Gender, that Elephant in the Room

Cross posted to the Mad Genius Club blog.

There’s been quite a bit of commentary recently on the blogs about gender – talk of how there are too few books for boys in the YA market, talk of the number of books by female authors that get reviewed as compared to books by male authors and talk of the roles that females are typically given in fantasy books. Over on the Bad Reputation blog, Juliet McKenna did a post on the topic. She made this point:

‘When the importance of great men is taken for granted, that’s where the historian’s focus will be. If women are not deemed important, why bother writing about them except where they impinge on the main subject’s life or deeds? They will inevitably end up absent from the narrative that emerges.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That was then, and this is now. Since the first emergence of women’s studies as a discipline in the 1960s, a wealth of historical research has explored the role of women in all levels of society. Women’s influence and significance is now apparent, even when they were effectively denied financial and political power by the cultures of their day.’

But only if you do your research and look for it. has anybody seen the movie Priest? It looks like exactly what it is –  a movie made by someone who grew up on computer games. (Not that it isn’t fun). Where I teach the students are asked to write a film treatment and many of these treatments are set in fantasy worlds. I can tell when the students are regurgitating what they have come across in computer games or seen on TV, without reading a fantasy book. But even if they do read fantasy, how many of them read books like History of Private Life Vol 11: Revelations of the Medieval World?  If the closest they have ever come to research is watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (don’t get me wrong I really enjoyed these movies), they could be forgiven for thinking that women played a very small role in the medieval world, whereas in some instances a woman could take over running the family business if her husband died. (Note – obviously, the role of women changed from place to place and from era to era).

So if a writer wanted to create well rounded characters, male or female, they need to research the era they are basing their fantasy world society on. I find it is the interesting quirky things that stick in my mind. This is a bit off track for medieval settings but I came across the description of a New Guinea tribe where, when a member of the family died, the female relatives cut off the joint of a finger. If they lived to become old women they ended up with only nubs on their hands.

Juliet goes on to say:

‘… somewhat paradoxically, the representation of women in fantasy must still include women leading circumscribed, subordinated lives, to remind all of us reading, male and female, why our grandmothers, mothers and aunts campaigned for the vote and marched for equal rights. To remind us what women’s lives are like today in so much of the world where their human rights are curtailed by culture and poverty. And of course, so many similar arguments apply when we consider the equally problematic question of characters of colour in fantasy fiction.’

In the comments there were many suggestions of authors, both male and female who do create interesting female characters. Amongst those comments was this one from Elizabeth Moon:

‘Judging by both audience and speaker comments at a convention this spring, and email received from readers or would-be readers, there’s still quite a bit of resistance to accepting women writers or women protagonists (in either traditional or nontraditional roles.) One man told me at a convention that a story with a woman protagonist “just wouldn’t interest me.” (others in the audience were nodding.) A fellow panelist made the pronouncement that women don’t write epic fantasy. (Um…yes, we do. Though I’ve found pronouncements by women who don’t approve of epic fantasy, as a “patriarchal” form, that women either don’t, or shouldn’t, write it.) Another told me in email that he can stand to read only three women writers (I think I was supposed to be flattered to be one of them) and won’t even try books by other women anymore. A woman at a booksigning told me proudly that her sons would not read books by women or with girl characters–as she was providing their reading material, it was clear that she approved and probably created their attitude.’

I wonder if a male reader like the one mentioned above would find it hard to identify with a female character because of her limited life choices. Why would he be interested in reading about someone who is not in control of their own destiny? If it’s not a problem he has ever had to face, then perhaps he can’t empathise with a character who has.

And sometimes even the writer can slip into the gender-divide mindset. Over on the ROR blog, Lara Morgan, YA writer was talking about gender and YA when she said:

‘I write YA with a female protagonist and it is marketed for girls, though when I was writing it I didn’t think about who the reader would be, just what the story was. Now I have been delightfully surprised when people have told me their son read it and loved it, because I didn’t think boys would.  That fact I am surprised a boy read it shows I am also guilty of putting that boy in a ‘he won’t read that’ box.  You see how this mindset is everywhere?’

Meanwhile, Andrea K Host has been talking about the differences magic can make when world-building, specifically when working out the role of women in the fantasy world society. She says, for one thing, magic of some kind can be used as birth control. Immediately women have the freedom to limit the size of their families.  I used this in my first trilogy, which explored a clash between a rigid patriarchal society and a society that leant towards equality. The birth control herb was just one small thing, but when the priests from the patriarchal society discovered that the women of the other society controlled their fertility with a herb, they set out to destroy all these herbs because it was unnatural. To them a woman’s place was to bear children.

Andrea K Host also talks about the power imbalance which exists because, on average, women are physically weaker than men.If these imbalances were removed what how would a society evolve?  Andrea asks:

‘The society which forms around women who can overcome inferiority of strength with an equalizer such as guardian spirits will not necessarily be any less inclined to call them chattel.  But the odds are better, and when you’re putting your world together, and you decide how your magic works, you have to ask: if women can do THIS, why do they allow THAT?’

I ask this very question in my new trilogy The Outcast Chronicles which will be published next year. The T’En are mystics and, while the males are physically stronger, the females are more gifted. This changes the male-female dynamic. It isn’t the core question of the trilogy, but it influences the characters’ interactions, just as the imbalance of power influences our interactions every day.

Exploring gender and our perception of how gender defines us is a rich field for writers. The fantasy and science fiction genres give us the freedom to create our own worlds to explore this question. But because this is the real world and not ‘the best of all possible worlds’, it appears there will be some readers who refuse to read a book because of the gender of the author and/or the main protagonist.

I can’t say that the gender of the author influences me. I look for story. And the gender of the main protagonist never worries me either. They have to be an interesting person with an interesting problem.


Filed under Characterisation, creativity, Fantasy books, Female Fantasy Authors, Gender Issues, Genre, Readers, Writing craft

9 Responses to Gender, that Elephant in the Room

  1. Wow, I love this posting. I have been drawn to fantasy for over 40 years and my older sister introduced me first to Anne McCaffery, Elizabeth Moon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I have discovered many more. The protagonists don’t need to be female or male, but I must say that I love it when I encounter a good strong female protagonist. I have introduced my students, over the past 15 years, to all of my literature and both girls and boys have read with abandon. I have also loaned my books to colleagues, bosses, etc., some of whom had never believed that they would enjoy them so much. It was also great to read such a well written argument, but I should have expected it from such a great writer.

    • Duhmathiseasy – So glad you liked the post. I was hesitatant because I didn’t want to stir up a hornests’ nest. I tried dropping by your blog so I could use your name but it looks like you’ve only just started it.

      I’m a teacher, too and I love getting students inspired by story because it’s the ideas and characters in stories that open their minds. I’ve had students come up to me after I’ve taught them and thank me for opening this world to them (they don’t put it quite like that). I think teaching is one of the most worthwhile things you can do and greatly undervalued by society. There, that was my rant.

      Having said that I was in a high school about 10 years ago doing a talk about speculative fiction and a year 12 teacher came up to me and asked if I could do a talk to her class because she had some boys who would only read SF and she thought they were wasting their time. She wanted them to read literary novels. I said, But some of the greatest classics ever written are SF and rattled off a list of titles like 1984. I was never invited back and I always felt sorry for her students.

      When ever I run a workshop on writing in high schools there will be one kid down the back who makes smart comments and I’ll look at them and say, I bet you read Terry Pratchett. Their eyes light up because they’ve discovered another person, an adult in a position of authority who ‘gets’ Terry Pratchett. Having that sort of mind used to be very lonely. Not so much now when people can make connections on the internet and attend TP conventions.

  2. Melissa May

    again well said .I enjoy a great story .People forget there is always a strong female behind a central male character, even if its not obvious to some .Well done Rowena . I must go out and buy your first three books .

    • LOL, Melissa. With that first trilogy I tried to turn the fantasy tropes around. I started after the climactic battle and the book was all about trying to forge a lasting peace. The stuff that doesn’t get written about.

  3. Nigel

    Hi Rowena. This is interesting stuff.

    It’s a very minor point I have to make, and probably highly debatable, but I tend to think that, in patriarchal societies, the maintenance of male social and political dominance was/is not really about physical strength, but about aggression (or the *willingness* to resort to violence and intimidation).

  4. Nigel

    Or perhaps I should have phrased that as ‘dominance usually stems from the *willingness* to dominate, not from the mechanism used to achieve that dominance’. A physically strong man with a placid personality cannot dominate. Similarly, a smaller man with the willingness to dominate can usually find some way to achieve it. Often, the mechanism is psychological or social, rather than physical.

    When we talk about equality, we’re not really talking about equality (yes, I know that sounds contradictory). Because people aren’t equal (at least, when we look at single attributes). One person is physically stronger than another. One person is smarter than another. One person is better able to psychologically manipulate another. Thus, when we talk about equality, what is really meant (or should be) is an abandonment of the idea of dominance on *any* basis.

    • Good point, Nigel. Some women dominate, too (not that you said they didn’t). Think of the pecking order in the hen house. Women don’t use violence to back up their threat, they dominte through psychological games and manipulation, as you say.

      With a man, he knows he can back up threat with violence, if he is that sort of man. When a guy attacks a woman, he just grabs her. When a guy attacks another guy they eye each other off for a bit, then attack (generalisations, I know), because the other guy could be as strong, or stronger than him. And then there are the sort of guys who just come up behind someone and king-hit them.

      And yes, the best we can hope for is a fair go. The playing field is never truly level.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *