Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sexism vs. Realism in Fantasy

Fantasy, in particular epic fantasy and historical fantasy, receives many complaints of sexism from some corners. While some of those are quite justified, others are not. To make writing this post easy, from here on, when I refer to fantasy, I am referring to the Tolkienesque genre that I usually refer to as epic fantasy, including all its near cousins, but excluding all modern settings such as urban fantasy.

There is one thing that separates fantasy from other genres (except maybe historical fiction) and that is its reliance on history. Particularly medieval and ancient history. I personally feel we have a somewhat stilted view of history because it is dominated by men when in reality the percentage had invariably been 50/50. However, there are a great many situations, many of them copied by fantasy authors, that were historically dominated by men, in excess of 90%. War, battles, adventure, quests, and the like dominate fantasy. When we use history as our guide, women are uncommon. And let's face it, as a society we know this so there is a perception that women in these situations, without a good reason, reduces believably. Fantasy authors could easily craft their own worlds where that is not the case, but that strays from the medieval model and skirts the edge of the genre.

So rather than judging a fantasy book on how many male characters or female characters they have, we should be judging on the quality of characters to determine if we should judge the writer and his work being guilty of sexism. If we take these historically based settings and look at how the writer has cast the roles, it will tell us a lot about how they view women. A long, hard, military campaign will be mostly men. Historically they had camp followers, something fantasy tends to avoid. But they also had the occasional female fighter and a scattering of other women who might be found, though this was more the exception. Agincourt had no women present, while some were occasionally reported in the crusades. So during a battle it would be unlikely to find any women present so we should not expect this in fantasy. It happens with some frequency, such as Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. If we take the genre as it has come down to us, as rewritten medieval history where magic exists, then this is to be expected and is not sexist. We must examine the nature of the female characters to determine if the writer is being historically accurate or sexists. Eowyn is a good example. She is not masculine in any way. She is niece to the King and is given charge of the kingdom when he and her brother ride off to war. She is capable so she follows, disguising herself and helping out Merry. When her uncle falls in battle, she is right there, fearlessly defending him against the Witch King of Angmar. It turns out that because she is a women, she can kill the Witch King and she succeeds in doing just that. So while Tolkien doesn't offer us many female characters, both Eowyn and Galadrial are just the sort we'd wish more of.

When you move away from the battlefield, a more normal ratio of characters should dominate. A visiting prince would meet the servants and others of a castle owner's family, but would be there as a guest and the number of occupants of the castle might vary considerably from just a few people in a small family to a huge extended family. In time of war a male owner might be absent and his wife would be in charge. The more people depicted, the more women should be included. Tolkien did not do a good job in this respect. Other writers since have done better. Oddly, even women writers tend to go to the castles and cities to create more female characters.

The one writer I feel excellent at being non- sexists in both composition and characterization was Robert Jordan. He started off with a group of men and women from a small town, his world features female magic users, strong female characters - very much equals of the men, and some romantic tension, but also some solid friendships between genders. When I read his Wheel of Time books, I felt a realism that is usually lacking.

One thing to keep in mind when looking for sexism in fantasy is the gender of the writer and how intimidated they may be by writing the opposite gender. I've noticed that this particularly strikes men who don't feel they can write women. It also relates to their personal experiences. Most men who have served in the military have done so during the time when only men were soldiers. Experience has tremendous impact on how each writers tells a story. Rather than calling sexism anytime the ration falls below 1/1, we should accept that not everyone has had the same experiences, not everyone is comfortable writing both genders, and not all stories take place in settings that call for equal representation of the genders.

What matters is the nature of the characters. Has the writer given us a women who could be their sister, mother, wife, or daughter, or is she a stereotype? Does she have a real role or is she there for sex? Does she have a mind of her own, or is she a puppet? I've read some sexist trash from the fifties and found it quite offensive. What some want to label as sexism is just an unbalance, which does exist in some situations and in some people's experiences. We should strive to attain as much balance as possible, but in a genre so closely tied to the real history of our world and to war, it is inevitable that some stories will not have balance so we must look to what they writer offers us to judge the charge of sexism fairly.

It isn't sexism if it is realism. Realism is what all the good writers strive for. Solid, real, female characters are what we are after. Role models for readers. Women we'd all be proud to know in real life. I'll take well written female characters in a good story over just trying to crunch numbers. Now if you can do both, that is the best of all worlds, but not all authors can do that. I'd rather we continue to strive for more balance and have good stories by great writers who can give us good female characters. Quality over quantity. Above all I want realism. Historical realism does not always lend itself to casting a story with an equal number of male and female characters. So let's be practical in how we judge sexism in fantasy. Let's strive for realism and get as many good female characters in as we can given the setting. If we do that, sexism in the genre will continue to recede to obscurity.

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