[Content Notes: gender essentialism, toxic masculinity, rape culture, sexual abuse of minors, ableist language, voyeurism]
Chapter 1 is entitled “Father’s House”.
Or, as I would title it: In which we meet our protagonist and his brothers, and are beaten about the head with essentialist gender norms.
Let’s start by quoting the first paragraph, because if I had to read it so do you.
“Nafai woke before dawn on his mat in his father’s house. He wasn’t allowed to sleep in his mother’s house anymore, being fourteen years old. No self-respecting woman of Basilica would put her daughter in Rasa’s household if a fourteen-year-old boy were in residence – especially since Nafai had started a growth spurt at the age of twelve that showed no signs of stopping even though he was already near two meters in height.” (page 9)
Yes, that’s where we begin – Meet Nafai! Meet Rape Culture! How do you do? I’m seriously at a loss for anything to say about this; apparently rape culture is so deeply embedded in this society that having boys and girls living under the same roof is utterly unthinkable. (Truthfully, this idea is alive and well in modern times also; you can see the most extreme manifestation of it in purity culture, e.g. Christian Patriarchy and radical Islam, but even outside those extremes the general idea that teenage boys cannot control their sexuality and girls must be kept away from them is a mainstay of popular culture. But you would think that FORTY MILLION YEARS IN THE FUCKING FUTURE we would know better.)
Let’s take a look at what Card has done here. The very first things we learn are our protagonist’s name – Nafai (and do note the similarity to Nephi, a significant character in the Book of Mormon, though I don’t know enough about the BOM to fully evaluate how close this parallel is; nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out) – and that the culture in which our characters live is deeply gendered and deeply essentialist. We may also note that, seeing how this is literally what he opens the book with, Card intends to be addressing gender in a significant way in this book.
Now, because this chapter is from Nafai’s perspective I could be charitable and assume this is only meant to represent Nafai’s understanding of Basilican cultural attitudes rather than being a statement by Card about the real world. Let’s keep reading and see how long that holds up.
Immediately after this paragraph, Nafai flashes back to a conversation he overheard between his mother Rasa and her friend Dhelembuvex, about the subject of getting him an “auntie”. Rasa thinks he’s too young and there’s no reason to do it until Nafai himself expresses any interest; her friend thinks that ‘people are beginning to wonder’ why he hasn’t got one already and that he wouldn’t mention that interest to his mother. Seriously:
” ‘There’s time enough for aunties and mates and all that business when he starts thinking about it himself.’ [said Rasa]
‘Oh, he’s thinking about it already,’ said Dhel. ‘He’s just not talking to you about it.’ ” (page 9)
In case you haven’t picked up on this yet (OMG IT’S SO SUBTLE), an “auntie” is an older woman to whom a young man is assigned for purposes of sexual edification, which is apparently a formalised and standardised practice in this society (which is strange even before you consider they use a familial term to refer to these sex tutors; ick). And apparently fourteen is old enough that people are wondering why he hasn’t got one already? I really think there’s only one thing to say to Card here; Officer Pear, do the honours:
Nafai’s reaction to this is to blush in embarrassment, but he thinks to himself that she’s totally right and all boys think about sex constantly (he wonders for a moment how he managed to give this away to Dhelembuvex, before realising he didn’t, she just “knows men”). Gender-essentialism ho! (also this is a myth) Once again, this is kind of reasonable given Nafai grew up in this heavily essentialist society, but I don’t necessarily get the impression Card himself makes that distinction. On the other hand, I do think we’re supposed to read Nafai as being a bit naive here, as we’ll see in the next few paragraphs, so it’s not necessarily true that the character’s views are Card’s own.
This excerpt, though, you have to see to believe:
“But I’m not like all the others, thought Nafai. I hear Mebbekew and his friends talking, and it makes me sick. I don’t like thinking of women that crudely, sizing them up like mares to see what they’re likely to be useful for. A pack animal or can I ride her? Is she a walker or can we gallop? Do I keep her in the stable or bring her out to show my friends?
“That wasn’t the way Nafai thought about women at all. Maybe because he was still in school, still talking to women every day about intellectual subjects. I’m not in love with Eiadh because she’s the most beautiful young woman in Basilica and therefore quite probably in the entire world. I’m in love with her because we can talk together, because of the way she thinks, the sound of her voice, the way she cocks her head to listen to an idea she doesn’t agree with, the way she rests her hand on mine when she’s trying to persuade me.”
Where to begin with this? Oy vey. Again I’m not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take this, because this is filtered through Nafai’s perspective and the second paragraph is clearly hyperbole and meant to read like an overdramatic teenage crush. What I would like to note is that I think Nafai’s protesting a bit too much here; as far as I know all the metaphors in the first paragraph comparing women to horses were Nafai’s own, never mind the fact he thinks that isn’t the way he thinks about women. Of course these could have been inspired by quotes from Mebbekew (one of Nafai’s older half-brothers; this is the first we learn of him), but I don’t think it reads that way. I think it reads like Nafai coming up with the horse comparison and, feeling a bit proud of the idea, seeing how far he can take it (while putting the blame on Mebbekew so as not to feel badly about it). This actually might be a decent portrayal of cognitive dissonance, though again I don’t think it’s meant that way, as we’ll see once we meet Mebbekew later.
Let us also note that Nafai is slut-shaming his brother. Card, when we say we want equality, that doesn’t mean to take all of the ways society mistreats women and do them to men too! What is this, the gender version of ‘Harrison Bergeron’?
And for the second paragraph – as I said before, I think it’s supposed to read like a teenage crush, or like limerence (they’re very closely related), and I don’t think it’s too unrealistic a portrayal of that kind of melodramatic thinking. It’s also a very good example of Nice Guy thought processes, putting the woman on a pedestal without really understanding or even thinking of her as a human being. Once again I think Nafai is protesting too much here, and objectifying Eiadh for her intelligence at the same time as he’s using his appreciation of her intelligence to reassure himself that he isn’t one of those Horrible Objectifying Sexual Horndog Guys like his brother (“I’m so special because I don’t want sex with her but I totally want sex with her and think about it all the time!”). For better or worse, this is a thought process I recognise and I actually think Card’s represented it pretty well here.
That said, I really don’t think I’m going to like Nafai very much.
Nafai actually shows a bit of sense here; he realises that it doesn’t make sense to lie abed daydreaming about Eiadh when he could be going to see her instead, and gets out of bed to begin his morning ablutions. Then we get this:
“He sat up, knelt beside his mat, slapped his bare thighs and chest and offered the pain to the Oversoul, then rolled up his bed and put it in his box in the corner. I don’t really need a bed, thought Nafai. If I were a real man I could sleep on the floor and not mind it. That’s how I’ll become as hard and lean as Father. As Elemak. I won’t use the bed tonight.” (page 10)
There are a few things to comment on here. We are clearly in major toxic masculinity territory here – men in this society worship by self-flagellation, and Nafai is berating himself for daring to sleep on a mat instead of the bare ground because it makes him seem less tough. Just wait; it’s going to get worse – we’re going to meet Elemak shortly. And speaking of Elemak, he’s Nafai’s eldest half-brother and Volemak’s (their father’s) eldest son. Do note also the similarities between the names Elemak and Laman (another Book of Mormon reference). The reason I point that out is because the series isn’t remotely subtle about this (a few books down the line we will have these two brothers leading feuding factions named after them, so keep in mind the parallel to Nephites and Lamanites in the BOM). I’m not sure about other parallels but those two are absolutely impossible to miss.
As an aside, I will admit I do like how Card’s introduced the reader to Nafai’s brothers by having him think about them offhand before we meet them; it’s a very good way of establishing that he has brothers, and that they loom large in his life. It’s natural for people to think about their family members, and while this might be a bit heavy-handed (Nafai looks down on Mebbekew for his womanising, and admires Elemak for his toughness, and the first time he thinks about either subject he immediately name-drops a brother mentally) I think it works. See, if I drop in the occasional compliment like this it shows I’m not just looking for things to hate!
What follows this bit is a rather strange scene; it’s not particularly badly written, but strange is about the only way I can describe it.
We learn that the “shower” (which bears little resemblance to what most modern people would take that word to mean) is apparently in a courtyard, onto which multiple of the brothers’ bedrooms open directly. There is no mention of Nafai removing his clothes, so I have to presume he sleeps naked (I often wonder whether Card has a fetish; he spent a lot of time in Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow lovingly describing how the boys at Battle School slept naked and often ran through the hallways naked, etc etc); there is then a description of how this shower works. He goes to a “water tank”, where he soaps his entire body, then has to pull a cord at which point a deluge of “ice-cold” water will be dumped on him for about thirty seconds. Nafai hesitates pulling the cord, and his brother Issib “floats” out of his room and mocks Nafai over it.
This serves as our introduction to the last brother, Issib (who is Nafai’s full brother and Rasa’s oldest child; he’s the closest brother in age to Nafai). Issib has a physical disability (the narration, and Nafai, both call him “a cripple”; ugh), which is left ambiguous at this point (I can’t remember if it’s elaborated on later). He requires the aid of devices called “floats” to move, which apparently allow him to hover.
Anyway, witty banter ensues (or at least I assume it’s meant to be read as such; I honestly think it comes off as a bit mean-spirited). Issib mocks Nafai over his hesitation, Nafai responds by bringing up Issib’s disability (apparently, the floats cannot get wet, so Issib is given sponge baths instead of using this system), and it goes on from there.
Nafai eventually pulls the cord, and proceeds to scramble to make sure the water gets all the soap off him before time runs out (if he fails, apparently he will either have to wait some time for the tank to refill so he can repeat this process, or let the remaining soap dry on him and become itchy). WHO DESIGNED THIS SHOWER SYSTEM? Anyway, he apparently has a routine way of doing this, which Issib mocks (“I love watching that dance you do” – THIS IS CREEPY, CARD) and then describes in graphic detail, to Nafai’s embarrassment. Then he suggests recording it for wider consumption, and when Nafai protests that theatres wouldn’t want to show that kind of material, says “You’d still be a hit in Dolltown!” (presumably the Basilican equivalent of a red-light district, though that’s only implied). Is it just me, or is this all disturbingly incestuous? What kind of brothers talk to each other like this? What kind of brothers routinely watch each other shower?
We go from this shower-related creepiness into more shower-related creepiness! You see, Nafai thinks that the way a person returns to their room after showering is an essential part of performing masculinity. Don’t believe me? Here you go:
“By now Nafai had toweled himself dry – except his hair, which was still freezing cold. He wanted to run for his room the way he used to do when he was little, jabbering nonsense words – ‘ooga-booga looga-booga’ had been a favorite – while he pulled on his clothes and rubbed himself to get warm. But he was a man now, and it was only autumn, not winter yet, so he forced himself to walk casually toward his room. Which is why he was still in the courtyard, stark naked and cold as ice, when Elemak strode through the gate.” (pages 11-12)
This kid is obsessed with performing masculinity; he basically thinks about nothing else. Then again, I think Card is too; quite a lot of this series has to do with an idea that there is a right and wrong way to perform masculinity, and that this is tied up with a man’s inherent moral worth. I’ll be talking about that more in a bit, but in the meantime, it’s time to meet Elemak.
Elemak walks in, proclaims that he’s been gone for 128 days, and immediately begins stripping and walking toward the shower. While doing so, he talks nonchalantly about how he thinks he killed a man on the expedition he’s just returned from – he was escorting a caravan to purchase rare plants from some exotic locale or other (we’ll soon learn this is the family business, selling rare plants) and they were ambushed by robbers, so Elemak fired a hunting weapon called a ‘pulse’ and saw one of them go down. Nafai is appalled that Elemak would use a hunting weapon against a person while Elemak thinks nothing of it.
In an obviously deliberate parallel to the bit I just quoted, we now get this (if I have to read this, so do you):
“Elemak pulled the shower cord before he soaped. The moment the water hit him he yowled, and then did his own little splash dance, shaking his head and flipping water all over the courtyard while jabbering ‘ooga-booga looga-booga’ just like a little kid.
“It was all right for Elemak to act that way. He was twenty-four now, he had just got his caravan safely back […] and he might actually have killed a robber on the way. No one could think of Elemak as anything other than a man. Nafai knew the rules. When a man acts like a child, he’s boyish, and everyone’s delighted; when a boy acts the same way, he’s childish, and everyone tells him to be a man.” (page 12)
Let’s keep in mind, here, that the context of this statement is two or three boys standing around naked (it isn’t mentioned whether or not Issib is clothed) judging each other for how they shower. I can sort of see what Card’s trying to do, in using an everyday situation to establish character, but this really doesn’t work; it comes across as pretty forced to me, not to mention that once again I’m boggling at Card’s weird propensity to write about naked boys.
There’s this weird tone of simultaneous awe and revulsion from Nafai toward Elemak, and this will continue throughout the story. I think this mirrors how the book wants us to look at masculinity – a virtue to aspire to, except when it’s taken too far (though at this point I don’t think it’s saying Elemak has done so, and the line of ‘too far’ is deliberately hazy). It’s a pretty good expression of how toxic masculinity works, actually, except these books hold that up as an aspirational ideal rather than being sensible and saying to hell with the whole rotten system.
So let’s have a brief digression and talk about Aristotle. No, I’m not joking; let’s talk about Aristotle. The Aristotle who believed men and women had different numbers of teeth because he couldn’t be bothered to talk to a woman and check? Yes, that Aristotle. Bear with me here, I swear it will be relevant.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines virtue in a very interesting way. To Aristotle, virtues exist on a spectrum, and what we call a virtue is in actuality the balance between two competing and opposite vices. The characteristic example he gives is ‘courage’, which he defines as the ideal point between the extremes of cowardice and rashness. There are a few other examples in the text also, but I think that’s the best one to illustrate the idea. (For the record, I don’t necessarily agree with the Aristotelian definition of virtue, I just think it’s an interesting framework, and that it could be useful here to understand how people like Card think about gender expression.)
I think Card and his fellow gender-essentialists view gender expression in an Aristotelian way. What I’m not yet sure about – and one of the things I hope to uncover as we go through this book – is what sort of spectrum Card advocates. It’s clear from the text that this ideal of masculinity exists on a spectrum from insufficiently masculine on the one hand and hypermasculine on the other, with the ideal somewhere in between; we have yet to see where femininity would fit on this spectrum (e.g. whether femininity would be part of the same spectrum as an extreme beyond insufficient masculinity, or whether it’s a different spectrum entirely; that said, I don’t think everyone who advocates this kind of view of gender agrees on that, either).
Anyway, it’s already clear to me that in this paradigm the ‘proper’ or ‘virtuous’ type of masculinity is a tightrope balance between insufficiency and extreme (so far we’ve seen this with respect to both stoicism and brutality, I’m sure we’ll see more also).
In any case, let’s keep Aristotle in mind as we read Card; I think this will prove useful later also. End of digression, back to the story.
Let’s do a brief thought-experiment here. Let’s take Nafai at his word that people admire childish behaviour in men who have previously established their manhood sufficiently to get away with it. Is THIS really a good example to use to establish the principle? (Maybe shouting and making a spectacle and throwing water all over the place to create a mess someone else might have to clean up is a good example of the kind of inconsiderate behaviour toxic masculinity leads to, but I don’t think that’s the interpretation Card intended at all.)
(Aside: if the gender essentialists were right, performing gender wouldn’t be so much fucking work; that’s what it means for something to be an inherent characteristic. The fact that Card writes Nafai as so preoccupied by this and constantly working at it actually works against the point he’s trying to make.)
Also, this scene won’t bloody end, and we’re just about halfway through the chapter. Fuck me. Why did I decide to do this again?
I can’t take this any more. This has covered about half the chapter and I’ll do the rest in the next post; there’s only so much of this shit I can handle. See you next time in part two.
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