Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part One: Strong Women
The problem with the new and yet very important desire to portray realistic, strong women with agency, is that some people fixate entirely on the first part of this – the word “strong” – and take it to mean something very specific. In fact, it has created a stereotype in and of itself. One of the biggest problems created by fixating on the notion of a Strong Woman, is that only one prevailing definition of the word shines through, thus becoming the norm and therefore what many writers adhere to, and many readers come to expect.
But if we’re picturing a heartless assassin with a dark past and unrivalled skill with a sword (and in one way this is excellent, because the dark assassin, the hooded man, has now become the hooded woman), or the savvy and slick urban fantasy private detective setting out to save her city, putting any Harry Dresdens who get in her way to shame with her discipline, determination and prowess, or even the dedicated priestess, devoted to her goddess and participant in a holy war, sure of herself and true – where then is the place for the Sansa Starks, the Clary Frays and Tessa Grays and the Ineveras and Leesha Papers, if we’re constantly expecting these strong women to be – let’s face it – female incarnations of our rudimentary SFF heroes (traditionally and typically male). How are we supposed to really start demonstrating realistic characters? This is a problem on all sides of the gender spectrum: the concepts of masculine and feminine need to be pared down to basics in order to utilise them correctly. As concepts instead of labels that are rigidly applied. But it’s complicated and people prefer simple.
However, before we can properly talk about strong characters, let alone women, we need to address gender. Gender isn’t binary, but rather a spectrum – so it makes senses that, for there to be different expressions of gender at all, that each shade of the gender spectrum embodies different concepts, different aspects and personalities. Masculine and feminine do exist, but they are not necessarily tied to “men” and “women” as much as they are tied to the genders of male and female. This is a new truth that requires learning. It needs to filter down and become part of the social bedrock. Gender is a spectrum, a scale.
Someone very typically female might present and identify as entirely feminine with no masculine identity whatsoever. Consider people like this between a nine and a ten on our gender scale. Now imagine the scale as a sliding, fluid expression of gender that works both ways. A person identifying as male could very easily consider themselves a four on the scale (with one being fully masculine and male, and ten being fully feminine and female), thereby expressing himself as masculine with strong aspects of femininity. This is a thing. There are characters that fit this expression, only we don’t notice, don’t involve it in our commentary and dialogue. Imagine light and dark to visualise “opposed” concepts. There is true dark and full light – and absolutely everything between. Like gradients of colour.
Let’s simply accept at face value that this is how gender works, and now we can actually discuss how men and women are or are not and should and should not be presented in SFF.
Over the course of the next few articles, we’re going to look at a range of characters, both male and female, and present character studies that talk about everything from gender to personality, and why these particular characters are not only strong people with agency, but also set the bar for other characters to aspire to. This will include characters from early fantasy, right up until next Tuesday. The findings will probably show trends, and that will be interesting to explore. For now, we’re going to skim the surface of what is to come, an elongated abstract if you like.
The female characters presented in the opening are excellent examples of why setting warrior women as the standard can be problematic. A great number of people imagine leather-clad women with loose dark hair and a black handgun, staring over one shoulder in urban fantasy, and our dark, heartless assassins with troubled pasts in epic fantasy. This is one definition of what strong means. Never mind the fact that she is catering to a “mostly” male-appreciated aesthetic. “Mostly” and not entirely, because women do enjoy seeing sexier, badass characters they can aspire to. It is absolutely fine for women to appreciate themselves in a physical sense, which sometimes might be leather and a handgun, because it is badass. However, she isn’t essentially speaking for or to women. Which is a bigger problem.
It isn’t this leather-clad heroine who creates the problem, but rather those who assume her to be the standard. The norm. This urban fantasy diva with her attitude and gun-slinging night-job isn’t the only woman out there, taking on the night.
If we’re speaking entirely of urban fantasy as a starting point, I’m going to put Molly Carpenter on the table. Here we have a young woman who is absolutely not our familiar gun-toting dark vixen. She is badass nevertheless. Whilst there are many problems with how Butcher composes his women on the page – never mind how Harry Dresden himself approaches and treats women – Molly is one aspect of the Dresden Files that stands strong. She is first presented as an accidental villain and realises her mistakes. I would like her to feel less guilty over her mistakes, but even in this she has a strong sense of who she is. She has agency and even though she is pulled into matters deeper and more tangled and she is made for, she remains independent whilst still under the tutelage of Harry. Sometimes, choosing to accept helps demonstrates agency, because she has that choice. Molly, in many ways, is one of the more important characters in the series.
Sliding back to more traditional fantasy, Sansa Stark looks absolutely nothing like your typical strong, independent female character. However, the fact that she is enamoured with the idea of being a princess – and then Queen – and wearing beautiful dresses, living in a palace and experiencing a fairy tale life, doesn’t strip her of any strength or reduce her agency. In fact, Sansa Stark is arguably one of the strongest characters in fantasy, especially earlier in the series.
Sansa survives. She weathers and protects herself with everything she has at her disposal. She is placed in precarious situations, time and time again, where we see her agency and freedom questioned and threatened. Much of her choice is taken away, but she clings to what choices she is presented and weighs the hand she has been dealt. Each time she adapts and survives and continues to grow as a character and a woman. She is young but learns quickly. She makes mistakes, remains naive and learns more. She is a teenage girl in a destructive, insidious game of thrones and crowns and she soon begins to teach herself and learn the finer aspects of the game. Her long hair and pretty dresses – and her love for these – do not alter her agency or her strength. Being traditionally female, being a ten on the gender scale, does not lessen her.
Recently I attended an event where Sarah J Maas spoke about her work. She raised precisely the point that is central to the examination of female characters and what makes them strong. When you immediately think of Disney princesses, strong isn’t what comes to mind. There are problems with Disney (many, many problems), but in highlighting the negative aspects, as often happens, people gloss over the points that shine. In fact, Maas expressed that the whole idea for Throne of Glass came from Cinderella; from a piece of music, a scene, and the question that followed Cinderella’s flight from the palace: What if Cinderella was an assassin?
But Maas also said she considered Cinderella strong. And she is. She endures emotional and physical abuse (Celaena Sardothien and Sansa Stark, anyone?) and remains kind and dignified and strong throughout it all. Moreover, she suffers all this and does not become her abusers. The cycle ends there. She remains open to love. That is huge.
This highlights perfectly the problem with this close examination and expectation of what female characters should and should not be. They should be anything they want to be. They should not have to sacrifice being “girlie girls” just to be strong women. There are many different types of strength and varying degrees of how this strength can be used. It’s the strangest thing that in the quest to give women more agency and more of a natural and equal place in literature (and media) we are somehow still forcing a mould. In reality, what we’re doing is expecting female characters to fulfil the expected roles of men and deciding that achieving this makes them strong.
In this same vein, male characters who do not fulfil traditional male roles are usually used as weak plot devices: ignored, killed off or made into the amusing foppish dandies. This is the same treatment received by many of the more feminine characters. The norm is masculine is strong; feminine is not. That is changing, but not fast or widely enough.
So, in the subsequent parts of this series, we’re going to take a look at the best examples of these characters, male and female, who slide along the gender scale and who exhibit varying kinds of visible and invisible strength and/or agency. Characters who need to start populating fantasy more and more. We’re going to look at characters and discuss what makes them strong, what makes them worthy of notice. Some already have this limelight, but others will invariably have gone unnoticed as important threads in the tapestry of presenting real and realistic characters.