Monthly Archives: November 2013

“Caliban’s War”: Part 1: Women as Point of View Characters

[Spoiler’s ahoy!!]

One of my first blog posts last year covered “Leviathan Wakes,” the first book in “The Expanse” series by James S.A. Corey.  The book grew on me over time, and I gave it as a gift to several friends this year.  While I enjoyed the book, I had some reservations about the portrayal of gender.  One of the two authors of the series, Daniel Abraham commented on my review and said that I should try the second book, “Caliban’s War” to see how women are treated as point of view characters.  Often in literature and films, women are either treated exactly like men (with women’s names) or as stereotypes of women. The women in “Caliban’s War” were treated as whole persons with a mixture of masculine and feminine traits.

For example, I adored both Bobbie Draper, who begins as a sergeant in the Martian Marine Corps, and Chrisjen Avasarala, the assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration.   Bobbie’s story arc is an amazing one.  Her team is destroyed at the beginning of the book by nonhuman creature described as being “covered in chitinous plates” with its head “being a massive horror.”  It rips her counterparts apart, and Bonnie lives merely because the creature exploded.  Bonnie’s character development includes her having to work through this nightmare experience, as well as her breaking her ties with her former life because she realizes that the threat of this “monster” is greater than any Earth-Mars tensions.  Her position as a marine was extremely important to her. Although I won’t give away the ending, Bonnie regains her strength, and her actions amaze.  She is a resourceful, powerful, strong, and large woman who is attractive despite not matching traditional gender roles.  I thought that it was interesting that, due to her size, men often wanted to either have a sexual relationship with her or were intimidated by her.  Bobbie embraces her sexuality in a healthy way; furthermore, she is not viewed negatively for her sexuality.  I never felt when reading this novel that Bobbie was just a woman character who acts exactly like a man. She felt like a fully developed human being with her own talents and goals.

I’ve discussed dramaturgical analysis before, and I believe that Bobbie’s presentation of self roughly matched who she was.  On the other hand, Avasarala, an older woman and diplomat, had to find ways to play her role as the assistant to the undersecretary of administration  successfully in the male dominated field she worked in.  Before addressing the specifics of “Caliban’s War,” I want to discuss some of the findings related to women working in fields dominated by men.

In work sociology, an important topic to address is the tokenizing experience of minorities like women in workplaces. Rosabeth Kanter, faculty in the Harvard business school, for example, found that minorities in a workplace are highly scrutinized by their peers until about 15% of the workplace is comprised of that particular minority.  Therefore, a lone woman working in a field dominated by men would be monitored closely, as well as having her behaviors explained in terms of traditionally feminine stereotypes.  Women in this type of situation would have to learn to negotiate this tokenism. Kanter’s research has also been critiqued as oversimplifying the complexities of gender discrimination in the workplace, as it relates to gender.  If you’re interested in this topic, Kanter’s book from 1977 is called “Men and Women of the Corporation.”  Incidentally, Dr. Kanter (@RosaBethKanter) often tweets helpfully about leadership and innovation.

Returning to “Caliban’s War,” Avasarala’s spouse asks her, “‘The mask is heavy today?’”

Avasarala reflects on this idea. “The mask, he called it.  As if the person she was when she faced the world was a false one, and the one who spoke to him or played painting games with her granddaughters was authentic.  She thought that he was wrong, but the fiction was so comforting she had always played along.”

It seems that Avasarala either sees both versions of herself as authentic or only the version of herself at work as authentic.  This fits in with the dramaturgical analysis: she performs different roles in the different settings that she’s in.  It doesn’t mean that one is necessarily more “real” or “true” than another. Avasarala worked for the United Nations and was a tough character on the surface who learned to appear certain ways to work with the men in her field.  Avasarala finds certain masculine behavior distasteful, while embracing other aspects to fit in, perhaps like cursing. She is the, or one of the, most intelligent characters in the book and is one of the first characters to realize the dangerous potential of the entity on Venus from the previous book. Her behavior throughout the book is impacted by the realization that infighting between Earth and Mars might be harmful in a fight against a new enemy.  One of my favorite aspects of Avasarala is her willingness to get her hands dirty while still holding onto certain norms like protecting children.  Her arc allows for her to fall, briefly, in power, and then to rise higher than she started.

Both Bobbie and Avasarala felt like full human beings with their own histories, hopes, and goals.  I was pleased with their portrayal in this book, and I hope to write another post soon that looks more generally at the politics happening in the book, and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology