Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Unsexy Matriarchies

I’ve been vacillating about whether to include feminist/intersectional gaming blogs like The Border House and Go Make Me A Sandwich in my blog roll. 

On the one hand, it’s important to keep up awareness of these issues.

On the other hands, a) most of their articles are about computer gaming, which is not my focus here; b) a lot of the content boils down to outrage at the latest example of dumb and obvious sexploitation in the industry, which is a bit like writing about Hooters and saying “Boy howdy does this place objectify women.”

I really appreciated, then, this recent post on Border House that breaks away from both molds. It’s a breakdown of how a lot of fantasy matriarchal societies are unrealistic reflections of patriarchal male fantasies, centering on that ever-popular Gygaxian invention, the Drow.

The Underdark, as cast by Rick James.
Zaewen's line of argument: a real society in which women hold the power wouldn’t have them dressing up all sexy in thongs and 1980’s pirate boots. Flaunting sexuality is soft power, on those occasions when it even constitutes power. 

Which then raises the question, what would a more realistic society dominated by women look like? I think the answer to that question falls one of two ways depending on how much you want to incorporate la difference ... the biological differences between men and women ... as a part of this hypothetical female power.

Star Trek: The Next Generation ... well, tried, and failed famously, to flip la difference in the episode Angel One. It presented a society where women were big matronly amazons, men were little twinks, and everyone had feathered hair. Of course the whole setup ended up collapsing like a house of cards when some real men showed up, so the episode ended up being more regressive than progressive. But the squicky feeling at seeing those little guys with bare chests and earcuffs was a pretty good sign you weren’t just being treated to another Sexy Matriarchy.

Canadian writer and artist  Dave Sim took another obvious tack when he created a feminist dystopia in the latter half of his decades-long Cerebus comic book. Instead of reversing the gradient of physical strength, he based supremacy in Cirinist society on women’s ability to bear children. We get a pretty credible, if caricatured, matriarchal society from this convert to Islam and admirer of Oscar Wilde who explicitly hates women with every shred of his being (except for those who in Sim’s estimation carry, instead of extinguish, the creative spark that he associates with men ... like, uh, Coco Chanel ... I can’t make this stuff up). Men who don’t submit to female authority and take part in family life are confined to the company of other such men and encouraged to drink their life away in bars. This of course has nothing, I mean everything, to do with Sim’s own personal history.

What these random examples show, perhaps, is that even the most imaginative writers prefer to see female reign as just as morally bad as male domination. And that stereotypes run deep. The Star Trek episode plays with the discomfort of reversed sex roles but eventually upholds the Federation perspective which turns out to be only as semi-enlightened as 1980’s America. Sim’s world only feels plausible because it’s built on such solid stereotypical bedrock, where women entrap men sexually into becoming dads while men oscillate between creative genius and drunken dissipation.

I hear Joanna Russ did a better job of this, so I really need to pick up The Female Man.


  1. Women on The Edge of Time would be my own go-to feminist utopia novel. A great book.

  2. Did my post a week or so ago with a link to this article inspire you on this topic? Just curious.

    This article totally inspired me as I have been writing Novarium.

  3. What these random examples show, perhaps, is that even the most imaginative writers prefer to see female reign as just as morally bad as male domination.

    I'm curious why you would think it should be done otherwise? If you begin from an "all created equal" premise, then either side dominant ought to result in social and moral imbalance. At that point, the interesting part of the story is how (if at all) it would be different from the one we live in.

    While it's certainly possible to imagine a more perfect matriarchal union, they tend to both stretch credulity and be boring. Blue Rose's Aldis, a de facto if not de jure matriarchy, manages to be both at once. This mostly stems, I think, from the fact that they tend to be put in opposition to the stereotypical feminist villians ("on their northern border they have the Evil Papacy and on their western border is the Land of Fat, Ugly Men Who Wear Wifebeaters") and that happy lands tend to promote boring games and stories.

  4. Actually, that's not fair of me; Aldis is billed as a land of gender harmony. I run it as a matriarchy. But that's not how it's literally written.

  5. I'm with Chaucer: partnership and mutual respect is probably the only credible path to a good outcome. Really matriarchies ought to be about as bad as patriarchies simply because someone's not free and self-determining. Abandoning that principle necessarily gets us into... um... complicated political territory (like Revolutionary America, but that's a separate issue).

    I don't see any mention of a setting where the externals are almost exactly the same but women hold the power. In this case men would be tasked with various macho, bacon-supplying type tasks as part of a continuous competition for breeding privileges. I can imagine appropriating a Conan story, leaving it almost exactly the same, and only revealing at the end that he was doing it all to win the favour, not necessarily of a particular woman but of some kind of breeding fitness council.

    But I guess I'm more interested in how masculinity is structured than what women would really do differently if they, and only they, ran the show. Frankly I'm a bit disturbed by the question, as if women as a category are supposed to want the same thing.

  6. This is an excellent post, as well as a fairly accurate portrayal of David Sim's attitudes and psychology.

  7. @Greg - I must have missed your reference, but I guess we both realized that post is the best content for a while over there.

    @trollsmyth & richard - Agree with you, really, but I was just wondering about the apparent absence of the stance that both male and female utopian writers have taken over the years, that a female-run society might be more fair and caring. How you feel about that possibility depends, again, on your reading of the existence and nature of "la difference."

    1. I don't see any reason to think it would be more fair, but it would likely be less violent. Violence is more a male thing, for good evolutionary reasons - the male winner can win really big. For the child-bearing sex violence is rarely advantageous. You might want to eliminate a female rival for your male mate's support, but that's about it.

  8. Utopias, just in general, are out. A truly perfect community is boring to write about, unless you come at it from the angle that one person's utopia is another person's 1984. That probably has more to do with it than anything else.

  9. Just musing about sexy-dominant drow (as I'm running P2 Demon Queen's Enclave). Traditional African farming societies are fairly patriarchal, but men don't control access to women, and women do most of the labour. The result is that the men are 'sexy' to attract mates & wives, while women are valued more for working ability than for sexiness. I think this could be flipped for Drow society - the Drow females are the big powerful warriors and societally dominant, but they don't monopolise/cloister the male labourers, so they need to be sexy to attract males. The big problem with drow is that a female can only be pregnant by one male at a time, so has much less value from a harem than a male does. Sexiness could be used to attract a female(?) consort who then protects the pregnant drow female?