by Doctor Science
My mother and I have very little overlap in our fiction tastes: she finds SF & F fundamentally baffling, I find most literary fiction soporifically unimaginative. She recently asked me if I'd heard of Elena Ferrante's novels, and I said of course, but they're not the sort of thing I read.
She tried to read My Brilliant Friend and gave up partway through, saying it was too much like a fairy tale. I *like* re-imagined fairy tales, but the Wikipedia summary of My Brilliant Friend sounds like a canon Mary Sue, which I don't like.
Have any of you read Ferrante? Do you think it's *intended* to be a fairy-tale re-write?
I'm also going to talk a bit about why I don't like canon Mary Sues, so those of you who had trouble with my explanation for Hillary Hate can get a better understanding of what internalized misogyny is like. Yes, in me.
From the Wikipedia summary:
The bigger surprise is Lila though, who despite being a very troublesome girl is an unprecedented learner. Seemingly without even trying to she learns to read better than anyone else in a much shorter time. … Lila occupies herself with her father's shoe shop. Much to his irritation she dreams of designing new types of shoes to make them rich. In parallel, she grows very beautiful, attracting most of the neighborhood's young men …My mom explains that Lila's shoe designs are the most beautiful ever seen, the pinnacle of Italian shoe-ness, and her wedding is also the most beautiful ever seen. Also, she is 15 years old.
Now as Mom says, this is basically a fairy tale. Is it Rumpelstilskin? Cinderella? Something characteristically Sicilian? I said I knew a lot of people who read (and write!) modern versions of fairy tales, but they generally are playing off them in some way, changing or critiquing the old stories in a way that's fresh and/or ironic. Mom says, "No-one is talking about Ferrante that way, and I'm not going to read 3 volumes to find out whether it's ironic." So she gave the book away "to one of my friends who likes that sort of thing."
My gut reaction was that it sounds like an over-the-top Mary Sue, where the teenage heroine basically gets all the cool abilities and qualities the author wants to have, and I rolled my eyes to think a darling of the litfic crowd was like that. But in thinking about it more, I realize I'm wrong, and also wrong.
I'm wrong because the Mary Sue is a *self*-insert (e.g. Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, created by Gene Wesley Roddenberry). Clearly Lila, the "Brilliant Friend", isn't the "self" of the novels: Elena, the character writing the story, is the self-insert for the author "Elena Ferrante" (itself a pseudonym). Lila is someone we're looking at, not someone we're identifying with; she is the Other, the Hero to our Protagonist.
And I'm also wrong because Lila's talents aren't over-the-top for fiction. Imagine that this was a novel about two Italian boys, growing up in the 1950s. Emilio is writing the story; Luca is his friend, multi-talented and exceptionally good-looking, chafing against the restraints of their society. Of *course* I'd accept that as the premise for a story (even if not to my taste, given that it includes neither swords nor space ships), and not think Luca ridiculously over-the-top for fictional purposes. On the contrary, I wouldn't be surprised to see such a novel on high school reading lists or chosen for college courses: in many ways, it's perfectly conventional. (And also: a lot of people would write Luca/Emilio slash, especially once there was a movie/TV series.)
So why do I have this gut reaction that Lila is too much for my suspension of disbelief? That, my friends, is what we call internalized misogyny: when the cultural premise that women just aren't as good as men has soaked into a woman's mind. Over the years, I've learned to fight against most of the obvious, outward expressions of internalized misogyny, but the one that says "a boy can be super-special but a girl can't" turns out to be really deep-seated and hard for me to shake.
When I examine my own reactions, I realize that I *can* accept super-special female characters--if the story is based on a fairy tale. If My Brilliant Friend were a re-imagined fairy tale of the sort that's currently very popular in sf & fantasy, I wouldn't have trouble. It's as though the label "fairy tale" protects me from misogynistic cynicism, that says "girls don't get to be good at all those things, that's ridiculous".
When I talk about misogyny as the root of Hillary Hatred, or when Elizabeth Daley talks about how it helped Trump win, this is what we mean: not a conscious, seething, obvious hatred toward women, but the messages in the cultural air we breathe that say "not as good, not as important", that become part of your thinking on a level below normal thought. If you're not conscious of your own misogyny (whatever your gender) that doesn't mean you're free of it; more likely, it means you haven't worked very hard to dig it out. This stuff is deep, and will take generations to get rid of.