Gender and Sexuality in Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler : some thoughts

Sea Change by SM WheelerLast week Friday I reviewed Sea Change  by S.M. Wheeler, a novel I thought sounded fantastically promising, but which turned out to be totally disappointing. Mostly, I thought it was badly written to the extent that I found it unsalvageable in terms of being an enjoyable read. Another problem was that the novel doesn’t explore the emotions and motivations of the characters as deeply as it could have, and that felt like a colossal waste. There is a lot of shocking or intense content that could have made it very moving – both painful and heartwarming – but the characters/narrative often skim over that.

However, I think Wheeler had many interesting ideas, especially regarding gender, sexuality and the body. I wish she’d done a lot more with them, but nevertheless they’re worth looking at in themselves, hence the separate post. A spoiler-filled summary and discussion will follow, with some descriptions of violence. However, I won’t reveal the ending, and since I’ll only be discussing gender-related stuff, I won’t be spoiling everything, should you still wish to read Sea Change after reading this. There’s quite a bit more going on there. Before you read any further though, I suggest you click through to the review and read the plot summary if you haven’t already done so.

***** SPOILERS FROM HERE ON *****

 

If nothing else, I will remember Sea Change for the fact that the first step in Lilly’s quest involves a very violent, extremely painful sex change/neutering that happens both with and without her consent. At this point, she doesn’t know where Octavius is, but her kind step-mother tells her about a troll who wields the kind of magic that could track him down. Lilly finds the troll, and unwisely agrees to give anything that’s hers in payment. In a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror novel, the troll immediately begins surgery, tearing off Lilly’s hair, cutting her open and whipping out her womb without confirming the exchange. Apparently a friend of the troll’s wants a baby. Thanks to some kind of magic, Lilly doesn’t bleed, but she’s in unimaginable pain throughout the procedure, which as least takes only a few minutes. As a favour, the troll then makes pants out of her skirt, slims her hips, removes her breasts and deepens her voice so that she can pass as a boy, since she doesn’t look very feminine without her hair.

Lilly accepts the changes as a fair bargain since she unwisely agreed to give the troll “anything”, but she obviously hadn’t considered giving up her womb and with it all possibility of reproduction, vaginal intercourse, orgasms, and probably an intimate long-term relationship. Naturally, she’s too traumatised to really deal with this emotionally. She examines herself to confirm that she no longer has any genitals, wishes she had been more lewd since sex no longer seems a possibility for her, then ‘avoids’ her own body as something she’d. She no longer wants to be touched, partly out of fear of discovery but also out of revulsion.

This reaction, while initially understandable if you think of it as going into shock, eventually feels… insubstantial. Lilly is pretty depressed for the rest of the book, but marches on with practical determination and a minimum of introspection. This was my main gripe with the book. The sex change is only the first of several terrible things Lilly endures to save Octavius, and although none of her sacrifices can be ignored, these issues seem to hover uncertainly in the background. I don’t really know what Lilly thinks of all this, except that she’d rather not think about it at all. I have never read a book where something like this happens to a character, and the fact that it’s YA is even more surprising. I wanted Wheeler to explore every nook and cranny of Lilly’s psyche, and delve into all the implications of her sea change. It’s not that I want Wheeler to spell out the ‘meaning’ of her novel. Yes, I do like it when there’s something more like a cohesive message, but I appreciate ambiguity too and I don’t expect novels to have answers to the questions they pose. Rather, I think there is something fundamental missing here – an understand of the protagonist that, in its absence, leaves the reader fumbling hopelessly to get a grasp on the story.

At least the practical issue of her gender – her male appearance and her neutered body – comes up frequently. Looking like a boy makes some things a bit easier. The ugliness of the large red birthmark on her face is less of an issue, since ugliness in boys is not considered as repulsive as ugliness in girls. And since she lives in a fairly traditional society, she has more freedom and acceptance as a boy. Without breasts, it’s also easier for her to maintain her ‘disguise’.

You’d also think that Lilly might escape the threat of sexual violence, but instead she has to deal with different versions of this problem. At the circus she encounters a lecherous witch; to rescue the tailor she lives with a pair of gay bandits as their servant; the bandits give her lodging in their stable where she shares her bed with a mule in the body of a human boy.

The witch – Ermentrud – aggressively harasses Lilly, forcibly kisses and fondles her, and tries to force her to stay and become her lover (under the assumption that she’s a boy, of course). She poses the threat of both physical and magical violence, and tries to persuade Lilly to stay with her rather than continue on her quest.

The two bandits, although crude and violent, don’t show much sexual interest in Lilly (now calling herself Lyle, although female pronouns are used throughout the novel). At first I assumed it was because the bandits had been together for so long that they wouldn’t let a young boy mar their relationship. They might be thieves and killers, but they’re nevertheless a loving and devoted couple. However, it’s later revealed that both men know (or rather think they know) that Lilly is a woman. Towards the end of her time with them, the more violent of the two men tries to use her (perceived) gender against her by physically assaulting her in a very sexualised way. At this point, he is deeply suspicious of Lilly/Lyle, who is in fact conspiring against them to free the zombie tailor. He claims to have no intention of raping her, but what he does exposes her, both physically (by pulling her clothes off) and in terms of her identity (revealing his knowledge of her). He stops only when Lilly’s nudity reveals the truth – that she’s neutered.

This ordeal is no less traumatic for Lilly because she has neither breasts nor genitals to be exposed. In fact, it’s another major adjustment for her:

In this moment, the mastery of her body was wrenched from her hands, and all that remained was the awareness that she would never again believe herself wholly safe.

It’s actually odd that Lilly did not feel this way before. At least with the bandit she could fight back; the troll paralysed her without warning and took her womb. Since then Lilly ran the risk of being demonised for her neutered state, given that people already labelled her a witch because of her birthmark. She also endured a witch forcing her to swallow dead men’s tooth and survived physical assault by Horace the mule-boy, who tried to kill her. The bandit’s attack was hardly the first time someone took control of her body, and she has seldom been safe since she left home.

But lets go back to Horace. He is dangerous at first but he and Lilly gradually becomes friends and allies. I think Lilly sees him more as an animal than a human, which is probably comforting given that she’s been treated badly by many humans and her only other friend is also an animal. Horace’s preference for sleeping at the bottom of Lilly’s bed violates her aversion to touching and physical closeness while also threatening her secret, but she eventually grows accustomed to it.

Horace’s character however, is suggestive of bestiality in a way that I wouldn’t even have thought of if similar suggestions hadn’t already been made about Octavius. There isn’t any bestiality in the novel – it’s not that shocking – but there are several occasions when Octavius is equated with or compared to a lover. Lilly’s quest and their love for each other sound like something out of a romance. And there’s a precedent: Lilly’s mother, Anna Rosa, was supposedly in love with or enslaved to a serpent and had to be won over/rescued by Lilly’s father, Nikolaus (the truth is never revealed). Loving monsters apparently runs in the family – another interesting idea that isn’t really explored.

Anna Rosa, however, seems disgusted when she learns about Lilly’s friendship with a kraken. Lilly says “It was always the sexual hunger of men that she feared to let near her daughter, and never knew what friendship could do”. The scene that this comes from is very confused, so I’m not entirely sure what is meant, but it’s certainly suggested that Lilly’s friendship with a monster is just as dangerous as being preyed upon by a man, and perhaps that it holds a similar kind of danger. Given that Anna Rosa also had a relationship with a monster, we can assume that she’s speaking from experience.

But – and this is the kind of problem that keeps cropping up in the book – what is the point? Anna Rosa’s never reveals her experience with the serpent, and without that context I don’t understand her feelings. I would never have compared Lilly and Octavius’s friendship to a sexual relationship, but the book does so, for reasons that elude me. And I’m not sure what threat the friendship poses. Are her parents worried the kraken will scare away a potential husband? Or just that Octavius will eventually kill Lilly and she’ll die for her monstrous love?

I don’t know. It’s be nice if someone could make sense of it all for me. There is at least one gender issue that I found more coherent – the number of strong women in the story. It’s not a simple depiction, and there is plenty of ambiguity, but at least it doesn’t feel like there’s something important missing.

The novel is set in a magical version of our world, in a past with traditional gender roles. However, it is the women in the novel who are the most powerful, despite being constrained by those roles. Lilly’s mother Anna is the first example. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, she is just as outspoken about her feelings as her husband. She also remains in control of her reproductive rights – she gave Nikolaus a child as he wanted, but she refuses to risk dying by having another just because he’s dissatisfied with Lilly. He wanted either a soft, gentle girl or a strong boy and Lilly doesn’t fit either of those gendered ideals.

In Anna’s final scene, early on in the novel, Lilly and Nikolaus find her mixing herbs for an abortion. It’s the last straw for their marriage, and after a brief fight she packs a few things and leaves. Unfortunately, this is one of those poorly written scenes, random and confusing. But consider Anna’s power. She rejects her husband’s demands and traditional expectations for a suitable – ideally male – heir. Then, she simply packs up and leaves. It’s a cruel thing to do to Lilly, but what’s interesting is the way it inverts traditional male/female power structures. Anna leaves, free to start a new life. Nikolaus stays, makes up a lie about his wife dying to avoid public humiliation (this is highly implausible, but that’s just one of many inconsistencies), and later marries another woman in the hope of getting the ‘first-born’ he wanted. He’s the one stuck in the family home, wringing his hands over reproductive expectations, so much so that he lies to everyone, even deluding himself with the idea of having another first-born. His new wife is a young, bubbly woman who understands that Nikolaus loves her only “for her womb” but is satisfied with her life nevertheless, making her seem a much more liberated character than her miserable husband.

I wouldn’t argue that the inversion of power between Anna and Nikolaus is necessarily progressive, but at the very least this scenario exposes these traditional, gendered expectations as being oppressive to men as well as women, and detrimental to the institution of marriage in which is it rooted. It also ruins Nikolaus’s relationship with Lilly,

She is essentially thrown out of the house because her presence threatens the idea of the new family that Nikolaus wants to build, and he doesn’t want her to inherit. On her quest to find Octavius, she encounters multiple independent women. The first is the troll, who, despite what she does to Lilly, doesn’t come across as a bad person. The second is Ermentrud, the older but very beautiful witch, who has the circus master wrapped around her little finger.

At the tailor’s house, she meets Miss Reiniger. As it turns out, the coats of illusion are made not by one man but by a couple. Miss Reiniger cannot make the coats alone, and needs Lilly/Lyle to rescue the tailor, Mr Nadel, from the bandits. I consider anyone who can survive alone (not to mention alone in an abandoned town) after losing their partner to be someone with incredible reserves of strength. She and the tailor are also notable for their unconventional living arrangement – they’re not married, but appear to have an intimate relationship (perhaps less intimate now that Nadel is a zombie…). In another inversion, Miss Reiniger is also the free agent in her relationship. Her husband is disempowered – a mute zombie being held captive by bandits who expect him to do their bidding. Again, inversions are necessarily progressive, but I can’t help but be impressed by all these strong women in a society where women are believed to be weak.

On her way to the bandits, Lilly encounters another witch, named Gottschalk. Unlike Ermentrud, who rules a powerful man with her captivating beauty, Gottschalk is the victim of the two bandits who have stolen her skin and thereby forced her into servitude. Lilly needs to retrieve her skin in exchange for help freeing the tailor. Gottschalk is hideous and vulnerable (she literally has a skinless body, muscles visible, fluids leaking), but incredibly powerful and wily. For example, when the bandits ordered her to make automatons who obey no other men but them, she used their gender-biased phrasing against them, making the automatons so that the bandits are the only men they take orders from, but they obey women and, of course, Lilly, since she’s neutered.

And then there’s Lilly herself, who starts out female, becomes neutered, dresses like a boy, but is referred to with a female pronoun throughout the story. Probably the most gender-bending YA character I’ve read. As a girl, she’s rejected and feared. She isn’t who her father wants her to be. The birthmark on her face inspires prejudice that disappears when she becomes male. She would not have had to leave home if she’d been a boy. She sacrifices her gender and sexuality to save a friend, and thereafter friendship is presents the most intimate relationship she can have. Looking like a boy frees her in some ways but endangers her in others, like when Ermentrud tries to seduce her. However, it’s partly because Lilly was once female that she was able to resist Ermentrud. And it’s because she’s not male that she’s able to command the bandit’s automatons and make her way to the next step in her quest. I think the sheer amount of horror, pain and misery that Lilly puts up with for the love of a friend is in itself a testament to her strength. On the other hand, she’s not a triumphant character – I pitied her from beginning to end and Lilly is downcast most of the time (although for good reasons).

The downside to the strong women in this book is that most of them are demonised or othered in some way – Anna is a bad mother; the troll is, well, a troll, and she takes Lilly’s womb; Ermentrud and Gottschalk are both cruel, violent witches; and Lilly isn’t even a woman per se for most of the book. The men aren’t much better – Nikolaus is as bad a parent as his wife; the bandits make a nice couple but are murdering thieves; the tailor and the circus master are inept; Octavius and Horace are both good and strong, but they’s also animals.

A weird conclusion occurred to me as I typed this – the idea that gender and humanity are a bad mix. Or that we can’t handle it properly, with all those oppressive traditions and expectations, which are what set this plot in motion and lead to Lilly’s unbelievable suffering.

So, what do you think? For me, thinking about these issues and writing this post has been far more interesting than actually reading the novel that inspired it. I’m impressed by Wheeler’s daring, but disappointed by her execution, intrigued by the ideas but dreadfully bored by what’s actually on the page. It’s an infuriating combination, but admittedly, it’s way better than just being bored, period.

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2 thoughts on “Gender and Sexuality in Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler : some thoughts

  1. Thanks for this interesting report. Having read your review I had no intention of reading this book. But having read all this extra stuff, I have to admit I’m kind of intrigued. I believe you that the book’s a mess, but all these strange ideas pique my interest.

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