Our culture’s desire for equality has drastically changed the stories we tell. Even modern editions of Richard Scary’s picture books (as opposed to the original editions from the 1960’s) are altered: note that the genders of most of the animals on this book cover have been reversed so as to make the point that daddy helps with breakfast and that women are policebears, too. Yet despite the strides our culture has made in erasing traditional gender roles, a sense of urgency remains, and storytellers feel morally compelled to present readers with the type of gender relationships that are now considered equal.
This puts the writer of fantasy fiction in a challenging position. Although their stories are often set in medieval-style surroundings, modern readers expect women who are strong not only emotionally but also militarily. Yet often this is done in a style that is utterly unrealistic and would be laughable if readers were not so conditioned to expect (and demand) that gender play little role in the physical prowess of fictional characters. When reading (or watching) stories in which women don armor and routinely fight men twice their size, I often long to ask the author why he/she thinks that even liberated, modern women don’t play on male football teams. I am not about to suggest that all female characters in fantasies limit their activities to embroidery and food preparation. However, if authors wish to truly address gender in a meaningful way, they must consider it realistically in conjunction with their worldbuilding. The following points should be considered:
1. Although women’s physiques provide an advantage over men in some athletic pursuits (swimming across the English channel, for instance), the typical women does not possess the speed, reach, or weight-lifting ability of the typical man. Hence, gender segregation is maintained in professional sports. If we moderns do not send women to play against men’s football teams, would a culture really send their women against the equivalent male team when the stakes are victory or death?
2. Before modern medicine, the mortality rate of all populations, especially infants, was high. In addition, humans tend to pair into couples, and in eras without wide-spread birth-control, young women spent a significant amount of time pregnant and nursing. Would a medieval-style culture really send their young women (their only hope of maintaining a population) into battle?
What is a writer to do? If it is important to your story that women routinely fight alongside men, create a system of weaponry that makes this realistic, or at least deal realistically with the physical implications of women's bodies. In addition, however, the culture must be addressed. What would compel a group of people to send their women into battle, when most humans throughout history have not routinely done so? Consider the fact that until the advent of modern technology, physical strength was so important in daily life that the physical capabilities of men and women remained decisive factors. It is only nowadays, when women really can perform most jobs as easily as men, that the concept of gender equality is accepted. Yet also consider the cultures of the past in which women were treated as possessing the same moral rights as men, or did participate in leadership roles. How do the shaping beliefs of those cultures compare to your own worldbuilding?
Above all, however, I urge writers to broaden their definition of strong women. Why must battle be the only test of moral, mental, and emotional strength? Why must the woman ALWAYS pick up a sword before the story ends? Women throughout time have shown courage in many ways. They have provided medical care, maintained the farms and cities their men fight for, outwitted invaders, and contributed immeasurably to moral by choosing to maintain courageous attitudes. When their world is crushed by enemies, women have helped to build new worlds. It is sexist and blind that many writers and readers do not recognize the power and triumph in these activities. Although there is a time and a place for women to pick up a sword, the writer who does not recognize that combat is only one facet of strength is in danger of narrowing women’s spheres instead of broadening them. This stereotype is maintained when female protagonists reject the “women’s sphere” with contempt, as if all traditionally feminine activities are demeaning, instead of also drawing strength from it. Developing a broad (and realistic) image of gender in stories is important because, despite all of the fantastical elements, fantasies are still about human beings. That is what makes them good stories.