(NOTE: Ursula K. Le Guinn’s first two Earthsea books are mentioned with a couple of plot spoilers!)
A little bit about internalized sexism
I was never particularly activist about feminism, though I have always considered myself a feminist. My attitude was, “I just want to make stuff.” The only times I felt it was worth distracting myself from design and other creative work was when sexism got in the way of me doing it.
So I ticked along in life (which did include going on wonderful and transformative life adventures), figuring I’d made peace with my role in feminism as an example of accomplished professionalism (“Good job, friends. I’ll make you a poster!”).
And then I had a son. And then the son grew up to be a wonderful teen (he’s now a wonderful young adult). One of the moments I’d been waiting for was to share some of my favorite sci-fi books with him. He was finally asking for recommendations, so I passed along one of my all time favorite titles (a Hugo Award winner!).
A couple of chapters in, he looked up from reading and said, “Mom. You read this sexist shit?”
I was bewildered, but also curious. He was irritated and no longer reading the book, so I picked it up and reread it, and he was right. The protagonist was smart and … well, I don’t even know what color his hair was. The female object/prize/story device was perfectly curved and wore a skin-tight sci-fi onesie (my term, not the author’s, but…). Of course, she also possessed almost no depth of character.
And this was one of my favorite books growing up. As a teen. That poignantly vulnerable age when we are trying to work out who we are and where we fit in the world.
Mental wheels began to spin as I wondered how deeply this and other science fiction had impacted my views about the world and about myself. Without the context to read these stories critically, I had just absorbed them, internalizing views that devalued me as a human being.
Another confession: Though I did read some of her science fiction books, I had never read Ursula K. Le Guinn’s Earthsea books. I had also read plenty of fantasy, so that’s no excuse.
For my birthday this year, my son sent me the first book in the series.
He had been so excited (he hadn’t read it yet, either), it took me a while to express to him how mortified I was by the way Le Guinn treated the female characters. I had desperately read her Afterward (book written 1968, Afterward written 2012), and then desperately found and read the second book, looking for something to reconcile her brilliant writing with her crushing female characters.
Crushing, because as I began The Wizard of Earthsea, part of me was sending lighthouse signals to my teenage self. I expected to find women as strong and interesting as the Le Guinn I admired, and I wanted to let her know they were out there.*
As I read with more and more horror, I thought of all the young women reading her books right now. Right now! And finding characters who were either monodimensional, evil, or ludicrously timid. Le Guinn’s afterward specifically defended her choice. The sequel (The Tombs of Atuan) seemed promising, only to have the heroine become mute and helpless when a man appeared to save her. I couldn’t bring myself to read the third book.
I finally confessed all this to my son (we’re mid-COVID and quarantined in different cities, so everything happens on the phone). He was shocked and apologetic, but of course, how could he have guessed?
I can’t remember the exact sequence in detail, but the outcome was that one of us found an Ursula Le Guinn documentary, airing on PBS just then (here’s the link, if you catch it before August 31, 2020).
As I watched, the key redeeming moment (though the Wizard Afterward is still a puzzle) was when she talked about how she had at first ignored the feminist movement, and then couldn’t anymore. She had not been sure why she was struggling with Earthsea book four—ultimately, there was a 17 year pause—but as she opened her eyes to the impact of the first three books, the reasons became clear to her and she was able to write Tehanu.
Not only did I have one of my heroes back, I had a first-hand, very visceral experience of art’s impact on the world. Even one teen, or child, or adult.
What we do matters. What we say matters. Whether we intend them to or not, stories, pictures, experiences we create, all contribute to the shape of the world.
*Actually, they were out there. Unfortunately, for all the science fiction and fantasy I devoured during that time, I didn’t come across more than one or two.
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