Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Feminism and fantasy novels

On the Toasted Scimitar blog, merc wrote,

What bothers me is when a fantasy culture randomly has 21st century beliefs that make no sense and are clearly there just becuase the author wanted their own personal worldview in the story. I get annoyed.

I feel the same way. When I open a fantasy novel, I like to see a different world with different ideas and ways of doing things. That’s not to say that everything must be 180 degrees removed from our own standards, like a mirror universe. But there have to be some realistic, convincing differences, something more than just the outer trappings of swords and horses rather than guns and cars. And the characters have to acknowledge these differences. That topic could be a book all its own, so for the purposes of this post, I’m just going to address feminism in fantasy novels – and some of the pitfalls in implementing this.

1. Female characters have to be products of their own culture

If the story is set in Regency England but the heroine wears pants, takes lovers and fights crime, she’s going to look like a product of our own times shoehorned into a different culture. Those traits which would not be common to women of that era or that culture need to be carefully chosen so they don’t come off as jarring, and they need to make sense. If a heroine learns to fight, why does she do so? If a heroine has sex outside marriage, is she prepared for the possible consequences?

This is one reason I gave up on historical romances where the heroine refuses to marry because she’s independent, but she happily has sex without sparing a thought for pregnancy. This is fine for modern times when there’s reliable birth control. In medieval times, it doesn’t say a lot for the heroine’s common sense.

2. There’s more than one way to be feminist.

It may be more sensible (from a character’s perspective) and original (from a reader’s) for a woman in historical times to dress modestly and observe societal mores while running her father’s estate while he’s off to war. And in other respects, she may like doing whatever the custom or religion of that time says that women should do. A woman can enjoy cooking and embroidery while simultaneously working as a spy or a magician – in other words, she can be feminist while still being feminine.

3. The heroine will sometimes have to choose.

Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane is a great example of this. Jenny has her magic and her independence – but she also has her lover and their two sons. She lives in her own house, trying to strike a balance between her need for her craft and her love for them. Too many heroines in fantasies (especially written by new and more idealistic writers) have it all. They get to become knights, have sex before marriage or indulge in other typically masculine pursuits while still receiving the love and admiration of all. Try making them choose between societal approval and following their dreams; they’ll be that much more palatable as a result.

4. The heroine’s goals should be realistic for her society and time period.

I once came across a story where the heroine, who has grown up sheltered and protected in ancient Greece, insists to her new husband that she be treated as an equal. I don’t know what made her believe she deserved such treatment, what she planned to do to get it or what “treat me as an equal” meant in the context of that society. It’s one thing to have the heroine work to improve her marriage, but she shouldn’t speak as though she’s read The Cinderella Complex.

If a heroine’s society doesn’t allow women to become knights or serve in the army, she should be aware of why this is the case (for instance, female soldiers have to take marriage and pregnancy into account, captured women are likely to be raped, etc). There may be some substance to people’s concerns, rather than just an attempt to maintain the glass ceiling. Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn features an assertive axe-wielding heroine who speaks six languages and takes lovers – but when she was younger and ran away from home to join the army, three male deserters found her first. What happened afterwards was disturbing, but very realistic.

A lot of fantasy novels now feature tough, kickass heroines - to the point where they're becoming almost as much of a stereotype as the damsel in distress. Making them assertive and strong in different ways might help them stand out from the crowd.


kiwi said...
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kiwi said...

Female characters have to be products of their own culture"

I agree, too often the there is a binary establish in fantasy novels where a character has to chose between the modern and 'enlightened' or the traditional and oppressive.

This is a horrible simplification, so just a note on culture. In order to avoid stereotypes it's important to remember that 'culture' is dynamic. Think of the diverse ways of 'doing' femininity or masculinity in the modern world for instance. They diverse and ever changing. They also in conflict.

The 'premodern' world may not have been as heterogenous, but diversity still thrived--as did conflict. The same diversity/complexity should be, in my opinion, evident in a good fantasy (Feist excluded :)).

That said, simplification and stereotyping are the trademarks of more than a few popular novelists :).

Loren said...

That's an interesting point, about how to be true-to-life in a society which has customs or values that we find very distasteful. Like extreme sexism. Or pederasty. Or both combined (!)

And it must be pointed out that birth-control and abortion methods did exist before modern times, though they were either rather clumsy or not as reliable as present-day methods -- or both.

Failing that, there's the option of infanticide, which had actually been acceptable in some societies (!) Rome's Twelve Tables, its first law code, stated that one ought to kill babies with severe birth defects.