Palpable Patriarchy in Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga, Volume One

by McKinzie Spence

Science fiction draws the majority of its inspiration from the modern world, the author twisting and exaggerating certain characteristics during a work’s development.  The most basic of instincts and behaviors are hard to alter, such as attitude towards gender, cultural values, and human emotions.  In Saga, Brian Vaughan clearly mirrors most modern societal structures and influences through various ways, affecting nearly every character.  The diction, themes, and presentation of sexuality in Saga illustrate the patriarchal societies in which the novel exists.  One of the main characters, Alana, faces the oppression and stigmas that come from living in a society controlled by men.

Terms associated with femininity are used in a consistently condescending and derogatory manner by all genders in Saga.  Alana refers to Marko as a “big girl” near the end of the first chapter, when the couple is first following the map left to them by the grease monkey (Vaughan).  In showing suspicion and anxiety towards the unknown sounds, Marko is apparently acting in a manner that is considered too feminine.  Alana acknowledges this fact by indicating her dissatisfaction with the way he is reacting to the situation.  On the other hand, she is being more adventurous and courageous; one could say that she is expressing more masculine traits at this point.  This coincides with many stereotypes in the modern world’s patriarchal society: men taking charge while women cower, overcome with emotion.  Since the reader can recognize that Marko is being rational and simply giving his opinion on continuing on their journey in the dark, Alana’s comment seems completely unnecessary.  No reason is presented as to why their expressions would be considered more masculine or feminine except for influence from male-dominant cultures.  Therefore, Alana is both deviating from and perpetuating acceptable gender expression in verbally ridiculing Marko’s concerns.

The Stalk and Alana also refer to each other in offensive language while under stressful conditions, even though they are both seemingly female.  Near the end of chapter two, the Stalk reaches the family and engages in conversation with Alana.  She seems playful at first, while Alana expresses anger and distrust in her dialogue.  Within four panels, she refers to the Stalk as “a cunt like you”, and the Stalk reciprocates in her surprised “damn, bitch” (Vaughan).  ‘Cunt’ is a very weighted, rare term used to refer to a woman of exceptionally unfavorable character and, not coincidentally, identifies the gender at which the slur is being slung.  This kind of language is offensive to each woman, yet they use the terms in order to express a certain emotion.  The author’s elocution is deliberate.  If another character addressed either woman in a similar tone, each would be deeply offended and become defensive.  In this case, Alana and the Stalk are taking terms meant to offend their gender and slinging them back at each other.  This does nothing to aid progress in equality or respect for women, but it does give these characters power in reversing the control normally held within this type of language. 

Male characters, such as the Will, use the term ‘bitch’ freely and excessively within Saga to express distaste for a female.  Prince Robot IV commands Lance Corporal McHenry to “be a dear and fuck the fuck off”, showing disrespect for a concerned fellow soldier (Vaughan).  This is extremely condescending within the situation, and illustrates a preference for submissive women- not a likely quality to be found in female soldiers.  As a whole, the characters’ diction in Saga shows a general lack of respect for women.
Even in a universe that includes multiple species, there is a clear line drawn between the standards for men and women in Saga and their respective purposes in society.  There is a lack of female soldiers shown on base or in combat on Cleave excluding Alana and L.C. McHenry.  The military term ‘men’, used to refer to a group of soldiers, is mentioned many times throughout the volume. Both Alana and Marko’s sides of the war have chosen males to send on the hunt for the couple and Hazel.  All of this behavior points to a society that is male dominated: it employs, trusts, and asks men to complete tasks and take risks more than it does women. 

There is a small instance in Saga in which Pederast explains his definition of a real woman to the Will.  He remarks that the Will still seems hurt by his past relationship, explaining that he “can see what your last bitch did to you.  It’s all over your face, my brother.  Let me guess, was she a “strong woman?”  Yes, what you need is a real lover, a lady who will do anything and everything you say” (Vaughan).  This type of thinking- defining what is a real woman and explaining what she should and should not do- comes from a society in which men have control over women and view themselves as superior.  In reality, a ‘strong woman’ can be sexually providing, while a ‘real lover’ does not exist solely for the purpose of pleasing men.  After expressing a combination of confidence and strength or exuding sexiness without remaining within the correct boundaries, women are viewed in a condescending way.  The male-controlled boundaries and the respect with which females are regarded mirrors the world from which the author drew his inspiration.

Another small example of the society which holds male value and opinions on a pedestal is the conversation between Prince Robot IV and the princess at the beginning of the fifth chapter of Saga.  As has previously been shown, the prince and his people are ruled over by his father, the king.  There is no mention of his mother giving orders, and the princess is always shown in conversation with Prince Robot IV.  After revealing her pregnancy, the prince immediately asks about the sex of the child. On the second panel of the third page in this chapter, the princess expresses that they should “be happy with either, won’t we IV? Even a girl?” (Vaughan).  The fact that the princess expresses concern about Prince Robot IV’s satisfaction with a female child shows the root of the patriarchy in which the couple exists, the monarchy.  The exchange reminds the reader of historic sexism within royal families, where the female heirs are valued much less than their brothers. 

There is an order of female conduct omnisciently present throughout Saga.  Instead of remarking on Alana’s rebellion or misbehavior, the first thing that Special Agent Gale comments on striking him in chapter one are her emotions and sexuality.  He describes her as “dim, impulsive, kind of a slut” (Vaughan).  While Marko and Alana are literally members of two different species, their conversation before sleeping in the Endless Woods about their misconceptions seems familiar.  Similar to the couple’s situation, men and women are often told outrageous and unrealistic things about each other’s gender. These rumors are quickly accepted without thorough thought, and they grow up believing they exist as different breeds of human.  In reality, most humans are very similar to each other, only varying in basic sex organs and muscular structure. The same type of misinformation has taken its effect on the couple.

L.C. McHenry’s desired compliance mentioned earlier is also an example of desired female behavior. The obedience expected of Slave Girl and her use as currency for her uncle is an exaggerated case.  The practices displayed in her situation are outdated, barbaric, and surprising in contrast to the modern worlds depicted in other sections of Saga. While her situation may seem extreme, the same oppressive actions and themes are taking place in each instance given in different degrees of severity and cruelty.
The way in which female sexuality is presented in the book is contradictory.  As was mentioned before, Agent Gale comments on Alana being a slut. Therefore, the reader can infer that the stereotypes against women who express confidence or engage in sexual activity have carried over from the real world into Vaughan’s work. In the same conversation, the agent casually mentions “female soldiers of ours being forced to give birth to half-breeds in the rape camps on Wreath” (Vaughan). His acceptance of this fact while simultaneously expressing hatred towards Alana’s sexuality shows a contradictory state of mind towards women and the control over their own bodies.
The concept of Sextillion can be read as a metaphor for the acceptable conditions in which female sexuality can exist: the sex industry, pornography, and mainstream media when used as advertisement.  On this small, isolated planet, it seems that everyone is able to fulfill their most outrageous desires or sexual needs without shame or judgment.  The author mirrors reality in choosing to create this designated space for sex, while the population of Cleave, and probably elsewhere, has shown a general unacceptance and disapproval of female sexuality.  A woman may be able to please herself or someone else within certain confines while being praised and encouraged- through money or complements.  The moment she steps outside of this box, however, she is expected to act in a way that hides the sexual side of her being.  The reader can see this through the comments made about Alana by Agent Gale. 

Another scene in which female sexuality is repressed is between the Will and the Stalk.  Towards the middle of the third chapter, he and the Stalk argue over the phone about a previous assignment, in which she was “sleeping around” (Vaughan).  While the reader is not aware of the conditions of their previous relationship, the Will is highly contradictory on this page.  He chastises the Stalk for having sex with someone else in the second panel; in the last he is shown flying into Sextillion’s atmosphere.  Clearly the cause of patriarchal society, the idea is presented in which men take pleasure in enjoying and seeking out sex, while women do not have the moral freedom to act similarly.  The female populous lacks the liberty to express itself and fulfill its sexual desires if not concurrently satisfying those of men.

Alana and Marko themselves perpetuate stereotypes in their seemingly balanced relationship.  Attributed to the illustrator Fiona Staples, there is a common image used in the book that maintains the image of male superiority.  It is presented with Alana protecting Hazel, placed behind Marko as he prepares to fight.  This can be seen at the beginning of the first chapter, at the end of the fourth chapter, and in the middle of the fifth chapter.  He shows rage in the last scene, which is completely understandable in that he’s protecting his family.  As was previously examined, Alana refers to her husband in a derogatory way when he expresses fear.  In one case, Marko tries to comfort his wife by comparing her to another woman, claiming Alana is superior because Gwendolyn was “tall, but her hips were boyish, not womanly like yours.” (Vaughan).  Another theme present throughout Saga is Alana’s disposition to stubbornness and jealousy.  Her emotions illustrate Alana as being erratic when compared to her stable, evolving husband.  All of these factors could be dismissed as each character’s personality, or their special dynamic as a couple.  Either way, the characters’ actions are an effect of the cultures in which they were raised, and the upbringing of the author, as well.  Alana is not afraid to speak in offensive terms portraying femininity, which could be used against her as well, to berate Marko and the Stalk.  Marko takes on the stereotypical role as a father in which he protects his wife and child.  This sometimes means acting violent and deviating from his abstinence in order to properly defend his family.  Both parties in the relationship show traits which have been produced from childhoods within patriarchal societies and exposure to misogynistic influences. 

The diction, themes, and presentation of sexuality in Saga demonstrate the patriarchal societies in which the novel exists. This is due to the most basic human behaviors being difficult to modify, and therefore gives a reflection of the Brian Vaughan and the society that he lives in.  The derogatory language towards women and the condescending way they are treated, along with various examples and situations of each action, all acknowledge the existence of a patriarchy engrained deep inside the world of Saga.  Alana, Marko, and other characters in the story reinforce stereotypes associated with a male-dominant society through their language and conduct.