Monday, May 9, 2011

Feminism in Fantasy Literature

There is a sub-genre in fantasy that focuses mainly on female protagonists. Robin Mckinley. Patrica McKillip. Julliet Marillier. Sharon Shinn. Ellen Kushner. They each feature a feminine prospective in a genre that is usually riddled with long lost kings and brutal battle scenes. What is interesting is the different prospectives they give and the subtle ways they show them.

Robin Mckinley's protagonists are usually very straight forward female heroes. They wield swords along side men and stand up for their gender in the face of oppression. Her heroines are proud of being women and make sure everybody knows it. This used to annoy me. A lot. When I was young and didn't realize that gender equality wasn't self evident to everyone in the world. Now I sometimes wish her heroines would relax and just be without having to prove their independence to everybody all the time but I also understand that, especially in the context of a pseudo medieval society, that isn't always an option.

Patrica McKillip is almost the opposite. I have never encountered anything resembling gender inequality in her books. She has equal female and male characters who fight battles and rule kingdoms and play music together without ever thinking anything of it. Rather than fighting against oppression her heroines serve as an example simply by living in an idyllic world where no one has ever suggested that one gender is more important or able than the other. There might be certain social expectations but even those are seldom strongly enforced.

Julliet Marillier's characters are feminists in a way that took me a book or two before I recognized it as such. Rather than fight against expectations or live in a world where they don't exist, Marillier's characters are content to be domestic and nurturing. These skills are painted, however, in such a way that they are revered rather than looked down on. Her characters recognize that their roles are just as important as the "great deeds" performed by the men and are able to unlock secrets and magic everyone else might over look.

Ellen Kushner takes yet another approach. Her male and female characters tear down the constrains of both gender roles. Within the context of a very strict society her male and female characters fuss over silk and wield swords simultaneously.

I know that over all good characterization is more important than a "positive" feminine --or male --image but when I'm working with a historical society that enforces unfair expectations I am reluctant to allow them to get away with it. On the other hand I want the setting to remain authentic without too much modern thinking infiltrating its way into my characters' heads. I strive for a balance but I think I ere on the side too much modern thinking more often than too much accuracy.

What about you? Do you ever wonder about how you are representing gender in your manuscripts? Have you noticed any other ways authors deal with it? Or do you only worry about character and let any gender issues that arise take care of themselves?


  1. As in life, so in writing: I worry more about character. So many times, the other "measurables" of human form become incidental, but character is always important.

  2. For my near-future YA, I definitely incorporate gender issues b/c I think they're something we all deal with in one form or another. For a sci-fi, far-distant future I'm writing, it's not so much an issue.

  3. I thought about this a lot when writing my last novel. I have a woman MC who inherited a country and an army (in the distant future). I decided to make it a level playing field as far as no one questioning her leadership qualities or her fighting skills. But I don't neglect the differences between men and women. There's an entire subplot devoted to pregnancy and the responsibility of producing an heir that I think adds an interesting layer to the story.

    I love your observations. Very astute.

  4. Mohamed --You are right, character is always the most important.

    Bane --I like the hopeful undertones of your choice. Hopefully it won't be too distant before it isn't so much of an issue

    L.G. --Those differences do give a lot of interesting fodder for layered characters.

  5. Honestly, I don't think it really is much of an issue anymore. Feminists keep it an issue of their own accord. And I'd really rather not have it shoved down my throat when I'm reading for pleasure. I'll be avoiding Robin McKinley. Thanks for the warning. ;)

    In my current WIP I'd say I go for a combination of the Patrica McKillip and Julliet Marillier approach. It's set in a society where men and women are equal in the eyes of the law and equally respected by society but they also have very different cultural roles. I have four main characters, two men and two women, and they all indirectly represent different aspects of the cultural roles of their gender.

  6. Remember, that throughout history there are both strong males, and females who helped to shape the world in which we live today: the Celtic queen, Boudica; Czarina Catherine the Great; Queen Elizabeth I; and Queen Kristina just to name a few. While both genders do have their weaknesses, they also possess many strengths, many of which are shared. It's the differences that make your character interesting and unique.

  7. Sarah --It usually isn't much of an issue where people are making a big deal about it but I'm always surprised by the little places it manages to sneak up.

    Julius --you are very right. It's the differences that make them unique and the similarites that make them human.

  8. I worry about them but only after I've written my characters. I'm afraid I tend to be too traditional. I need to explore that more.
    Great post!