"Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver." ~ The Last Unicorn.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cats in Books and on Bed

There is a method of thought in the world that insists on binaries. Good/evil, Democrat/Republican, male/female, straight/gay, etc. I'll save my rant on the problems inherent in most binaries for another day; for the time being, I'll focus on the dog person/cat person binary, which may be the most polarizing of them all.

I try to avoid putting both feet in either camp by calling myself an animal person. I mean, in addition to the wonderful dogs and cats I have owned and adored, there's been two horses, a snake, a budgie, at least fifteen guinea pigs, and several tanks of fish. I'm pretty non-discriminating when it comes to pets.

It just so happens, though, that I a) just read an anthology of stories about cats and b) adopted a new cat this morning. Minerva is happily installed on what was previously my bed, and I'm sure she'll wake up soon and come investigate the potential of the keyboard. The anthology, Tails of Wonder and Imagination, edited by Ellen Datlow, is next to me, all 40 stories of it. So I guess the previous paragraphs are a disclaimer that I am not, exclusively, a cat person.

But for anyone who is a cat person, or just likes cats, or likes good stories and doesn't mind that they all relate to cats, Tails is a good collection. Some stories only brush against cats, some transmogrify or anthropomorphize them, and some plunge wholeheartedly into what it is to be a cat of some sort. I should warn you, though, that cats are often victims of very nasty people in this book, and I (being less a softy and more a marshmallow) needed kleenex more than once. Only a few include the POV of a cat, and of those I most recommend "Old Foss is the Name of His Cat" by David Sandner. It's not only a wonderful portrait of the dignities, follies, and mysteries of felines, but a gorgeous story in the finest tradition of absurd Victorian fairy tales. Its magic is effervescent, with the eerie Jumblies coming out of the sea to tempt Old Man into the deep; only the efforts of Old Foss and magic can keep them at bay. Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl all rolled into one. If you read only one story in this book, read this one.

Other ones that come out on top are Tanith Lee's "Arthur's Lion"--a very good take on the idea of dreams coming to life, and much stronger than "Tiger in the Snow" (Daniel Wynn Barber), which uses the same trope but in a less inventive way. "No Heaven Will Not Ever Be..." is a delightful piece of magical realism by A.R. Morlan that both touched and broke my heart. "Coyote Peyote" is another cat POV, but the cat is a smart-talking private investigator right out of Guy Noir: Private Eye, with lines like, "My self-esteem was so low I could have won a limbo contest dancing under it."

But as you read through, from beginning to end, I dare you not to notice this:

The consistent connection between cats and sexy women, usually though not always in the hands of male authors. "Dark Eyes, Faith, and Devotion" (Charles de Lint), "Not Waving" (Michael Marshall Smith), and "The Jaguar Jungle" (Lucius Shepard) all feature sexy, mysterious women who are also cats, with two 1st person male narrators and one third-person. "Candia" (Graham Joyce) wanders towards the furry side of the spectrum, with sexy women who have cat tails, also with a 1st person male narrator. "Antiquities" has John Crowley implicating the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet in a string of seductions in Victorian England. A character in "Antiquities" actually gives voice to this trend, and cites the grace and manner of cats as lending them to connection with attractive women. The first three feature women/cats in dependent positions relative to the male MC.

I mean, the connection between women and cats didn't start here or anything. Catwoman, catsuit, any number of hentai anthro films, the term "pussy," crazy cat ladies (never crazy cat men). We're stuck with felines, it seems, an we'll have to deal with it.

What we have demonstrated in these stories, ladies and gentleman, is the male gaze. The term was originally used in film studies to dissect the effect of male directors filming women, and the difference (actual and theoretical) from how they filmed men. The term and theory behind it has travelled over to literary studies, and I find it convenient for the time being. For on the male gaze: Feminism 101

The first three stories feature a doubled male gaze--male author and male POV character, both of whom (along with the not-necessarily-male reader) are looking at the female character. She is the watched, the desired (and let me assure you that plenty of page space went into describing just how desirable these women were. To which I say: my hetero vag doesn't care.) They are distant objects of desire, hidden by the feline/feminine mystique, while other women characters who were less secretive and plain became antagonists of the semi-feline beauties. It's a mild form of misogyny, this putting up on a pedestal of beautiful and unattainable women while those of us with plainness to spare get shoved aside. I was quite surprised to find this in De Lint's story, actually, because he's usually very down-to-earth with his women characters. His succumbing to the tropes of "mysterious and beautiful object of desire" was a bit disappointing; I expect his characters to be defined by something other than being wanted by a man.

I can almost excuse the "mysterious" part, since it is cats and cats are all mysterious and stuff, but I could do without it being intrinsically connected to women, like we're another species or something. "Mysterious" is not a character trait; it's an excuse to not actually give them a personality or agency, because they have to be secretive and whatnot.

I think what irritates me most is that it just isn't necessary. Why do women characters always have to be stunning, especially in fantasy? Men in the real world love, desire, and have happy lives with women who are not "beautiful," yet this never seems to translate into writing. Why do some authors (male and female) insist on defining their female characters' worth by how beautiful they are? I get enough of that on TV and in ads; please to take it out of my pleasure reading, kthx.

(Disclaimer for this and future posts: Yes, I am a feminist. Yes, I will actively look for this stuff when reading. No, I do not hate men. No, it doesn't mean I didn't like these stories or thought they were badly written or am blackballing the authors. Discussion of this appreciated; flaming will not be tolerated. I get to choose what flaming is and isn't.)

So. Quick wrap-up: Tails is good, though I wish Datlow could have edited out at least a few of the stories about teh hawtness of kitty-women. I'm off to snuggle with Minerva and read Catherine M. Valente's Palimpsest.

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