Imagine: a group of women living together without men. It’s been imagined by men – see: the Amazons – generally as an object of eroticism or fear. The ultimate emasculation! Nothing is more horrifying than women who don’t need men! Especially if those women are fierce.
Imagine women doing whatever they want, un-harmed and un-limited by misogyny, forming relationships of all kinds only with one another. It’s a very gender binary view and it’s not the solution to our problems – nor do I want to kill all men. (Honest!) But for someone who is comfortable IDing as female, it can be wish-fulfilment.
But no, no, we can’t have that. Men! Heterosexual love! Pregnancy! Everything must eventually lead to these points.
Earlier this year I read two books, almost back-to-back, in which female-only societies that have thrived for centuries are undermined by the presence of a man – specifically, by heterosexual love with that man.
The first book is Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, which is otherwise a dreadfully dull story about a horrible man and his friends going to find Prester John. I’m sure Baudolino is meant to be a sexist, racist dick because ~historical~ but I don’t see why I should find that in any way enjoyable. But suddenly, amidst hundreds of pages of gross gender essentialism, we meet the hypatias.
“You must realise that a thousand thousand years ago, in a powerful and distant city, there lived a wise and virtuous woman named Hypatia. She had a school of philosophy, which means love of wisdom. But in that city also some bad men lived, who were called Christians; they did not fear the gods, they felt hatred towards philosophy and they particularly could not tolerate the fact that a female should know the truth. One day they seized Hypatia and put her to death amid horrible tortures. Now some of the younger of her female disciples were spared, perhaps because they were believed to be ignorant maidens who were with her only to serve her. They fled, but the Christians by now were everywhere, and the girls had to journey a long time before reaching this place of peace. Here they tried to keep alive what they had learned from this mistress, but they had heard her speak when they were still very young, they were not as wise as she had been, and they didn’t remember clearly all of her teachings. So they told themselves they would live together, apart from the world, to rediscover what Hypatia had really said.”
OH MY GOD
IT BURNS FOR THEM
They utilise the trope of using males (non-human males, in this case) as sperm donors and keeping only the girl-children, sending boy-children back to the males in order to be raised as future sperm-donors. I have a bit of a crush on that trope. It’s not exactly a complex role-reversal and I’m not going to claim it’s particularly feminist or anything, but again: the wish-fulfilment of a female space in which males are irrelevant.
But naturally Baudolino falls in love with the hypatia he meets and they have sex and she realises that men are great and she gets pregnant.
In fairness to Baudolino, the hypatia chooses her people over a man and she doesn’t share Baudolino’s idea that he’s entitled to help raise the child if it turns out to be a girl (whereas she’d give the boy to him, because why would she keep a boy?) so that’s something. It’s not as bad as in the next book. But I want to know why this even needs to happen at all? Why can’t the hypatia remain uninterested? After a millenia of no hypatia expressing an interest in a man, why now? It’s true that they don’t encounter men often, but I struggle to believe that Baudolino is the first ever. Of course, the answer is that Baudolino is the hero of his book and he needs to score with the hot hypatia, because the narrative cares about him far more than it does about any woman at all.
Meanwhile I’m going to sulk in my corner and write hypatia fanfiction.
Which leads me onto Shan Sa’s Alexander and Alestria, which AUGH WHY. I have an academic interest in fictional treatments of Alexander’s story, especially cracktastic ones (that anime, that anime), and this one is certainly terribad. Speaking of fanfiction, like much bad fanfiction it deploys the trope of the raped woobie, with Alexander being raped by his father and many other men as a child, then turning into a messed up adult who occasionally rapes other young people. O…kay. The writing style itself is overtly dramatic, to the point where it becomes laughably angsty. Bad Alexander fanfiction, basically – which I’d forgive, sort of (except for the rape), especially as it makes a vague attempt to depict Alexander as genderqueer (but not really), if not for the fact that the Alestria in the title is the queen of the Amazons.
In this treatment, the Amazons are a tribe of girls who love horses, adding to their numbers by adopting girls across the steppe – generally girls who have been orphaned or cast out. No men are ever welcome in their tribe. They sleep with them sometimes, for fun, but they kill them quite a lot. They also sleep with other women. Oh, and if they get pregnant then they (might) die. GUESS WHERE THIS IS GOING.
Alexander and Alestria meet and fall in love and this fierce Amazon queen, who has fought and beheaded men and never been weak, is reduced to the trophy queen by Alexander because he doesn’t want her (an experienced warrior) to see war.
Here’s where she falls in love with him:
“He forged himself a path in my belly, worked his way up into my blood vessels, found my heart, and broke the wound that acted as my shield. He found his way onto my internal steppes…
How could he read inside my head? A burning torrent made my legs weightless, flowed through my chest, and spread down my arms. A beam of light struck my head and burst inside my body, transforming itself into the Milky Way. I have no more questions. Alexander has defeated me. I am his.”
Unfortunately, she doesn’t see this defeat as a bad thing; utterly in love, she marries him and leaves the Amazons.
Alexander continues his campaign out of Central Asia and into India, running back and forth between the front and Alestria – who does get annoyed at one point and demands to join him in battle, but ultimately doesn’t because he convinces her with the power of his love. Naturally she falls pregnant and, despite the Amazons’ belief that pregnancy kills them, decides to carry the baby to term because true love with a man. To my pleasant surprise, the baby doesn’t kill her (she’s basically Roxane, so this is the miscarriage attested in some sources), but what ultimately causes her death made me want to tear the book into tiny pieces.
More on that in a moment.
There is a redeeming factor: Tania (or Ania – the Amazons drop the T when they leave the tribe). The handmaiden to Alestria, she follows her to live with Alexander – and rages, unending, at the way love has blinded Alestria and broken apart the tribe.
“Our ancestors were right to forbid love, which turns a woman into the living dead!
Alestria, my queen, had become a stone statue.”
“I, Ania, was incensed. Was this love: hiding away a woman as capable of fighting monsters as himself? Was this love: making an Amazon die of boredom and wealth and powerless power? Was this Alexander’s love: putting a bird of the glacier in a cage and leaving it there to wither and die?”
(And this is why I’m not entirely sure what Shan Sa’s objectives were with this book, because Tania is excellent and true – and intentionally so, surely – but other things in the book are so fucking terrible.)
So at the end of the book, Alexander gets crippled in a battle and Alestria decides to carry him back to Central Asia and rejoin her tribe. Before too long, Alexander’s injuries kill him. Then Alestria goes away to die because she has no reason left to live. Then, after that, Tania goes away to die.
WHAT. THE FUCK. NO.
Female-only societies are an ultimate chance of women-positive narratives, right? For me they represent a refuge against the male-dominated landscape I live and read in, a place where women are not measured against male expectations, not perceived through the male gaze, not shackled by internalised male standards, not constantly found wanting – a place where femaleness is normative and safe and good.
It’s not every woman’s idea of escape – what with us not being a monolith and all – but I doubt I’m the only one who finds the idea of female-only societies interesting and welcoming.
But no, what we really need are stories of female-only societies – set up as wonderful havens for women – being infiltrated and undermined by men, with women capitulating to the trueness of heterosexual love and becoming the weaker partner in a heterosexual relationship, perhaps dying once the man dies because we literally can’t live without our man, because it’s not like that story is almost everywhere els- OH WAIT.
Can’t we keep these male-free narratives? There are so many narratives (some bad, some good) where men and heterosexual love are important – but if we want to escape that, can’t we have somewhere to go?
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Aliens: Recent Encounters
I'm the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters, a reprint anthology of science fiction stories, out in June 2013 from Prime Books.
Coming in 2014
The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women
I will be editing an anthology of powerful, important science fiction stories by women, showcasing the unforgettable contributions made to the genre in recent decades.
Out in late 2014.
People I Read
- Ambling Along the Aqueduct
- Astrogator's Logs
- British Museum Blog
- Brooke Bolander
- Erzebet YellowBoy
- Goblin Fruit
- Hyperbole and a Half
- Invisible Games
- io9: archaeology
- J M McDermott
- Kameron Hurley
- KJ Bishop
- Molly Tanzer
- Papaveria Press
- Rachel Stark
- Requires Hate
- Silence Without
- Silver Goggles
- Small Beer Press
- Stone Telling
- Terri Windling
- The Daily Cabal
- The Streets of Bangkok
- The World SF Blog
- Urban Ghosts