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llama, llama, apple, hussyfscap

I happened to read a couple of interesting and well-written essays about Women in Fiction recently. I suspect many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu have read them already: ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative by Kameron Hurley and Toward a More Expansive Definition of ‘Princess’ by Noah Berlatsky. Ms. Hurley is (I believe) specifically writing about how the actual history of women warriors has been erased by the more prevalent cultural trope of femininity. Mr. Berlatsky is writing about the narrow rejection of femininity that seems to be replacing that dominant frame. They are both worth reading, and they are worth reading together. And yet.

Ms. Hurley begins her article with a wonderful and arresting image:

I’m going to tell you a story about llamas. It will be like every other story you’ve ever heard about llamas: how they are covered in fine scales; how they eat their young if not raised properly; and how, at the end of their lives, they hurl themselves—lemming-like—over cliffs to drown in the surging sea. They are, at heart, sea creatures, birthed from the sea, married to it like the fishing people who make their livelihood there.

She then goes on to talk about how difficult it would be, if all the books and movies and television shows had scaly, cannibalistic lemming-like llamas, to accurately observe llamas and to tell (or listen to) stories about real llamas, even you had accurately observed them. The point being that when we hear that women are timid domestic souls more naturally inclined to be the angel in the house than the fearsome foe, it’s like hearing that llamas have scales: you hear it enough, and you start to think that the fuzzy llamas you have seen are anomalies.

It’s a powerful image and a terrific way of telling the story. Of course, it’s not exactly accurate—analogies are not about accuracy. And the thing is that some women are, I think, inclined to the domestic virtues rather than the martial ones. Some men are as well. It’s not that we are told that llamas are scaly, it’s that we’re told that all apples are red.

And we are, aren’t we? We practically define apples as red fruit, and red as the color of apples. A is for apple, and there’s the apple, and it’s red. There’s one green leaf hanging off the stem, and the apple is red. It’s in the ABC books, it’s in the coloring books, it’s a plush toy, it’s on the bib or the onesie. Apples are red. And, here’s the thing: lots of apples are red! And lots are green! And some are yellow! And some are red in places and green in places! We can have all the experience we like with actual apples—galas and fujis and macs and granny smiths and honeycrunches and macouns and braeburns and baldwins and bountifuls and, yes, Pink Ladies—and we will still think of apples as red. A kindergartener may have a big old green apple for snack and then grab the red crayon to color the apple, because apples are red. Red apples are red.

And I think that’s important to add to (not, I want to be clear, take away from or deprecate) the experience of reading Ms. Hurley’s article. The knowledge that while we culturally have been erasing women’s experience systematically for centuries should be tempered as well with the knowledge that some women are great cooks, too.

This is where Mr. Berlatsky is attempting to go in his article, I think:

Merida is a different kind of princess in part because she doesn’t want much to do with traditional femininity—and her story is exhilarating for that. But still, it seems like it maybe leaves out a fair number of girls who like princesses because of the femininity, not despite it.

and later:

The point isn’t to create a single perfect role model, be it Merida or Wonder Woman or Cimorene or Cinderella. The point is to give girls, and for that matter boys, the chance to see femininity not solely as a prison to inhabit or escape, but as a story that can be told in lots of ways. As Cimorene’s friend Princess Arabella tells her at the end of the novel [Dealing With Dragons], “I wouldn’t like being princess for the King of the Dragons, but it will suit you down to the ground.”

I’m going to edge out a bit ahead of what Mr. Belatsky actually writes, here, because I think it’s the logical extension he doesn’t quite get to. He talks about Cimorene liking adventure and swordplay and cooking; her rejection of the Princess Lifestyle (if you will) is not a rejection of all domestic virtues. In fact, Cimorene becomes more or less a traditional domestic wife and homemaker for the dragon. And that’s a fine choice. For her. For a while. It changes in the later books, although I don’t think that the domestic virtues are ever actually denigrated. Similarly, in Dragon Slippers, our heroine is brave and clever and really good at sewing and weaving.

And what he doesn’t get to, and maybe I’m getting too far ahead of him here, is that—look, it’s great to be heroic, it’s great to be strong and brave, resourceful and resolute, combative and fierce. And then do the laundry. Because after the villain is vanquished, there will still be laundry to be washed.

What we don’t want is a bunch of kids who believe that if they get any satisfaction from cleaning the house, washing the dishes or dressing the baby they are falling into the Disney Princess stereotype that is Keeping Women Down by enforcing femininity. Girls or Boys—it’s a greater risk for boys, of course, because for generations we were told that cleaning and cooking and nurturing is essentially feminine, and thus beneath us. That’s a despicable lie, and we were all hurt by it. It will be a despicable lie if we tell it to girls, too.

Because of course women have always fought—and there was always laundry to be done after the fighting was over. Women went to sea, and there were babies to be changed. Women were doctors and lawyers and governors, and there were still dirty dishes, too. Just like when men were sailors and generals and Great Men, and there was still mending and cleaning and cooking to do. When we break out of the conceptual trap of the scaly llama—and that’s really important, breaking out of the trap, because it really is hurting people—there will still be mending and cleaning and cooking and nurturing and weaving and all. The domestic virtues will still be virtues. Whether they are feminine or masculine or human or just, just, well, just necessary, they will still be virtues.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,