As I continue to revisit the Dragonriders of Pern series, I’ve been noticing a lot of questionable things about the way Anne McCaffrey built her world. There’s the fact that dragon hormone sex is very often actually rape, or the fact that McCaffrey has no real understanding of how other sexual orientations work. Both of those might be explained away due to misconceptions of the time in which the books were written (the LGBTQ+ one, at least, has been discussed in some detail throughout the years), but there’s another issue that’s pretty prevalent in the Pern books—something weirdly fundamental.
Spoilers for the series and a trigger warning for brief misogynistic slurs below.
When this series began, books were only written by Anne McCaffrey, but as time went on, McCaffrey allowed her son, Todd McCaffrey, to write and co-write books in her Pern universe. I’ve only read one or two of Todd’s books (thus far, anyway), so when I talk about “McCaffrey” or “McCaffrey’s Pern” in this post, please know that I am only talking about the Anne McCaffrey-penned books.
Pern is filled top to bottom with powerful women and powerful female protagonists. Yet in making these women powerful, McCaffrey seems to think that she must demonize other women. She doesn’t always hit the Madonna/Whore complex, but her protagonists are always plucky and Good, and they usually have a female adversary who is Evil. We see this at the start of the very first book, Dragonflight. F’lar, rider of bronze Mnementh, is on Search for a girl who will Impress the last queen dragon in all of Pern. As queens are the only fertile dragons, the queen is extremely important—and doubly so for F’lar, who knows that whoever flies the queen will become Weyrleader. He thinks Lessa is the most likely candidate to Impress, and so takes her, with her consent, from Ruatha Hold.
Once Lessa does Impress golden Ramoth, it’s up to her, as Weyrwoman, to ensure the well-being and longevity of her Weyr. In learning her lessons, she’s often compared with (and compares herself to) the past Weyrwomen. Laudable role models are women like Moreta, who saved all of Pern from plague at the cost of her own life; less laudable role models are women like Jora, the previous Weyrleader, who is openly described as fat, stupid, and lazy. If you’re a Weyrwoman—or even just one of McCaffrey’s protagonists, full stop—apparently you not only have to be badass, you have to prove that you’re Not Like Other Girls, too.
Lessa might not have been compared sexually to other women, but that’s not the case for most McCaffrey protagonists. In Dragonquest, Kylara, Weyrwoman for Southern Weyr, is shown to be an openly promiscuous, scheming woman who prefers manipulation and sex to the boring everyday duties of running a Weyr. Most of those duties fall to Brekke, a junior queen rider at Southern who is described as pretty plain, who is not interested in sex until she meets the right guy, and who willingly does all the work that Kylara abandons. When F’nor, rider of brown Canth and half-brother to the famous F’lar, takes an interest in Brekke, Kylara is incensed. She purposefully lets her queen stay when Brekke’s Wirenth is rising to mate, and the two queens, overcome by hormones, fight each other. Finally, both dragons die, and as most riders never survive the loss of their dragon, it’s believed that both Kylara and Brekke will soon follow. Funnily enough, though, dragonriders, who are a pretty insular lot, show no sympathy for Kylara. They don’t talk about her at all, and it’s understood that if she died, their reaction would pretty much be “good riddance”. All their sympathies and hopes go to Brekke, who does survive, recovers fully, and lives a happy life with F’nor. Kylara also survives, but the books never mention her again.
This girl vs. girl mentality is found in pretty much every Anne McCaffrey-penned Pern book. While at Harper Hall, prodigy apprentice Menolly is picked on by another female student, Pona, who’s described as sly-faced, isn’t musically talented in the slightest, acts shallow and uppity, and has a boyfriend. Pona’s jealous of Menolly’s talent and tries to use her wiles to get Menolly kicked out of the Hall, only to find that the Masterharper has taken on Menolly as his special apprentice. She’s kicked out instead. And in the early days of the Pern settlers, Sallah Telgar is a competent woman in a committed relationship, while Avril Bitra is only known for being sexually active and attractive. Sallah is the nurturing mother, a renowned shuttle pilot, and a skilled leader, while Avril relies only on her sensuality to get other people to do her work for her. Avril dies a nasty death, and Sallah dies heroically and becomes a martyr to the settlers.
While these comparisons can be found in a lot of speculative fiction, it’s especially annoying to find them in the Dragonriders of Pern, a series which celebrates the talents and heroism of many different types of women, be they dragonrider, scientist, or Harper. McCaffrey never falls into the trap of assuming that all women are the same and is careful to make each woman her own well-rounded self. Yet she is also always careful to include a one-dimensional caricature of a woman as foil to her Good characters, and this really takes a lot away from what could otherwise be a very strong message.