The Red Rising Trilogy and Lip Service Feminism

Red-Rising

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and its sequel Golden Son are well-written, intelligent sci-fi. The world-building’s solid (if a bit cliche- seriously why is Greco-Roman the go-to influence for future dystopias?) and the books generally have complex things to say about the limits and and effects of revolution, as well as a much more realistic view of the sort of people required to overturn a powerful, dictatorial system. They’re thrilling and well-plotted, with the second book in particular doing a fantastic job of eschewing traditional plot beats and packing a killer ending that surprised me even though I had been warned about it beforehand.

I’m also going to say that there’s an entire other article to be written on the absence of people of color. Seriously, though, why is everyone white? There isn’t a plot-based reason that I can think of and this is apparently an empire that sprang out of the Earth as whole, not one specific country so…..?

But what I want to talk about is the treatment of women in the Red Rising books and how to me, this seems to be endemic of current sci-fi/fantasy. There are some amazing strides being made in gender representation in genre fiction. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of books that look like Red Rising, where gender equality is referred to, seems to be theoretically a thing, and is in practice nowhere to be found.

In both the Academy main character Darrow attends, and the broader world of the Red Rising books, Brown has his characters make statements and hold positions that would seem to indicate that this is a gender equal world. The supreme leader is a woman. The Proctors of the Academy seem to neatly divided among the sexes. Darrow’s ally/love interest Mustang is just as ruthless and combat-ready as the male characters. And there are female character scattered throughout different castes/positions.

However, the only women who have a significant part to play in the story are, with one exception, romantic interests for Darrow. And this exception, Antonia, is demonized throughout both books as being too ambitious and untrustworthy, characteristics that one could easily apply to Darrow himself, as well as being subtly slut-shamed. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with a female character that is ferocious, amoral, and ruthless. Especially in the context of the world of Red Rising. But Antonia is introduced at the same time as many of Darrow’s other companions and allies, and is never afforded the same complexity as those male characters. We understand when Darrow’s friend-turned-frenemy-turned-enemy Cassius is the way he is and why he makes the choices he makes. Even though Cassius attacks Darrow at several points, Brown is careful to portray him as a product of his society- brave and loyal and completely capable of killing those who betray him. The Jackal, the first book’s antagonist turned uneasy ally, is a monstrous sociopath, but there’s still room in the narrative to imply his unfulfilled need for his father’s approval. So why doesn’t Antonia get the same treatment?

Antonia’s sister Victra, who appears in the sequel Golden Son, is similarly short-changed by the narrative. Like Antonia, her sexuality is portrayed as negatively aggressive and predatory. But despite these annoyingly retrograde characterizations, Victra is firmly on Darrow’s side throughout Golden Son. So why then is she also left a one-note character? Here there was a chance for Brown to improve upon the character of Antonia, to portray a sexually liberated, politically ruthless woman who was not demonized by the text and afforded the same complexity as the male characters. Instead, the only other facet of Victra’s character that we receive is her attraction to Darrow. The only other prominent woman allied with Darrow is his former lover and series love interest Mustang; not only are there only two substantial female characters in Golden Son, but both of them are increasingly defined by their attraction to the main character. This situation is not only frustrating, but in the case of Victra sexist and cliched. Instead of being a dynamic and morally grey character, she is the former slattern redeemed by her inexplicable and if we’re being honest rather out of character affection for the heroic lead male.

I’ve saved Mustang and Darrow’s late wife Eo for last because I think the pair of them, when viewed together, are especially representative of the state of women in genre fiction. When introduced, both Mustang and Eo gave me hope that the
Red Rising
books would be as gender-equal as the world they portray supposedly is. In her brief time on the page, Eo is bold, rebellious, and intelligent, with a conviction in her cause and a clear sense of justice that Darrow lacks throughout both books. And to give Brown fair credit, Darrow notes the differences between himself and Eo often, frequently musing on whether he is acting in a way that would vindicate her sacrifice and ideals. Similarly, Mustang is decried by herself and the narrative as the smartest character, and is outright identified by Darrow as the best possible example of the ruling class given her strong sense of morality and justice. Darrow’s relationship with Mustang is vital to his success and his romantic interest in her does not prevent him from seeing her as his tactical equal and intellectual superior.

But despite playing a prominent role in Red Rising, Mustang fades into the background for large sections of Golden Son. She remains noble and intelligent, but we are denied a sense of her interior life or any real show of what her life entails beyond either her romantic or political attachment to Darrow. And, (this is honestly fascinating to me), Eo effectively fridges herself. She dies in the hope that she will inspire others, but specifically Darrow to do great things, despite the fact that she is by far the more passionate of the two. Both women are capable, intelligent, and seemingly complex but either materially step aside to make room for the male hero in the case of Eo, or symbolically in the case of Mustang.

In a broader sense, this is endemic of the world of Red Rising, which would very much seem to be gender-equal but for conspicuous lack of meaningful representation of women. We’ve reached a point in society and literature where the great majority of authors are aware that women are people and deserve to be portrayed as such and these authors will say as much when asked. They will go on about how their female characters are “strong” and “independent” as if these words are synonyms for complex and real. Because the reality is that so much of genre fiction reads like Red Rising and so many female fans are in the same position as myself. Do you praise a book for at least attempting to include complex female characters and a gender-equal outlook? Even if the text falls radically short of such a goal?

At this point, I’m going to say no. I’m not going to end this post by saying that the Red Rising books are great in spite of their latent misogyny, because I think it’s time for the fantasy genre to abandon such statements. Instead, I’m going to end by saying that the Red Rising books had the potential to be great, but their lack of equal representation of female characters, and problematic representations of the women that are present, prevent them from being so. Because women who read genre fiction and the women who are present within the pages of genre fiction deserve so much more than retrograde stereotypes and thinly veiled slut-shaming and half-assed portraits of independence and strength that fade respectfully into the distance,  as soon as the male protagonist comes onstage.

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One comment

  1. kate patterson · · Reply

    Your article’s given me new life. I’ve been putting forth valid criticisms about the novels the moment that I’ve started to really think critically about what I read. I agree with the potential the series had, but it was really held back by the lack/problematic representation of female characters in the series.

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