For the first third of the novel, I thought this novel was one of the most mentally orgasmic works of fantasy I’ve ever read, but by the end, I wanted to burn it and dump the ashes into a sewer. I was so angered by this book that I’m still struggling to get back into my reading stride.
The author of this book did something unforgivable. Instead of growing her characters through the challenges they faced, she devolved them into objectified beings barely recognisable as humans.
The male lead character becomes a self-aware penis with a martyr complex. When a seemingly inconsequential character is revealed as actually being Major Female Character One, he becomes threatened by the fact that the woman he thought was a convenient shag is more powerful and skilled than him. He refuses to acknowledge the life-saving actions she undertakes to his benefit. He cannot see her as more than an object, and her agency becomes muddied by her fierce determination to bed him again.
Almost every interaction between the two major female characters and the male lead is sexualised, ridiculously so. Every time one of the women was with the man, that scene ended with actual sex or aggressive attempts to have sex. In fact, many of Male Lead Character’s emotional conflicts centre on whether or not he should have sex with a woman who’s practically raping him already. I’m not saying that lightly. Near the end of the book, Major Female Character Two literally has him pressed against a wall, her hand shoved down his pants while he protests.
That’s not sexy, people, it’s sexual assault. But this man eventually reciprocates these unwanted attentions and I darn near hurled my tablet down the driveway. I have a mountainous problem with romanticised rape culture in fiction because rape is not fucking sexy. This is why we refer to these heinous acts as sexual assault.
Yet I continue to encounter supposedly romantic situations where a man (usually) paws and gropes at a woman who’s asking him to stop. He often physically prevents her from leaving or escaping his unwanted attentions too, but this is supposed to be hot and steamy? A pushy man refusing to listen when asked to stop is supposed to turn me on, really? Because the only scoring I envision in this scenario is the final minutes, clear path to the goal powered kick I’d like to deliver to his fictional crotch.
What baffles me is that Lead Male Character already had sufficient motivation for his heroic actions. He was already pursuing them when the author started firing underdeveloped female characters at him like coastal cannons booming down on an invasion. I don’t understand what this author was thinking when she decided this was the way her story needed to go. I even lay awake one night analysing the novel, but I got nothing satisfactory from it.
There is a huge difference between sexist books and sexism in books. You can write a great book set in a sexist society. You can even throw rape culture in there and it won’t necessarily take away from the technical awesomeness of your novel. Just look at George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire for an example of this. Many of the women in this series are treated deplorably by society, but they’re also strong, capable characters with agency and personality. They’re people, not animated objects adrift in a tale that drags them to the fore only when necessary.
Characters don’t have to be fighting misogyny a la The Handmaid’s Tale or Time Zero for it to work in fiction. Your characters just have to be more than gender roles, more than anatomy and the sexualisation of what’s between their legs.
You see, sexism isn’t a shackle that effects women alone. Sexism is just as much about men being more than a brainless mass that can lift a penis erect as it is about women being more than a pretty thing stuffed in the fridge.