Gender, History and Fantasy

This one’s a multi-headed beast, so bear with me.

I guess this has been percolating away since I read The Mary Sue article  exposing James Gunn’s misogyny and homphobia. I’ve gotta say it took a lot of the shine off the Guardians of the Galaxy announcement.

Then I became aware of The Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr, which does a disturbingly good job of depicting the inherent problems with the portrayal of female superheroes (and villains) as objects posing sexily (in impractical outfits).

I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts on the matter and apply them to the world of Fantasy Fiction… but then Tansy Raynor Roberts up and does a better job than I could have done in her blogpost picked up by Tor.com.

At the same time(ish) Cracked.com publishes Luke McKinney’s article about the ridiculousness of calling out fangirls.

So I’m left with little to say, having to follow in the footsteps of those who have said it so well already. But when has that ever stopped me having my say?

In my own work I thought I had drafted a strong female character. She was a POV character (in a novel with several POV characters) and she was smart and independent and strong. The reader would have known this because I attached these adjectives to her repeatedly. I did this while she was pushed through a narrative in which she showed almost no agency, made no meaningful decisions for herself, was considered (by a patriarchal culture) to be superfluous, and appeared in scenes where women discussed what men did. But she was sassy. And I did several times describe her as strong, independent and smart.

The reviews from my test-readers (and one in particular) forced me to sit back and look, really look, at what I had written for her. I didn’t like what I saw. So changes were made and I believe there has been much improvement. I have also given another character gender re-assignment, and this has been one of my personal favourite improvements in the rewriting.

Ellen Ripley was, in an early draft, a male. (S)He was to be the ship’s security officer (an obviously male role on the ship) and would probably have been cast by an athletic, muscled square jawed type, who would have killed the Alien and survived (with or without the grey panties – damn you Hawkeye! Must you ruin everything?) to fight another day. And the film wouldn’t have been terrible, but I doubt it would have been as good. It certainly wouldn’t have featured in articles in The Guardian celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ‘first action heroine’.
Why does Ripley endure so long after the two Alien films were made? (There were only two weren’t there – I’m pretty sure that’s right) I believe it’s because she wasn’t written as a gender stereotype. She’s a woman, but she’s not defined by that, and nor is she the pendulum reaction of Velasquez in Aliens (who is one of my favourite characters, but in many ways just a different stereotype).

The film Salt is forgettable (I’m not even sure I’ve seen the whole thing, I’ve seen bits), but it is interesting for the fact that the central character was written as a man. Tom Cruise was meant for the role, but withdrew because it was too close to his MI character of Ethan Hunt. At the same time Angelina Jolie was determined that she didn’t want to be a Bond girl – she wanted to be Bond. So a chance came up for her to be the action hero. Contracts were signed, but the deadlines were looming and there wasn’t time for a full re-write. They started shooting with the script for a male Salt and a few shifted pronouns (they did manage to take Salt’s children away from him/her – because while it’s ok for a father to risk his life as a CIA Agent fighting Russians a mother would never do such a thing – so it’s not perfect). The outcome is a film in which the character is played by a female, but not saddled with the gender stereotypes that are written for Strong Female Protagonists. (and some confusing scenes where a rake thin Angelina overpowers goons with brute force).

I met Tansy RR at Genrecon recently (in the sense that I nervously said hello once or twice and joined in a conversation with about ten people – of which she was one). Her take on history is fantastic – and backed up by an impressive academic resume. If history is sexist, so be it. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t stories in which women played important roles. Hell, that doesn’t mean there weren’t women playing important roles in every story. It just means they were ignored. To take that fact and use it to justify continuing to ignore them is reflexive… and just straight-up dumb.

But even if we take patriarchal history as a basis, why should that apply to Fantasy? When Joe Abercrombie spoke at Genrecon he described his work as ‘Realistic Fantasy’ and admitted the concept sounded silly. I was relieved – I’ve been trying to define my own writing for some time now and I kept coming back to ‘Realistic Fantasy’ and getting caught in the oxymoron. The point is that as realistic as we want it to be its still our world to build. If Joe can be inspired by history and then have a character using magic spells to defeat his enemies then why is having a powerful woman going to break the story. How could a reader complain that women have too prominent a role on the basis of history, and yet happily accept the wizards?

And don’t think it doesn’t happen. Some readers make this complaint. It’s ignorant on two counts:

1. History is full of women doing cool stuff that could be the basis of Fantasy novels.

I’ll skip Cleopatra and move straight on to Lucretia, Cornelia, Vibia Sabina, Boadicea, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Theodora, Catherine II of Russia, Queen Elizabeth the First! – and that’s just Western Europe. A quick googling will open up possible tales inspired by Hatshpsut (a female Pharaoh) or Empress Wu Zetian. Hell, tell Penelope’s story. Sure she’s just waiting at home for Odysseus, entertaining courtiers, but surely there’s an interesting tale to be told there. Tell the story of Queen Gorgo – just not one where she gets boned by Jimmy McNulty.

2. It’s Fantasy.

History might have cast women in certain roles, but the history of my fictional world has not – or more accurately it has cast them in different roles. And even if it’s a misogynist fictional world with a patriarchal hegemony, good fiction will come from the conflict of putting a powerful woman in there. How will she cope? How will society cope? What cracks will emerge? What conflicts? Will she be defeated? Forced into submission? Will the power structures shift, compromise? Will she inspire a revolution? This is what drives narrative. This is what makes it a fictional story worth the reading.

I’ll leave the last word to Scott Lynch, who here responds to complaints about one of the female characters in his second ‘Gentleman Bastard’ novel Red Seas under Red Skies.

Comment, criticise, condemn, condone, as you will.

Or debate me face-to-digital-face / pat my back on twitter @jmichaelmelican


2 responses to “Gender, History and Fantasy

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