The Evolution of Sexuality, Homosexuality and Gender in SFF – Part Four
In this, the final article of this series, I want to not only round up what’s been considered in the previous parts, but firstly to consider any issues that might have fallen through the cracks.
When talking about the evolution of gender and sexuality people automatically skip to the homosexual part and to the presentation of non-biological genders/genders that lay outside of the “traditional”. Naturally, there is much more to be said about gender—especially in SFF—than simply to mention genders that fall outside the classic spectrum.
Traditional genders matter just as much as their alternative counterparts do, and as anything not steadfast and ever changing is wont to do, they evolve and grow and constantly seek redefinition. Being a male is not today what it was fifty or even twenty years ago. Being a female is not today what it was even ten years ago. (Now, let’s say that all arguments pertaining to current politics or the way in which certain governments seek to handle the so-called divide between genders is moot: we could sit here fuming about the ludicrous politics of our time, or we can bypass straight to the academic curiosity of the topic and keep it all nice and clean on paper. Personally, I think that’s neater.)
Genders change, just as sexuality changes: heterosexual relationships are not as they once were and instead of burly men with loincloths and spears and women at home weeping or making bread, we see a much more balanced representation that reflects the changes and the evolution of people as a whole.
Fantasy is an important genre in which these changes can be mirrored; fantasy is make-believe to the highest point. Fantasy worlds with monsters and demons, magic and heroes, are so far detached in a literal sense from the Real World that they can be viewed on a different level. People don’t think, “Hmm, look what the writer is doing there, by making Leesha Paper a strong woman who also does happen to have a sexual appetite and the desire for children—I know! He’s clearly showing a modern woman!” Whether he is or isn’t, readers just see “Leesha” and move along with the story. The same when they see a weaker male, the women around whom protect and defend him instead of the reverse – the change in the traditional gender roles is not marked, because it’s naturally second to the story. A character’s strength comes not from their gender, but from who they are in their deepest places. Gender doesn’t have a fig to do with it.
Of course, just as we have people who insist that a gay character is a “distraction” in a story if his sexuality is not a factor, we have people claiming a lack of realism when women fight and govern and men hop to their commands.
Well, there are reasons that any trip to an armoury museum (think the Royal Armouries) shows full female armour with extra coverage to defend them even when greatly swelled with child. It’s a myth that women stayed at home all throughout history and simply baked bread. Fantasy knows that. What about Cleopatra, Mulan, to drop a couple of famous names? They knew what they were doing, and one look into the mythologies of the world tells you that since the beginning of time women have had the same agency as men. Google “women warriors in history” and feast your eyes on list upon list of the names of fascinating women who fought, fielded and led armies throughout time from prehistory to the modern era. Critics who suggest warrior-women in fantasy are unrealistic have evidently not done their homework.
Yes, feminism in fantasy has suffered a blow lately. There’s been a lot of upset as part of the peculiar new(ish) trend of using rape as a character-building technique—and a thousand other things that can only bring on the appropriate response of the face-palm. The point is, for every book, for every author that handles women badly (perhaps deliberately, but mostly probably unconsciously) there are two or three authors that write women with strength and agency. The trick is not to forget about equality. There are weaker women in the world, just as there are weaker men.
Most of my favourite characters are these men—usually the bookish, meek types. They’re just the ones that resonate with me (probably because I am a small, meek, bookish kind of guy). Sometimes, though, the weaker men are made secret fun of and mocked (usually called “gay”), just like the women in stories who are forced into being strong characters through trauma—usually because a writer is too lazy to character-build (that’s not to say it’s always the case: sometimes trauma is a perfectly legitimate way to harden or push a character forwards, but it’s overuse begins to show through and can become very transparent). Pick up any good SFF book and flick through: you’ll likely find balanced characters of both genders. It’s important because otherwise, the writer is lying.
Yep, it’s a harsh word. But it’s true. If a writer crafts a community and does not include differences, he or she is being dishonest. Just because there are homosexual transgendered people in urban fantasy, does not forgive their lack in epic, low or high fantasy. Contrary to the belief that gay people simply sprouted forth one day (which is ridiculous): homosexuality has always, always, always existed. It has always been a preference, just as some men have always preferred being women and women, too, sometimes feel they are actually men. It’s not new. Therefore, it’s exclusion from traditional SFF is a lie. The Emperor’s Knife and Knife Sworn author, Mazarkis Williams agrees wholeheartedly with this, having recently spoken about gender and reception/perceptions in relation to an author’s name on the A Dribble of Ink blog.
The same is said for the bad handling of the evolution of gender roles. It’s a lie and by now everyone knows it. Gender does not matter like it once did. Women join militaries across the world, sit in office and govern, just as much as they teach and heal and cook. Men, too, are nurses and caregivers and raise children, just as much as they serve their countries and stand on stages before the press. (Again, I’m not going to fuss over the fact that although these things are facts and stand in black and white, old prejudices die hard and there is a lot of work to ensure true equality—a lot indeed!—between the genders and in the minds of your average person on the street. It’s merely a statement of facts and how things should be.)
There are always exceptions and since each reader sees what lies between the lines differently in a book, what one camp sees as a realistic demonstration of sexuality and/or gender evolution, the opposing camp will take offense at. But within these examinations come the notions and perceptions that pave the way for change. Homosexual men used to be villains; homosexual women used to be men-hating feral warriors, living in the wilds. Change always happens; it must. Any writer worth his/her salt writes some manner of reflection or response to the world around them. It’s an undeniable urge, impossible in its lure, to do otherwise. Writers comment on their world, seen uniquely through their own eyes, and it is the collective results of these responses that seek to subtly educate and push for change. The ideas behind the story are not always clear and certainly in not all cases is there a message. But the meaning is there and the more it’s written, the more it’s read—the more it’s hammered home.
Yes, we still have writers whose work attracts criticism for presenting work that appears to show a deep loathing of women through their constant mistreatment (often gratuitously and secondary to the plot) or domination/subjugation, and yes, we still have people like the guy advising against gay characters, but for every instance of slow-moving, stagnant prejudice, we have a veritable army of bright, educated authors who seek only to write the world as they see it: in an honest and true fashion that understands the world is full of difference, variety, evolution and change.
In this series we have considered and examined the evolution of LGBT themes throughout SFF and have found that, although its roots were disappointing (reflecting the opinions of the world it mirrored at the time) and was heavily laden with prejudice and discrimination, as society shifted, so, too, did its fiction. Themes pertaining to LGBT characters have a long way to go and there is great room for improvement, but a start is a start and given the wealth of good fantasy and science fiction that offers real and honest characters with honest themes and conflicts, the prospects for the future of the genre are good.
In fact, just as I suggested in an earlier article in this series, that each book should have at least a single reference to a homosexual character—in direct reflection to the true percentage of homosexual people in any given community—it is pleasing to see writers like Peter V. Brett, with his push’ting (though a Krasian insult meaning “false/fake-woman” used as a term to describe men who prefer men and shun women altogether, it is not forbidden in the eyes of Everam and therefore not a sin—the fact that the term is an insult is simply a reflection of the other warrior’s view of homosexual men in the fibre of the world) and the obvious sexual preferences of a pair of dama’ting (Krasian holy women) in The Demon Cycle, alongside many casual mentions of homosexuality woven into everyday conversation so that it merely becomes part of the tapestry of the world, demonstrating that it need not be a distraction to a story. It just is.
Likewise, few readers will balk at the idea of women being dominant in relationships with men, or in the very least giving as good as they get—emotionally and otherwise. It is the same when women sit on thrones, rule and govern and then stride off to war. Of course, just as we have our bookish men who quail at combat and seek solace in study, we have women who are content to be homemakers. This is about as real a display and as true a mirror of the Real World we live in as it comes. Gender stereotypes are as outdated as LGBT stereotypes and should be considered as such; further perpetuation of them merely holds back the natural course of progress and reflects badly on those who cling to them.
In general, the view I like to take is an optimistic one; it’s a much sunnier view than considering society unchangeable and doomed to remain stagnant, though as with all progress, there are always parties who seek to slow it to a halt. Nevertheless, looking back through the history and evolution of SFF, it is not difficult to see that we are going in the right direction. And that direction is forwards.