Thursday, January 26, 2006

She Thought She Was A Woman, But She Was Another Man

I want to talk about a book I read some time ago called A BROTHER'S PRICE by Wen Spencer. Set in ubiquitous fantasy/stock science fiction alternate universe, this is a fairly straightforward gender role reversal story. On this unnamed Earth-like planet (complete with horses, steam power, and European feudalism), men are rare. Women do all the heavy lifting and the men are left in charge of raising children and keeping house. Our hero, Jerin Whistler, is the prettiest and most fertile boy in the all land. When a princess ends up nearly dead on his family's doorstep, sexual hijinks ensue.

Actually, I found the sexual situations fairly entertaining. Admittedly, this is a fantasy I like to play with myself. I've even started a few role-reversed stories of my own (though none are finished, see entry regarding my problems with short stories below) and I even have a dystopian matriarchy, which involves an alternate future Russia that I've been noodling around with in my own head for years.

Plus, my own life lends itself to thinking about gender and gender roles a lot.

I had a very weird problem with this novel. It pushed all my buttons, but none of them hard enough. It's a strange complaint to say, "Hey, you didn’t piss me off enough."

I think in a lot of ways this is a really ambitious novel. Or, maybe it could have been, and that's what bothers me. My sense is that all my big questions with this novel were accidental. Spencer seemed to be playing up the titillating aspects of all of this, rather than bringing the gender/sex question to the forefront.

After a couple of days of mulling this book over, I started asking myself, what was Spencer thinking when she wrote this? Was she actually intentionally making some kind of statement about gender and society? In many ways, our hero, Jerin, could just as easily have been a woman. Though I think there would be a fair number of feminists out there (probably including myself) who would have cried bloody murder if she had written this book with Jerin cast as a woman. The number of times he's threatened with rape alone would have pissed me off. The things that are vaguely titillating about his situation (the way women grope him, the words they use to discuss, crudely, having sex for procreation with him, how he’s treated like property, and the amount of money he’s "worth") would be completely offensive if he were a woman.

Then, I thought, well, Tate, you sexist pig. They're plenty offensive as they're written. And, that could could be the point. Pretty subversive on Spencer's part.

But, at the end of the thing, I decided that I was once again just thinking too hard. It seemed to be meant as a kind of science fictional Regency romance, all meant in a tongue-and-cheek, wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of way. (The very last line in the book was my tip off.)

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