Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part Six: Historical Accuracy
This final part of our extended series on gender and stereotypes in fantasy and science fiction will be both a conclusion and a sweeping reflection on what we’ve already examined, but in the context of that one thing many who fail to see the lack importance (and, indeed, those who oppose diverse and inclusive representation entirely) use to wave away any calls for inclusivity of everything from race to gender to sexuality, namely:
First, let’s note that in fantasy, usually set in a secondary world or an alternative Earth or wider cosmos, there should be very little weight given to “accuracy” of any kind. If we’re going to decry inclusivity by suggesting that X person would not realistically be present in Y setting, then perhaps we first need to examine the base logistics of everything from free-flying dragons and the health and safety issues faced by their riders. Or reassess just how many nameless, faceless assassins can feasibly be wandering around any given fantastical city during one particular time-frame, or if this legion of assassins and blackguards might have needed to establish a time-share claim on a city so as to never tip off the various authorities to the sudden scourge of purchasable killers calling the city home.
Furthermore, any claim that black/brown/gay/trans/neuroatypical/disabled people didn’t exist in these pseudo-European medieval settings is every bit as ridiculous (and revealing) as the suggestion that any person who is not straight, white, abled and neurotypical has merely sprung into existence in the last fifty years or so, like daises through snow in spring.
There are two facts that need to be addressed when thinking about any kind of worldbuilding. The first is worldbuilding must draw from the world we see around us, one way or another. Inspiration from another fantasy writer? That too. They once built their world from the ground up; they once sat and put pen to paper and created a world drawn from every source at their disposal. No matter what we create, there is some parallel, some mirror that exists in our world.
It is impossible for this to not be the case, unless any given writer has been dwelling in some alternate universe before being unceremoniously dropped back into the fray of our little blue accident of a world. Everything that exists around us is where inspiration comes from. Even if inspiration is drawn from more spiritual and religious sources, the very material used to connect with this additional wealth of source material was composed by someone at some point, making it a legitimate part of our manmade canon. Anything that exists in our world, will, at some point, have been a source of inspiration for an artist. That is a fact. Therefore, if it exists, it is by definition, realistic.
On the back of this: history is an ongoing story that changes and evolves and has gaps. There are many, many versions of history, just as there are many, many snippets and fragments that have been invariably lost over the years. A person researching might stumble upon this one thing (more on this specifically further down) that is far from common knowledge, and perhaps even dismissed or argued away by those who hold the greater pen of history at any given time. This pen passes hands.
Additionally, anecdotal history is every bit as legitimate as the text of some “history books”, in which the full story is allegedly told, yet where great swathes of certain truth are missed and skipped, due to various reasons ranging from deliberate sabotage to the fact that these pieces of information might fall outside of a specific historian’s specialist area, and therefore were set aside. One person in all the world might have a story that sounds outlandish—but that does not mean it didn’t happen. Yes, we’re applying some face-value and asking for liberal measures of salt to be applied, but are we asking any less from sceptics, certain down to their marrow that ghosts and faeries and werewolves have never existed, when reading urban fantasy, where their disbelief must be suspended nevertheless? Not really, no.
This is fiction—it’s already a lie.
The second point isn’t altogether detached from the first, but needs a spotlight of its own. History is written by the victors. It is a truth that is so universally acknowledged that it’s tantamount to fact. And for a great period of history—both in the West, and farther afield, owing to mass colonisation in the first instance—Christianity became the main holder of the pen of history. Since much of what people view as Fantasy™ is a mirror (or in the very least, heavily draws from) of a medieval or Dark Ages-esque Europe, the focus remains on Christianity. And the history written across the colonised world, even if many of these imagined fantasy worlds don’t contain a monotheistic religion, or even boast a vaguely developed, co-opted Pagan polytheistic religion.
In one stroke, anything of sexual orientation, gender identity and even the nature of women was altered and cast into such bias that we are still enmeshed in the legacy of Christianity’s prominence. And with Christianity came the notion of “lesser races” and “infidels”. This greatly affected the way in which medieval Europe evolved and changed. And this is why many people believe that Fantasy Settings™ should be free of people of colour, queer people and even the sick, disabled and neuroatypical. It is coded into Western fantasy that this is simply the way the world is, and all fiery fury shall be unleashed if anyone dares to suggest a woman command an army at war or that these fantasy worlds should be anything but straight and white.
And in many, many cases—especially historically and with the social period surrounding each person—it was not and never would have been safe to come out as any variety of queer. There are thousands of queer figures of history that we do not know about—and probably never will. This will be the same for many biracial people in history, too: those born to mixed race parents whose white-passing privilege conceals their racial identity and allows them to be amalgamated as “white”, discounting entirely half of who they were or are.
We’re going to touch only briefly on the nonsensical idea that these typical settings are somehow “incomplete” or “inaccurate” without overflowing with violence against women, when in fact, accusations of rape or sexual assault throughout some periods of history were serious allegations and certainly no magistrate or soldier would have paused to ask, “What was she wearing?” Let alone the fact that much of this manner of violence will have occurred during times of war—in which case, at the very same time, relations between men in these armies would also have to be present to truly reflect history and fact. That is to say nothing of any instances of sexual torture acted upon male soldiers by the enemies, which is mysteriously lacking in most fantasy where violence towards women is very present.
The idea that a rape is essential to a certain kind of fantasy world setting is very much a fictional construct embellished at every given opportunity. Really, it’s just not very historically accurate and since that’s what we really want from our fantasy, it’s worth noting, right? Interestingly, we never do hear decries of “historical accuracy” when discussing the prevalence of the noble potato—such a mainstay of so many fantasy inns and the bellies of wayward travellers—when, in fact, the potato was not a feature in Europe until after 1536. Fare thee well, potato.
So, about that whole “history” thing:
Roman emperors had same-gender lovers. There are various indigenous peoples and cultures around the world who recognise more than one gender. In ye-olde-period London when a person was arrested for sex work as a female, but had been assigned male at birth, the judge and court asked what pronouns she wanted. There was an Egyptian Pharaoh who was nonbinary, though this is argued about even when the very same rules that scholars and historians have determined and applied to absolutely every text regarding decoding hieroglyphics prove that, yes, this pharaoh was non-binary. Janequeo, was a Chilean guerrilla warrior whom the Spanish never conquered. An Apache woman infiltrated a camp and avenged her husband with her teeth. Taytu Betul, the “bad cop” of Ethiopia made life hell for the Italians. Stephanie St Clair—Harlem’s queen of numbers and racketeering—fought the mob and won. Zenobia, Syria’s rebel queen, whose name, in the 3rd century, sent Romans running in fear. There was an armour in the Leeds Royal Armoury that went into battle nine months pregnant. French female pirates who brought the British to their knees. A Chinese pirate queen who all-but ruled the seas.
Poets and artists and writers who were their own brands of neuroatypical—but their differences were dismissed and attributed to “just being artists”. Anne Frank might have had EDS! A duelling opera singer who killed men in duels and joined a convent just to get some action with a nun! In Viking tradition, if a man laid hands on his wife when she’d refused, woe betide that foolish soul, because not even Odin can save him from shame and public scorn. A soldier from Finland who fought under three different banners with none of them any the wiser of his military games for the (ultimately) Allied Forces—a single man working alone. A unit of Russian female fighter pilots who only flew at night, but were so deadly, so precise and skilled they were dubbed the Night Witches! A company of hussars who rarely lost any battle they fought and who ended a sixty-day siege by turning up and winning the battle in twenty minutes—all of whom had, at one time or another, been exiles.
Alexander the Great was at least bisexual if not gay—Alexander the Great. Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt was at least genderfluid/queer if not possibly transgender or transmasculine. Leonardo Da Vinci was very possibly pansexual, with a very firm interest in androgyny, with his own sexuality said to have “transcended gender”. A Lesbian NASA astronaut who only came out posthumously because society and discrimination, in spite of a loving twenty-seven-year relationship with her girlfriend! Two transgender sisters hid their transgender identities in order to become incredible filmmakers, keeping one another’s secrets the whole time, before coming out and continuing to be incredible filmmakers—two sisters. A transman, born to a noble family of England lost his title, his peerage and anything his noble name would have afforded him, in order to be the first person to undergo gender-reaffirming surgery and subsequently live his life the way he wanted. Beethoven was deaf! A genderqueer/transmasculine French Chevalier diplomat spy who attended court and insisted their gender be recognised (spoiler: it was). A transgender Civil War hero who fought in over forty battles and single-handedly overpowered his prison guard in order to escape.
A transgender lesbian model in the height of 1900s Parisian fashion! Blind Olympic track-runners. Stephen Hawkings! A transman who brawled in the American West, called a roustabout and a troublemaker and causing drama in any saloon he chose, as well as occasionally engaging in enthusiastic sex work. An Italian transgender fascist who caused trouble, defied the courts and eventually died in obscurity after terrible life choices (the fascist part rather heralds that end). Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Michelangelo (and many more)—all very likely on the autistic spectrum! Vincent Van Gogh had both severe depression and Meniere’s disease.
We—very evidently—could go on into infinity, listing countless examples such as those above. Some of these people did extraordinary things, whilst others merely lived their lives on their own terms. Women and exiles and people of colour, people with disabilities, queer people and everything and anything between. Yet when many of these now-marginalised people are placed front-and-centre or make up a greater volume than a minor percentage of the cast, it is deemed “unrealistic”, as if they have not been present and participating in our collective history the whole time. They are erased and forgotten and deemed not in keeping with “history”.
An argument against the natural and realistic inclusion of these marginalised people in SFF is that it isn’t “realistic” for these people to go off and have adventures, save the world the world, or slay dragons (which, as we all know, is a very common and respected profession in our very real world). Impossibly, women are often lumped in this pile, as if it is inconceivable (I don’t think that means what you think it means) that women might have toddled off to enjoy adventures, every bit as regularly as our perceived heroes of Ye Olde Medieval Times. That is to say nothing of some varieties of SFF where women are merely plot devices ripe for fridging, a rather lovely reward for our heroes, or otherwise wilting, helpless and free of the oh-so manly burdens of agency. It is as though women scarcely existed throughout history at all.
Take one look at art throughout history, especially that of medieval and renaissance era, where there is a far greater representation of skin colour and diversity of race than in most Marvel superhero movies at the cinema today. The way in which these paintings are rendered is often the same as any other piece of art: there is no standard theme of exoticism regarding the subject of the art, merely their inclusion. Yes—there will be terrible pieces of art throughout history that are unflattering and inaccurate and objectifying, but then we can say much the same for any piece of media conceived in our modern society. Furthermore, studying a photographic history demonstrates that people of colour were present and accounted for in generally white societies, such as black and brown Victorian ladies sitting for photographs in the very same gowns as their white counterparts. One nation cannot colonise afield in the world and the movement of people through said colonies not be expected. There were women of colour sipping tea with all the Victorian ladies who now waltz away on their steampunk adventures; there were women and men of colour in the industrial revolutions, on the street with the gritty urban historical fantasies.
This isn’t even accounting for the various textual evidence that describes the far freer movement of everyone on earth at given points in history than our modern perceptions seem to allow for. Theories about Atlantis and similar inexplicable things aside, you cannot have typically-Asian symbolism and art appearing in Aztec caves without somebody having put them there. In the very same way that Sell-sword A decides to hop on a pirate ship and try their hand at their fortune in Foreign Land B, so, too, did hundreds of people throughout history. People live and move and exist. They always have.
So, after all, in light of the above, it’s safe to conclude that this much-coveted “historical accuracy” is something we’ve been failing at all along: our whitewashed, cishetronormative able and neurotypical worlds are the inaccuracy.
We’d really better get on that.