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21 September 2009 @ 12:06 pm
Women in fantasy  

There’s a sort of on-going discussion about women–or more specifically, the lack thereof–in epic fantasy books. Marie Brennan and Kate Elliott discuss it here and here at SF Novelists, Kate Elliott & Ken Scholes discuss it here at Borders Blog, and there are a variety of other places I’m failing to link to because five links is enough for one paragraph. The question raised is essentially “where are the women?”, specifically lately in epic fantasy but also as a general statement in fantasy and science fiction.

What the question really is is, where are the women in books written by men, because on many of these blog discussions people’ve come up with roughly one zillion epic fantasy/sf books peopled with significant female characters, and 90% of them are written by women. Which actually is not at all my point.

My point, and I suspect this may be somewhat controversial, is that I never noticed they were missing.

You may, of course, say that the reason I never noticed they were missing is because I have bought into the patriarchal society in which I was raised and believe that women should be seen and not heard. In that case, I first ask if you’ve ever met me, and second reserve the right to bite your face off. (I just wanted to get that out of the way before going on.)

Seriously, though: I am in no way claiming that one shouldn’t try to people one’s books with female characters, but never in my life have I noticed the lack. It’s possible that I have an unusually female-centric background in reading, and to some degree, sure, I’ll buy that. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was about six. I’d read most of the Nancy Drew books (and the Hardy Boys, and the 3 Investigators, and the Bobbsey Twins and the Happy Hollidays), and all the horse books in the library by the time I was seven. The first SF book I distinctly remember reading, at about age seven (and having run out, largely, of horse books), was THE CITY UNDER GROUND, which I recall featured a romance between the protagonist, a boy whose civilization had survived a holocaust by hiding underground, and a red-haired above-ground female counterpart. (I did not recall the extremely Christian slant to the book, which astonished me on a re-read in my twenties!) I read Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander and Trixie Belden and Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery and C.S. Lewis by age ten. These are not, it is true, all epic fantasy, but they all feature significant girl characters. Many of them have female leads (and yes, I do note that many of them also have female writers. But if you’ll recall from above, that wasn’t actually my point. :))

So, yeah. As a little kid, I read a great many books which featured that phrase of which I am growing tired, “strong female leads”. Arright. Let us step past those very formative years and into my double digits, where I was reading SF/F almost exclusively.

I read THE BLUE SWORD, THE HERO & THE CROWN, and the Harper Hall Trilogy when I was ten or eleven. Yes, you say, but women writers! Okay. Fine. I read WISHSONG OF SHANNARA when I was twelve. The girl’s the lead character in that book. Yeah, it’s true that SWORD and ELFSTONES don’t have a character like Brin…but I would challenge anyone to claim that Amberle Elessedil isn’t the most important character in ELFSTONES. (And I swear to God if you go off on the “noble female sacrifice” thing you had best see the “bite your face off” line up above.) I would equally defy anybody to say Polgara and Ce’Nedra aren’t women of power, significance and distinct personalities. I read all the Valdemar books in a week when I was seventeen; between Eddings and Lackey I read Heinlein (from whom I deduced, largely, that women were smart enough to get men to do the heavy lifting and that sex was good; this is apparently not what most people get out of Heinlein); I read ElfQuest, where far and away (excepting Strongbow, of course) my favorite characters were the women warriors, some of whom were beautifully contrasted with gentle men. I couldn’t tell you how the Amber novels or the Covenant books handled women (though I gather the latter did so badly) because Amber bored me and I thought we’d have all been happier if Thomas Covenant had been drowned at birth (on the flip side I’m very fond of Donaldson’s MORDANT’S NEED duology). I read voraciously, and with the exception of Jack L. Chalker, whose books I found misogynistic and loathsome, I have no active memory at all of ‘missing’ female characters or having an opinion on whether they were well-written/rounded/realistic/well-treated.

So to me it’s purely astonishing to read women (irrespective of age: it seems to run the gamut from people considerably older than me, to within my decade, to years younger) who say that they didn’t see people like them in the books they read as kids, and still often don’t as adults. My brain apparently just doesn’t work that way. I mean, I’m hardly arguing with it, and I certainly don’t mean to belittle it.

But here’s the thing, and this is actually really my point: these people, whether boys or girls, were out there solving mysteries, riding dragons, racing horses, finding grails, working magic, saving cities, wielding swords, becoming kings and queens, talking with lions, and following yellow brick roads.

Of course they weren’t like me.

I honestly feel that for me as a reader, this was *far* more important than gender balances in books. My swords were fireweed stripped of its leaves; my fantasy realm the acres of moss-covered birch forest in our backyard. My horses were trees, my enemies (and allies) the neighbors, my forts built into hillsides, my dragons imaginary. My adventures, grand as they were, were also entirely mundane: I was not a mis-placed child of royalty, and I knew that even when I played the part. Oz was not beyond the rainbow, or if it was I certainly lacked the tornado and the flying house to take me there. I belonged to my world; the people and characters of my books belonged to theirs, and _they_ were the ones who would actually face wizards, battle ravening hordes, and win hearts.

It would never have occurred to me that it was any less likely that I could participate in those worlds because I was a girl. The defining characteristic wasn’t boy or girl, it was *magic*. As a reader I didn’t, and don’t, identify with a character because he or she is a he or she; I identify because I want all the magic and adventure and dragons myself. As a writer, I do default to a female lead because hey, I’m a girl (much, I imagine, like male writers generally default to a male lead because, hey, they’re guys), but I’d like to think readers aren’t, by and large, reading my books _because_ there’s a female lead, but because Jo and Margrit and Belinda are participating in adventures we all might want to take part in.

(x-posted from the essential kit)

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on September 21st, 2009 11:14 am (UTC)
Whatever the problems, Anne MCCaffrey's Dragonflight may be one of the best things for a teen girl to read in sf. Because Lessa wins: she rebels, she sulks, she does what she wants and she is proved right. And that's a great message to give to a 13 year old girl. I was 14 or 14 when I first read it and it rocked my world.
Jennerraie on September 21st, 2009 11:20 am (UTC)
Anne is my Hero
Anne inspired a generation. Anne should be Required Reading for ALL 13-15 year old girls.

I want to make a list of books and authors that should be on this Required Reading list too :P
(no subject) - mizkit on September 21st, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - agrimony on September 22nd, 2009 11:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
Jennerraie on September 21st, 2009 11:18 am (UTC)
Been wincing and gritting my teeth at what rubbish my niece has been reading and fawning over. I'll have to write down these books you've mentioned here and set them down in front of her. (I already got the Harper Hall Trilogy for her, and she did really like it.) So, thanks for tossing these names up.

I think the complaint that is coming from these people is that the over-hyped money bath media-loved books are absolutely lacking (with the exception of Harry Potter) a female character being depicted as anything less than a doe-eyed, sex-hungry Mary Sue.
kitmizkit on September 21st, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmm.
I donno how old your niece is, but I _loved_ Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy when I was junior-high aged, same timeish I read the Harper Hall books. I can (and have) list books I adored as a teen for hours on end; I'll be happy to throw some more titles, both in and out of the SF/F genre, your way, if you like.

Bear in mind that your niece is reading, which is right there a whole lot better than the alternatives. Even if she's reading stuff you don't like, she's got the relationship with the written word. :)
Laura Anne Gilmansuricattus on September 21st, 2009 11:33 am (UTC)
Are you sure we're not related?

I'm not quite on the side of devils as you -I was aware of there not being characters who dealt with things from a female POV - but like you it was the magic and the adventure that was the point and the appeal - self-identifying with a character was secondary. But I suspect we are in a minority of readers on that....

EtA: of course, if you're taking literature as a microcosm of social expectations and reflections etc, then the point becomes far more valid. But as a pure reader-response, yeah.

(edited for afterthought)

Edited at 2009-09-21 12:14 pm (UTC)
The Green Knight: Inner Feministgreen_knight on September 21st, 2009 11:33 am (UTC)
When I was younger, I rode along with the lead - whether male or female, if they were go-getting people who had adventures I was happy.

It's only now that I notice the accumulated lack-of: it's more obvious in films, but I also can see it in fiction: we did not get the adventures of Harriet Potter, the Girl Who Lived. And I see how women are subtly silenced, and squeezed into roles that are far more clicheed and always less powerful than their male counterparts; how you get a whole spaceship full of people, and only two or three officers are female and/or people of colour.

And once you start noticing, you don't stop. And while it's true that women might not hold the positions of greatest power or fight in the front lines of most wars, they will nontheless be present, and important, and active. History _writers_ tend to overemphasize the role of men in history: there is no reason for fantasy writers to do the same.

Again, it's rarely the individual book that is the problem, although many of them (with female characters whose only purpose or goal appears to be to find a man) *are* a problem - but the collective weight of all those women who have, at the least, a wise male mentor and a man to rescue them when needed.

mayakdamayakda on September 21st, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
And once you start noticing, you don't stop.

Kelvixkelvix on September 21st, 2009 12:51 pm (UTC)
Do girls think they are Frodo?
You've written a well thought out post - and this response is less concise, but having said that:

I don't remember a vast amount of fantasy writing/adventure writing that was available for me to read in my pre-teen and teen years: in the very early 1980s (which for me was that sort of time) I think I read all books, imagining myself as the protagonist, failing to notice whether the lead was a male or female one. Swallows and Amazons was a favourite - I read all of the Arthur Ransomes over and over again. Narnia (if that counts) I realised the allegorical significance of, but read initially when probably about 8-12 - many times. The hobbit was probably also 9-10 or thereabouts, but LOTR was much later - at 12. Ursula le Guin and Susan Cooper were casual reads at about 13 or 14 (moving to the mid 80s now): Eddings I only discovered much later on - after H P Lovecraft and Pratchett - I read a lot of non-fantasy in the meantime.

Looking back, I see that a lot of the protagonists were male - the story revolving around them and their adventure: I was a tomboy, in that climbing trees and woodwork were far more interesting pursuits than dolls and clothes, so that never struck me at the time. The adventures they had were just as available to me as they were to them - I thought.

Now I wonder whether I was wrong: I still read fantasy now, and wonder more about whether there is a female or male protagonist: and appreciate more those books which offer a less standard fantasy story - the Dark Materials trilogy, the Mckenna "thief" set of 5, the Hobb "madships" set.

I have read somewhere that small boys do not read books - because they get bored/the book has no relevance for them/ it's all about relationships, which are boring/ that's a girl's book... if "traditional" fantasy helps some boys towards an appreciation for reading, then I am happy that it works at all for them - I like the idea of more literate boys about the place. I still believe that the blood and guts/war fighting type of fantasy (and sci-fi) has a particular use - it gets a man inside a bookshop or library - even if it is only to look at the strategically placed armour...

TLDR: I didn't notice it being about boys at the time, if it was, either. It's nice some newer fantasy is more complex/more about girls. Fantasy being appealing to boys (relevancy) is not a completely bad thing.
ex_rolanni on September 21st, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Do girls think they are Frodo?
I have read somewhere that small boys do not read books - because they get bored/the book has no relevance for them/ it's all about relationships, which are boring/ that's a girl's book... if "traditional" fantasy helps some boys towards an appreciation for reading, then I am happy that it works at all for them - I like the idea of more literate boys about the place.


I had no trouble identifying with the hero -- boy, girl, cat, horse -- in anything I read growing up. And while, yes, it is nice to see girls in the action role, that doesn't -- and shouldn't -- mean that boys get relegated to hand-wringing ineffectuality -- or banished from the story altogether.

Stories are about people. People come in all kinds of flavors.
Re: Do girls think they are Frodo? - mizkit on September 21st, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Do girls think they are Frodo? - green_knight on September 21st, 2009 08:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
scbutlerscbutler on September 21st, 2009 12:55 pm (UTC)
Well said. This discussion keeps calling itself literary when it's actually political. A necessary political discussion, perhaps, but that still doesn't make it a literary one. There are plenty of good books out there in which one gender or the other gets short shrift. Some folks like one or the other, some like neither, and some like both.
Kate Kirbykirbyk on September 21st, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I tend to agree - the gender of a person isn't the main qualifier for whether or not I identify with him or her, and for me, identifying with the lead is not actually the goal.

It's important that I can understand the lead, and probably like the lead (which is why I didn't get into Amber - didn't care which ass won the day.) But I loved the McCaffrey books just like all the women here, and can't say that it bothered me that some of them are very girl-centric.

Which isn't to say that there aren't more male leads in fantasy and science fiction (there are), and there aren't writers who only can write one gender (there are). I think that's a serious flaw in a writer - you don't have as convincing a world (unless you're writing something like historical military fiction, in which case yes, there was something wrong with the world.)

There are people who view the opposite gender as unfathomably mysterious and other. I think this is pathological and seriously disturbing. If you can't have empathy for close to half the human race, this is a big, big, bad thing. One of the benefits of reading is that it gives you insight into people who do not think like you do, so having a range of viewpoints, including gender, is good! So, I come full circle, from "I don't explicitly notice much or care" to "New viewpoints are good so a wide gender range is a plus." Do I contradict myself? Blah blah blah Multitudes.

I'd also, on the latter virtue, like to see more gay, bi, and transgendered major characters that aren't in that bizarre subgenre of 'gay fiction'. (Particularly the latter - it's hard to think of many well written TG characters where the story wasn't about that. Gaiman had one in Sandman.) Also more minorities are good, people with disabilities, etc - slipping in viewpoints that aren't the readers, if you have the background to do it well, these are gems. And probably a lot more broadening than just gender for most readers, even young ones.
kitmizkit on September 21st, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
Did it even _occur_ to you that many of the McCaffrey books have female leads?
(no subject) - kirbyk on September 21st, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - mela_lyn on September 21st, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - mizkit on September 21st, 2009 03:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
The Catini Series - raie on September 22nd, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Jaxom. - raie on September 22nd, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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kitmizkit on September 21st, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
It sounds like the objection is really that *male* SF&F authors don't write strong women as often as some people would like?

Yeah, that's what it comes down to in some ways, and as others have said, it can be considered a microcosm of Other Problems With Society, but but it's also not the argument I wanted to have with this posting, really. For me it really largely is about "wow, I just never would have thought that way". :)
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(no subject) - mizkit on September 21st, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - elialshadowpine on September 22nd, 2009 01:34 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - agrimony on September 23rd, 2009 12:19 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - mizkit on September 23rd, 2009 09:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
Katee Robertredqueen1 on September 21st, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
Wow, this is amazing. I don't get the whole "strong female lead" bit, either. I read a massive amount as a child (and still do) and I never once was put off because of characters unlike me. As you said, that's kind of the point. I agree completely!
UrsulaVursulav on September 21st, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)
The only point I'll make here, since it's going to run long as it is, is that, sadly, in kid's books--and specifically in kid's books--there is a very solid belief that little boys won't read books with girl heroes, and little girls will read both.

I can't say how much this is TRUE--I can say it certainly appears true of the pair of boys that are sporadically in the house, but the plural of anecdote is not data--but the publishers, the librarians, and the teachers certainly believe it. I spend almost no time around children, I can't say from personal experience, but I haven't heard any compelling arguments against this point, certainly not that were rooted in anything other than a desire that this not be the case, because it maybe says lousy things about our species if it's true.

I think that it's probably broadly true. (Yes, yes, maybe you were an enlightened boy and read McKinley and McCaffery. Give yourself a gold star for being a statistical anomaly.) I wish it weren't, but it's at least true enough to affect marketing to kids in a big way.

So all my kid's books to date have a male protagonist. That wasn't intentional with "Nurk"--he just happened to be a boy-shrew in my head--but with Dragonbreath, the word from on high was that we needed something specifically marketable to boys, and that meant a male hero.

And herein lies the tricky bit, because getting boys to read is a lot harder, as a demographic, than getting girls to read, and I think half the reason Dragonbreath sold and got marketed to the hilt was because it was aimed squarely at that kinda Holy Grail demographic--middle-grade reluctant reader boys.

And this is a good thing! I defy anybody to say that getting boys who don't like to read reading is not a wonderful fantastic thing, and I have e-mails from parents and teachers saying "I handed him Dragonbreath, and I didn't seem him again for two hours!" By that point, nobody gives a rat's ass whether the hero is boy, girl, or transgendered platypus--the kid is READING, and damn the larger societal implications.

I could wish boys were wired differently. (Actually, if I could wire young boys differently, I'd probably start with "picking up after themselves" and then worry about their reading tastes.) But the world is as it is, and whatever interventions would be required to fix that have to happen a lot sooner than middle-grade, I'm guessing.

So--sorry, I do go on--I think at least with the early reading you describe, Kit, we're actually doing quite well that we have that many female protagonists and strong females wandering around. Can we do better? Of course! Absolutely!

But I don't think we're actually doing that badly.
mela_lyn: Writing Wretro Womanmela_lyn on September 21st, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
I have a friend who likes to write YA. He writes with young male protags. And he tries to read all the young male protags out there... and other than Harry Potter, he says it's very difficult to find novels, especially series, that have that. So, interesting point.
(no subject) - mizkit on September 21st, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - ursulav on September 21st, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - temporus on September 22nd, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
A balance. - raie on September 22nd, 2009 10:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
LurkerWithout: iReadlurkerwithout on September 21st, 2009 02:14 pm (UTC)
Two male writers of epic fantasy filled with prominent female leads: Tad Williams and George R.R. Martin...
T. Revst_rev on September 21st, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
[...]I read Heinlein (from whom I deduced, largely, that women were smart enough to get men to do the heavy lifting and that sex was good; this is apparently not what most people get out of Heinlein)[...]


[...]Amber bored me[...]

kitmizkit on September 21st, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
Yeah, yeah, I know, but Zelanzy just isn't a writer I was ever able to get into, despite reading quite a few of his books. Amber was not my thing. That I played for years on AmberMU* has to do with the quality of gamers far, far more than the world itself...
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(no subject) - mizkit on September 21st, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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mayakdamayakda on September 21st, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
Yay for mentioning Mordant's Need!
mela_lyn: Writing Wretro Womanmela_lyn on September 21st, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I completely agree with you. I love to read... I don't care if the writer is male or female. I don't care if the character is male or female. Give me a good story, a vivid world, and sympathetic characters. As long as I have a reason to stick with you, I will.

I mean, I read stories with trolls and dragons as the main characters. I sure don't have anything in common with them other than the desire to be in the adventure.

But I grew up in a house that treasured fantasy. My first fantasy novel was Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern. 1500 pages for the first trilogy and at 15 I read it in a week. Sure, the main character was a girl, but within a couple months I had read every single Pern book that had been published and they do not all have female leads. And my mom and I fought over whether I could take her copy of The Blue Sword to college or not. She won and it didn't go, but I snuck it with me at Christmas so I could read it in all my spare time. (Don't worry. I gave it back and bought myself a paperback edition. Eventually...)

But now I have Diana Pharoah Francis, Jim C. Hines, Brandon Sanderson, Ilona Andrews, Jennifer Fallon, JK Rowling, Michelle Sangara, Mark Henry, Anton Strout, Patricia Briggs... a mix of male and female writers and male and female 'casts'... b/c one thing I've noticed is that alot of books no longer focus on one POV. You get multiple sides of the story from both sexes. And it's awesome and good and...

Why do people have to make issues out of things that aren't?
kitmizkit on September 21st, 2009 04:18 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure it's _not_ an issue. It's just not an issue that I ever saw or can much relate to, if that subtlety makes sense. :)
(no subject) - mela_lyn on September 21st, 2009 06:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Mary Annepers1stence on September 21st, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
I'm with you about Heinlein -- That's pretty much what I got out of him as well.

And I think we had the same reading list growing up, which may be part of why it never occurred to me that women characters might be thin on the ground. I was pretty aware that they weren't the majority, but it never inhibited my role-playing or identifying with characters....

It was more evident to me growing up that there was an imbalance in the gender of authors, although I think some of that was skewed by the fact that a number of the authors had either ambiguous names (Andre Norton) or used initials that obscured gender (CJ Cherryh). Even so, there were still enough that it didn't make me feel alienated.