Problematic Shit I Read in Middle School: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
The internet seemed to explode last week with news of a study that found that “Fifty Shades of Gray readers show higher levels of sexism” than non-readers. Comments on The Guardian article range from angry MRAs and traditionalists denouncing feminism to critics of the research methodology questioning its conclusions.
It’s easy to criticize Fifty Shades of Grey–the lack of consent in the portrayal of BDSM relationships, the stilted writing, the (somewhat inaccurate) stereotype of the reader as horny soccer moms–but let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this book is the only book that your kids shouldn’t be reading.
In fact, I read a ton of books your kids shouldn’t be reading, but I turned out (mostly) ok. This series outlines some of those books.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (1968)
Let me preface this by saying I love Anne McCaffrey… especially the Pern series. The Harper Hall of Pern series was the first “real” fantasy series I read, and ten-year-old Lindsay ATE THAT SHIZ UP.
What I didn’t know when I was gobbling this series up in middle school was that the Harper Hall of Pern series was intended for Young Adult readers, while the Dragonriders of Pern series was not. But there’s nothing to stop someone–like me, for example–from making that jump, and in fact, nothing to flag the Dragonriders series as problematic for younger readers.
For those of you who haven’t read it, the book is about a group of telepathic dragonriders who must save their kingdom from “Thread,” an acid rain-like scourge. It centers on Lessa, a foundling who was discovered by F’lar, one of the dragonriders, and has the power to telepathically communicate with Ramoth, the golden dragon that will grow up to be queen.
So far, so good. The problem, gentle readers, comes about halfway through the book in the form of a dragon mating ritual between F’lar’s dragon Mnementh and Ramoth. This mating sweeps F’lar and Lessa up in a sex-hormone-haze, resulting in a violent sexual encounter to which Lessa never really gets to consent.
The pain of stinging blows on her face made her angrily aware of F’lar’s disturbing proximity. His eyes were wild, his mouth distorted. […] The mating passion of the two dragons at that moment spiraled wide to include Lessa. […] With a longing cry she clung to F’lar. She felt his body rock-firm against hers, his hard arms lifting her up, his mouth fastening mercilessly on hers as she drowned deep in another unexpected flood of desire.
Did she enjoy the experience? Maybe?
Actually, McCaffrey leaves some deliberate ambiguity there, which is unfortunate for Lessa since she’s now permanently mated to the guy. (Apparently dragons mate for life, which means their riders get to too.) In fact, the lack of emotional intimacy within Lessa and F’lar’s sexual relationship becomes a major plot point:
That girl was going to scrub her hide off with this constant bathing. […] He was beginning to wonder if this might be a subtle Lessa-variety insult to him personally. […] Would she never turn to him of her own accord? Would he ever touch that elusive inner core of Lessa? She had more warmth for his half brother, F’nor, and for K’net, the youngest of the bronze riders than she had for F’lar who shared her bed.
Yikes! But maybe it’s just in his head?
He caught her arm and felt her body tense. He set his teeth, wishing, as he had a hundred times since Ramoth rose in her first mating flight, that Lessa had not been virgin, too. He had not thought to control his dragon-incited emotions, and Lessa’s first sexual experience had been violent. […] He had been a considerate and gentle bedmate ever since, but, unless Ramoth and Mnementh were involved, he might as well call it rape.
Or maybe not. He even whips out the Big R, as though that’s ok (it’s not).
Before you get too worried, though it’s all good because eventually she falls in love with F’lar and they go on to kick ass and take names together. I know I, for one, found the whole thing terribly romantic.
But then again, I wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to recognize that getting into a sexual relationship you’re ambivalent about (and that starts with violence) is more likely to end badly than romantically.
So, yes, while Dragonflight won many awards and accolades, and it was and is a much beloved story, maybe don’t let your kids read it… or (even better) have a conversation with them about it.