Fantasy, Spirituality, and Feminism

I touched on the topic of feminism tangentially in some earlier posts, but believe that it deserves at least one (probably more) posts for its very own. In my opinion, of all the cultural changes, the shifts in values and perspective that manifest in our religious and spiritual approaches to life and in our literature and prevailing themes of discussion — among other things — two stand out as more dramatic changes than any others. Those two are feminism and environmentalism, and I’ll devote some time to the second a few days from now.

To explain what I mean in saying that the impact of feminism is huge, I need first to note that patriarchy and female subordination are as old as civilization. The details varied from culture to culture, but in all civilized societies (by “civilized” I mean “living in cities,” and so differentiate settled human societies dependent on agriculture and collecting into large concentrations of people called “cities” from smaller societies dependent on foraging and hunting, usually with no settled home), women occupied a lower social status than men both collectively and individually. This represented a sharp decline in female status and gender equality from the norm in pre-civilized life; in forager-hunter societies, gender roles were differentiated but the status of the sexes was approximately equal and either women or men could and did occupy leadership roles. As people settled, farmed, and built cities, the status of women plummeted. Women became the property of men: initially of their fathers or other male relatives, upon marriage of their husbands. They were seldom given any choice about whom to marry (in some cultures, neither were men), and female subordination to male rule within the family was enforced by custom, by force applied by the man himself, and sometimes by law. In most civilized societies, women were seldom allowed any role in life other than that of mother and caretaker of children.

It’s outside the scope of this post to discuss why this happened (essentially it was because of the increased food supply provided by agriculture, the consequent necessity of maximizing population growth, and the pressure of war), but I do wish to note that patriarchy and female subordination were universal features of civilized life all over the world for a long time, perhaps as long as ten thousand years. And now, for the most part, they’re gone. This is not  a minor cultural change. It’s huge. In fact, it’s historically unprecedented, since the shift from forager-hunter to civilized life occurred in prehistory. It’s bigger than the decline of racism, bigger than the end of monarchy and aristocracy. Of course it has implications for religion. Of course it has implications for art. It has implications for everything.

All of the so-called “great” religions (a somewhat arbitrary classification combining a reasonably large following with a long history and a rich literary and philosophical endowment) emerged during the period of female subjugation, that is, during civilized but pre-modern times. This list includes Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and a number of others. All of these religions, unsurprisingly, contain female subjugation to male rule as either an explicit tenet or an implicit assumption that is never challenged. Many of them contain moral teachings designed to restrain male domination within limits and protect women from abuse, but all of these teachings assume that male domination is the way things are and the way they should be (even if men themselves sometimes aren’t as they should be).

Female subordination, women as property, underlies all traditional sexual morality. Traditionally, “adultery” meant a woman having sex with someone other than her husband (extending the parallel restriction to the husband himself is a modern amendment arising in an early stage of the feminist revolution; traditionally, a man could commit adultery only if he had sex with another man’s wife, thus poaching on the other man’s property rights; his own wife had no right to his fidelity). Traditionally, girls (not boys) were expected to be chaste when unmarried; this had to do with a man being certain of the paternity of his children and also factored into the idea of a woman as property — he was buying something new and unused when he got a virgin as bride. In many (but not all) cultures, men could have multiple wives; in no civilized culture as far as I am aware could women have multiple husbands. (Some pre-civilized cultures did allow that, though.) If female subordination is abandoned, if the genders are equal, if as a result women control their own sexuality rather than putting it under the control and at the disposal of men, the entire basis of traditional sexual morality is undone.

Which does not mean that sexual morality disappears. It only means that it changes radically. Something as powerful and pervasive in our lives as sex can’t be approached without rules of conduct, and so, with the old rules left devoid of foundation, we evolve new ones. The new rules of sexual morality are based around mutual respect, treating each other as people and not as objects, trust, honesty, and the universal right of consent. Condemnation of rape is strengthened and extended to action within a relationship (a man is no longer permitted to rape his wife or girlfriend). Sexual harassment — essentially treating another person disrespectfully on the basis of gender or sexuality — has become a new taboo. The old norms of marriage are stretching and new forms are being tried; polyamory is increasing in popularity; but whether a relationship is poly or monogamous, honesty and fidelity are de rigeur for all parties.

These are wrenching changes that are difficult for traditional religions to absorb, but they are trying and it is being done; scriptures that reinforce the old sexual norms based on female subordination are being reinterpreted or ignored, and universal codes of conduct like the Golden Rule are being reshaped in their implications.

In addition to sexual morality, feminism has implications for conceptions of the divine. Recognizing and repeating that all concepts of divinity are metaphorical, in a context of gender equality, what sense does it make to conceive of either a single masculine deity or a pantheon in which the gods dominate? Deity must incorporate both masculine and feminine aspects; there are several ways in which this can be done but one or another of them is required.

So we’re seeing religion changing in response to the radical, historically-unprecedented upheaval represented by feminism and the rise of gender equality. I did mention fantasy fiction in the title. Changes there, too? Absolutely, in ways that are probably obvious. This presents an interesting challenge when one’s story is set in an agrarian-civilization milieu, as is often the case with fantasy. All such cultures in history included female subordination, and so one is faced with the task of immersing the reader into a culture that includes this factor without losing modern values. It seems to me there are at least three ways to do this:

  1. One can use a fantasy element to include gender equality even in an agrarian-civilization setting; for example, the power of magic practiced by both genders equally could outweigh the influence of a male-dominated warrior class, or a literal, corporeally-real goddess could punish patriarchal presumption with extreme disfavor.
  2. One can employ plot devices to create feminist corners of the fantasy culture, for example a society of women warriors; one can also simply create strong female characters who buck the trends.
  3. Most challenging of all, one can depict the patriarchal society and have the characters accept its norms and values on the surface, while subtly conveying criticism of it so that the reader does not approve of it in spite of immersion.

Any of these will work and one can find examples of all of them in recent fantasy. Of course, the simplest solution is to write contemporary fantasy, placing the characters and events in the modern world rather than an ancient milieu.

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