The second post in this series talks about gender in fantasy and if it should even matter at all. It raises some very interesting questions and definitely provides food for thought, demonstrating that the notion of identity can stretch farther than simply the discussion of the self to the self.
So, here’s the thing; gender confuses the hell out of me. Not the basic concept, I get that; sex is the body you’re in, gender is the societal and cultural expression of such. But that’s where I get stuck; society doesn’t always get it right.
This isn’t going to be a rant about how people who do not fit into binary gender roles are hard done by, because 1) I don’t know enough about it to put my oar in, and 2) even if I did, it would be done better somewhere else. Instead, I’m going to look at expectations of these binary genders, in the context of fantasy literature, and try and prove that it is possible to have a strong character in spite of their gender rather than a strong character of gender.
It is hard to know where to start this discussion; so much of the shouting about gender in genre literature seems to be about females, and how they’re either badly written as females, or just there to be a love interest for the strikingly handsome male lead. While this is an important conversation to have, I don’t believe it is the most important.
Much of fantasy literature takes place in various versions of what is effectively medieval Europe, which immediately sets up a whole mess of obstacles. There is a movement going about just now in fantasy literature that calls for “realism”, which it could be argued completely voids the need for the fantasy label, and therefore some authors feel this means their society must act in the way society did in this time. Which means it is a patriarchy, the men go out and defend the home whilst women stay behind and bring up the children. This is fine, if, and only if, it can be justified.
The one big thought that jumps out at me from this is, even if you do justify women staying at home whilst the men go off to save the world, why can’t the women be amazing characters in their own right? So often they are cardboard cut-outs of female stereotypes, there so the men have something to save, defend or return too, or exist solely to raise the next generation of burly masculine heroes. That is where the problem lies.
I know plenty of women who have been stay at home mums, forgoing their own chance at a career to bring up their kids, and they are amazing women. They volunteer for organizations in the town or that their kids are involved in, some even run a small business from home, all the time juggling the responsibilities society applies to them. So why doesn’t this happen more often in fantasy literature?
On the flip side, you do get the female characters that do go off on the adventure, who are part of the party to save the world, and spend the whole time proving themselves to the male members of their group, who feel the need to protect the girls the entire time. Sometimes it comes across as spunky, but a lot of the time it comes across as patronising, the woman being forced to prove she is just as capable as the men, and deserves to be there.
Biologically, yes, there are differences between men and women; it calls to mind a particularly spirited discussion I witnessed in which one individual was getting upset that authors didn’t highlight certain of these biological differences more in their works, as she felt this would make women weaker than their male counterparts. Many of the replies quite rightly pointed out that, yes, we were aware this happened to women, but no, no one wants to read about it.
When it comes to gender, however, the waters are so much murkier. A way of stirring up conflict in a group may be how two individuals, perhaps of opposite sex but not necessarily, view gender based on their societal upbringing. If a guy believes his female companion is not capable of a certain feat because he’s been brought up in a society where women stay at home, and he has never seen a woman possess the strength necessary, then fair enough. He should not, however, continue to dismiss her once she has proved she is capable of said task.
That’s the heart of the issue really; we see the characters in a story only for the length of time the story takes. They may get mentioned again in sequels or concurrent storylines, but what we know about them is what we see there on the page. It shouldn’t matter if a character is male or female, in sex or gender, what should matter is that they are memorable in some way, and that they draw the reader in and make them want to continue reading their story.
Yes, biological sex and societal gender may throw up some obstacles, but it is how you negotiate these that mark out your skill as a writer. It is often brought up that older women are not generally seen in fantasy literature, and it has led to many spirited discussions as to why.
For example, I once had someone tell me that if a woman was old enough to have kids, she shouldn’t be going adventuring. I put forward the idea that perhaps her husband or other family members could look after the children for her, because it was obviously important that she go, if that was her place in the overall plot. I was countered that it was cruel to the kids, because they needed a mother. So I then suggested she take the kids with her, but was told that this was an insane idea, because the kids would be in too much danger. I had to then point out that anyone who willingly went looking for danger had to be a little bit mental, and if she was determined enough, she would be able to do it with her children in tow.
We then, at least attempted to, switch it about; I asked would it be the same problems if a man tried to take his children with him on an adventure. I was told not to be stupid, because any sensible man would leave his kids with his wife when he went off.
It is inherent, sadly, and often written off as ‘just how the genre works’. But that is lazy, and shouldn’t be accepted as an excuse. Maybe this argument only comes up now, because as a society we’re now starting to really address the problem of discrimination based on gender and sex. I think it is a lot simpler to fix than that.
Write amazing characters, regardless of what sex or gender they are. If you do it well enough, no one will care if your lead is a 40-something year old woman with a moody teenager and a rebellious 8 year old in tow. If anything, done well, that would be a more interesting story to read than yet another all-male action hero adventure. It can’t hurt to try.
Theo Graham is a knitting and crocheting enthusiast, as well as a writer. When not busy doing either of these, they bakes, play tuba in a brass band, and shouts at the TV when motorbike racing is on. They are introduced by their mate as a “genderqueer flexisexual”, and they are a proud Scot.