Friday, September 19, 2014
Casual Sexism: Eifelheim
I recently finished reading Michael Flynn's Eifelheim for book club, and generally really enjoyed it. By which I mostly mean: I will forgive a great deal of a book that manages to present religion in a respectful way, and I have a particular soft spot for medieval philosophical debates because ridiculously amusing. (Aside, did you know that there were very real & worrisome questions about how the resurrection of the body would work if you ended up in a river eaten by a fish that someone else later caught and ate because then the same particles would end up in two people and that would be confusing when God raised everyone?) (Second aside - did you know that on Twitter Ta-Nehisi Coates inspired a bit of a discussion about body/spirit theology because football? Start here.)
Point being: while Eifelheim may or may not be "good" to the extent that that's relevant, it pushes a lot of nice buttons for me. And until recently, no real downsides. But this time, I noticed that in the "present" timeline, our protagonist Tom had been a bit of a man-about-town until he finally finally fell in with his girlfriend Sharon. Sharon is a physicist who's settling Tom down, but not particularly exciting, so he gets to meet librarian Judy: "a fine-featured woman, decked with a long print dress and adorned by large, plain glasses. Her hair met behind her in a tight bun."
"Lieber Gott, Tom thought. An archetype!"
Well yes, but as we'll soon see, not only in the way Flynn meant. Judy is introduced as a fine-featured woman, and she flushes when Tom speaks to her.
A paragraph later: "That was the nexus. A lonely librarian wanted a human conversation, and a lonely cliologist needed a break from his fruitless hunt". Coupled with the fact that Tom's just been thrown out of his apartment by his girlfriend, the archetype Flynn's setting up has all sorts of sexual connotations, and every time we return to the present, there's some reference to Judy the librarian increasingly intruding on Tom's time which his girlfriend resents.
It's all perfectly innocent of course. Tom and Sharon are An Item, and there's no hint that either Tom or Judy wants to start an affair. It's just that the present timeline needs a bit of spice, and a lonely, fine-featured librarian to introduce a bit of jealousy is the perfect ingredient.
Tom's girlfriend has a research aide. He's male. We never really learn much about his physical appearance, and there are no hints of sparks, jealousy, or anything else, of course.
The sexism in Eifelheim is casual and unconsidered. It's the sort of thing that I either didn't notice on previous readings, or maybe grinned at a bit. It's not overt to the point it intrudes on the story, just quietly there. And now, it detracts from the novel. Because safe spaces and scaly llamas. Because for some readers, it's going to reinforce negative views and for others it's going to be actively unpleasant (like being punched in the face at a restaurant) and there's no reason they should have to have that experience while reading Eifelheim.
I can't consume media the same way I used to anymore. I'm a lot more sensitive to casual racism & sexism than I used to be. I suspect a lot still flies by me (and there is plenty of other writing that's insensitive & insulting to other communities like the disabled, LGBT, and others that I mostly miss). Sometimes when I notice this, I get a bit sad, because I'd love to read Eifelheim without having the sexism detract from it. Except, the author could do that to. The author could write a more inclusive book that's not casually insulting, and then I wouldn't have this problem. And loads of other people who aren't represented in fiction could also enjoy it. That would be great. I guess I'm saying #weneeddiversebooks ? Also, authors: do better. I'll reward you by buying your books, because there are fewer and fewer that don't bug me as I'm reading them.