alice (noblealice) wrote in midsummeroath,


I consider myself an enlightened 21st century woman, so when I saw in my Google Alerts that a blog called "The Feminist Review" had written about His Dark Materials, I was thrilled! I couldn't wait to read what the author had to say about one of my favourite series. However, the blogger had a negative view on the series that I don't agree with.

Now, I am very biased concerning this series, so perhaps I have been blinded by love and have missed the points the blogger has raised? Thus, I would like other people's opinions on Gender in the HDM trilogy.

Everyone talks about the trilogy’s religious implications, what about gender? It sure seems like a fantasy series with a female main character would be a clear triumph for feminism. But Will still dominates - in part because he is older, but he is also a better fighter, and more of a controlling, traditional leader. While Lyra is the centre of the story, her role in the metaplot is completely dependent on Will. Mrs. Coulter is an incredibly powerful woman, but her power is completely dependent on her sex appeal. She is an unoriginal archetype, and her “transformation” to caring mother is as predictable as her character.

Gender dynamics in all of the human societies described are similar to my own culture. There are amazing opportunities for envisioning new paradigms in fantasy and science fiction, but The Golden Compass trilogy doesn’t even try. The concept of daemons offer interesting questions. For example, most people’s daemons are the opposite gender, though not all. This probably says more about sexuality than gender, but I’m curious about the implications.

The trilogy revisits the story of Eve and Adam, but eating of the tree of good and evil is the moment of salvation that all of creation is waiting for. This subversion of an ancient and foundational myth is incredibly profound with positive implications for sexuality. Therefore it is particularly disappointing that the meaning of gender and traditional gender roles are never explored.
- source

The author's main points that I have issues with are:

1) Will dominates the story (because he is older/the better fighter)

2) Lyra's role is dependent on Will

3) Mrs. Coulter's power is dependent on her sex appeal, her character transformation is unoriginal as she moves from one archetype to another

4) The trilogy revisits the story of Adam and Eve but without exploring gender roles

I promised myself I wouldn't argue here, but I have to wonder if the blogger read the same books as I did. I didn't see the series in this light AT ALL.


1) Lyra is one of my favourite fictional characters because she is so DIFFERENT. All my childhood, I read stories about sad orphans or pretty, mistreated girls. Brainy girls who loved school and books, hopeful girls that wanted to be princesses when they grew up. When I read about Lyra, I felt like I'd never read about a character like her before. She was wilful, stubborn, rude, enjoyed and excelled at telling lies. She had her own sense of honour that didn't necessarily match up with the law. She was curious and bright and loyal but could also be quite scared. She seemed REAL. After finishing The Golden Compass, I loved Lyra. She was my favourite and I viewed Will as this annoying boy stealing her page-time. Who was he to lecture her on doing the dishes? Didn't he know that she had stared down ice bears?! How dare he treat her like he didn't trust her?! I laugh at my own reaction now that I love Will in his own right, but Lyra is still my favourite. I liked that they grew closer as friends and equals. That they both had to teach the other things. They were both from broken homes, kids who'd had to grow up before their time and since they were without a leader, they became their own team of awesome. I will always view the last two books with them as a team, but if I have to chose one character, it is Lyra that dominates the story because even during her absence, she controls the action (Will looks for her and enlists Iorek's help) and the reader can fully feel the loss of her presence during these scenes without her.

2) I would say that Lyra's role is dependent (as much as the strong-willed Lyra is dependent on anything) on Fate (aka the alitheometer) more than any person. Every step she takes is directed by what the 'angels' or 'dark matter' tell her through the instrument she comes to rely on. Her obsession with 'Dust' carries her across the bridge between worlds and she even forces will to cut into --'s study to steal back the alitheometer because it is that important to her. She consults it often, even breaching levels of privacy and she only stops asking the alitheometer when she notices that she has hurt Will. After that, Lyra must struggle a bit more with difficult decisions (such as leaving Pan on the dock as she rides the boat to the Underworld) but she eventually comes to every future realization alone by talking it out with herself, Pan or Will. If you think that Lyra is dependent on Will, consider who made them go to the Underworld in the first place? Lyra said that she had to visit Roger to fulfil a promise. Will could have said "that's nice, but I've gotta get this weapon to Lord Asriel with these angels" but he doesn't, he follows Lyra because he trusts her and views her as an equal.

3) First of all, the blogger doesn't really mention any of the other strong females in the series like Lady Salmakia, the witch queens Serafina Pekkala and Ruta Skadi or Dr. Mary Malone (who's story from nun to physisict is fascinating to me).

Second, I think she's underestimating just how awesome Marisa Coulter really is. Here is a woman who has worked her way up the ranks in an institution that distrusts women! Talk about breaking the glass ceiling! I think we also need to take into account how hard her convictions must have been to do this. With her looks, wealth and power she could have done anything, but she obviously felt strongly about her cause and chose to pursue it instead of something a bit easier. So now it's established that Marisa REALLY cares about The Church and Intercision, so what does she do when she must choose between her career and her child? She seems to (almost suddenly) develop a love that becomes so passionate that she hides her daughter 'for her own good'. In the end, she eventually sacrifices her life for Lyra's, despite knowing that Lyra hated her. I don't think that Marisa Coulter is a model Mother of the Year but she brings up interesting points about 'maternal instinct' and the argument that women must inherently be better parents. She presents a wildly faceted and three-dimensional portrayal of a mother that I found refreshing, because even though I couldn't always sympathize with her character, I felt I could understand her complex motives a bit. She's quite complex and made up of more than just an archetype. She is charming, but also power-hungry. She shows no remorse when torturing people to death but great gentleness when dealing with Lyra. She can be greedy and cruel but is also protective of Lyra.

Thirdly, I believe that the blogger doesn't seem to take the mother/daughter relationship into account or Lyra's rejection of it. Lyra's time with Mrs. Coulter (not yet knowing that she is her true mother) is when Lyra discovers her sex. She has rebelled against being labelled as a girl but this is when she finally learns (through Mrs. Coulter's example) what society wants women to talk/act/dress like. Lyra, who dislikes being told what to do, literally runs away from this restrictive world. She is not rebelling against her sex, but rather, is rebelling against how others want her to express it. She is a female, but will never like the act of performing her sex like Mrs. Coulter (with parties, dresses, makeup and visits to the salon). Lyra is too busy saving the worlds to care what her hair looks like and I think it's a healthy message to tell children that adventuring can be more important than your latest manicure.

4) The trilogy shows how organized religion (which Pullman describes as The Big Evil) has put the blame on the female sex for all sin. Women are distrusted, unable to rise in the ranks of the Church (or any form of power) because they brought on Original Sin through their ancestor Eve. (In our own world, you can still see the stigma of this today when female sexual assault victims are blamed for 'enticing men' and the use of curse words and insults that imply that just to be female is a bad thing ex.pussy, cunt) To Pullman, the original Eve depicted in Genesis was not the cause of all sin, but the source of all knowledge and awareness. In the universe of the novels, when Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, she became the mother of humanity and introduced Dust into the worlds. If Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit, humans would have remained forever in a childlike state of ignorance in the Garden of Eden. So in this re-telling, Lyra's 'act of rebellion' is not a sin at all. It would be a far greater mistake for Lyra not to have made her choice to accept free will and knowledge of love (despite the eventual loss of that love) over ignorance. While there are still many in her world who will not understand and persecute her, the author has made it clear to the reader that Lyra, or Eve, was right to make this choice. How is a book that glorifies a woman's RIGHT TO CHOOSE/CHOICES un-feminist?

So, what are your thoughts?
Tags: discussion

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