Fantasy Laundry

2 March 2001

For daily miscellaneous stuff: I cleaned one of the bathrooms this morning. Woo. See why I write about writing? why this isn't a diary? No, I'll have a much more interesting day later. It's just that that's what I've done today. And I do have something to say about it, too: I don't care how jocular or how old you are. If you hear someone say that he or she has done a bit of housecleaning, do not offer to let that person come over to do the same for your house. Okay? Listen to Carol Channing: "Everybody hates housework!" People who make efforts to keep their houses clean don't enjoy the process any more than slobs.

And yes, I've actually had people make this offer before. More times than I can count. So clever and witty. Ahh.

Housework! Aha, now I know what I want to talk about! It's my key question with fantasy worlds: who is doing the laundry?

This is not the only key question, of course. It's not even the most interesting. But it's the one that's the most likely to get me upset at the author. Here's the thing. Fantasy authors, in general, don't believe that women are inherently inferior to men. I think this is so far beyond being a good thing that nobody should get credit for it any more. It should just be assumed. Fine. So then the fantasy authors want to have strong female characters. Lovely. Often, they also want to have societies in which the strong female characters are not constantly confronted with people saying, "My goodness! You are strong, yet female! How did this happen? What an unusual thing!" Even better.

So they take late twentieth century gender roles (after all, why bother being creative when you have in front of you The Way Things Are?) and cut and paste them onto idealized medieval tech levels and social structures (again, why bother being creative?), with maybe some wizards tacked onto the end.

And all of a sudden nobody's doing the laundry.

In some books, this problem is solved by having some slave class or race, or merely making all of the characters fabulously wealthy so that they can afford servants. I'm okay with this as a writing solution as long as the society accurately reflects the choice to enslave other people or depend heavily on people who are of a "lesser" class. (I'm not so great with it as a political solution, but neither are most of the authors who employ it, and they often deal with those issues.)

I'm even okay with worlds where the mindless part of the household tasks are done by golems or other magical constructs, or by spells, although I'm going to need convincing of why magic is so cheap and easy for some things but not for others. What really bothers me, though, is how little appreciation people in our culture(s) seem to have for how much sheer hard work it took to run a household in days past. Laundry day here, if we let the laundry pile up, means that we spend maybe a total of a couple hours folding clothes. That's a maximum time, and that's with plenty of other activities thrown in intermittently while the clothes finish drying. For my great-grandmothers, laundry day was laundry day. So if you're going to postulate a low tech level, this is something you're going to need to account for. Only they don't.

Of course, I don't want my fantasy novels to be about laundry. I want it to be handled realistically in the far background of the society. Low standards, right?


Amber helped us discover a Viennese bakery. Mmmmmmmmmm. And mmm. No question we'll be going there again. And then, to make the decadence complete, there were Girl Scouts outside the library. Selling Girl Scout cookies. In the last several years, I have had to buy my Girl Scout cookies vicariously, through grown-ups. This is not what I want out of a Girl Scout cookie purchase, although I still get the truly essential stuff. (Which is Thin Mints and Hoedowns -- I don't care if they don't call them Hoedowns here, that's what they really are, not Tagalongs and certainly not the bland and featureless "Peanut-Butter Patties". What an awful name.) I want some bespectacled little sprite with long braids and a goofy sash asking if I want to buy some Girl Scout cookies. Because then I remember what it's like.

I think the longest wait of my life was the year I was five. They didn't have Daisy Girl Scouts then, so kindergarteners were old enough to be in school, but not old enough to be a Girl Scout, as exemplified by Girl Scout cookies. Some of my older friends' mothers tried to sell me on Girl Scouting with stuff like camp and merit badges. Yeah, whatever. I just wanted the cookies, buying and selling them. Like a Big Kid. The girls I bought from today were wearing green sashes, making them at least fourth graders. Really Big Kids. And the cookies sold for $3.00 instead of $1.75. Woohoo! I am officially old. (Which is still young enough to enjoy feeling old quite a bit, thank you very much.)

And one last thing: the library. Not only was all their fiction jumbled together (argh!), but I was only allowed three books in any given call number. I have a question, and it's not a rhetorical one (Kev, this probably means you): is the library more likely to have one person who wants to do a little bit more in-depth research, or six people who all want to read a little about the same topic at once? And who should it cater to? I would say that while people who want to read a single book about, say, Chinese immigrants to America are still enriching their minds, etc., that if they can make do with a handful of books on the subject, they probably have a less pressing need or interest. That the library shouldn't bet a sure thing (that I want these books for a few weeks) against a long shot (that someone else will want a few of them, too) in this case. But maybe I'm just a selfish freelancer. That's entirely possible, too.

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