Love and Feminism

Well, it’s Valentine’s Day and everyone’s thinking about looooove. So here’s my self-promoting post on why MOTH AND SPARK is a feminist love story.

It’s possible to write a novel where gender stereotypes are flipped, and I didn’t do that; in fact, the societal structure of the book replicates patriarchal norms. So at a quick glance it might look like a romanticization of the status quo, another Commoner Girl Meets Prince Charming And Is Swept Off Her Feet story. (Plus she’s white, straight, well-off, able-bodied, and beautiful.) But the novel is not actually a glorification of the princess fantasy.

The obvious feminism lies in the character of Tam, who is smart and brave, and who is admired by powerful men for being smart and brave. It’s not just her being a person that makes it feminist; it’s also that she is respected as a person. She does her own, equal part in saving the day and needs no saving herself. She’s never abducted, threatened with rape, or abused, and it’s pretty clear that if any of those situations arose she would fight. She has little tolerance for bullshit and less for powerful people taking advantage of others.

There are also subtler traces of feminism, a sentence here, a paragraph there, that could easily be unnoticed by a reader but that thread together to show the patriarchal norm as bad and harmful.

1) The male is the subject of the gaze:

“There were an inordinate number of young women in the hall, and he resigned himself to being on display. This was the last year he could reasonably expect to make it through the summer without ending up betrothed to someone; at twenty-five he was getting too old to stay unmarried. He suspected his mother was beginning to despair of ever making a good match. . . . They were all alike, flittering and fluttering, smiling brightly, pushing and shoving each other with elbows out to throw themselves in his path. He was the grand prize, and everyone knew it.”

It’s not the woman experiencing objectification here; it’s the hero. All eyes are on the man, who is valued not for himself but for what he brings with him. In Corin’s case, of course, what he brings with him is power, so it’s not a complete reversal of the objectification of powerless women. He isn’t forced into being a sex object. I thought it would be interesting, however, to have a male character who experiences being considered a “prize.” In another limitation, he’s a powerful adult man whose personal life is still subject to his mother.

2) The narrative presents abuse and prostitution. Briefly, but as the ugly things that they are: ways to hurt women and keep them powerless.

3) The narrative identifies the sexual double standard. Birth control is explicit, abortion is implied. Female characters have to worry about the consequences of their actions, while men don’t.

4) In my favorite exchange of dialogue, societal inequality is directly challenged:

[He said] “…It’s damn boring having to listen to women prattle about nothing.”

“I’m aware of that,” she said. “But what do you expect them to talk about if they can’t go to university or take part in commerce or politics? It’s damn boring sitting around sewing.”

5) Related to this, women talk to other women. Often it’s about men or marriage, but in those cases the limitations of that as a subject are pointed out.

6) Loving, consensual sex. And consent is rather a big deal.

7) MOTH AND SPARK is mostly an insta-love story, because I was more interested in the conflict between two people who love each other and think they can’t be together than the conflict between two people who love each other but don’t mutually realize it. Also, insta-love avoids romanticizing creepy stalking, power games, and seduction scenarios, all of which tend to put women in the position of victims (often without realizing they’re being victimized). I wanted to write a relationship that was a partnership, not a competition.

So the novel is a feminist novel. It’s also a love story. Because love and feminism aren’t incommensurable.