Damsels in Distress vs. Distressed Dudes in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

There is a damsel in distress at the top of that tower, next to a villain. He’s threatening to burn her alive.

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

The basic feminist objection to the ‘damsel in distress’ trope is that it treats female characters as passive possessions for male protagonists to ‘win’ or ‘take back’. For a much more in-depth feminist critique, there is of course the Tropes vs. Women video series on Damsel in Distress (though this series focuses on video games, the critique can be extended to other media).

When a male character is in distress and needs rescue, it’s called Distressed Dude, though unlike the Damsel in Distress trope, it is not the default for a Distressed Dude to be rescued by a female character, and he is much less likely to be treated as a possession/prize.

Though perhaps I do not know Chinese mythology/classic literature well enough to make this claim, it seems to be that the damsel in distress trope is not nearly as engrained there as in European-derived cultures. That’s not to say that it’s unheard of in Sinophone stories/literature/etc. it’s merely less frequent

Miss Qu clearly has a cognitive disability, possibly what is now called Down Syndrome. She is also, as this picture shows, a capable martial artist.

In Jin Yong stories, the vast majority of female characters are also capable martial artists. Old lady? Probably a capable martial artist. Princess who has been cloistered in the imperial palace for most of her life? Probably a capable martial artist. Girl who has a physical impairment, such as a lame foot? Probably a capable martial artist. It is so uncommon for a significant character of any gender to not be a martial artist in Jin Yong stories that, if a character is NOT a martial artist, that’s a notable feature.

Since the vast majority of female characters are martial artists, they often have some options other than wait for rescue if they end up in distress. If she does turn into a damsel in distress, it has to be explained usually by a) poison b) having her acupuncture points sealed and/or c) encountering superior force. These devices also often turn male characters into distressed dudes.

So yes, there are some damsels in distress in Jin Yong novels, and a female character who gets enough page space will probably need to be rescued at some point. But being a damsel in distress is rarely the defining feature of a female character, and male characters are just as likely to turn into distressed dudes.

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Again.

One of the few straight-up examples of damsel in distress I can recall is, in fact, Qiao Feng and Ah Zhu. It is worth noting that, earlier in the story, Ah Zhu had rescued a different male protagonist, Duan Yu, and that she rescues yet another male character’s life later in the story (I will discuss that more in the next part). First, he treated her wounds so she would not die right away, and then gets into a badass fight so that a certain doctor will agree to cure her – in fact, this happens to be one of my favorite episodes from the 1997 TV adaptation (which I am astonished to learn is available with English subtitles – content warning for suicide). Ah Zhu falls in love with Qiao Feng while he’s taking care of her, and after she is cured, she tells him that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him.

Wanyan Honglie and Bao Xiruo in the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of these rare examples of a significant female character who isn’t a martial artist is Bao Xiruo, and yes, she is a damsel in distress as well – but with a twist. In her case, Wanyan Honglie decided to marry her, but she was already married, so he arranged for her husband to be murdered and set it up so that he could go in and ‘rescue’ her. Even though Bao Xiruo does not love her Wanyan Honglie she feels obliged to marry him because she believes he had saved her life (also, as a young widow who isn’t even a martial artst, her alternative options were bad). This is like the ‘Western’ damsel in distress in that a woman is treated like a possession to be taken. However, the difference is that this is done by a villain instead of a hero, and the guy doing this is not presented in a sympathetic way.

In fact, off the top of my head, most of the examples of damsel in distress in Jin Yong stories I can think of are one of the following:

– the ‘rescuer’ has ulterior motives (example: Wanyan Honglie & Bao Xiruo)
– the damsel assumes the rescuer has ulterior motives, and refuses to cooperate (example: Shui Sheng & Di Yun)
– rescuer turns out to be a jerk so the damsel eventually leaves him (example: Yang Kang & Mu Nianci)
– due to Stockholm Syndrome, damsel does not want to be rescued (Wen Yi – to be fair, her ‘rescuers’ were more morally reprehensible than her captor, so she was effectively choosing the lesser evil)
– even though the damsel likes her rescuer, she refuses to pursue a romance with him because it goes against her principles (example: Yilin & Linghu Chong)
– even though the rescuer likes the damsel, he refuses to pursue a romance with her because it goes against his principles (example: Duan Yu & Mu Wanqing)
– damsel in distress is rescued by a mixed-gender team (example: Zhong Ling)
– damsel does not need rescuing because she is already free (example: Ren Yingying)
– damsel has already rescued male protagonist when he was in distressed dude mode, and will probably rescue him again later in the story (example: Huang Rong & Guo Jing) (and yes, I have plenty more to say about this)

Sometimes, the boy can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by himself, and the girl can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by herself, so the boy and the girl have to work together to save them.

In short, there is usually some element which is at least partially ‘subverting’ the trope. I put ‘subverting’ in quotations marks because what I mean is that the trope is not working as it typically does in Anglophone cultures, but if Chinese stories aren’t working the way one would expect them to work in Anglophone media, that’s not necessarily a subversion.

Even in the example of Qiao Feng trying to save Ah Zhu’s life, she’s not being treated as a prize for him to win, he does not take possession of her when her life is saved, and most of the other characters are really suspicious of his motives.

There is an edge here, namely, that the rescuers of the damsel in distress are often suspect. On one side of the edge, one could say that Jin Yong is implying that the guys who rescue damsels in distress in order to claim ownership over them are not much – or any – better than the guys who put them in distress in the first place (and in the case of Wanyan Honglie, it’s the very same guy); real heroes do not expect rewards from damsels they rescue beyond the satisfaction of seeing the damsel set free. This is my preferred interpretation, not only because it is the more female-friendly interpretation, but it actually more consistent with what is in the novels than the other side of the edge. And what is that other side of the edge? That if trying to rescue females is a suspicious act – what does that imply about the value of female lives?

Generally, I am satisfied with the way Jin Yong uses the damsel in distress trope, and do NOT consider it to be evidence of sexism or misogyny. I do not want female characters to be invincible, and it seems to me that he does not use the damsel in distress trope in a way which depicts females as being less capable than males, or which treats females as prizes. In particular, females do not seem to be more likely than male characters to need rescue, and to the extent it is treated as a way to claim possession of damsels, it is usually depicted as a bad thing.

So, if I do not think Jin Yong expresses sexism or misogyny in his use of damsels in distress, where do I think he expresses sexism and misogyny? Well, one of the places it comes out is where the female characters are saving the distressed dudes. I will explain how that works in Part 2.

The Valley of Life and Death: An Wuxia Novel with a Female Protagonist who May Be Aro-Ace

The cover of The Valley of Life and Death

I have found something amazing – an wuxia novel with a female protagonist who is not at all interested in romance. If you haven’t read as many wuxia novels as I have, you can’t appreciate just how amazing that is. It’s called The Valley of Life and Death (《生死谷》), by Zheng Feng (鄭丰). Did I mention that it’s amazing?

Anyway, before I continue, I’ll offer a brief overview of the story…

What Kind of Story Is This?

The story is set during the late Tang Dynasty (in the early 800s A.D.) when the imperial government of China is unstable.

Fei Ruoran is the daughter of a high-ranking minister. At the beginning of the story, she’s seven years old, and she’s friends with Wu Xiaohu, the bastard son of the prime minister. They are both captured, and thrust into a valley with about two hundred other children. They are trained in skills such as climbing and martial arts, and over the years, they have to pass the ‘three tests’. For example, the second test is that all of the surviving children are left in the valley for winter without food, and they will be kept there until only eight are still alive – and the most readily available source of food is each other’s bodies. Fei Ruoran and Wu Xiaohu just want to go home, but after years of being in that valley, will they be able to return?

If this sounds like The Hunger Games set in China in the Tang Dynasty, that’s because it sure feels like that (though, for what it’s worth, I think The Valley of Life and Death is better than The Hunger Games). in fact the preface specifically mentions that it’s like stories such as The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and The Drifting Classroom (and a few other examples which I don’t remember).

But Back to Talking about Fei Ruoran and Her Lack of Interest in Romance and Sex

The story starts when Fei Ruoran is seven years old, and (if one excludes the epilogue) ends when she is nineteen years old.

One would not expect a seven year old to be particularly interested in romance or sex, so at first, I had no idea that she would continue to be uninterested as a teenager, especially since this is an wuxia novel. As she grew older, I kept on expecting her to start showing interest in romance (though not necessarily sex because, again, this is wuxia), and it was not until the end that it turned out that, nope, she never becomes interested in romance at all in her entire life.

At the beginning of the novel, it seemed there would be two co-equal protagonists, Wu Xiaohu and Fei Ruoran, and that Wu Xiaohu (who is may) may even become the top protagonist. Thus, I was also surprised when Wu Xiaohu gradually became a less important character, and while he retained major character status all of the way to the end, the finale of the story is really about her, and not much about him. Though there are other wuxia novels centered on female protagonists (as well as Tiān​ Xiāng Piāo by Wolong Sheng in which the male protagonist dies halfway through the novel so the women who were in love with him are suddenly promoted to protagonist status)​​, this was still a pleasant surprise.

It is stated over and over again that Fei Ruoran only considers Wu Xiaohu to be a friend and a brother, and that she has no romantic feelings for him. At one point in the novel, (when she is about 15 years old IIRC) another character assumes she must have romantic feelings for Wu Xiaohu because she is so close to them, and she thinks that, not only is she certain that Wu Xiaohu feels like a brother to her, she does not even know what romance is. This is strongest evidence in the novel that Fei Ruoran may in fact be aromantic.

Zheng Feng’s afterword to the novel is very interesting, but I am just going to focus on the part where she talks about the lack of romance in the novel. She says in the afterword that she did try to work in a romance for Fei Ruoran, but it did not work, so it was taken out of the story. She also says, and this is a quote:

《生死谷》是我唯一一本沒有牽涉太多愛情的小說,大概因為我的人物都是整日在生死之間掙扎的殺手,愛情對他們來說,實在太過奢侈了吧?

The Valley of Life and Death is the only novel I’ve written which does not involve a lot of romance; that’s probably because the characters are all killers who spend the whole day struggling with matters of life and death; wouldn’t romance be too much of a luxury for them?

I am relieved that Zheng Feng put a question mark at the end of that sentence, indicating that she’s not really sure why there is not much romance. To me, and an aromantic, the explanation that they do not engage in romance because it’s a ‘luxury’ not make much sense. It could explain why they do not pursue romance, but it seems to me that alloromantic people will experience romantic feelings whether or not they can or want to pursue romance. Furthermore, since a lot of people compare this novel to The Hunger Games, I will say that the characters in The Hunger Games have even less opportunity to pursue romance, but that does not stop them.

For me, the most plausible explanation is that Fei Ruoran is simply aromantic. Especially since, unlike Katniss Everdeen, she never has anything to do with romance during her entire life.

At this point, I suppose I ought to say a few words about the major male characters, Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing. I don’t know what their sexual or romantic orientation is. They both develop strong feelings for a female character other than Fei Ruoran, and it is not clear whether or not these feelings ever become romantic or sexual. Furthermore, Tian Shaxing is never a viewpoint character, which makes this kind of thing harder to judge.

By the way, did I mention that this is a great novel, possibly my favorite novel that I’ve read in 2017 so far? I’d love it even if there was no sign of the protagonist being aro or ace.

Anyway, more about the implications of Fei Ruoran being aromantic.

A good portion of the novel is about Fei Ruoran trying very hard to protect/help/keep alive her friends Tian Shaxing and Wu Xiaohu. I do not want to spoil the novel, so I’m going to have to find a very vague way to say this … you know how some aro people feel like there alloromantic friends accept the benefits of being their friend without investing as much in the friendship as the aro person because they do not value the friendship as much? That arguably happens in this novel, in that Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing do not always invest as much in Fei Ruoran as she invests in them (again, my point would be clearer if I were more specific, but I do not want to spoil. If you can’t read Chinese but really want to know what I’m talking about, you can ask me and I will respond in the comments).

Unfortunately, I don’t think this counts as aro ace fiction.

Even though Fei Ruoran being aro ace makes way more sense to me than any other interpretation, and I will hella recommend this novel to anybody looking for an aro-friendly wuxia novel, I would not go so far as to put this on a list of fiction with aro ace characters. I don’t think fiction necessarily explicitly state that a character is aro or ace, nor do I think Word of Ace is necessary, but I think that, short of an explicit statement that a character is ace or aro, the experience of being ace and aro needs to be described clearly enough that it is recognizable. I think this novel is one step short of that, but it is still short of that. Thus, I would not, say, use it as an example for the ace tropes series.

That said, I will still see if any of the ace tropes described so far apply to this novel and … none of them apply.

Nonetheless, I am still super happy with this novel. And I would like to point out that I’ve have previously written about another Zheng Feng novel in the post A Novel Featuring a Non-Sexual/Non-Romantic Intimate Relationship, which goes to show that even Zheng Feng protagonists who do not seem to be aro or ace can have intense nonromantic personal relationships with someone of a different gender.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Content note: this post contains a satirical drawing of hypersexualized women, and a picture depicting sexual harassment.

The Geek Feminism Wiki lists two common criticisms of strong female characters as being:

– she still has to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness

– she will wear skimpy or fetishistic gear to fight in, and her battles and acts of heroism will be presented to the audience as erotic spectacles.

There are also the Hark! A Vagrant comics about strong female characters one and two which satirize ‘strong female characters’, including how they are visually presented for erotic appeal.

This is from Hark! A Vagrant!. I think the ‘strong female character’ in the lower left needs to move further to the left so that the audience can see her butt (yes I am being snarky).

If you want to see what the Geek Feminism Wiki and the Hark! A Vagrant comics are critiquing, satirizing, I put in the internet search ‘female marvel characters’ and one of the first hits was this this of the 10 strongest Marvel female characters. I will let you judge the pictures of those strong Marvel female characters for yourself. And here is an explanation of why contorting bodies to show the butt is an issue.

I’ve established in Part 1 that the first criticism about conforming to gender-normative standards of attractiveness definitely applies to the stories of Jin Yong. To the second criticism, I would add that it’s not just female fighters – even (strong) female characters who do not engage in combat are a lot more likely to be visually presented for prettiness than male characters.

The second criticism mainly applies to visual media – whereas Jin Yong novels are prose, not directly visual. But all of his novels have illustrations. Let’s see if this criticism applies to the illustrations.

All of the characters in this picture, including the baby, are female. That baby is SO DAMN CUTE that every adult who meets her wants her to be their daughter, so martial artists – both male and female – keep on kidnapping her and fighting each other over custody. In fact, the two adult women in this picture are about to have a martial arts match over who gets to be the baby’s guardian.

In the above illustration, none of the female characters are drawn in a particularly sexually exploitive way. However, one of them is a baby (and it would be very disturbing if a baby were presented in an erotic way), and the other two are in their 30s, a demographic of women which is less likely to be presented erotically. Furthermore, this is not a fight scene. So let’s look at an illustration of a younger woman in a fight scene:

Here is ‘Iron Hand’ He, who has an iron hook on her left arm, in the middle of a fight scene.

So, here we have a young woman in a fight scene, and she is not being shown in a way which is sexier than her male opponent (well, we get a better view of her face and feet, but that’s mainly because we see her front and his back). In all of the illustrations I’ve seen of female characters in fight scenes published with Jin Yong’s novels, I do not recall any which depicts her in a way which is more erotic than the male characters.

Let us look at yet another illustration from a Jin Yong novel – an illustration depicting sexual harassment.

Zhao Min does not want Zhang Wuji to touch her foot.

Even in this illustration depicting sexual harassment, the female character is not drawn in a particularly sexual way. (To be clear, I am merely saying that the *drawing* depicting this scene is not problematic – the scene itself is very problematic).

There is still the questions of Jin Yong adaptations. Generally, I would say that they do not VISUALLY present female character in a sexier way than the male characters. There is a bit of a double standard in the comic book adaptations by Tony Wong, but even those are mild compared to what would find by browsing the display window of an American comic book shop.

First, let’s see an example from a Marvel blockbuster movie. I typed ‘black widow fight’ into Youtube, and then looked at the first hit which was less than five minutes long – it’s this one from Iron Man 2 (I wanted to pick the first clip under 5 minutes so that I would not cherrypick the example). On the one hand, it’s not that bad in terms of depicting Black Widow as an erotic figure. If I were not critically examining it, it probably not bother me (or at least, not bother me much in isolation – if I kept on seeing stuff like this over and over in movie after movie, there would probably have a cumulative effect). However, her dress emphasizes her breasts and ‘sex appeal’ in way which the male characters’ clothes do not emphasize their sex appeal (not to mention the first bit where we see her take off her shirt and her naked leg).

Here is a fight scene from a TV adaptation which does not just feature any female character, but a female character who is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. The fight scene, however, is not an erotic display. (I do have problems with how this TV adaptation handles this fight scene, but they have nothing to do with sexism). I do not recall seeing any fight scenes from any TV adaptations of Jin Yong’s work which are any more erotic than this. Oh, and if you’re curious, yes the fight scene from that TV show clip is also depicted in an illustration from the original novel – the illustration of that fight scene looks like this:

There is the most beautiful woman in the world fighting a whole bunch of guys in a monastery. Even though she ultimately does not ‘win’ the fight, the fact that she holds out so long while she is badly outnumbered is very impressive.

If one really wants to know what this fight is like in the novel, here it is (note: I only took a quick look to make sure it’s the right scene, since I haven’t really read it I cannot tell whether or not this is a good translation).

Even in this scene (which pushes the sexy visuals envelope past what one would usually see in a Jin Yong TV show), there is a good look at the male character’s bare skin too.

Does this means that Jin Yong is not sexist after all? HECK NO! I think the lack of visual eroticism has less to do with respect for women, and more to do with Sinophone cultures’ general reluctance to put erotic visuals in mainstream media. Even in Taiwan – which, unlike some Sinophone societies, does not have government censorship of popular media – if one wants to see people shown in a visually erotic way (like the “Strong Female Characters” picture above), one has to turn to a) American media, b) Japanese media or c) go to the porn section. In Sinophone media, unlike American and Japanese media, there is not a continuum of mainstream-to-porn (or porn bleeding into mainstream, which is another way to look at it) – if it’s not explicitly intended to be porn, then it’s not going to be visually eroticized too much.

(Now I’m going to shift away from Jin Yong to Huang Yi. Just to be clear, Huang Yi is NOT Jin Yong)

I will say that in the works of Huang Yi, there is a discernible visual double standard between the illustrations of male and female characters (to see what I’m talking about, look at this, this, and this. Furthermore Wan Wan in the Cantonese language adaptation of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan has the most skin-exposing outfits of any major female character of an wuxia TV show I’ve seen. However, the other female character in that show seem to have clothing which is no more revealing than the clothes of their male counterparts. No Princess Leia in a slave outfit here!

Black Widow vs. Wan Wan: who has the more sexually -objectifying-aimed-at-male-gaze outfit?

(One can compare the dress of the male and female characters in this video of the theme song of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan, and yes, I like the theme song for the show quite a bit because it’s a very appropriate song for Kou Zhong, and it’s sung by the actor who plays Kou Zhong).

In short, Huang Yi is worse at this than Jin Yong, but Huang Yi is still mild compare to, say, Marvel Comics/Cinema.

There is something more going on here. Maybe you’ve noticed it already in all of these pictures and video clips. Namely, Jin Yong works (and even Huang Yi works) put relatively more emphasis on expressive parts of the female body, whereas Anglophone mainstream media puts relatively more emphasis on less expressive female body parts.

Here is a video which is just about the ‘beautiful women’ of just ONE Jin Yong TV adaptation, which then ranks six female characters from least to most beautiful. The fact that there is a lot more cataloguing of the beauty of Jin Yong’s female characters than the handsomeness of Jin Yong’s male characters says something. However, the body part which is most emphasized in catalogues is the FACE. In fact, we do not see much of the female characters’ other body parts.

If one goes back up to see the video showing Wan Wan, one also sees that it is mostly focused on her face. Even her dress – which shows a lot of skin for an wuxia outfit – is designed to emphasize her face, not her chest.

Yang Kang really likes Mu Nianci’s feet (this is from the 2008 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes).

In Sinophone cultures, generally when someone says a woman is beautiful, they mean that her face is beautiful. Besides the face, the parts of the body they are most likely to discuss are her hands and feet. One can see this in Jin Yong novels – for all that he emphasizes how beautiful his female characters are, he has very little to say about their breasts or butts.

Does it make a difference which body parts are emphasized for physical beauty? Yes, it does. Breasts and butts are not very expressive. One cannot learn much about how a person thinks or feels by looking at their breasts and butts. Thus, focusing on those areas ignores them as an agent. By contrast, faces give tons of information about a person’s feelings and state of mind. Hands can also be very expressive. Feet are not as expressive as hands, but more expressive than breasts and butts. Thus, when one is mostly looking at the face (and to lesser extent, hands and feet) it is much more apparent that these women are sentient beings and not mere pretty objects.

Even though I do not think wuxia’s restraint in displaying female characters in an erotic way, and the emphasis on the face/hands/feet vs. emphasis on breasts/butts/exposed skin comes from a greater respect of women, I welcome it nonetheless. This is not the main reason why I love wuxia, but for me, it is an extra reason to gravitate more towards wuxia than mainstream American geek pop media.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Last month I posted “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong”, and Siggy replied with a comment about Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’. This led to me thinking about whether or not Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’ applies to Jin Yong fiction. Since the answer is complex, I’m breaking this up into multiple posts. This post, obviously, is going to be about exploiting female characters for sexy looks.

As I said in the first post of what seems to becoming a series, most Jin Yong non-elderly female characters are described as being physically beautiful. If they are too young to be sexually mature, then they are phenomenally cute (which, to be fair, is not being exploited for sexy looks). In fact, it is remarkable when a non-elderly female character is not pretty because that is uncommon in Jin Yong stories. Off the top of my head, I think Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) is the most prominent non-pretty young female character in the Jin Yong stories.

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

By contrast, most young men in Jin Yong stories are described as being plain looking, and if they are described as being handsome, they are probably a villain. IIRC, the only male Jin Yong protagonist who is described as being handsome is Yang Guo (he is so handsome that he starts wearing a mask so that girls will stop falling in love with him as soon as they see his face).

Yang Guo is hiding his handsome face.

So … tons of pretty young women with few plain-looking women, and tons of plain-looking young men with a few handsome young men, mostly villains. I hope that the double standard here is so obvious that I do not have to explain it.

Did I mention that the plain-looking male protagonists of most Jin Yong stories have three or more pretty young women pining after him? (okay, to be fair, a few of them have only TWO pretty young women pining after him – for example, the male protagonist that Cheng Lingsu falls in love with has only two pretty women in love with him) (but hey that means that all Jin Yong stories have at least two female characters, which means they are automatically one third of the way to passing the very low bar set by the Bechdel test)

This is also a common problem in Anglophone geek pop culture. It can even be a problem in ‘feminist’ geek media. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is often described as being ‘feminist’, yet some readers have critiqued it because most of the prominent female characters are gorgeous while most of the prominent male characters do not have handsome looks (the notable exceptions are Cordelia Naismith, Ivan Vorpatril, and in the most recent novel, Oliver Jole).

So far, I have only been talking about Jin Yong novels. When his stories are adapted to screen, his male protagonists experience a bout of adaptational attractiveness. The most notorious example of this is casting Hu Ge to play Guo Jing, a male protagonist who is repeatedly described in the novel as being plain looking.

In case you don’t know what Hu Ge looks like, here is a picture of him playing the allegedly non-handsome Guo Jing.

This, however, is also not particularly different from Anglophone media. I will say this in defence of the Jin Yong adaptations – in the only adaptation I saw with Cheng Lingsu, they did not cast a particularly pretty actress to play her (though, looking at photos of other adaptations, it seems that Cheng Lingsu can suffer from adaptational attractiveness).

What do I want? First of all, unless there is a good and specific reason not to have it, I want there to be gender parity for the level of physical attractiveness of male and female characters (i.e. I want it to be just as likely for a dude to be handsome as a lady to be beautiful).

Second, I want characters to have a diversity of appearances, including those which are not conventionally attractive. I like eye candy too, and I do not mind at all having *some* conventionally attractive characters, but I do not want it to go so far as to exclude everyone else. Only telling stories about conventionally attractive characters (and making all of your major female characters conventionally attractive) sends the message that people who are not conventionally attractive (including women who are not conventionally attractive) do not matter, and that’s not cool.

***

So far, I’ve been saying that Jin Yong stories are just like Anglophone geek pop media. This was the point at which I was going to start talking about how Jin Yong stories (and wuxia in general) are DIFFERENT from Anglophone geek pop media, until I decided to split this post into two parts. So, that will be discussed in Part 2!

Educating People about Ace Fiction

This is for the June 2017 Carnival of Aces: Asexual Education.

Around October of 2016, I figured out that there had been an explosion of published ace fiction in 2015 and 2016, especially from LGBTQ+ publishers. My reaction was “What? How did I miss this? I need to learn more!” And so I embarked on educating myself on all of this new ace fiction (and a little older ace fiction). I assumed that many other aces, like myself, had missed a lot of this new published ace fiction, so that was one of the reasons I wrote so many reviews.

Now, I’ve moved away from writing reviews towards writing meta-criticism, mainly contributing to the Ace Trope series at the Asexual Agenda (at least so far), which I enjoy more than writing reviews, and I think is even better for educating people about what is out there in ace fiction than just writing reviews.

Why bother educating anybody about ace fiction?

With regards to educating myself, it was definitely a matter of curiosity, though it is fair to ask why I am so curious about ace fiction. I want there to be ace fiction because I have experiences, as an ace, which I rarely see expressed in fiction in general (unless I interpret fiction in a very metaphorical way). It’s not so much that I am interested in characters who just happen to be ace, just as I am not interested in characters who happen to have hazel eyes (even though I have hazel eyes myself), as that I am interested in ace experiences.

Why bother educating anyone aside from myself about ace fiction? Other readers, like myself, may want to find ace fiction for themselves, so I can help pave the way just as critics such as Agent Aletha helped me. And the more readers there are who support ace fiction in their own way, the more incentive writers/creators have to make more ace fiction.

So far, I have focused on reader education (especially myself), mostly ace readers. I am not sure how to go about educating a non-ace audience, or even whether that is a worthwhile goal. I would like ace fiction to be for ace audiences first. If ace fiction is primarily directed at non-ace readers, it could lead to challenges like the challenges gay men have with their representation in M/M romance, a genre which is mostly written for a female audience (Jamie Fessenden, a gay man who writes M/M romance, has a nuanced take on M/M being written for female audiences). That said, ace fiction can also be a great tool for educating non-aces about asexuality. It is also true that, the wider the readership there is for ace fiction, the more support there will be for ace fiction. I suppose my main concern is that I do not want ace fiction to cater so much to non-ace readers that it fails to cater to ace readers.

A group which I think could seriously benefit from education about ace-fiction are the writers/editors/creators who create ace fiction. I know Erica Cameron wrote some kind of guide for writing ace characters which I cannot find right now (if you have the link, please drop a comment), which was basically asexuality 101. Which is entirely necessary. And for some ace stories, asexuality 101 might be enough for a writer/editor/creator to represent asexuality properly. But even when a story gets the asexuality 101 right, or at least not wrong, it can feel … off. And there are tropes which are way overused, such as Allo Savior Complex, but one won’t learn how to use the Allo Savior Complex trope in a good way from asexuality 101 (the Allo Savior Complex trope can be used very well, but most of the time I just find it irritating, or if it’s really badly handled, offensive – so my advice to writers is, unless one has a good reason to use it, don’t use it). And just as there are tropes which are overdone in ace fiction, there are also things which a lot of ace readers want from ace fiction, but ace fiction is not delivering.

By the way, when I talk about educating writers/editors/creators of ace fiction – I’m not distinguishing between those who are ace and those who are not ace. Though I have yet to do a statistical analysis, my impression is that non-aces are much more likely to make an ace 101 level mistake than aces are, but GIVEN that a non-ace has already avoided 101 level mistakes, ace writers/etc. are almost as likely to make ace 201+ mistakes as non-aces. Though past the 101 level, it is a lot harder to determine what even is a mistake, since there is a lot less consensus about upper-division asexuality than there is about asexuality 101.

At this point, I think the best education available about ace fiction for writers/editors/creators which goes beyond asexuality 101 is the comments sections of the Ace Tropes series at the Asexual Agenda. Not so much the posts themselves – though I suppose one has to read the posts to make the most sense of the comments. I have learned a lot about how ace fiction could be improved from reading the comments. And if a writer/editor/creator came to me, and wanted to know how they could write asexuality better, my three recommendations would be a) make sure you have asexuality 101 down b) read the comments of the Ace Tropes series c) learn a lot about the real life experiences of different kinds of aces d) read a lot of ace fiction so you know what’s already out there, what is being done well, what is overdone, and what is missing.

How I Recommend Getting Access to Ace Fiction

In the past half-year or so, I ended up reading and reviewing a lot of ace fiction. Obviously, I had to gain access to it, and unsurprising, I now have Thoughts About How to Access Ace Fiction.

Generally, I recommend two methods of gaining access to ace fiction:

1) Borrowing ace fiction from libraries
2) Buying ace fiction

A method which I strongly discourage is piracy. It denies writers and publishers the income they have earned (libraries at least make some payment towards writers/publishers). First of all, it’s unfair. Second of all, writers/publishers not getting paid = less incentive to write/publish ace fiction.

A method which I neither encourage nor discourage is seeking review copies. Some writers and/or publishers are willing to formally or informally offer free copies in exchange for reviews. Since I have never tried to use this method, I cannot offer much advice.

Anyway, to my recommended methods…

Borrowing Ace Fiction from the Library

I have always lived in a place which has some kind of public library, and where I could get a library card. Thus, I do not have personal experience of living in a place without a public library, and cannot say anything useful to people in that situation.

If you are lucky, your local library already has a decent selection of ace fiction and all you have to do is borrow it like you would any other book.

However, at least in the year 2017, the odds are that you local library does not have a decent selection of ace fiction. This requires more effort on your part – specifically, requesting that your library adds more ace fiction to their shelves.

My local library’s website has a page called ‘Suggest a Title’ where I can ask them to add new titles. I fill out information such as title, author, publisher, and year of publication. They also give a little box where I can offer additional information. I always put the ISBN in this box to make it easier for the librarians to find the book, and they I put in a short blurb about why the library ought to add this book to their shelves. My blurbs typically are something like this:

I am asexual, and when I was growing up, I did not read any novels with characters who were explicitly asexual like I am. I want people like me to be able to read novels with characters like us, and right now, the library does not have a great selection of books with asexual characters. This book has an asexual character, and furthermore, it’s well-written, and that’s why it belongs on the library’s shelves.

(Feel free to copy and paste that as a template, though I recommend customizing the message for each request)

My success with getting my local library to get new ace fiction is about 50% – which means that my local library has substantially improved its selection of ace fiction since I started these requests (because the selection was not good to start with).

I cannot speak from all libraries, but my local library is willing to buy books from small publishers, and I once even got the library to buy a self-published book (it wasn’t ace fiction, but it still proved that the library is willing to add self-published books to the collection).

Of course, whether a library will acquire ace fiction partially depends on local factors. For example, an underfunded library is less likely to acquire new books. Likewise, a library which, say, primarily stocks books in Chinese may be reluctant to acquire books in English or other European languages (and most of the ace fiction I know about is only available in English and/or other European languages).

Even if you decide to buy a book rather than borrow it from the library, I recommend suggesting titles to you local library anyway to help other readers access ace fiction.

Now for my other recommended method…

Buying Ace Fiction

If you are in a financial secure position, I highly recommend buying your ace fiction. It supports the writers and publishers most directly. Plus, you never have to return your copy to the library. Or, more importantly, you can get access even if it’s not available at your local library.

Most of the ace fiction I’ve read in the past year I’ve bought myself. I admit that, when it was available at the library, I generally chose to borrow it, but I still feel I’ve done my part to financially support ace fiction, and borrowing from the library helps me stretch my money for buying more ace fiction. I also think that, even if one is financially secure, but new to ace fiction and uncertain, that it’s fine to choose the library over direct purchase if that makes it easier to give ace fiction a chance.

But how to go about buying ace fiction?

First of all, for various reasons, I refuse to buy anything from Amazon unless it is something I really want and find extremely difficult to buy elsewhere. Ace fiction does not fall in this category, because I have ways of getting ace fiction without Amazon. Also, I ONLY buy eBooks which are available without DRM. There are a couple of ace fiction titles which I was interested in but are sold exclusively sold through Amazon and with DRM, therefore I did not buy them. I even contacted one of the writers, and she promised that she would soon make it available for purchase through a store other than Amazon, and over a year later it’s … still only available through Amazon with DRM. Therefore, I have neither bought nor read it.

Right now, I’m not going to persuade you to avoid Amazon in generally, but I am going to make the case that it is bad to buy ace fiction from Amazon unless it’s the only store selling it. Why? To quote the Riptide Publishing FAQ

Both our authors and ourselves get to keep a much larger share of the purchase price when you buy directly from us (or any other publisher site), which makes it easier for your favorite authors to spend more time writing new books. Third-party vendors such as Amazon may keep as much as sixty-five percent of your sale price, leaving as little as thirty-five cents on the dollar for the publisher and author to share.

That’s right, Amazon sometimes take a 65% cut of the sales price, leaving only 35% for both the writer and the publisher to split. So why to publishers still sell through Amazon? Because so many buyers will only buy through Amazon, thus they will lose out on sales if they refuse to work with Amazon. And it is precisely because Amazon has such market power that they are able to abuse small publishers this way (yes, I think Amazon taking a 65% cut of the sales price is abusive). I think there are other reasons to avoid Amazon, but I think this reason alone is pretty compelling.

As far as I know, other book retailers do not take such huge cuts, but they still take some kind of cut. I know that with small publishers in general, writers get paid the highest royalties for sales done directly through the publisher, and that publishers make more money per book from direct sales than from sales through third parties. Therefore, PLEASE buy direct from small publishers so that money goes towards the writers, editors, etc. rather than to Amazon.

To further sweeten the pot, small publishers frequently run sales to encourage readers to buy direct rather than buy through Amazon. Sometimes the discounts are as much as 40% (and more rarely, even more than 40%). Even with these discounts, the writer/publisher still makes more money than if you bought through Amazon. You save money, they make more money than if the sale had gone through Amazon, it’s a win/win. If you want to save money, it may be worthwhile to wait a while for a sale to occur (Cyber Monday tends to be a great time to get discounts, but there are often sales at other times of the year, such as holidays).

Self-published books are a little different since they rarely have a dedicated website for direct sales. When possible, I buy self-published fiction directly through Smashwords since they tend to give writers a better cut than other sellers. If it’s not available through Smashwords, I buy through the Kobo Store (which I find irritating, but given a choice between Kobo and Amazon, I will always choose Kobo). And if it’s only available through Kobo with DRM (which has happened to me once), then I refuse to buy (though I was eventually able to borrow a print copy of that book from the library, so I read it anyway).

But what if it’s legally available for free?

Well then, that makes things simpler (and much cheaper), and I don’t think you need much advice. Generally, fanfic and webcomics are free, and occasionally, prose ace fiction is also legally available for free.

Resources for Finding Ace Fiction

You could look at my book reviews, but maybe you don’t like my reviews or want to learn about ace fiction I haven’t reviewed.

A great resource is the Ace Reads tagpacker, as well as the Ace Reads tumblr with its reviews (obviously, I sometimes disagree with Agent Aletha, but I have great respect for her as a reviewer, and when we have reviewed the same work I recommend reading both of our reviews, especially if we disagree).

I also greatly appreciate the the ace fiction reviews at Just Love (though I do not always agree).

There are also the Aro and Asexual SF fiction database, these lightning reviews of ace webcomics, the Demisexuality in Fiction database, and this database of ace fanfic.

Two publishers, Less than Three Press and Riptide Publishing, also have good filters for asexual fiction: The Less than Three Press Asexual Filter and the Riptide Publishing Asexual Spectrum filter.

May you all find ace fiction that you like!

My Response to luvtheheaven’s Comment & Her Links

On my last post, luvtheheaven left this comment. It would take so many words for me to respond to everything luvtheheaven says and to respond to the links she posted that I decided to go ahead and make this a post. I think this is a good way to continue the discussion on ace/aro representation in fiction.

This post will discuss ace/aro representation fiction more generally than the previous post (i.e. it will not be so focused on the Old Kingdom books). However, at the end, I do have a spoilery section, which is marked.

First of all, I really appreciate that luvtheheaven linked these comments where Garth Nix talks a little about ace/aro representation in Clariel. I don’t have much to say about it, except that I was wondering how much research Garth Nix did and whether he was aware of asexuality / aromanticism and reader responses, and now I know.

One of the tweets which most resonated with me (even though it was not directly about the Old Kingdom series) was this one from Claudie Arseneault:

I have reached the points where while I do want more ace rep, I want people to Actually Support Ace Voices even more.

Yes, I also want more ace rep, but I also want more support for the [good] ace rep which already exists (that is not quite the same as what Claudie Arseneault is saying – she is asking support for ace writers specifically – however I also happen to be in favor of supporting ace writers telling ace stories). In the past six or so months, I’ve learned a LOT about the ace rep which currently is available in prose fiction. Since I’ve been on my ace-fiction binge, I’ve kept on seeing comments like ‘I want to see X in ace fiction’ and my response is ‘yes, you can find X in ace fiction, here is a list of stories which have X’. Sometimes, the response is ‘thanks, I’ll look into that’. And sometimes, the response is ‘well, I want to find it in the fiction I would read anyway, not have to go to some obscure source which might not fit my tastes in fiction’.

The latter response is valid. I wish I could find all of the ace rep I want without having to specifically look for it because it would just happen to be in the fiction I was reading anyway for other reasons. However, as things stand now, I would not have been able to find dozens of works of fiction featuring ace rep if I were not specifically seeking it.

However, while recognizing that it is a valid response, I also find it frustrating. I find it frustrating when people claim (or imply) that there is no ace fiction with X when I can think of at least three examples of ace fiction with X. I also find it frustrating that people who say they want X in ace fiction … are not supporting ace fiction which already has X.

You want more ace fiction with X? Then show it. If you have sufficient financial means, then buy it. If you do not have sufficient financial means, then tell your local public library to buy it. If you buy a work of ace fiction, and like it, then tell your local library to buy it so that people in your area who do not have financial means can read it too (my local library does not follow up on all of my recommendations of ace fiction, but it has followed up on some of them). If you do not have financial means, and you also do not have access to a public library, well, that sucks. Hopefully, you can at least find X in fanfiction online, and you will support it by leaving nice comments for the fic writer.

Anyway, here are another two tweets from Claudie Arseneault:

EVergreen thoughts on ace rep and where to find it: if all you know about is Clariel, Every Heart and We Awaken, you’re not paying attention

Oooooor you’re just paying attention to trad pubs. (Also Clariel is harmful stop putting on lists)

I completely agree with the first part – if all you know about is Clariel and Every Heart a Doorway, and We Awaken, then you’re not paying attention. I trust that anybody who has been following by blog at all in the past six months knows about more than those three works, since I’ve been posting a ton of reviews of ace fiction.

As for the second comment, errr, We Awaken is published by Harmony Ink Press, and how, exactly, does Harmony Ink Press count as a traditional publisher? They publish LGBTQ+ YA fiction – and nothing else. Does the mere fact that they print books and work through the large distributors make them a traditional publisher? Because if that is enough to make someone count as a ‘traditional publisher’, then the meaning of ‘traditional publisher’ is so broad that it’s not a useful term for me.

However, I would say that people pay a lot more attention to mainstream publishers than to independent publishers. This is partially justified, but if one is paying attention to mainstream publishing TO THE EXCLUSION of independent publishing, especially if one wants more ace rep, then yes, there is a problem (I plan at some point to write a whole post/rant about this topic, but I don’t want to go there right now).

As for the last point – “Clariel is harmful stop putting on lists” – I disagree completely. While there are many ace and/or aro readers who have found it hurtful, there are also many ace and/or aro readers who have found it validating. For example, I really appreciate this comment by LW, even though I do not agree with it 100%. LW loves grey-morality characters, is demiromantic, ace, and disabled, and particularly likes Clariel because Clariel is demiromantic (according to LW’s interpretation, and I agree that demiromantic!Clariel is a valid interpretation), ace, and disabled. LW also says in her comment that it bothers her when people claim that Clariel is bad ace / aro representation. It is for the sake of readers such as LW – and to be honest, myself, since Clariel actually is one of my favorites out of the 40+ works of ace fiction I’ve read – that I am opposed to telling people to stop putting Clariel on lists.

(and one could have a worthwhile discussion about the implications of Clariel being visibly disfigured, but I will not go there right now).

I am in favor of putting asterisks by Clariel when one puts it on lists (such as * ‘many ace/aro readers do not like the ace representation in this novel’), but I am against not putting it on lists at all.

Anyway, that lets me segway into a more Clariel focused discussion which luvtheheaven also linked…

[Clariel] goes for the stereotype that aro aces aren’t capable of making friends/understanding the point of friends.

I disagree. Clariel (the ace/aro character) actually does have at least one friend in the story (Belatiel), she values that friendship, and it’s strongly implied that she was friends with some of the borderers. She is also friends with her aunt, if one considers it to be possible to be friends with members of one’s own family. I did not get the sense that the story was supporting that stereotype at all.

A lot of why Clariel is socially isolated is a) her mother Jaciel b) being forced to be in a social environment where she does not want to be c) people refusing to understand Clariel’s concerns (and the few characters who are interested in her concerns do not spend much time with her due to circumstances). One of the parts of Clariel which most moved me was when Clariel finally figured out why her mother Jaciel is the way she is, that she is also like her mother in some ways and might be socially isolated for some of the same reasons (note: Jaciel is not an aro/ace character), and while Clariel does not excuse the emotional pain her mother caused, she understands that her mother did it because of her own personal struggles, not because she does not care about Clariel. (And also, the fact that Clariel eventually feels empathy for her mother, in spite of the fact that her mother hardly ever tried to connect to Clariel in a personal way, is solid evidence that Clariel does have feelings and can emotionally connect to people). (Also, it was refreshing to have a protagonist in this series who actually interacts with her living mother, as opposed to Sabriel and Lirael, whose mothers are dead).

Actually, looking back on both Clariel and Lirael, it is Lirael, not Clariel, who has more of a social isolation/friendship issue. But I understand that many readers do not perceive it that way, probably because Lirael’s one and only friendship is given plenty of pagespace while she avoids people as much as possible (so her interactions with people do not get much pagespace), whereas, *because* Clariel actually does interact with people more than Lirael, and her friendships do not get nearly as much pagespace, the fact that Clariel does not get along with many of the people she interacts with is more obvious. Come to think of it, the fact that the writer puts so much more emphasis on Lirael’s positive social interactions vs. her negative social interactions, and puts so much emphasis on Clariel’s negative social interactions vs. her positive interactions, is worth critiquing.

As far as “Clariel literally just wants to run away and live by herself in a forest” … Clariel’s first choice is to join the borderers who patrol the forest. It is only when she is convinced very early in the novel that that is impossible that she makes Plan B, running away to live by herself in a forest, her goal. I think that, if she were given a choice between joining the borderers, and living alone in the forest, she would not hesitate to join the borderers.

One last point before I get to the spoilery section – a point I made in my previous post – is that one reason I am not so bothered by some of the things in Clariel is that I have read so much ace fiction. One of the arguments people who are claiming that Clariel is bad ace/aro representation make is ‘imagine that this was the only time you ever saw an ace/aro character in fiction’ … but in my case it is NOT. Far from it. If Clariel were the only instance that I ever saw of an ace/aro character in fiction, I may feel differently, but that’s not my situation. I admit that I tend to get more irritated with certain tropes (such as Allo Savior Complex) the more frequent they are, but the negative aspects of Clariel’s aro/ace representation are not frequent enough in the ace/aro fiction I’ve read to irritate me that way.

[THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE SPOILERY SECTION, IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO EXPOSE YOURSELF TO SPOILERS STOP READING]

Then the “Her isolation directly contributes to her fall. She becomes evil and is then an antagonist for the rest of the series” tweet. Yes, mostly. But it’s not her fault that she was isolated in a way which contributed to her fall. For example, Kagrin himself admits that he had not realized how much danger Clariel was in, and failed to give Clariel the information she needed to make a non-evil choice. Clariel herself did not like being isolated in Abhorsen House, and the Abhorsen justifies it as “well, I thought you liked being alone” and this leads Clariel to listening to the one sentient being who is around and willing to give Clariel advice – Mogget. Nobody warns Clariel that Mogget is kind of evil and that it is better to ignore his advice (to be fair, none of the other characters really understood that Mogget was kind of evil until it was too late).

One of the things I like about Clariel is that it counters one of the things I do not like about Sabriel. In Sabriel, Sabriel is clueless, and is really lucky that all of the entities who give her advice (because she did not know enough to make informed decisions on her own) was trustworthy, and that she has magically good instinct. I do not like that. In Clariel, Clariel is not as lucky as Sabriel, so some of the entities who give her advice are untrustworthy, and because Clariel is clueless (just as Sabriel was clueless at that age, though Clariel and Sabriel are clueless about different things), Clariel lacks magically good instinct, and she cannot tell that the advice is bad. This feels more realistic to me.

For that matter, Clariel counters something even bigger about the original Old Kingdom trilogy which bothers me. In the original Old Kingdom books, morality is very black and white (with the exception of Mogget) – the good are purely good, and the evil are purely evil, and have almost no character development to boot. Clariel has a more grey morality, in which the ‘good’ characters often do the wrong thing because they are uninformed / refuse to communicate well, and the ‘evil’ characters (with the exception of Kilp and Aron) mostly just want to be free, and the only thing which makes them ‘evil’ is that they are willing to wreck havoc in order to break free. Morality has many more shades of grey in Clariel than in other books in the series.

I want to say a few things about Goldenhand.

Like many readers, I was annoyed by the ‘all the protagonists get as Happily Ever After by romantically pairing up’ ending. It might have been less annoying if the romance part was well-written, but it was not.

Also, it turns out that Clariel’s fate was much more tragic than I thought at the end of Clariel (I guess I was too optimistic). However, we learn that Clariel has a dual personality – her evil persona is Chlorr of the Mask, but there is also ‘Clariel’ who, in spite of everything, refuses to do evil, so Chlorr of the Mask made her sleep. At the climax of Goldenhand, Lirael has to wake up good!Clariel, and good!Clariel is the one who delivers the final blow to Chlorr of the Mask (i.e. evil!Clariel), not Lirael herself. So when I was looking through the tweets which say ‘Clariel becomes the super villain which the allo characters spend the entire book trying to kill’ errr … yes, that’s true, but did you miss the part where good!Clariel turns out to be the one who eliminates evil!Clariel for good. (Yes, good!Clariel also dies, and having the aro/ace die while the allos survive deserves critique. In my opinion, Lirael also should have died because she RANG ASTARAEL TWICE IN A ROW, and the fact that she survived *in spite of having rung Astarael twice* was cheap).