Ethics, the Feminine and the Thriller part II

On Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears

It’s impossible for a novelist to deal with ethics through stereotypical characters. The role of the stereotype dictates their behaviour. Consider the stereotypes men have created for women : the holy triumvirate of whore, virgin angel and madonna mother, along with the ball-busting shrew, the ambitious women who threatens male power and control. None of these characters can confront ethical problems in fiction because their role assigns them either ethical or unethical behaviour.

Male characters can be judged by readers according to how they treat whores, angels, madonnas or shrews, but there’s a limited range of responses, often socially, rather than ethically driven. It’s okay to harm a whore or a shrew according to social mores of even recent times, but ethical standards are of a different order than this context-sensitive social morality. It’s stereotypical masculine behaviour, too, to banish the whore, destroy the shrew, adore the virgin and make way for the Madonna. For a novel to be truly concerned with ethics, the characters have to be nuanced and rounded.

I think feminist and other broader ethical concerns have much to do with spirituality, for lack of a better word. Well, maybe “psychological health” would suffice, psyche and spirit being either identical twins or close cousins, depending on your point of view. Encounters we have with other people, like encounters we have with anything, impact our spirit or our psyche. We either mature through the encounter, growing in wisdom and compassion, or we harden into crippled versions of humanity. Men who see women only as stereotypes, or functions, deny themselves the value of the encounter. Even men who choose not to deal at all with the 52 percent of the population that is female, deny themselves the growth and maturity that could follow if they would only throw down their patriarchal glasses to try to see the women around them without preconceptions, and without diminishing them to the status of functionary.

Where ethics really come into play is in how we respond to our emotions. Anger, envy, jealousy and fear are the emotions that lead us to harm others, if we simply act from those emotions. An ethics that doesn’t deal with emotion may be prescriptive, but it fails to analyze the problem, and thus can’t provide solutions. “Just say ‘no’” doesn’t cut it. That’s one problem with religion-sourced ethics. It calls on us simply to obey, without helping to understand why we might harm others. Controlling our emotions has never been a viable solution, as it leads only to repression, which all too often leads to explosive release. The ethical route is to feel emotions without acting on them. That’s the route to spiritual and psychological growth.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I consider The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller about how the world might destroy itself in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin War with its accompanying thaw in US – Soviet relations. He envisions a crisis, in which the world is destroyed by fear, by bogeymen, by stereotypical responses to cultural stereotypes. The ethical person will be the one who can throw aside the stereotypical view and use reason to sidestep a stereotypical response and has the strength of character to refuse to be motivated by fear.

Jack Ryan is the hero of the novel. We are informed almost from the start, and throughout that he is a Catholic and that it matters. We find out again and again that Jack is an ethical person, a man who learns by his mistakes, a man who uses reason to overcome problems, a man who hates corruption in politics, a man who speaks his mind and follows the rules. He is saved from being a caricature by his tendency to lose his temper, which makes him enemies and diminishes his effectiveness at his job.

There are two female characters of note in the novel and a third who figures more in the plot than her brief appearances would suggest. One, Ryan’s wife, comes very close to being the “angel in the house”. She’s pretty much a perfect wife and mother, as well as being an eye surgeon. We know she’s not greedy, as she’s not concerned about money. We know she suffers only minimally from vanity. Her hair is rarely groomed, she doesn’t wear heels and acknowledges her flat-chestedness with only a little sadness, not enough to invest in silicone. She is close to the stereotype of the woman who “leans in”, drawn long before the term was created — the woman who takes on wife and motherhood while also working hard at a career, without letting anyone suffer.

When she believes Jack is cheating on her, we see her weakness, which seems at first to be her failure to believe in Jack, but evolves into a failure to confront him to find out the truth. We see her at her worst when Jack’s driver and bodyguard comes to see her and she says: “’Sure, why not? It’s over, the only reason I haven’t walked out is the kids. So go ahead, make your pitch. Tell me that he still loves me and all that. He doesn’t have the guts to talk about it to me himself, but I’m sure he had something to do with this,’ she concluded bitterly.”

This is actually a foreshadowing of the major plot of the novel, in which The American president believes lies about the Russian head of state, which almost leads to world destruction. Tellingly, Clancy does not let this character struggle through the situation. She already knows she should talk to her husband and it is her failure to do so that causes her to spiral downward with her emotions. While she accuses Jack of not having “the guts” to talk to her, she suffers from the same cowardice. Instead of taking that step, and growing through the act of courage, or failing to take the step and suffering the consequences, however, she is “saved” by the work of Jack’s two friends and bodyguards, who come to her home to tell her that Jack is faithful, and even bring her to see the evidence for herself. Clancy fails to allow her to make the ethical choice. Does he believe women are incapable? Does he believe women need rescuing by men? This would be a better book if he had made different authorial decisions with regard to this character.

The other woman, Elizabeth Elliot, is more of a problem. For quite a long time in the novel is looks as if Clancy is going to have a woman destroy the patriarchally-created, violent, cruel and murderous world because the woman is worse than any of the men in that world.

Elliot is shown as totally self-absorbed, without compassion or empathy for others, suspicious of all around her, devious in attempting to control other people, and lastly stupid enough to believe that she can control them. She is the ambitious shrew who actually believes (gasp!) that she can bust the balls of POTUS! After the first instance when readers are shown that she and the President are having an affair, the narrator says: “So easy to manage. She smiled her secret smile to herself. He could be directed to do exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it and do it consummately well, for he loved to give pleasure to a woman…he craved being remembered and so he did what the woman wanted if the woman had the wit to ask…so eager to please, even in this.”

After she has arranged for a naive young student to spy on Jack to look for dirt she can use to get rid of him, she thinks: “It was so easy to seduce people …Sex was a useful tool for the task, but power and ambition were so much better. She’d already proven that.”

After all her predictions that she could control men, even the president, a reader expects to find out whether she is right or not. However, although the president is strongly swayed by her suspicions during negotiations with Russia, we never do really find out. In the end Clancy drops her quite awkwardly from the plot, consigned to a hospital because she “didn’t cut the mustard.” The president himself is also inexplicably dropped and we don’t find out what happened to him. No hospital is mentioned in his case.

The third woman is the Asian wife of a dead army officer whom Jack is helping financially. With eight children, all of whom are to receive good educations, the triumvirate of angel, whore and Madonna is complete.

Despite these limitations in the female characters, this is a good novel. It presents a scenario in which suspicion and distrust function as the greatest threat to peace and good relations in both personal and political arenas. The novel has something to tell us about how to make the world a safer place. Jack is a good man because he transcends his gender conditioning – his best qualities are those his society generally assigns to women. He is generous, tender and kind-hearted, forgiving and humble. He understands that power corrupts, saying “The very atmosphere of Washington corroded the soul.” He also understands the power of clear and direct communication and it is in that way that he manages to avert the destruction of the world, about to be brought about because of people’s failure to speak to and listen to each other. And, unfortunate as it is in a world run by men, communication is also regarded as a woman’s skill. He is in touch with his emotions and capable of self-criticism, qualities one doesn’t see in public representations of men.

Though I usually prefer detective novels and thrillers written by women, I plan to read other Clancy novels to see if he improves in his representations of women – if he’s capable of moving beyond the triptych of female stereotypes.


Ethics and the Thriller Part 1

I continue to believe that mystery novels and detective thrillers have taken over the role that novels originally had, to teach citizens compassion and empathy for people outside their own families. British society of the 17th Century was able to go beyond clannism and tribalism partly as a result of novels. Does it go without saying that compassion and empathy are directly related to ethics? To care for other people means to do them no harm, which is to say to neither rob, rape nor murder them. Beyond that it means to prevent harm from coming to them, which means to protect them from harmful people by means of law and/or force, but also to protect them from starvation and exposure to the elements by economic means. To do no harm and to protect from harm – that’s the concern of ethics, motivated by compassion.

Interestingly enough, some of the first novels used the plight of women in this educational pursuit. In the early 17th century life for all but well-off families was visibly hard for women. Women worked in the fields and dairies, and as servants in wealthy homes. The work was physically hard and women were vulnerable to attacks by men. Married women bore babies one after another, many of whom died, many of whom killed their mothers in the process. The husbands, themselves hard put to provide money for the family, without many options in life either, were too frequently drunkards and wife-beaters. It’s no accident that the first novels dealt with concerns we now call “feminist”.

Feminist concerns continue to be closely linked with ethical concerns of course, although what constitutes harm is often in dispute. Is it harmful to women to be constantly harassed and threatened by strangers on the web? Is it harmful for women to function as prostitutes? Is it harmful that they are represented as sexual objects in pornography? Is it harmful that they are constantly admonished to be unrealistically thin? Is it harmful if they’re forced to wear makeup and/or high heels to work? These are some of the ethical questions of the early 21st century.

I think none of these would have been asked in the 17th, which is only a measure of shifting landscapes including a greater understanding now that what appears to be choice can be constructed servitude. Prostitutes and porn stars, not to mention women and men in general, are constructed by masculine pressures, controlled by masculine perspectives, subservient to the needs and wishes of POP (people of power).

It has occurred to me, thirty or forty years on, to wonder why early “second wave” feminists didn’t formulate their demands within ethical frameworks. The enslavement of women — inevitable when women don’t have money or the means of earning money — is surely an ethical matter. But then the domestic enslavement of women handed from fathers to husbands (and if necessary to brothers) was constructed by patriarchal culture as a privilege, not a deprivation. Women, at least women of a certain class, were being protected from the dog eat dog working world.

And we need to remember that when women started fighting for “women’s liberation”, they first had to become aware of their lack of liberty. Privilege can mask bondage. This is the power of social conditioning. A weekly allowance, if it’s more than sufficient, is a powerful inducement. Any many men would feign amazement at a woman who would give that up to earn her own living by the sweat of her brow.

When male is the new female

This week Everyday Feminism, an online magazine normally fairly middle-of-the-road and non-controversial, ran an article by a trans*woman in which the author a) defined “woman”, b) defined “female” c) defined “natural” and d) suggested that trans*women not only have access to women’s safe places like shelters and crisis centres, but be given jobs there so that trans*women will truly feel welcome. The fact that the author was given this very public online platform tells me hir opinions are endorsed by a majority of feminists – or that somebody is trying to mainstream them. The article, which seems to represent the current trans* political platform, reveals that trans*women are targeting women, and pose a danger to us.

First s/he defines “woman” to include biological males, that is people with xy chromosomes and penises.

I know only two definitions for “woman”. The first is biological. According to that definition, “woman” is a grown-up female. The second is sociological. A woman is a gendered social construct created by the constant interaction between a human female with innate personality potentials and a society that wants to allow her to develop some of those potentials and lose the others.

By both of those definitions, one has to be female to be a woman. I know, that hardly sounds like rocket science.

The author has also figured this out, so s/he offers a new definition of “female”. It’s a definition that may shock some. Here’s the quote:

There is no singular female body, and even though feminist movements are broadening the idea of a woman’s body to include bigger, disabled, Black and brown women, they are not doing justice to trans women’s bodies.
People use “female-bodied” to talk about people assigned female at birth, which completely erases trans women’s bodies that are female.
This is a step towards unlearning that penises equates to maleness. That our breasts, whether flat or hormone-grown or implanted, are our breasts and just as natural as any other breast.
Not recognizing our bodies as naturally female supports a patriarchal culture that defines what a woman’s body is.

I’m sorry if this is hurtful, but there is only one, singular definition of female; it’s one that applies all mammals. Female have wombs and mammary glands. Females do not have penises. These are biological facts.

If you want to remove the words “male” and “female” from the language, then you have to remove them, although I’m not sure how animal breeders or farmers would be able to function without recourse to those very useful terms. Can you imagine a rancher with a field full of steers waving away the vet who has come to castrate them, shouting “they’re not steers, they’re cows-with-penises?” Good luck with that dairy herd.
You affect the whole animal kingdom when you start redefining female as male.

Silicone is not “natural”. Enough said about that.

The author of this article is biologically male as well as male-gendered at least to some degree. The process of constructing gender begins the moment adults know the sex of the fetus or infant. By the time a child is old enough to say something like “I’m really a girl in a boy’s body”, the child has already been subject to three or four or five years of gender conditioning, a lot of it unconsciously done, and most of it unconsciously processed.

So, yes, this author is a male-bodied and masculine-gendered member of the patriarchal culture that believes males can define what a woman’s body is. And so s/he’s doing it.

Nonetheless, the author explains why male-bodied “women” need to work in women’s centres:

You don’t need to make us invisible to keep us safe. We need to be named and openly supported in women’s spaces.
If you want to ensure trans women feel safe, have openly trans women working in the space. Part of this is extending beyond theory into practice.
Instead of saying trans women are welcome to an event run by cis women, have actual trans women in leadership positions to create the events that center and support us. Be someone who offers resources and support to allow us to develop our own women’s spaces.
That’s the kind of solidarity that truly makes social change.

This is where the demands of male-bodied trans people conflict with the needs of women — aside from the fact that the author is expecting women to keep trans people safe – from male violence, of course, which is kind of presumptuous, isn’t it? Or does the author think it’s the job of women to serve male (and thus male-bodied trans) needs?

All women, feminist or not, need to consider the ramifications of the author’s demand that male-bodied trans people be given jobs in women’s organizations and spaces.

If trans*women have their way, a woman who leaves an abusive, violent husband is welcomed at a women’s shelter by a male-bodied person who does not have a shared history or culture with her. He has not experienced female socialization, has no experiential understanding of why a woman would choose a violent husband or the reasons why it would be so hard for her to leave.

If trans*women have their way, a woman who has just been raped will call a rape-crisis centre and be met with a male-bodied person who has never experienced vaginal rape and who doesn’t have the experience of being preyed on and who has not lived with the constant vigilance required of many women to avoid being raped.

If trans*women have their way, a woman who suffers PTSD as a result of childhood sexual abuse may sign up for a woman’s PTSD support group and find, when she arrives, that the leader is a male-bodied person and half the participants are as well.

If trans*women have their way, government funding for women’s organizations may well go to organizations run by and for male-bodied trans*women instead of to organizations run by and for women.

If trans*women have their way, when a woman is debilitated by illness or injury, she may share a hospital room with a male-bodied person.

And if, god-forbid, a woman kills a husband who has been raping and beating her for years, and winds up in prison, she may well share a cell with a male-bodied person. I know, it’s so cute on Netflix, isn’t it?

What I find most horrifying about this trans political position is that it completely devalues women’s shared lived experiences, experiences that shape all women in the culture to some degree or other. To the author this simply doesn’t matter – a male-bodied person with a completely different personal history and socialization is perfectly qualified to counsel female victims of male violence and to speak on behalf of such women. Yup.

Lesbians Unwelcome at Pride?

This was the first year that lesbians couldn’t walk in the Vancouver Pride Parade simply by virtue of being lesbian. This was the year that all participants had to sign a document in support of trans*women’s rights, already contained within Canadian Human rights legislation, in order to march. This is just the most visible example of the trans*women’s community approach to fighting for their rights at the expense of women.

Trans*women certainly need protection under the law as well as change in attitudes towards them. They face all kinds of discrimination, not to mention violence and so I support their need to fight for change. They need a trans*women’s organization to fight for those rights. Instead, unfortunately, they are colonizing existing rights organizations, and hollowing them out as they feed on them for their own needs.

There is much misognyny in the current backlash against women, and some of that is being spearheaded by trans*women. This week there was an article in Everyday Feminism by a trans*woman on language that women need to avoid in order to become allies of trans*women.
Rather than link to the article, I will quote at length from it.
A month ago, I cried for the seventh time this year.
I was preparing to give a keynote, and I desperately needed my eyebrows arched. I looked up places in my small, Central Californian town and found one with great reviews on Yelp.
I called to schedule an appointment and the woman responded, “Sorry, ladies only. ”
A flood of anxiety and self-loathing filled me to tears. To know that my voice, isolated from my body, marked me as male was soul crushing.
It took me thirty minutes to muster the courage to call another place, hoping for more inclusivity and welcome.
She begins with a manipulative emotional appeal. While such appeals may garner audience interest – advertisers use them all the time – they are injurious to legitimate social criticism. In effect, the author is stamping her feet and crying “you’re so mean, you make me cry.” No protest movement has ever been based on such infantile emotionalism.

The author’s last sentence implies blame to the people who “caused” her to cry. In this the author is failing to take responsibility for her own feelings. This is the first step that everyone must take in the path from victim to survivor. No doubt the author has much to cry about – I don’t doubt she was subjected to psychic violence as she was acculturated by the people of power in her immediate vicinity to fit herself into the narrow confines of the masculine gender. Now, as she marches toward growth and individuation, she must place what blame there is where it belongs – on those who harmed her – and learn that her responses from now on are her responsibility.

It is her choice now in how she responds to people around her. It is her choice to feel the anxiety and self-loathing that leads to the tears. We all learn what feelings to have in response to external stimuli. No external stimuli “come with” set emotional responses. We choose our own emotional responses based on years of conditioning. It doesn’t feel like a choice, and often we can only choose differently if we change ourselves, if we deconstruct the conditioning.

This author chooses the much easier path of blaming the external stimuli, the people at the nail salon for lack of “inclusivity and welcome”. These days we know “inclusivity” is the minimal degree of politeness we must all show to others. To fail to be inclusive is tantamount to committing a crime. Yet, inclusivity intersects with another important human need, which is the need for boundaries. We all need boundaries for good ego health. We deserve to have solid enough boundaries to keep us safe, but permeable enough to let in other people. That means we get to choose who to let in, and that means being exclusive of some. We don’t need to allow boundary violators into our space, or anyone who we are uncomfortable with.

I fear that the current generation of young women, the daycare generation, has been so conditioned as to believe they need to give everybody the right to enter their space regardless of how they feel about it. They’re been taught to always “play nice” and “share”, but have they been taught when it’s alright to refuse to play and to refuse to share?
We are denied access to various women’s spaces, like nail and hair salons, political movements, support groups, and bathrooms. And all of these exclusions are based on a simple transmisogynist idea – that trans women aren’t women.
The trans debates are filled with misuse of language. Words are robbed of their definitions and by no authority whatsoever are assigned new meanings. Trans*women are redefining “woman” and “female” and thereby twisting reality to coerce women into giving up their rights to them. More on that, and on this article, next time.