Monday, April 2, 2012

Queendom Come

Flowers in the Mirror (鏡花緣), written in the early 1800s, is now broadly considered a classic of satire--a kind of Chinese Gulliver's Travels. It critiqued bureaucracy, racism, and patriarchy, among other things, all while telling a charming Odyssey-esque tale of adventure in unknown lands. As a proto-geek growing up with little access to modern sci-fi and fantasy (except through Japanese animation), I adored that book.

Women playing go. Surely the patriarchy is doomed!
The protagonists' journey to the 'Country of Women' left an especially deep impression on my young mind. The Country of Women was much like dynastic China, but with all the gender roles reversed. Women wore masculine clothing, owned property, conducted business, and waged war. Men wore feminine clothing, did housework, had few rights, and generally submitted to their women.

Inevitably, the female King takes a liking to one of the male protagonists, and insists on marrying him. Held captive in the royal palace, he is forcibly prepared for his wedding. Servants scrub him clean, pumice away his callouses, pierce his ears, bind his feet, and so on. Eventually, one of his companions secures his release by performing a task for the King, but not before the man-bride-to-be is thoroughly humbled.

Even as a child, I found the message fairly self-evident: it is unjust to treat an entire sector of society as lesser beings. By then, Chinese society had long since abolished practices like foot-binding, and no longer treated women as chattel. Common wisdom, however, still regarded women as the weaker sex. Parents hoped for sons and lamented daughters, and my grandmother was seen as uncommonly courageous--but probably foolish--for leaving her husband.

My own life was full of strong, independent, and educated women. My grandmother was a voracious reader, and would have gone to university if not for the Chinese civil war. My aunt was a teacher--the most respected profession in Chinese tradition. My mother went to the ROC Military Academy, ran marathons, and regularly jumped out of 'perfectly good airplanes' (as my father liked to say).

So it seemed obvious to me from a very young age that viewing women as 'lesser' than men was patently ridiculous. Yet whenever I pointed this out--even to the strong women in my life--I was dismissed. It seemed as though adults regarded the whole idea of equality between the sexes as a non-issue either because it was unattainable, or already attained. In other words, they accepted the status quo, sexism and all.

I thought that things would be different when I came to the States, the land of promise that so many in Taiwan believed it to be. Americans talk a big game about gender equality and love to politicize it, but there is just as much sexism in the US as in Taiwan, if not more. Feminism is a far bigger phenomenon in the West, but as a movement it seems walled in by group politics.

The Nightsisters of Dathomir will kill your family in style.
Fictitious matriarchies have continued to fascinate me, not because I think it would be a good or bad idea in real life, but because they remind us to reexamine social constructs that we take for granted. Most of these matriarchies--the Amazons of Greek legend, the Drow of Dungeons and Dragons, Angel One in Star Trek, Dathomir and Hapes in Star Wars, et al.--are dystopian to some degree. Some serve to point out the injustice of sexist patriarchies, and others are in themselves sexist commentaries  on the dangers of giving women power.

Because I cannot keep up with the sociological theories or jargon of women's studies, I hesitate to call myself a feminist. Nevertheless, I hold the same conviction now that I did when I first read about the Country of Women: that no society can be truly just until it sees its members as people first. Everything else--tall, short, male, female, yellow, white--merely serves as description.

No comments:

Post a Comment