On Screaming a Lot and Being Rescued

June 1, 2011 § 25 Comments

So. I had a briefish twitter convo yesterday about this topic on the Guardian books page. Are SF/Fantasy authors given more consideration if they’re male? Are women writers overlooked?

If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking ‘not another ineffectual gender-inequality in modern culture discussion’, well, me too. For the most part I think authors write about what they’re interested in. If more women are interested in writing romance than men, and more men are interested in writing action-packed thrillers than women, well. That’s not a bad thing, and I don’t think the literary world will end. I don’t usually care which variety of genitalia is possessed by the author of any given book; the part that’s important is what the book is about.

Therefore, what interests me more is the prevalence of male heroes in SF and fantasy. Female protagonists are becoming more common as time goes by, certainly, but still, on balance, many books feature a lot more male characters than female ones, and the boys are usually in charge. This isn’t an enormous issue, either – again, the literary world is not going to end over it – but it is interesting. It’s possible that SF falls prey to the still-prevailing attitude that gadgets, technological wizardry and cool futuristic ideas are mostly for men, because women aren’t very interested. That may or may not be true, but what can we argue for fantasy? Is it Man-Territory because it often features swordplay, politics and intrigue? I think by now we’re well past the idea that girls can’t wield swords or be assassins or hold their own in politics.

A hazy theory that floats to mind is the influence of Tolkien. Those books are famously short on women characters, and the few that appear are a) given very little screen-time and b) tend to be passive. None of the nine companions are women. Rosie Cotton waits in the Shire for Sam to come back. Arwen spends the LOTR trilogy sitting in Rivendell until Aragorn’s finished his saving-the-world-and-becoming-king thing. Galadriel confines her involvement to hanging around in Lorien and giving out gifts. Eowyn’s the only one who has a direct role in the story, and even she has to achieve that by deceit in the face of strong disapproval. But these books were written at a time when it was still common for men to do the soldiering-forth, winning-of-the-bread thing and their wives did the housekeeping stuff. (Not without exception, naturally, but I’m talking about general expectations here). It’s inevitable for the values of the period to be reflected, to some extent, in literature.

However, Tolkien’s influence has extended far, far beyond his era. Even now, so many fantasy books are heavily influenced by the Lord of the Rings. I think it’s taking us a long time to stop viewing the world of fantasy through the lense of Tolkien-and-his-ilk; those whose fantasy epics are mostly Man-Territory, written by men about men’s adventures. This doesn’t explain the entire phenomenon, of course; just as Tolkien’s books were, in part, a product of his times, so were a lot of other books. What’s odd is that we’re no longer living in that world, but the legacy remains in fantasy.

One of my favourite ever authors, Tamora Pierce, has written many books featuring some really memorable female heroes. I read a blog post of hers recently where she revealed that she’s actually asked, quite frequently, why she writes about women so often. What kind of a question is that? To ask it suggests that there’s something contrary to expectations about an author (even a female one) writing primarily about female protagonists. Like it’s extraordinary enough to merit special comment, a choice that is somehow ODD. How in the world does that make sense? Women make up half the population of the world. Is it so strange that they should feature prominently in literature?

There are, of course, many other authors (male as well as female) producing some great heroines lately. On the other hand… it was pointed out on twitter that the genres of paranormal romance and urban fantasy (incredibly popular at the moment) actually have the opposite issue in that they feature female protagonists much more often than male. This appears to be true. But I don’t read much in these genres because every time I’ve read (or heard much about) books in these genres, I find myself spending time with some remarkably weedy ladies.

I’ve got no problem with characters (male or female) starting out from a position of passivity or inferiority. It can be thrilling to watch a character claw their way out of their assorted issues and proceed to kick some proverbial ass. But that’s not usually the case with para-romance and ‘urban’ fantasy (whatever the hell that means). These girls’ primary talents include Screaming A Lot, Being Kidnapped and Subsequently Rescued (invariably by cold, icily handsome princes). Their reward for these torments is to ride off into the sunset with the icily handsome guy who’ll make it possible for our heroine to remain eternally passive, and therefore, deeply dependent on (and controlled by) her man, to the end of her breathlessly happy days.

Hmm. What is this, the post-anti-anti-feminism backlash? What’s going on here? Through my childhood and teenage years I was reading voraciously about people like the clever and daring girl-detective Nancy Drew, and of course Tamora Pierce’s fabulously brave, combat-ready heroines. These days a lot of girls of that age are reading about ‘heroines’ whose life goals appear to consist of finding the perfect heartless man to be owned by for eternity. Their lives blow in the breeze, wholly subject to the influences of other people. It’s depressing.

Seems, then, that too often women are either largely absent from SF and fantasy, or they’re intolerably passive. Decorative more than active. There to be acted upon rather than to act. Why?

I don’t know why I’ve been getting on my high horse about the negative impact of some types of literature lately. I suppose it’s bothering me. Anyway, let’s talk. What kinds of heroes and heroines do you all like to read about – or write about? Do you think it’s true that fantasy and SF are too often short on active heroines? And if I have any fans of para-romance and urban fantasy among my readers, do share. What is it about these genres that appeals? Am I wrong about the generality of protagonists in these types of books?

PS: In my next post I’ll be sharing my next set of e-book recommendations. I’ve come across some great stuff lately. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ones I liked best feature clever, daring heroines who aren’t afraid to take risks and flout conventions! If you’ve got any like recommendations to share with me, please comment! I love discovering new stuff.

The first Tamora Pierce book I ever read. Think there's anything remotely feeble about this girl? :P

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§ 25 Responses to On Screaming a Lot and Being Rescued

  • Katy says:

    This is a great post. Very interesting.

  • lyonesse2710 says:

    Hmm thats a very interesting post and raises some intriguing questions. I’ve had a number of conversations with various assorted different people recently about roughly this sort of thing, and it boils down to character believability, I suppose. I’ve been told – by men as well as women – that women are often a great deal harder to write as convincing characters than men. Its difficult to get sufficient depth (apparently) to suitably and appropriately convey a woman’s response to a situation, for example. Not sure if that’s the sole and complete cause of the imbalance in female protagonists, but it may be a factor. What it boils down to, I suppose, is that women often think in circles whereas men think in straight lines. Bizarre concept I know, but in all my reading (and a lot of my tea cup philosophising) it does seem to be a concept / explanation that crops up again and again and again. Food for thought, perhaps…

    Tamora Pierce… definitely one of my all time favourite authors! I’ll have to bring along a couple of other books you might like which also feature strong female protagonists in a sort of epic fantasy setting…

    • Charlotte says:

      Interesting point, but puzzling too. I can’t imagine why a woman would be so much harder to write about than a man. I’m wary of it as an explanation because it seems to suppose that women are all very similar to one another – and men are of a consistent, very different category too. It’s pretty belittling to men to suggest that they’re more shallow and therefore easy to write about! And heavens, I can think of plenty of incredibly shallow women who really don’t have any of that supposed ‘depth’. But it’s an intriguing idea to consider. Thanks for sharing.

      Oh, books. Please do, though share details first! I may already have/have read some of them.

      • lyonesse2710 says:

        Robin McKinley – ‘The Blue Sword’ and ‘The Hero and the Crown’

        And actually, I liked ‘Graceling’ by Kirsten Cashore as well – yes, the main character Katsa is a real tom boy but I liked her that way. I certainly never saw her as a man with breasts! The sequel ‘Fire’ is very good as well.

        I still think you’d enjoy Freda Warrington’s ‘The Court of the Midnight King’ for a female lead character who is strong, believable, but still feminine. Excellent book, like so much else that she’s written.

      • lyonesse2710 says:

        Oh and incidentally, I fully agree with you about it being rather belittling to try and cram men and women into specific guidelines. I posted it more because its the only arguement I’ve encountered repeatedly and I found it rather intriguing. I suppose if you go back to the celtic myths and legends, you certainly find both men and women in strong roles throughout all of those… This restriction of women to home tender / damsel in distress seems to be a more recent thing, though still rather old fashioned by today’s standards. A sign of the changing times, I suppose…

  • DarcKnyt says:

    A very well-worded post about an interesting and thought-provoking topic, Charlotte. I’ll be interested to see what comes of the conversation.

    I, myself, couldn’t answer your question. I think for me gender has less to do with protagonist likability than…well, likability, I guess. But that’s me.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Darc. I suppose it was always going to be a topic that would get the girls going, but maybe not the guys so much. You’re perfectly right that gender doesn’t have much (or anything) to do with a character’s likeability; that’s not really the issue here. But actually I’m glad to know that some (hopefully plenty of) readers are that open-minded about it. I’ve known some blokes who wouldn’t touch a book that featured a female protagonist, and vice versa of course. It’s a sadly narrow-minded approach. As far as likeability goes, characters absolutely should be assessed on every point except categories like gender.

  • Katy says:

    Just thought I’d add, that although not exactly the fantasy literature you are referring to, Joss Whedon still remains one of my biggest idols for creating a female heroine in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s quoted as saying “When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men that not only have no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact engaged and even attracted to the idea.”
    He saw the absence of strong female heroines and set out to fill it. He followed with Dollhouse, also with a lead female, and also a brilliant show.
    By recognising a gap, whether it be in books, on tv or in film, we are giving ourselves the opportunity to fill a niche, perhaps long overdue.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Katy. Joss Whedon is a great example! I love him to death. Though actually I never got into Buffy (at least the TV series – I loved the original film, even though I was a kid when it came out). When I think Joss Whedon I think Firefly. Brilliant stuff. The captain may be a male, but his second in command, Zoe, is every bit as tough and as good a leader. And then the ship’s engineer is a woman, and their charismatic and influential ‘ambassador’ also. Joss is fabulous at writing terrific female characters (which is proof enough that you don’t have to be a female writer to pull that one off).

  • mapelba says:

    I had this lovely long comment written and then lost it. Well, all I’m going to say this time around is that I don’t think a discussion of gender-inequality in modern culture is pointless. As you point out, we are half the world’s population. Why would talking about inequality be pointless?

    All good points.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Mapelba. You’re right to call me on ‘pointless’. Bad word to use. I prefer ‘ineffectual’ (actually I think I’ll change it to that). I find it ineffectual sometimes for two reasons:
      1) The problem of gender inequality in culture is only a small part of a much bigger, really important issue. A lot of discussions focus on culture to the exclusion of all the rest, and I think that’s missing a lot of the point. Furthermore, people talk a lot about unfairness towards women but few people talk about the ways we stereotype, belittle and confine men into given roles as well.
      2) Conversation is often followed by.. nothing. Talking about it is fine, but only talking about it and failing to act on it irritates me.

      • mapelba says:

        Have you heard the line, “All the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are brave.” Part of that is meant to speak to the issue that when we talk about women, people presume white women–and how black women are left out of all those conversations. And of course you could include many other groups as well. The late sci-fi author Octavia Butler had lots of people confused because she was a black woman writing in the genre.

        But we’ve got to start somewhere. A lot of conversation leads to nothing, but little happens without it.

        Good topic!

  • gabriellan says:

    Like Katy said, Joss Whedon is awesome. Buffy was one of the coolest characters ever. And Cordelia Chase, once you got into the spin-off series, Angel, was pretty awesome, too.

    I really like this post, particularly because I was bemoaning this same subject to my sister just the other day. When I was younger and read all my books from the Juvenile section, there were a lot more fun, gutsy female characters in the stories.

    But, when I started reading YA, I was inundated with stories featuring wishy-washy, somebody-come-save-me characters. I see it a lot particularly in paranormal but I’m trying very hard not to stereotype the whole genre. Even in, say, coming of age stories, the girl main character is usually incapable of doing anything until a guy comes along and forces her to act.

    Science fiction and action stories are basically my favorite things to read, but it’s hard to find any with good female roles. Usually there’s just the pretty girl on the sidelines to be the hero’s girlfriend.

    It’d be nice to read a really good sci-fi with a good female lead. I’m thinking I’ll have to check out Tamora Pierce, since so many people recommend her!

    • Charlotte says:

      Hello Gabrielle, thanks for reading! I had the same experience with my reading. I can’t begin to guess what’s caused this apparent backsliding but somebody needs to turn it around already. Not stereotyping a genre is laudable, but the question is, what makes a book fit into a given genre? If wishy-washy, passive heroines are becoming a prominent feature of the paranormal romance genre – a fairly integral part of the type of stories that are being told within that category – then that’s something that ought to be recognised and discussed.

      Oh, please do give Ms. Pierce a try. There’s no one to beat her for really terrific girl characters. The Tortall books are my favourites: it’s a set of series’ that follow on from one another. You begin with Alanna’s four books, then move on to the Immortals series (my favourites), in which Alanna and some of her friends will turn up again. The continuity is nice, and each series features a new, fantastic, kick-ass heroine. Love her.

      I think I’m going to have to make it a priority to hunt up some more currently active authors who are producing some great, strong heroines. These sorts of books ought to be shared as widely as possible!

  • Lissa says:

    I wrote my honours thesis on the power struggle between the genders of two cross-dressing Shakespeare plays (The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth night, in case anyone’s interested). This is very much my kind of article.
    Let’s address the questions:

    I love to read about female characters who are just as capable as men while retaining some aspect of their femininity. The women I write will jump in guns blazing, have no qualms about being violent when they need to be, and often will react first and better than the men I write. That’s not to slight the men: it’s just that the women are my heroes, not the men. The women will rescue the men, come up with the plans, and all that stuff that is traditionally the men’s role in fantasy and sci-fi. Two of my heroines, while being gutsy and brave, also happen to be pregnant for a majority of their novels. Xena and Buffy were two major influences: characters that not only give the men a run for their money, but often beat the men as well.

    Fantasy and sci-fi are short on active heroines. The stories are mostly written by men, so they mostly are about men. Women are often reduced to damsels in distress and trophies, or love interests. There are women writers out there, and they do make interesting female characters, but overwhelmingly the market is written (and read) by males.

    I can answer the paranormal and urban fantasy question. Paranormal is often about romance, so the women in those are often teenage human, wishy-washy damsels such as Bella (Twilight), Nora (Hush Hush) and Luce (Fallen), who fall in love with other-worldly creatures like vampires, werewolves, and angels. They are still weak humans and need to be saved, and their main goal is to be in a relationship with their man. They have no outside hobbies or interests.

    Urban fantasy often star women who are somewhat magical like demon hunters, witches, werewolves or vampires so they are tough kick-ass heroines like Cat (Night Huntress) or Anita Blake. These women often have jobs that revolve around some kind of demon hunting.

    Different things about these genres appeal: some women like the romance aspect of the paranormals – the men are also always represented as the ultimate Apollo, totally god-like in appearance (and not much else). The men (boys) in these books also often are moody, unpredictable, and sometimes even treat their women mean. In urban fantasy, the women are mostly young women (not teenagers) who can give and take punches. Sometimes they need rescuing, but only because they’ve been beaten or tortured (mostly). Most of the time they can look after themselves – in fact, their independence is often a source of conflict when developing relationships with men.

    Wowza – sorry for the essay. I can go on but I’m sure other people have interesting things to add.

    • Charlotte says:

      Lissa, you can write essays on here anytime. Terrific stuff.

      - Retaining some aspect of femininity is important. Not that I’m against girls who’ve mastered all the things that make men pre-eminent, but creating a strong heroine by effectively turning her into a man with breasts is rather missing the point.
      - I wonder if it’s still true that the fantasy and sci-fi markets are primarily read by males? It’s a hard question to answer, really, but I’m not sure that female readers are so much less active here. What does appear to be happening is the notion that female fantasy readers and writers read and write completely different sorts of novels. I.e. really light on the action/politics/tension/drama/trauma. Predominantly romantic, where the girls are primarily fairytale romantic heroines and the men are Prince Charming. There’s room for some of this, of course, but to see it transforming the genre is worrying. I think it’s sad enough that some men think that way; to see women writers pandering to it really aggravates me. But then again, why do so many people read it? Maybe I’m deluding myself if I think girls in general can be, and should be, better than the damsel in distress. Maybe it’s just the minority of us who want more than that. Depressing thought.
      - Thanks for enlightening me about the differences between the two. Though I’m more confused than ever about why they’re so often bracketed together; they sound quite fundamentally different beneath the superficial similarities of paranormal events and supernatural characters. But then, people have been bracketing fantasy and sci-fi together for years. On the strength of those definitions, I may give urban fantasy more of a try. Do you have any titles to recommend?

      -

      • Lissa says:

        - “creating a strong heroine by effectively turning her into a man with breasts is rather missing the point.” – Avoid YA book Graceling by Kirsten Cashore. Her version of feminism means turning Katsa (figuratively) into a man.

        - I think the fantasy and sci-fi markets still are predominantly written and read by men. Women are making their mark in the subgenres paranormal, urban fantasy, dystopia, and ALL OVER Young Adult. I think women do write their books differently: my sci-fi doesn’t focus so much on the science, but the relationship between my protagonist and her husband. You are certainly NOT deluding yourself wanting more than damsels in distress, but paranormal romances are primarily aimed at the YA market, with teenage girl readers. They identify so strongly with the helpless girl and the OMGTRUELOVE that the heroines of the same age go through (Bella, Nora, Luce etc).

        -I recommend the Night Huntress series by Jeanniene Frost (urban fantasy), and Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead (paranormal, but not with a helpless girl lead. In fact, Rose kicks the most ass of any girl I’ve read). I’m not even into vampires, but I’d recommend these to anyone. I’ve also heard a lot of good things about the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter books by Laurell K Hamilton, but I haven’t read them yet. I’m not really into urban fantasy.

        PA I have a male pacifist in my high fantasy. He’s also gay, but that’s not his best feature.

  • Andy says:

    “I think by now we’re well past the idea that girls can’t wield swords or be assassins or hold their own in politics.”

    They totally can… as long are they’re in a two-piece or showing at least 80% cleavage.

    You know what’s interesting, I follow manga (Japanese style comics) and even there, at least in the most popular series, the ‘heroines’ are often confined to a passive or supportive role e.g. girl with magical healing powers who gives the male protagonist a reason to fight and protect the people he loves. It annoys me to no end because these female characters are quite capable of kicking some serious butt.

    I like it when a male and female are both featured prominently as the titular characters, kind of like, hmm… actually none come to mind at the moment sadly.

    • Charlotte says:

      Anndyyy! Hi. Yes. The objectification of women in literature and media is something I could write another whole essay about. In this scenario, women are given a tougher role only because it’s a different type of male fantasy (bordering on dominatrix territory). It’s still a million miles away from a fair or remotely ‘real’ portrait of women in general.

      I don’t know anything about manga, so that’s interesting to hear. In a depressing way. Women-as-healers is a common interpretation… motherly, caring, loving and totally incapable of standing up for themselves at all. Sigh. Not that there shouldn’t be any women characters like that, it just shouldn’t be the only role the girls are allowed to fill. And what about men who are paternal, caring, loving and possibly pacifistic? You don’t see that very often either, I suppose because it’s taken as emasculating them. Such a character would inevitably be interpreted as gay, because you can’t be a red-blooded hetero male and have those sorts of qualities. That’s equally absurd.

  • Ellie says:

    I spied your twitter conversation – i just wanted to jump in but thought that may be rude. Great post.

  • Jessica says:

    I loved, loved, LOVED this post. I absolutely, undoubtedly, wholeheatedly agree with you!!!

    Too bad I missed the Twitter convo. I bet it was rather entertaining from an outside perspective.

  • [...] Say something about No. 5. I enjoy reading Charlotte’s posts, particularly what she had to say about females in fantasy. [...]

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