Thursday, February 18, 2010

Women in Fantasy

I wasn't up reading quite as late last night, and I got up earlier than I have been, but then got sidetracked by that plane crash in Austin since the regional news channel was running the feed from the TV station I used to work for. I really need to go to the bank to deposit a royalty check (yay for royalties!), but I mostly just want to burrow under a blanket and read or write.

There tends to be a lot of discussion in fantasy and writing circles about the lack of female characters in a lot of epic fantasy books, and this is generally considered to be a bad thing. I've thought about it and realized two things that may get my "girl" membership card taken away from me:
1) I hadn't actually noticed and
2) I don't really care

#1 may have something to do with the fact that I haven't read much epic fantasy since I was a teenager, when that was about the only fantasy you could find. That's not because of a shortage of female characters but rather because I'm more interested in focusing intently on a few characters than in following the broader scope of a cast of thousands. I've also kind of burned out on the quests with the Fate of the Universe at stake. But even when I was reading more of it, I honestly hadn't noticed whether or not there was an adequate female presence. I'm sure I read a few boys-only books, but the fact that there weren't any females never struck me.

#2 is because I'm far more interested in there being good characters who are right for the story than in there being any particular kind of characters. I may have been interested in there being a girl I could relate to in a book when I was a kid, but ever since I hit puberty and stopped running around with my friends in the fields or woods (depending on where I was living at the time) acting out our favorite books, TV shows or movies, I became far more interested in a book having a male character I could fall in love with than I was in having a female character I could relate to or play. (Puberty and the end of running around acting out stories happened at around the same time, but I don't know if the two events were related). As a result, as long as there was a guy I liked in the story, I wouldn't even have noticed whether or not there was a girl in the story. Around this time, in addition to discovering fantasy I was also really into World War II adventure stories, which were also short on females (just try fitting a woman into a book taking place almost entirely in a WWII submarine), but it never really occurred to me that there was anything missing. I hear a lot about how important it is to have female role models in books for girls, but I can't think of a single fictional character who has inspired me or shown me what I could do. I have been inspired or influenced by books to try something or to pursue some interest, but it was the depiction of that interest that got my attention, not the fact that a character I could relate to was doing it. A female character doing something like a particular job never struck me as any kind of validation that women could do that sort of thing. I got that validation and inspiration from real people doing that in the real world, since people doing it in fiction is actually pretty irrelevant to reality.

I'd far rather have no female characters than shoehorned-in, politically-correct female characters who seem out of place in the story or who are The Token Girl. Some of the lengths they go to these days to insert women in places where they probably wouldn't have been and doing things they probably wouldn't have done (like where did all these medieval Englishwomen get all that ninja training?) end up bothering me far more than if there were no women at all (especially if the men are cute). The feisty chick who can outfight any man, even those twice her size, and who is therefore qualified to join the otherwise all-male questing party is just as irritating a cliche as the damsel in distress. I guess you could say that I don't like the idea of affirmative action for fictional people. The story, and nothing else, should dictate the cast.

However, that doesn't let authors off the hook. One of the reasons given by one of the authors cited for having no or few female characters in his epic fantasy novels was that he didn't know how to write female characters. Huh? I'd have bought it if someone said that they didn't know how to write Nepalese characters because they'd never been to Nepal, didn't know anyone from Nepal and couldn't find any books on the culture of Nepal. But unless you were left as an infant on the doorstep of a monastery and were raised by cloistered monks, you've probably had some exposure to women -- mother, sister, other relatives, neighbors, teachers, classmates, co-workers, bosses, waitresses, the person in front of you in line at Starbucks, wives, daughters, etc. If you did grow up in a monastery and missed out on interacting with women, most libraries and bookstores have shelves devoted to books about women -- about their bodies, their emotions, the phases of their lives, their relationships, being a mother, being a daughter, being a sister, being a wife, struggles in the workplace, social issues, memoirs and biographies of women in various times throughout history, novels written by women, about women and for women. You get the idea. And then there's a magazine industry devoted to publications for women in the various phases of their lives. Women make up about half the population, unless you live in Alaska or in that monastery, so you could always try something wild and crazy like talking to women or, if you want to get really radical, listening to them. I'd have been fine if the author in question has said merely that the story he was telling didn't call for female characters, but the "I don't know how to write female characters" excuse doesn't hold water.

I also think that it's essential to really research what you're writing about, because what you think you know about that time and place may not be accurate, and what seemed like an all-male endeavor may not have been. That's not to say that you should go scouring references to find some way to fit a female into your story, but doing the research could give you ideas for characters that are outside your preconceptions, and even if that doesn't up your book's estrogen levels, it will make your book more vivid and detailed.

Then there's the fact that if you are going to write female characters -- really, if you're going to write any characters at all -- they need to be real characters, not stereotypes. There's no such thing as a typical female. There are just a lot of individuals who happen to be female. If you're going to include women, give them goals, motivations, conflicts and inner lives the same way you'd do with any other character, and don't rely on such tropes as the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, The Good Girl or The Kick-Ass Chick. Don't use the female as nothing more than a quest object -- if you could switch out the princess for a jeweled chalice without changing your story all that much, then you're doing it wrong. Don't use the female as nothing more than a source for motivation -- they killed his wife, and now he's going on the rampage. And please, for the love of all that is even remotely holy, avoid that godawful Peter Pan/Wendy dynamic that's all over the place right now in pop culture, where a woman who should be a peer to the man is put in the role of mother to a man who refuses to grow up, and she's the bad guy for forcing him to grow up.

Not that male writers hold the exclusive on writing bad female characters. Women can be just as guilty. They can produce Mary Sues who are entitled and whiny while still being practically perfect in every way or else are superpowered Amazon kick-ass chicks with no weaknesses.

I get a little nervous about the way that traditionally "feminine" traits and behaviors are often seen in a negative light -- and often by women. Emotions are a weakness. You can never rely on anyone for help because you should be able to do it all yourself. Expecting commitment from a lover is something no independent woman should do. And a woman can never, ever need to be rescued without it being some terrible strike to the cause of feminism. It sometimes feels like the only good, strong female character to some people is Rambo in drag. Not that I want every woman to be a damsel in distress, but if a woman who is generally competent and capable and who has been known to help the men through their difficulties occasionally needs a hand in a bad situation, I have no problem with that.

Meanwhile, the publishers also aren't off the hook. I don't think there should be any kind of quota system for buying books by female authors vs. male authors or for considering the gender makeup of a book in purchase decisions, but it wouldn't hurt for publishers to get past some of their preconceived notions (or maybe even do some research) about readers and not exclude books or authors based on these preconceived notions. There has been a stereotype that the primary reader of epic fantasy is a teenage/early 20s boy, and that these boys are afraid that they'll get girl cooties if they read a book by a female author or with too many female characters (or a female in the lead role). I don't know whether or not it's true, but maybe the publishers should look into that before making decisions based on outdated or incorrect stereotypes.

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