Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Chauvinism vs. Chivalry: A Harry Dresden Case Study

This post contains some spoilers for Fool Moon by Jim Butcher. You've been warned!

When posting my own review for Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, I came across someone else’s, accusing Harry of not being chivalrous (as he considers himself), but a chauvinist. In all caps. With an exclamation point.
This...irked me. Around these here parts, you might have noticed that I don't delve too much into controversial topics, but considering the amount of time I’ve spent thinking on this and forming mental ripostes, I really can’t let this one slide. I’m about to drop some opinions down.

First off, let's put these definitions up here:

Chauvinist: a person displaying excessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for a particular cause, group, or gender. “what a male chauvinist that man is” (Google Dictionary)

Yes. Buuut. We also know that when someone shouts “CHAUVINIST” they have something a little more specific in mind. I mean, look at the example they added to that definition. Male chauvinist. It’s got it’s very own subset definition! So let’s go a step farther.

Male Chauvinism: the beliefs, attitudes, or behavior of male chauvinists (men who patronize, disparage, or otherwise denigrate females in the belief that they are inferior to males and thus deserving of less than equal treatment or benefit). (Dictionary.com)

And on the other side of the board...

Chivalry: courteous behavior, especially that of a man toward women. (Google Dictionary)
Chivalry: the sum of the ideal qualifications of a knight, including courtesy, generosity, valor, and dexterity in arms. (Dictionary.com)


Now let’s talk about Harry Dresden, as he is in Fool Moon. By his own definition, he’s stubbornly chivalrous. Throughout the story he is preoccupied with keeping the three women in his life safe:

1. Kim Delaney -a female magic practitioner and former apprentice of Harry’s. The book opens with Kim asking Harry for info about a terrifying, dark, complicated kind of magic, info Harry refuses to give her. Despite her promise that she’s only interested in theory, not practice, Harry tells her it’s scary stuff; something she’s not ready for and something she shouldn’t even want to know.

2. Karrin Murphy -a Chicago police lieutenant who heads up the Special Investigations division. She deals with the weird cases, the ones that oftentimes have ties to Harry’s magical community. He works as her consultant on these cases. In an effort to keep her safe from the dark side of said magic community, Harry tends not to ‘consult’ Murphy on these cases so much as run out to try and solve them himself, thus keeping her out of harm’s way.

3. Susan Rodriguez -Harry’s girlfriend? She’s also a journalist determined to prove to the world the existence of the magical community. She likes to bribe or bully info out of Harry, who tries not to tell her anything that could land her into too much trouble.

There’s a trend here. Harry takes it on himself to keep these three women out of danger and, because they’re women and he’s a man, obviously this means he’s a chauvinist -


Oh wait.


What about Tera West? She’s the female shapeshifter who hires Harry to help her fiance. Harry also suspects she’s an amoral and immortal creature of the Nevernever, so he has no worries about keeping her safe and out of harm’s way. He doesn’t particularly trust her, either. But he does trust her to carry out parts of the plan on her own and he does trust her with his own life -and the lives of others- on more than one occasion, because he knows that she is capable and resourceful. Even though she’s female.

That’s not very chauvinistic of him.

But wait. There’s more.

Let us not forget the Alphas. Harry finds himself teaming up with a group of college-aged werewolves -focusing specifically on the MALE werewolf Billy- and he tries to protect them just as much as Murphy, Kim, and Susan. Because they’re young. Because he doesn’t want to get them killed. Because he feels responsible -as a skilled and experienced wizard- for their safety.

Chivalry. Right there. That’s chivalry.

Generally speaking, chivalry is a courteous act while male chauvinism is a patronizing one. I see many people today -in books, TV, movies, and real life- who can’t or won’t recognize that there is a distinction between the two, who will see all attempts from a man to assist a woman as a sign that he believes her weak and incapable, and for many that is a woeful misrepresentation of their actions. Just like poor Harry here.

Just because a man protects a woman doesn’t mean he believes her incapable of protecting herself. Most of the time, it only means he wants to do it for her. It’s a kindness, but it seems to be more often met with a resounding chorus of ‘chauvinist’ rather than a ‘thank you’.

Now, I’m not going to argue that Harry’s reasoning and actions in this book aren’t flawed. They’re totally flawed.

What they aren’t is chauvinistic. If Harry refused to share the information because he believed Kim, Murphy, and Susan -on the basis of their gender- were incapable of handling it -that would be chauvinism. If Harry refused to share the information because he didn’t believe, on the basis of their gender, they deserved to be involved in it -that would also be chauvinism.

As it is, Harry refuses to share the information these ladies want out of a desire to keep them out of harm’s way -that’s chivalry. But it’s more than that, too. Like Murphy, Harry has set himself a dangerous task of protecting innocents from a very dark and specific kind of harm -unfortunately for him, the innocents under his watch are bound and determined to go meddling with it anyway. He might not have a police badge, but Harry possesses skills and knowledge far and above anyone else’s experience, and so it falls to him to protect them from what they don’t understand.

There is, however, a line that Harry is crossing, from protective to misguided over-protectiveness. In Fool Moon it even points out that, by withholding information from Murphy, Harry is actually crippling her ability to protect herself and others -which is her job. In trying to protect people himself, instead of equipping those willing with the means to protect themselves, he’s actually putting them in more danger -and Butcher uses this excellently as a character flaw.

There’s one more thing Fool Moon reveals about Harry, which I think is the root cause of it all -flaws and strengths- and that is someone from his past named Elaine. Someone who Harry cared about. Someone who Harry failed to protect from the darkness within the magic community. Which explains his stubborn chivalry, but explains even better how that chivalry manifests itself into over-protectiveness and trust issues, especially concerning magic.

Throughout the story, Harry is continually faced with hurdles of his own making because of these misguided acts of over-protectiveness -but he comes to recognize it. He knows his refusal to help Kim contributed to her death; he realizes that Murphy doesn’t trust him because he doesn’t update her on magical dangers and threats, instead trying to handle them on his own.

Harry hasn’t acted yet on this revelation to improve his relationships with Susan and Murphy, but I’m looking forward to see how it develops him in book three.


Conclusion:
Harry’s FLAW is being OVERPROTECTIVE, not chauvinistic.
His STRENGTH is his DESIRE TO PROTECT OTHERS, aka gallantry, aka chivalry.

In Full Moon, Harry’s flaw and his strength continually butt heads, and that is a great way to force Harry to recognize them as such and to give him an opportunity to overcome the flaw and hone the strength. It’s a great way to make Harry feel like an actual human being.

And for that I say bravo, Mr. Butcher; bravo.

What are your thoughts on the matter?
Please join in the discussion!