The Fantasy Gender Problem (Part I)
Even today, many male fantasy authors are blithely willing to include female characters only as subjects for male characters’ heroics and sexual conquests, but even among the better authors, the ones who understand that female characters can be complex and interesting and honestly want them to be well-represented, there’s an overarching sense that this is difficult. Authors seem to be searching with difficulty for places to insert female characters and pushing against the constraints of their own world-building. Take note: Any time you feel this happening in a story you’re writing, you’re doing something wrong. This is fantasy! There are no hard-and-fast rules! Why create one that will make you struggle to find anything interesting to do with half the population of your world?
A Song of Ice and Fire is an example typical of a lot of contemporary fantasy. George R. R. Martin does a great job creating female characters with a lot of depth, many of whom are beloved fan favorites (a major accomplishment, since fandom is so quick to label female characters “boring” or “a bitch”). Still, to do so, he constantly has to struggle against his own world-building. At least three characters (Arya, Daenerys, and Brienne) fall into the “female character who wants to do something only men are allowed to do and has to prove herself” archetype; others, such as Sansa, have to be constantly put in the presence of more dynamic characters in order to lend interest to their chapters. In the more egalitarian cultures, we get to see more effortlessly dynamic characters, such as Ygritte, who are allowed pursue their own goals without having to deal with any unnecessary institutional resistance…but, tellingly, those cultures are still portrayed as overwhelmingly male.
This is silly. Not just Westeros, but practically every culture in his world doesn’t allow women to do what he wants his characters to do. It can be an interesting conflict the first time, sure, but as the story progresses, even he seems to lose interest in explaining how each female character overcomes the barriers to entering a traditionally male role; in Brienne’s case, all that is relinquished to a brief backstory, allowing the main story to skip straight to her getting placed on the Rainbow Guard and recruited for important secret missions. Why does he feel the need to write himself into a corner he so clearly doesn’t want to be in?
Two main arguments get presented here. They’re usually put forth by garden-variety misogynists who want to keep interesting, important female characters out of fantasy literature altogether, but they often sound convincing to inexperienced authors, which is unfortunate because they’re both worthless.
First, there’s the historical accuracy argument. Women actually had highly restricted roles in medieval Europe, the argument goes, so they ought to have highly restricted roles in stories based on medieval Europe. (The same logic is also used to argue that fantasy stories should not include black characters.) This argument has been refuted by many people; I think it has three key weaknesses:
For one thing, the story isn’t actually set in medieval Europe. Medieval Europe, it turns out, doesn’t have dragons or magic. If you’re ready to change the world to allow for all the cool stuff you want to include, why not also change it to be inclusive of women? (Canny readers will point out that, while changing around the world in sometimes unrealistic or impossible ways is essential for fantasy, one can’t change human nature and always needs to portray it accurately. This has been addressed better by other people; I’ll touch on it when I get to the second argument.)
For another, practically no ersatz-medieval-European setting is written by someone with a strong working knowledge of actual medieval Europe. Practically all fantasy settings are based on a dimly-remembered amalgam of other books and movies that’s likely to be several times removed from any nonfiction historical source. There are any number of tells that these works take far more from Braveheart and The Lord of the Rings than from real history: They’re invariably set in vaguely feudal monarchies, for instance, and never in the maritime republics that flourished in the 10th through 13th centuries (Venice was a thriving mercantile republic for a thousand years and I’ve never read a fantasy story set there).
For that matter, history itself often gets skewed by these garbled narratives about what it’s supposed to be like: Archaeologists thought that almost all the Viking invaders of Europe were men because of the assumption that any body buried with weapons was male, but osteological evidence proved that the real ratio was fifty-fifty…and that Viking women were often buried with warriors’ weapons.
Finally, why on earth does every fantasy world have to be based on medieval Europe? It’s been done to death! For the love of God, don’t shove your female characters into a box in order to conform to a cliche. If you’re going to base a story on a historical culture, show some creativity. Have the people fighting the dragons be Zulus! Set your story somewhere in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica! Write a fantasy version of early Polynesians discovering New Zealand! These are random prompts and they already sound more interesting than ninety percent of the fantasy being published today.
The second argument is, inevitably, evolutionary psychology. The logic here is that men are inherently better at being leaders and warriors and such and women are only fit to stay home and make babies, so no truly egalitarian culture could ever form or survive, not even hypothetically. The arguments get more sophisticated (“if women could be warriors, then a lot of women would get killed and there wouldn’t be enough left to make babies!”), but it all boils down to the basic idea that the differences between men and women make any egalitarian (or, heaven forbid, matriarchal) culture inherently impossible. One imagines that these people would be immobilized by fear of the West’s imminent demise at the hands of female soldiers and engineers, but their ideas seem to percolate into everything, including fantasy literature, and so they have to be addressed.
The primary reason this argument holds no water is that evo-psych is a notoriously pseudoscientific field that is usually trotted out as a post-hoc justification for enforcing the current status quo. If message boards had existed in the 1950s, no doubt the same lines of argument would have been used to justify why one couldn’t create an intelligent, sophisticated culture in ersatz Africa. I have little personal interest in debunking it, but I encourage you to check out Elodie Under Glass, who loves to take down common evo-psych myths, such as that women can’t read maps because of evolution.
There’s an even simpler reason to ignore evo-psych arguments that certain types of culture couldn’t possibly exist: Culture is weird! People do all kinds of things that make no sense from an evolutionary standpoint, and cultures around the world have developed customs that might seem counterproductive to the culture’s general survival. There are the customs that involve voluntary death or risk of death (duels, seppuku, sati) and customs that involve not reproducing (eunuchs, vows of celibacy). The Shakers died out because of their practice of universal celibacy, but they did exist. Comparatively, a culture where men and women both go to war sounds downright probable.
So let’s set aside the silly reasons people bring up to forbid the existence of gender-equitable fantasy worlds. Interestingly, while these reasons are often presented by fans as defenses of popular works, I don’t think they are usually the reason that fantasy writers restrict themselves to patriarchal settings, even when it ends up being a storytelling obstacle. The real reason is even stupider. I’ll get to it next time.
I should note that none of the character archetypes mentioned above are really wrong. It’s perfectly okay to write a fantasy novel about a woman struggling to prove herself in a traditionally male field. Likewise, women within traditional, restricted gender roles can be fascinating characters themselves (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell includes such characters to good effect). The trouble is that this isn’t the sort of story that most fantasy authors are trying to write. Most of them prefer to write about epic battles and that sort of thing and they really want to put a woman in command of the army, or whatever the case may be…but they still feel the need to write a world where women aren’t allowed to command armies and then find a way around it, instead of just making it okay for women to do the things they want them to do.