Log in

No account? Create an account
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
Kelvixkelvix on September 21st, 2009 08:51 am (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 10:32 am (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.
kitmizkit on September 21st, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Do girls think they are Frodo?
Stories are about people. People come in all kinds of flavors.


As I said in response to ursulav, I thought it better to not even go near the boys-don't-read problem that also so often gets discussed. I thought this was enough fish for one kettle. :)
The Green Knight: Watching Yougreen_knight on September 21st, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Do girls think they are Frodo?
The adventures they had were just as available to me as they were to them - I thought.

Now I wonder whether I was wrong

No, I think there is no right or wrong way to read, and I certainly never identified with any protagonist, but they resonated with me, whatever their age and gender.

And to this day, 'people like me' are _people who think like me_ not people who fit my demographic on random, and irrelevant-to-me points.

At the same time, I feel that I owe it to the universe to check whether I am marginalising people out of habit and lazyness. And I have to admit that yes, I am. Which is not a good thing.