Monday, January 28, 2013

Most Annoying Approaches to Portraying Women in Fantsy Novels

This week, the Pentagon announced that it was officially opening up combat positions in the US military to women. This got me to thinking how much has changed during my lifetime. Back when I was in college (in the 1980s), there were a lot of people who insisted that this wasn't going to happen in our lifetime, both because there were insurmountable physical differences between men and women, and because there is just an innate "human male" tendency to be more protective and solicitous of females, whether or not they were "really" more helpless. As one friend said to me, "I just don't think our society is ever going to be ready for daughters coming home in body bags along with sons."

Although this decision is not without its detractors, it's amazing how much had changed in twenty five years.

This got me to thinking about how much has changed in fantasy fiction. I've run across a number of blog posts lately that address gender issues in fantasy. These days, there are lots of female fantasy writers and lots of female fantasy readers, so the days when fantasy was a "boys only" club, if such days ever really existed, are long over. But there is still plenty of controversy about various modern fantasy writers and whether or not their work is sexist, either by omission, or in a more overt way. I'm not going to cast stones at any particular authors here today (there are plenty of sites and discussion forums that do this already), but I thought I would enumerate some of the things that give me pause when I encounter them in fantasy novels, or on sites where fantasy fiction is discussed.

1. Novels where there are no female characters at all, not even secondary ones. Okay, there's The Hobbit. It was written 75 years ago, and the protagonist was hardly your stereotypical macho man. So I don't really have a problem with it. In fact, it's one of my all time favorite fantasy novels. But if you're writing in the modern era, it's pretty hard to miss that women participate in society, have goals, dreams and personalities, and can do, at least occasionally, the same things men do and have done throughout history. And women who are confined to traditional roles, whether because their society forces them to be, or because they enjoy those roles, can still be interesting and important people. It's also true that there are numerous examples, even in the "olden days" of women who stepped outside of their normal and expected roles and acquitted themselves admirably. When females don't exist at all in a world, or are only there to provide "male gaze" fodder, I do wonder whether the author has noticed that half the species is, and always has been, female.

Exceptions exist. If a story takes place in a WWII submarine, a boy's boarding school, or some other setting that realistically would be all male, or if the novel clearly is focused on an issue that relates very specifically to the male experience, then it makes sense for its cast to be all male. I've enjoyed many such books, just as I've enjoyed books where all the characters are female for some plausible reason.

2. Novels where all the female characters (whether minor or major) are bland and uninteresting or are only there to be burdens or obstacles for the male characters, and where they embody all the most negative stereotypes of female temperament (overly emotional, lacking perspective, manipulative, vain). This is even more annoying than the invisible female approach. This doesn't mean that a writer can't or shouldn't have annoying female characters or portray bad relationships, but if this is all their is in a story, it does make me wonder if the author has never had a good or rewarding relationship with a woman in his or her life.

3. Female characters that are all incredibly beautiful and lots of extra time is spent describing their appearance when compared to male characters. Especially vexing (though sometimes amusing) are those mirror or bathing scenes where the woman is admiring her own body. I think we all know why some writers put these scenes in if a novel is erotica aimed at males. It's less clear what purpose it serves in novels intended to appeal to a more general readership.

4. Novels where the author is clearly using the "hey, this is a gritty and historically accurate setting, and this is just how things are" excuse to portray acts of horrific violence against women (particularly women who have the audacity to buck the status quo) over and over again. Rape happens. So does murder. So does enslavement. I'm okay with characters having to deal with adversity and personal tragedies. It would be a dull story if they didn't. But when said adversity is disproportionately meted out to females, and all the characters in said novel simply accept it, and most especially when it's shown in repeated and loving detail, it makes me wonder.

5. Novels where there is some vitally important skill or ability (often magical) that women just can't do--not simply because the society doesn't allow it, but because they really just ... can't. This was fairly common in the olden days, and there was usually this, "Well, women's creative "power" is tied up with that amazing ability to make babies, so it's only right that men should get all the magic" idea going. Maybe it's because I've never been all that keen on babies, but the "women can make babies, so men should be able to do everything else," argument always left me flat. I don't want to make babies, darn it. And even if I did, it wouldn't be the only thing I want to do. I don't read novels only for wish fulfillment, but if an important premise is that half the human race is incapable of doing something vitally important in the context of the story, please don't patronize us by saying, "but you can make babies!" At least have something else mystical and important in the context of the story that the other sex can do instead.

Now having put these to paper, I can think of exceptions to all of these. I already mentioned that I loved the Hobbit, even though the world it took place in was populated by males who evidently reproduced via cloning. I loved the Wizard of Earthsea, even though women couldn't be proper magi there (it was never made quite clear if it was because they really couldn't or because it was just taboo). But I will admit, it bugged me a bit when I read the original trilogy, because darn it, I wanted to go to Roke and learn to be a wizard too. Of course, she later wrote sequels that illustrated that that wonderful art magic that only men could do was really messing everything up, but that was decades later. Okay, I lied and went and picked on a particular story. Now I feel bad, because I actually love U.K. Le Guin's stuff, and she's written some really ground-breaking work that explores gender.

I also got to thinking about the existence of reverse sexism. Some negative stereotypes about women is that they are incredibly annoying, shallow, vain, or overly emotional creatures who have no grasp of the big picture or what's really important (and the sacrifices that have to be made). Women tend to bristle when they see their sex portrayed in this light. The complementary male stereotype, of course, is that of the narcissistic, even sociopathic, boy man who won't grow up and doesn't give a crap about anyone else but himself. The guy who "just doesn't get it." Men don't seem to collectively bristle at or be offended by characters of this sort (aka Peter Griffon on Family Guy). In fact, they tend to love them even more than women do. I can think of some possible reasons why this may be the case, but as this blog is already rather long, I'll leave it for another day.


  1. A good article. And yes, I do tend to bristle about shallow portrayal of men, but actually what I bristle about is the shallow portrayal of people. Characters are most of the fun of stories, and it seems ridiculous not to use them to their full potential.

  2. And that's really what it comes down to. Historically, I think women (and people of differing orientations, cultures, ethnicities) have more often been invisible or represented in a narrow, stereotyped or shallow ways. But that's no excuse to turn around and do the same thing to males of European descent either.