The Representation of Women in Fantasy. What’s the problem? (for Bad Reputation 2011)

Kings and princes, wizards and heroes, isn’t that what fantasy’s all about? Look at the great epics of yore and see Gilgamesh, Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf, Arthur, Lancelot, Roland, Siegfried. Look at the development of the fantasy genre and see Conan, Aragorn, Elric, Druss, Belgarion. Such lists are endless — and all male.

But why should this concern us? There are women in these stories; Helen, Hecuba, Penelope, Dido, Lavinia, Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Isolde, Galadriel, Arwen, Polgara, Ce’Nedra. Their presence offers the necessary balance and if the characters who drive the plot are predominately male, that’s just a traditional aspect of this genre which does reflect so much history. Before the last few decades, women were subject to male authority for centuries. No one’s saying that women shouldn’t be equal in the real world nowadays but this is fiction after all. Right?

No, wrong, and for a whole lot of reasons.

Let’s start with the historical basis. Granted, the history read by JRR Tolkien and his generation was all about the great deeds of great (white) men. Such interpretations reflected the Victorian world view of masculine authority and responsibility. That immediately creates problems. When the importance of great men is taken for granted, that’s where the historian’s focus will be. If women are not deemed important, why bother writing about them except where they impinge on the main subject’s life or deeds? They will inevitably end up absent from the narrative that emerges.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That was then and this is now. Since the first emergence of women’s studies as a discipline in the 1960’s, a wealth of historical research has explored the role of women in all levels of society. Women’s influence and significance is now apparent, even when they were effectively denied financial and political power by the cultures of their day.

So a fantasy writer can no longer point to a few exceptional women in fantasy narratives, such as Galadriel, and hide behind a claim to reflect historical accuracy because the only significant women in history were exceptions such as Good Queen Bess. Not when I have books on my study shelves about the women who sailed with Nelson’s navy and built his ships in the royal dockyards, about the role of so many women in the scientific developments of the Enlightenment and a whole lot more besides.

Women’s roles in all facets of life are now being acknowledged. These women had authority and autonomy. Granted, that was often limited by their wealth, social status and culture but there is no excuse for women characters in fantasy fiction only ever being passive and reactive. Historically we now know that women were rarely only defined by their relationships with men in the way that so many women characters in fantasy have been. While women can be wives, mothers or lovers, benign or malicious, that is assuredly not all they can be. Fantasy fiction, should reflect such current historical research, not attitudes that were outdated fifty years ago.

Because fiction is important. Stories have always been one of the primary means of education and instruction, from the very young on into adulthood. Look at any list of best-sellers for teens and you will see how fantasy fiction dominates. Thankfully, writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman have been writing stories for decades encouraging children to explore and debate the world views that might be imposed upon them, along with the roles they’re expected to fill and the authority which adults might claim.

So it’s vital that epic fantasies on the ‘adult’ shelves don’t undo all that good work. I really do not want my teenage sons unconsciously absorbing notions of male privilege and entitlement in stories where a woman’s importance is always defined by who she might choose to sleep with or better yet, save her precious virginity for. Where women who transgress male authority are invariably punished by supposedly indifferent twists of fate. I don’t want my niece and god-daughters reading stories which imply that true happiness lies in meekness, submission and doing the cooking and mending to facilitate so much more valuable male heroics.

Not when so much of today’s baser popular culture looks so indulgently on misogynistic male ‘celebrities’, excusing infidelity or excess at the same time as subjecting women in the public eye to merciless, puritanical scrutiny while extolling the role of Wife And/Or Girlfriend to a rich man as the pinnacle of female achievement. Not when pay gaps and glass ceilings and the Old Boy network are still so insidiously prevalent.

I want all those teenagers to read stories where male and female characters are equally significant in the narrative, all making the best use of their respective talents and abilities, where their gender is only influential when such things as physical strength come into to play. Is that realistic or just more fantasy? Perhaps, but another facet of fiction has always been encouraging aspiration.

Thankfully there have long been fantasies with strong female characters taking the initiative to drive plots forward, making their own choices and dealing with men as equals, even when their cultures frown upon it. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels are all notable as such pioneers.

But this is still not enough. Those writers are all women and research has shown that men and boys’ reading is so often unconsciously biased towards books written by men. The representation of women in fantasy is an issue that should concern all authors. We need a substantial list of male authors to cite after Sir Terry Pratchett, when the question of men writing effective, convincing women comes up.

I want to read those stories myself. But this doesn’t mean I want to read about feisty servant girls who wake up, throw off a lifetime of cultural conditioning along with their blankets and decide it’s time to invent feminism. Any more than I want to read about honest farm boys who discover they’re a lost heir and regain the throne thanks to a great mage’s help, who won’t claim it for himself because he’s a decent chap.

So somewhat paradoxically, the representation of women fantasy must still include women leading circumscribed, subordinated lives, to remind all of us reading, male and female, why our grandmothers, mothers and aunts campaigned for the vote and marched for equal rights. To remind us what women’s lives are like today in so much of the world where their human rights are curtailed by culture and poverty. And of course, so many similar arguments apply when we consider the equally problematic question of characters of colour in fantasy fiction.

Doesn’t this all sound so worthy and politically correct? Oh dear, because so often that means just plain dull. The most tedious storybooks which I read to my children were the ones with An Improving Moral Message. Some of the most boring news reports are the ones analysing sexism, racism, any other –ism you care to name. That doesn’t mean these issues aren’t important but it can be such hard work to stop your eyes glazing over…

True and this is another reason why the representation of women in fantasy fiction is so important, alongside that of other minorities who’ve been historically marginalised and abused. Because epic fantasy fiction, with its traditional high heroics, hair’s breadth escapes, valorous last stands, black-hearted villainy, the tragedy of good men in conflict, and yes, star-crossed lovers here and there, will be read and enjoyed by all sorts of people who would never sit through an earnest documentary or read a lengthy newspaper analysis.

As writers we have the opportunity to enrich our readers’ lives as well as entertaining them. We should take that as seriously as we take the challenge of crafting an enthralling, surprising, rewarding page-turner of a story.

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