The Fantasy Feminist – Part 4
A comment from AE Marling on one of my recent blog posts about feminism in fantasy triggered some thoughts about another approach to bringing a feminist touch to our works—namely, what about the role of men in our stories? How can the men we write promote the idea that women are equal—not better, not the same, but equal—to men?
Well, first of all, what do we mean by equal? At the most basic level, I think it’s fair to say that equality includes the same rights to be free of abuse and violence than men should have. If the world you create for your story is violent and dark for everyone, then you’re not really saying it’s just a horrible place for women, because it’s ultimately a horrible place for everyone. But what about a world where men have more freedom from violence and abuse? Then we’re talking about a difference in equality. Laws that allow husbands to beat their wives but would punish women who tried the same are obviously decidedly unfeminist.
Beyond basic rights of life and freedom from abuse and violence, what other rights would put women on an equal footing with men? Inheritance laws, voting rights, property rights—those kinds of things can be explored by giving more rights to one group over another. If men can vote, hold property, and pursue certain careers that are off-limits to women, then you’ve created a disparity between the genders. That’s okay, I think, because by creating that kind of world, you can explore how men and women work together to achieve gender equality.
So with that, what can we do through our male characters to bring a feminist touch to our work? How might the stories we write influence minds and hearts without being preachy and still allowing the male characters to be entirely masculine?
Think about what “real men” do that’s right. What do real men do? They are faithful to their spouses. They stick around to raise their children (as much as possible). They don’t beat or rape or abuse people. They keep their promises. They aren’t stalkers. They take responsibility for their actions. Those are terrific masculine qualities—those are, in fact, terrific human qualities. Show your male characters behaving honorably toward the women and children in their lives. I’m not necessarily advocating a return to the “white hat heroes” of old—I’m just saying that people love Ned Stark for a reason. He was honorable, and yet he never appeared less than completely masculine.
Let your male characters use their power for good. If you have male characters in positions of power, why not give them some enlightened viewpoints? Why not let them promote change and equality? Give us a William Wilberforce. Give us men who promote social change and equality of race and gender.
Give them strong wives. Abigail Adams was one of the strongest, most capable First Ladies in American history. Even in the late 18th century, she argued in favor of women having the right to vote, and her husband listened to her. Make your male characters strong and secure enough that they have wives who match their strength.
And strong daughters. Oh, heck, just surround them with strong women. A “real” man won’t fear being surrounded by genuinely strong women. Capable, strong, honorable men will raise capable, strong, honorable daughters.
Make couples equal in spirit and strength. Ned and Catelyn Stark struck me as a fairly equal team when it came to the balance of power at Winterfell—which, really, is pretty rare in Westeros. Can we have more couples like that in our fantasy—couples who share the balance of power in the relationship and the home? I don’t mean perfect couples. By all means, show us that they fight, or that they’re tempted to betray their vows, or that they have very different opinions about important things. Heck, even make them villains, but villains who work together (Boris and Natasha, anyone?). Just make them equal. Couples who encourage each other toward personal agency will promote feminist—indeed, humanist—ideals.
Show your male characters shunning and even punishing abuses traditionally heaped on women and children. If your male character commands an army, what are the punishments for his men if they rape women? If your male character comes across a man beating a woman, what’s his response? Again, I’m not trying to encourage a return to the days of damsels in distress and the heroes who rush in to save them, but I *do* think it’s all right to show a strong, masculine male character who defends the basic rights of all people—women and children included—to freedom from abuse. Because truly, if it were in my power to save a man or a child from abuse, I would not hesitate to do so by whatever means I had available. That’s not a matter of being a “white hat hero.” That’s being a good human being. And in truth, you can still make these characters morally ambiguous and unlikeable. Stannis Baratheon is probably one of the most unlikeable characters in Westeros, but he absolutely prohibits his men from raping women and punishes them severely if they do.
Don’t forget the villains! I think there is absolutely a place in feminist literature for male antagonists who promote social change. What a fantastic way to introduce moral ambiguity—to challenge the so-called “Prime Directive” and make the newcomer, the promoter of social change, the antagonist in an anti-feminist world. How much interference is allowed? When is it okay to police another society? Those questions are still not adequately explored, in my opinion.
Of course, as always, your mileage may vary on this advice. But I think male characters who work to improve their worlds and fight for equality are just as important in feminist—indeed, in humanist—literature as those who have traditionally fought against it.
In two weeks: A look at “Mary Sues” and how to avoid them.