The Fantasy Feminist: Part 2
I talked last week about what makes a strong character in general, but this week I want to be more specific about the kind of female characters I think we should see more of. I think it’s important to recognize that a female character doesn’t necessarily need magic, a sword, or a perfect (and willing) body to be strong. At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that women are not men and that it’s okay to play up feminine qualities as strengths.
In many ways, science fiction gets women right a lot more often than fantasy does, I think. Perhaps that’s partly because we want to believe that in a more advanced world, gender isn’t such a big stumbling block as it might be in a Medieval or Renaissance setting. But the funny thing is, even in an advanced world, there still seems to be a certain hesitation to give women a fair amount of traditionally feminine traits. It’s as if by admitting that women cry, like nice furniture, or prefer to do the cooking, we’re saying that women are weak, when really, those things can be part of any well-rounded character, male or female, straight or gay, old or young.
By the way, just switching roles a la Zoe and Wash on Firefly does not necessarily make well-rounded or strong characters. It worked for Zoe and Wash, but quite often, I see those couples and think, “oh look—yet another female warrior married to yet another slightly submissive man.” The trope’s been averted and subverted so many times it’s almost a trope of its own. Move on.
So with that in mind, what would I like to see in female fantasy characters?
- Sidekicks: I’d actually like to see more female sidekicks. You know—actual sidekicks, not potential love interests. A great sidekick-type character was Kaylee on Firefly. The wonderful thing about Kaylee was that even though she was wholesome, sweet, and naïve, the ship kept running because of her mad skills—skills she acquired purely by trial and error and through a natural knack for engineering and mechanics.
- Atypical body type: Women have as many different body styles as they do personalities. For once, I’d love to read about a full-figured fantasy woman—in other words, a woman with curves all the way down, not just big breasts. And I’d love to see this woman portrayed as beautiful, a la Joan Harris on Mad Men. And you know what else? I’d love to read about a very pretty pear-shaped girl with a flat chest, or a really lovely girl who just happens to have a few burns or scars on her face. Or hey—what about a very plain girl? Why can’t she be a main character? Show us that an atypical body style does not define a character. Male characters in fantasy run the gamut of body styles—why not female characters?
- Differently abled characters: Even more than just including all figures in our fantasy, what about including more women with disabilities? George R. R. Martin gave us Bran, the crippled boy, and years ago, David Eddings gave us the crippled king of the Algars. What a tremendous opportunity to show a woman with real strength—in a fantasy world, how might this kind of difficulty play out? What could a woman do if she couldn’t travel? What if she were blind, deaf, scarred? What if she had a debilitating illness, like multiple sclerosis? Show us how women deal with these things, because that’s where you tap into real strength.
- Mothers: I wrote about parents here a while back, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. Fantasy needs more mothers, and not just mothers of adult (or nearly adult) children. Fantasy needs more mothers of small children, because the balancing act of working and doing and raising small children is so precarious that it’s an excellent opportunity to show feminine strength.
- Women with traits normally associated with men: Any woman in business will tell you that an assertive man is perceived as strong, but an assertive woman is perceived as a bitch. Why not use our fantasy stories to start changing those perceptions? Think about traits normally seen as “positives” for men—assertiveness, analytical thought, a love of sports, whatever it is—and give them to your female characters. But rather than just make them “men with boobs,” show us how those traits are manifested in the feminine. Does the assertive woman have to constantly fight the perception that she’s a bitch? Or maybe she has to really work on her skills as a diplomat to avoid that perception—what does that look like? Now, this woman doesn’t have to be a warrior—she can be an engineer, a scholar, a prime minister, a merchant, or any of a thousand different occupations. Just because a woman has some personality traits normally associated with men does not mean that she has to be a warrior, nor that she has to be perpetually pissed off.
A final word of advice directed toward the men in the audience: I know it’s really hard to write the other gender, and I know it’s probably especially hard for men to write strong female characters because of the fear of being perceived as sexist. But as a woman, I have to say that I am never offended by a strong, well-rounded female character. Go ahead and let her cry, let her show more compassion than her male counterparts, let her enjoy shopping and jewels and pretty things—those things are totally fine for any character. If you’re in doubt, give your work to at least one female beta reader. I have my husband read everything I write so that he can tell me if I’ve managed to portray men accurately. He’s not afraid to say, “that’s not what a guy would say. That’s what a girl wants a guy to say.” Invaluable advice.
Next week: My favorite fantasy females and how I think they represented the strong feminine