On Daughters Who are Young Women

Editor’s Note: Another post that is not about magazines. As this is Thanksgiving Week, it seems to make sense. Earlier this month, my youngest daughter turned 18. In six months, my oldest daughter will become 21. Supposedly, the hardest part of raising children is almost over. At least that’s what I’ve heard. But as always, I am skeptical. I have started, stopped, edited, torn apart and re-written this post. This is my best effort. I hope it will suffice.

An awful lot of advice, much of it awful, gets tossed at the parents of the very young. Rock them, don’t rock them. Let them cry it out. Pick them up. Give them the bottle, the breast. No sugar, a little sugar’s not so bad. Don’t go back to work, go ahead and work. How can you let someone else raise your children? Hire a nanny. Be careful when you hire a nanny.

You also get a lot of this if they’re girls: Guard them, lock them away, watch out for boys. Greet the boys at the door with a shotgun. Tea parties! Pink and purple! Aren’t they cute? All of it is confusing, much of it feels designed for some family other than yours.

Frankly, the best advice that about caring for infants I ever heard came from my very wise sister. I called her one day, almost in tears. The babies were crabby. We were tired and stressed. We didn’t know what we were doing. She listened quietly and compassionately and when I finally ran out of steam asked, “Did you change your underwear today?”

“Yes,” I responded. Confused. Was I hearing her right?

“Was it clean?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said even more confused.

“Well then,” she said brightly, “You’ve made quite an accomplishment today. If you’re ever really pressed for time, turn it inside out and you’re still good to go.”

A few years later, I sat in utter bafflement as a woman I worked with on a local political campaign announced that she was leaving our organization to spend more time at home. Her son was going into high school. Her daughter into middle school. “Isn’t that when you have more time,” I asked hopefully?

“Hah,” she answered. “Not if you want them to survive high school.”

There are an awful lot of young adult women in our family. My sister’s oldest daughter is in her 20’s and a public defender in New York. My sister’s son is in college. My older brother had two daughters before we even had our first. One is a history teacher, the other studying dance.  My wife’s sister also had two daughters before either of ours were born. One is in marketing and promotions, the other in a masters program. Her brother has one son who is a senior in High School.

Boys are thin on the ground on both sides of the family.

I have vivid memories of the things said to us, wished on us,  before either child was born. There were already so many girl children on both sides of the family that I got a lot of advice about having a son. But we don’t control nature. I sometimes wonder if we really control nurture.  And while I did have daydreams of tossing around a baseball with my son Samuel Jacob,  they all went out the door when my oldest was born.  There was a perfect girl in front of me and I was her dad. What more could I want?

When my wife announced she was pregnant with our second, my immediate thought was, “Sisters would be nice!” And while I played along with the endless sea of comments I got about “Don’t you want a boy?” I really wanted another girl. I couldn’t explain it. It was how I wanted things to turn out. And when she was born, and we saw she was a girl, I thought she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen.

We live in a weird time. I think about the sacrifices my mother, my mother in law, my sister, my sisters in law and my wife have made to get through this modern world. My path was pretty easy and straightforward. Get an education, get a job, make your parents proud, get married and have kids. A boy would be nice.

This past election campaign made me think about it even more. What is traditional? What works well for one generation is not necessarily how the world will work for the next. Why is that so hard to grasp?

I often wonder if my wife would have to work as hard at her job as she does if she were a man.

The messages we give women are much more complex: Be pretty. Smile. Don’t take any shit. Be nice. Be a warrior.  Get an education. Have sexual freedom. Don’t be a slut. Go to work. Stay home. Have kids. You don’t have to have kids. How can you not want kids? Get married. Do everything for your family. Be free. Your kids are everything, sacrifice all for them and be with them every step of the way. Don’t be a helicopter. Be a role model. Be yourself.

Contemporary feminism is derided in our society. That’s too bad because the message is misunderstood and folded into an altogether wrong stereotype. Feminism isn’t about how we should think and behave. The message  seems to say (at least to me) that women should be valued as equally as men. Women are just as important and worthwhile.  Both sexes should be valued and are important. How hard is that?

Growing up, I saw that message in my parents home. I see it every day in ours. Wouldn’t our lives be more full if gender wasn’t destiny? If the only barriers in our lives were our own shortcomings not society’s?

And I often wonder if our society fears our young. We’ve cordoned them off in segregated schools. We’ve allowed our media, our corporations, our entertainers to create their own junior society within the adult one. Then we cry out in protest over the culture created by allowing our corporations and entertainment complex into their lives. Menus in restaurants are separate. Books and magazines cater to them and only them. On the one hand, we encourage them to emulate us, and on the other, most of what I hear seems to be, how do we control them? Keep them in line. Mold them into consumers and cogs in the great wheel.

Do we fear for our girls more than our boys? Or do we fear our girls? What they are becoming? We encourage the young girls to self segregate from the boys. Look like older women. In today’s society, raising girls is supposed to be a challenge. Contemporary society seems to say that they’re bratty, spoiled little daddies girls who are finicky, obsessed with some sort of pink girlie culture that we are doomed to never understand. They’re bitchy, flighty, moody and we had better keep them locked up, or else. You – know – what!

If they’re not that, then they wear glasses, are good at math and are sexually repressed. Until they meet a man child. How did this stereotype happen?

Common sense says that raising children is difficult. It’s also become apparent to us that parenting doesn’t stop at the age of maturity. The opportunities for my daughters are so much greater and varied than anything my wife or sister have had. If we can keep moving our society forward, if we can keep progressing, the opportunities for their daughters will be even greater than anything we can imagine.

What a worthwhile goal.

Of Fanboys, Feminism and Fantasy

Editor’s Note: Yes, this is supposed to be a blog about the magazine distribution industry and the publications we love so much. But from time to time it’s fun to depart that little tidal pool in the mag business and think about something else in the publishing sea. It’s summer and ABC audits and filings hang heavy in the air. Tax season is long behind us, PBAA is over and football annuals are on display… So let’s pull out a fat book (or a virtually fat one) and do something different.

At lunch the other day the topic turned to what we would say if we bumped into our teenaged selves. I responded that  I’d mostly be fine with meeting my 17 or 18 year old self because by the junior and senior years of high school, I was pretty happy with who I was. High school had turned out to be a fine old time.

“Now my sophomore year self,” I demurred. “Yeesh!”

“Why’s that?” my friend asked. “Too many zits?”

“Nope,” I replied, “I spent most of that year locked in my bedroom writing very dark poetry. You know, the ‘Dark Period’”.

He asked, “Was there a girl involved?”

“Yes”, I replied. “Eowyn of Rohan.”

J.R.R. Tolkien’s  The Lord of The Rings saga is the grand daddy of all fantasy novels. I’ve long wondered if Tolkien is the reason so many YA and contemporary fantasy novels are trilogies. For me, reading  The Hobbit around a Maine campfire with my family was the start of a love affair with those books. However it wasn’t until I finally wrested control of the series (once my siblings departed for college and I had clear access to their bookshelves) that I fell deep into the story of Frodo, Sam and Gandalf and the great quest to save all that was good in Middle Earth.

Without the wide acceptance of Tolkien’s epic story, would we have the fantasy category as it now exists? I don’t think so because you can see Tolkien’s fingerprints on so many other fantasy tales. How elves, dwarves and other mythological creatures act in contemporary fantasies can be traced straight to The Lord of The Rings.

Bold, upright, uptight honorable northern folk? Check.

Beautiful but dwindling Elvin folk? Check.

Dour, crafty, clever, comic relief providing dwarves? Check.

Scheming, dark skinned Southerners? Check.

People who look “fair” but are, in fact, evil? Check.

A lovely fair skinned long haired noble woman looking to break from her traditional role? Check.

Like I said, Eowyn of Rohan was often in my thoughts back in the 10th grade.

English author, Laurie Penny published a thought provoking piece on the “New Statesman” website  a week or so ago entitled  “Game of Thrones and the Good Ruler Complex”and she touched off a wild storm in the comments section.

Never mess with fanboys. Source: http://www.scififx.com

As an adult, I still like to read fantasy novels. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the works of American writer, Tad Williams (who’s remarkably accessible on Facebook). I recommend English novelist Mark Charan Newton. He is going in an intriguing direction with his Legends of the Red Sun series. It’s almost as if he is tilting the whole fantasy genre on it’s side like a tired old minivan and shaking the stale skittles out.

Right now, however, Game of Thrones is the fantasy genre. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that it’s a complex, interesting and exciting read that is taking the author a very long time to complete. It also helps that it’s a successful series on HBO featuring a lot of topless women. That last point seems to be something the trolls who flocked to Ms. Penny’s article can’t seem to differentiate.

Laurie Penny is right to point out that Game of Thrones is chock full prostitutes, rape, child brides, the threat of rape, prostitutes and a bunch of other horrbile practices we shouldn’t take for granted. Without denying the hugely engrossing and entertaining aspects of the story she legitimately asks if the “default” setting for such fantasies has to involve “really a rather lot of rape.”

The answer to the question is “No. Not necessarily.” At least to most authors who’s names aren’t George R.R. Martin.

She continues on and ties in the common fantasy theme of “The Search for the Good Ruler” to the Queen’s Jubilee celebration. Many fantasy stories do revolve around that theme. We see it Tolkien’s story of the restoration of Aragorn as King in Gondor. Another example would be fellow UK author Richard Adam’s Beklan Empire series (Shardik and Maia) also revolved around the search for a good leader. The troubles that plague Westeros in the   Game of Thrones start because the continent was ruled by a king with no interest in governing.

Of course the trolls who showed up in the comments section of Ms. Penny’s commentary helpfully pointed out to her why the series is so much more than rape, prostitution and some remarkable examples of how not to lead a nation. It never fails to amaze me that some people feel that banging out a few hundred words in the comments section of a blog or a news site will actually convince anyone of anything other than the fact that you have way too much time on your hand and are far too invested in the topic.

The appeal of fantasy and science fiction novels is the simple yet complicated act of  immersing yourself in a created world and it’s unique culture. Readers identify with the story because there are elements that correlate to contemporary life, but are so different. They appreciate the authors’ ability to create a whole new world. I don’t know why the fantasy genre is so enamored of kings and queens and the search for the good ruler. But after reading Laurie Penny’s article, I’m even more intrigued with where Mark Charon Newton is going with his Red Sun series.

On the more straightforward question of misogyny, rape culture, and how women are portrayed. Well, Game of Thrones, does offer up the incredibly strong Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and of course, Daenerys Targaryen. But I’d like to add that if the scene involving Daenerys’ wedding to Drogo (in the book) isn’t cringe inducing, go get some help. But  Arya, Brienne and Daenerys seem more of an exception than the rule. In the end, the series is the way it is because that’s how George R.R. Martin wrote it. And, as Laurie Penny points out, it is “highly entertaining”in spite of it’s cringe inducing elements.

Maybe the question to ask could be, “Hey, HBO, why Game of Thrones and not, say, Williams’ Shadowmarch series?” That is a compelling story about a land in search of a good ruler which features the strong, admirable teenage Princess Briony Eddon and the Elf Queen Saqri? And no rape.

Or how about John Harrison’s Viriconium cycle. That exciting story features brain stealing robots and weirdly dancing resurrected people. But no rape.

Don’t know. But there’s a budget to contemplate. Back to work.