More “Gender Is No Object” books.
Back in 2015 I wrote a series on my “Unfavorite Tropes,” as detailed and cataloged by the dangerously time-devouring website TV Tropes.org. (Click that link at your own risk!) The flip side of that would, of course, be those tropes that gladden my heart as long as they’re employed with skill and good sense. One of these is “Gender Is No Object,” or, as it might also be termed, “Gender Is No Problem” — stories in which characters are not burdened by highly restrictive notions of “masculine” or “feminine.” The goal of such stories is not to eliminate conflict but to generate more original and unexpected obstacles, to give their characters, both men and women, different battles to fight.
We don’t see nearly enough of these kinds of stories.
When I consider where I’ve seen this trope employed over the last year or so, I can easily come up with examples from science fiction. In Sarah Zettel’s splendid Fool’s War, the commander of the ship where most of the action takes place is a Muslim woman named Katmer Al-Shei. While her religion occasionally poses a minor problem (which she overcomes), no one ever questions her authority or fitness to lead because of her gender. The female pilot, Yerusha, comes under suspicion, but due to her association with a group that has some radical notions about the nature of A.I.’s, not due to her gender. In Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald’s The Price of the Stars, the central heroine disguises herself as a man solely because she’s on the run and the gender-switch decreases her chance of being recognized; women are accepted in her society as pilots, fighters, politicians, you name it. Joel Shepherd’s Crossover, the first in his “Cassandra Kresnov” series, also presents us with men and women together occupying every role in society significant to the story; the fact that the President is a woman is not shown to be unusual in any way. In books like these we see women in primary, secondary, and tertiary roles, with equal numbers of men and women filling in the background.
I find books like this a pleasure to read, because they show male and female characters interacting as colleagues, allies, and friends as well as love interests. They show male and female characters free to follow their own individual inclinations, even if those inclinations don’t always work out. Yet the characters still face compelling problems. Katmer Al-Shei and her crew, both men and women, must deal with a sabotaged ship and hostile A.I.’s. Beka from The Price of the Stars is hunting down the assassin who murdered her mother, a major political leader. Cassandra, heroine of Crossover, is fighting for her free will against her programming as an android assassin. Stories like this offer abundant proof that a character’s gender need not be an obstacle in order for her (or his) story to be interesting.
You would think it did, if you had only the epic fantasy genre by which to judge. It shouldn’t be surprising that we find far more “Gender Is No Object” novels in science fiction than in fantasy. Science fiction looks ahead to the future, to show us where and what we might be, but fantasy draws on the mythic past for its material, and so many fantasy authors, male and female, give in to the temptation to inculcate medieval- or Renaissance-era gender ideas when building their fantasy societies from scratch.
Within the past couple of decades we’ve seen a satisfying upsurge in the number of important female characters in epic fantasy novels. Without question we could do better, but we’re still miles ahead of where we were in the ’70s and ’80s. Yet at times these heroines’ journeys can start to feel very same-ish, as the gender-as-obstacle trope repeats itself: she can’t join the army/navy/etc. because she’s a woman. She can’t or shouldn’t inherit the throne (or wield any form of authority) because she’s a woman. She can’t learn or practice magic because she’s a woman. She can’t become a doctor/lawyer/professor/banker/insert-desired-profession-here because she’s a woman. I know that such stories still need to be told, because even today we still have gender biases to overcome. But speaking as one who would rather read a good epic or historical fantasy novel than any other kind of book, I find the non-stop repetition of such conflicts overwhelming, if not depressing, after a time. I think how wonderful it is to read the occasional book in which no one bats an eye when a princess inherits the throne (e.g. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina) and the sight of a woman in knightly armor is more typical than surprising.
Toward the end of 2014 I started to read Michelle West’s The Broken Crown, a sumptuous epic fantasy involving a struggle between two realms, the Empire and the Dominion. The huge book’s first half takes place in the Dominion, where gender restrictions are so oppressive, and women regarded as so inferior to men, that any genuine love between a man and a woman is an impossibility; even a man’s love for his daughter is regarded as a weakness because it makes her “too important.” I found myself feeling stifled, almost suffocated, as I read about this world. When the setting shifted to the Empire, I heaved a deep sigh of relief, for the Empire, while not completely a “Gender Is No Object” society, imposed far fewer gender-based rules on the characters and allowed both men and women to occupy a much wider range of social roles. I couldn’t get over how much lighter I felt, and how much easier it was for me to breeze through those chapters.
What would I like to see in fantasy fiction? More Empires, fewer Dominions.