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.