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30 April 2013 @ 07:20 pm
extraordinary people  

So I was reading something–probably Kate Elliott (kateelliott)’s fabulous The Omniscient Breasts–and some guy was commenting (to paraphrase), “Why would anybody want to read epic fantasy about women, who basically got married at fourteen and stayed pregnant their whole lives and never went five miles from where they were born?”

I find the blindered attitude behind that to be staggering. I mean, unless this guy is working under the delusion that actually every male in history has left home, become a knight, discovered he’s the lost orphaned king of the land, and taken back his country…then who does he think he’s reading about when he reads epic fantasy starring male characters?

Stories are about extraordinary people, regardless of their gender. Sometimes they’re ordinary and have been thrust into circumstances that makes their simple *survival* an extraordinary event; sometimes they’re the lost prince; sometimes they are nominally ordinary but have a gift or talent to see them through or elevate them. Or whatever. They are very rarely about the day to day life of Arthur Dent, needing to buy a new toothbrush and unable to find his left slipper. And thank goodness for that: we all have plenty of needing to buy a new toothbrush and being unable to find our slippers.

I feel like this post ought to really be an impassioned tirade full of marching and singing and raising banners and the like, but when you get right down to it, 1. I hope like hell I’m preaching to the choir here anyway, and 2. it just seems so self-evident that doing anything other than boggling at the idea that somebody is that small-minded is kind of wasted effort.

Although the extraordinary people aspect may tie into the problem a lot of women readers seem to have, which is that they found female role models in the books they read as children to be lacking. I never had that problem; it never occurred to me, and if it had, well, I didn’t (despite plenty of checking) have a door to Narnia in my wardrobe either, or a sword to pull from a stone, or six signs to seek, or mysteries to solve every few weeks, or a black stallion to care for, or what-have-you: of course these people weren’t like me, and to that end, the gender of the protagonists never struck me as an issue.

It’s also possible that, as with Title IX, I am just on the cusp of a generation that benefited from women who had felt that exclusion growing up and were writing books to address the problem, and am therefore not quite able to comprehend what I intellectually know to be factual. I could list you dozens, possibly hundreds, of books I read with female protagonists, all before age twelve. And frankly, I couldn’t list nearly that many with (solely) male protagonists, which might mean the girls made more impression on me, or it might mean I just lucked out and read huge numbers of books with female protagonists.

I got a little off topic there, didn’t I. :)

(x-posted from The Essential Kit)

martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on April 30th, 2013 06:28 pm (UTC)
I can remember from my childhood reading, that boys were kinda stupid to get themselves into those situations.
Chrysoulachrysoula on April 30th, 2013 06:37 pm (UTC)
I really don't know _why_ I latched onto protagonist gender relatively young. Maybe because I did feel like an extraordinary child and wondered if maybe I didn't have the fantastic adventures because I wasn't a boy? I mean, I was never a girly girl. I wasn't even a tomboyish girl. I was just... a nerdy girl, I guess. Maybe I wanted more nerdy girls. Hermione would have THRILLED me, even though she wasn't the protagonist.

Before I read fantasy and science fiction, I read animal stories. The adventures of lost Irish setters. Stories about the Black Stallion (although Alec was a jerk); I liked the stories about the red horse more. Island of Blue Dolphins. Julie of the Wolves. I loved wolves... I think I actually probably got into genre fiction via animal stories. From the adventures of lost Irish Setters and Call of the Wild to Tailchaser's Song and The Horse and His Boy and the Mary Stanton horse books. (And an obsession with computers and robots led me to Asimov...)

I don't know. Maybe I just wanted more protagonists who weren't young boys of mysterious parentage living on a farm and discovering the Chosen One, and the only way I could explain that was 'they're boys'.

Edited at 2013-04-30 06:38 pm (UTC)
eglantine_breglantine_br on April 30th, 2013 06:43 pm (UTC)
I never doubted that anyone could have adventures. I happily read about boys as well as girls.

Later, as I grew, I realized that most adults do not not have adventures of the Narnia sort. I still want to read about men and women both.

(There were plenty of men who had hard empty lives, in the past too. They may not have married at 14, but they worked the same land all their lives. Most of us descend from such people-- we should be grateful to them.)

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kitmizkit on April 30th, 2013 06:56 pm (UTC)
I cannot wait to read that. <3
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irishkateirishkate on April 30th, 2013 08:07 pm (UTC)
As far as I remember the books I read had boys and girls mostly - until I fell for Asimov who rarely write good women but wrote stories I really enjoyed. But nothing in them made me think they weren't as much for me as anyone else - nor that I couldn't do the things in them just because I was a woman..
No Xtink is Xtink.: readinggoingferal on April 30th, 2013 08:19 pm (UTC)
I think the first fantasy books I read with female protagonists were the Wrinkle in Time Books (ensemble cast, mostly), the Narnia books (ensemble cast, mostly), and then the first true female hero I read--McKinley's The Blue Sword--I was 12 when it was published in 1982, and that's probably the year I read it.

And I read a lot--SF/F adventure books were my favorite reads, after Jack London, the Black Stallion series and various other horse and dog stories (which I had mostly read through well before I was 12).
No Xtink is Xtink.goingferal on April 30th, 2013 08:23 pm (UTC)
It would be interesting to compile a list of some of the early SFF books with female protags and the year of the publication.

It seems like nowadays there are numerous options for young girls to read where they're not just reading male heroes.
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HL Henriksonveilofgrace on April 30th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
To protagonist gender issues: I grew up surrounded by boys. Boys who very often reiterated to me that I was "good...for a girl." I could beat them at various video games and sports-related activities, and I was still never allowed to be an equal, let alone better. So when I got to be a teenager, I was very much aware that the books I was reading tended to put women in a very separate place. That didn't stop me from fully enjoying books with male protagonists, nor did it make me seek out books with female protagonists. I was just conscious of it, and always hoping for better female placement.

To "Omniscient Breasts" - WOW. I had this conversation with an educated, liberal, pro-equality male friend last fall. We were discussing GRRM, and I was trying - and failing - to discuss my problem with the way he writes his women. There's a line, I think in the first book, wherein Lady Stark is thinking back to when her sister got married. Her description of her sister includes how young and high her breasts were, and from that moment on, I couldn't read any of the female characters without GRRM standing over my shoulder. I couldn't articulate the idea of "male gaze," so all I could come up with was "he writes so very...male." Eventually, my friend asked me, as a writer, "Yes, but would anybody want to read a book about the women who got left behind when the powerful men went off to war, if it was only told from their perspectives? Is there a story in that?" All I could do was blink at him and say, sadly, "A good writer can make a good story out of anything." He was the very last male of my acquaintance that I expected to have to explain male-centric culture perspective to, and I was too disappointed to say anything intelligent on the subject. So I am thrilled to read "Omniscient Breasts" which included all major points of that conversation in a clear, articulate analysis so that I can have a better vocabulary to use next time it comes up.

Thanks for linking!

Also, why would anyone want to read an epic fantasy set strictly within a white European, historically-factual world? Isn't the whole point of fantasy to step *outside* what is/was? That argument baffles me into blank-brain.
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Kate Kirbykirbyk on April 30th, 2013 11:09 pm (UTC)
And it's not like extraordinary women didn't smash boundaries all throughout history. Eleanor of Aquitane. Bodicea. Catherine the Great. Queens Victoria and Elizabeth. A large number of female pirates. Joan of Arc. Annie Oakley. And so on, and so on.

dancinghorsedancinghorse on May 1st, 2013 03:50 am (UTC)
And, hey, if it's about breasts, don't forget Eleanor and her ladies playing at being Amazons while on Crusade--topless, or so the story goes.

Her contemporary Melisende of Jerusalem was no shrinking violet, either.
Mary Anne: pixelpers1stence on May 1st, 2013 03:26 am (UTC)
I wish my boson were all-knowing ; that could be very useful.... :) omniscient breasted is a great phrase, kidding aside....
Mary Anne: pixelpers1stence on May 1st, 2013 03:27 am (UTC)
Bosom not boson - darn autocorrect
(no subject) - agrimony on May 1st, 2013 11:25 am (UTC) (Expand)
Aberdeenaberdeen on May 1st, 2013 04:08 am (UTC)
I think my record of Free to Be... You and Me shaped my consciousness regarding gender of protagonists, possibly far more than any book I read. The story of Atalanta, who won the race and agreed to spend time with John and MAYBE, someday, after she's gone off to see the world, will marry him, but maybe she won't... This is the story that taught me everything I needed to know.
pgwfolcpgwfolc on May 1st, 2013 12:01 pm (UTC)
Let's look at a couple of book series off the top of my head. (Spoilers ahead.)

The Deed Of Paksenarrion: A low-born mercenary gets chosen as a paladin of one of several gods. Which includes the ability to heal people (if the god approves). At one point, manages to win the day by willingly submitting to be tortured nigh unto death for days, only to be completely and instantaneously healed at the end. Said merc becomes involved in the politics of kingdoms, giving advice and sometimes even orders to royalty.

The Hero And The Crown: A peasant scholar discovers the recipe for a heat-proof salve which enables the wearer to safely stand inside a blast furnace. Uses that and a very powerful magical sword to fight massive flying fire-breathing dragons.

And this guy's objection is that there's no point in reading this stuff because it's so utterly unrealistic... that the protagonists are female.

Yes, there are extraordinary people in the world.

Some of them happen to be extraordinarily clueless and thick-headed.