DragonRiders of Pern Issues: Sexual Politics

Issues. Oh, my goodness, do I have issues. Let’s start with the ones that really make my head spin – the sexual politics. Because they are vast and ugly and often convoluted, and form huge swathes of the plots, so they cannot be ignored.

First issue on the books is rape. Rape occurs in all three books, under the guise of marital right, or Romance or simply teenage boys will be boys, and that last is actually one of the ickiest of the lot. Once again, there are spoilers beyond this point so be warned.

Basic fact about the dragons – they are projecting telepaths/empaths. They usually keep this under control, only communicating with their bondmates or other selected people. One major exception is mating flights, especially between the fertile gold/bronze pairings.

Dragons mate in the air, after several male dragons chase after the female, who is basically in heat. If the female is gold, the longer and harder the flight until she is caught, the more and better eggs she will lay. Greens are infertile and lay no eggs. However, in either case, longer flights help relieve the sexual tension for those males who do not catch her. (Just a note – the dragons are riderless during these flights.)

Anyone in the general area will at least feel the passion, and in the Weyrs, it’s considered perfectly normal to act on it. The dragons’ bondmates will become, almost of necessity, one with their “beasts” (a word I really dislike when used in reference to intelligent, self-willed creatures), with sex a forgone conclusion. This is usually between the two riders (with it not counting in terms of other relationships) or with each rider having a preferred partner waiting.

Mating flight sex is very passionate and somewhat violent, and the riders have no choice about it. In a phrase, they “get carried away.” Which is why it doesn’t count if there are other relationships. But it very much counts in this case.

In Dragonflight, the two lead/viewpoint characters take part in a mating flight. Lessa “rides” (in quotes because she is not actually permitted to ride her dragon) a queen – in fact, she is bonded to the ONLY queen dragon on ALL of Pern. She is also a virgin in her 20s and while she knows what sex entails, and has seen many a green mating flight, she is not told exactly what a mating flight entails for the rider. F’lar rides a bronze dragon, the largest such on the planet (the golden queen, Ramoth, is actually larger.) He is ten years or so older and definitely NOT a virgin or inexperienced.

F’lar was surprised Lessa was virgin. After all, she’d spent ten Turns as a drudge working for a man with no sexual ethics at all, and who didn’t instill them in his men. Surely a young female would not remain unmolested. Lessa was well able to take care of herself, though. She combined her filthy hair and clothes with a stooped posture and a mental ability to control others to some degree that made any such predator see her as old and less desirable than others. If he’d known she was inexperienced, he might have taken care to make her first time, even under dragon influence, less violent.

In other words, because he thought she’d been raped as a matter of course, starting when she was a child, he didn’t feel the need to be less less violent.

They met on the day Ramoth Hatched. Ramoth rose on her mating flight about three years later. Lessa spent all that time in the Weyr. During this time F’lar didn’t take ONE moment to ascertain her true history. period either, any more than he made any gesture towards courting. He KNEW his dragon Mnementh would fly Ramoth, so why would he even bother, after all? And since she didn’t like him, there would be no point in, I don’t know, introducing her to the idea of healthy, pleasurable, non-coercive sex BEFORE the forced mating, is there?

Doesn’t matter, though, because AFTER the mating flight, he took care to be a gentle and considerate bed-partner, although she was still so unenthusiasitic “it might as well be rape.”

Yes, that’s a QUOTE from the book. He’s sharing a bed and having sex with a woman who doesn’t like him (yet) and isn’t even willing to do this. Because having their dragons mate, in this case, makes them as good as married, and husbands do have perogatives, right?

(I’ll get into the politics later, but you see, the rider of the bronze who mates with the senior fertile queen is the Weyrleader – the guy who runs the place. So, you know. Gotta share her bed. Or something.)

Well, as in all good Romances, Lessa does fall in love with him and so all is forgiven.

In Dragonquest, we have a very different conundrum. Brekke, who rides (and at this point, they realize that weyrwomen should, in fact, ride their dragons) the gold dragon Wirenth, is a Good Girl. She is sweet and obedient and conscientious. Southern Weyr is in a area with infrequent threadfall, and a very pleasant climate all year round, so it serves as the hospital for injured dragonriders, and Brekke is the main nurse. She also manages the day to day running of the Weyr/hospital plus she is fostering a girl not that much younger than herself. She was also raised as a rancher’s daughter and doesn’t hold by the free and easy ways of the Weyr. Therefore, as Wirenth has yet to rise, she is still a virgin, very much in love with the brown rider who found her on Search. Browns, of course, do NOT fly queens. And Brekke can’t have sex with a man she doesn’t love because she is a Good Girl.

This in contrast to the true senior Weyrwoman, Kylara, who is lazy and vain and doesn’t care about others, but who DOES like sex. A lot. Enough to have had five children. This is very bad, of course. She even puts her duties on the ever-willing Brekke to have fun. (She hates Brekke, whom she regards as weak.) Kylara was nobility, raised to run a Major Hold, but was searched just before her wedding. Kylara LOVED living in the Weyr and its attitudes towards sex. But she is a Bad Girl.

Brekke’s brown rider crush, F’nor, is injured in a knife fight and sent to Southern to recover. There he falls in love with Brekke himself. In true rider fashion, since he doesn’t like the Southern Weyrleader, he tries to find other bronze riders who would be better for her when her dragon rises – until he realizes she doesn’t want anyone but him, and he (in defiance of weyr tradition) doesn’t want anyone else with her. So he has sex with her.

He isn’t gentle (that’s from the book) and she spends several minutes telling him “no” before submiting and enjoying it by the end. This is another romance trope, and also pays into the “good girl” notion that sex is okay if you don’t really want it but just get carried away. (And if this sounds like a popular song from the past summer, well. It should.)

It also pays into the idea that “no” means “yes.” That she’s just putting on an act. Because she’s a Good Girl.

By the way, it all works out FINE. Brekke’s and Kylara’s dragons kill each other because they both rose to mate at the same time in the same place (more or less). Kylara lives on a mindless hulk; Brekke gets to live with F’nor as his weyrmate, nursing dragonriders and never, ever having to worry about mating flight passion ever again. It just costs Pern 1/10th of their queen dragons.

Finally, we have The White Dragon. The protagonist here is Jaxom. He’s a teenage boy, who is being raised by a guardian because both parents died the day he was born. He’s also the presumptive Lord Holder of a Major Hold. AND he’s a dragonrider because at the age of eleven or so, he Impressed Ruth, the titular character. Ruth (who is male) is the only white dragon on Pern. He’s also about half the size of current dragons. At the time, no one but Ruth’s parents thought he’d live, but he is actually very healthy. And smart. His color and size, however, make it much easier for the other Lord Holders to accept that he lives in a Hold, not a Weyr, and to not contest Jaxom’s accession whenever it should happen.

One day, while visiting some of his holders (read “tenants”), he meets Corana, the sister of one of them. She’s very, very pretty and not unwilling (holders don’t mind having a “half-blood” child.) And Jaxom is a fine looking eighteen year old as well as being, you know, HER FEUDAL LORD. He plans on having her be an excuse while he illicitly figures out how fight Thread with Ruth, but decides she’ll be more than an excuse.

He continues to see her after he’s found out, and is allowed to train along with the youth of his local Weyr. One lesson is ended because a green rider rises to mate and that’s just too distracting for a group of teenage boys. Jaxom notices several things – one, Ruth is being given odd looks (as a full-grown male, he should be joining the flight, but he doesn’t seem to care). Another is that there is a clump of male riders gathered around the male green rider (at this point, there is exactly one female greenrider, and that’s revolutionary in that a girl hasn’t impressed a fighting dragon in several passes) and he finally realizes what people have been hinting about with his guardian, who had been a brown rider until his dragon died long before Jaxom was born.

He wants sex because he’s aroused by the mating flight, and also to prove he’s straight, so he finds Corana, who is very busy weeding her brother’s fields. She protests, several times, even forcefully, but he doesn’t listen. He doesn’t HAVE to listen, does he? She’s his holder, after all. And, of course, she does enjoy it by the end, plus he does help her finish the weeding afterwards. Isn’t that nice of him?

Her compliance bothers him a little, and as it happens, he never sees her again. Instead, he falls in love with a woman of approximately his own rank – that is, she CAN say “no” without fear of repercussions, unlike Corana. (They do have sex. It is entirely consensual, Sharra is NOT a virgin and all is well.) They eventually marry. We never do find out what happened to Corana. I’m going to guess she didn’t get pregnant.

We have so much WRONG here. But I do need to be at least a little fair.

There are two different time contexts for these novels – the time they are written and the “time” (meaning society) in which they are set. Dragonflight was written in the sixties, and the idea sexual equality was very new. That Lessa was actually a lead character, that she acted on her own initiative – that she insisted on learning to fly and teleport, even – may even have been pretty advanced. The White Dragon was published in the late seventies, and women on Pern have made several advances – a female healer, a female greenrider, a female journeyman harper, and thing would improve still more in future books.

They’re also set in a pseudo-medieval society. Women run the kitchens, keep the accounts, have the babies, rear the children, take charge of the home textile production. Men do everything else – the politics, the guilds (crafts), the military (the Weyrs.) In other words, women keep things running day to day while the men manage the big picture. This makes sense for that setting. Pern is underpopulated, and so can’t “waste” women doing anything but traditional work. This is why there stopped being female greenriders – teleporting at the wrong time causes abortion. And that time may be before a woman realizes she’s pregnant. Which means no babies. Can’t have that if there’s been depopulation after a major plague.

It’s also that McCaffery isn’t just writing SFF. She’s also writing romances. Or, rather, Romances. These demand that the wilful Lessa see the error of her ways (it’s apparently fine, btw, that her weyrmate shake her when he thinks she’s done wrong, because physical punishment of an adult is all right if she’s female and small and naughty) and fall for the masterful man who took her virginity and then kept raping her.

They also demand that Brekke only allow one man to touch her – the man she fell in love with as a frightened teen-age girl ripped from her home on no notice and forever. Because that’s what you do. And that all impediments to that fated lifelong commitment be destroyed, even it’s a psychic bond she actually treasures. Also, note that they could have found another way for her to be with F’nor while keeping her dragon, but then she wouldn’t have the bad Romantic illness plus F’nor would have to relocate.

There is NO excuse for Jaxom/Corana, though. Lytol should have raised him better, and he grew up knowing Lessa and other actual strong, self-respecting women. He should have known not to use his authority to have sex. Actually, just that he was going to use the poor girl ONLY as an excuse doesn’t improve things.

I hope Sharra does a better job with their sons.

And these are just the heterosexual issues. I have more.

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About mamadeb

I'm a devoted fan of Adam Lambert, but also of cooking, knitting, science fiction and pretty anything pop culture. I'm @_mamadeb on Twitter.
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3 Responses to DragonRiders of Pern Issues: Sexual Politics

  1. OMG, I was randomly thinking about the weird social dynamics and gender roles in Pern (because they’re creepy creepy creepy but also fascinating) and wondered if anyone ever wrote about it, and that’s how I found this post.

    The whole idea of riders are so overcome by the mating flight that they have sex when their dragons do opens up this fascinating can of worms. Like, is it consensual if they’re not in control of with whom they’re having sex? But I guess, they are supposed to be aware of what is going to happen (which Lessa wasn’t somehow…), so maybe it can somehow fit into the definition of consent… (I wasn’t aware that you could have a preferred partner waiting, but I haven’t also read all the books). (I’m also curious, so when a green dragon mates, do the male riders have sex?…I haven’t read enough to know McCaffrey’s attitude toward homosexuality…)

    What was so fascinating to me about the Lessa/F’lar relationship was that Lessa was advocating for F’lar to be the one to fly Ramoth from the beginning, so much so that when they start the flight without him, she contacts Mnementh to alert him that they started without him. And even after the sex that she clearly hated, she keeps supporting him because she believes in him as a leader…? Like, talk about setting aside your personal feelings! (But also let’s take a moment to think about what a potentially dangerous system it is to choose a leader – whoever gets to have his dragon mate with the queen dragon gets to be Weyrleader.)

    The other interesting thing was about the line that F’lar tried to be a gentler bedmate after, but unless the dragons were involved, “it might as well have been rape”. (If it might as well have been rape, it probably was?) This weird because from what I gathered from the later books, dragons don’t mate frequently – once the mating flight is done, it’s done until the queen ‘rises’ again. And I also gathered that Weyrmates aren’t necessarily spouses, and don’t have to be with each other except for when their dragons mate – so why was F’lar sleeping with Lessa even after the mating? (Apparently this series keeps retconning itself, so maybe this scene got retconned?)

    I thought their relationship was problematic in the largest part because F’lar was such an asshole – I get that Lessa was pretty frustrating to deal with, but it didn’t mean he had to manhandle her the way he did. And it was weird that she had so much faith in him regardless. AND in the later books, when they are a couple, it seemed like they were a pretty good couple, like they seemed to be effective partners and they got along really well. All very interesting.

    The F’nor and Brekke thing was pretty awful. He basically forced her to have sex because he wanted to “prepare” her for the mating flight (because it’s violent and it’s better not to be a virgin for your first flight). I mean, the intention was probably not bad, but she was saying no! And of course the author makes her protest first and then like it later, as if that makes it all okay.

    The Jaxom/Corana stuff was the worst, I agree. I remember really disliking Corana at first because I think there was something about Jaxom was bragging and exaggerating about how he keeps his Hold safe, and Corana was so impressed, she wanted to “thank” him with sex, which pissed me off. And then that scene happens that you detail (in which she was gardening) and then I just felt bad for her and lost all respect for Jaxom. I barely remember the rest of the book. :/

    Sorry, I got carried away after I thought I was going leave a small comment. I was just in the mood to discuss Pern sexual politics somewhere. Glad I found this!

    • mamadeb says:

      Fascinating comment. Thank you SO much!

      Anne McCaffrey’s attitude towards homosexuality are equally problematic. She wasn’t quite homophobic, but she wasn’t very positive, either. Green dragonriders are not just gay, but also very effeminate, which she assumes would be bottoms. Blue dragonriders are also gay, but they’re very butch. Brown riders are, I suppose, bisexual.

      There were female green riders in the early days of Pern, but as the culture became more medieval, they stopped being offered. It’s still surprising that Mirrim was the first female green rider since then. But then, Hatchings weren’t public events for a very long time. I assume newborn dragons hone in the best *available* person for them. I also find it interesting that the ONLY female green rider hooked up with a Weyrleader (this is very problematic in itself – do they send Path away while Mirrim is T’bor’s preferred partner, as his dragon mates with the gold?)

      In her son Todd’s series (which are poorly writen

      I think one of the problems is having science fiction/fantasy readers read what is essentially a romance trope – the woman who says no but really just needs a strong man to break through her inhibitions, as well as modern readers reading a book written in the seventies, when politics of consent just did not exist. It’s a fact that sf/f reflect their own times. This is not an excuse. Just how it was, and why it’s better now.

      • I do agree with you about sf/f being a product of their time, so I don’t judge them too harshly at tropes like this (even though they do bother me). And I remember the description of the world and how women in general were treated, and most of the female characters were breaking out of a ton of oppression, so the books were making progress toward gender equality.

        I would be more bothered by a sanitized sf/f world where there is no racism and sexism, especially if the setting calls for it. I’d find it more interesting if the author chose to do a kind of commentary on it. With Anne McCaffrey, she did commentary on some things (how women were treated in general), but with other things, I thought her attitude was somewhat troubling (her depiction of GOOD girl and BAD girl).

        I recently read Dune, which I believe is contemporary to Pern? And I was comparing the treatment of female characters in Dune vs. Pern, which is what led me to do Google searches on Pern in the first place, lol. But I thought Dune did do a much better job with at least its main female lead. Which I thought was interesting given the genders of the authors.

        All that being said, even if I do criticize McCaffrey’s choices, I would still whole heartedly recommend Pern books to anyone, because there is so much in there that’s just really good!

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