“Each of us should be tested on what we do best.”
Earlier today I was reading a review of Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire (which I haven’t read, but very much intend to) over at Coffee On My Keyboard, and it got me thinking (not very originally, it has to be said) about gender roles in fantasy. Which then got me thinking about a mildly famous work of MG fantasy I finished a couple of days ago, William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer, which won a Smarties Gold Award in 2000 and which many people of a certain age (although not me) seem to have read when small.
It’s a high-profile book, as such things go. It’s set in a city called Amaranth, where social status is determined by performance in yearly exams: each family gets a ranking, and that ranking determines where that family will live for the next year, in a cramped one-room apartment in Grey, a little two-bedroom house in Orange, a proper townhouse in Scarlet, or a vast mansion in White. Our Heroine, Kestrel Hath, a girl from a low-performing Orange family, gets fed up with all the testing and kicks off fairly publicly; her family is humiliated, and she runs away with her brother Bowman on a Quest to retrieve the titular wind singer which will, according to legend, free the city. It’s a gentle and rather sweet piece of fantasy, leavened with humour and often quite touching, and I suspect that if I had read it at the age of about twelve as many of my peers apparently did it would have been a perennial favourite.
This is, on the whole, worrying, because the strangest thing about The Wind Singer is not the fact that its main villain is an old woman with an army of murderous cheerleaders at her disposal but that it feels like it was written in about 1980. Which is to say that this undoubtedly well-written, award-winning novel about individuality and love frequently sacrifices narrative integrity to preserve traditional gender roles. Despite the fact that everyone in Aramanth is tested regularly, it’s the score of the male head of the household that really counts for the family ranking. The only woman we encounter in the city with any sort of status is a lady Examiner whose role in the narrative is to be taken in by Kestrel’s appeal to her motherly feelings (ugh). Because men, of course, would not fall for such wiles. Later on in the story, we find Bowman being mentioned as “the natural leader” of the little ka-tet of children seeking the wind singer – despite the fact that Kestrel has been the one to engineer the escape from Aramanth, the one who takes action while Bowman reads people’s emotions, the one from whose POV the whole thing is told. Nicholson essentially rewrites his entire narrative – including the potentially subversive device whereby the male sibling is the one with the emotional intelligence – in order to ensure that the men are still in charge. And, of course, the villain of the piece, who is to be defeated because she is Evil, is female.
This, I would like to stress, is a story in which nomadic tribes living in wind-powered towns have worked out a treaty based on mutually assured destruction; in which a slightly bonkers Emperor lives at the top of a tower eating chocolate buttons; in which a community living in the sewers gets high on drugs every night. Why is practically the only structure with any basis in what we tenuously call reality in the novel the one that says women can’t have status on their own? If we’re rethinking social structure, why aren’t we rethinking gender structures as well? Why does this lyrical, lovable piece of writing with its oh-so-humanist message of freedom and kindness go out of its way to perpetuate the oppression of 51% of humanity? And why are we allowing it to do so by rewarding this kind of work, by continuing to give it out in schools? Why, in fact, do we continue rewarding old-fashioned thinking in a genre which should be all about reinventing the world? Giving this kind of normalised misogyny to young people is almost worse than giving them overtly sexist narratives: MG should challenge, not console.