Feminism and Unicorn Magic

I’ve been a lazy blogger since coming back from vacation. probably because I haven’t been lazy in any other aspect of my life. We’re doing a lot of redecoration Chez Diana, I had houseguests, and I’m super busy with the draft of PAP. The blog, she suffers. However, I recently ran across a review of Rampant that reminded me of somethign I wanted to write about here: worldbuilding, sexual politics, and variations on a theme.

This review of Rampant by Aimee of To the Wolves, in which the reader is very interested in talking about the sexual politics of the novel (minor spoilers if you click through to the actual and more comprehensive review, but not here):

“Peterfreund remains faithful to the unicorn folklore that states that only virgins can tame them, and I loved how she used this; in the hands of a lesser writer, it’s the kind of thing that could potentially make me want to throw a book across the room.  The topic of sex and virginity in YA novels can always be counted on to get folks raging on all sides of the sexual politics spectrum.  Peterfreund’s unicorn characters are all discovering their powers – and how conditional they are – right at a point in their lives where they’re also discovering their sexuality, and deciding what they want out of their relationships with boys, and the confusion that all this causes is pitch-perfect.”

What is interesting to me is that as I see the different reader responses to Rampant, this issue seems to be the most polarizing. I’ve seen readers praise the approach and really dig into the ramifications of what happens to the characters and I’ve seen readers metaphorically (and perhaps physically, I don’t know) throw the book across the room.

My point of view on the subject, as it pertains to Astrid’s story in particular, is that the configuration of a unicorn hunter’s magic is something that we, in today’s society, would view as particularly misogynistic. In many ways, it mirrors the unbalanced valuation system that our society places on female virginity as defined, at times confusingly, by heterosexual sexual intercourse. It is young girls –not young boys — who are taken to “purity balls” and told that their virginity, specifically, is a precious gift. There are also a lot of young people today who are led to believe that “everything but” vaginal intercourse is a virginity-preserving option. Even as a teen, I knew people who would have anal sex in order to “preserve their virginity.” It’s rather bizarre, if you think about it. It doesn’t really have any benefits, either in the “physical intimacy” or the “disease” spheres. It’s an entirely artificial construct based around this definition of “virginity” (that the book’s magic mirrors).

As an abstinent teen, I dealt with a lot of the same questions and criticisms that Astrid does; this idea that a teenager (and especially a teenage girl) is not capable of making her own decisions on the subject, and must be shielded or kept ignorant of her options or terrified. The system in place trains people to think that teens aren’t capable of making this choice themselves without some outside force like shame or religion or etc motivating them. I don’t think that gives teens enough credit. Like me as a teen, Astrid just knows she’s not ready to have sex yet, and she really shouldn’t have to explain that to anyone. I also thought it was important that the different hunters have different reasons for the choices they make — and that all of these reasons are valid as well. If Rosamund chooses to remain abstinent because of her religious beliefs, that’s every bit as valid as Phil or Astrid choosing abstinence without the help of God.

The flip side of this is that the idea of abstinence has become such a polarized one that a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to it. If I discuss abstinence, that means I’m trying to control the minds of teenage girls and teach them that their desire for sex (if they have it) is evil and wrong. I have gotten this reaction to my book as well. I think sometimes, it’s because magical powers are so often presented as being the ultimate “good” in fantasy novels. It’s better to have magical powers than not to have magical powers. Therefore, the argument goes, it’s better to behave in a way that allows you to have magical powers. And therefore, the author is making the argument that this behavior is the better one.

Am I? That decision is, of course, up to the reader. Not everyone who reads my book is going to come to this website and listen to me say, “Oh, wow, no! The magic in Rampant sucks! It’s misogynistic and antifeminist!” I either succeeded in getting that across in the book to that particular reader, or I didn’t. I am interested to see how the opinion changes, however, when they read Ascendant this fall. (Or perhaps not, as I don’t think it likely that most folks who disliked Rampant will continue with the series.)

At the same time, that’s Astrid’s story, which is very much concerned with the role of the woman in today’s society and today’s sexual politics. In Ireland last year, a discussion with my soon-to-be editor Holly Black on this exact topic led me to challenge myself to write a story set in my world that wasn’t about those topics. The result is “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn,” in this fall’s Zombies vs. Unicorns, in which there is nothing about sexual politics whatsoever.

Later, fresh from finishing Ascendant, and in need of a breather, I took an entirely different tack on the world. If the magic is misogynistic in today’s society, what might it be in another society? In more ancient times, institutional virginity or the perception of it (Vestal Virgins, Catholic nuns, Queen Elizabeth I) was actually a form of feminine freedom. Retired Vestal Virgins had rights that no other woman in Rome did. Catholic nuns were some of the only female intellectuals of the European middle ages. Queen Elizabeth consolidated her power by not marrying a foreign head of state. Depending on the configuration of society, could a unicorn hunter actually have more freedom than the alternative? The result of that trail of inquiry is “Errant” my first historically-set story and my contribution to July’s Kiss Me Deadly anthology.

I have been thinking a lot about how different the three stories I have coming out this year are. They each explore a facet of a world I built for the purposes of one particular story — Astrid’s story. But as different as she and her situation are, Astrid has a lot in common with Wen, Gitta, and Elise, and I hope that I do each of them justice as young women who are trying to make the best choices they can for themselves.

Posted in anthologies, feminism, motivation, short stories, story, unicorns, vainglory, writing life, YA

6 Responses to Feminism and Unicorn Magic

  1. Jo Treggiari says:

    Fascinating blog, Diana.
    I find it so interesting that on issues which polarize people like celibacy and virginity, one can find support for vastly contrasting personal beliefs in the same book.
    So the abstainers can pick up Rampant and point and say : “there, there, see” and so can the opposite side of the spectrum. It’s all in the perception.
    I think you did a great job of writing teen characters who are complex and ask questions and make their own decisions based on what they feel is right for them.

  2. PurpleRanger says:

    Your use of the phrase “retired Vestal Virgins” brought up a couple of questions. How long did Vestal virgins have to serve, and once their term of service was over, did they have to stay virgins?

  3. Diana says:

    Vestal Virgins served for 30 years: ten years of training, ten years of serving, and ten years of teaching new vestals. Afterwards, they were free to marry if they wished, though few did, as vestals, alone among all Roman women, were free from patria potestas, which means that they had the right to vote and to own property. They would lose this if they married and become the property of their husbands.

  4. Aimee says:

    Thanks for this post, and for the link to mine.

    I think you’re absolutely right about the powers that be in our culture assuming that teens can’t make their own decisions about sexuality, and one of the things that struck me about Rampant was that Astrid (and Phil) seemed for the most part to be making informed decisions about her own sexuality and sex life *despite* the whole unicorn hunter thing. I didn’t think you were making an argument one way or the other about the “better” behaviour, which I think contributes to Rampant’s power.

    Astrid’s voice on the topic of her own sexual wants rang very honest to me, and reading your post here makes me realise why. I’m not sure if it’s kosher for one feminist to say to another “hey, you wrote something without an agenda, woo!”, but what I feel as a reader of YA fiction, and as a professional youth librarian, is that there’s been a lot of YA published in the past that’s very much has an instructional slant (not just the obvious “issues novels”, either), and I do feel like some of it’s still being published. And of course, books don’t get written in a vaccuum, so the author and the society they’re a part of come into it too.

    Anyway, once again I am dangerously close to writing an essay about something you’ve written, so I’ll leave it there. 🙂

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  6. alaska. says:

    i loved that the book gave you such a fascinating way to deal with sexual politics in such an inventive way. it’s a topic that is constantly present in the lives of teens, and to ignore it i think is not doing justice to what teens think.

    what i loved best was that i felt there wasn’t any particular pressure either way – in that phil is secure in herself as a virgin, and astrid isn’t always. the message i see strongest is that self-confidence doesn’t require a boyfriend or “putting out”. it’s a sense of self.

    and i agree that it sucks that only virgins can be unicorn hunters – but i think phil’s arc kind of tells the whole story of that. because so many different stories and perspectives on sexuality and virginity are presented through the characters, i think anyone who considers feminist thought can be happy.

    at least, i am happy to recommend it because it encourages teens to think – not just about having sex, but the repercussions of sex. it does change things (and you). but it doesn’t have to be the end. phil proves that and astrid does as well.