Things I Would Like To See More of in Fantasy Fiction, Part 2

Villainesses who aren’t tall.

I never really paid much attention to people’s teeth until I got braces in the seventh grade, at which point I found I couldn’t stop noticing people’s teeth. Similarly, when Meliroc, my eight-foot heroine of The Nightmare Lullaby, rose in my mind to demand I bring her to life, I started to notice the treatment of height in fantasy characterization — specifically, how common it is for villainesses to be described as tall.

Most men are taller than most women, so tallness is coded as masculine. Pronounced height is practically a requirement for a hero involved in a romantic plot, Lois McMaster Bujold’s diminutive adventurer Miles Vorkosigan notwithstanding. Yet in a woman, tallness may be written as suspect, even scary. It seems almost obvious: how do you make a female character intimidating at first sight? Make her tall! Jadis the White Witch, from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, is described as breathtakingly beautiful but also seven feet tall, her height serving as a sign of her “unnaturalness” as a woman. Plenty of fantasy novelists follow Lewis’s example, using adjectives like “towering” and “statuesque” in their descriptions of femmes fatale. This turns up in quite a few stories I enjoy. The unsympathetic women of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, with one possible exception, are tall contrasts to the short, plucky heroine, the most nefarious of them all being another seven-footer.  In Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns, we have a wide range of female characters, but the most important ones we are clearly meant to like — the disguised soldier Winter, the active princess Raesinia, a Khandarai mage, and another disguised soldier — are all petite, while the tall women are, perhaps not out-and-out villainesses, but not quite trustworthy. The most evil of the women in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Cersei and Melisandre, are both described as tall, Melisandre unusually so; the big female knight Brienne at least gets to be heroic, but her height is presented as one of several factors that make her “freakish” and generally despised by most of the other characters with whom she comes into contact.

The contrast between the petite heroine (whose smallness automatically makes her an underdog to root for) and the statuesque villainess is also very common, and more literally visible, in movies and television: The Man from UNCLE, 50/50, Defiance, Galavant, Scandal, House of Cards (US version), Paddington, Tangled, Easter Parade, Singin’ in the Rain… there is scarcely a genre in which this doesn’t turn up. Even when the tall woman isn’t depicted as petty or evil (e.g. Sif in the Thor films), her loss in love to a smaller rival seems inevitable. The enduring omnipresence of the small heroine/ tall villainess contrast can have some interesting real-life ripple effects, as an article I read not long ago makes clear: when the defense attorney for accused child murderer Casey Anthony first met her, he was struck at once by how tiny she was, and he decided thereby that she could not possibly be guilty. So, apparently only a tall woman would murder her toddler daughter.

I am not calling for a decline in petite heroines. It’s wonderful to watch them decimate those who would dismiss them as “easy pickings,” as any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can attest. But for every petite girl who is tired of being underestimated, there is a tall girl who is tired of being perceived as “unfeminine” because she may have a few inches on many of the boys around her. In our understandable zeal to represent the former, how often do we ignore the latter? Perhaps we can do better by her if we break the knee-jerk association of female tallness with villainy and give petite ladies an occasional crack at being evil.

Tall heroines aren’t too hard to come by, especially if you’re a fan of Barbara Hambly, Patricia McKillip, and the great Kates, Elliott and Forsyth. Small villainesses are a bit trickier to find, but particularly good ones feature in Teresa Edgerton’s The Goblin Moon and The Gnome’s Engine, Zoe Marriott’s The Swan Kingdom, and Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, beginning with Range of Ghosts. The villainesses in these books are fun to watch because while they may appear delicately and harmlessly feminine, they use this perception to their advantage. Much like the petite heroines, these villainesses make their enemies regret underestimating them.

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