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Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part Three: Balance

Apprentice Collar by boscopencillerLast 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.

St. George and the Dragon by Donato GiancolaThe 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.

Galadriel by LiliaOsipovaPreviously 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.

Lady of the Blade by yagaminoueDressing 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.

The Drifting Isle Chronicles - The Kaiser Affair by ElsaKroeseTraditionally, 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.

Space Walk by Matt Zeilinger

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.

The Copper Promise (cover)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.

Zamira by Spader7One 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.

Last Stand by juliedillonThey’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.

Title image by Julie Dillon.



  1. Avatar Raptori says:

    Liveship Traders would be a great example for looking at this. Just focusing on major characters who exhibit some of the stuff discussed above:

    Ronica is an older woman who has been in charge of the management of her and her husband’s trade company while her husband spends most of his time out at sea. She has a lot of agency, is independent and resourceful, and manages to stick to her principles even when they conflict (such as being against slavery but remaining loyal to a friend who is in the slave trade). She ends up being one of the key people behind the uniting of her city’s diverse people.

    Keffria is Ronica’s older daughter. She starts off as a fairly weak and submissive character, because she doesn’t want a life like her mother’s. However, when disaster strikes her city, she becomes strong and independent.

    Althea is Ronica’s younger daughter. She starts off as a wild and wilful tomboy, spends the whole series pursuing her burning desire to inherit her father’s liveship. She develops different strengths throughout the series, and is generally one of the strongest and most active female protagonists around.

    Wintrow is Keffria’s older son, and has been training to be a priest. He is ripped from the calm and thoughtful future he expected, goes through some horrendous trials, and by the end he is a strong and active character but still retains his quiet and thoughtful character.

    Malta is Keffria’s daughter. She starts off as an insufferable, spoiled, arrogant little girl, a character I absolutely despised. She’s wilful and active from the start, but goes through some impressive development that ends with her being a sympathetic character.

    And that’s just the Vestrit family. Other great characters that don’t fit their gender roles include Etta, Amber, and Serilla.

    Really good series, should be required reading for anyone who likes fantasy. 😉

  2. Avatar Holly says:

    Good article. I agree with your point about science fiction allowing more flexibility in terms of character expectation vs, as you put it, the more ‘historically’ based fantasy genre. I have a bad tendency to not notice the gender disparity since I’m spoilt and always look for out-of-the-ordinary books & characters. (I would also argue that having a strong female lead means you need other strong supporting characters/lovers to maintain the balance of the story within the book itself. AS a strong female, I can tell you it gets very boring if there’s no one to banter with.) Part of helping to close the gender gap is to spread the word on books like that–So since you stated that your focus is mainly YA with a side of SF, I thought I’d help you out with a quick list of a-typical books for readers to enjoy. (This really is going to be a *quick* list, because I could go on for hours–my bookshelf is filled with gender-benders.)(Like I said–spoilt!)


    1) The Blue Sword + The Hero & The Crown by Robin McKinley
    Almost anything by Robin McKinley presents with a-typical story-lines and strong female leads, (Sunshine is a great off-track vampire novel, fyi), but these two books in particular give you both warrior female main characters (Harry & Aerin), & the non-warrior male healer (Luthe). (Not to mention just being spectacular stories.)

    2)The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
    (This is technically a trilogy.) High fantasy about a sheep farmer becoming a paladin. Beautiful character arc. Female warrior lead. Several strong female supporting characters interspersed throughout, PLUS main villain is female, although you never actually come across her directly, only her minions.

    3) Patricia Briggs’ werewolf series
    Female mechanic who shifts into a coyote? Yes please! Or, if you want her spin-off series, Anna is a werewolf cello player married to a Native American werewolf. ALL of these books are about strong females being strong females, and Briggs’ is brave enough to throw in difficult topics like rape. (Not in every book, but she does address the topic, which is not something a lot of authors can do gracefully.)

    4) Carrie Vaugn
    Literally anything by this woman presents as “HI I’M A GIRL AND I’M HERE TO KICK YOUR ASS, I just might do my taxes at the same time, cool?”. You can check out “Kitty and the Midnight Hour” for werewolves, or “After the Golden Age” for some awesome off-brand super-heroine action. (After the Golden Age & its sequel are in my top-20 books of all time.)

    5) Greywalker by Kat Richardson
    Kat’s Greywalker series is delicious. So dark! Such noir! Very detective! Wow! And you definitely don’t see a female detective main character very often. That’s usually reserved for cranky ex-cops who drink too much.

    6) (SCI-FI) Working Stiff by Rachel Caine
    Bryn Davis is ex-military with a side of MD in mortuary science. Add in post-death nano-bytes and a hot, millionaire male side-kick? What more could a girl ask for? (Well, maybe actual life and not so much corporate espionage…)

    7) (SCI-FI) The Roads of Heaven by Melissa Scott
    This is an old-school sci-fi novel. Spaceships + trying to find Earth + a female pilot + a 3-way marriage (she gets two, count ’em, TWO hunky husbands). I liked the presentation of this one because the main character is breaking stereotypes within the world of the book itself. She lives in a very anti-female universe, and is maneuvered into a role which allows her to break down a few walls for her gender. I still think M.Scott could have been a *little* stronger with the last book, but overall still an enjoyable experience.

    8) Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Super Villain, by Richard Roberts
    A twelve-year-old evil genius with superhero parents learns how to work her skillz without leaving a trace. Her two best friends help out. (And by help I mean “cause extra trouble”.) Still one of the best books I’ve ever read. I still don’t believe the characters are 12, and usually pretend they aren’t because really? 12? Nah. But otherwise, Penny is one of the best characters I’ve ever seen developed, and I can’t wait to see who she becomes if there’s a sequel. [EDIT: I got distracted in the middle of writing this by googling to see if there’s a sequel. THERE IS. It’s called “Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up The Moon”. AND he’s writing a 3rd book. Excuse me while I run away to B&N.]

    Ok, I was going to do 10, but I really did get distracted. Enjoy this list of 8. Let me know if you want more! 😀

  3. Avatar Madfox11 says:

    I can think of several strong woman characters in various fantasy novels. For example, Mara from The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts is the female protagonist of the story. Sure, she is not a fighter, because society does not allow her to be, but she is the leader of a powerful noble house at the brink of destruction and she manages to rescue it. The Green Rider by Kristen Britain contains a female protagonist. The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher might contain the traditional female healer and male fighters, but there are male healers, female warriors, and so on. Or are these considered YA since the protagonists all start young?

  4. Avatar SFF Fan says:

    In the book, Ada King, there is a female lead who is not a physical fighter but instead is smart. I think sometimes female characters who are strong are turned into she-hulks and it all seems kinda one-dimensional and unrealistic.

  5. Avatar Barnaby says:

    A character does not necessarily need agency to be interesting. Agency can help, but unless there is more to the character agency will not be enough. Jalan Kendeth, Jezal dan Luther, Sansa Stark, and to a certain extent Archeth Indamaninarmal were all characters with little or no agency and all four are really great characters in my opinion, and it was all because of their weaknesses of character as well as their strengths. The key to a good character, I think, lies in their personality more than anything else.

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