Debate with the Squirrels: Sexism in Fantasy


January 8, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue

Time to duke it out!

Time to duke it out!

Strap on your armor and sharpen your swords, it’s Controversial Topic Time!

Sexism in Fantasy

Oh yeah, we’re going there. I’m going to break this out into two posts. Today, let’s talk about cultural sexism in traditional fantasy and tomorrow we’ll talk modern fantasy.

Since I’m torn on the debate, you get to listen to me argue with myself.

The Epic Battle Between Feminist Kira (FK) and Devil’s Advocate Squirrel (DAS) Commences!

FK: I think it’s a problem that so many fantasy books are set in societies based on the cultural norms of Medieval Europe. Aren’t we just reinforcing the ideals of patriarchal societies and exclusionary gender roles where men rule and fight and women have polite tea parties and wear fancy dresses?

DAS: That’s ridiculous. Traditional fantasy also makes heavy use of kings and queens as rulers, but no one accuses the authors of being supportive of hereditary monarchies over democratic ideals.

FK: Yes, but why do writers have to do either? Why don’t we have more traditional fantasy books with democratic societies that have true gender equality?

DAS: For starters, it’s historically accurate. You may not like that women have been treated as second class citizens at best or chattel at worst in historical contexts, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate or sexist for a fantasy writer to base a their low-tech fictitious culture on the very real way gender roles developed in tribal and feudal societies.

FK: Hold on there, not every pre-industrial society was patriarchal. There are plenty of cultures that were more egalitarian, maybe even some true matriarchies. Why do we keep basing fantasy societies off the historical societies where women were oppressed, forced into arranged marriages, are ruled by their husbands, not allowed to own land, not allowed to be warriors, not allowed votes on councils, only valued for their ability to birth heirs, etc. Why can’t we use societies without all these disgusting facets.

DAS: Can you actually name a historical egalitarian or matriarchal society?

FK: (Silent glower.) Amazons?

DAS: Sigh. I expected better from you, Kira. But that’s probably the only one with widespread name recognition and they may be myth. Seriously, does it surprise you then that writers base their low-tech fantasy societies on the way most pre-industrial societies worked? I mean, it makes sense if you think about it. Life expectancy at birth in the Bronze and Iron Ages was 26. Twenty-six, Kira! Life expectancy in Medieval Britain was only 30, although that number jumped to 64 for those that survived past age 21. (Source: Women, as the child-bearers, were needed at home to get married, have kids, and raise those children to carry on the species not just the family line. Is it any wonder that women were valued for marriage and fertility above all else?

FK: No, it doesn’t surprise me. But that doesn’t mean those child-rearing women should be treated as chattel, prevented from holding lands or positions of authority, or in any other way treated as the weaker sex. Why cling to one model where women are pretty much only allowed to be broodmares? It’s fantasy, we can write tribal and feudal societies where women are equally valued as warriors because we get to make it up!

DAS: Let’s be realistic. Men can’t bear children, so they have to be the defenders in tribal and-

FK: Stop, right there. That doesn’t mean women should be excluded from battle if they want to fight.

DAS: In general, men are bigger and stronger than women. In societies before firearms, where wars were fought face to face and sword to sword, men would have the advantage on the battlefield. It makes sense for men to fight and women to be protected.

FK: That argument falls apart in fantasy when you put magic into play. Wielding magic or any sort could negate size advantage. In fact, bringing just a sword to a magic fight could be as stupid as bringing a knife to a gun fight. Besides, brute strength isn’t everything. A smaller fighter could be faster, more agile than a brawny opponent. Even massive amounts of raw magical power don’t ensure victory. Underdogs frequently best stronger opponents by fighting smarter. So again, there is no good reason for traditional fantasy to rely so heavily on traditional gender roles.

DAS: Fine, I’ll concede that point. Like you said, this is fantasy and as writers we get to make it up. So we can create any sort of culture we want including ones lack exclusionary gender roles. Hell, we could go all the way to the far end of the spectrum and write matriarchal societies where men are oppressed instead of women. (The Drow in the Drizzt Do’Urden series anyone?) But let me ask you this: what if we don’t want to?

FK: What? Why wouldn’t you want to create something new and unique? This is fantasy! This is your chance to explore what could be through mystical creatures and races, magic and sorcery, cultures you’ve never seen before?

DAS: I get what you’re saying, but what if the story I want to tell and the themes I want to explore are based on traditional gender roles? What if I want to tell the story of a woman rising above the expectations of her station or breaking out of the confines of what’s expected for her? Setting my story in a sexist and patriarchal society makes sense.

FK: There are other ways to do it.

DAS: Sure there are. But think about the inherent tension and conflict that sort of societal structure sets up. If I have a woman who longs to be a warrior and denied the opportunity because of societal expectations or a woman fearing her upcoming arranged marriage, she’s immediately a sympathetic character. And so are any of her allies who help her try to pursue her dream of glory in battle or help her escape a nasty brute of a husband she didn’t choose.

FK: But we’ve all heard those stories before. Isn’t it time for something new?

DAS: Writing is as much about exploring the topics and themes that interest us as it is about telling an exciting story. You never know, I may take a setting you consider played out, stale, and boring and come up with some amazing characters and approach the topic in slightly different ways that readers will enjoy.

And let’s be honest, when you think of fantasy, do you think of idyllic, egalitarian, utopian societies? No, of course not. Epic fantasy tales pit their characters against massive obstacles that they must overcome and more often than not the structure of society itself plays into how well our heroes and heroines can fight the battle. Sometimes the culture is corrupt at its core, with the government or ruler oppressing people and the characters in the story become the rebellion.

Sometimes it’s an outside evil threatening the kingdom that must be stopped, but even the fabric of the strongest most egalitarian societies will be tested in times of war. A common enemy does not ensure that all people will band together and do battle without battling among themselves over how to do it. Sometimes it’s the flaws of a society that allow evil to get a foothold whether we’re talking literal evil energies or entities or a seedy, thieving counterculture. Fantasy by its nature tackles societal issues by pitting its characters against massive, overwhelming forces.

For us as readers, the strictures of society ARE the massive, overwhelming, unstoppable forces we face every day. So, setting a fantasy story in a flawed society, especially a model people know well, works on many levels. We see characters not only battling the Big Bad Villain, but what’s flawed about their society, too. Gender, racial, or socio-economic inequalities are prime fodder candidates for exploration.

To do that though, you have to have a society with gender, racial, and socio-economic biases. It just so happens that certain models we’re all familiar with have all three built in.

I think we would be doing an injustice to writers of fantasy by judging them for choosing a societal model that has any of those biases or inequalities. It’s not sexist to set a story in a sexist culture. The greater concern would be in how we’re portraying our characters within that culture. What are they able to do and accomplish within the boundaries of their culture and how do the challenge the status quo?

FK: I’m finding it difficult to argue against that. So, I’ll open the floor to the readers for debate.

What do you think?

(I know I might be opening a can of worms here. Please note that comments to this blog are moderated. Intelligent discourse is encouraged. Disrespectful comments will be deleted because the Ninja Squirrels are sensitive.)

25 thoughts on “Debate with the Squirrels: Sexism in Fantasy

  1. I think the big reason fantasy goes off Medieval Europe is that we’re still functioning off LOTR influence. I’ll admit to doing that, but you can fit strong female characters into such worlds. In fact, it seems to make them more interesting to readers if they’re a powerful woman in a patriarchal society. One of the issues that is stopping it from jumping to more matriarchal is because of that interest. People know a ‘defiant woman’ would be a big sell in a time where readers are clamoring for female role models. It’s fairly new, so we’re still in that early stage.

    As for the magic negating things, there’s a problem with that. A lot of readers don’t want magic to be used as a cure-all. Many don’t want magic at all beyond mild combat. Some authors are moving into worlds where magic is dead or never existed (yet dragons still exist?), which removes one of the main female archetypes: the sorceress. You’ll see in a lot of fantasy where magic abounds that the spellcasters were typically female or weak-bodied males. By these authors removing magic, they’re having to develop new roles for a female character.

    I’m going with the female warrior here for the most part since that’s what people want. They want Xena, which is funny because when they got her people said she was a lesbian. That’s one of the awkward parts of this change. Authors are ‘strengthening’ female characters by removing their femininity or readers aren’t seeing it. A female warrior gets lambasted by some readers if she needs help or dresses nice even once. So there is a trend of making them nearly androgynous or socially inept. There’s no balance, which goes for male characters who aren’t hulking mountains of unstoppable muscle too.

    • Great points! I’m not necessarily advocating magic as a cure-all, just pointing out that the existence of magic could negate many of the arguments that are typically used to keep women off the battlefield. I also understand that magic can be too powerful of a mechanic within a story. I’ve got an idea for a fantasy story that’s been on my backburner for awhile that would require balance between physical and magical strength, training, willpower etc. I think a good example of a series that does keep these things in balance and allows women greater combat roles is Brent Week’s Lightbringer Trilogy.

      I have responses to the Xena piece, but I’m saving those for my next blog post 🙂

      • I agree with the use of magic. The most powerful hero in my series is the female spellcaster, who has proven to be as tough as the guys. I’m trying hard not to pamper the female heroes, so they take some nasty beatings while returning the favor. I think I got a little bit of hate mail about my male hero being ‘weaker’ than the females because he’s a swordsman and the two he’s with have magic. Kind of funny with that. Anyway, I prefer female characters that can fight like the guys and not turn into the ‘butch’ stereotype. I don’t see why they have to sacrifice femininity to be tough.

      • Having a really hard time not responding to that right now. Tomorrow…

      • Got it. I’ll be here. Somewhere.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    Men and women are different, physically, and have different functions biologically. From a standpoint of survival of the species, men are more expendable. The culture reflects that.

    It’s the bias of modern writers that interprets leaving the village and going off to war as more important than staying at home and running a civilization. It’s also a lot easier for modern writers to write about battles because most of us who live in an industrialized nation have no clue what is involved in keeping a pre-technological village alive.

    So most traditional fantasy writers who want to include female characters write about women who act like the men of the period would have acted. That’s fine, it is, as you pointed out, fantasy. (And there were historical women who did just that, most famously Joan of Arc.)

    However, I would like to see fantasy authors tackle stories about women in a pre-industrial culture that worked within the culture rather than against it. When the men were off to war the women didn’t just sit around and pine for them to come home, devouring boxes of chocolates, after all. It would take a lot of research, and a lot of skillful exposition to inform the reader, but I think that a story about the women at home could be every bit as exciting and “epic” as the story of the men off to war.

    Consider the fate of a village in which the men have been impressed into service as soldiers. The crops still need to be tended, the water still needs to be drawn, with a decreased workforce. There are dangers to be faced, challenges to be met. There would political scheming and struggles for power. As the boys grew into men there would be romantic entanglements complicated by the skewed demographics.

    It would be a different sort of story than the traditional hack and slash fantasy, but I, for one, would find such a story fascinating.

    • Ok, let’s take a look at this. Why don’t we have more books that focus on the homefront in fantasy rather than whatever hero is off slaying dragons or evil sorcerers? Why are the majority of our heroes fighters of some sort? Why do we as readers tend to value the kickass hero over the everyday hero? What does it say about us as a culture that we value the warrior archetypes in our fantasy stories and prefer them as our heroes? Is that inherently sexist of us… of me as a reader? Is it sexist of me to want to make my female heroines warriors because that makes them stronger to me? Oh crap! It might be!

      Honestly, I don’t think it has to be inherently sexist. I think we like hack and slash fantasy because it is SO far out of our normal experience as readers. We want stories with characters tackling things we can only imagine. But again, there’s enough doubt there that I wonder even about my own preference for warrior archetypes.

      Just to be clear, I am NOT demeaning anyone for warrior hero preferences or accusing any of us of sexism. Just posing questions because that’s what I do.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I don’t think it’s sexism so much as a technological worldview. We grew up (most of us) with water that came from a tap, so the threat of a well going dry isn’t as easy for us to imagine as a brute with a sword charging us. Most of us have never made clothes from raw cloth or butchered a hog.

        It’s easier for us to visualize warriors, both as writers and as readers. The role of support staff is much harder to portray. As a maintenance man I know that when I do my job perfectly no one notices that I’m doing it. When I was married I did the majority of the housework–cooking, cleaning, laundry, child care–and it’s the same thing. It’s only when something doesn’t get done that anyone notices.

        We have lost our respect for the wild. Pre-technological cultures lived with the constant threat of collapse, and they knew it. Most of them were one bad harvest away from starvation. By and large it was the women who were responsible for keeping the wild at bay. They needed to be able to do everything, they were teachers, healers, manufacturers, they kept track of stores and planned for emergencies. Men usually had one job–they were farmers, or trappers, or hunters, or soldiers.

        You mention women as chattel, and I think it’s more complicated than that. A woman was owned by her husband, but no less was a man owned by his wife. They were in partnership, needing to work together if their children were to live long enough to raise the next generation.

        That is what I think historical fantasy tends to gloss over. Men and women working together.

      • Yes, yes, yes! It is more complicated than that and while I can’t truly speak for other readers or our culture in general, I know that I freak out over the idea of being stuck in a society where I would not get to choose my own husband where I would live, what my life would be like, etc etc. When you’re talking about eking out a living and survival in much harsher times, I probably would be much less worried about freedom and much more concerned with food and protection. The types of relationships built in that sort of world would be different from what they are now. And yes, everyone does have to work together.

  3. […] today, I was reading Kira Lynn Blue’s interesting dialogue on sexism in medieval-fantasy fiction. The post and the comments thereon raise some valid points on both sides of the debate about […]

  4. Frank says:

    In writing my first novel many years ago, I created a culture centred on the worship of Artemis. While I don’t think I intended to create a good matriarchy vs evil patriarchy scenario, it does read that way a little. This was based in a world where wizardry is used instead of technology, so physical strength is a secondary characteristic.

    • This is exactly the sort of thing I mean. Just as other writers aren’t necessarily choosing to promote patriarchy with the cultures they write about, you weren’t necessarily looking to promote matriarchy. As writers, we ask ourselves “What if I had this world, with this culture, and these people?” and then we write about it because that’s what we want to explore.

  5. I had a big comment for this but apparently WordPress ate it, so I’ll just say that the Standard Fantasy Setting is okay if it’s a backdrop to you doing something different with it, but I really wish we could get away from this nostalgia toward absolute monarchies. It’s creepy.

  6. Psycho Gecko says:

    The “want” reason probably has more to do with why people don’t. It’s a bunch of guys who want to be the kings, princes, and knights and think about saving their princess, even if she’s in another castle (darn you, Bowser!). It’s hard to have a woman be your prize when you have to make her a full-fledged person (gasp!). And I suspect it’s just more comfortable for people to take a traditional model than to put quite as much serious thought into building their fantasy’s society. Sure, it can have trolls and dragons and be set on a massive super continent where tree giants and monster fungi are coming alive to drive off the animal people…but that’s still not as big a change as trying to think through a fundamental difference in society like sexism.

    To tie in with another blog I’ve read (not Melinda Atlas’s, though she’s how I got here), you tend to see sentient fantasy races that follow a certain framework. Orcs, elves, goblins, trolls, humans, yada yada…they tend to be your basic bipedal guys with two hands, teeth, noses, nipples, or at least they resemble that. But this other person was talking a little about a science fiction story of a race that had three hands, and all the differences that entailed in their culture. Like how they had fewer dichotomies in how they thought, and tended to favor having at least three choices.

    You don’t see people really go that far with creatures unless they’re monsters or something, and those aren’t really your POV characters. So what I’m saying is that it seems like sexism is like those classic human-form sentient races. No matter how fantastic they are, they’re still built on a familiar and comforting bedrock of expectation (especially the Discworld trolls) that involves women occupying this particular place in society. Because setting it differently would be as much to think through as people having three hands instead of only two.

    • MrsJoseph says:

      This is one of the better suggestions as to why things don’t change in fantasy that I’ve read. Just about ever.

      • It does make sense. But I would expand to say it’s not just about what we’re comfortable with but the issues and interactions we want to explore as writers. Sure, reading about a fantasy race that completely bucks the bi-pedal, human-form sentient model would be interesting, but they are just so different from humans.

        Take, for example, an insectile race with a hive mind. I can’t even wrap my head around it. I have no interest in writing such a race, personally. I’d rather explore interactions between characters I CAN understand.

  7. MrsJoseph says:

    Great post!

    I haven’t done any real research but I can say this: In some Native American tribes it was the woman who owned the tepee – if he wanted a divorce, he was homeless. In Ancient Egypt (before the coming of Christianity) Egyptian women had the ability to chose their own vocations and had a great deal of freedom.

    To me, while it’s great that authors want to speak on one society it becomes…a little old when all of them do. LOTRs is a fave but dang, why does fantasy have to be so small??? The world is vast and the imagination is limitless…unless we’re talking sexism, lol. Then we’re on a map of less than 10000 square miles.

  8. MrsJoseph says:

    Hey Kira, if you’re interested we’re discussing this at Booklikes. Here:

  9. Olga Godim says:

    Fascinating discussion. And you know what – I’ll side with your squirrel. But then, I’m partial to squirrels. One of them is a recurring character in my growing collection of modern fantasy short stories. But back to the discussion – I suppose most classical fantasy set in the way it’s set, with some ‘sexist’ flavor, because that’s what most people know and accept as a norm. All across Europe, patriarchal society ruled, with some variations, for centuries. In Asia too. Everything the women gained in the 20th century concerning their equality came with fight and sacrifice, by tiny steps, always overcoming the fierce resistance from the ‘traditionalists’. I believe that half the men in America still don’t like the idea of total equality. Many women don’t like it either. Most women I know are happy to be mothers, wives, and gossipers. Not all, of course, but that’s why the ones out of the mold make such interesting fiction characters.

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