January 8, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue
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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy). 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.)