My problem with Dangerous Women

Warning: some spoilers for one story in Dangerous Women.

When I saw, last December, that an entire mixed-genre anthology of stories called Dangerous Women was coming out, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, I was really excited. Here’s the promise of the anthology, from Dozois’ introduction:

Here you’ll find no hapless victims…you will find sword-wielding women warriors, intrepid women fighter pilots and far-ranging spacewomen, deadly female serial killers, formidable female superheroes, sly and seductive femmes fatale, female wizards, hard-living bad girls, female bandits and rebels, embattled survivors in post-apocalyptic futures, female private investigators, stern female hanging judges, haughty queens who rule nations and whose jealousies and ambitions send thousands to grisly deaths, daring dragonriders, and many more.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Equally impressive to me was the lineup of authors, 11 women and 9 men (yay!), many of whom I recognized as respected sci-fi or fantasy authors. I was really psyched when I received the 784-page hardcover for Christmas. I’d been cruising through books during the break, and I anticipated devouring this one pretty quickly.

Instead, I read the first 5 stories or so and came away pretty happy, but had to go back to school. Since then, I’ve gotten about halfway through the book, but it often felt like a chore to pick up, so I decided to put it away for a while.  However, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about why I’m so underwhelmed by it. The writing has been pretty good so far (I particularly enjoyed Jim Butcher’s “Bombshells” as a fan of his Harry Dresden books, as well as Carrie Vaughn’s “Raisa Stepanova”), but I can’t help feeling that it hasn’t lived up to the promise I thought it held.

Dozois’ introduction is pretty accurate, by the way, as is the title. Each story has featured one or more Dangerous Women, and they have been wizards, bandits, fighter pilots, seductresses, serial killers, and more. These characters all have an interesting idea behind them. The problem, as far as I have been able to figure it, is that many of the authors were so focused on making their women Dangerous that they forgot to make them sympathetic, empowered, or real.

[And no, not every female character needs to be sympathetic or empowered, but so many aren’t (the sympathetic + empowered combination is particularly rare) that I was really hoping that a book specifically centered around women would have more of them.]

From what I can tell from the stories I’ve read and flipping through the others, 8 of the 20 stories are written at least half from a male character’s perspective (6 of them are entirely male POV). I don’t want to go all quantitative in this post, because I think female characters can be interesting and important without being the narrators, or without saying a word, but this is still more than I was expecting for this anthology. I think the narrative point of view in written fiction is really important because it gives the reader a sense of identity through which to experience the action of the story. This is one thing I really like about George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; by writing from many characters’ perspectives, he forces you to form a more nuanced opinion of all the characters than you would get from just reading from one side. If you only read Catelyn Stark’s POV for the first few books, not only would you miss out on a lot of the plot, you would probably think of the Lannisters as unforgivable, scheming monsters who all deserve to die. But when you read chapters from Tyrion’s, Jaime’s, or Cersei’s perspective, you appreciate that there is much more to them than what everyone thinks of them (definitely not all good, but very interesting nonetheless).

Unfortunately, the male POV stories in Dangerous Women have a tendency to Other the eponymous women. They are dangerous, but composed of stereotypes rooted in male fears about female power. The femme fatale, for instance, makes several appearances in these stories and is often problematic. I would have fun reading a female perspective on seduction, seeing how a woman decides to use her body, her voice, her posturing to manipulate and ensnare. Unfortunately, a male perspective on the same idea has been done so many times that the woman comes across as more of a plot device, an obstacle for the male hero to overcome (or fail to overcome), an excuse for his moral failings. SPOILERS FOR ONE OF THE STORIES FROM HERE TO THE END OF THE PARAGRAPH. One male protagonist who encounters a seductress asks, “how much real choice did I have in the matter once she’d gone and laid her hand on my arm?” This comes near the end of a story about how the protagonist has been sexually manipulated by his mother, then by another man’s trophy wife who wants him to kill her husband, and who he strangles to death in order to find sexual release. It’s implied that he’s done this before. “No hapless victims,” indeed.

I guess in short, I’m disappointed with a lot of these stories because they fall into the Strong Female Characters trap of being “strong” without also being complex. (That link goes to Kate Beaton’s hilarious comic “Hark, A Vagrant!”, specifically to her take on the subject. It’s a better explanation than I would be able to give.) Hopefully, the rest of the stories in the book are better, and I’ve just been spoiled recently by Morrison’s Sethe and Denver (Beloved is a Dangerous Woman for sure), LeGuin’s Lavinia, and Walker’s Shug and Celie. On the other hand, reading about interesting, flawed, multi-dimensional women shouldn’t be exceptional, and it should be pretty damn near required for an anthology about female characters.

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