Reviewing a Feminist Classic: The Last Unicorn

Despite a childhood spent reading, I had never heard of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn until Pat Rothfuss mentioned it on his blog as his favorite book. PR goes so far as to imply that you can’t call yourself a fantasy reader if you haven’t read TLU (I’m sure he’s being tongue-in-cheek…or am I?)  Last Monday night I went with some work friends to see The Last Unicorn Screening Tour. It was an interesting experience to see such a classic on the big screen. I wish I had that opportunity more often.

last-unicorn

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from the movie. I have never read the book, but I knew that the people who made the animated version of The Hobbit also made this film. I have very distinct memories of watching The Hobbit as a kid, and I remember thinking it was creepy and boring. The Last Unicorn was…interesting…if I’m being completely honest. I’d like to read the novel before I pass judgment on the story, but the film was so stylized as to be unrelatable at times. Something about the animation made it hard for your eyes to ever rest, and there were long stretches with no dialogue. The music sent my friends into fits of giggles that they had to stifle so as not to ruin anyone else’s theater experience (nostalgia counts for a lot, and I’m pretty sure most of the audience had grown up with the movie and loved it).

But yet, despite all that, I loved it. I walked out of the theater convinced that The Last Unicorn had more to say about loneliness than any lit fic I’ve ever read (that’s a huge theme of lit fic, right? The loneliness of modern man?). I think I could even call it a feminist text.

(1) The first line of the book reads, “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.” [emphasis mine]

The event organizer and Peter S. Beagle mentioned in the Q&A preceding the movie that until this book, unicorns had always been depicted as male. But now, forty-odd years later, can you picture a unicorn that isn’t “girly”?

The.Last.Unicorn.(Character).600.133534

I can’t adequately describe how much I love that. To take something that is by default male, and without fuss or pomp, make it a “her?” I wish I had been the one to do that. Not only to feminize the symbol, but to make her the subject of her own story. The hero of her own adventure. Before 1968, how often was that done? It’s hard to quantify, but TLU surely helped usher in a generation of fantasy writers who gave greater import to female characters and female narratives, treating them as humans (or unicorns!) worthy of their own stories rather than as accessories to a default male narrative.

(2) What is surely ahead of its time is the way the story complicates the myth of the “ideal” feminine being. The Unicorn (aka Amalthea) is beauty and grace incarnate. Her wood is constantly in the bloom of spring. Peace reigns among the animals who inhabit it.

But then, the careless words of two hunters lead the Unicorn to believe that she is the last unicorn on earth.

At this point in the movie, I was rolling my eyes. The Unicorn seems so overwhelmingly characterized by her “beauty” that it’s hard to see anything else about her. She reminded me of the sexualized fantasy women of games–women with too-large purple eyes and flowing white hair–which is exactly how the Unicorn looks.

But then, further down the road (literally, in context of the story), the Unicorn meets several men who want to capture her, and she is amazed that they can’t see she is a unicorn. To them, she is only an exceptional mare. The Unicorn realizes that men see what they want to see.

Both named female characters, Mommy Fortuna and Molly Grue, instantly see her for what she is. Because they see her for what she is, they can communicate with her (to be fair, so can the subpar magician Schmendrick who helps free her from Mommy Fortuna’s clutches). The recognition of her true nature gives the Unicorn a voice. This is the first time she actually communicates with other beings. The silencing of women’s voices is a huge theme in feminist lit.

(3) Being the hero of her own story helps the Unicorn become something new.

Eventually, the Unicorn and her compatriots fall into the hands of the villain, who they’re sure has hidden all the unicorns…somewhere. In order to save the Unicorn from the villainous Red Bull, Schmendrick the magician turns her into a human woman named Lady Amalthea. The longer Amalthea spends in human form, the more she forgets her life as a unicorn. The handsome prince courts her, and eventually they fall in love (I think? The movie didn’t do so great a job at showing this).

But when the final showdown comes and Amalthea must face the Red Bull again, she chooses to sacrifice her human life and her human love to set all the trapped unicorns free. Schmendrick helps transform her back into her true form, and she finds the strength to drive the Red Bull into the sea.

It’s poignant that when she is once again a Unicorn, she chooses to stay that way. This means leaving the prince behind and going back to her wood. But as she goes back, the narrator remarks that she is unique among unicorns in that she now knows both sorrow and regret. It’s those human emotions that make the Unicorn three-dimensional. The Unicorn isn’t a flat symbol of feminine beauty. She isn’t even hackneyed two-dimensional symbol of feminism (ie the victimized female). She is beautiful, but she has sacrificed. She has loved and given that up for something greater, and now she knows human emotion. Giving her human emotions makes her so much more relatable. Not only is she more relatable, but her arc is completed on her own–that is, there is no man by her side in the end. The story is wholly hers, though there are certainly influential side characters who help her. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good romance. But that is not part of this story, nor would it fit.

I’m sure many someones have done more in-depth critiques of this story. I’m sure there are problematic elements I’m overlooking. And there is also not one way to write a feminist story. My reading of the text (screenplay, in this case) is surely relying a bit too much on symbols and archetypes, but I thought The Last Unicorn did a great job exploring feminist themes.

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Books with Daggers–They’re a Thing

This week I thought I would do some book recommendations. I’ve been reading a lot lately, mostly within historical YA. So if you’re writing in this genre or love to read it, listen up.

Graceling Cover

Wikipedia

First up, we have GRACELING by Kristin Cashore. This was one of the first YA high fantasies that I ever read. It changed my view of books. We have this amazing female protagonist who is an assassin being controlled by her uncle, the king, to do his dirty work. Some of the people have magical abilities, called “graces,” and Katsa is graced with killing. She meets Prince Po, who is graced with fighting skills, and together they leave their lives behind to perform a task more worthy of their talents. Like save the kingdom. Lots of action. Lots of plot twists. A beautiful romance. GRACELING is wonderful.

Maid of Secrets cover

Book Swoon

Next we have MAID OF SECRETS by Jennifer McGowan. This book focuses less on the romance and more on the political intrigue of the Elizabethan Era. Meg is an orphan who has made a living picking pockets, until she gets caught by a nobleman. Rather than get sent to prison, she is forced to serve Queen Elizabeth as a spy. Meg is blessed with perfect recall, which makes her ideal for overhearing enemy conversations. Jennifer McGowan manages to seep you into the era without taking away from the storytelling. Lots of sneaking, thievery, and play acting. MAID OF SECRETS is lots of fun.

Defy cover

Goodreads

DEFY by Sara B. Larson is my most recent “dagger book.” I bought this one on a whim at a conference I went to several months ago. So glad I did. The kingdom has been at war for years, and everything that the people have goes to the cause. When the border villages are raided and people are killed, the orphans are brought to the palace. The boys are taken to train for the army, while the girls are sent to the breeding houses to make more boys for the army. When twins Alexa and Marcel are orphaned, Alexa cuts her hair and pretends to be a boy so she can go into war training with Marcel and avoid being a prostitute. Years later, Alexa, the prince, and a fellow guard are kidnapped—naturally a love triangle ensues. Figuring out everyone’s motives is the fun part of this book. No one is ever as they seem.

Throne of Glass cover

Goodreads

Sarah J. Maas’s THRONE OF GLASS also features a female assassin. Celaena was sent to the salt mines for her crimes, until the prince releases her on the condition that she be his champion. Up against various killers, thieves, and spies, Celaena must compete to become the king’s assassin or return to the mines. But when her fellow competitors start dying, Celaena’s fight for freedom becomes a fight for her life. Very romantic. Very action-packed. Lots of great dialogue and character interactions.

Dark Triumph cover

Goodreads

Last is probably my favorite book of all time: Robin LaFevers’s DARK TRIUMPH. This is another assassin book, but it’s so much more than that. The victims of violence at the hands of men are sent to St. Mortain’s convent, where they are trained to kill for their god. Sybella has a dark past—she’s been hurt deeply by the men closest to her, but she is sent on an assignment to the house of her own father—the very man who has tormented her for years. This book is beautiful. Not only is it about finding a will to live after living through hell, but it’s full of romance and danger and deceit and betrayal and basically all the other good things to be found in books. Go read the first book about Ismae, GRAVE MERCY, then crack open DARK TRIUMPH.

The Falconer cover

Goodreads

The Winner's Curse cover

Goodreads

Coming up on my reading list are THE FALCONER by Elizabeth May, which is described as “The first volume of a trilogy from an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy. This electrifying thriller combines romance and action, steampunk technology and Scottish lore in a deliciously addictive read” on the cover, and THE WINNER’S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski, “a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.”

So go get in some good reads before Nano takes over your life!

How to Get Away with Murder and Bisexual Representation: You’re Doing It Wrong

How to Get Away with Murder is the diverse show we’ve all been waiting years for. Of the six principal cast members (Annalise and her five student interns/employees) only one of them fits into the “default character” mold of straight, white, and male—and so far, Asher, our resident token white boy, has gotten the least amount of screen time of all the principal characters (and is generally the least likable). By putting its diverse cast members front and center, HTGAWM proves that having a show populated with people of diverse races and sexual orientations on a mainstream television network can be just as successful as our typical, run-of-the-mill shows with predominantly straight and white cast members.

image from abc.go.com

As great as HTGAWM is in terms of representation, though, it totally dropped the ball in last week’s episode when it came to bisexual representation.

And I mean really dropped the ball.

In “Smile, or Go to Jail” (last Thursday’s episode), we finally got to meet Michaela’s fiance, Aiden. It turns out that Aiden and Connor already have a history with each other and way back during Connor’s New Hampshire boarding school days, he was busy hooking up with all the hot boys—including Aiden. When Michaela figures out that Connor isn’t just trying to get under her skin with off-handed remarks about how hot her fiance is but has, in fact, seen Aiden naked and slept with him, Michaela looses it.

Now in all fairness—not that I am feeling particularly generous toward Michaela after her rampant biphobia—she and Aiden had told each other about their exes and previous relationships and Aiden had neglected to mention Connor. In that respect, I think she is right to be angry and annoyed with him. But she doesn’t seem particularly angry that Aiden has kept a past relationship from her. She seems upset that he kept a relationship with another guy a secret from her. Her reaction is rooted in the fact that Aiden’s sexual history includes men. If it turned out that Aiden and Laurel had had a relationship as teenagers, I sincerely doubt that Michaela would have reacted in the same way.

The episode posits two—and only two—options for Aiden’s sexuality. He can either be 100% straight or 100% gay, and Michaela treats Aiden’s single instance of sleeping with a man as proof that he must be completely and irrevocably gay. (Which, let us remember, is par for the course for bisexual men. Whereas bisexual women are usually assumed to be straight and pursuing relationships with women as a way to garner male attention, bisexual men are almost always assumed to be gay and too afraid to come out of the closet.) I waited and waited for someone in the show to whisper that mystical word bisexual as an explanation for Aiden’s past, but it never happened.

Now let me be frank, not all people who have relationships with people of multiple genders are, or identify as, bisexual (or pansexual or any of the other words the English language has to describe people who experience attraction to a multitude of gender identities). It is entirely possible for a “horny kid” (as Aiden describes his teenage self) to have same-gender relationships and not be homosexual or bisexual. Plenty of people experiment or question and explore their sexual identity—and that’s probably the case with Aiden. He IDs as a straight man who once had sex with another teenage boy. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.

What is a problem is not even mentioning the word bisexual. What is a problem is acting like someone who has been in relationships with people of different genders is incapable of being loyal and faithful to just one person. What is a problem is implying that any man who has ever had a sexual relationship with another man must be gay. What is a problem is an extremely progressive and inclusive show perpetuating biphobia and bisexual erasure.

For those of you who don’t want to fall into this trap in your own storytelling endeavors, here are a few things you can do.

(1) Use the word bisexual. I cannot emphasize how important this one is, so say it with me. Bi-sex-u-al. It’s not a dirty word, despite what media’s extreme avoidance of the word would make you think. The end confrontation between Michaela and Aiden would have been SO MUCH BETTER had either one of them mentioned the possibility that Aiden could be bisexual—even if he’s not. Instead of having Michaela demand over and over again to know if he’s gay, she very easily could have said, “Are you gay? Are you bi? What’s going on here?” Her reaction, I think, still would have felt a little extreme, but bisexual people everywhere would have breathed a little sigh of relief because someone actually acknowledged they exist. (Despite common misconception, bisexual people are not mythical creatures like unicorns.)

(2) Be aware of negative and damaging stereotypes that affect bisexual people—and avoid them. These stereotypes include the assumption that bisexuality is a phase instead of a long-lasting orientation, the assumption that bisexual people are greedy or confused or are cheaters, and the assumption that bi women are doing it for attention and that bi men are afraid to come out of the closet. You might not think that playing on these stereotypes is harmful, but when you consider that bisexual women experience a higher rate of intimate partner violence [X] and that bisexual people of any gender report higher rates of anxiety and depression than monosexual people (ie people who are only attracted to one gender)[X], you begin to see the damage we’re doing by perpetuating those stereotypes.

(3) Treat bisexuality as a valid option for your characters instead of favoring characters who are “just going through a phase” or are “just” experimenting. Instead of making Aiden “straight but with an exception,” he very easily could have been written as a bisexual man and his argument with Michaela at the end could have had just as much emotional impact. Instead of denying that he was gay and writing off his relationship with Connor as “a stupid thing that happened,” he could have talked about his fear of coming out to her because of the assumption that bisexual people are greedy cheaters and he still could have ended the argument with an assurance that he loves her. Just because he has the potential to love men and women doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being loyal to one partner. Choosing to make your characters bisexual and experience the lasting potential to be attracted to people of more than one gender does wonders for bisexual people who long to see themselves in the media they consumer. Let’s remember that “straight with an exception” or “gay with an exception” is not edgy nor is it a convenient recipe for angst. It’s erasing bisexuality and depriving those who identify that way of much needed media representation.

How to Plot for Dummies (by a Dummy)

Our blog is called The Plotless for a reason. Not that I can speak for my co-bloggers, but plotting is the single hardest thing about writing. Characters spring out of my brain like multiple personalities come to life. Dialogue comes naturally enough. I can write a descriptive paragraph in my sleep. But plotting…it’s a wily devil. Complicating matters is the plethora of plotting methods floating around in my brain. I’ve been around the writing advice block a few dozen times. Not that writing advice is bad, but you know the saying “your mileage may vary”? Yes. My mileage is very poor. Like 1 MPG poor. Writing advice just doesn’t really work for me. I focus so much on someone else’s method as a means to avoid the hard work and copious amount of time it takes to figure out your own writing method.

With that complaint about myself sufficiently logged, I want to share the best plotting methods I’ve found plus one I’ve come up with myself.

(1) Brandon Sanderson’s sense of progression.

I’m a huge fan of Writing Excuses. Podcast host Brandon Sanderson also teaches a college writing class that I’ve taken. In both he’s spoken about his primary method of plotting; he plots using a sense of progression. It’s an interesting idea, but a little vague, you know? But when I’m reading a book I understand what he’s talking about. Having listened to more of Brandon’s advice about writing than your average human being, I have also gathered that he thinks of the most spectacular ending he can and then plots backwards. What steps will it take to get to that spectacular ending? With those milestones in place, you can then write scene to scene with the idea that your characters just need to be moving (not always forward, either. Characters aren’t always supposed to succeed. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes failures take them exactly where they’re supposed to be).

The latest Writing Excuses episode that references this plotting method here.

(2) Seven-point story structure.

Dan Wells, another Writing Excuses podcaster, gave a great presentation on this popular structure.

Part 1 of the series here.

The disclaimer here is that this method is often better used to analyze what you’ve written rather than to plot a novel from scratch…but if you’re desperate for a little structure to help your plot gel, then this is a great method. It focuses on conflicts, (the pinch, the turn, etc.) It also helps you focus on arcs, for both plot and characters, more than other plotting methods I’ve seen. Where your characters/plot end up should be the opposite (or close to it) of where they/it started.

As a lazy discovery writer who should probably be a plotter  (an explanation of pantsers vs. plotters here) I find this method interesting because it lets me think of my plot in the fuzzy way that comes naturally to my brain. It allows me to come up with twists and turns as I go. Character A is going along trying to achieve Goal A and all the sudden BAM! Conflict.

(3) The dubious plotting method of Megan Gadd.

Don’t get your hopes up that my plotting method is brilliant or anything. It’s just a nice, friendly way for my brain to approach plotting without freezing up like a deer in the headlights.

To be honest, I can never quite figure out how to pull off the Brandon Sanderson method of plotting. And the seven-point story structure always leaves me feeling like the characters are dead on the page between “points.” I desperately need my own method.

As a reader, my favorite plots are those that feel like Rube Goldberg machines. You have no idea where it’s going to end, but each step leads brilliantly to the next.

Recently I was reading a book and I could NOT put my finger on what was bothering me about it.

As it turns out, a fellow reader was able to help me out. I read a review of the novel, and in the comments someone pointed out that it had no sense of cause and effect. The characters act (an essential part of plotting to be sure) but their actions led to no consequences. Without that sense of consequence (complications or conflict) your characters might still be moving forward, but not in the concentrated, focused way that good storytelling requires. I mean waking up everyday to face normal everyday conflicts is all well and good, but it’s not that great a story, you know?

So. Cause and effect. To effect something you have to act (or choose deliberately not to act). There can be more than one effect to an action, perhaps an immediate consequence and one that comes into play down the road. I love this method because as a writer sometimes I write without an end in mind (a pantser) and sometimes I write with an end in mind (a plotter). I think this method can work for both plotting modes. A pantser can have a character make a decision and can decide the consequence on the spot. Lather, rinse, repeat, and see where that takes the novel. A plotter can use this idea to sit down and plan out the Rube Goldberg machine step for step.

This kind of chain reaction plotting sounds very linear, and I guess it is. For right now that’s how I’m going to approach my writing. As Michael Scott says to Dwight, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

NaNoWriMo is nigh and I’m excited to use this method to keep me writing every day. I’ll report back afterwards and let you know how this plotting method works out for me.