The “A Court of Thorns and Roses” book series written by Sarah J. Maas has a huge following. That doesn’t mean she gets everything right, and our author has something to say about it. *Contains spoilers*
Ok, “hate” is a strong word. There are certainly things to enjoy about the books. I mean, who doesn’t love the bat boys, their growling, their brooding, their territorial “protection” of “their” women? And their wingspans, of course. *wink-wink*
For those who don’t know: that’s a joke. Instead of comparing men’s noses, in Sarah J. Maas’ universe we compare fae male’s wingspans to determine the length of their penis. So funny, right? What do you mean, you don’t get it?
Ok, let me start at the beginning: Who is Sarah J. Maas, and who the f*** are the bat boys?
Sarah J. Maas is an American author who has written three enormously successful young/new adult fantasy book series. One is called “Throne of Glass” (ToG for short), one “A Court of Thorns and Roses” (ACOTAR for short) and the third “A House of Earth and Blood”. They are really big in the book-tube, book-stagram and book-tok communities. And by that, I mean huge. Like, inevitable. You will come across them if ever you venture into these bubbles on social media, because her fans are relentless.
And a lot of those fans will be simping over the so-called bat boys, a trio of winged men in the “A Court of Thorns and Roses”-universe. Although “men” is the wrong word. Since magic and all kinds of different magical species exist in ACOTAR, the bat boys are fae. That’s a species like fairies, only more sophisticated. They don’t live in the woods or steal human children to leave their own offspring behind (changelings, anyone?). Instead, they fight raging battles and live in sprawling palaces and wear breath-taking dresses (the women, anyway) and plot political schemes.
The main protagonist of ACOTAR, Feyre, stumbles into this world of the fae and its political intrigues. All the feats she manages to pull off over the course of the trilogy are irrelevant for the point I am trying to make here. More important is that she ends up with one of the bat boys, Rhysand (“bat boy” because he has wings that look like a bat’s, duh). He is, of course, devastatingly handsome, absolutely packed with muscle, dark, broods a lot, has a tragic backstory, is protective of Feyre, hung like a horse and an absolute animal in bed. (Because he’s fae, not because he’s especially kinky.)
Here we have arrived at the crucial point: The stereotypes, the gender binary, and the misogyny in ACOTAR, and ToG for that matter, are outrageous. And making strong female characters her protagonists is not enough to counteract them.
For one, there’s the rigid use of the “male” and “female” binary. It is excused with the fact that the fae are not human, but of a different species that is more of an animalistic nature. But we know by now that biology is not as strictly binary as some would like to believe. So why doesn’t Maas include this in her books? This excuse – fae being the way they are because they are just “different” from humans – is used very liberally in Maas’ books. And there are several aspects where it does not hold.
A lot about the relationships between fae revolves around whether or not they are so-called “mates”, which means they are bonded together for their entire lives (and the fae have very, very long lives). Though it is possible to reject said bond and get together with someone else, few do. So, here we are again in the amatonormativity realm. Female and male get together, and live happily ever after, hooray…!
Females are also always beautiful (I don’t know how many of the female characters have been described as the “most beautiful”, but I’m pretty sure it’s almost all of them), sexy and horny. Males are always growling, sexy and horny. And they are always on the prowl for women, too. (Homosexual relationships are rare and far between so far – off the top of my head, I remember three.) Once the male has a female partner, they get “protective” of her, something that a lot of fans find “so cute omg, I wish I had someone like that”, when in truth, their protectiveness is more like staking claim of a possession.
Every time Rhysand lets Feyre make a choice for herself or think or speak for herself – something her previous fae partner, Tamlin, did not let her do –, the entire fandom is fanning themselves excitedly. As if that were some radical new concept – hello?! The bar is literally on the floor here, people!
All the female characters in ACOTAR have to fight against the sexism they find themselves confronted with. The fae are an ancient species, and their misogyny is excused with a) aforementioned animalistic tendencies and b) the fact that they are really deeply stuck in their old ways of thinking and thus, change is slow. Slow as in downright glacial.
Which could be taken as a representation of today’s stubborn society, I suppose. People – women, LGBTQIA+, BIPoC, the disabled etc – have been fighting for their rights for centuries and the fight is far from over. But, instead of giving a positive example by showing how fae society changes its views, how especially the males finally change their attitude, she lets them hold on to their misogyny and other biases.
What the hell, Sarah? In ACOTAR, it’s still the men that lord over the women. It’s still the men that stump women’s agency. It’s still the men who rule the land.
And how about the fact that more often than not, Maas still uses minorities as tokens? I don’t think I’ve seen even one neurodivergent character on her pages anywhere. Some readers have pointed out that her BIPoC representation is problematic (e.g. here). Disabilities, too, are basically a non-issue. I remember two characters who sustain battle injuries in ToG. One of them is given a prosthetic hand (yay!), the other uses a wheelchair until, you guessed it: magic! Magic holds him up and he walks once more. Props to Sarah for making up one (1) female fae character whose wings have been purposefully damaged (by misogynistic male fae…) so she can’t fly.
I’ve probably missed about a thousand other points, but these are the ones I take the most issue with and that make me hesitate in recommending Maas’ books to anyone.
I will say that Maas plots fairly well and gives – in my opinion – realistic representation of trauma, of strong female characters and female friendships, of friendships between women and men that remain friendships, and of actual character development. (Men are even occasionally allowed to show emotion and cry, though usually they still are stoic or suave.) In her most recent publication, “A Court of Silver Flames”, she sends one of Feyre’s sisters, Nesta, down a spiral of depression and PTSD that isn’t just overcome by patting her on the back and saying, “It’ll be ok – maybe go for a walk?” Nesta has to fight to drag herself out of that deep hole. As a sufferer of depression, myself, I was happy to read a character that went through that kind of transformation, and to actually have it be an emotional struggle.
(I for one could have done without all the horny pining, but ok. Why does it even surprise me anymore? Smut, that is, sex scenes are now one of Maas’ big accomplishments and one of the major draws of her books. Fans of the series will know what I mean by Chapter 55. Though the sex still revolves mostly around penetration, except for when the males graciously go down on their females. By the way: what even are the logistics of wings in bed?! How the f*** does that even work? I imagine it has to be awkward at best and annoying and off-putting at worst…)
So you see, there are things I enjoy about ACOTAR.
But, Sarah, please, for the love of god, let the fae’s “manly men” change. They’ve had literal f***ing millennia. You have a huge readership, of all ages. Stop making young girls and grown women believe it’s the pinnacle of a relationship when a man lets a woman choose for herself. Instead of promoting the good ol’ “man and woman live happily ever after”-trope, change it up. Show us what a more equal world for more than two genders could look like. Create more diverse beauty standards for all those genders. Include BIPoC, disabled people and LGBTQIA+, and let them be their own persons. You’re a fantasy writer, so do your research and use your imagination! I know you have plenty of that, and the seeds are already there. You’ve planted them in your stories, now let them grow. It’s way, way past time.
P.S.: Since writing the above, it has been announced that ACOTAR will be adapted into a TV series. Now I really am curious how the wings-in-bed situation will be handled…and the casting, of course. Maybe here’s an opportunity for opening up to diversity – both in front of and behind the camera!
by Svenja Plannerer
Picture: Martin Scherbakov (Elfenbeinarbeit aus den Sammlungen des Bayrischen Nationalmuseums in München)