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Smugglivus 2013 Guest Author: Kate Elliott

Welcome to Smugglivus 2013! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2013, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2014.

Who: Kate Elliott, prolific author of science fiction and fantasy. Kate’s work includes 2013’s Cold Steel, the conclusion (?!) to the Cold Magic trilogy, a series Thea enjoyed very much indeed.

Kate Elliott Cold Steel

Give a warm welcome to Kate, folks!

Pacific Rim was my favorite film seen in the theater this year. The actors worked for me. The jaegers versus kaiju action worked for me because of the dynamic filming. The visuals hugely worked for me (read this excellent article at Storming The Ivory Tower about the “visual intelligence” of Pacific Rim). I adored the level of background detail, particularly those elements in which tiny bits and pieces of daily life and ordinary struggle are illuminated. For example, in one of the scenes where Raleigh is involved in the work on the wall, there’s a glimpse of three microwaves, most likely for workers to heat their lunches; that detail is great enough on its own, but the microwaves are bolted down, perhaps to suggest that the management is making sure none of the (obviously desperate) people working for rations will steal them. Above all, the emotional connections worked for me. In part it is the story of a father/daughter relationship, and you can bet that in a year when my father died of cancer I would feel a strong emotional kick when a man says to the woman he has raised as his daughter, “Listen, you are a brave girl. I was so lucky to have seen you grow. But if I’m going to do this, I need you to protect me.” Makes me cry every time.

Pacific Rim Poster

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about.

At home, watching a film, I skip the trailers; they’re an annoyance. In the theater, trailers for upcoming releases are a treat because they are candy before the main course but also because many of the films I see as trailers I will never see in full so this is my only taste of them.

These days I study trailers for what they reveal about who is being centered in narrative.

For example, in the five trailers before “Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” every speaking role (in the trailer) was a white actor except for one secondary “helper” character in one of the trailers. These trailers were for films by and large set in “the future” or the present. This lack of diversity disturbs me. It is also anti-realistic. Last spring I saw a trailer for a film set in the present day in which I did not see a single person of color on the screen (during the trailer) except a single black FBI agent standing *in the background.* Given the modern demographics of major cities in the USA, it puzzles me that the people putting together the trailer evidently did not notice or did not find it worthy of remark that the only people talking were white people (I noticed because it looked nothing like the world I live in). It is possible the entire film (I never saw it) was monochromatic and that the director’s vision was the problem. Or it might be the case that there were secondary characters of color with speaking roles in the film but that for the trailer it wasn’t deemed necessary to show them. Why might that be?

There’s an old adage about children reading, that girls will read a story about boys but boys won’t read a story about girls. This has never been entirely true, and is perhaps less true now than when I was a child. But if there has been a “default narrative” in US culture (I can’t speak for other cultures), it has been a narrative that centers a white, straight man. According to this theory of “a default narrative” it is “assumed” that everyone will watch a story of a white man doing something, being victorious, having struggles, going about his day because his is by definition a story that touches on all lives. Meanwhile a story about a person who is a woman or a person who is black or Filipino or a person who is trans or gay or a person who is disabled or who is anything, in other words, that is not white and male, is deemed of interest only to people who are also “that.”

This white male centered narrative actually centers itself around a small demographic. Yet this is a form of narrative centering so pervasive in our culture that it is usually taken for granted. What is a “universal story” by this measure? One about a boy becoming king, or a man on a quest to avenge his murdered family, or a male athlete out to prove himself, and so on. We can *all* identify with him, so the story goes.

I really love epic stories. Whether film, tv, or fiction, I am deeply drawn to epic action-adventure with a fantastic or science-fictional element and really good emotional story arcs. In filmic terms, these are the stories whose trailers use stirring music and big, bold, vivid cinematography. In such trailers there is usually a woman somewhere, maybe in the background, maybe as a villainess, maybe as a love interest. When the stirring music really pumps up, the visual centers a man or men in an exciting altercation or a powerful confrontation.

Where are the women in these scenes of powerful confrontation?

X-Men Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) looks like it could be super wonderful (I really liked the first two X-Men films and have retroactively erased the third film from my memory). While I totally understand the centrality of Professor X and Magneto and Wolverine (and totally adore Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman), what I am asking is not that they be replaced. I will be happy to watch them in the new X-Men film (assuming it is good).

I am asking a different question: Where are similar franchises for women? Not just one “exceptional” woman among many men, or several secondary women glimpsed (usually alone and rarely together in a group of women), but multiple powerful women at the center of the narrative whose deeds and words and emotions and conflicts and confrontations and solutions drive the plot and resolution?

Orphan Black (Sarah) Spartacus (Blood & Sand)

I enjoyed watching the first two seasons of Lost Girl this year (although I had some caveats) in large part because three major characters are women. Orphan Black’s first season did interesting work with its female characters (although I can’t say more than that without spoilers). These are two examples of action stories that center women. I also enjoyed Spartacus (the first season remains my favorite) because of its dynamic, over-the-top action and emotion, and also because it does a great job with a diverse group of actors. The men and women in absolutely top fitness don’t hurt the eyes, of course. While Spartacus is the lead, the storyline focuses on women as well as men; that is, you could not pull out the women’s stories and still have the narrative work. I find that refreshing. Given that Rome was an empire, the cast itself is hugely diverse with people from many different ethnic and racial groups.

Aya Love in Yop City Aya Life In Yop City

Perhaps my favorite read of the year was the two-volume graphic novel compilation Aya: Life in Yop City and Aya: Love in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie. Set in the 1970s and based in a fictional country that resembles Côte d’Ivoire, the novel centers around the friendship between three young women. It follows the lives of college student Aya and her friends Adjoua and Bintou. The cast of characters is large and complications ensue, and the blend of sweet and serious and funny combined with people making smart choices and bad choices kept me riveted. Part of its charm and brilliance is the way “women’s concerns” are part and parcel of the flow of the narrative, not set off to one side, not ignored, not diminished. Indeed, women’s lives and choices are crucial to how the story unfolds.

I cannot say that my first love, epic fantasy, has done as well with narratives centering women. The boy-becomes-king (or boy-becomes-best-wizard or swordsman, or boy-becomes-top-assassin or thief, or boy-mostly-survives-his-grimdark-upbringing) story is still going strong. Some of my favorite epic stories place men at the center. While I understand the appeal, I eagerly devour those novels I can find that center women–more than one central woman–in the epic landscape.

Growing up, these male-centered narratives were basically the only kind of big, bright, adventurous story of the epic kind that I had to read and watch. Now I can see Jennifer Lawrence in close-up, as the stubborn, vulnerable, loyal, and determined Katniss struggles to understand her place in the games and the nascent uprising. That is why I am so happy to see more and more narratives today centering the people who could at best hope for secondary roles in the past. Idris Elba can be the “fixed point,” the commander at the heart of the fight against the monsters, and Rinko Kikuchi can portray the young novice who has to prove HERself as a hotshot jaeger pilot under desperate circumstances.

It is with this hope that I open a new book or sit in the darkened theater eager for the next story to center faces so long relegated to the background.

Thanks, Kate!


  • Rachel Brown
    January 6, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    In the original comic book arc Days of Future Past, the heroine of the story was Kitty Pryde. Her adult personality from the apocalyptic future transfers into the body of her younger self to warn everyone and save the world. For the movie, her story was given to Wolverine.

    So the movie took a story centered on a female character and rewrote it to make it be about a male character.

  • Carole McDonnell
    January 6, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Great post. Came here via Kari Sperring. Shared.

  • Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)
    January 6, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks, Kate.

    Even more interestingly is when a trailer lies about that narrative. The trailer for 47 Ronin does not show the main character actually in the movie,and amps the supernatural elements actually present. It centers a secondary character in the trailer’s narrative.

  • Erica
    January 6, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Nice piece. Some will likely get annoyed and accuse this perspective of being “PC” or of making race, gender and orientation (something they say should be invisible, read straight, white and male) into a big issue. But you sum the fallacy at the center of their perception up very well: they think A. There’s a generic, default human perspective or hero, and B. That hero is a white, straight male.

    I find men interesting. I find white people interesting. I find straight people interesting. But I find everyone else interesting too, and I wish there were more characters, including central characters, who are these other things too.

    If women, people of color and LGBT people are better at relating to people that aren’t like them in every way than white, straight men are, it’s because we’ve had a lot of practice.

  • AnimeJune
    January 6, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Great post!

    I’m a huge epic fantasy fan, and while I did love me some long-winded Tad Williams (orphaned kitchenboy becomes king), some Lloyd Alexander (orphaned pig keeper becomes king), and David Eddings (orphaned absolute fucking moron becomes king) – I was lucky enough to gravitate towards the more lady-fabulous fantasies on the spectrum as well.

    I devoured Tanya Huff – whose Four Quarters novels put forward an LGBT-friendly, woman-friendly, equality-friendly medieval high-fantasy setting – I remember how shocked I was at 13 to read a fantasy book with gay women in it!

    I also loved Tamora Pierce’s addition to the Canon of Awesome Literary Gingers with the Lioness Rampant series.

    I tore through Robin Hobb’s amazing books, and while the Farseer and Fool’s Errand trilogies are relative sausage-fests (albeit beloved sausage-fests), her Liveship Trader trilogy is a fascinating look at all sorts of different women in different roles.

    I also read Melanie Rawn, Mickey Zuckert Reichart, and (if I may risk sounding like a kiss-ass) your Crown of Stars septet. I continually refer to its clever handling of gender in a Catholic(esque) medieval setting (I especially love the Catholic church comprised entirely of women!).

    I mean, I’m not disagreeing with you about the pervasive Boy Stories in fantasy, but thanks to you and these other awesome authors, I had a pretty well-rounded fantasy education.

  • Kate Elliott
    January 7, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    Rachel — that’s right. Now that you mention it one of the reasons I liked Days of Future Past so much was because Kitty Pryde was the central character. Typical that it was gender-washed.

    Carole: Thank you!

    Paul: That’s quite interesting about the trailer for 47 Ronin. A bit discouraging but par for the course for Hollywood.

    Erica: Exactly.

    AnimeJune: It seems like there was a span of time where women writing epic fantasy were really starting to make inroads. I think it’s harder for new women authors to break into epic fantasy now than it was before. I see a lot more women writing uf/pnr and YA, and definitely many of the sff breakout books for women authors are coming in those genres, not in old school adult sff.

  • Erica
    January 10, 2014 at 2:59 am

    Oh noes! I’m polishing up my first novel to submit, and all my ideas are definitely for adults and in second world, pre-industrial settings. I don’t know if it’s traditional epic fantasy, but it’s definitely not UF or YA. Nothing against those genres and demographics, but most of my favorite fantasy stories are set in other worlds (and many of my favorite authors are female), and that’s what I want to write. Most of my critters are male, and they all seem to feel I’ve handled my characters of both sexes well, so I guess I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed. There are so many things that can make a novel not sell, of course, that it’ll be hard to know exactly why if it doesn’t attract any interest.

    Gotta try, at least.

  • Kate Elliott
    January 11, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Erica, it’s up to writers (like us) to keep pushing at the assumptions, expectations, and barriers. So keep at it — and good luck!

  • Sarah Rees Brennan
    January 12, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Great post, Kate! I too adored Pacific Rim. I have hopes for better, with Pacific Rim, with the success of Elementary and Sleepy Hollow (TV takes risks better than movies and books take risks the best, is what I’ve seen…)

  • Centering the Narrative at Smugglivus | I Make Up Worlds
    December 8, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    […] I’ve written a post about centering the narrative over at Book Smugglers. […]

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