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Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part Two: Switching Roles

Female Warriors by FetschIn the first part of this series we began to explore a couple of points, not least of all the idea that we are creating a new kind of gender mould with our misguided insistence as to what constitutes a “strong female character”. This has two consequences: female characters are still just as stereotyped as they have ever been, regardless if that stereotype is new. And we are so focused on delivering this (essentially ill-fated) new concept of strong women that we not only forget to challenge what we mean by strong male characters, but also how we can challenge and redefine gender and the subsequent stereotypes as a whole.

There will be a lot to cover in this series, but to start off we’re going to dive straight in and look at characters who fall outside the normal definition of what is supposedly considered “strong”. At the root of things, this series seeks to demonstrate that there is no set requirement for being a strong character and that arguably strength doesn’t matter. What matters is relatability. Strength is too changing a variable to apply as a requirement for any and all characters. Agency, too, another buzz word, albeit it a very important one, especially as the stereotypical presentation of women is abolished and changed, is also arguably not necessary.

Bastard Daughter by Magali VilleneuveSome characters are simply not strong; they are weak and vulnerable and still completely relatable. In fact, it is arguably as important for some characters to display no agency whatsoever in order for development and growth to be shown at a later point. It is important to show that weakness and vulnerability exist and are not something to write out of our characters in lieu of presenting characters who are always in control and always in charge of their own destinies. Regardless of the gender or the personality of the character, it is unrealistic to suggest each and every person alive possesses automatic agency. Sometimes, agency is something to aspire to, especially if you are aware you lack it.

In addition, many of the characters we will look at are considered “diverse” by reason of their race, gender or sexuality. We will simply consider them as normal characters herein (because that’s what they are), despite their obvious lack in fiction. Furthermore, we will seek to demonstrate that stereotypes are in fact completely dead; never more than a social construct in the first place.

Throne of Glass (cover)In this first examination of characters, they will all be taken from young adult SFF (arguably my speciality) in order to set the bar high for future discussion if character. The reasoning behind this is the highly self-aware manner in which all types of characters are explored in young adult fiction, with great emphasis on diversity and the challenging of stereotypes.

First we’re going to look at characters such as The Throne of Glass’ Celaena Sardothien (Sarah J Maas), The Wolves of Mercy Falls’ Grace Brisbane and The Raven Cycle’s Blue Sargent (Maggie Steifvater), The Mortal Instruments’ Isabelle and Alec Lightwood (Cassandra Clare), The Darkest Part of the Forest’s Ben and Hazel Evans (Holly Black) and This Shattered World’s Lee Chase. These characters all have one thing in common: they fulfil more of the traditional role usually attributed to the opposite gender. The female characters presented in a more traditionally-conceived masculine role; the male characters, the opposite.

You’ll note that we’re considering a character’s role and their traits as being very separate. Their role is the part they play in a story, whereas their traits describe what they do and how they act. In particular, two of these characters are partial opposites of one another (Isabelle Lightwood and Lee Chase) yet in similar situations of power and ability. We’ll explore this in some detail first since it sets an interesting point for discussion hereafter.

City of Bones (cover)Isabelle Lightwood is a Shadowhunter, like her brother and the rest of her family. Shadowhunters possess the blood of the angel Raziel and are therefore considered Nephilim. Their duty is to fight demons and other non-human threats (Downworlders) and to keep these overlapping realities secret from the mundane world. Isabelle is strong and confident and has a good sense of just who she is and where her place is in the world.

Jubilee – Lee – Chase is a soldier. She is Stern and to-the-point, merciless and heartless. She is a perfect soldier; she gets the job done. Currently posted on a planet with a mind-altering effect she seems immune to, she needs all of these traits to survive in the midst of a native rebellion from a group of violent rebels on the planet.

Unlike Isabelle, who dresses in a very sexy and self-gratifying manner (heels and black and perfect makeup), Lee seems to suppress some of the natural personality that would shine through into how she acts and dresses, in order to maintain her stony facade. On the other hand, Isabelle has not compromised expression of her personality physically: she is described as supermodel gorgeous and happily flaunts a seven-inch rule in relation to heels.

This Shattered World (cover)However, Isabelle’s emotional expression has suffered from her unforgiving purpose on the world. She is hardened and this makes it difficult for her to express herself in the variety of ways needed to be both emotionally healthy and available. Stereotypically, it would be the male sibling who keeps his emotions inside and puts on a brave face to the world, and subsequently struggles when dealing with issues such as guilt and grief and blame. Instead, it is Isabelle who fulfils this role, not her brother. Before we bring Alec Lightwood into the picture, let’s first jump to Celaena Sardothien, who is, in many ways, a combination of Isabelle Lightwood and Lee Chase.

The best assassin in the realm – because she was raised to be just this – Celaena has all the strength of both Isabelle and Lee, all of Isabelle’s physical expression and personality, coupled with the stone cold ability to hurt and kill. This runs deeper with Celaena, whose anger and grief drive her in certain situations to become likened to, and sometimes worse than, the very people she hunts and kills. She has a very secret past, hidden so deeply behind her own mental conditioning that she has become someone else.

Unlike Lee Chase, Celaena is willing to see the reality of a situation she is presented with, even if that contradicts orders or what she has been taught. Chase, in this sense, is slower to empathise and reluctant to stray from the safety of her hatred and judgement. Celaena trusts herself. Sometimes this translates into arrogance and overconfidence. Again, a stereotypically male trait. Confidence in women is often something to target and attack them for.

Shiver (cover)Celaena does not forego her femininity in order to become a killer. This is incredibly important. It’s time we stopped pulling women’s choices of dress apart. It is a character’s choice what to wear and the writer’s responsibility to write that. And writers know their characters. She delights in dresses and fashion and permits herself to desire things, utterly at odds with the traditional and masculine image of the ruthless killer she was made. Celaena is extroverted with much of her expressed personality – but not all of it. Again, like Chase, Celaena has a very deep and secret history buried behind her walls and this actively influences everything she does and, more poignantly, everything she doesn’t do. These characters are defined more by what they don’t do, where they won’t go in their own heads.

In many ways it’s easy to slide practical, pragmatic Grace Brisbane (a character who sees practical personality was inspired by Steifvater’s husband) onto the table at this point, alongside sensible and organised Blue Sargent, a non-psychic born to a family of mediums and clairvoyants who has always lived with the knowledge that if she kisses her true love, they will die. Whilst in her various counterparts (the Raven Boys of Aglionby school) Blue finds her own reasonable nature and pragmatism reflected (albeit more in Gansey than Adam or Ronan), Grace’s counterparts are more emotionally active and communicative and far less reserved and practical. More interestingly, both these girls have at least one boy in their orbit who fulfils a more traditionally-conceived feminine role than both of them combined. Whether it’s Sam Roth’s gentle and caring sensitivity or Gansey’s whimsical and romantic attachment to Glendower, these girls, in contrast, are the sensible and practical thinkers, ruled less by emotions than those surrounding them.

The Raven Boys (cover)Furthermore, in regards to sensitive issues such as PTSD (not combat related) and experiences that can have detrimental effects on formative minds, Sam and Gansey both have experiences under their belts that swing more towards the kinds of past experiences more commonly attributed openly to female characters. A quiet guideline seems to be that men experience issues relating to strength and responsibilities and power – all traditionally masculine issues – whilst women suffer abuse and near-death experiences. It’s one of those things that tries to assign certain aspects of personality and emotional experience to a gender. Which is ridiculous. Sam comes from a damaging childhood, whereas Grace was pleasantly ignored. Gansey’s experience on the leylines shaped who he was and forms the foundation for the series. Had Blue been the one to almost die, she likely would have been too logical and sensible to become fascinated with her ordeal and the books would never begin.

In this same vein, both Alec Lightwood and Ben Evans exhibit stereotypically feminine traits: Alec is reserved and quiet in contrast to his very charismatic sibling, sensitive and thoughtful, whereas Ben is the dreamer and artist to his sister’s knight, more timid and daunted far more easily than his fearless sister. Alec is more open to reason when it comes to hunting demons or Downworlders and is the clear academic, whilst Isabelle is more driven by taught hatred and expectations and is certainly the warrior. Her weapon is close-combat compared with Alec’s preferred choice of the bow. They both engage in romantic relationships before their sisters, whose attitudes towards love are more cavalier and certainly more stereotypically masculine, versus the primarily romantic interests of both Alec and Ben. Isabelle is desirable and knows it and uses it as a tool whereas Hazel kisses boys almost as a pastime. In fact, how characters behave in their relationships, romantic, platonic, familial, is one increasingly realistic way of demonstrating that stereotypes are entirely constructed and have little place in reality.

In regards to parents, typically a female child receives more doting and less freedom and pressure to perform, whilst the opposite is said for a male child. Here our characters show very different relationships, from neglected-and-over-it Grace, to Alec, so desperate for his parents to accept him for who he is that his demon manipulated dreams, even late in the series, reflect this perceived need for success in their eyes.

Silverstars by AnthonyFotiEach one of these characters defies one or more stereotypically male or female aspects of what they are expected to be. This isn’t deliberate move on the part of the writers, in so far as to say that they consciously chose to defy societal archetypes. Rather, these stereotypes are entirely social construct and when you remove the impression of their existence, all you are left with is people. Society tries incredibly hard to maintain that these stereotypes and traits exist, through advertising and gendered products and just how the subject of gender is approached. Our daily language is cluttered with internalised stereotypes about almost everything. Living inside the relatively diverse bubble of SFF (which is, for the most part, striving to become a very equal and diverse open forum) and my tiny corner of the internet, it is easy to forget that we’re always just one TV advert away from having all these stereotypes reinforced to the sound of a tacky jingle and an artfully filmed family of 2.4 children.

As discussed in the previous article in this series, the idea isn’t to then force people into a secondary mould by imagining new stereotypes and boundaries. The idea is to reach a point where we do not automatically default to these stereotypes. The endgame in gender and equality is to have absolutely no stereotypes to defy and bend in the first place. It is to have realistic characters across the board.

WOMEN WARRIORS by roxinationWe need weak women who only find their agency later through a story as much as we need strong women who know exactly what they are doing from the get-go, and we need weak and strong men to do the same. Agency shouldn’t be an assumed asset and neither should strength. Both of these things are subject to personality and circumstance. And perception. Many people write characters off for being weak simply for not exhibiting strength in a way we’ve been taught to see. Ultimately we need diverse people and people who think and act diversely. Real people who are reflections of those we’ve known and loved and met.

In the next instalment we’ll look at another handful of characters, this time in veering away from YA and examining more generic SFF. We’ll take a look at men who are less of the archetypical warriors, knights and rogues from fantasy and science fiction; characters who exhibit traits that stereotypically soften their perceived masculinity (Jen William’s Aaron Frith [The Copper Promise trilogy] and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kvothe [The Kingkiller Chronicles], and in contrast, we’ll look at women who are decidedly more “masculine” in a far more physical and/or active sense (e.g. behaviour, mannerisms, habits, etc.), such as Sam Sykes’ Kataria (Aeon’s Gate trilogy), James S.A. Corey’s Bobby (The Expanse series) and Peter V. Brett’s Wonda (The Demon Cycle) among others.

Title image by roxination.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Splicer says:

    Unless there is some sort of purposeful art collective, a collaboration, there is no “we” in art nor should there be. The product that comes out of an author should be to that individuals tastes and desires and nothing else. To create with an audience in mind is to cater; to create product rather than art.

    Whatever the gender of the character, the only consideration an author should give to it is what that author desires as the outcome. If it is cliche or groundbreaking, then so be it. That’s what came out of the author for the author’s sake.

  2. […] 6. Fan­tasy Fac­tion — Gen­der and Ste­reo­ty­ping in Fan­tasy – Part Two: Swit­ching Role…. Bo raz, ?e autor wresz­cie ruszy? ty?ek i napi­sa? ci?g dal­szy, i dwa, ?e z grub­sza opi­sa? mój pro­blem ze ste­reo­ty­pem Strong Female Cha­rac­ters (blah). […]

  3. Avatar aphid says:

    How should a male writer respond in an interview if asked if their story is feminist, without being accused of apropriating the womens movement or alienating anyone or inviting criticism and without people thinking your story is a preachy lecture? What is the ultimate safe response?

    • Avatar Yora says:

      It’s not about women, it’s about respecting all people.

      I actually don’t understand what the word feminism really means. Women are not the only people who are disadvantage for sometimes facing discrimination and while mysogyny is a specific type of discrimination, I don’t prioritize it over racism, homophobia, or religious extremism.
      I don’t use the word feminism. I don’t know what it means. That doesn’t make me mysogynistic.

  4. Avatar Tachyon says:

    Feminism means wanting equality for women. That’s what it means.

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