Revisiting the sad, misogynistic fantasy of Xanth

Revisiting the sad, misogynistic fantasy of Xanth

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory WipeThe A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

Here’s how this article was supposed to go down: As a kid, I lived in Florida. Back then I loved the books of Piers Anthony—especially his humorous, bestselling Xanth series, which is set in a parallel version of Florida where magic and mythical creatures exist. For this installment of Memory Wipe, I was going to reread A Spell For Chameleon, the 1977 novel that started the Xanth series (whose 37th—yes, 37th—volume, Esrever Doom, comes out this month). Then, in poignant prose, I would revisit the magic of my own Floridian childhood, even though that childhood was actually pretty fucked up, but maybe not quite as fucked up as it seemed at the time. The big takeaway: Thanks, Piers Anthony, for the swell book, not mention giving me a tidy epiphany about how fantasy, geography, and nostalgia overlap in the hazy mists of reminiscence.

Instead, this happened: I reread A Spell For Chameleon, and during those excruciating hours all I could think about was what a sad, misogynistic piece of shit it is.

A Spell For Chameleon is about a guy named Bink. He’s 24-going-on-25, although he acts like he’s 14-going-on-15. He whines a lot about his existential conundrum: Everyone in the fantastical quasi-Florida that is Xanth is born with their own unique magical ability—and Bink doesn’t have one. Or if he does have such an ability, it hasn’t shown itself yet. It’s a dilemma that particularly resonates with kids on the cusp of puberty, as I was when I started reading Xanth. And as if the development of magical abilities were puberty, Bink ties his own sense of manhood (or the lack thereof) to his magical ability (or the lack thereof). Bink not only acts like a panicked 14-year-old who has yet to sprout pubic hair, he whines about it with equal immaturity.

To give Bink a little credit, he has good reason to fret about his lack of magic. If a denizen of Xanth hasn’t exhibited a magical ability by the age of 25, he or she is exiled to Mundania, a horrible place where magic doesn’t exist at all. Mundania is our world. It’s a clever twist on the Narnia trope, one in which crossing over into some alien realm of existence isn’t an opportunity for adventure and heroism, but tantamount to getting sent to your boring, elderly aunt’s house for the summer, or for the rest of your life.

When I read Spell as a kid, I related to Bink. It never struck me as weird that he was a dozen years older than me, but wasn’t any more mature. Now the prospect of relating to Bink, at any age, seems insane. It doesn’t have anything to do with his whining. It has to do with the way he views Spells’ female characters: as obstacles, props, and objects of lust and condescension.

The examples of Bink’s misogyny are so numerous and so innocuously presented throughout Spell, it’s hard not to conflate them with Anthony’s own views. Patronizing potshots at women is what passes for wisdom in the book, as delivered through Anthony’s mouthpiece Bink. And every major character in the book, women included, reinforces it. Among the snippets of misogyny Anthony delivers via various characters, male and female, in Spell:

“All women are the same inside. They differ only in appearance and talent. They all use men.” —Spoken by Iris the stereotypically conniving sorceress, to which Bink replies, “Maybe so. I’m sure you know more about that sort of thing than I do.”

“She’s a sorceress, a good one. She has powers you have not yet glimpsed. She requires a man she can respect—one who has stronger magic than she does.” —The Good Magician Humfrey on Iris.

“A pretty girl could express shock and distress if someone saw her bare torso, but privately she would be pleased if the reaction was favorable.” —Bink on female modesty.

Then there’s the curious case of the village rape trial that Bink stumbles across for no real imaginable reason, other than to give the reader a chance to read the word “rape” multiple times in a lighthearted setting. There’s Trent, the dashing magician-in-exile who will intrepidly lead his army into Xanth to save the land from under population (says one of Trent’s soldiers, “He’ll encourage the local gals to marry us, so we can have families.”). And there’s Crombie, one of Bink’s comrades, who just comes right and announces things like, “Women are the curse of mankind.” When challenged—okay, not even really challenged, just curiously questioned—about these utterances by Bink, it comes to light that Crombie “rejected all women because he felt they rejected him.” Bink’s final analysis of his buddy’s reason for loathing all women? “Well, it was a good enough rationale.”

The worst instances of misogyny in Spell involve the main female character, Chameleon. And when I say worse, I mean way worse. It’s almost criminal to call Anthony’s misogyny casual, seeing as how it’s so completely thought out and fundamentally integrated as a primary theme. Chameleon, it turns out, isn’t a single person. Her magic ability is to become three distinct beings: Wynne, a borderline mentally retarded woman (a can of worms unto itself) whose lack of intelligence goes hand in hand with her promiscuity—yes, there is slut-shaming in this book; Dee, who is average in both looks and smarts, at least according to Bink, who has demonstrated a surplus of neither of those qualities himself; and Fanchon, a hideous hag with enough cold, calculating cleverness to intrigue Bink—and to rescue his ass on more than once occasion.

Chameleon has no control over her metamorphosis. It occurs naturally and gradually according to a monthly—or rather, “lunar”—cycle that’s obviously meant as a metaphor for the menstrual cycle. Because, of course, that’s what a woman’s period does: turns them into either mindless fuck-bunnies or devious, penis-wilting shrews.

Near the end of the book, Bink finally comes to understand why he’s had such bad luck with romance his whole life—he impossibly wants a women who has big brains and big boobs—and he gleefully mansplains his newfound enlightenment to Chameleon while she’s in her duh-me-like-to-fuck Wynne form:

“I like beautiful girls,” he said. “And I like smart girls. But I don’t trust the combination. I’d settle for an ordinary girl, except she’d get dull after a while. Sometimes I want to talk with someone intelligent, and sometimes I want to—” He broke off. Her mind was like that of a child; it wasn’t really right to impose such concepts on her.

It gets worse. Later on the same page, Bink explains in more detail his view of women to Chameleon, the one he supposedly loves:

“That’s the point,” he said. “I like variety. I would have trouble living with a stupid girl all the time—but you aren’t stupid all the time. Ugliness is no good for all the time—but you aren’t ugly all the time either. You are—variety. And that is what I crave for the long-term relationship—and what no other girl can provide.”

Oh Bink, you sweet talker, you.

Taking such quotes out of context can color them negatively—not that these need any help. But in this case, the full context of Spell only makes them worse. When expressed, these notions go unchallenged by other characters. No ill consequence is suffered by the holding of such ideas; instead, they’re either tolerated or rewarded. Misogyny saturates almost every page. The objectification of women is the default setting of Xanth, and no other view of women is even within the spectrum of possibility. Spell isn’t a historical novel, nor is it set in some solidly pseudo-Medieval land. But even if it were, these backward notions are not presented as some kind of social examination or, God forbid, critique. Spell is an eminently stupid book; such subtlety is beyond it. No matter which way it’s read, it’s little more than a bundle of leering, hateful, degrading judgments about both women and men. With basilisks and shit.

Speaking of basilisks: Bestiality is a central plot point of Spell. Bink discovers that the underpopulation of Xanth is a result of all the human-on-monster sex that goes down across the land thanks to a bit of magical, naturally occurring aphrodisiac. But Bink doesn’t judge. He can’t. Earlier in the book, under the thrall of that aphrodisiac, he gets a hard-on for a harpy. But hey, he doesn't judge.

Monsters are not the most unsettling thing Bink gets aroused by in Spell. During his first meeting with Iris, the sorceress changes her appearance numerous times in an attempt to seduce Bink. First she appears as an older woman, then as a voluptuous woman, then as a 14-year-old girl: “very slender, lineless, and innocent.” Bink becomes overwhelmed by the smorgasbord of female flesh laid out before him; it’s a shame Xanth's pervasive magic doesn’t include Internet porn. Then this happens:

“It can all be yours,” she said. The alluring fourteen-year-old reappeared. “No other woman can make you this promise.”

Bink was suddenly, forcefully tempted. There were times when he wanted this, though he had never dared admit it openly.

What exactly is the desire that Bink has, the one that dare not speak its name? Being able to have sex with a variety of women at the snap of his fingers? Or being able to have sex with a 14-year-old?

In hindsight, it’s not a stretch to assume the latter. Since the height of Anthony’s popularity in the ’80s (spurred also by bestselling series like Apprentice Adept and Incarnations Of Immortality), his work has become increasingly shunned for its hints of pedophilia. That’s a big assertion to throw at someone, let alone a writer who makes fiction and not personal manifestos about his own sexuality. I’m not saying, or even attempting to hint, that Anthony has committed any crime in real life. But as outlined by LitReactor’s Joshua Chaplinsky in 2011, there’s no denying that many of Anthony’s books exhibit a lingering predilection for underage girls—in the case of his 1990 horror novel Firefly, as young as 5—that comes skin-crawlingly close to glorifying such crimes. 

In a 2002 Slashdot Q&A, a longtime fan asks Anthony about the traces of pedophilia in his books, among them 1983’s On A Pale Horse, the first installment of Incarnations Of Immortality. His answer denies nothing, and it makes things more muddy than clear:  

On A Pale Horse deals explicitely [sic] with underage sex? You’ll have to cite pages, as I don’t remember this. Firefly has explicit underage sex; could that be the one you mean? That’s not in this series.

He then protests way too much:

The fact is, as I explore in my GEODYSSEY series, men are attracted to women, and to the shapely ones more than the others, and to the young ones more than the older ones. I don’t mean to children, but to girls after they develop breasts and pubic hair, signals of sexual maturity. This relates to the apparent breedability of women; the strategy of the man is to capture a woman at the beginning of her reproductive life and have as many children by her as possible. So young women tend to be the most appealing; it’s pretty much hard-wired in our species, and this is reflected in our society’s glorification of youth in TV, movies, magazine, advertising—everywhere, as if it is a crime to ever get old.

Anthony has clearly put a lot of energy into his definition of sexual maturity in girls—right down to the troubling idea that, in his eyes, the development of breasts and pubic hair in a girl means she is no longer a child. He ends his rambling response by saying, “But about membership in an anti-pedophelia [sic] organization—I do oppose pedophilia, but don’t belong to any such outfit. In fact I correspond with some pedophiles in prison.” It’s a good thing Anthony never had cause to testify in his own defense.

Apart from one dodgy comment about 14-year-olds, A Spell For Chameleon doesn’t have anything to do with pedophilia. It’s all good, old-fashioned misogyny. However, there is a passage in Anthony’s answer to the pedophile question that pertains more directly to Chameleon, and how the book establishes the Xanth series’ enduring tradition of leering objectification: Ogling women, Anthony says, is “like bird watching: one looks and appreciates but does not touch.”

This is the sad crux of Chameleon’s cheerful hatred of women. Bink leers at women, and it’s presented as not only okay, but as the way things should be. In a different part of the Slashdot Q&A above—where another reader asks Anthony about the poor treatment of women characters in Xanth—the author tries to prove how much he appreciates and understands women by extolling their virtues as “thinking, feeling creatures.” Not people. Creatures. You know, like basilisks. And not only that, but creatures whose thoughts and feelings apparently require the validation of someone with Anthony’s authority—that is, someone with a dick. Ultimately, Anthony is the worst kind of misogynist: one who defends his offensive views by saying, in essence, how could he possibly hate women if he’s drooling over them all the time?

I know other people who have read Anthony’s Xanth books. All of them did so in their youth—and like me, they drifted away from them long before graduating high school. There’s something inherently juvenile about the Xanth series, even though it wasn’t marketed as young adult, a distinction that didn’t exist as such back then. Even worse, as the series progressed it became increasingly reliant on really bad puns. That was more of a turnoff than any perceived lady hating, at least when I was a teenager and less attuned to such things. I do wonder how much of the books’ warped view of women trickled into my sensibility back then. Or other readers’ sensibility.

I grew up to be involved deeply in science fiction and fantasy, but it doesn’t take an insider to know that those genres have trouble with gender issues—both on the page and in real life, where sexual harassment at sci-fi conventions is an ongoing problem. Anthony’s books were huge in their day, and their influence runs deep; dozens of similarly humorous series, from Robert Lynn Asprin’s Myth Adventures to Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger, popped up in Xanth’s wake. I read and loved them, too, when I was a kid. But they don’t evoke an icky feeling the way Xanth does—a creepiness that retroactively corrodes any lingering nostalgia. It’s a cliché in cases like this to say that such-and-such writer (or artist or filmmaker) “raped my childhood.” Looking back, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Anthony raped my childhood—maybe just lightly fondled it.

I haven’t read the new and 37th Xanth novel, Esrever Doom. Nor will I ever. But I couldn’t help but ruefully laugh when I read this passage from the book’s promotional description on Amazon:

Kody is the only person in Xanth who has not been affected by a dreadful spell that reverses how people see each other. What was adorable is now loathsome. What was ugly is now beautiful. What was loved is now hated.

Thirty-six years have passed since Xanth began, and apparently Anthony is still hung up on puerile, reductive ideas of beauty and ugliness. But for me, the most unintentionally telling part of that Amazon excerpt above is the last sentence: “What was loved is now hated.” After rereading A Spell For Chameleon, I couldn’t have said it better, or sadder, myself.

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