Hannah had a post up a while back discussing Megan Lindholm’s short story “Cut,” which is about a girl speaking to her grandmother about her decision to be circumcised because, bascially, “all the kids are doing it these days.”
This one stirred up a lot of complex feelings for me (I read it when it first came out several years ago and again recently), and today I figured out one of the things it got me thinking about. Female mutilation is a hot button topic. I have a violent aversion to the idea of circumcision; I’m not big on the whole mutilation thing. I like all my parts where they are. I think other boys and girls should keep theirs too.
Now, I know this ain’t Somalia (thank God), but things aren’t perfect here. We’ve got some questionable practices, and there’s nothing more annoying than somebody yelling at feminists to be grateful because, “You know, in Saudi Arabia, women can’t even drive.”
There are a couple of things that can happen when you present another culture’s “beauty” practices to a Western reader (the big reason given for the continuation of female castration is that any girl who isn’t circumcised will never marry any sort of decent, respectable man. Sound familiar at all? How about “If only my breasts were bigger, boys would like me!” No? Moving on, then). Talking about it can raise awareness about the practice and break the silence, which is great, but it can also lead to that whole “holier-than-thou” reader reaction. It can lead to cozy fiction that lets us marvel at the brutal exoticism of of some “backward” country and reinforce our feelings of superiority.
If it’s just, “Those crazy Africans are MONSTERS. How could ANYONE mutilate ANYBODY???” and that’s the central message of the story, then you end up with some jacked-up piece of uneducated drivel like this whose basic message is ALL MUSLIMS HATE WOMEN. ISN’T IT GREAT WE’RE NOT LIKE THAT????
Instead, you want to do something a little more like what Lindholm does, which is put that practice that we see as “barbaric” into proper context right there alongside equally barbaric practices we ourselves engage in. That’s how you use SF to get people to think about current practices, accepted ideas, and challenge them.
It’s easy to criticize the Other. It’s a hell of a lot harder to turn the mirror back on yourself.
Because then you might end up with something like this.