Things I Would Like to See Fewer of in Fantasy Fiction, Part 2

“Not like other girls” heroines.

In my Unfavorite Tropes series last year, I singled out the Smurfette Principle — the inclusion of a single “token female” on a team of heroes, and sometimes even among a male cast of hundreds — as one I most despise, a habit to which even writers brilliant enough to know better may succumb. But since then I’ve come to question which is worse: including one woman in an otherwise all-male cast, or including multiple women but depicting all but one of them as some shade of worthless (selfish, shallow, stupid, helpless, catty, etc.). The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s the latter. While it’s often responsible for poor characterizations, the Smurfette Principle trope may not be inherently sexist. The “Not Like Other Girls” trope is, though we may not realize it because it’s often, though not always, employed by female authors.

It came strongly to my attention not long ago when, lured by the promise of a dragon shifter heroine (something for which I have an admitted weakness), I decided to give Shana Abe’s YA fantasy romance The Sweetest Dark a try. While I found Abe’s writing style artfully lyrical and the first-person voice employed with skill, I should have taken the almost immediate emergence of that current YA-fantasy-novels-with-female-protagonists cliche, the Love Triangle, as a warning. When two hunky guys fight for the attention of a seemingly “ordinary” girl who is shocked that they would find her worth the bother, said girl isn’t likely to find time for any meaningful friendship with another female character. Still, this would have been tolerable if other girls simply stayed in the background, incidental to the heroine’s story. They don’t.

Bit by bit, the story introduces female characters who are not the heroine, and every one of them, without exception, proves to be despicable. Since the heroine, Lora, is a scholarship student at an exclusive private school for girls, all her fellow students despise and persecute her, the one “exception” being nice to her in fits and starts only because it will annoy her even more shrewish stepsister. Female servants are equally loathsome, sneering at our heroine as a governess-in-training. Female teachers, even the one who seems kind at first glance, are narrow-minded hypocrites. No other halfway positive female figure, not one potential friend or mentor, emerges in these pages. And their depressingly unsympathetic contrast to the heroine we’re meant to adore is too central to ignore. Abe, a talented writer, ought to be able to see how sexist this is, since the implications in this and other “Not Like Other Girls” stories are clear:

No two girls or women can ever trust each other.  Since all girls and women but the heroine are sly, cowardly, or both, the heroine cannot hope to forge any friendships with them. A reader may catch herself thinking that with two X chromosomes comes a moral taint from which the heroine has somehow miraculously escaped.

Since girls are inherently petty and deceitful, the exceptional heroine can hope for love and friendship only from boys/men. Because boys are better than girls — more honest, more open-minded, more courageous, smarter, kinder.

Interests and activities coded as “feminine” are worthless wastes of time. Are you a girl who likes to cook? Who likes pretty clothes? Who likes to discuss the social circle and the maneuvering therein? Who daydreams about getting married? Then you’re an airhead. You’re shallow and frivolous. The idea that a girl might care about both fashion and books, or that she might notice social maneuvering but also be compassionate and kind, rarely if ever occurs to authors who employ this trope. The heroine’s lack of interest in any of this “girly stuff” is presented as a sign of her moral and intellectual superiority. Shouldn’t we be wary of any and all suggestions that there is only one “right way” to be a woman?

My impatience with the “Not Like Other Girls” trope is such that I seek out books that subvert it, that show girls and women as true and loyal friends, whenever I can. Since the noxious trope seems to be particularly prevalent in YA, I present some of my favorite counter-examples from that genre:

Cinder. The titular heroine may not be much like her stepsisters, but she genuinely cares about the younger one. She has a firm bond with an A.I. who identifies as female. She even lends a helping hand to the lead of the series’ second novel, Scarlet.

Mechanica, the steampunk Cinderella. Two girls love the same man, but they don’t let that get in the way of their friendship.

Anne of Green Gables. Sometimes the old ones are the best ones, and the unorthodox Anne’s solid friendship with the more “ordinary” Diana is definitely one for the ages.

Spindle’s End. Robin McKinley’s take on “Sleeping Beauty” is worth reading for quite a few reasons, not the least of which is the friendship that forms, despite initial dislike, between tomboy Rosie and girly Peony.

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Things I Would Like to See Fewer Of in Fantasy Fiction, Part 1

“Sexism-made-me-evil” villainesses.

The female character who rebels against the restrictions her society places on women is a stock (and in my opinion, regrettably overused) figure in fantasy fiction. Most of the time, the rebellious girl or woman is a heroine whose struggle we are meant to support. Even though I find myself weary of the genre’s perpetual reiteration of this same conflict, it can still be rewarding to read about if the writing and characterization are strong. In Zen Cho’s charming Sorcerer to the Crown, for example, half-caste heroine Prunella Gentleman fights with wit and cunning for a measure of independence in an alternate-Regency England that holds women lack the physical and mental fortitude to practice magic. (So you see, women are kept from practicing magic “for their own good.”) Prunella, a unique and unpredictable creation, makes the book. In the end she emerges victorious in a battle different from the one she set out to fight, and despite other characters’ description of her as “unscrupulous,” we root for her all the way.

But what if the rebel against oppressive patriarchy isn’t a heroine at all? In that case, where are our sympathies meant to lie — with the girl or woman willing to overthrow male privilege at any cost including her very soul, or with the patriarchy under attack?

A couple of months ago, I listened to the audiobook of Mercedes Lackey’s The Wizard of London, which I’d liked very much when I read it in print. I still like it. It has much to recommend it. Lackey employs a solidly readable style for a retelling of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” centering on a misanthropic leader of an all-male Elemental Masters’ (magicians’) Circle, his old flame now happily married to another, and two little girls with psychic abilities. I appreciate the central place given to the girls’ staunch friendship, as well as the fact that the adult heroine is mature and already married, so that the story is heavy on magical adventure and light on romance — a rare and welcome thing when female characters are central.

Yet I’d forgotten the depths of evil in the story’s villainess. A very powerful Master (and in this novel, the only female Master), she rages at the limits her gender places on the authority to which she might aspire, and in order to breach those barriers, she’s willing to sink to any depravity. Most notably, she is a serial killer of children, trapping and enslaving their ghosts — the ultimate perversion of the maternal, nurturing Feminine Ideal. This monster has to fall, and we’re relieved when she does. Yet when she falls, the challenge to gender roles and male power falls with her. The heroine offers no similar challenge, being quite content and successful in the traditional female roles of schoolmistress and child-minder. Gender restrictions are left comfortably in place, and we’re meant to think, “Whew!” This is the typical conclusion to stories that feature the “sexism-made-me-evil” villainess, which is why I can’t find any satisfying feminist message in such stories. Drawing a clear line between feminism and toxic misandry does real feminists no favors whatsoever.

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful is a favorite series of mine, thanks to its complex and well-developed collection of characters, most of them culled from two centuries of famous horror stories. One original figure is the female lead, Vanessa, a tormented but surprisingly kind soul whose struggle with the dark forces seeking to possess her forms the heart of the show. Penny Dreadful has just returned for a third season, and I’m happy to have it back (especially since I’m worried about Supergirl and miffed about Agent Carter).

But my delight is mixed, as the trailers for the new season make it clear that the depravity of a “sexism-made-me-evil” villainess is on the menu. We see the petite blonde “bride of Frankenstein” gathering a circle of abused women around her and whipping them into a homicidal frenzy against their male oppressors with no regard for consequences or collateral damage. We know the threat she represents will have to be neutralized, but who will do it? If she’s taken down by men, the challenge she presents to male power will amount to nothing. I can think of only one possible satisfying conclusion to this plotline: one of her female recruits realizes she’s being led down a path of no return and rises up against her, having come to understand that there are better and more constructive ways to battle sexism. I wish I could have some faith that’s what will happen. I’ll just have to buckle in and find out.

Fellow writers: when you create a villainess who turns to murder and mayhem to avenge herself on the patriarchy, you may think you’re making some sort of feminist point. But are you really, especially if a righteous male hero must topple her and restore order? Wouldn’t such a character serve to confirm patriarchal assumptions (particularly the assumption that feminism is rooted in misandry) rather than subvert them, and render the threatened patriarchy stronger than ever at the end? Think about that. I’m looking at you, Steven Moffatt.

 

Answering Some Tough Questions

I frequently browse Reddit Fantasy in search of exchanges of ideas on topics that interest me, but I have yet to join the group myself. I’m content to lurk, because I fear that if I start posting I may find it difficult to stop.

Occasionally, I’ll encounter a discussion thread that makes my fingers itch to participate, and I have to fight with all my will the temptation to sign up so my voice can be heard. One such thread turned up a couple of weeks ago: Some Tough Questions For Female Fantasy Fans/Authors/Critics/etc. Since I’m a female fantasy fan, and author, and critic in a minor way at least, and tough questions don’t scare me, I’m fairly sure my opinions would be relevant. I doubt, however, that much of what I have to say would mean anything to the original poster, since if one follows the link it isn’t hard to see he’s coming from an angry place. (He even admits as much, later in the discussion.) I know from my own experience how anger impedes our ability to listen. When our blood is up, any disagreement is going to come across as the unintelligible squawking of an adult in a Peanuts cartoon.

All the same, being ready to face tough questions, I offer my views in this forum.

Do the majority of women really have issues with chain mail bikinis/battle panties?

I make no claim to speak for the majority (though I do recall a podcast on which one female author, whose name I’ve alas forgotten, declared that she loves chain mail bikinis). I can only explain why I have an issue with it: if you’re going into battle, it makes practical sense to keep as much flesh covered as possible. The more skin exposed, the more vulnerable the warrior is to injury. If a woman goes into battle barely dressed — unless she comes from a culture in which warriors of both genders wear very little — I’m not only less inclined to take her seriously; I’m less inclined to take the battle seriously, which, in action-adventure fantasy, is never a good thing. I find the chain mail bikini impractical, not offensive.

Why is there always uproar and controversy when female characters suffer, but rarely if ever uproar for male characters suffering the same way?

Two possibilities: 1) Readers may be growing impatient with seeing female characters suffer the same injuries in story after story, with that particular brand of suffering being linked tightly to their gender (why does it always have to be rape?); male characters, by contrast, tend to be put through a much wider variety of suffering. 2) When male characters suffer, they tend to be given the chance to avenge themselves, whereas female characters are more frequently avenged by others, usually men. (A famous example is Alan Moore’s highly regarded Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke, soon to be released as an animated feature on DVD. Barbara Gordon suffers and suffers, but this isn’t her story. The focus is on her avengers, Batman and Commissioner Gordon. I freely admit I avoid stories like this.)

Why do female fans always criticize male characters for doing “misogynistic” things but female characters are never called out for their misandry?

I find myself highly suspicious of absolute words like “always” and “never,” and can only speak for myself. I personally find gender-hate an intensely off-putting character trait in both male and female characters. When gender-hate is hauled out as a central motivation for either a despicable villain or a tortured hero(ine), I zone out. Stories that revolve around the “battle of the sexes” interest me very little (if the prose is good) or not at all. I’ve always found that a “battle of the sexes” has no real winners. When men and women see each other as an incomprehensible and untrustworthy Other, both sides lose.

Is the portrayal of a female character in a fantasy novel ever “good enough” for you?

Oh, good Lord, yes. A substantial number of my blog posts center on portrayals of female characters I love. I try to focus, whenever I can, on what I feel certain authors are doing right. Here’s a list of books I’ve read in the past year in which the female characters have been plenty “good enough” for me:

Sorcerer to the Crown. The Girl With All the Gifts. Bride of the Rat God. The Pool of Two Moons. Tower of Thorns. The Price of Valor. Sunbolt. Cold Iron. Mistress in the Art of Death. Treason Keep. The Red Knight. First Rider’s Call. And All the Stars. Mechanica. The Shadow Throne. The Witches of Eileanan. Lady of the Helm. Wild Seed. God’s War. The Price of the Stars. Fool’s War. The City Stained Red. Uprooted. Kindred. The Thousand Names. The Palace Job. Good Omens. Shadow Scale. The Summer Queen. The Bards of Bone Plain.  Okay, that should do for now.

One point with which I must take some issue, however, is the poster’s assertion that as an “aspiring writer and a dude,” he’s tempted to leave female characters out of his stories altogether in order to avoid controversy. I have to admit I can understand where he’s coming from — not the proposed omission of female characters, but the author’s fear of rejection from readers who may not find those characters “good enough.” As a writer I have to swallow the bitter pill that not everyone is going to love my stories. Some readers may write bad reviews. Some may simply decline to read my work at all. We writers may know in our heads that we can never please everyone, but our hearts still feel the sting.

Another Reddit discussion thread, for example, asked what characteristic will make readers put a book down. The original poster started things off with his own pet peeve: first-person narration. He offered no explanation other than he just doesn’t like it, which of course is his prerogative. My first thought: well, then, he won’t have much use for my Nightmare Lullaby, in which a good number of the chapters are told from a first-person point of view. I know quite well I was right to tell those portions of the story in first person, and I would never change the narrative to placate one Reddit poster. Still, I felt a little twinge. We’re never comfortable knowing that some readers out there just flat out don’t want to buy what we’re selling.

What more can any writer do than tell the story he/she believes in? That’s what I would say to this aspiring writer. Dive head-first into the story that is in your heart. Write it the way you know it should be told, as only you can tell it. If female characters belong in the story, you’ll know it, because they will demand to be included. But maybe they don’t belong there. Maybe only male characters demand entrance. That’s okay, too. I may not read your book in that case, but plenty of others will. You may not be able to please everyone, but if you don’t please yourself first, you won’t please anyone.