In recent days I have been thinking deeply about the concept of 'exclusionary feminism' and what it means, both on a theoretical and a practical level. At first I was surprised to encounter it. Isn't any feminist worth their salt aware of the problems of intersectionality and glad to embrace our trans sisters? Apparently not.
The inability to see things from others' points of view is pervasive in our culture. The hashtag #Idon'tneedfeminismbecause revealed the entitlement and lack of empathy of so many young women who felt that because they personally had never suffered anything they considered sexist that no one had.
Though these women do not claim to be feminist, there is a subset of feminist ideology that has very similar attitudes. It's conciliatory. It suggests that women are 'special', not because they are equal to men, but because they are strong in different, feminine, ways. It asks for the trappings of respect without demanding the content of it.
While being concerned with these issues and questions, I read Uprooted. And to my horror, I found in this resoundly praised book, an attitude about resistance that I found insupportable. This tells me that these ideals have, like the dark forest in the story, taken root in our culture, and if we cannot even see them, it will be so much harder to rip them out.
I only have the greatest respect for Naomi Novik as an author, and adore the first Temeraire book. In no way do I think that she supports these ideas. Nevertheless, as a conduit for our culture, they appeared in this book and left me very unhappy after finishing it.
There are three ideas I would like to focus on:
1) Women and men are inherently different
2) The right form of resistance to oppression is submission
3) An outsider is the right person to reconcile opposing groups
On first glance, Uprooted appears to be a decidedly and intentionally progressive, feminist book. The main character, a young woman, discovers that she has a deep well of power inside her and uses it to overcome the evil corruption of nature that is invading her home. This young woman, however, reveals to the reader that she has magic in the first chapter, but fails to comprehend idea or learn how to use it for many, many more pages. The reason for this seems to have to do with the type of magic she has--intuitive magic--which disregards books and intellect and learning, preferring to feel its way towards the solution to the problem she is trying to solve.
This again, on the surface, appears to be progressive and feminist. Why not reject the male hegemony of collected power and retake the mantel of 'witch'? We women can be better than men because we are not trapped by their foolish habits of thinking. Even as a grumpy intellectual I allow that we must always revolt, reexamining our canon, questioning our habits of mind that give power to our prejudices. But I find intuition to be a poor substitute for critical analysis.
And worse--and more relevant--is that intuition has always been coded as female and intellect male--by those virulently anti-woman as well as the women who want to reclaim the value of emotion and empathy and kindness. There is no contradiction in valuing both intellect and empathy. The issue lies with the idea that one is the province of women and one men. This reinforces two negative ideas:
1) Women should not compete with men in male spheres
2) There are only men and women in the world, binary, opposed, and biological
So where should we not compete with men? For jobs? For pay? For the love of bisexual women? Where does our feminine strengths make that competition a foregone conclusion? In child-rearing? In cooking? In caring for our spouses?
And what does it mean that men are crass and intellectual and women are kind and emotional? Does it mean that a man like the Dragon has a right to berate me and mock me? Does it mean that there is no way to be both masculine and feminine? Does it mean that we are assigned our character along with our birth sex? Where does that leave our trans and non-binary siblings? Where does that leave any of us?
One thing Novik has been accused of is erasing queer narratives from her stories. As a fellow fanfiction writer, I can understand the pressure she might feel to do so, now that she has gone professional. But as a lesbian, I feel the betrayal. She grew as a writer using queer narratives for her development. A community--though the slash community is heavily weighted with straight women--which claims inclusivity and has a sizable queer contingent, supported her, and she chose not to give back.
In this particular case, the lack is sharply telling. The one female character who does male-type magic is heavily coded as queer, and is also black and masculine. There is space for queerness in Novik's world, but that space is the margin. All differences belong in the margin. The main space is reserved for cis white straight men and women who perform their cisness through their magical orientation.
I gave Uprooted the benefit of the doubt. The implications of the magical narrative and the unpleasant relationship were frustrating, but not something I hadn't seen before. And the rest of this is also something I had seen before, but when I read it this time, it felt so deeply wrong that I could no longer let it slide.
At the end of this book it is revealed that the reason the wood is evil is that a tree person, a woman of the wood, married a human and then was betrayed. She was locked in a tower and felt the humans invade the living wood with axes and fire and saws, kill and damage her loved ones. She was angry. The wood became angry. And it fought back.
The images of fighting back are those of 'infection'. People become infected by her anger and lust for vengeance. They embody the poisonous madness in her mind.
But what is so wrong with her anger? What is wrong with the anger of anyone who has been betrayed, who has had to feel her friends, her family, her people suffer? She is righteous! And yet she is the villain of the piece. Her sister, the other queen of the wood, is noble and gentle and good. And she leads her entire community into letting go of their agency and complexity and becoming trees. They become blocks of wood. The message I received here was simple: It is wrong to fight back. Instead, succumb, humble yourself, die.
I do not want to see what is in essence a suicide pact be presented as the correct response to oppression. If even kneeling is beyond the pale, we know that there is no validity to this argument at all. I do not want any more of the most innocent and vulnerable people in this country to die. I do not want to hear about another suicide, another damaged child, another quiet submission because we are told our anger, our desire to fight, our need for justice is ugly. It's an infection. You're being too emotional.
Our trapped tree-princess is given kindness by our heroine, and is ushered into joining the suicide-by-becoming-a-tree contingent.
And that is essentially all our heroine does. She heals the world by taking away anger. We see her later on, using her privilege as a magic user and a child of the local villages, to travel around to treat the people--heirs of the intolerant tree-murderers of the past--and think, hopefully, of reconciling humanity with the wood one day.
She doesn't wake the wood up. No, that would be shaking things up a little too much. You can't force people to confront their prejudices and tell them that they're wrong. You just have to be kind, and they'll learn to be kind too.
I'm sorry. It doesn't work.
Trees have no voices. She doesn't ask them what would want. She doesn't let them decide whether to fight for themselves. She thinks that this is her place, healing what was done by that nasty, angry, wood woman, and thinking about an ideal future that will never come to pass. When will the villagers be ready to accept a whole community of people who are 'different' in their midst? When will their happiness be so sufficient that they're aching to share?
No one is ever so content that they will give away rights. When will we give suitable reparations to all the families of African Americans who suffered under slavery and still suffer under institutionalized racism? When will we make certain the Native communities have the respect and opportunity that they would have had if white people hadn't come and taken their land?
Do these events seem unlikely to you? Perhaps the ending of Uprooted was meant to say 'there's always hope.' But hope isn't enough. We have to try also.
And every time we tell someone that 'we shouldn't riot' or 'we should respect the flag or the anthem' or 'all lives matter', we are saying, 'why won't you just shut up?' 'why can't I just put you in a tree and pretend that everything is just fine, even if I know it could be better, just shut up and hope, because I don't want the stress of watching you try to do something about it.'
This is not an attack on Uprooted or anyone who enjoyed it. I enjoy many books where I disagree with the ideological underpinnings, and I too often repeat the shortcomings of my culture in my writing. Saying that being female can be strength is good! But is it enough? I say it isn't. Feminism must be inclusionary and active or it is nothing more than a slogan on a t-shirt.
Gender is a construct. Assuming that men are intellectual and women are intuitive and making this part of a magic system makes the claim that this construct has a concrete reality to it. We have to queer our view of the world. Not men and women, but people, struggling with a social structure that makes strange demands of its members.
Resistance is valuable. Suggesting that conflict infects a place and makes it sick is TRUE. Suggesting that we must acknowledge the wounds of the past is TRUE. Giving people peace is GOOD. But restitution, justice, and hard work are how we get there, not hiding away the combatants, not making people swallow down generations of trauma and hope that some day we will all be friends.
The principles above are easy to slip into believing. We are told that it is bad to be angry, bad to fight, bad to take the things of men, and instead of rejecting these messages we use them to police the behavior of the people feminism is supposed to protect.
People need to be angry, need to fight, need to take the excess of others away so they can have enough for themselves.
There are only a few things in this world that are potentially limitless: Justice, Hope, Freedom, Anger. And right now we are too greedy to let others have even that.