Because Women Feel Things and Men Just Do Them - Stereotypes in Fantasy Novels

A friend of mine lent me a book a while back and I hate it. Not in that “I enjoy loathing this book” sort of way, but in the “I wish someone would take the author out back and give him a beating stern talking to about writing in cliches and how when you have a whole world to set up maybe you could break gender stereotypes” sort of way. And what really really really annoyed me about this book was, simply enough, that it could have been so much better if he had put as much thought into his magic system as he did into the way people swore.

Let me show you what I didn’t like about it:
Like a lot of fantasy novels set in a magical age, this novel has its magic system based around the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. Earth elements give the people who control them great physical strength and control over the earth, air allows one to fly and control the wind, fire allows one to make rooms and tempers very hot, and water allows one to heal, read emotions, and similar such things.

Ask me how these seemed to “coincidently” break down by gender. Go on, ask.

That’s right! The only people with any strong earth or fire magic in them were men, and the only people with any strong air or water magic in them were women. What an amazing coincidence! I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked to see such a difference from the usual fantasy story.

Oh wait.

In fairness to the author, I should point out that there’s at least one important male character who has water magic. I should also point out that he’s effeminate, goes against the male character trying to save everyone and has him thrown in jail, and is considered weak and someone to work around by everyone else.

One of the things I keep bringing up in discussions about these things is that none of this happens in a vacuum. This book, with its gender roles set up this way, isn’t precisely unique in the realms of fantasy. The female character in video games who is a healing priestess-type character continually makes “top cliches in fantasy video games”; the white-robed mystic woman who has a closer link to The Gods and yet can’t do anything on her own shows up all over the place; the woman who is overwhelmed by her own empathy and thus can do nothing was clich├ęd well before Deanna Troi was telling us, “I sense great sorrow, Captain”.

In a world of the author’s own creation, why is it so rare for the Aunt to search the woods for her lost nephew, wielding her earth magic against her enemies, as opposed to being kidnapped and threatened with rape and enslavement? Why does it seem, so often, to be the Uncle?

To be frank, it’s been a while since I picked up a fantasy novel or played a fantasy video game. I just don’t want to anymore. It gets frustrating remembering playing so many of them and giving the main (male) character a female name and weaving in my own back story about a woman who wants to be an adventurer but has to hide her gender in order to do it properly - bonus storyline points when there’s a romance and I get to have hidden lesbians who doubt their sexuality. I’m tired of story lines set in a Galaxy Far Far Away or a Land Before Time or A World Shaped by Magic where women are always waiting and men are always doing. I’m tired of rape threats or actualities against female characters and so rarely against male characters outside of homosexuals (Hi, Mercedes Lackey! Welcome to my blog!). I’m tired of women who have to dress like men in order to prove themselves in a fantasy world.

Writers have the whole world in their hands - let’s see more female characters who can walk it with their heads held high and their braids blowing in the wind, shall we?

[Books and Movies I’m Aware Break This Cliche and thus recommend: The Tarma & Kethry novels by Mercedes Lackey, although they do have rape as a major plot point, twice. I haven’t read a lot of MZB, but her “Firebrand” novel has a pro-active Cassandra. It has a tendency to go with “but all men are evil” a lot, which annoys me, so I’m not sure I’d recommend it because of that. The “Man of His Word” series by Dave Duncan, which while having a Princess who is Beautiful and Everyone Wants, also has her being very pro-active, has an even more pro-active aunt, and breaks so many cliches of the fantasy genre that I think every one in the whole world should read it. And buy it new, because Dave Duncan is totally my hero and deserves more sales. Also, Cordelia’s Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold also has a very pro-active set of women, but it’s the only book by her I’ve read so I can’t speak for the rest of her work.]

[See comments on LJ]

[Previously: Heroes, Heroines, and Fandom]

8 Responses to “Because Women Feel Things and Men Just Do Them - Stereotypes in Fantasy Novels”

  1. Molly Says:

    I don’t much fantasy outside of Pratchett (who does a pretty good job, overall; most of his stereotyping is, I think, completely intentional and aware, given the setting), so I won’t comment on most of this except to say, nice piece.

    But, on MZB and The Firebrand–I wrote my undergrad thesis about four modern novels about Cassandra, and this was one of them. And I’d suggest that MZB wasn’t actually doing the all-men-suck thing so much as she was taking one extreme (gynarchy, Amazons, men who’re considered, say, incapable of rule) to make a point about our patriarchy. As you’re reading it, it seems silly. Imandra’s thinking it’s nuts to have a male ruler seems absurd. But, of course, we (OK, the unexamined we, but you know what I mean) find female rule absurd, QE2 notwithstanding. The “extremes” of Bailey’s gynarchy and goddess worship are really just the norms of our patriarchy and god worship; the fact that they seem extreme highlights our societal realities.

    Or I BSed a quarter of my thesis, which is entirely possible and wouldn’t bother me too much, as I’ve graduated and moved on. ;)

  2. Anna Says:

    Thank you, Molly!

    I haven’t read MZB’s stuff since I started really thinking about these issues, so I hadn’t noticed any of the stuff you talked about, but it’s certainly something I’ll think about. I may give it another read.

    There were a lot of suggestions on my LJ entry, but it really felt like “Look, there are exceptions!” without really talking much about where these ideas come from and what to do about them.

  3. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    In AA/12-step circles, there is a similar truism, that men talk about what they did while drunk, and women talk about how they felt.

    Same thing you are saying! Interesting.

    Just came back from Dragon*Con last week, and I loved it, but too many slave-Princess Leias and not enough women in creative costumes, compared to the guys. :( Women specialized in faeries and angels, men in super-heroes. (Some exceptions of course, but generalizing.)

    Nice to find your blog!

  4. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    Did that post?

  5. tigtog Says:

    Seconding Mercedes Lackey’s Tarma and Kethry novels, including the later one about Kethry’s grand-daughter Kerowyn. Your point about rape in the series is well made, but at least the women are not destroyed by it: rape is not portrayed as the end of the world, and neither do the women raped blame themselves for it, they are appropriately enraged at the perpetrator rather than wallowing in guilt.

    Bujold’s Cordelia remains a strong character in all the Barrayar novels, and the various women that her son Miles encounters are always fully rounded characters, not just ciphers and sexual fantasies (although Miles often fantasises about women, it’s always presented that his fantasies are interfering with the important business happening, and the women are busy sorting out the important business just as much as Miles).

  6. Dck Mstrsn Says:

    “lt’s s more fml chrctrs wh cn wlk t wth thr hds hld hgh nd thr brds blwng n the wnd”

    Nw tht s srs flght f fncy.

    wmn wth slf-rspct? Nt vn th wldst thr cld drm tht p.

    -Dck

  7. Jo Says:

    Ha! A disemvoweling! What fun! Hp y njyd tht, Dck.

    So many characters have been ruined for me over the years (some only ruined recently, by my feminist-thinking-of-late) by starting out so strong and wonderful and turning out so… blah! Ending up with the ‘true love’ who is always male and not doing a thing afterward! (or not near as much).

    I wanted to BE Eowyn when I was younger, to play her in the movie if they made one (kudos to Miranda Otto, she was fantastic!) — and she still ended up in the Florence Nightingale syndrome with Faramir. She was as atypical as women got in Tolkien’s world and STILL she ended up with in a typical situation.

    There are so many more: Hermione Granger. Ginny Weasley. Anne Shirley (especially Anne!). I recently finished reading a heretofore promising webcomic (Inverloch) that did the same thing. Great female characters (three! Out of six!) and none of them could do it without a man, in one way, shape, or form.

    Jeff Smith’s BONE is so far delivering on it’s promise — both Grandma Ben and her granddaughter Thorn are fantastically strong and proactive characters. They’re heroes, plain and simple. So far, no one has ended up in a boy-girl-true-lurve episode, and I continue to live in hope.

    Troubling thing is, I can’t think of any others.

    So where are the rest? You heard me, authors: get writing. Write a novel, just like everyone else does. Write rangers, magi, healers, warriors. THEN randomize the pronouns used for each character, not basing profession on gender. REALLY mix it up. Let the warrior be a woman who kicks the ass of a would-be-rapist, or better yet, who doesn’t get threatened with rape at all.

    Sounds fair to me.

  8. Mervi Says:

    I’ve been reading fantasy for some years now with an eye for proactive female characters and so far I can recommend:

    Anne Logston. The Shadow books (Shadow, Shadow Hunt, and Shadow Dance) have an adult woman main character who is a lovable rogue. Her best friend is a female fighter. Her other books have also active female characters and usually there are at least two of them per book.

    Robin McKinley has also good female charcters.

    Steven Brust’s world is gender-equal even though the main character is male. But the most fearded and powerful sorcerer on that world is a woman and all of the female nobles are just as hot-headed and quick to anger as the males and fight their own duels.

    Bujold’s fantasy books have as good female characters as her SF books. The main character of Paladin of Souls is a middle-aged, widowed woman.

    Thanks for the Dave Duncan recommendation.

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