So I know I said we were back on the TV series for a while, but April Fool’s Day was this past weekend, and I’ve got this tiny little divergence that came up while I was googling in the hopes of finding somewhere I could still buy a copy of Kevin Sorbo Presents The War of the Worlds: A Biblical Reading (Spoiler: There isn’t. I’m not sure I didn’t dream the whole thing). Since I’ve namechecked le poisson d’avril, let me assure you up front that this is an absolutely real thing which really exists.
Wait for it…
It is August 20, 2010. The last US combat troops have just left Iraq, so I guess that’ll finally put an end to US involvement in wars in the middle east.
Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, died of a lifelong respiratory ailment this morning. Horkheimer was best known as the host of the PBS series Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer, or as I always knew it, “The astronomy show that comes on before Doctor Who.” It has originally been called Star Hustler, until the internet became a thing and people started to worry about kids googling “Star Hustler”. His epitaph reads, “‘Keep Looking Up’ was my life’s admonition; I can do little else in my present position.”
“Love The Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rhianna holds the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Because it’s a year starting with 201, Katy Perry is on the top ten twice (“California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream”), but remarkably, Taylor Swift is only on there once, with “Mine”. Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me” is also in the top ten, a really fun little song except that I’m pretty sure the whole point of it is to neg a girl into dating the narrator, and that’s fucked up.
Everything’s in reruns, obviously, and it’s Friday so Jon Stewart isn’t even on tonight, and this is the gap year for Power Rangers so there’s not even that to talk about. About the only new thing on television is the Melissa Joan Hart/Joey Lawrence vehicle Melissa and Joey, a sitcom in a vaguely retro mold in which an up-and-coming local politician has to take in her brother’s kids when he flees the country after a Bernie Madoff-style scam, then hires a disgraced day-trader as a nanny. I am told it gets better after the first season, which I kept wanting to like but found unspeakably awful. The final episode of At the Movies, formerly hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, aired this past week. Out in theaters, I am not making this up, is The Room.
The War of the Worlds Refought by “Hermione Georgina Wells” is part of a series of literary remixes by Jekkara Press which all follow roughly the same premise: Let’s take a classic work of fiction and swap all the genders. Other works in the line include The Hound of the Baskervilles Retrained, The Three Musketeers For All, Frankenstein Remade, and Tarzan of the Apes ahem Reswung.
Well that’s an interesting idea, sure, but we’re not talking about Jane Austen here, or even Sherlock Holmes. H. G. Wells is not exactly known for his richly drawn characters. So what would it look like to gender-swap all the characters in The War of the Worlds?
Turns out it would look like someone ran a simple search-and-replace over the text of the novel. That’s it. Seriously. Just the full text of The War of the Worlds with such changes as replacing every instance of the word “he” with “she”, “man” with “woman”, “wife” with “husband”, and soforth.
This isn’t as big of a change as it must be in the other books in the series. Victor Frankenstein has to become Victoria; Sherlock Holmes becomes, rather inexplicably, “Shylock Holmes”, and Lady Greystoke calls herself “Tarzyn”. But Wells was never much for names. Ogilvy is still Ogilvy, even as a female astronomer; the Curate is still a curate; the artilleryman becomes an artillerywoman (Though in an oversight which I am guessing is due to capitalization, her chapter is still called “The Man on Putney Hill”). If you thought War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies was a cheap trick to make a buck with the minimum possible effort (And, okay, it was, but there was more to it than that), it’s got nothing on The War of the Worlds Refought.
But okay. Y’know what? Maybe we can still get something out of this. One element of note is the rigorous consistency with which the transformation has been done, chapter titles notwithstanding. “Man” becomes “woman” even in the abstract. It’s shrieking men who run past the narrator, or who foolishly dismiss the first reports of fighting. It’s womankind she fears has been purged from existence by the Martians (Reminding me of the fun fact that etymologically, “man” once was legitimately genderless, and only became de facto male by replacing an older word. Which is why the etymologically correct name for a lady werewolf is a “wifewolf”, though there is a certain charm in the more cumbersome “wolfmannic woman”). And most interestingly, as the Curate descends into madness, she is said to be, “He was as lacking in restraint as a silly man.”
That’s something we can think about. The changes to the text are simple, mechanical. There’s no discretion to them, and one thing that means is that the choice of any individual change isn’t subjective: it’s determined according to a rigorous set of rules. If there’s an agenda in what’s been changed, the details of that agenda are bracketed away behind the rules. What that means is that if we want to talk about the psychological effect the changes have on the reader, we can start from the position that it’s the reader’s own subjectivity that produces those effects, rather than the reader being manipulated into them by the author/editor’s machinations. (Or, rather, if you do want to insist that you’re being manipulated by some trick the author/editor is pulling, you can only do it by confessing that you view “just systematically include women in spaces that were previously male” as a form of emotional manipulation. And that position is not going to win you any friends outside of the executive branch of the US government.)
So how does it make us feel? We’ll leave aside anyone who just throws up their hands and shouts about everything being ruined by “political correctness run amok” to have women with agency in a Victorian science fiction adventure and focus on something else instead. The word “woman” appears eighteen times in the original text of The War of the Worlds. Three of the occurrences are some form of the phrase, “a woman shrieked,” two are, “a woman screamed.” These aren’t the only occurrences of people shrieking or screaming, but they do stand out at least insofar as they are singular and personal, rather than the more common “I heard a shriek” or “Screams reached me from the crowd.” (Both the narrator and his brother do “scream”, but “shrieks” are generally collective). Wells’s go-to images of human horror also tend to be gendered. One scene builds an escallating sense of the refugee crisis by showing first two men, then a, “dirty woman, carrying a heavy bundle,” and finally a lost dog.
There is, of course, the matter of women appearing almost exclusively in the particular, while men appear vastly more often in general: the narrator frequently mentions “men” futilely attacking or fleeing the Martians, his chaotic scenes are always full of men being shoved, pushed, trampled as they try to escape; women appear almost exclusively in the particular, as a special case where the narrative is calling attention to a particular instance of human misery. This means that the gender balance is actually much better than you might at first expect when we are talking about characters of significance. Among characters with dialogue, women are within a standard deviation or two of men. Among characters with names, they do even better. But in general? The word “man” appears at least 89 times in the text, “men” over a hundred. To paraphrase Sam Spade, maybe they’re not all important characters, but look at the number of them. Flipping the genders makes the disparity painfully obvious, especially in how many contexts are male dominated purely as a linguistic default.
But what of the major characters? The narrator, the Curate, the Artilleryman? You might, for instance, find that gender-swapping the narrator inclines you to look for a deeper emotional connection in her quest to reunite with her husband, imagine this as a stronger theme in the story. But even with the gender swap, Wells’s writing precludes this with its dry, analytical style. A more interesting case is the curate, whose breakdown is explicitly called, “Like a silly woman,” in the original text. The gender-swap puts the lie to this, because it makes us more aware of how the curate compares to other characters. Those “shreiking” women mentioned elsewhere in the original story are all reacting in the heat of the moment to immediately impending danger, not at all like the curate’s slow breakdown under days of continuous stress.
There is one scene in the original book where a woman’s reaction to the Martians might be called “silly”, though: immediately after the battle of Horsell Common, the narrator encounters a mixed-gender group who laugh off his tales of murderous Martians, and the woman takes a notable lead in dismissing his claims — the “silliness” of dismissing the danger, rather than the curate’s descent into panic. It’s becomes clear that Wells threw out the “silly woman” accusation purely because “Like a silly woman” was a standard way to dismiss someone for being irrational, without any consideration for how actual women were depicted in the rest of the book.
That just leaves the Artillerywoman. And here, I have to admit, the simple act of changing he to she does make a big impact on how I relate to the character. Namely, it completely destoys any sense of that “strange charisma” the Artilleryman seems to convey. I’ve always had a bit of trouble empathizing with that aspect of the character, but I do acknowledge it, that people like the narrator can listen to him and find themselves drawn to go along with his ridiculous, unworkable plans.
I’m an anti-authoritarian; I don’t go in for the whole, “This guy sounds confident as he makes angry noises about which people we should kill! I respect this as strength and good leadership!” But I live in 2017. I can’t exactly pretend that I don’t believe that kind of pitch would work perfectly well with a certain percentage of the audience. And I already know as a matter of absolute fact that the traits of ambition, of unyielding confidence, of bullying bluster might be enough to win a man the highest office in the land, but in a woman, they’re universally derided as being “shrill” and “arrogant” and “bitchy”. The Artillerywoman doesn’t feel quite right to me because I know as an absolute matter of fact that she’s wrong, and even if she were right in her desire to create a quasi-fascist populist utopia where everyone eats peas with their knives, nine out of ten people would hear that and dismiss her as a shrill, angry bitch who shouts too much. And what about her emails?
So maybe that’s the point of this little project. By simply swapping the genders and leaving everything else alone, the book becomes a mirror to help us see some of the gendered assumptions we make without even thinking about it. How the words “man” and “men” occur about twenty times as often as “woman”; that a book with three major male characters and only a few minor female ones doesn’t “feel” overly masculine in the same way it might feel especially feminine with the ratios reversed. That the selfsame traits that make a male character charismatic make a female one reviled. Maybe this is a book whose purpose is ultimately to just “feel wrong” — to not work quite as well as the original, specifically so that you’ll question why it doesn’t, only to find that the reasons — how we as readers have been trained to think about male and female characters — don’t come from the text. They come from ourselves.
At least, that’s what I would have said, if I hadn’t seen the cover. Because guess what the cover of this book looks like…