–brain, stop, we’re talking about serious issues of anti-feminine coding. Practical Hero and the Venomous Countess do not need to have a slow-burn romance predicated around testing poisons on each other (obviously there’s an antidote on hand each time, it’s not that insane).

Over and over, female characters with cunning or manipulative skills, with clandestine knowledge, with a little more readiness to wait ’til the clothes come off before pulling a knife, are coded as sinister, malevolent, and outright evil. And most of the time, their refusal to participate in the rigid power structure pursued by the male characters will be highlighted as a component of their wickedness–as opposed to, say, forcing the male character to acknowledge that not all problems can be solved with a magnetic rail-rifle. (I know, Sergeant Photonicus, this makes me as sad as it does you.)This continues even in the present day.

What’s conspicuous here is that ruthless male characters are always “just getting the job done”. The Witchers from the franchise of the same name, for example, use every dirty trick in the book–poisons, spellcraft, traps, it doesn’t matter, they’ll put it all to use. Full disclosure, I’m only familiar with them via CD Projekt Red’s games. Any interest in reading Andrezj Sapkowski’s originals was completely killed by his shit attitude towards those games. Look into it if you feel like being infuriated by an old white dude’s parochial attitudes.

Now, Geralt can be pretty bland, but he’s fundamentally depicted as an altruist–a troubled and cynical one, but a man who does ultimately believe in doing the right thing. Edgily (so, different kind of bland). Poisons are just part of the toolset for this. A female character using any of these same things is all but guaranteed to be a villain, however, or at least a rogue agent out for her own ends. Regardless whether it makes sense, the odds of these same female characters being portrayed as leveraging their sexuality are astronomically high–even considering that for men the likelihood of this is basically nil.

Funny how the more commonly predatory of the two cis genders has reversed the pattern in its own writing, isn’t it?

The emphasis here is not really on the methods of female characters who fall victim to The Medea Slander. It’s the frequency with which that slander is applied to female characters who use these methods. This is why the pattern is so insidious, and why I’ve had such a hard time fighting through it: it persists not by directly stating that all women are evil, but by pushing a disproportionately high number of women who do evil things with tools that are already in a less-idealized class.

Traditionally-masculine tools of power, such as swords, spears, axes, and whatnot, are overwhelmingly depicted in idealized martial terms. Even the grimdarkest battle has some implicit fairness; sure, the Boltons may be able to ride down those men on foot with no trouble, but at least they’re fighting face to face! Also, those were Stannis’ soldiers, and everyone hates Stannis.

Which ties right back into the fucking pattern, now doesn’t it? “The Boltons did something unfair in Game of Thrones” was just a summary of every Bolton action up until they were Fanfic’d out of existence. They’re an anomaly, a group so wantonly malicious and vile that their actions would never be taken as representative of men. They’re framed as aberrational even by Westerosi standards. Contrast them with every random female antagonist or supporting antagonist whose use of a poisoned knife or light mind control are just the most evil thing ever.

Hey, remember when Thulsa Doom in the first Conan movie made that girl jump to her death to show off? Remember how Conan just stared at him? Contrast this with the open-mouthed, disbelieving outrage with which Hawke (regardless of selected gender) responds to Idduna in Dragon Age 2. Now, sure, this is from eight years ago, and Conan was Conan, but most of the time the main characters of a fantasy work stare stoically at the villain as he monologues about his nine-step plan for total genocide, yet lose their minds that the Dowager-Archduchess put Kettlemelt in the wine she offered them. Hey, like I said though, it’s been eight years! The pattern has to have changed a lot… right? I’m not going to address the idea that video games writing is somehow a lower art which shouldn’t be treated as representative of wider writing.

Besides, I don’t need to. Let’s talk about Jasnah and Ialai from The Stormlight Archive, which is still ongoing. Those of you who read the series may find it odd that I mention both of them–Jasnah’s not married to Slimy von Rottenevil, right? Sure, but Jasnah’s pariah status within Alethi society and the way that she’s always presented as abnormally ruthless is still a softer invocation of The Medea Slander. She is a female character of abnormal intellect and power; therefore, she must be the most dangerous thing ever.

Torol Sadeas, a sociopathic mass-murderer with the approximate loyalty of the average Claymore antipersonnel mine, was more socially acceptable than Jasnah: an ambitious female scholar with magic. And yes, I know that Sanderson is writing in a deliberately-regressive culture compared to North American gender norms, but…

..well, he did decide to undershoot that already low bar. This was a voluntary choice he made as a writer. If you like this setup, I’m not judging you for doing so. However, in deciding to join the long list of fantasy works replicating (our impressions of–important difference!) Medieval European gender norms, Sanderson inevitably pulls in the coding we’ve built around those norms.

Ialai is, unadulterated, The Medea Slander in full. She’s a female character who runs a spy network and is known for ruthlessness–guess she better be evil as shit in direct contrast to the saintly Navani who focuses on honorable, gender-correct inventions and only engages in warfare via Dalinar as her proxy. And supports his binge-drinking as a coping mechanism instead of worrying that maybe this isn’t healthy–a moment which badly needed development and tension it never received. You see, in order to justify her own borderline-Medean tech-affinity, Navani otherwise has to be maximum Waifu-bait.

Look, if you thought I would forgive Dalinar the binge-drinking nonsense, you need to go back and reread one of the dozen articles where I say how sick I am of fantasy protagonists with manufactured hardship. BUT, that’s for later.

And then there’s Eshonai’s sister Venli, who took over after Eshonai’s far more compelling character was done away with where we couldn’t see it (could it happen? Sure. Was it a satisfying end for such a nuanced, intriguing character? NOPE). Now, for those who don’t read the books, Venli–a shamanistic scholar imbued with tasty dark secrets–basically orchestrates a conspiracy to bring back the old gods of her people who enslaved them in the past purely so she can be rewarded with immense power upon their return.

Here again, we have a female character who possesses unusual knowledge and dark power who uses it for the worst possible purpose. There’s more context behind this, sure, but there’s more context behind every version of The Medea Slander. However, whereas books with male characters doing these things rush to provide that context if there’s even the slightest chance their actions might reflect on men as a whole, Ramsay fucking Bolton, with The Medea Slander the context cringes in the corner–“Well yeah, you’re trying to steal her family’s entire fortune to fund a quest, but she did try to stab you with a poisoned dagger after you broke into her house, so who’s the real villain?”

I do not think that Sanderson deliberately imported these negative tropes. The Stormlight Archive is just decent fantasy literature with a few mighty flourishes–most of which were by its small army of supporting artists rather than included in Sanderson’s prose proper. It makes a useful talking point because there’s a ton of material in and it’s well-enough known that much of that material is readily available online. Its own relative conformity means that it serves as a useful benchmark for the overall state of fantasy.

I bring up The Stormlight Archive not because of any particular animus against it, but because I sincerely believe that Sanderson has replicated a lot of fantasy tropes without any particular plan for reworking them. You are welcome to believe otherwise; I draw the faith-in-deconstruction line somewhere before the one million word mark, I think. Let’s not forget that he had The Wheel of Time to demonstrate how not to pace a series of several million words, and having read the whole blasted thing (I didn’t skip a word. Not a single. Fucking. Word.) I have to say he’s missed at least some of the lessons he could’ve drawn.

That’s the key point for these last few paragraphs. This particular pattern is such a nightmare to deal with because it’s embedded in so many aspects of traditional high or epic fantasy. Hell, it was in The Wheel of Time too! Namely with all of the female Forsaken and most of the Aes Sedai–even Moiraine, who we later found out was abnormally positive towards men and less fanatical than her sisters, was constantly coded as witchlike, vaguely otherworldly and threatening, against the respectable manly swordsman man-threat of al’Lan “I swear I’m not Aragorn” Mandragoran.

Let’s not forget that using Saidin, because of the Dark One’s Taint (this phrase hurts me as a writer invested in making a basic effort to stand out from other fantasy works)–using man-magic for most of The Wheel of Time causes intense psychological damage and eventual madness. However, because Rand is the protagonist and Rand is a man, the books go out of their way to ensure we sympathize with the ragey, over-ambitious magic-having men. The Aes Sedai, meanwhile, have an actual full-blown schism because of internal scheming and conspiracies motivated by the need to have and abuse more power.

Ooohhhhhh, these women with their crazy powers and their unstable emotions, oooooohhhhh!

Now don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that any of these works are bad or unworthy. Again, I think The Stormlight Archive is just passably good. I loved or hated The Wheel of Time book to book and chapter by chapter; it was either excellent or a bitter slog with very little middle ground between the two. The overarching pattern behind The Medea Slander is the constant presentation of female agency as a sinister force which must always be measured by its effects on men–and even if they deserve those effects, the emphasis will still somehow be on the female agency’s infringement on their own.

This has persisted for so long that women who seek power with any hint of female identity involved in doing so will immediately draw comparison to the worst of their number. This ties in with my previous article about power-seeking in speculative fiction. Female characters are more likely to be depicted as seeking power or scheming for it rather than the intrinsic birthright model male characters take advantage of (*cough*DIVINE RIGHT*cough), and therefore to be coded as villainous or at best anti-heroic.

Other expressions of the Medea Slander include, but are not limited to:
-Female villains being more prone to using torture and psychological manipulation or “shadow war” methodology (in the narrative proper rather than alluded to on the side),
-Female warriors more commonly resorting to “dirty tricks” which are tonally indicated to be dirty tricks even when a thousand male characters have done the same damn thing without being faulted
-Female characters being portrayed as underhanded for weaponizing their sexuality against men when this is dependent on the weak will or stupidity of said males to begin with,
-Female characters who seek power in areas of their respective worlds which are male-dominated being treated as dangerous renegades by the writing’s own emphases, not just the male characters around them–see above: Jasnah got way more attention from the narrative itself with regard to how badly she rocked the boat than her achievements as a scholar and scientist.
-Female characters who have abnormal power and knowledge frequently being portrayed as emotionally-stunted or embittered in ways that don’t stem from their life experiences–
See above: Jasnah somehow not being able to conceive the idea of a scientific sketch because she hated sketches and considered them useless–there was context behind this but it makes no sense–until Shallan brute-forced it even though sketching things which words struggled to describe was foundational to Earth naturalism and sciences from the start. I could and likely will write a whole article some day about TSA‘s unfortunate tendency to default to low-hanging fruit for character development, but that’s a side-topic for now. (Yes, I just abbreviated The Stormlight Archive to the acronym of North America’s least-sexy security agency. STOP ME, TOR BOOKS, IF YOU THINK YOU CAN!)

I could go on, but any who didn’t already believe me, I think I’ve made the case pretty damn thoroughly that this pattern exists. What do I want you to do about it–as readers or as writers?

Readers! Good news–those of you who, like myself, were painfully slow in noticing this pattern, have now been informed! Be aware of it and consciously reframe it whenever you encounter it in your reading so that it doesn’t seep too far into your subconscious. That’s it, thank you for attending my conference, you’re free to go!

Fellow writers:

Uh, shit. Here’s the biggest problem with this pattern: fighting it can end up reinforcing it if it’s not done just right, and there’s no exact pattern for doing it right. It depends on the work. The Medea Slander subsists on depicting female identity that isn’t submissive or sufficiently pliant as intrinsically corrupt. So, to be blunt: if you have a female character who is powerful and proud of being a woman, you’re going to be fighting this crap until it’s destroyed.

It’s not as if I can tell you in good conscience to just not write problematic female characters–that obliterates a hell of a lot of stories, doesn’t it? Including mine!

The one thing I can tell you: context. Be as clear as the story will allow–a mystery or suspense story is obviously going to tie your typing-fingers a bit–about why the ruthless female characters in your writing act as they do. If you’re looking for a rough measure, may I suggest at least as much context as provided for a male villain who the writer has belatedly realized might force him to question his own troublesome beliefs without enough excuses to hide behind?

You really ought to be doing this anyway; context emerges naturally from depth, and if you’re not interesting in writing deeply I don’t think there’s anything more for us to discuss. Continuing: if you can’t think of a good reason for the actions the female character is taking, that’s probably a sign that she shouldn’t be taking those actions. Usually. Some people are just plain unreasonable and there’s no way around that. I hate giving broad-stroke advice with no specific examples to speak of, but we’re almost 4500 words in at this point and I’m still not getting paid for this.

Look, I’ve tried to subsist on fresh air and unremitting hatred, but so far I’ve only managed to eliminate lunch. The other meals are proving less disposable.

So… let the story tell you how the characters should act, and if you’re worried this is coming across as another female character with poison in her blood, all you can do is add more depth. At the end of the day, The Medea Slander exists because some men are scared shitless by women, and they’ll do anything to construct a reality where this is somehow women’s fault.

(If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)

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