“Fantasy,” After All, has Several Meanings

Writing fantasy worlds is great. If you think something would be awesome, and you wish it existed, you can throw it in and examine the implications that ripple out from there! And that goes not just for elves and dragons. It’s just as true of, say, total gender equality.

Certainly not everything in fantasy is, or should be interpreted as, some author’s perfect world. Elements like gender equality – or racial equality, religious freedom, and other serious issues – can be handled any number of ways. Maybe a particular issue is irrelevant to the themes of the work, so the author spends little time on it. Maybe the author chooses to make a point by using a uniquely fantastical approach that allows readers to look at the issue from an unconventional view. The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones, for example, contains racial conflicts between two human races in a fantasy world, neither of which much resembles any specific ethnicity of the real world. This lets readers think about racial conflict – and the dynamics of nations at war – without pulling in preconceptions about specific real-world races and cultures. (This can also be said of any conflict between humans and other intelligent species in fantasy or science fiction.) Then, too, an author might write a world that is the opposite of her ideal, making readers think hard about the danger of extremes. Science fiction often takes current ideas through to possible logical conclusions, ending up somewhere strange and sometimes disturbing.

There is real value, however, in writing a world as you’d like to see it. Obviously, if you’re serious, then you need to account for:
1. How this developed/how it works, and
2. How it affects everything else.
That’s true whether you’re talking about dragons or societal constructs. Of course, with dragons, you get more leeway in answering Question 1. After all, no one expects your world’s explanation to make an impossible creature possible. If, on the other hand, your world is full of humans with no unreasonable prejudices, readers may be a little more skeptical of the explanation, “Because of magic!” That shouldn’t be a deterrent if you want to try. After all, fantasy is about imagination, and imagining a thing – whether on the level of an individual or a society – is the first step to achieving it. (Except, you know, for things that were achieved totally by accident.) If even your fantasy world can’t be made to function like your ideal for the real world, that says something about either your imagination or your ideal.

The above is a long, winding introduction to my topic of the day, which is the following: Gender assumptions are sneaky, sneaky, sneaky. My fantasy worldbuilding and writing, as you may have guessed, tries to avoid culturally-ingrained sexism and gender stereotypes. This is because:
1. I would not enjoy writing a world where average people – i.e. people who aren’t necessarily unpleasant antagonists – are routinely sexist.
2. I can give female characters the same sorts of adventures that male ones could have, and they don’t have to dress up as boys to have ’em.
3. I want my world to express two ideas: That sexism isn’t an inherent and unavoidable starting point for a culture, and that a world can function with real gender equality – can function better in some ways than ours does, or at least than ours did at a more-comparable point in history.
I recognize that I’m missing out on some dynamics and potential conflict, but I’m happy with the trade-off.

A lot of sword-and-sorcery fantasy is based largely on a mixture of Tolkien and European medieval history – hardly a haven of perfect equality and acceptance. My world, I realized recently, has more in common with Elizabethan or early Stuart-era Britain. That gives me a rough reference point for technology and cultural sophistication (i.e. the sizes of cities), but obviously a lot of things have to work differently to make this a world without sexism. Mostly, I’m pretty pleased with the results. But I’ll say it again: sneaky.

What caught me specifically was the reactions of characters toward antagonists of their own genders. My current novel, The Dogwatchers, has a young female protagonist from a working-class background. When she encounters a girl her own age who is frilly, privileged, and nasty, she is made to feel plain. Not only does the antagonist tease her about her looks – her very presence causes the protagonist to feel self-conscious about her appearance. That felt organic to write, natural to my own experience.

But: Would I have written that of a male character?

Of course not. Male characters seldom feel “plain.” Indeed, we are much more rarely aware of a male protagonist’s opinion of his own attractiveness than we are of a female protagonist’s opinion of hers. But what does intimidate male characters? Antagonists who are described as physically threatening. You know the ones. They are “hulking.” They may not even be the actual antagonists so much as his goons – think Crabbe and Goyle. If Harry had been female, and Draco and pals were three “mean girls,” would Harry have worried about how big they were? Again: of course not. In one of the later books, Pansy Parkinson taunts Angelina Johnson about her appearance, saying her hair looks like worms. Draco does not make fun of Harry’s hair. That simply isn’t the way male characters operate.

It concerned me to realize this. Rowling’s characters act normally given that, for most cultural intents and purposes, they live in our world. But in a work that attempts to portray gender equality, why did I find myself writing female characters who feel good or bad based on their looks, while male characters skip merrily along without giving their appearances a second thought? The unsettling idea was brought home by this article, which claims that in our culture men are taught to value “universally accepted ethical ideals” like compassion, kindness, courage, and integrity, while women are taught to value their physical attractiveness and purity – essentially, their sexuality, whether they choose to use it or not. Neither of these is actually true of The Dogwatchers – the protagonist puts more stock in her own intelligence, bravery, and kindness than in her attractiveness, while a major male character is insecure about his appearance because it is so unusual.

In the end, I decided that the scene with the frilly antagonist was fine, but that this was something to keep an eye on. It’s easy to look back at Elizabethan times, with all of the associated prejudices, and think that one is writing a sexism-free society. It’s much harder to recognize some subtle forms of sexism that are still kicking in modern-day America.

Anyone else have examples of sneaky, sneaky gender assumptions, from fiction or reality?

4 thoughts on ““Fantasy,” After All, has Several Meanings

  • Not a gender assumption, per se, but a friend once pointed out to me that although anyone in my world can theoretically learn magic, the ones with especially powerful or rare abilities were overwhelmingly male. I don’t think I’m a closet sexist, so I’ve chalked that up to author appeal. I like to see kickass male characters–call it the Twilight effect–so I write them. I’ve since added a couple female ones, though, to even out the percentages. Luckily, you can never have too many kickass characters.

    Just to muddy the waters in your looks vs. size example, yes, it’s telling that males don’t worry about looks to nearly the extent that females do. But as you’ve pointed out, neither do females worry about size. Do you think the fact that girls just don’t worry about being beaten up on the playground by other girls is a symptom of sexist society, or is it a genuine difference in the way girls socialize? If so, is that difference biological or cultural, and if cultural, can it be traced back to anything other than sexism? Can there be any cultural differences between the sexes that are not unfair to one or the other?

    • I like that – the Twilight effect. That’s happened to me, too.

      I think you make a good point about different socialization styles – and I do think there’s a possibility that some of these things are biological, though certainly a lot of them are cultural. There are some culturally-ingrained gender assumptions that don’t seem sexist in any sort of bad way, but I’ve still been trying to avoid them in my fantasy world just to see what things are like without making those assumptions. If something’s biological, on the other hand, my humans are still supposed to be humans . . .

  • Neither of these particularly answer your question, but:

    I realized recently that in my new novel my female protagonist, alas, *was* having too many adventures on her own. She lives in a society that is remarkably egalitarian compared to the rest of her world, but she’s rich and has to follow the old rules about how women behave – which means that she can’t go wandering around the city alone like I had her doing. However, dealing with this fact actually made the story more interesting, so I don’t mind. And I’m definitely glad that the male protagonist, who isn’t rich and whose mother is a smart, driven entrepreneur, doesn’t have to be really sexist.

    I think one of the most important realizations I’ve had about portrayals of women in fantasy / assumptions about women in general was the discovery that “women’s work” is not a universal constant. In the past women haven’t just been confined to cooking, cleaning, and raising babies. They’ve been completely responsible for farming, for local trade, and for administrating related areas of society. We imagine them as stuck in their houses, but sometimes the house isn’t even their husband’s – in matrilineal societies men often move in with their wife’s family. Most importantly, female work hasn’t always been perceived as completely inferior to male work. It’s been praised and respected as different but equal. I would like to read portrayals of societies like these!

    Did I mention that I really loved my Early American Women’s History class? 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *