Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part Three: Balance
Last time we focused entirely on characters drawn from the YA SFF spectrum, visiting authors from Cassandra Clare to Maggie Steifvater and Meagan Spooner/Amie Kaufman. Whilst we’re still not done examining gender and stereotypes in YA, we’re going to swing the spotlight onto more regular fantasy in this instalment. Note that I veer away from “adult” SFF. As a reader who identifies more solidly with younger protagonists, regardless of whether they’re presented in SFF as YA or not (and arguably, most of this is pure marketing rather than an attempt to really divide the age groups of protagonists), I think stating who a book is for is something of a market presumption.
There are many books with teenage and younger adult characters that are not considered YA more out of habit and the assumption that YA is largely romantic in nature. Which is just as untrue as stating there is no romance in regular fantasy. There is romance and/or relationships in most books you’ll read – from The Demon Cycle by Peter V Brett, to the Aeon’s Gate trilogy by Sam Sykes. It’s everywhere. And as we discovered last time, relationships, whether platonic or otherwise, are a great platform to showcase realistic interactions between people of all genders. There are hundreds of relationship and romance stereotypes that should be broken down and done away with. Regular SFF is traditionally guilty of displaying these stereotypes, often taken as far as being tropes that are recycled and used again.
The cliché of the Princess requiring rescue did not magic itself into existence, nor did the opposite assumption that women can’t be vulnerable if they’re also strong come from nowhere. Furthermore, take the chosen farm-boy and the holy priestesses, they are expected to be male and courageous and pure and female respectively. Women are weak and womanly whilst men are manly and special and crave adventure and blood!
Here is where our heartless female assassins were born, displaying a cold facade and a heart of stone with little room for “womanly emotions”. This is as much a problem as the original issue of women and agency. Agency. That word pops up a lot and with good reason: it has become a word against which female characters are measured to see if they are more than plot devices, rewards for our heroes, or if they reflect realistic women. Sadly many characters are constructs—mere plot devices. The spotlight is squarely on the treatment of women because the problem runs far deeper in SFF than problems such as toxic masculinity. At the end of the day, a great number SFF readers are geeks and this already suggests certain levels of reduced toxic masculinity when compared to other areas such as video games and movie culture.
Previously we found men who shied away from bloodshed presented as either world-weary wizards who are simply over it all and too wise for violence, etc., or as meek scholars and librarians who, ultimately, we’re either going to die or become sidekicks to be ridiculed or used as light comic relief (one comes with meaner intentions than the other). In a sense, although his female characters were very thin on the ground (unless you delve into his mythologies of Middle-Earth – and even then), Tolkien’s Galadriel is close to a rounded female character, as is Eowyn. Galadriel is wise and beautiful, as well as incredibly powerful. She has her own game plan and yet realises that she is not infallible. She shows vulnerability alongside a steely resolve.
Eowyn speaks for herself, but her role is ultimately smaller and overshadowed by the men she fights alongside. She and Faramir should have met on the battlefield with her saving his life, completely within her skills to do so. Then they could have arrived at the Houses of Healing. Eowyn isn’t strong because she disguised herself as a man to fight: she’s strong because she took control of her own destiny and made a choice.
Dressing a women up in male attire and setting her to battle with a sword doesn’t make her strong. The focus is all wrong. She is strong because her nature is strong. She displays agency because she is in charge of her own decisions, her own life. Even if she dresses as a man in secret and essentially runs to battle, that doesn’t make her decision any less brave or strong or hers. Agency is displayed not only in relation to a person’s personal situation, but also their character. An outgoing character and their agency cannot be easily compared to a more introverted character and their agency. Strength is not a set aspiration; it is respective to character and often entirely personal. It does not equate to violence or war or courage.
Ultimately, the word “strong” isn’t supposed to measure or refer to how able and powerful a character is, rather, how solidly their character is presented. Is it realistic? Are there plot devices or tropes full of holes? Could this person be real? That is what a strong character means—which is exactly why a character viewed as being meek or timid can still be a strongly-written character.
Traditionally, women are the healers (or at least the herb-gatherers and midwives). Men are the warriors. In and of itself this isn’t something that should change. The roles shouldn’t be switched. That wouldn’t be any truer than women dominating the battlefield with men in sick tents. What we need are women on the battlefields and sick tents alongside men in the sick tents and on the battlefields. I want Leesha Paper, herb-gatherer and generally awesomely strong women with bucket loads of agency and power to have a male apprentice. Why not? Let’s push the boat out: this is fantasy! The Dragon Age franchise smacks this idea in the nose, giving us Anders, primarily a healer, in the same cast as Ser Aveline, kicking rump and taking names as Captain of the Guard in Kirkwall.
If we take a quick jump through space and look at some science fiction, it’s easy to see that the roles aren’t so unevenly split. Granted, we’re gifted female space captains as few and far between as points of light against a sky dominated by the Sinclairs and Sheridans (Babylon 5) and Picards (Star Trek) of space. Characters such as Janeway (Star Trek) and Carter (Stargate) are almost iconic compared with even the men they share their franchises with. In many ways it has become more of a thing to give women the helm, only to technically take at least part of that power back by casting them with (primarily male) super scientists such as McKay who essentially call the shots from the back of the room. This has the twofold effect of putting these booksmart characters in roles where they are not the nerds and the comic relief, no longer ridiculed by the jocks of the world, but instead depended upon.
It seems to be in science fiction where women also thrive as the doctors and scientists, no longer relegated to the role of herb gatherers and midwives. Arguably there are genius women in our traditional and modern fantasy, but how many of these are protagonist roles? Few, if a recent discussion on the Facebook group for Fantasy-Faction revealed anything. Plenty of mention for side characters whose role is within the orbit of a usually male main character. Notably Fela from the Kingkiller Chronicles. Other suggestions were either science fiction, or healers, if fantasy. Certainly not, by any means, a character who is accomplished through genius. Furthermore, there is a decided lack of male characters whose primary calling is that of a healer. Sure, we have doctors and those gifted in magical healing, but there is a lack of male counterparts to women such as Leesha Paper and her herb-gathering ilk.
When presented with softer male characters they are often the sons of lords and kings and not often merely healers and librarians or teachers. Lord Aaron Frith is a notable exception, given that although he is both possessed or magic and entitled, he also undeniably craves adventure. First he presents as almost a gritty character, seeking only vengeance, but Williams is above that, and makes Frith different. He is at once a lordling and hungry for adventure. He is the blushing softer counterpart to Wydrin’s roguish charms. And alongside the almost never-seen-in-sff homosexual knight (an actual knight with actual shining armour), Sebastian, who isn’t afraid to shy away from the difficult and dark choices and to see through initial perceptions and judgements, Williams hit the nail on the head with switching up reader expectations of the BlackFeather Three.
Subgenres of fantasy such as steampunk and Western and gunpowder fantasy are quicker to embrace the idea of writing characters across the spectrum (one step behind YA), but when fantasy giants such as Scott Lynch offer up badass pirate captains (who are also PoCs and single mothers!) the bar has been set and the gauntlet thrown down. It can be done. And it sells.
One thing that the romantic notion of writing and publishing can overlook, is that the writer might be committed to delivering diversity and real gender expressions, but the publisher ultimately decides what is marketable. Big names can shrug merrily and write what they please, but lesser known and debut writers don’t have that kind of sway. Discouragements will always be made and subtle changes suggested to keep fantasy more marketable. It’s sad but true. Outside of settings where characters are expected to be somewhat more diverse (science fiction and politically-driven fantasy) you’ll see fewer reversals of role and fewer women in places men usually occupy—the same goes for men.
Where science fiction somehow expresses gender a little more equally, and by this I mean it accepts the gender spectrum at the same time as acknowledging harsher females and softer males (using the terms masculine and effeminate, if we must). Perhaps this is because fantasy feels like an expression of the past and history, whereas science fiction displays the future and the not-quite now. Gender, viewed as it is now, is seen as a new thing: something emerging like an idea freshly expressed and only just crystallising. Of course that’s not true. Gender hasn’t changed: it is our perceptions that have changed.
They’re going to keep changing. The best thing readers can do, is demand that change and embrace it. It’s coming anyway, so we might as well get a head start. The need for gender equality in fiction doesn’t threaten or invalidate everything that appears more traditional: those are part of the tapestry by default. Just as with the cold hearted assassins who are stripping feminine, softer and less traditionally “strong” heroines of their limelight, for fear of writing “weak” women, casting every woman as hard and every man as soft would do the same.
Balance. It’s all in the balance of it.
In fact, it’s all around us. The people we know and the people we know through other people. The world is already full of these “characters”. And that’s the key. Show what’s really there instead of what you’ve been told is there.