January 10, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue
I had intended for today’s post to discuss common themes or character models in modern fantasy that might be considered sexist and debate about whether or not that was the case.
You see, the more I thought about the points I planned to discuss and the more I thought about the types of complaints I see in modern fantasy book reviews, the more I wanted to understand the root cause of both the prevalence of certain themes, plots, or archetypes and our frustration with them.
Let’s look at just one example and I think I can demonstrate what conclusions I’ve drawn.
The Tough Chick
Hang around on any sort of urban fantasy review forum long enough and you’ll find people complaining about the dearth of Tough Chick female protagonists. You know the ones: they’re sassy, smart-mouthed, prickly with a side of shoulder-chips, prefer Glock over Gucci, are the rare females in male dominated professions, and spend most of the story trying to prove themselves to the guys and be as unfeminine as possible.
Many readers are tired of this character type and accuse writers of implying that to be a strong woman she has to be a dude with a vagina. People use this as an example of sexism in modern fantasy and assume it means writers or publishers are denigrating femininity.
While I can’t rule out the possibility that may be true in some cases, I also think we might be reading a bit too much into it. Or maybe, not enough.
One thing I hate most about this “dude with a vagina” argument is that it implies that a woman who chooses to eschew the traditional trappings of femininity is somehow less of a woman. That, to me, is sexist in and of itself. Women should be respected regardless of whether they love high fashion and makeup or grungy jeans and muddin’ in their pickup truck. I would ask if by condemning this sort of character if we’re not subconsciously supporting gender disparity.
Hang on, Kira! It’s not that the character type exists it’s the prevalence of it! It’s crap that we can’t have more strong female characters that do embrace femininity. You’re right, women should be respected either way, and that should mean a more equal distribution of feminine and tomboy female main characters in modern fantasy.
You might think that wouldn’t you? Let me offer a suggestion of why that isn’t the case.
Months ago, I discussed my frustration with the preponderance of detectives or law enforcement types as the main characters in modern fantasy. One of my readers pointed out that it makes sense, because law enforcement is the modern-day version of the warrior. When you write an action book, you tend to have warrior archetypes.
Okay, so if we’re looking at female protagonists who are police officers, military, detectives, emergency services, security personnel, etc we’re definitely talking about women in traditionally male dominated professions.
I know we’d like to think we’re past gender discrimination in these fields, and while I have absolutely no doubt there have been massive changes in the past couple of decades, it’s still not perfect.
In my own personal experiences in male dominated professions, I can say that the majority of men I worked with did treat me as an equal and respected me. However, there are still those that have difficulty believing a woman makes just as good of a military officer/detective/firefighter/scientist/etc as a man.
Some of it is subtle and they may not even realize they’re doing it. Things like dismissing a female coworker’s valid concerns about an approach to a project or dealing with a crisis, assuming she’s overreacting because she’s emotional or PMSing. I’ve repeatedly seen my own ideas and arguments dismissed by male AND female coworkers, but then if a man in the room voices the same thing, people listen and agree.
Many women of my generation have learned the hard way that it is easier to be accepted in male dominated fields by acting “more masculine.” Wearing makeup, skirts, high heels, etc only serves as a reminder that we’re different, and worse, that we’re potential sexual partners. I can also state from personal experience, that the dynamics drastically shifted once I was married and “off-limits.”
I do want to stress that I am not saying all or even the majority of my male coworkers treated me or other female members of the team differently than the men. I’m just pointing out that there is still discrimination and that one way of coping with it is to minimize femininity in dress and behavior.
And then you’re judged as being butch. It’s a no-win scenario. As a female friend of mine who is a military officer put it, “You’re either butch or a bitch. Pick the one you can deal with.”
Now, while these are my own experiences, the number of female characters in modern fantasy working in male dominated fields who have the Tough Chick Persona suggests that my own experiences are still common enough that fiction is merely reflecting the issues women are dealing with in current society.
Again, to draw on my own personal experience, as a writer I debated long and hard over making my own female protagonists Tough Chicks, whether I should write them in as the sole females in male dominated professions, and what levels of acceptance they should have. In the end, I still lean towards Tough Chicks because it’s what I personally identify with and it provides me the opportunity to write in interactions that display the types of things I have had to deal with in my own life.
So, I ask you if other writers aren’t simply doing the same?
I would like to posit that modern fiction, fantasy or otherwise, reflects the issues, dreams, and fears that we’re struggling through as a culture and that even our responses to that fiction reflects our issues, dreams, and fears.
Let’s do a thought experiment: I am currently working on a story where the main character is a Tough Chick, but her supernatural gifts push her into a support role for the “warriors” of the story. She hates being relegated to the rear, rails against it, and has to come to terms with accepting who she is and the value of her talents, even if that means letting others do the front-line fighting.
Now, while I intend for the story to send the message that ALL roles in a society are equally important and that we can find satisfaction and value in being whoever we really are, I can anticipate the criticism I’m going to get.
Some people may be upset thinking that I’m suggesting that women in general should be relegated to support roles and be happy about it. That is not the case, but I am planning out the story carefully to ensure I can get the message across as clearly as possible.
I mean, what does it say about our culture that I am worried enough about how the message will come across that I have even seriously considered writing that character as male just to avoid such criticism even though I would much prefer to write it as a female?
Perhaps the next generation of writers will have had entirely different experiences as members of the military, law enforcement, politics, science and engineering fields to draw on for their writing. The Tough Chick persona may fade in prevalence.
I’d be interested to see what sorts of trends you’d notice if you compared the themes, archetypes, and gender interactions of books written by authors in their 30s and 40s with younger authors just getting into the biz.