Friday, July 22, 2011

Gender Roles

I've always very conscious of the roles/career choices of my characters. Part is definitely due to the time period in which I grew up as well as the character gender roles in a lot of the fantasy and science fiction stories I read or watched at the time. Which is why I'm going to react here to a post by N.K. Jemisin "The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy" and some of its comments. You can read it for yourself, but what I took away from it was the impression that some think the pendulum has swung too far in regard to the reaction of many writers trying to write strong women characters: i.e., that there are too many swordswinging female characters in fantasy.

Now, I realize that what one considers 'too many' may be due to when one starts reading. I grew up at a time when female main characters were rare. Females were always background characters - part of the crowd scenes or the prize at the end of a story. Fantasy did have some strong female characters in the Oz books (one did not mess with Glinda or Ozma) but in The Lord of the Rings, Eowyn, valued for her manor-keeping abilities, had to disguise herself as a man in order to be the person she wanted to be - and then she was given away as a prize at the end. [imho]. Females in general were valued for their cooking or sewing or manor-keeping skills.

Then women started to become the fighters as well as the keepers of the hearth. Girls who watched Uhura and Nurse Chapel in the original Star Trek (excuse the sf example) could find role models for their daughters in Princess Leia and Captain Janeway and even Xena. Lessa of Pern was a dragonrider as well the manager of a weyr. As someone who was told repeatedly both in person and via stories and media that I couldn't do something because I was a girl, to me this change was very welcome. For me, there can't be 'too many' stories with strong female characters or characters who choose a career or role outside of the 'normal' gender role. Or even within, so long as it is their choice and not something society forces on them. I hate it when people automatically decide that the female in the story, whether on a quest or in a village, has to be the cook or the child rearer.

Sometimes it seems as though the writer has to create an ensemble cast, much like the friends in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, in order to keep the critics at bay. For every female character that likes adventure but disdains "frou-frou"s (Applejack and Rainbow Dash), you also have to have the fashion expert (Rarity) and cook (Pinkie Pie). Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series has something similar with characters able to handle different types of magic: thread (which includes weaving), plant (which includes food as well as medicine and crops), lightning, and fire (metal-working).

Some of the commenters were unhappy with books where the female character can't sew and 'thinks she's better" than other women because of it. Couldn't this character be a role model for those who can't sew and were continually put down because of their lack of this so-called essential female skill? Why is the lack of a skill suddenly shorthand for someone 'thinking she's better' than someone who possesses the skill? Would it be better if someone who couldn't cook felt miserable all the time because of that? Or wouldn't you want a character comfortable enough with herself to be able to admit she's not good in a particular area? Though, if that was the point of the story - the growth from 'I can't do this' to 'I can't do this but that's okay because I can do this other thing' - that would be different.

Fortunately, YA fantasy usually focuses on a young person learning what they can do. For every young girl wanting to become a knight (such as in Tamora Pierce's Alanna series or Protector of the Small series), there's a young girl whose skill in decorating hats leads to her discovering her own magic (Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle). For every girl who wants to learn about magical beasts (such as in Patricia McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld), there's another who just wants to learn magic (okay, in Diana Wynne Jones' Year of the Griffin, the young girl is a griffin, but there's also Diane Duane's Young Wizards series or Hermione in Harry Potter).

I definitely agree with the conclusion of N.K. Jemisin's piece, that what is needed is more variety of female characters. Writers to write them and readers to want to read about them. Discussion is a good first step.

Do you have any favorite female characters in fantasy?


  1. I think the commentors objected to lack of sewing ability because it really is an _essential_ skill in certain settings and roles. If you can't do your own clothing repairs, on a ship, on a military campaign, on a quest, then you'd better be really nice to the guy next to you who can.

    And then there's the type of character (and real person!) who is proud of their inability to do something. Or proud of never having done something. When actually when it comes to useful life skills, maybe you ought to think about learning them. You don't have to be a talented sewer to be able to put a button back on your shirt. But you do have to be willing to learn how.

    I know I'm one of the ones who objects to 'strong' women being the women holding swords and guns. I think we like seeing some of these, like the next person, but we just want some variety!

  2. I love this post. Why? In one of my historical Night Warriors books, the main character cannot sew to save her life. She CAN cook, but she has no interest in any of the things other girls do. She is, however, one heck of a fighter. She consoles herself that she can cook, because her brother raised her, and he cooks, as well.

    In my books, my hero and heroine are typically equals in some way. Even if they aren't both fighters, they have complementary skills, and the women are never powerless.

    If people are threatened by that, they are. Too bad. They aren't my audience. Nothing more. Nothing less.


  3. My Okal Rel Saga, written over many years, started out with the fighter-type female character (e.g. Vretla Vrel, or tough cookie Perry D'Aur) and is winding up looking at the role of more traditionally feminine women like Princess Samanda O'Pearl.

  4. I find gender roles fascinating, especially in fiction.

    I understand some of the sensitivity. Sometimes it seems like traditional feminine skills get overly belittled these days. Strong females are taunted for liking pink, or listing to "girly music", or enjoying fashion. The masculine is held as the ideal and, to be accepted as a true feminist or warrior woman, women have to conform to that ideal as much as possible and turn their backs on the frills.

    Not all the time. But, it happens.

  5. Some of my favorite female characters in fantasy are Mercedes Thompson in Patricia Briggs' books, Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett's books, Ista in Lois McMaster Bujold's book _Paladin of Souls_ and Gil Patterson in Barbara Hambly's Darwath books.

  6. Another article from the Telegraph