Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fantasy Warfare and Gender Realism

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.


  1. War isn't professional athletics, though. A man in a professional sports possesses much more physical strength, stamina and specialized physical skills than the average military recruit. Military recruits all need to meet minimal physical standards, but they're standards that are attainable for most men. In a fantasy world, a man wouldn't need to be an elite athlete to, say, defend his village from an unexpected attack - and neither would a woman.

    I'm not a farmer (my brother is, but we were raised urban), but I imagine a brother and sister who grew up on a farm together - especially if they had older sisters who handled the house chores - would be expected to do many of the same farm chores, and she would develop many of the same physical skills as him. The "women's sphere" IS demeaning when it too strictly limits one's choices, which is why many of the notable women in history did, in various respects, reject their expected roles.

    Honestly, I'm not terribly interested in reading about the woman who heroically maintained the farm while her husband was off battling the dragon. I want to know about the swordswoman. I don't want historical fiction, I want an entertaining, "But what if..."

    1. Erin, I think you highlight a realism issue here. If the farm in your scenario were to be attacked by, say, a neighboring tribe, I think it is realistic for inhabitants of all sizes and shapes to defend their home. On the other hand, most of the stories I am complaining about are using a very different scenario-- the warriors in most stories are not random farmers, but members of a "warrior class" who ARE rather analogous to athletes and who spend years training to lift heavy metal weapons.

      Personally, I think that the "pull" of a character depends more on the author's writing skill than on the particular path chosen by that character, and that traditional warrior-roles are often less interesting than the lives of people who do less obviously heroic things. Quite likely we would pick up different books. :-)

  2. It often seems to me too that in contemporary culture of all kinds, girls are presented not as immature women but as failed boys, and the fantasy heroine's narrative arc is a quest to prove her masculinity.
    Before we get too doomy about the state of the culture: young readers' imaginations are very much shaped by computer games, which by their nature emphasise combat, and this emphasis crosses into fiction.
    Back in the sexist 1950s C S Lewis produced heroines whose warrior spirit complemented their femininity rather than overcame it. He was a Medievalist in his professional life and shared the Medieval Ideal that it was not the sword which made the Knight but his Honour, and a girl too petite to lift, let alone wield a broadsword could compete and triumph on those terms.

  3. I think in fiction, as in many areas of life, we have attempted to counter-balance the old sexism with a new kind. Instead of making the genders truly equal (and remember, as Madeline L'Engle said, "'like' and 'equal' are not the same thing") we have to make the girls just the same as the boys,

    Well, the truth is, they're not the same. (Shocker!)

    I have a cousin who is tall and strong enough to beat up any boy I know. She has two kids, but she runs more than 5 miles a day and is an exercise fanatic. But she doesn't know a thing about kung fu. I would make her a heroine in a book in a heartbeat, because she's an interesting, truly female character. Yes, she's a mom, but she's not typical or perfect. She has a sharp tongue and a soft heart. She empathetic, and tough. She can't do everything, but what she can, she does well.

    Just because male authors for centuries have portrayed us as weak, fickle, scheming, ensnaring harpies doesn't mean that when we finally get the pen, we can make ourselves angels. It doesn't mean the stories in which we are portrayed as weak, fickle, etc. are okay, either. I don't know that I'd go so far as to advocate for only reading the old books, but I would advocate for balance. In the extremes is danger, but in balance is truth.

    1. Perhaps the best way to handle all those books is to treat all characters as mere characters, instead of symbols. We can say, "Oh, this character is kind of a pathetic harpy," or, "Oh, this is a really admirable woman!" We can compare and contrast characters with each other and with real-life people, instead of with whatever our current ideal of femininity happens to be.

      Besides, there are lots of male authors from times past whose female characters are admirable, especially if we are willing to see them in the context of their own time. Penelope, Elaine, Bella Wilfer, Lucy Pevensie, etc.

  4. Great post, Anna! In the fantasy novel I've been writing for the last few years, I set myself the challenge of writing an interesting and proactive female main character who is completely untrained in warfare. It was a really fun exercise, especially once I discovered an actual manual for medieval women, Christine de Pisan's Treasury of the City of Ladies, which contains all sorts of information on women's place in medieval society. While it's fun to read about the occasional martial heroine (there's one in all the old epics), too much and it gets boring. By contrast, I find there's something extremely compelling about a heroine who must survive on her wits in a violent world.

    1. I look forward to seeing how you "handle" your heroine. I agree myself that a steady diet of martial heroines becomes monotonous. I also think that because some modern readers see a non-martial heroine as weak or a cop-out, creating a winning one requires extra effort and skill--and is well worth the effort.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...