Names, gender and identity

I was surprised at how disappointed (and disturbed) I was to discover that the title character in The Sword of Rhiannon was, in fact, male. And not only male, but a male evil god accidentally released from his prison. (This isn’t a spoiler: you find out who he is by page 4, and he’s out by page 15. This is not a book for hanging around.)

I feel rather better about him now, having finished the book and realised he was the only actual character (rather than plot device) in the story. But it made me think about how our identities are tied up with our names and our genders. I was much more bothered by a male Rhiannon than an evil god Rhiannon.

A recent news article talked about how black boys refuse to work at school for fear of being branded as gay, academic achievement being such a feminine trait. Robin tells me that about the only thing that threatens his sense of masculinity is the existence of women named Robin, such as that television chef. I wonder whether my reaction to encountering a male Rhiannon is just the same thing from the female side.

If so, it’s a much milder version. Robin may be secure in his masculinity, but so many boys and men seem to feel it is a very fragile thing – especially when it comes to being seen as gay, even though being gay doesn’t necessarily make a man feminine any more than it makes a woman masculine. I have no idea why masculine identity seems so much more easily threatened than feminine identity, except for presuming that it has something to do with the historical power of men over women. It’s certainly much more acceptable to give a girl a ‘boy’s’ name than a boy a ‘girl’s’ name, and that must be because a girl can aspire to masculinity, but it would demean a boy to be feminine.

I wondered why Brackett should choose to use a female name for a male character. She was obviously keen on Celtic mythology, as evidenced by some of the other names she uses, and presumably just liked the name. But there’s no particular reason to me that Rhiannon in this story has to be male. Rather, in the time at which she was writing, every character is male who does not have a particular reason to be female. There are three women in total in the book. One is the love interest and the other two are both Seers – wisdom and insight being obviously feminine traits to balance the active, physical (but also intellectual) prowess of the men.

But there’s more to it than that. In this story, Rhiannon takes up residence in the hero’s mind and actually possesses him for a while. A woman possessing a man? That would have been seen as very disturbing in an age when not only were women assumed, unspeakingly, to be inferior to men, but a relationship between a woman and a man was almost always necessarily sexual (and a relationship between a man and a man never so). This wasn’t the sort of relationship Brackett wanted to convey. So perhaps Rhiannon’s sex in this story was necessitated by the culture of the time.

The inherent sexism in this book seems very alien to me. We’ve come a long way in the past sixty years. But we still have a long way to go.

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