Catherine, by Chris Wind

Catherine, by Chris Wind (from Snow White Gets Her Say)  www.chriswind.net

 

That you don’t recognize me by name is but the first of my complaints about my tale. Oh you know me alright. I’m the main character—in a tale titled with the name of one of the men in the story. But what’s in a name? A lot. Especially if it’s a man’s name. This man’s name is the answer to the question upon which rests the fate of myself and my newborn child. So his name is very powerful, it is very important. My name apparently is not.

Nor is my life. For whether it is to be filled with joy and delight from being with my newborn, or empty with grief and loss from separation is to be decided by a mere guessing game.

Nor are my words important. I denied my father’s boast. I told the King I most definitely could not spin gold out of straw. But he didn’t believe me. Of course not. He chose instead to believe the words of an immature, egotistic, vain man. And I suffer the consequences.

The consequences. To pay for my father’s ridiculous lie, I lose my sanity, my freedom, and my dignity for three nights—and almost my child, forever. (And one sentence—one sentence in the whole tale is devoted to that ‘choice’, that decision to give up my child in return for my life.)

Because I ‘succeeded’ on the third night, I was ‘rewarded’ with marriage to the King. Thus, for all intents and purposes, I also lost my life. Can you imagine what it is like to be married—legally bound to honour and obey until death, and socioeconomically bound with little option but to stay and make the best of it—to a man who didn’t believe me, a man who locked me in a room for three nights, a man so greedy that he said three nights in a row he’d kill me unless I did as he wanted? And that was before he owned me.

But as the tale says, I am shrewd and clever. And I have learned the force of threat, and the importance of a name—especially if it is male. Proud fathers want very much to pass it on. But royal fathers—dear husband, aging Highness, what would happen to your precious lineage if my, your, only son were to suddenly—

Since I am not dead, and am living still…

 

**

Catherine is the name I’ve given to the woman in “Rumpelstiltskin”. One day a vain and proud miller boasted about his beautiful and clever daughter to the king, telling him that she could spin gold out of straw. The poor maiden denied it, but the king locked her in a room full of straw and insisted that she spin it into gold or else she’d lose her life.

Once in the room, she began to cry; then “a droll-looking little man” appeared and, after hearing her story, offered to do it for her if she’d give him her necklace. When the king returned and saw that the straw had indeed been spun into gold, he locked up the maiden with another roomful of straw. This time she paid the little man with her ring. The third time, the king added the promise of marriage if she succeeded, but she had nothing left with which to pay the little man. He asked for her first child, and having no other option, fearing death if the king returned to find straw and not gold, she agreed.

So she was married to the king, and when her first child was born, the little man came to collect. Appalled, she offered him instead “all the treasures of the Kingdom”—but he wanted the child. Eventually he softened his terms and said that if within three days she could tell him his name, she could keep the child.

For the next two days, she guessed all the names she knew and sent messengers all over the land to gather new ones. Finally, on the third day, a messenger returned with the name ‘Rumpelstiltskin’—which was indeed the little man’s name. She was therefore able to keep her child, and everyone laughed at the little man, Rumpelstiltskin, as he made his way away.

Brunettes, Blondes, and Redheads

So the other day I started reading iron shadows by Steven Barnes.  He’s apparently a bestselling author.  Which is really disturbing.

Because four sentences in, he describes a woman as “a small wiry brunette”.  Seriously?  Does anyone actually identify women by their hair colour any more?  That’s so—1940s.  Isn’t it?  I check.  The book’s copyright is 1998.  Okay.  Guess not.  Guess the tradition of objectifying women lives on.

We don’t do that with men.  We don’t objectify them by their hair colour (or anything else, for that matter).  Their hair colour for godsake.  She’s a brunette.  Or a blonde.  Or a redhead.  As if all women with brown hair are what, interchangeable?  Because they’re completely defined by—the colour of their hair?

Not only that, but he had to mention her size.  Small.  Of course.  If she’s going to be a heroine, she has to be small.  I’m surprised he didn’t tell us how large her breasts are.

And whereas she’s small, he’s “enormous”.  Of course he is.

Could we just reverse the description with nothing odd happening, that test for sexism?  “The man, a small, wiry brunette with an ugly bruise on his left cheek, wore a yellow unisex utility uniform.  The woman was enormous, but barely conscious.”  Not only do you find it odd to hear a man called “a small, wiry brunette”, you no doubt found it a bit disgusting to hear the woman called “enormous”.

I am, goddamnit, still a little forgiving, so I read on.

But the very next woman—or maybe it’s the same woman, since the next bit happens two months earlier—the very next woman “nibbles” on dry wheat toast.  Because we can’t have a woman actually eating with guilt-free enthusiasm.

And she has “an oval face framed by a cascade of small soft blonde ringlets”.  Small again.  And soft.  And blonde.  And ringlets.  Ringlets?!

In case we missed it, “Her habit of peering out from behind them sometimes made her resemble a mischievous child peeking through a fence.”

In 1998.  And published by Tor.

No wonder women can’t get published.  As long as this insulting crap is deemed worthy.  Is bestselling.

When will men finally get it?  When will they finally get it right?

Robert J. Sawyer.  He’s the only one.  The only male sf writer who’s smart enough to create a non-sexist world.