Understanding the Sexism of Fantasy

ColdFireThank you to Kate Elliott for her involvement with the inception and development of this post.

One of the little pleasures of my life is that I have easy access to several of my favourite authors, who received a frantic Tweet from me the other day, pleading with them to provide me a topic for today’s article. Trudi Canavan’s brain froze, James Barclay decided to go for the self-promotion tack (so go check out ‘Elves: Beyond the Mists of Katura’), while Elspeth Cooper just decided to agree with Kate Elliott who provided the following;

When is romance in epic fantasy “girly” and when is it “manly”?

The theory behind the question is distressingly simple and ages old: Why can men write romance into their fiction without it seeming unnecessary while women are harangued for even contemplating a love scene under the same circumstances?

If you don’t feel like reading through the rest of this article, the underlying answer will be the same; we haven’t evolved at all, and women are still treated differently than men.

However, if you are in for the long haul, then let’s try to dig a little deeper, because this isn’t the only issue at hand, these days. The Sword and Laser book club – hosted by Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt (who I interviewed a few weeks ago) – recently tackled ‘The Dragonriders of Pern’ by Anne McCaffrey (or, more accurately, they tackled the first story in the original trilogy, ‘Dragonflight’). I have yet to read this paramount series, but the discussions related to me via the Sword and Laser podcast left me confused and bitter.

200px-AnneMcCaffrey_DragonflightThe subsequent time spent in the Sword and Laser forums reveals a confusing mix of interpretations. Many seem to be displeased with how Anne McCaffrey wrote her female characters, wishing for a more liberated feminist plot. However, that wish dismisses the battles that any female of McCaffrey’s time would have been fighting. We think that the 60s was the decade of the rise of feminism, but one need only look around to find that just because there was a feminist movement in the 60s does not mean the entire population was swayed by their ideas and demands (justified though they were, are, and will ever be). The sad reality is – of the 60s and today – is that women are still diminished by men; expected to write differently, act differently, and create female characters that fit into traditional stereotypes that many men still hold dear. Anne McCaffrey’s characters can be viewed as very much a progressive work of her time, but maybe not of today’s: the 60s saw some movement, and there has been continual movement ever since – to the point where McCaffrey’s story may now seem to be “old fashioned” and marginally sexist – but I think we can safely agree that there has not been enough movement.

Of specific controversy was the “rape” scene.

Let me be very clear – rape is in quotes because there is dissension over whether the scene in question was rape or not. I have not read the book therefore I am not going to comment one way or the other. The simple fact is this: rape happens, and it is a horrific and damnable action; we should not hide away from it in our fiction, but nor should it be used gratuitously or just ‘for the sake of it’ in an effort to wring a reaction from the reader.

Shiver [Maggie Stiefvater]The idea of rape in fantasy fiction has done the rounds rather regularly of late. Writing in January of this year, American young-adult author Maggie Stiefvater found herself besieged by gratuitous rape, five books in a row;

I’ve been a reading machine in the past eighteen days. In fact, I’ve read five novels, across five different genres. One was young adult literary, one was young adult genre, one was an adult literary, and two were adult contemporary fantasies.

All five featured the main female character getting raped.

She goes on to accurately express the problem, by saying that “the rape scene could just as easily be any other sort of violent scene and it only becomes about sex because there’s a woman involved.”

As an aspiring (and soon to be published short-story-) author I can well understand the lure of writing a rape scene; they are horrific, scarring, and should make the reader all sorts of uncomfortable: however, while the lure of literary rape exists – just like the worm on a hook to a fish – there is a catch, because while it may seem appealing to me, the male author of a story, it can also be seriously damaging to the reader if not handled correctly (and even then…).

Women have, for millennia, been treated as objects. Sold into sexual slavery, refused the right to vote, hidden underneath layers of clothing – and those are just a few of the tragedies we currently allow, never mind the centuries of injustice that have come previously. You would think that, in a world where we like to think we have grown and evolved to be more sophisticated than ever before, we would be quicker to see when we revert to that objective treatment. However, limiting our scope to the fantasy literary genre, that is obviously not the case. Female authors are held to a different standard than male authors, while female characters are used as stakes-builders: as Maggie Stiefvater says, “Need to establish some stakes? Grab a secondary character and rape her.”

To specifically address Kate Elliott’s original suggestion – that of the use of romance in fantasy fiction – is to address the whole issue of sexism in the genre. Simply put, there should be no difference between when a male and a female author uses romance in their work.

Of course there is going to be material out there that is “girly” – by virtue of the fact that some people want to be reading “girly” literature and others want to write it. But that’s OK, because not only are there people who want to be reading and writing that style of romantic literature, but there is nothing inherently bad about it either – for so long the word has been used as a pejorative that now it is very difficult to separate the negative connotations.

Furthermore we have to understand that romance written by a female author is not intrinsically girly.

Romance included by a female author in an otherwise non-stereotypical piece of fiction does not – and should not – render the fiction immediately girly, nor of any less quality. To expect this is to expect the female author to write differently than the male author solely because she has boobs and he has a penis – as if the penis carries some magical quality that allows greater access to literary tools like “romance”.

Which brings the real issue back to the forefront: there is no difference between the female author and the male author except what they bring to the table. The differences between Kate Elliott and James Barclay, for example, are fewer than the differences between Kate Elliott and Stephanie Myer and fewer than the differences between James Barclay and Christopher Paolini. Each author is individually differentiated from one another by the specific set of skills they bring to their work. One need only read Steven Erikson’s work to understand this (his work is the perfect example of what happens when you let an anthropologist and archaeologist write fantasy). Beyond that, there should be no other barriers raised to what literary tools an author has access to.

There’s a lot that can be said about writing which people deem to be girly. Stephanie Meyer is a great example. The overly-Mormon-centric tone of the book has come under a lot of criticism from people on every side of the aisle. However the important thing to focus on is not the use of romantic-themes, but rather the execution.

220px-InheritanceCycleCoversI have been very critical of Christopher Paolini’s work (the Inheritance Cycle books), specifically books 2 and 3. Book 1 (‘Brisingr’) had a lot of potential, equal to the imagination of the author. However over the next two books there was no growth and a great deal of lazy writing. Only in the fourth book (‘Inheritance’) did he exhibit the growth we had been looking for.

The solution is tricky, and will be difficult to see impact the industry. Critics – professional and amateur alike – will need to take a moment to breathe through their righteous indignation: no split-second reviews describing their thoughtless instinctual reactions. Instead, to be held as having any sensible input to the industry and genre conversation, people are going to have to take a moment to put aside their dislike of certain themes and look at the execution, because in the end, you may simply not be the intended audience.

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7 thoughts on "Understanding the Sexism of Fantasy"

  1. J. Jay Jones says:

    Joshua–

    A well written and sober analysis. I have a few differences in my outlook, but support the bulk of your comments. Sex, eroticism, and romance are difficult subjects to pull off because readers always put these passages under the microscope.

    I tend to be pretty forgiving of sexually charged passages because I think sexual relations are pretty messy in real life. There’s no reason to expect sex scenes, and the emotions they engender, to come off perfect. I don’t think anybody’s an ultimate authority on love and romance. We just like to think we are. I think there’s a lot of BS on both sides of the aisle in the gender wars. Alice Sheldon, writing as a man (James Tiptree), was critiqued as a man. She’s a prime example of the difficultes in our gender expectations.

    I think your frank review of these issues in your article is a good example of how to address these issues. You’ve shown respect, but hit the issues head on. Great article.

  2. Thank you so, so, so, so much for this post. I am also an aspiring fiction writer, and I have a story in the works that does involve a romance. I worry about it an awful lot, because I feel like it falls back on a lot of old tropes, or that I’ve been conditioned to write in love because I’m a woman or some other ludicrous reason. But I’m ever-so-glad to hear someone else express the sexism in the struggle, and I feel more motivated to give it my all regardless of what anyone else might think. And I really appreciate that people within the literary world are taking issues like this into account. Thanks again!

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