In my last post I discussed The Twelve Kingdoms, a book series created by Fuyumi Ono and later made into an anime (for those of you unfamiliar with anime, think book-into-movie). As some of you may know, I made only a brief mention of a very intriguing aspect of the series, the aspect that in the fantasy world of the 12 kingdoms women do not possess the biological ability to bear children. It’s hard not get into a big discussion over the meaning of something like that. Since there’s so much to say about this one issue, I decided not to go into it last time. Nevertheless, a debate was started on the topic in the comments on that posts. So, after hearing some opinions on the matter and pondering on it over the last week, I think it’s time to try to get into the debate on childbearing in The Twelve Kingdoms series.
In the 12 kingdoms, if a couple wants a child, they tie a ribbon on a special tree and pray to the gods. If their wish is granted, a child will grow. This is usually how creatures are born there. This concept is not the main issue of the series, but Ono does mention that women don’t bear children several times and it does have an effect on the dynamics of this fictional world. It’s not like every chapter in the series is a story about the effects this unusual difference has on the people of the world of the 12 kingdoms. It does, however, raises questions since it is such a strange idea to us who live in a world where women give birth–a crucial fact to life–everyday.
So, what is the message Ono is sending when she completely snips out women’s ability to bear children in this fantasy world? There are many ways to look at it, I’m sure, but I want to talk about my thoughts on the matter. Frankly, this subject is so complex that I feel like I could write a whole book on it so, please bear with me as I’m going to have to simplify things.
One of the major thoughts I have on the matter is that it is a statement on the inequality women have faced throughout history in which their biology was used as an excuse to keep them in “their place.” In addition to women not bearing children in the stories, there are no restrictions on what jobs women can do, even though the world of the 12 kingdoms seems reminiscent of ancient China. Women are most notably allowed to join the army alongside men, hold high-ranking political positions, or even rule an entire country without having to marry. There is a strong sense of equality between men and women in the 12 kingdoms. Why? While I can’t remember if this is directly pointed to as the result of women not bearing children, it at least seems very plausible that this biological change affects social equality in the story.
Whether it was a natural division of labor or a role forced on them, women in our world have been pressured if not forced to take on certain jobs and stay away from others. The most obvious is that women were excepted to become mothers and raise the children. I am not trying to put down motherhood and raising children–it is the most important job imaginable to raise another human being–but because women bear children, they are often also expected to devote themselves entirely to raising children and staying inside the home. This has led to the vision of women as the “Angel of the Hearth” and the 50’s housewife. This ideology was used to keep women from the career world claimed by men, keeping the economic power–and therefore a lot of power in general–in men’s hands. This leads to other issues, but, if nothing else, it limits women in their choices. Just because a woman bears a child does not mean she is the only one who can or should care for it. It is possible for a man to raise the children after all. Just look at other species of animals not to mention the males in our own species who are stay-at-home dads. Society is moving forward and women are now able to have careers outside of motherhood, but there are still difficulties surrounding the matter. And if we look back a few decades, we will see a distinctly different picture.
Another issue is that while women do have the ability to bear children, some women simply don’t want to. Yet until recently, women had no other choice unless they became nuns. Having children obviously has an enormous effect on one’s life and, as I discussed in the previous paragraph, if a woman has a child (especially in the past), choices are made for her and what the rest of her life may be like.
Obviously, men and women play an equal role in creating children in reality, but the woman’s role is more apparent and, worst case scenario, the man could try to walk away from the pregnancy while the woman must deal with it. By separating women from the biological function of childbearing, Ono also separates the women of this fictional world of an assumed role and the other issues that have occurred because some group was trying to use women’s biological functions as an excuse to control them.
Of course, this is all speculation and I don’t know what Fuyumi Ono’s thoughts are on the matter. As I said, this is an idea that could be viewed in many different ways so, what do you think?