Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix is a fantasy novel about a stock heroine going through a stock quest while developing an unhealthy emotional codependency on the first stock love interest she comes across. She hates nearly every woman she meets and is motivated entirely by men. The author makes no pretensions of caring about the Bechdel Test. The book is praised for its strong feminist values.
This will be long, but bear with me. I have issues with internalized misogyny being interpreted as feminism. Warning: references to rape.
To show where I’m coming from, I’d like to frame my thoughts through the lenses of Tanith Lee’s Disturbed By Her Song. It’s a collection of short fiction, the majority of which being lesbian love stories that subvert and reject patriarchal values. One, “The Kiss,” tells how a young girl pays homage to the great actress Lalage. Does she want Lalage to sign her copy of the play? No. She wants a print of the madame’s kiss.
“Another mouth than yours, madame, will be applied to that rose-red kiss, over and over. I promise you that. And though it can, naturally, mean nothing to you, to the one who kisses your kiss, it will mean very much.”
The scene is set outside the theater, where a group of male theater-goers mill about hoping for a scrap of Lalage’s attention. She doesn’t give them any, pointedly refusing their advances. But this girl, this bold and strange girl, has the temerity to ask for a kiss. And gets it.
This wouldn’t do.
“No, she’s no whore,” said another, coming over. [Clavier] was a bigger, darker man, his cloak and hat of better quality, a gaudy, bruised-looking ring on his finger. “I tell you what she is. She’s an unnatural woman.”
[. . . . .]
“I’ve noted her type before. Sluts who think they are a sort of man – and that they can get away with it. And not a decent bone in their perverted little bodies. Good for nothing. You heard her, eh, my men, you heard her, didn’t you?” He puffed up bigger, an erection of stern anger. “Another mouth than yours,” he aped her loudly, if inaccurately, so all might hear, “pressed over and over to your kiss.”
“What a bitch,” someone said.
“She deserves anything we might do to her.”
Quick-witted, she tells them that she has done this not for herself but for her bedridden father.
“Let her go on.” After all, the young girl had spoken of love and loyalty to a man. Yes, let her go on.
“Why else,” said the girl, defiant, throwing back her head to look at them all, “do you think I found the courage to come to this theatre night after night, not understanding a word of the play and shocked by it, enduring too insults from men on every side, only to watch the great actress Lalage? It was for my father, gentlemen. My father loves her so. And he was too ill to come, so I came, each night, and each night I went home from the theatre, and describe to him every move and gesture of Lalage. Oh, if you could have seen his poor sick sad face light up like a warm window with joy – just from hearing of her.”
[. . . . .]
They acqueisced, bowing their heads now, humbled.
For she was a proper woman, as God had made her, putting their sex before her own, serving her father despite her own timidity. What a wife she would make – what a mistress.
[. . . . .]
Not one of them would not draw parallels thereafter among his female kin. Not one would not be dissatisfied with himself… To help her father. She had risked it all. In pure and sweet and proper love. Their champion, and they had tried to dishonor her. For shame!
There is, naturally, no father. “I lied,” the girl says later in the privacy of her own room, kissing the rose-red kiss of Lalage.
Boys can’t stand being told “You can’t play. This isn’t your sandbox; this isn’t about you.” Lesbians, when they aren’t part of a guy’s creepy fantasies, exemplify this. Their love is filthy, unnatural, perverted because it supplants the sexual desire of men for women while excluding the former. But it’s not only the circling brutes that are the problem; it’s also the imaginary ailing father who commands her love, being, and devotion. In this scenario, the girl is put in her place. Men are entitled to her loyalty, be they her husband, brother, or father. Her existence, to them, must be defined through their pleasure and wants, a man’s helpmeet who puts “their sex before her own.” A woman, then, faces not just the danger of physical assault but also an insidious patriarchal mold that makes her life, private wants, and fears all about men.
The men of “The Kiss” would have adored Silver Phoenix‘s Ai Ling.
“Why is he unconscious?” [Chen Yong] asked, again without turning. She felt like a rejected pet, scurrying after her master. Pride and anger would have surfaced under normal circumstances, but Ai Ling had no energy for such emotions.
She walked more than a few strides in silence.
“I think I did it [hurt my possessed would-be rapist badly],” she ﬁnally said.
Chen Yong halted and turned to her, his features hard, his eyes dark like a stranger’s. “You mean you don’t know? Were you possessed as well?”
“No. I don’t believe so.”
“He was going to give me my father’s letters. Now I can never speak with Master Tan again—the only man who knew him.”
Tears welled in Ai Ling’s eyes.
“I can try and speak to him.” She stared down at her exposed legs, her trousers in tatters.
Bolding mine. Context: Chen Yong, Ai Ling’s love interest, is looking for his father. He finds Master Tan, a man who knew the father, and hopes to get some information from him. Their stay at Tan’s manor is disrupted when Tan’s son Fei Ming, demon-possessed, tries to rape Ai Ling. The quoted scene takes place immediately after the assault. Enraged that Ai Ling has accused his son of drugging and attacking her, Tan chases them out of his house. Chen Yong is angry that Ai Ling lost him his one chance of learning about his father.
The attempted rape is not remarked upon. Chen Yong at this point honestly doesn’t care, despite the evidence of her torn trousers. All he cares about is his own quest. Rather than recognizing that his behavior is unacceptable, Ai Ling bursts into tears and begs for his affection like a “rejected pet scurrying after her master.” Chen Yong responds by cranking up the asshole factor:
“You need to clean up and rest,” Chen Yong said. It sounded more like a command than a concerned suggestion.
“We should go.” She did need rest, but she didn’t want to take it here.
“I’ll leave. You can stay,” he said.
Ai Ling felt the blood drain from her face. “What do you mean?”
“It was a mistake to ask you to accompany me to Master Tan’s. We should go our separate ways.” He spoke without looking at her.
Later on, Chen Yong apologizes—not after any prompting on Ai Ling’s part, mind you; when Ai Ling brings the issue up again, she’s most concerned that at the time, she thought Chen Yong would want nothing to do with her anymore. This trend continues throughout the text; Ai Ling spends most of her time longing, pining, and begging for Chen Yong’s approval. Or her father’s approval. Or the approval of the guy who was possessed and tried to rape her.
She was unable to match his good humor. She needed to tell him the truth. Her stomach knotted, anticipating his reaction. “I have something to confess.” She ﬁdgeted on the stool, looked at her worn cloth shoes. “I was responsible for hurting you.” Ai Ling met his gaze for the ﬁrst time.
Fei Ming did not look angry. He tilted his head in puzzlement.
“I think I have some sort of protective spirit with me,” she said. “I can’t control it.”
His face relaxed, and he examined her with a look of understanding. “I know what it’s like not to be in control of yourself. You’re no more at fault for what happened than I am.”
Relief rose within her. She gave a wan smile in gratitude.
I mean, gosh, if a man tried to rape me—demonic possession or not—my first worry would be whether he’s angry with me, right? Male favor is the most precious commodity, after all. Incidentally, after her innate magic hurt him badly, Ai Ling immediately uses the same magic to heal him good as new. Isn’t it nice that he’s not upset with her? Isn’t it great that he’s here to validate that she wasn’t at fault?
Ai Ling regards men with immediate trust rather than caution. Which is curious, seeing as a merchant who wanted to coerce her into marriage was part of the reason she ran away from home to begin with. She’s helped along by author fiat: every man she encounters, apart from the odd possession here and there, is a helpful ally—Master Tan apologizes to her and gives her a special dagger; a male seer blesses that dagger and gives her guidance; Chen Yong—when not busy dismissing near-rape—and his brother Li Rong constantly rescue and support her.
I’m not saying, exactly, that a book can only be feminist if the heroine shuts men out from her life (though wouldn’t it be nice if we see more lesbian representation?), but the behavior of male characters and Ai Ling’s attitude in Silver Phoenix are consistently problematic, with none of it being questioned or deconstructed. It ignores the fact that women have very good reasons to be distrustful of men; it rejects the vision of women banding together to form a support network and sharing solidarity. Ai Ling, as a fictional construct, is a nightmare. Her strengths come from a paternal role model. All her concerns center around men and garnering their endorsement and affection. When she encounters women who take away even a minute of her male companions’ attention, she immediately becomes hostile. In contrast, she is able to forgive even the villain who tries to rape her (yes, it’s a second rape attempt; yes, this book is full of sexual threat triggers) by praying for him and acknowledging that he “loved her in his own twisted fashion.”
For the record, we are now up to two would-be rapists, both of whom Ai Ling is concerned for and whom she is willing to give the benefit of the doubt. She kills the eunuch, but not before channeling her previous incarnation to tell him “I loved you.”
Women in a Fauxminist Narrative
The problem with Ai Ling isn’t simply that she fawns on men. It is that, in addition to fawning on men— “putting their sex before her own,” if you will—is that she hates women.
Perhaps hate isn’t it exactly, but she has a strange, almost automatic distrust of all women: the text supports this distrust by making sure that all women she encounters are either evil (a three-breasted female demon who sucks the life out of men, a snake-woman who tries to eat Chen Yong’s brother, Zhong Ye’s sorceress consort)1 or remote and unlikeable (the Goddess of Records and the Lady in White: the latter, despite having a background I thought Ai Ling would empathize with,2 ends up earning Ai Ling’s dislike). Bit female characters are variously the shrill, unpleasant wife of her father’s friend; a serving girl at a restaurant, and servants cowed by their male masters (one of whom drugs Ai Ling’s tea so Fei Ming can rape her).
: Come to think of it, all female sexuality in this book apart from Ai Ling’s—and even then, her “sexuality” begins and ends with blushing furiously or wishing she could kiss her love interest—is portrayed as evil or demonic. As well, Ai Ling is a virgin and has never even crushed on a boy. Chen Yong, on the other hand, has had a romantic relationship with a childhood sweetheart. We’re back to the cliché of girls being sexually and romantically naïve in contrast with experienced male love interests. Sure is feminist around here.
: The background being that the Lady in White was treated by her father (in this book, it’s always the father who grants independence to daughters; mothers are a non-factor) “like a son”—that is, educated and permitted relative freedom. Note, again, that all female liberty in this book is only made possible by men, not through other women or an individual woman’s struggle.
Most importantly, Ai Ling’s mother doesn’t exist.
Oh, technically she appears in the novel. She even talks. But she has no agency and no reason to exist beyond being a victim of paternalism. The first chapter begins with the mother giving Ai Ling “The Book of Making,” a sex manual that she explains will help Ai Ling please her future husband. This marks the first of their two early conversations of any length. The second has to do with how her parents met and how their romance budded. Both, you will notice, are conversations that hinge entirely on men. The mother is described at every opportunity as “frail,” “sad” or “elegant,” with “delicate fingers.” In contrast, Ai Ling’s father teaches her to read, write, and learn philosophy and history; it is indicated that they discuss these subjects often.3 In his absence, Ai Ling spends time with her mother and thinks it is pleasant enough, but the best part of it is: “Ai Ling enjoyed this time the most, with the long day behind them, perhaps bringing Father closer to his return.” So: that’s the mother’s most positive role—serving as a prop for her daughter’s adoration of her husband. At the end of the story, Ai Ling finds herself no longer able to relate to any of the girls in her town. They embroider; they’re domestic. How can she, who has touched a dragon’s scales, possibly lower herself to consort with them? She’s one of the boys now.
: He doesn’t teach his wife any such thing, despite apparently loving her very much. This is important: later on, an unsavory merchant forges documents that indicate Ai Ling’s father owes him a huge debt. Her mother is unable to declare it fake on the spot because she can’t read.
As bad as it is, Ai Ling’s mother is just the tip of the shitberg. Let’s talk about the evil empress, Zhong Ye’s consort. Oh, I’m sorry. Zhong Ye’s jealous consort .
“You are perceptive. Zhong Ye does not wish harm upon you; he believes he loves you. It is the work of his current bride, who realizes her days ruling by his side are numbered if you do appear. After many centuries, she knows you have reincarnated, that you are on your way. She wants you dead.”
Were it up to Zhong Ye, Ai Ling’s journey would have been painless and expedient. The reason she’s been attacked, repeatedly, by all kinds of demons? His consort, Gui Xin.
“You’re not much to look at in this life, Silver Phoenix.” The coy smile on her rouged lips deepened. “Too tall and lanky. Pity. You were breathtaking. Stunning.”
The hairs on the back of Ai Ling’s neck stood on end. Zhong Ye’s jealous consort. She tried to cast her spirit toward the woman, but she slammed against a dark energy. The cord snapped back, and she fought not to double over.
[. . . . .]
“I’ve tried to kill you many times. Even sent a demon to possess a man to deﬂower you. I know my master would never take you used.” The woman rose. The golden sheath of her dress whispered, hugged her hips.
[. . . . .]
“I always knew that only I could ﬁnish the task.” With one ﬂuid motion, she dipped an elegant hand into her sleeve, withdrew a dagger, and plunged it into Ai Ling’s stomach.
Bolding mine. It’s the ultimate, offensive stereotype of the jealous psycho ex: vengeful, violent, sexual, hysterical, one breath away from throwing acid in the virtuous woman’s face. Naturally, Zhong Ye rejects her, calling her “nothing but a temporary consort” and has her dragged away for execution: she flails and shrieks, a sound described as “rabid screaming.” Gui Xin is thus dehumanized, stripped of her dignity and power, and thrown offstage almost as soon as she appears. I need to repeat, again, that Ai Ling is willing to forgive Zhong Ye, but she never spares any thought for Gui Xin. Zhong Ye is given sympathy both by protagonist and text;4 Gui Xin by contrast is a cardboard cut-out villain everybody despises.
: The sequel apparently “fleshes out” Zhong Ye’s character. Hey, author, remind me why I want to know more about the aspiring rapist again?
Silver Phoenix exemplifies the same problems seen in many urban fantasy heroines (Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry5 and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse are exceptionally obnoxious): it’s a narrative where the only empowered woman is the protagonist who stands tall among her gender by depriving every other woman of humanity and power. There’s no basis for positive relationships with other women, since they may steal her men or divert masculine attention from her. Femininity—elegant hands, embroidery and all—is villified. It’s internalized misogyny run rampant, unchecked, uncriticized.
And if this is feminist, then I’m the fucking Witch-Queen of Sparklepoo.
: Merry is a fairy princess. Her mother hates her. Her aunt hates her. Her grandmother is cursed by evil magic into hating her and has to be killed by her male bodyguards. Her father is the alpha and omega of her role models. She has one female friend, with whom she’s not particularly close.