My life as an adult fantasy fan began when I read Lord of the Rings near the end of my undergrad years, but I first dipped my toes in the water of the genre much earlier than that, with a different kind of story. The first books I recall reading and loving were those Little Golden Books in which the main character was something nonhuman — Scruffy the Tugboat, The Poky Little Puppy, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, Little Cottontail, and more. As my fascination with nonhuman protagonists matured, I moved on to the big classics of the “animal fantasy” subgenre: Winnie-the-Pooh (yes, they’re toys, but they’re animals nonetheless), The Jungle Books, The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down.
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for my favorite childhood reads. From them I learned how much fun the fantastic can be. Yet they taught me something else as well, something I like far less — the concept of “male as default.” In all these books, characters were only female when and if the story demanded it. Characters whose gender wasn’t central or crucial to the plot were always male. The few female animals that did show up always played roles consistent with the gender stereotypes we find in human society, e.g. the mother (Kanga in the Pooh stories, Raksha in The Jungle Book), the damsel/bride (Hyzenthlay and the other Efrafan does in Watership Down). For the most part — exception: I always liked Hyzenthlay, even though she didn’t show up until the book’s last third — I ignored them and focused on the male characters, who were much more interesting and who played much bigger roles. I expect most readers did as well.
Yet still I adopted that character-gender-flipping habit I’ve discussed in previous posts. I now suspect this was my earliest rebellion against “male as default.” Even then, though I couldn’t have articulated it, it felt wrong to me that a nonhuman character could only be female if she was playing a specifically “female” role.
When I was young, “male as default” seemed generally accepted. No one questioned it or tried to change it; it was simply how things were. Yet it kept female characters confined to the least interesting or engaging roles. My tween years saw The Smurfs arrive on the scene, and of course it’s the show from which the “Smurfette Principle” takes its name. Smurfette, the only girl character, plays the typically female role of getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. Not only do the more active and resourceful characters default to male, but her being the sole female, being defined by her gender and little else, is an actual plot point. In the years that followed, other and better shows adhered to the Smurfette formula, as if the writers were not even conscious of it. As if the tendency to write characters as female only when they had to be weren’t even worth thinking about.
In more recent years, thankfully, some writers have started to think about it, and we’ve seen some steps forward. For example, Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, returned to the world and characters of his most famous novel in 1998 with a collection of short stories called Tales from Watership Down, in which he deliberately gave female characters bigger and more active roles to play. (Sadly, these stories don’t come near the original novel in terms of quality.) Brian Jacques’ enormously popular Redwall series of animal fantasies centered on male heroes for its first three books, but in the fourth, Mariel of Redwall, a female hero appeared at last on the scene, and other significant female characters have followed, including my favorite, Dotti the haremaid in Lord Brocktree. Other female-centered animal fantasies have also emerged, some of my favorites being Diane Duane’s The Book of Night With Moon (cats!), David Clement-Davies’ The Sight (wolves!), and Dorothy Hearst’s Promise of the Wolves (more wolves!). Those who, like me, enjoy female nonhuman characters should check out this Goodreads list.
Yet with these signs of progress we also find evidence that some folks just don’t get it. In June of last year, Christine Michaud Woods published an article in the Washington Post: “Children’s Books, give me a female squirrel, a female duck, a female anything.” “When the characters are not human, as is often the case, females are often strangely absent,” she points out. Her opening example: in a 2010 book called “Chick ‘n’ Pug,” every single character is written as male, including a chick who wants to escape a routine of laying eggs all day — reminding me of those horrible udder-baring male cows in the animated fiasco Barnyard and the masculine hens in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. The comments are particularly telling, a classic case of Missing the Point. In an effort to prove that the problem Woods describes is not that bad, posters list lots of female characters from children’s literature (as if pointing out that such characters exist disproves the notion that there’s an imbalance), and half of them are human. Human female characters, awesome as they might be, are nearly always female because the story insists upon it. Bringing them up as examples ignores the heart of the problem, “male as default.” That they just don’t see it offers a reminder that we haven’t come as far as we need to.
Even stories that often get labelled as feminist suffer from Default-Male Syndrome, including some of my favorite Disney movies. In The Princess and the Frog, two characters who are naturally animals offer to help the transformed humans, and both are male; only humans, transformed or otherwise, get to be female. All the animals in Tangled are likewise male. In Frozen, apart from the two sisters and a couple of trolls, everyone and everything is male. Even in Moana, perhaps the most feminist-friendly of all, the not-all-there chicken and the super-cute pig are both male, as is the villainous sea turtle. Then there’s Beauty and the Beast (animated version — haven’t seen the remake), with its roster of inanimate objects. Three are female, but all play gender-coded roles. Mrs. Potts, the most important of them, is a mother. The wardrobe talks like a gossipy hairdresser. The feather-duster is around to give suave candlestick Lumiere someone to flirt with. I love these films, but I can still love them and wish they’d had at least one or two more female nonhumans. Among all Disney’s nonhuman characters since the “Disney Renaissance,” the only females I can think of that didn’t really have to be are Shenzi the evil hyena in The Lion King and Terk the chimpanzee from Tarzan — until Zootopia came along, but even that delightful movie doesn’t quite make up for the earlier lack. When The Lion King was adapted for the stage, it took a step in the right direction by taking a male character whose gender wasn’t dictated by the story — the wise mandrill shaman Rafiki — and rewriting said character as female. Yet in the big-screen remake coming this summer, Rafiki is once again male. Darn it, couldn’t Disney have let that one positive change stand?
Default-Male Syndrome needs to be challenged more often and more consciously. As long as it’s in play, male characters will outnumber female, perhaps not in every single story but in stories in general. Unconscious adherence to the Smurfette Principle will continue, even though we ought to know better. Worst of all, it will be difficult to impossible for girls like I used to be to find female characters whose identity isn’t linked, either loosely or tightly, to their gender. It’s time to see more female squirrels, female ducks, female everything.