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.
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 clichéd 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.]
[Previously: Heroes, Heroines, and Fandom]