The Fantasy Gender Problem (Part II)
Last time, I discussed the curious phenomenon of male fantasy authors who create worlds that drastically restrict the roles their female characters can fill and then struggle to work around those self-imposed restrictions. I also talked about the justifications that fans usually give for why fantasy worlds must revolve around men (and white people). But, as I said then, I don’t think those are actually the conscious reasons why most fantasy authors choose to build their worlds the way they do. The actual reason is far stupider.
It is quite simply that most male fantasy authors don’t put any thought into gender dynamics at all. They just write what seems natural to them, and unsurprisingly, that almost always ends up being a world where men do all the important stuff.
This manifests in two ways. First, there are the fantasy cultures where women have restricted roles, but the restrictions are either unexplored or nonsensical. For instance, here’s the entire discussion of gender in The Name of the Wind: “The ratio of men to women in the University is about ten to one.” If he’d made the ratio about even (or not brought it up at all) there would have been no need for a discussion, but as it stands, one sentence is wildly inadequate. Women are admitted to the university (unlike real universities in medieval Europe), but there aren’t many of them. Why? Were they only recently admitted? Is there prejudice to the admissions system? Are there social pressures that discourage them from applying, or that disproportionately encourage boys to apply? Do women have a hard time getting the prerequisite primary education? Does the university have a reputation for harassment or otherwise being a bad environment for women? Will women have difficulty finding jobs later on? There’s no indication of any of these factors (except harassment). Instead, the university seems to be full of dudes because Patrick Rothfuss thinks of universities as dude places, and that’s about it.
There’s a slightly different example in Artemis Fowl. Holly Short is the first-ever female member of LEPrecon. Her superior officer feels the need to treat her more strictly than his other officers to make her prove herself. It would be a fine dynamic for a story set in US military or police unit (indeed, it’s reminiscent of the film G.I. Jane, released 5 years earlier), but why on earth are elves, a completely different culture far older than humans, at the exact same point in the advancement of women’s rights? I’m sure “social commentary” will be put forth as an excuse, but there’s no commentary here, just copying. It appears that Eoin Colfer just made his fictional paramilitary unit like a real-world paramilitary unit, uncritically bringing the gender dynamics along with it.
Examples of uncritical world-building are practically ubiquitous. But there’s an even worse way that women get inadvertently marginalized in fantasy novels written by men: Even in cultures that are supposed to be gender-equitable, characters–especially leaders or anyone who is powerful, dynamic, respected, or important–are still far more likely to be male. I already mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire: the wildlings are a more or less gender-equitable culture with a “might makes right” philosophy, but although wildling women are warriors and ought to be just as capable of fighting for power as the men, but aside from the very minor character Harma, every powerful wildling we meet–Tormund Giantsbane, Rattleshirt, the Magnar of Thenn, and every King-Beyond-the-Wall past and present–is male. There’s also a single female hill tribe chieftain and, of course, a single woman laying claim to the throne of Westeros. Apparently, to George R. R. Martin, female leaders are something you have exactly one of, regardless of where you are or what’s happening.
The most egregious and indefensible example of this, however, has to be Warhammer 40k’s Imperial Guard. Although canonically stated to be half men and half women, not only is all the fluff aimed at men, like so*:
Men, we are the first, last and often only line of defence the Imperium has against what is out there. You and that fine piece of Imperial weaponry you hold in your hands is all that is keeping humanity alive. Most of you will probably not live to see your second year in the Guard and most of you will probably never see your homeworlds again, but I can guarantee you that when you do fall, with a prayer to the most high and mighty God-Emperor on your lips, you will have earned the right to call yourself a man!
But also every single named leader that you can upgrade your units with is male. Of course there’s no explanation, nor could there be any that wasn’t a pure hand wave; it’s just that, when they think of cool, tough leaders that make good upgrades to your army, the creators simply think, or think that their players will think, of men and only men. Female miniatures of any sort are also incredibly difficult to find. If you want to field an army with female characters, especially female commanders, you’ll have to switch to a more gender-equitable game. Like Hail Caesar, a historical game.
All in all, fantasy stories authored by men where the role of women has been carefully considered and incorporated into the world-building are not very common. It’s much more common for women (and minorities, GLBT people, etc) to be relegated to a less important place in the world due to nothing but a vague notion that that’s just how things are.
*An example of poor world-building: Why would “call yourself a man” idiomatically mean “strong and brave” in a culture where women and men enter the military in equal numbers?