I love my Twitter feed. I love the pet pictures, the life updates, the comments on pop culture, and most of all, SFF readers’ and writers’ thoughts on plotting and characterization, a welcome and often edifying distraction from the many, usually depressing political threads which make me feel as if I’m turning in the winds of a hurricane. The comments from fans and creators let me know I’m not alone in my questioning of certain problematic tropes that keep popping up even in otherwise good stories.
This past week, a couple of discussions came up regarding female characters and the cliches they’re often saddled with. One began with a Tweet expressing disappointment at many writers’ tendency to “break” female characters with some form of traumatic abuse, often rape, so that their kindness and optimism dwindle and give way to “toughness” — the implication being that kindness is a weakness that must be beaten out of a woman if she’s to become truly powerful. Another thread called out the “Not Like Other Girls” trope, starting with a plea for writers to be aware of it and avoid it accordingly. I came away from both threads agreeing heartily with the original Tweets and frustrated that some posters seemed to miss their points entirely. Yet after thinking about it, I could pinpoint at least one substantial cause behind these flaws in women’s characterization, particularly in epic fantasy: writers’ too frequent insistence on incorporating historical real world sexism and gender stereotypes into their world-building. The vast majority of fantasy societies are deeply sexist, and I admit that reading about them is starting to wear me down.
In sexist fantasy societies, kindness and nurturing are typically considered “feminine” and therefore weak. Often a woman’s very survival in such worlds depends on rooting such weakness out of herself and adopting a more “masculine” outlook and temperament. The men in those worlds, of course, don’t dare show kindness, lest they end up dead. What kindness they are allowed to show takes the form of rescuing unfortunate damsels, by which they show themselves as romantically attractive contrasts to the sort of men that did the poor girls wrong. (“Not Like Other Men” is also a problem trope.)
Sexist fantasy worlds pit women against each other. If a woman’s only power lies in their ability to captivate powerful men, then women are likely to be each other’s rivals even when they’re pretending to be friends. The natural state of affairs between women is depicted as competitive hostility; sometimes that extends even to mothers and daughters. This isn’t to say friendships between women are impossible in such worlds — just a bit less likely.
In sexist fantasy worlds, women’s movements are confined. Men travel and explore, while women stay within a narrow sphere, whatever curiosity they might have about the wider world wearing away from lack of satisfaction. The women moved to rebel against this immobile existence too often become the “Not Like Other Girls” types whose disdain for all things deemed “feminine” may spring from their dread and loathing of the confinement that women who follow the rules accept. Frequently, the rebellious Exceptional Woman’s only path to freedom — and recognition, and accomplishment — is to pretend to be a man.
Does it really have to be like this? I realize that some of the writers who build old-world sexism into their fantasy societies are trying to make a point about gender roles, and sometimes they succeed with brilliance and style. But I can’t help feeling this same point has been made again and again and again and again. What can sexist fantasy societies really offer us that we haven’t seen before?
Right now I’m in the process of reading Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. I knew when I picked up this massive tome that it would take me awhile to get through, but I’ve relished every minute of it, and I suspect I’ve been slowing myself down a little because I don’t want it to end. I won’t say too much about it since it will get its own review here once I’m finished, but the biggest part of why I’ll regret leaving it behind is the gender egalitarianism of its world. There are tensions and conflicts galore, with religious and political and cultural divisions, but gender roles just aren’t a thing. Character traits are not gender-linked. If a woman is foolish or impulsive or resentful, it’s due to her individual personality rather than to “being a woman.” There is no one prescribed way to be a woman, or to be a man for that matter. God, that’s refreshing.
The Priory of the Orange Tree, like City of Blades and The Ninth Rain, offers yet more proof that fantasy writers can create interesting, complex, at times even violent societies without weaving sexism into their pattern. Indeed, without restrictive gender roles as a major source of conflict, these societies can shine a light on problems that may not have already been covered ad infinitum. Gender-egalitarian built worlds have so much potential to move us beyond the same old, tired tropes.
In a gender-egalitarian fantasy world, kindness may be shown as the active strength it is, a virtue to which characters of all genders can aspire.
In such a fantasy world, the opposition between the rebellious “masculine” heroine and the quiet “feminine” heroine could be nullified. If a woman chooses pursuits such as healing or sewing or weaving, it would be clear that the choice is hers, due to her own interests, skills, and talents rather than to social conditioning and/or enforcement. The athletic fighting woman wouldn’t regard her gentler sister with disdain, for there would be no point.
In such a world, a woman wouldn’t have to disguise herself as a man in order to escape confinement or pursue achievement. Her accomplishments wouldn’t be seen as anomalous; rather, they would be within other women’s reach as well.
The loathsome Smurfette Principle would be less of a problem as well, since if women occupy a variety of roles on different social levels, writers would find it harder to excuse having only one exceptional girl in a party of adventurers.
In short, creating gender-egalitarian fantasy societies would be a wonderful way to evade almost all the common fantasy tropes I find most exasperating. If we as writers can’t imagine conflicts and tensions for our female characters that don’t center on the familiar struggle against sexism, that’s on us. If we choose, we can do better. . . or at least we can do differently.