I recently read the short story "Seasons of Glass and Iron", winner of the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, which may be read in full online. Since the main characters are both women and the only way men appear in the story is as their oppressors (Tabitha's husband, Amira's father and suitors), I was getting a distinct feminist vibe from it, but I'm not sure if I'm reading too much into it.

What, if anything, is the story's message/moral about men?


This is what the author has to say about the story's origins:

A few years ago, my seven-year-old niece asked me to tell her a fairy tale to while away a long car ride. I wanted to, but found myself hesitating over which to tell her, because the only ones coming to mind featured women being rescued by men or tormented by other women. So I decided to make one up, and told her about a woman trapped in iron shoes climbing up to a woman trapped on a glass hill before they ran off together to have adventures.

To me that speaks of an absence of agency of central female characters in the fairy tales that came to her mind. It isn't clear if she is talking about the standard slate of bowdlerised western fairly tales alone or if she includes tales from her parent's Lebanese heritage, but if you look at her statement, it is clear that she isn't reacting to 'men as oppressor' stories. She is reacting to 'women as tormentors, men as rescuers, central character as a passive pawn. The message of many fairytales which feature a central young woman, is 'be good, be pretty, endure and obey, and if you do all that well enough, perhaps your prince will come.' they endorse passivity, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty literally snooze their way through their own eponymous tales while Princes toil.

Those kind of tales present a world in which the central young woman are bound romantically, sexually and dynastically to their heroic rescuer, gratitude binds the marriage, not compatibility. But it isn't all about the menz. It is often women who deal out the privations, cast the curses, dole out the chores, abandon in the woods, feed up for the oven...

So while i suppose it can be described as having a 'feminist vibe', I think this tale is much more about young women's agency. It's a story about young women who initially accept the roles they are cast in, as rescuers of the men in their lives. One's beauty is a burden to her father, one must suffer to lift a (possible) curse on her husband - and note that these are not classical fairy tale roles - but come, through their friendship, to decide that actually, they've carried the burden long enough, and lay it down to go and 'have adventures together'.

So I think you can find a 'message about men' in there if you want one, but I read it as much more of a story of empowerment of young women than one which is about men at all.

If there is a message about anything it’s about taking and keeping responsibility for your own life and decisions, existing as your own person not as an adjunct to others.

The purpose of the young women in this story is to be themselves, not to be a lens through which we see men.

  • 1
    Interesting answer, especially the part about women as oppressors. I'd thought that the "young women being oppressed by their husbands/fathers" was an old cliched trope (albeit one with, sadly, much basis in reality), but now that I come to think about it, it's true that a lot of classical fairy tales have young women being oppressed by older female figures such as stepmothers instead. So yes, it's clearly about empowerment of young women, but is there also significance in the gender shift of the oppressor figures from female to male?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 31 '17 at 16:17
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    @Randal'Thor I think much of the ‘oppression’ is in weight of expectation of family roles: ‘stand by your man’ and ‘do what your father says’. For me it is absolutely about the young women and that their existence as independent entities. It isn’t about men. Like I support Scottish independence but that has nothing to do with England, I don’t think this story offers a view on men.
    – Spagirl
    Oct 31 '17 at 19:05

I don't think the story's message is about men, so much as it is about toxic relationships, and common expectations from women.

Both characters come from existing fairy-tales (I've seen them pegged as “The Enchanted Pig” and “The Princess on the Glass Mountain”), so what the story's doing is not creating new characters -- it's juxtaposing them, and allowing them to meet.

Each character feels very iconic, representative of fairy-tale logic, and its portrayal of love and romance. And in most immediate ways, the two characters are stark opposites. Amira is demure; sheltered; a prize to be fought for, and locked away from the cruel world until she is won. Whereas Tabitha is scarred, trying to atone, forced into a cruel quest. Amira is forever trapped in place; Tabitha must forever trudge onwards.

But when the two of them are compared side by side, when they meet and recognize each other, we see how alike they are. How their pain is the same pain. How each of them has been forced to conform to demands they never took on willingly:

“And look what happened when I did,” says Tabitha stiffly. “It was a test of loyalty, and I failed it. You did nothing wrong.”

“That’s funny,” says Amira, unsmiling, “because to me, every day feels like a test: Will I move from this hill or not, will I grasp at a bird or not, will I toss an apple down to a man when I shouldn’t, will I speak too loudly, will I give them a reason to hurt me and fall off the hill, and every day I don’t is a day I pass—”

“That’s different. That’s dreadful.”

“I don’t see the difference!”


Tabitha says, still more gently, “Mine are not the only iron shoes in the world.”

Each one is trapped in their own narrative, trying to make fairy-tale ideas of romance work in practice, because they think that if the romance doesn't work "like it's supposed to," that's their own failure and their own responsibility:

“I told my story poorly,” she says, finally. “I told it selfishly. I did not speak of how good he was—how he made me laugh, the things he taught me. I could live in the iron shoes because of his guidance, because of knowing the poison berry from the pure, because he taught me to hunt. What happened to him, the change in him”—Tabitha feels very tired—“it must have had to do with me. I was meant to endure it until the curse broke, and I failed. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

But each of them can recognize how the other one has been abused. When each of them tells their story, the other's immediate response is outrage and indignation on her friends' behalf. What they cannot admit in their own situation, they can fight for, to care for another.

That indignation isn't against men. It's against fairy-tale logic of how relationships between men and women are meant to work. It's against ideas that women need to "prove" themselves to men, need to be protected by and from men, need to be the ones to "fix" anything that's wrong with any relationship, no matter how bad.

The things that Tabitha and Amira overcome are not men, but society's expectations of women -- which they themselves have internalized. That's the story's climax, its closing insight:

“Do you truly believe,” she says, with all the care she pours into keeping her spine taut and straight on her glass seat, “that I had nothing to do with those men’s attentions? That they would have behaved that way no matter what I looked like?”

“Yes,” says Tabitha firmly.

“Then is it not possible”—hesitant, now, to even speak the thought—“that your husband’s cruelty had nothing to do with you? That it had nothing to do with a curse? You said he hurt you in both his shapes.”


“Tabitha”—and Amira does not know what to do except to reach for her hand, clutch it, look at her in the way she looks at the geese, longing to speak and be understood—“you did nothing wrong.”

Tabitha holds Amira’s gaze. “Neither did you.”

And the story's conclusion is for the two women not to remain trapped by their toxic relationships. They strike out afresh -- leaning on each other for support.

Which, as I read it, is a decidedly feminist message, but one that's a whole lot more about women (and how we perceive them) then it is about men.

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