30 in 30: Day 12 (in which I pick apart Anne McCaffrey’s “feminism” and tell you why ten year olds really should not read her books (or my posts, truthfully))

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A book or series of books you’ve read more than five times

Ugh. I really really really wish I could say The Black Jewels Trilogy for this one, but unfortunately I keep on losing my copy of that one and haven’t replaced enough times to have read it more than five times (I have read it four times). So in the interest of full disclosure…Freedom’s Landing, by Anne McCaffrey.

Don’t judge me! I was young! I did it for the money sex scene!

To be fair, though, Freedom’s Landing is a pretty good book, even if it is a prime example of some of Ms McCaffrey’s Favorite Tropes (that sounds like it should be a holiday dish of some sort: Favorite Tropes! Made of tears and repetition!).

She does ease up on the RACE A GOOD, RACE B EVIL (because A is for Aryan and B is for Black, see?) thing a little bit, but then puts all the blame on RACE C (for…cookies. They are a NEVER food!). To wit: book starts off with the Catteni established as the Bad Guys (with the exception of one, Zanial, who’s “good” even though he did try to rape the main character within the first 10 or so pages of the book) and the Terrans, Rugarians, Deski, and…some other alien races I’m forgetting the names of being the Good Guys. Catteni go around subjugating planets and taking slaves. One of the uses for slaves: making them colonize less-than-friendly planets for the Catteni, who will then move in and take advantage of all the slaves’ hard work. Apparently this works very well for them, and is important, as it is the basis of the entire book.

So, Kris Bjornsen and her fellow slaves get dropped on this planet…along with Zanial (it’s her fault she’s there, by the way, because when he made a move to grab her and rip her clothing off, she hit him over the head with a blunt object and then went to toss him in a deserted street of the main town of Barevi, only to get gassed because of the slave riots), whose life she saves by convincing the self-established leader of the slave-colonizers that Z would be useful.

By the end of the book it’s revealed that the Catteni are being controlled by a greater, EVILLER race, the Eosi (so I suppose they’d be Race E), who possess Catteni and make them do really gross things (like vote Republican). It is also revealed that Zanial has an amazing cock.

Because oh yes. Kris falls in love with him. And they totally do it. And it’s actually pretty hot, granted, but perhaps not the best thing for an impressionable 10 year old to be reading. Not because of the sex scene — I’m fully sex positive, and think kids can learn about sex and know about it a lot earlier than we give them credit for  — but because of the relationship dynamic.

Kris is set up as a strong woman. She is shown as someone you’d want to be like because she’s tough and capable. This may lead some to think that McCaffrey is being feminist in her portrayal of women.

Wrong. There is another character, Patty Sue. Kris gets “saddled” with her during the slaves’ long trek to find a place to live (a cave system, how charming). Patty Sue is portrayed as being weak and spineless, completely timid and mousy. Kris is a “good buddy” and “tolerates” Patty’s problems, but she is never happy about it. At some point it is revealed that Patty was raped. Kris is sympathetic, but the event is not really given the attention it should have been. And then later on Patty starts seeing this guy named John (I think), and suddenly she grows a spine and “comes into herself”.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, it portrays the woman you want to be like (tough and capable) as being incapable of being raped, because she’s just so strong. Then it portrays the woman you don’t want to be like (mousy, timid, prudish, weak, spineless) as a rape victim, who is stolen from (and it is insinuated that this is her fault, somehow) and can only become strong when a man shows interest.

News flash: tough and capable women get raped too. It doesn’t mean they aren’t tough and capable anymore. It means we live in a society where rape happens every few minutes, to people across the gender spectrum but disproportionately to women. Kris the character didn’t get raped because she was lucky, not because she was tough and capable. The Catteni were raping human women as a systematic tool of war and enslavement (gee, sound familiar?). Plenty of tough and capable women got raped.

But that’s not the message that gets across. What gets across is that if you have been raped, then you’re not tough and capable: you’re a victim, and you must wait around for a man to be your saviour.

And then there’s the Kris/Zanial thing. Which is the BIG PROBLEM.

Zanial attempts to rape Kris when he first meets her. This is a matter of course to him: he’s Catteni, she’s Terran (and attractive, only attractive women get raped in McCaffrey’s universe). Kris does the unexpected (to him, and probably to many readers, as women are traditionally seen as victims): she hits him over the head hard enough to knock him out, and then flies him into town to abandon his body in a gutter. (This is actually quite impressive, as the Catteni have very thick skin and are from a higher-gravity planet — they are incredibly strong, agile, and swift in low-grav settings. And notoriously hard to kill or even maim.)

Instead she gets captured, yadda yadda, convinces them to let Z. live. But wait. He tried to rape her, didn’t he? Why the sympathy? (To be fair: in the same situation, I’d probably convince the others to let him at least wake up before trying to kill him, and then if he survived in one-on-one combat to let him live as a slave to the rest of us. I’m a soft touch, though.)

Well, Kris doesn’t actually see it as attempted rape. It was just…what. I don’t know. I really don’t know what the fuck she sees it as, but not rape. She feels no anger towards him, or anything — in fact she feels remorse for getting him stuck on this planet, and ends up getting partnered with him for recon missions, and they become friends, and then she falls in love with him.

Ok, hi, in the real world, that’s Stockholm Syndrome. Or just plain old abuse, whatever.

Honestly, I could understand falling in love with someone who tried to kill you — I really could — but rape? It’s such a total invasion of your person, a total disregard for your humanity or autonomy, and it’s not something you ever really get over.

And yet here is a main character who’s supposed to be very feminist, very strong and capable, falling for her attacker. Because he’s reformed, or whatever. And she’s set up to be someone who can escape abuse! Not that this is totally believable, because people are human and any one of us can fall for it, and get roped into abusive situations. But it is contrary to Kris’s character, who is set up to be this unbelievably strong person who never lets anything bad happen to her.

This tells me to believe the lies my abuser may tell me, because yes — he’s probably changed and it’s my fault he was like that anyway, what was I doing so scantily clad, I must have been asking for it. So I should just not have any residual feelings about what happened and just accept the inevitable.

NOT A HEALTHY MESSAGE FOR A TEN YEAR OLD.

Fuck, not a healthy message for anybody, but especially not someone at an impressionable age.

You may think I’m exaggerating. Oh, come on, no one is really going to believe those sorts of messages reading this book, it’s just a story!

Let me tell you something. I know how fucking important stories are. They shape our very reality. And stories like this one hold up rape culture tropes (which, hello, McCaffrey is a HUGE FAN OF). Anything that reinforces tropes already present in society at large is guilty of perpetuating exactly the sort of society that lots of people don’t want to live in. (Quite honestly, who WOULD want to live in a society where rape is the norm?)

So, yes, that part of the book is a Big Problem. It did reinforce those tropes in my own ten-year-old brain, and they were very damaging to me for a long time.

If we take out the Stockholm Syndrome relationship/rape is okay! messages from the story, it’s actually a solid plot. And I’d reread it, because I know I’d probably enjoy it just as much as I did before.

But I would recommend that anyone reading it keeps those things in mind. Enjoy the book, but remember what it reinforces. Maybe don’t give it to your kids. Borrow it from the library, as much to support libraries as to not support those ideas.

Be a political reader. It can help change the world. (Ie, burn Twilight. And I do mean literally.)

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10 thoughts on “30 in 30: Day 12 (in which I pick apart Anne McCaffrey’s “feminism” and tell you why ten year olds really should not read her books (or my posts, truthfully))

    • Katje

      I still like a lot of her work. I tend to complain rather vocally about her, but she’s still probably among my list of favorite authors.

      I’d recommend the Crystal Singer trilogy, The Ship Who Sang (and others in that series, which is the same universe as the Crystal Singer), the Powers trilogy of the Petaybee series (I haven’t read the other Petaybee novels yet), the Doona series, Get Off the Unicorn (short story collection), An Exchange of Gifts, The Planet Pirates (omnibus edition of Sassinak, The Death of Sleep, and Generation Warriors), Dinosaur Planet and Dinosaur Planet Survivors (related to The Planet Pirates), The Rowan and others in the Talents universe, and Chronicles of Pern: First Fall and The Dolphins of Pern — aside from those I’m not a huge fan of the Pern series.

      I also really really like The Restoree, but I am very much in the minority with that opinion so take it with a grain of salt.

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  1. McCaffrey’s a fan of other ideas that belonged to a less evolved time, as well. In one of the Tower and Hive books, the token gay character (not bi, not at some point on the scale between gay and straight–which is another rant altogether, because it’s not an either/or, people!–but Exclusively Into Men) turned straight to marry the MC. I threw the book across the room.

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    • Katje

      I was thinking about that too, recently, and wondering if I wanted to devote a post to ranting about it or if I should leave poor Ms. McCaffrey alone for a bit.

      Thank you for bringing it up! It always bothered me too — both the “sexuality is EITHER OR AND NOTHING ELSE” and the “Oh, I guess I’ll just give up my self-identity to marry you because we had really good sex”. It could have been done well, but it wasn’t.

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  2. Dash

    Hi!

    I came across this post today as I was looking for reviews of Anne McCaffrey’s work and her use of rape tropes. Thank you for this post. I haven’t read this book in particular, but I have read some other work by her, and I decided to blog about rape tropes elsewhere in her work. My post, in which I quote you, can he found here: http://critpsitheory.livejournal.com/1526.html

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    • Katje

      Wow, thank you for the link love!

      It’s been so long since I read The Rowan I forgot that part…I never really re-read the book because I didn’t find it particularly romantic, and that’s pretty much why I read McCaffery at that age. Perhaps that’s why.

      I re-read Damia many times, however, and now I’m trying to remember if that one was as heinous as the others….

      Maybe a series of blog posts should be done on McCaffery; one book a post. It’s a thought.

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      • Dash

        I like your idea, though I think some of these books deserve more than one post! There is a lot to say.

        I would have to re-read Damia at this point, since I read it so long ago. I remember being creeped out at the Afra/Damia “jail bait wait” part. “I couldn’t have your mom, so you’re the next best thing!”

        I liked the two prequels more when I was a kid, though those make me cringe now. (There is also more “jail bait wait” with Sasha and Tirla.)

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  3. Katje

    True! Especially Pern; I think those deserve an entire dissertation on them.

    Yeah, the jail bait wait thing was a bit creepy, but I flip flop on how I feel about it in that book. Sometimes I think it’s ok, sometimes not. Mainly because I don’t really have any problem with age differences that great in romantic relationships — hells, I write about large age differential relationships that are positive — but more in the way they can be handled, and I don’t think I’ve been able to decide how I feel about the handling of the Damia/Afra pairing.

    For example, the Daemon Sadi/Jaenelle Angelline pairing in The Black Jewels Trilogy does not creep me out at all, and he’s several hundred years older than she is. Yet the Edward Cullen/Bella Swan one does, and there’s only a hundred years difference between them. Not just because I hate Twilight with a passion. (The Jacob/Renesmee pairing is even creepier.)

    Anyway, I digress.

    I don’t think I’ve read the prequels. Were those the Pegasus in something ones? They’re sitting on my shelf and I’ve been intending to crack ’em open, but, well, so many books, so little time.

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    • Dash

      As I said, I would have to re-read Damia — I remember finding that part creepy when I was about 13. She looked at him as an uncle when she was growing up, you know? So it’s not just age differential alone.

      The prequels are To Ride Pegasus and Pegasus in Flight. There is more wrong in those two books than can fit into one essay, and they’re on my (long) list of stuff to review.

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