[Content Notes: gender essentialism, toxic masculinity, rape culture, voyeurism, incest]
Where did we leave off last time? Oh right, I we were partway through the shower scene. Oh joy. Well, let’s pick up right there.
While he is showering (did Card somehow forget that these showers are supposed to be very quick?), Elemak starts talking to Nafai, saying more or less that he’s grown since he last saw him, he looks more muscular, he takes after their father but has their mother’s face. The first part of this seems reasonable; if I assume the units of time on Harmony correspond to what they would be on Earth (I don’t believe Card ever addresses this issue, either), then Elemak’s been gone for a bit over four months and Nafai could well have had a growth spurt during that time. I’m not sure why the comparison to his parents is in there; that’s the sort of thing I’d expect them to already know, and it feels a bit forced here (although I suppose it’s better and more subtle than Nafai looking into a mirror and thinking to himself that he takes after his father but has his mother’s face, so +1 to Card for effort). Then Issib joins the conversation:
Issib, of course, only made it worse. “Got Father’s most important feature, fortunately,” he said.
“Well, we all got that,” said Elemak. “All of the old man’s babies have been boys – or at least all of his babies that we know about.” He laughed.
Nafai hated it when Elemak talked about Father that way. Everyone knew that Father was a chaste man who only had sex with his lawful mate. And for the past fifteen years that mate had been Rasa, Nafai’s and Issib’s mother, the contract renewed every year. He was so faithful that women had given up coming to visit and hint around about availability when his contract lapsed. Of course, Mother was just as faithful and there were still plenty of men plying her with gifts and innuendoes – but that’s how some men were, they found faithfulness even more enticing than wantonness, as if Rasa were staying so faithful to Wetchik only to goad them on in pursuit of her. Also, mating with Rasa meant sharing what some thought was the finest house and all agreed was the finest view in Basilica. I’d never mate with a woman just for her house, Nafai thought.” (page 13)
Long excerpt, but I honestly couldn’t think of anything that could be cut. The awfulness is so concentrated that I thought it necessary to show in its entirety.
Before I get into the ranting, we’ve learned a few things in this paragraph:
-The boys’ father Volemak is also known as Wetchik (which is, in fact, a hereditary title of some kind, this will be clarified later on)
-Marriage in Basilica consists of short-term contracts that must be actively renewed on a yearly basis (also, it’s heavily implied that Volemak and Rasa are exceptional in maintaining a long-term relationship for so long and maintaining exclusivity)
-It’s beginning to hint around the fact that property ownership within the city limits is limited to women, and men can only claim residence through marriage to its owner (this seems a bit weird now considering Volemak owns the estate in which this chapter is set, but it will be revealed later that his property is outside the city limits and therefore not subject to the same rules for some reason)
Okay. So. Ugh. So many things disgust me here.
Firstly, we have the casual statement that a penis is a man’s “most important part”. This is an attitude I absolutely hate, though admittedly it pervades quite a lot of our culture; there’s this idea that the penis is central to a man’s identity and that the loss thereof is one of the most catastrophic things that can happen to him. It also manifests in other ways, e.g. that implying a man has a small penis is generally considered a grievous insult. Or consider the references to penis-measuring contests and the use of the term e-peen in Internet jargon to mean ego, though this seems to have fallen out of fashion somewhat nowadays.
This is all bound up with the idea that a man’s worth is somehow tied to his sexual prowess, and for which penis size tends to be treated as a shorthand (despite not actually being a good indicator of such). Yet another dimension of toxic masculinity. One of many ironies here is that using sexual prowess as an indicator of masculinity actually tends to make (hetero) men worse in bed, from what I’ve gathered; among other things, it leads to them focusing on giving orgasms not for the sake of their partner’s enjoyment, but to bolster their own self-esteem (which in turn leads to situations where some women feeling it necessary to fake orgasms in order to bring an unsatisfying sexual encounter to a close).
Society, can we stop doing this thing now, please?
On a related note, there’s this weird idea seemingly implied in the text that Volemak’s masculinity is somehow bolstered by his fathering only male children. Which (1) what does the sex of one’s children have to do with anything here? and (2) does Card seriously mean to imply he doesn’t understand how randomness works, and that any such result must be due to pure chance?
Moving onward from “PENISES ARE THE BEST YOU GUYS!”, Card (and Nafai) decide instead to rhapsodise about monogamy (Card is not one of those pro-polygamy Mormons, from what I can tell). If nothing else, this seems extremely weird here, because if we take the narrative at its word that temporary marriage is normative in this society, “faithfulness” as described here seems unlikely to be viewed by them as a virtue. There’s the double-standard of Rasa being viewed as more desirable because she’s “hard to get”, which plays into so many rape culture narratives, but that’s not what I’m referring to here; if Nafai grew up in this culture, at best he should think that his parents’ situation is unusual, rather than treating it as a given that it should be praiseworthy. This is actually a mistake lots of authors make – the characters the audience are meant to sympathise with mysteriously see the world through the audience’s presumed value system, rather than one that could have naturally developed as they grew up in their society.
Then we have the explicit double standard with respect to Volemak’s and Rasa’s respective sexual desirability, which is clearly meant to evoke the “man as pursuer, woman as pursued” dynamic. Aside from the fact I find that structure disgusting on several levels thanks to how intrinsic it is to rape culture, it is also especially bizarre here because Basilica is supposed to be some kind of pseudo-matriarchal society (see, for instance, the way only women can be landowners). It’s kind of sad how many of these authors who want to play with gender roles (including many I like a great deal better than Card; I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan) and attempt to write female-dominated societies simply cannot see outside the patriarchal ideas they’ve been enculturated with, and replicate them even in societies which should properly lack them.
(As a side note, I do think it’s a bit weird these children spend so much time apparently thinking about their parents’ sex lives; that’s normally not the sort of thing people like to think about their parents doing. I realise Card’s reason for doing this is to infodump about the societal structures, but that doesn’t make it feel any less odd.)
Though strictly speaking the society depicted in these books isn’t particularly matriarchal at all, as we’ll see later. If anything it’s mostly just a sex-segregated society, with men and boys living outside the city in a society that’s structured along patriarchal lines, while inside the city things are a bit more complicated. We’ll get into more details about this as more and more worldbuilding details are dropped into the text, so I’ll leave this here for now. I am often left wondering with this book if the social structure depicted therein makes any sense whatsoever, and also whether it could have plausibly developed through natural processes or would have had to be artificially imposed.
And just to wrap things up, we get a token condemnation of “materialism” as Nafai disapproves of people who choose their partners based on their land holdings. (For the record, I have to admit I mostly agree with Nafai on this one, in that choosing to be with someone as a means to some end, instead of for the person’s own sake, bothers me; perhaps my objection to it is Kantian, I’m not sure. But I have to admit that in this particular society, I have more sympathy with a person who would do so, because it appears to be literally the only way a man can find lodging within the city.)
Though I suppose the remark about the “finest view in the city” could also be meant to refer to Rasa’s body (or a deliberate double-entendre). I sincerely hope not, because if so that’s yet another creepy incestuous thing in this chapter.
I will say that I actually do rather like the concept of time-limited marriages that must be continually renewed (provided, of course, that the legal infrastructure is in place to handle it; for instance, one would have to assume in such a society that marriage would not entail pooling assets under joint ownership), at least in opposition to a scenario where divorce is very difficult and/or impossible (whether due to legal issues or societal/religious disapprobation). The last thing you want is to have people obligated to remain in relationships where they are unhappy, etc, and a system along these lines (again, if properly implemented; there are lots of issues) could be one way of addressing that. That said, as I recall, these books are setting this up to contrast with some kind of permanent marriage system (in order to promote the latter), so this is worth keeping in mind; as I recall, scenarios in a later book are crafted to attempt to show the superiority of the latter, though (to put it mildly) that case is not made well. I make note of this because the marriage structure will definitely be something I’ll address further in future posts.
(I must also admit an error I made in a previous post – in an earlier post I accused Card of finding the idea of children born outside marriage unthinkable. He clearly acknowledges the possibility here, so I must apologise for getting that wrong, though admittedly the narrative still treats the idea with revulsion so the greater point still stands.)
If I keep going at this rate, I’ll never finish analysing these books, and I’ll probably end up generating more text in my criticism than all five books combined before I’m finished with the first one. This isn’t looking good. Nevertheless, given that I’ve somehow written an entire post about a single paragraph, I’m going to stop here for this week. I swear, we’ll finish with chapter one eventually, and sometime this century I might even get to the plot!