Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part One: Strong Women

The Tomb by Devells WongThe 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.

sftd by kir-tatHowever, 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.

Tea by Toru-meowOver 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.

Molly Carpenter from Dresden Files ComicIf 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.

Sansa Stark by rai-mondSliding 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.

Throne of Glass by FetschRecently 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.

Oliver Twisted by karichristensenIn 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.

Title image by Devells Wong.


By Leo Elijah Cristea

Leo Cristea is a disabled, panromantic, asexual, male-shaped thing with teal hair, loud opinions and a rather lovely altar to the Morrigan on his desk, where he spends 70% of his time writing, 20% of it conducting imaginary metal orchestras with headphones on, and 10% of it dislodging one of his five feline familiars. He reads and writes mostly YA fantasy and science fiction and constantly presses for wider and better diverse inclusivity in books, and he will apologise for neither of these things. When he’s not writing or reading he’s probably romancing yet another love interest in the Dragon Age games or burying himself under too much work trying to learn every language in the world all at once. He is a Creative Writing graduate and the laconic is something he will never master (and isn’t really trying, either), though since he likes words very, very much, this isn’t currently a problem. His favourite authors are all women and this is perfectly fine with him. When he remembers to, he blogs. (Occasionally. When the planets align.) Usually found wearing black.

14 thoughts on “Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part One: Strong Women”
  1. “Strong independent women” is one of those buzzwords that only make me groan. As if any other characters that can’t live up to this ideal are somehow invalid and shouldn’t be written. That’s not exactly a positive message.
    And yes, I’ve also sometimes got the impression that “strong independent women” are often written simply like male action heroes. Is that what we want? A good female character has to be like a man?

  2. I have to disagree that gender is a scale. That is saying certain attitudes and personalities are only associated with one gender, which I would say is sexist. How do you define what is masculine or feminine.

    1. Even the author of the article argues that masculine and feminine are not tied to ‘men’ and ‘women’. Instead they are social constructs that years upon years of societal norms have created. Describing someone as masculine (be it a man or a woman), shouldn’t be seen as anything more than an adjective. Yes, it is unfortunate that the words are culturally associated with genders, but they are the best we’ve got for now and it’s just a question of changing the way people view them.

      Gender is a spectrum, because it is more than ‘male’ and ‘female’. How else would you explain and understand gender fluid and gender neutral people?

  3. Men are usually given violent, emotionally vacant attributes. I totally agree that this is the way the new “Strong Woman” is seen. It seem to be the new trend in fantasy to give a give a sword and suddenly she isn’t weak anymore. I love the points you made about Sansa Stark. The two Starks that are still in play are girls. That says a great deal about what strength is.

    Looking forward tot he rest of the posts in this series!

  4. Many women have written strong, diverse characters across a range of sexualities…but for some reason the notion that SFF is full of “strong women written like men” simply will not die. The exceptions–many, from many writers, for decades now–are ignored. I have wondered if it’s the cover art (something the writers usually have no control over: publishers firmly believe that “girl with a gun or sword” sells books to male readers better than “older woman stirring a pot” and in this genre selling to male readers can raise the numbers over the survival point) or if it’s the firmly entrenched expectations of readers, including reviewers and critics, that perpetuates this notion. Certainly there are female characters who exhibit character traits formerly associated only with male characters (and there are real live women who do the same), but there are other female characters who do not, often from the same writers, and in the same books.

    I do not see (or feel) any pressure to make female characters conform to a male mold–though I do see pressure from within writers (and characters) to release, to expose, “masculine” characteristics that lie within some women. To recognize that physical strength, though not the only strength, is one that many women have had–that a taste for adventure and a desire to compete physically is as natural to many women as an interest in fashion.

    I’m hoping to see that in future posts in this series the many counter-examples to the myth are recognized, including for example, such writers as Andre Norton, Judith Tarr, books, Marta Randall, Vonda N. McIntyre, Esther Friesner, Barbara Hambley, Susan Shwartz, Kate Elliott, and Glenda Larke. There are many more. Because a writer creates a sword-swinging or gun-toting character does not mean that’s the sum total of characters in that book–or in her work. Or that the writer thinks the only strong characters concentrate on crime or war.

    It’s not either-or. It’s not EITHER wear makeup and high heels OR be practical/capable/even violent when that’s appropriate. Women know that. Many women *live* that. And yet society categorizes us as “homemakers” or “employed” (ignoring that employed women also do homemaking and homemakers may be unpaid workers in many fields, as family members and volunteers, doing the same work others are paid for.) As feminine/traditional, or unfeminine/nontraditional. That’s not the reality of women, nor is it the reality of female characters in SFF.

    1. “There are other female characters who do not [exhibit traditionally male characteristics], often from the same writers, and in the same books.”

      Very true, so why doesn’t “the discourse” acknowledge this as much as it should?

      It harkens back to our discussion a few months back, where I talked about the unfortunate tendency to treat female protagonists as specimens to be dissected, each of them necessarily a statement on womankind. Each of them a statement, and yet we are curiously oblivious when several different “statements” are being made in the same novel, or across different works by the same author. I think that’s part of the reason this notion that SFF is less diverse than it really is continues to hold sway; so long as examples of the familiar archetypes exist, we continue to treat them as the “norm” and others as the “exception” even if that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the reality. So long as the quippy leather-wearing heroine is there, the other women are invisible, or at least labelled as exceptions and outliers.

      Also, the covers. Alas, the covers.

  5. “When you immediately think of Disney princesses, strong isn’t what comes to mind.”

    Isn’t it?

    I may be biased, as my oldest memories are watching Disney films all day in my room. As far as I’m concerned Ariel and Belle are the quintessential hero I could relate to. Funny thing, I never really cared all that much for Simba (brat) or Aladdin (meh, Genie overshadowed the ever loving hell out of him) in spite of sharing a gender with them.

    Ariel and Belle may not be what is typically thought of as ‘strong’ but neither was I. Or neither am I, I should say. The fact that they were both ‘nerdy’ girls with a passion for fantasy, adventure, romance, and new horizons was far more relatable than anything any of your run of the mill male heroes had.

    As someone who generally finds violence silly and distasteful I am just fine with a character who is not a powerhouse and find the idea that one needs to be one in order to be ‘strong’ more than a bit disturbing. What, Belle willingly becoming the prisoner of a crazy asshole for her father’s sake and Ariel defying her own father (and crustacean chaperone) to pursue her dreams doesn’t count for anything?

  6. You’re right that gender is complicated, possibly even more complicated than the sliding scale you mentioned. Growing up (and even now) I struggled to find female characters I could relate to. I, too, inwardly groan when I hear the phrase “strong women”. But what I particularly dislike is not the chainmail bikini-wearing warrior, because everyone knows that’s just silly. I don’t like having the woman’s idea of a “strong woman” forced on me. The sort that can super-multi-task, holding down two jobs and managing a household, keeping going when she’s ill and always speaking her mind. That’s nothing like me. I like the idea that Sansa Stark can be strong (although I’m not like her, either). Inner strength can coexist with outward frailty. Just visit your nearest care home…

  7. One character I definitely think should be examined is Shallan Davar from The stormlight Archive. She’s a very well-rounded female character. Although she acts like a young girl, she is a strong woman, especially considering everything she goes through.

  8. I hate to say it, but I’m slowly come to dislike the “strong female character” archetype that’s developed over the years. That isn’t to say I dislike strong characters who are female? But the way that archetype is played with has become so narrow that they practically become interchangeable from book to book, movie to movie.

    Strength comes in many forms. I wish more people would realise that.

  9. So many cliches, so little time. At some level, every character, male or female, embodies a cliche. But when we’ve had fewer female characters of note overall, and the one’s we’ve seen have been mostly clumped into a handful of archetypes, then each additional portrayal of this trope is another poke to already bruised flesh.

    The same issue applies to characters of other under-represented demographics too (pretty much anyone who isn’t a white, straight male).

    I would argue, however, that there’s a certain kinds of “strong” male characters who is also overrepresented. it would be cool to see more men who aren’t especially good fighters, for instance, or who aren’t the most amazing wizard or rogue of the ages. More men who have a certain amount of self doubt, or who are good at something less physical that makes a difference, would be cool too. Maybe even more men cast in the role of healers or nurturers.

  10. I totally agree. For me the keyword is “and”. It’s important to have female characters that are strong in various ways AND sometimes they might be physically strong warriors. Because I don’t want fictioncreators starting to think that women should never ever be physically strong badasses, they should be that too sometimes. And then sometimes they can like girly dresses and still be strong capable rulers.

    Sometimes they might even start out as young naive characters that mature into strength (like Sansa).

  11. Why can’t we just write good characters?
    I think back over the books I have read recently and there isn’t one, I can think of, that doesn’t have at least one well developed female character. I don’t understand why this “strong female character” thing is a thing.

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