Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: a Double Standard

Hello, I'm Sarah Glenn, guest posting on Gwen's blog today. We're going to take a little departure from mystery for today's discussion of fictional villains.

When it comes to books, movies, television shows, etc., there are villains we hate, villains we love to hate... and villains we just love. Marion Zimmer Bradley created two of the most polarizing characters in SF/fantasy fiction with her Darkover series: Dyan Ardais and Bard di Asturien.

Don't know what Darkover is? Oversimplification: Darkover is a planet inhabited by a lost human colony. Through interbreeding with a local humanoid species, some descendants of the colony were born with psychic abilities. Those descendants gave rise to family dynasties, the Comyn, who rule the inhabitable part of the planet.

Dyan Ardais is usually presented as a villain or at least a dangerous man in a group of the novels, but dies heroically. He uses his psychic powers to try coercing teenage boys into sleeping with him. He had an unpleasant childhood, overshadowed by an insane father.

Bard di Asturien is the hero of a standalone novel in the series. He makes several missteps, but does 'the right thing' by the end of the book. He uses his psychic powers to coerce women into sleeping with him. He had a marginally pleasant childhood, overshadowed by his illegitimate status and ambitious relatives.

Dyan stops his depredations once they are publicly revealed. He makes public reparations.

Bard di Asturien stops his depredations after raping the woman he wanted to marry. She psychically shows him, in detail, how awful his acts are and how his blindness to others has screwed up not only his relationships with women, but with everyone else in his life. Bard is guilt-ridden and resolves to make up for everything he can.

The majority of Darkover fans are female. They love Dyan Ardais. Many fanfic stories have been written about women who convince Dyan to sleep with their Mary Sue character. They also despise Bard di Asturien, who developed a much greater desire to right his wrongs and become a better person than Dyan every did. Meanwhile, Bard di Asturien's story is one of the few Darkover novels I have heard straight men say they like.

What's the difference? Female fans of Dyan talk about his painful past, his doomed love for Kennard Alton, his sense of honor (except where young toothsome men are concerned), the aura of dark power about him that made Darth Vader sexy, too. The same women often view Bard as pond scum, craven, evil. They ignore Bard's sense of honor, mostly in waging war. His reform at the end is a plot device by the author, wanting to end the book with the hero's redemption. I think they underestimate MZB at that point, who in her prime was very good at creating complex and compelling characters.

I think it comes down to whose ox is getting gored. Bard's story is one of the few Darkover novels I don't read over and over again, because it pisses me off. I think if he wanted to really show his regret about forcing himself on those women, he would have castrated himself like the priests of Cybele. This is probably because I, like other female readers, pictured myself as one of his victims.

Dyan does have a certain amount of Darth Vader coolness, but is he really so much better? Or does he provoke less hostility from me because I'm 'safe' from him? How would I feel about Dyan if I were a teenage boy reading The Heritage of Hastur, whether straight or gay?

What if we turned the concept upside down? What if the villain were a woman who forced men to sleep with her? We might picture a kinky dominatrix, which would probably sell well... but what if we're talking about an ugly woman? Worse, one with herpes or something worse? How about the woman being a member of an alien species that has vagina dentata, and the sexual coercion is how she gets her meals?

Oh, wait. It's been done. OMFG.


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