|Women and "The Sandman"
||[Feb. 1st, 2011|01:08 pm]
But why stories like these? All the ones we've heard...it's all boys' own stories, isn't it?...I mean, sure, they pass the time. They entertain. But how do they help you make sense of anything? The world isn't like that.|
-Charlene, Worlds' End, Cerements
A woman shouldn't have to sleep her life away. Women aren't about dreaming. We're about the real world.
-Nursing home resident, Kindly Ones, Part Six
So to try to resurrect my own dead and buried interest in writing fiction, I re-read Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" for maybe the sixtieth time. It's too soon to tell if it worked or not, but it was a worthwhile experiment. Way back when I was still a naive lad, "The Sandman" not only showed me that comics could convey stories about something other than the never-ending wars of superheroes or morbidly obese cats, but it expanded my idea of what fiction itself could be as well. Fantasy stories didn't have to be rehashes of J.R.R. Tolkien, no matter what the selections at my underfunded local library suggested, while profound and relateable themes didn't have to be regulated to what high school tried to program me to believe was "serious" literature.
Like all wildly successful and influential works, "The Sandman" has been a victim of its own success, in what TV Tropes brilliantly calls Seinfeld is Unfunny. I've seen detractors bitch about how the series is just about mythology and literary references, as if that really is all there is to the series and, more to the point, as if that kind of thing was common in comics before "The Sandman" more or less birthed its own subgenre of dark fantasy (which probably hurt more than it helped Vertigo Comics, but that's another story). But I think fans like me have been victims of this process as well. We've re-read the whole series so many times and have read what so many other people thought when they read the series that the hints about the series' morals on responsibility and on freedom, especially how the most important freedom is the freedom to leave, seem obvious and overplayed. With that in mind, I tried to read with eyes as fresh as possible, and I noticed that there are other themes that surface again and again, namely the idea that, as much as men may steal the show and grab the wheel, it's women who take on the ultimate responsibility and have to deal with what matters. Of course, I'm absolutely positive at least twenty people have written about gender in "The Sandman" before, and probably did a better job than I'm about to, and I'd be surprised if no scholarly articles came out of the topic, but that's why I fought down the temptation to consult the oracle of Google to see what's out there. I don't want my own ideas to be corrupted, dammit.
Anyway, I do wonder if it's deliberate on Gaiman's part that women completely drive the plot of the entire series. The big exception is that it's a man, Roderick Burgess, who brings about the catalyst that begins the series and ultimately (spoiler!) but indirectly causes Morpheus' suicide. However, it's Ethel Dee and John Constantine's girlfriend Rachel who, even though we barely meet them, instigate most of the events in "Preludes and Nocturnes." For the rest of the series, Morpheus acts as a fairly traditional male protagonist (and antagonist), rescuing women from violent and sexual threats (Calliope, Rose Walker) while at the same time harming women as a result of "traditionally" male, heterosexual motives (Nada...oh sweet Christ, poor Nada). It's women who constantly have to meddle with Morpheus' moral compass and steer him in directions it would never occur to him to go. In "Doll's House," Unity Kinkaid saves the day, where Morpheus would (almost literally) have taken a sledgehammer to the problem. Death, who had earlier stepped in to resolve Morpheus' malaise at the end of "Preludes and Nocturnes," is the only reason Morpheus even grasps, however slightly and fleetingly, the full horror of what he's done to Nada (and even then he only sees it as him failing his own personal code of honor, rather than as him inflicting suffering on another being). Likewise, Delirium is the prime mover of Morpheus' actions in "Brief Lives" and "The Kindly Ones" is, at its core, largely about the very different journeys of two women, Rose Walker and Lyta Hall. Beyond the plot, it's heavily implied, to the point that it's not really "implied," that Death is more than Death, but may indeed be what we think of as God. After all, she is an all-knowing, all-empathetic being who has a personal relationship with every being in the universe and both bestows and takes life. Meanwhile, Delirium is suggested to be the holder of secret knowledge, which comes to the fore when she manages to perplex and tell off the otherwise omniscient Destiny. For the most part one can argue that women in "The Sandman" are, as Charlene in "Worlds' End" describes it, "just pretty figures in the background to be loved or lost or avoided or obeyed or...whatever", but at the same time they, not the tragic protagonist Morpheus, are the ones who almost always move the story forward.
On a more meta level, Gaiman remarks that there is a core difference between the stories of women and the stories of men, with "The Sandman" itself being a men's story. When the tragic love story of Nada and Morpheus is told, we learn that there are two different versions of the story, one told only to women and one told only to men, but the reader only gets to "hear" the men's version. Then there's the Cuckoo in "A Game of You," who observes, "Little boys have fantasies in which they're faster, or smarter, or able to fly. Where they hide their secret identities, and listen to the people who despise them admiring their remarkable deeds...Now little girls, on the other hand, have different fantasies. Much less convoluted. Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives." In a way, the Cuckoo is foretelling Charlene's fate in "Worlds' End." After being exposed to the "boys' adventure stories" that prevail at the Worlds' End Inn, she tells her own story, a sad but all too familiar autobiographical tale about the hollowness of life and love in late twentieth-century America. In the end, she does embrace what the Cuckoo would call a typical little girls' fantasy by agreeing to work in the Inn, which literally causes her life to stop being her life.
There are only three stories in all of "The Sandman" that might be described as women's stories, and all three have a pragmatically moral edge that is lacking in, say, most of the stories in "Fables and Reflections." The first is the "short story" "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," which is in its own way an adventure story, although it's much more about faith in an idea as a way of coping with loss and helplessness. In short, it is indeed about "making sense" of things. Next, from the same "short story" collection "Dream Country," is "Facade," which is a basic story about isolation and suicide thinly disguised under several fantasy and superhero genre trappings. The most obvious example, though, is the entire "A Game of You" arc, where all the major characters are women or at least identify strongly as female, apart from Morpheus, who comes in late as a fairly literal deus ex machina. Now "A Game of You" might seem like a contradiction of Charlene's later observation, as it is on the surface a more or less straightforward fantasy adventure narrative. However, like Alice and Dorothy, Barbie chooses to let her own personal fantasy world remain dead and return to the "real world" (as she says, "Okay. I take the Dorothy option"). Even more importantly, it's implied throughout the arc that it's Barbie's reliance on her dream world, which should have been passed on to another little girl, that causes the crisis that drives the story. (It's worth noting too that "A Game of You", while it's the one arc in "The Sandman" that most adopts classic fantasy tropes, is also undoubtedly the bleakest and most violent story arc in the entire series).
So is there something fundamentally different about women and men in the universe of "The Sandman"? Well, the Endless themselves, with the obvious exception of Desire, have fixed gender identities, and much to the pre-op transsexual Wanda's consternation, in "A Game of You" a fundamental force of the universe does not recognize her as female. Yet, in the end, her firm assertions that she is a woman are absolutely vindicated. More subtly, the artwork in "Season of Mists" reveals that Nada is reincarnated as a boy. So, no, I don't think Gaiman is even accidentally agreeing with the Church of Latter Day Saints that gender is something immutable and eternal.
Instead I think the significance of these differences in women's and men's stories lies in the roles that are often forced on women. For instance, Nuala is, like so many women throughout history, being used as a political pawn at best or a sexual bribe at worst. Lyta Hall in "Doll's House" is the ultimate trophy wife, perpetually pregnant and left to do no activities more complex than combing her hair. Nada goes to Hell just because she hurt her boyfriend's pride. There are other possible examples, but the point is that, while Morpheus is unable to cope with the challenges to his morality and sense of duty, women in "The Sandman" don't need the same education. Because of the roles forced on them and the way men use them, they already have no choice but to be pragmatic. After all, as the nursing home residents in "The Kindly Ones" philosophize: "As mothers we wake them from nothingness to existence. As maidens we wake them to the joys and miseries of adulthood, wake them to the worlds of lust and responsibility. And when their time's up, it's always us has to wash them for the last time, and we lay them out for the wake."