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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)

 
 
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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?
Kate Kirbykirbyk on September 21st, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
Not particularly. I mean, hmm, how to say it. I knew that the Pern books had female leads, but it never occurred to me to read anything into that about who the audience should be. (And not all of them do - a third of the Harper Hall books have a male lead. :) And the White Dragon and IIRC much of Dragon Quest have male leads. It's really close to 50/50 by the time all is said and done.) So maybe I didn't notice because it's not actually as true as people think!

But I'm definitely an outlier in the amount I care about being macho or manly, and always have been. I never got that memo.

I guess I never touched some things for fear of social retribution - I couldn't have read a Sweet Valley High (why I'd want to, I don't know) in middle school, or maybe even a Nancy Drew, but the kinds of people who cared didn't generally read, so it had a dragon on the cover, meh, it was just nerdfood. And people worried about not being seen as a nerd had to not read altogether. But this starts getting into social dynamics of early teen years, and farther and farther from the point.
mela_lyn: Chicks Dig Geeksmela_lyn on September 21st, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
I'm a girl and I avoided Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew like the plague... not b/c they were socially 'wrong' for me to read, but I didn't care about the social girly aspects of SVH and I didn't want mysteries. I wanted dragons and magic and huge life-changing adventures. I was weird b/c I read those instead of the more 'acceptable' girly tripe they kept trying to give me at school. Thankfully, my parents were glad to pass on their geeky genes to me. :) And I wear them loud and proud!!
kitmizkit on September 21st, 2009 03:35 pm (UTC)
Yeah, in fact, that's really how I saw it too. I mean, yes, I knew many of the Pern books had female leads. I knew many of them didn't. Nothing else beyond that ever occurred to me (except I never was convinced that DRAGONDRUMS should be about Piemur, since the first two were about Menolly), which was my general state of mind about books. Yes, WISHSONG had Brin and Jair, and SWORD had Shea and Flick, and ELFSTONES had Wil (and I only had to look up Jair's name, oi, despite it being pushing 20 years since I've read any Shannara...), but I don't think it ever struck me that "this one has a girl lead and these ones don't".

But yes, the whole thing can go into social dynamics in a heartbeat, which wasn't where I was trying to head the conversation. :)
Jennerraie on September 22nd, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
The Catini Series
What I call the "Freedom Series" consisting of Landing/Freedom's Choice/Freedom's Challenge/Freedom's Ransom all have a female character that it much more modern and liberated and awesome, the typical badass female McCaffrey protag. But definitely a book series for an OLDER audience, maybe 15-17 because America is full of prudes.

On that note, don't read the Clan of the Cave Bear series in it's entirety until you're 20-something. :P
Jennerraie on September 22nd, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC)
Jaxom.
I always felt Jaxom was Anne "selling out." I never liked Jaxom, not even as a little girl. I hated how he got everything. Today, I would accuse Jaxom of being Anne's Mary Sue except that Jaxom is male. (Not that girl's can't have male Mary Sues.) I've begun to think, now, that Jaxom was added to the Pern Fiction just to get male readers. With that epiphany, it's jarring to see what kind of male character Anne had to write to please her publisher/editor/powers that be in that regard.

I mean to be honest now, re-reading them all. Anne did kinda depict male characters a little weird. F'lar did rather start out as a bit of a cocky asshole. Until he realized he was being an idiot and was absorbed with himself. F'lessan is much the same way, kind of arrogant really. Though, F'nor was always a solid supporting character. I never thought Sebell had much of a presence in the literature, and his ultimate destiny as settling in with Menolly never sat well with me. (I think my inner fanfic writer just always wanted her to be with Robinton because Robinton was always awesome.)