Wednesday, 23 January 2013

We Need to Talk About Cold Days

It was cold in Newcastle when I started writing this review. The day I posted the Skyfall review the sky did begin to fall in great snowy clumps. Roofs, pavements, people turned white as snow clung to scarves and jackets, hats and hair. When I was a kid I promised myself I'd never be one of those adults who was irritated by the snow and so far I've kept it. There's so much joy in snow if you're willing to embrace it. Just look at the way even adults want to touch it and claim it, leaving the first set of tracks across virgin snow, writing your name with freezing fingers, patting it into balls, sneaking it into a friend's hood... And surely I can't be the only one who sees it falling and for a few seconds forgets they're not a kid home from school, dressed to go sledging.

The snow had another association for me this year though. I'd just read a book called Cold Days, which features a court of winter fae and while some bits of it were fantastic others were... problematic to say the least. It nearly just let this fester in my draft folder but a month later the snow has started falling again and it's time to send it out. [Massive spoilers from this point on]

[Trigger warnings for discussions of rape culture]

I'm going to say right now that when writing this article I have gone out of my way to find people who know what they are talking about, which is part of the reason it's taken so long to get out. In fact seeing the book from their perspective changed my view of it from 'weird book with some uncomfortable moments' to 'how the fuck did this get published in 2012?' That said, if I inadvertantly say something thoughtless or wrong, please let me know and I'll change it straight away.

I'm also going to say that this is not a review. The only review I can give of this book is one sentence long and reads "If you have a vagina or care about people who do this book will make you angry and confused and therefore you probably shouldn't read it." But this is not a review.

So. Cold Days. The 14th book in The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, (the reigning king of popcorn urban fantasy, for the uninitiated). It's kind of hard to know what to say about this one aspect of Cold Days, so I'm just going to break it down into facts. Here goes.

In Cold Days the (ostensibly sympathetic) main character Harry Dresden has become the Winter Knight. This means that he is in the service of Mab, the Queen of Winter. An effect of taking on the symbolic 'mantle' of Winter is that he gets some cool ice themed new powers and becomes morally greyer. Also he wants to rape every woman in sight.

I'm not joking, not least because this is not funny. I'm hardly even exagerating: Harry engages in eight violent, detailed rape fantasies in a book less than three hundred pages long. Some of these women are strangers, some are friends, one is his apprentice who he's known since she was fourteen. (These are all rapes against women incidentally, despite the fact that in the real world men get raped too. Which raises questions about claims that this is all about power and dominance and not about the titilation of heterosexual men.) This is out protagonist, the guy that we're supposed to like, who's thinking things like "Something inside me -and I'd be lying if I said that none of it was mine- let out a primal snarl and advised me to drag both of them back to my cave by the hair and do whatever I damn well pleased with them" and "If Lily was immortal, I couldn't kill her.That didn't mean I couldn't take her." Those are direct quotes, by the way.

It's not just frequency that makes this so deeply problematic. It's also the fact that Jim Butcher seems to have done his research in the the nineteenth century. At one point he claims that "Lily had spent her life a victim because of her luminous beauty. Lloyd Slate had been the last man to abuse her, but I doubted he was the first." I'd highlight the key words there but really there isn't a part of it that isn't deeply offensive. Out of every instance of soul-crushing, misogynistic Did Not Do The Research in this book, this was the one that made me want to just give up and throw it at a wall.

Because we watch too much TV
Lucyzephyr [on Tumblr] pointed out that in chapter 48, Butcher basically said that Lily being attractive would obviously lead to her being a victim. Not only physically attractive, young people are raped. That statement is messed up. We agree with this tumblr that even though the story gave a reason for these thoughts and fantasies, there were other ways to show dark, primal urges, and there was no reason for Butcher to have eight rape fantasies or for them to be as detailed as they were. Entertainment that references rape affects society. It went past what was necessary.

 The view that Butcher seems to be pushing here, of men as Bestial Savages who must Nobly Struggle against their Lower Urges and women as Fragile Flowers who must be Protected At All Costs is offensive to both women and men and belongs more in a hysterical Victorian melodrama or Richardson novel than a modern urban fantasy series that contains multiple strong female characters without, *shockgasphorror* being accused of writing Strong Female Characters. And that's why I think parts of the fanbase are so shocked and hurt. We know Jim Butcher. We like Jim Butcher. We've been with him and Harry for fourteen books now. We expected better than this.

I'm always wary of saying what an audience "deserves" from a writer. I don't believe that George R.R. Martin owes it to me (or anyone else) to lock himself in a room until he's finished Winds of Winter. I didn't like the saccharine epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows much but then JK Rowling is entitled to end her own book how she likes. I brindled when reading Amazon reviews on Carrie Asai's Samurai Girl series which claimed Asai had no right to kill off a popular character. Up until now my policy has always been to vote with your feet or, more to the point, your money. If a series upsets or disappoints you then stop supporting it. Cold Days made me question that. Doesn't Jim Butcher owe it to his fans, many of whom are female, many of whom will, statistically, have experienced some form of sexual abuse, to have the sensitivity respect and common decency to pick up a book and do some research in how to handle it sensitively? It doesn't even have to be a book: there are myriad free online resources dedicated to addressing rape culture and the misconceptions thereof. What he doing that was so important that was so important he couldn't do a Google search on how to handle a sensitive topic? 

That's assuming he even has to address the subject at all. Controversial, I know, because putting rape in a book is tantamount to showing that it takes place in the Real World, where Bad Things Happen, right? Wrong. Of course rape happens but if you end up showing that and not other forms of violent crime then were right back to wondering why it's this story that you want to tell. This article by Maggie Stiefvater calls for less gratuitous rape in literature. Not books like Speak (her example) which are well researched and add to the discussion. Books which use rape as a stock threat against women, presumably rooted in the assumption that rape is "the worst thing that can happen to a woman".
Yes. Having someone force themselves on us is pretty damn traumatic, folks. But guess what? Our personalities are formed by a whole host of experiences. Pretty much the same host of experiences that any man might encounter.
Cold Days is not Speak. It was not written to help young girls and women deal with an issue that is confusing, scary and often misunderstood. It is not well researched. It is not handled in a sensitive manner. If Jim Butcher wants to show his main character struggling with the corruptive influence of winter then fine but it is laughable to do so by resorting exclusively to rape and entirely ignoring other forms of violence and then claim he is Doing It For His Art.

The thing about Cold Days is you just cannot summon words to encompass just how mind bendingly wrong it is. The only comparison I can think of is back when a few people still didn't know the basis plot of Twilight and you found yourself explaining: "well then the baby breaks all her bones from the inside... and then there's this bit where they chew it out of her, caesarion style. Oh and then the werewolf falls in love with the baby." Except instead of people spluttering with laughter and going 'Really? Vampire baseball?' they tend to look vaguely horrified and say 'I don't understand: how can there be eight rape fantasies?' There's no way to make this transition because this whole scene was so WTF offensive there is no point in popular culture or academic theory I can relate it to. But here goes: there's the scene in the big final battle where Maeve, the villain of the week, offers to sleep with Dresden and explicitly offers to struggle and fight on the basis that he will enjoy it more. ...Are you fucking kidding me, Jim Butcher? There is physically nothing (NOTHING!) I can say about this scene. There are words and phrases like "why?", "how did this get past an editor?" and "what the actual fuck?" but when I try to combine them into a coherant sentence I get such an overwhelming feeling of rage that I need to turn the laptop off and go outside for a bit until I've calmed down.

There's been a lot of... well the polite word is contension, in the Dresden Files fandom lately about whether Harry resisting these urges is a legitimate way of establishing he is a good person because he resists or whether they are disguised power fantasies and while I can at least understand though not agree with the former view in most cases... a willing victim who is literally asking for it? People didn't see anything wrong or uncomfortable about that? People didn't feel the book had gone to a Bad Place or crossed some kind of line? Really? For a full discussion of the issue, here is Cold Days: an open letter to fans complete with subsequent annotations, which covers both sides the debate pretty well.

This review has taken me a long time to write not only because I am walking on very sensitive ground for a lot of people but also because I'm honestly stunned. I used to love these books, in no small part because they let women be powerful and important*. I was looking forwards to Cold Days because I love(d) Maeve. If you had told me a few months ago that Cold Days would leave me full of incoherant hatred and betrayal I would not have believed you. How times change.

I wish there was some over-arching point I could make to draw this all together, like 'research sensitive topics really, really carefully' or 'here is a graph with responsbilities of the author represented as x and artistic license as y' but there isn't one. I don't have a definitive answer to this mess. I can't even say for definite whether I'm going to read the next book when it comes to the library (thirteen good books, or even twelve good books and Storm Front, buys you a certain amount of second chances), only that if I do I'll be reading it through my fingers.

*That may seem immature to the men in my audience and to them I respectfully ask them to remember how frustrated they were as a kid when all the cartoons had only one or two token boys, if that and said boy characters were almost never allowed to do anything as violent, ass-kicking and (let's face it) cool as the girl characters. And how it hurt their self esteem to see themself represented as a side kick, a tag-along girlfriend, even entirely absent but never as a leader** like the girls... Oh wait, silly me that was *my* childhood.

**Incidentally I think this is one of the (many) reasons Buffy gets such deep and abiding love. Sure the dialogue's good and the writing is excellent and all but surely nothing gets that level of devotion without touching some kind of nerve?

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