Posted by: emjb | May 7, 2007

Gimmick vs. Insight

Can you imagine a world without men? No crime and lots of happy fat women. — Nicole Hollander

I haven’t been able to put my finger on why I wasn’t blown away by the much-hyped Y: The Last Man series. It’s an interesting premise (all men and male mammals mysteriously die, except for one man and his male pet monkey. Cue chaos). And the writer Brian K. Vaughan, works hard to show a variety of women characters, and to not make his male survivor a macho superstud in any way. But it still seemed a bit shallow and overwrought to me, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Blogger Bookseller had some good critiques. She points out that the only “radical” bit about it was putting a man in a traditionally female role; the sought-after prize being pursued by others while trying to find happiness and love. The rest, unfortunately, has been fairly dull. Although there are so many female characters, many of them strong, smart, etc. etc., they all feel interchangeable. I have no sense of them as people, even when their tortured backstories are revealed. This may be partly due to the character design, which seemed to give everyone, male and female, rather bland “comics people” faces and bodies; this works ok in a superhero comic, becaues you have the costumes and masks to give the main characters interest. But what that means visually in this comic is that it looks like a Superman world where all the heroes have left and it’s nothing but blandly-drawn extras.

In the presence of really strong writing and dialogue, the bland inexpressive faces might not have mattered as much, but Vaughan isn’t writing to that level, so every “emotional” scene comes off as staged and fakey.

Y has gotten a lot of attention, and a lot of praise, and is quite likely to be turned into a movie, and maybe it’ll even be a decent one. But I don’t think Vaughn quite understands what kinds of issues he’s really dealing with when he takes on gender power struggles and the history of sexism.

It doesn’t help that “world without men” scenarios have been done before, and done better, and done by women–in sci-fi stories like Herland, The Female Man, When it Changed, etc.

It’s especially disappointing to read Vaughan after so recently reading the story “The Matter of Seggri” in Ursula K. Leguin’s The Birthday of the World. Next to his thinly-plotted adventure tale, with its ersatz and unbelievable “Amazons” and anguished supermodels, LeGuin’s exploration of what a flip-flopped world with women on top would really be like shines with intelligence, compassion, and honesty.

Her women are not any more admirable as dominators, but they are infinitely more believable. LeGuin took the same conceit that Vaughn used, wondering what it would mean to be a scarce man surrounded by women who want him for his body, and reveals the downsides with a wisdom and precision than Vaughn is unable to match. Seggri is a world with about 20 times as many women as men, and so men are rare, precious, and confined to “castles” and forbidden to do anything but play sports and have sex…provided they’re good at both. No reading, no art, no science is allowed to them (because “what goes to the brain takes from the testicles”), and they can never leave their compounds or choose their partners. We see this system from both male and female sides; the vague guilt and justifications of the women, the horror of the lives of the men, deprived of personhood and agency exactly as so many women have been and still are on Earth.

Like Vaughn, LeGuin puts a man (or all men) in a female role, but unlike him, she doesn’t pull her punches as to what that means in a system without gender equity; i.e., loss of bodily ownership. What I found most unbelievable about Y is that Yorick would be anything but a prisoner; in a world where he was the only possible hope for continuing humanity, he would be locked up and forced to contribute sperm for the rest of his life–and not by having sex, either..far too risky. It would be nothing but glass jars and porn mags for him, except maybe for the occasional experiment with a carefully-chosen, genetically-desirable partner. His own wishes would be seen as mattering not at all next to the needs of his society.

To a woman raised in a society where her uterus (or any of her body) is hardly ever considered her own property to do with as she likes, this is utterly evident and predictable. But it’s as though Vaughn can’t quite admit that anything like that could ever happen to a man. As though he can’t quite imagine the full extent of it–or doesn’t want to. I don’t think that makes him a bad writer, just one unable to see past his own privileges.

So So Silver Age has more.



  1. Excellent articulation of my own lukewarm reaction to Y. Thank you for pointing out the LeGuin story; I’ll be tracking it down.

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