Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That. – sexism in history vs sexism in fantasy, and why an author shouldn’t justify being demeaning/dismissive/sexist towards women and girl characters in their fantasy novel just because historic societies treated women and girls in many demeaning/dismissive/sexist ways.
[My rant is] about history, and this notion that History Is Authentically Sexist. Yes, it is. Sure it is. We all know that. But what do you mean when you say “history?”
History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.
History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.
But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.
This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history – the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves – was looking the other way.
In history, from primary sources through most of the 20th century (I will absolve our current century-in-progress out of kindness but let’s not kid ourselves here), the assumption has always been that men’s actions are more politically and historically significant to society, BECAUSE THEY ARE PERFORMED BY MEN.
Then she gets down to the specifics of various sexist fantasy tropes. Tansy’s post has been linked all over, and has now been republished at tor.com, where there’s a great discussion happening.
Let’s use this thread to recommend fantasy novels which manage to treat women and girl characters as interesting people with goals of their own who make valued contributions to their communities, even when they’re not the primary protagonists of the novel.
This post by Foz Meadows makes a neat companion piece: PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical
Image credit: index/archive thumbnail with Eowyn is cropped from an image in Tansy’s original post.
Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, history
I recently read Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn, which is does a really excellent job of capturing the lives of mediaeval-style peasants and women in all their superstition and gore. It’s pretty minimal on the fantasy really. There’s not much more magic in there than a mediaeval person would have thought there really was in their world, but I would nevertheless highly recommend it.
The sequel, Wildfire, I don’t think I liked quite so much, but then the protagonist was taken out of her place and culture and it didn’t resonate quite as much. It was probably still a good picture of how women make their lives in a man’ world.
By the way, I think the point made at no. 16 in the comments to the OP on Tor is an important one for any medium. Men can easily say ‘well I just prefer to read/watch/hear about men, after all I am one’. But if women did that in that many arenas we would have very little to read/watch/hear.
Or if we did have plenty to read/watch/hear, those texts would be relegated to “non-serious” genres, like romance. And if we avoided reading/watching/listening to texts centred on men entirely, then we’d lose out on huge amounts of cultural capital. On the contrary, a man avoiding women’s texts could still be culturally literate.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones (mostly YA fantasy, but she did write some adult novels as well, and both are brilliant). Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series (also YA, female protagonist).
The Creature Court series by Tansy Rayner Roberts.
I think the Smurfs are the worst example of a woman being seen as a woman before all. Horrors.
The Invisible Road by Elizabeth Knox has two girls coming of age as the main characters, with other interesting girls and women as key characters. It specifically deals with gender politics in a kind of alternative early twentieth century world, and has women in traditional roles and non-traditional roles, and how that affects their ideas of themselves, their society and other people.
There are so many good books in this category that I think you’d have to be actively avoiding them not to stumble upon them. 🙂 I’d suggest anything by Margaret Mahy, but especially The Haunting, Catalogue of the Universe and The Changeover. The Haunting has one of the best step-mothers ever, C of M has a wonderful heroine who is considerably taller than the hero, and the Changeover is just awesome-fullstop. Nearly all of the characters with initiative in any Mahy story are female – some are villains, some are heroines, and some just keep holding things together. I also second the vote for Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter books – they’re marvellous.
Tansy Rayner Roberts’ own books do a good job foregrounding traditional women’s work without simply inverting a society to make traditionally male work *still* the only valuable and interesting stuff (which always annoys me!) She, like Lynn Flewelling, also does well in showing a range of women, not just “feisty awesome chick with a sword” vs “boring traditional chick with a spindle”.
I’d add Cornelia Funke’s ‘Inkheart’ trilogy, Cassandra Clare’s ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series, and pretty much everything by Patricia A. McKillip to the list. Also Terry Pratchett’s witch books (starting with ‘Wyrd Sisters’) and Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. In each book the women or girls are flawed, human characters and maybe stuck in a society that doesn’t appreciate them properly, but they’re doing things their own way and being their own people no matter what anyone says.
Am now furiously searching for Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter books from anywhere that can get them to me before Christmas!
They’re good fun, Rebekkah. Kind of NeoVictorian Fantasy IMO.
Tamora Pierce. Anything at all. The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth features women and children as main characters, mostly. The Monster Blood Tattoo is a steampunk-trad faerietale mishmash with some great characters, both traditionally feminine and not. Robin Hobb’s books tend to have traditional-esque women and girls, but who are interesting and contributing in their own rights (and also does some interesting examination of sexism in such societies, alongside racism, colonialism and xenophobia).
Oh yes, definitely Robin Hobb – and not all the women are traditional – Anthea definitely isn’t.
I’ve had no luck getting my hands on Elizabeth Knox 😦
The Elizabeth Knox is The Dreamhunter Duet. This is first one. http://www.amazon.com/Dreamhunter-The-Duet-Book/dp/B000MKYL0S/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356785390&sr=8-1&keywords=Elizabeth+knox
About to add a link to this post by Foz Meadows to the OP, seeing as it makes a neat companion piece:
PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical