Heroes & Heroines: Females in Fantasy

I recently came across an interesting post over at Words about Words in response to an article posted on the Guardian website yesterday, entitled The incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers.

Now, despite my love of all things fantasy and a slight (read: considerable) reading obsession, I have to admit that until it was pointed out to me recently, I didn’t really notice the distinct lack of female presence in the science fiction and fantasy genre. I mean, I just wanted to get lost in the story, you know? I wasn’t really fussed if it was written by a man, woman or your neighbour’s talking llama, as long as it was well-written, entertaining, and for a few hours a day let me escape to my merry reading bubble.

But try as I may to reach my happy place, I found I simply could not with this new found information. I started noticing the severely unbalanced male to female writer ratio in my book collection and began questioning the male protagonists in my favourite stories. Whatever happened to Harriet Potter, the girl who lived? Did Tolkien not think Frodina could have saved Middle Earth? Surely Bella could have survived in a world without Edward Cullen saving the day every ten pages?

The revelation came to a head, however, on discovering that my favourite author had changed her name from Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, to the ambiguously gender neutral Robin Hobb when she began writing her bestselling series, The Farseer Trilogy, led by male protagonist Fitz. The reason? Apparently boys are reluctant to read anything written by girls for fear of catching girl germs and being subjected to lovey dovey romance scenes when what they’re really after is war, sword fights and Tarzan-like displays of chest-thumping male domination.

“Really?” I hear you ask. Well, apparently Hobb is not the only one afraid of this outcome. J.K. Rowling’s use of her first name initials is not mere happenstance, and when I recently attended this year’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Melbourne, I listened with interest as Australian fantasy author Jennifer Fallon expressed her regret at not giving herself a male pseudonym for similar reasons. In a recent interview she was asked, “If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?” To which she replied:

I’d go to the past, just before I was first published and change my name from Jennifer Fallon to John Fallon. Then all the boys out there who assume that all female fantasy writers write soppy romance fantasies would pick up my books and read them and I’d be much, much richer.

Now, I know boys can be pretty boneheaded, but for it to make such a difference in a society where I like to think we have reached some level of gender equality; for it to have reached the point where authors are putting considerable thought into changing their names in order to sell their books, well that does surprise me. Not to mention, it makes me consider my potential (and at this stage very distant) future in writing fantasy fiction. Should I be considering a male pseudonym?

Similarly, the Words about Words blog that brought me to this discussion also considers the lack of strong female heroes within the genre itself.   I’d like to entertain my suspicions that this has something to do with the fact that many (but by no means all) fantasy novels, are set in a mythical past, often resembling a folkloric history of our own.  Now although fantasy, and all speculative fiction, ultimately has the creative license to build a world that doesn’t adhere to what we know as reality, a reader needs something to connect with, something familiar in order for them to relate to and follow the story without too much effort on their behalf.  This is what M. Thomas refers to in his Teaching fantasy: Overcoming the stigma of fluff, as the “Blue Skies, Green Grass” theory:

A fantasy novel usually follows the “Blue Skies, Green Grass” theory.  It has oceans, mountains, forests, and fields.  It has small towns and big cities, usually medieval in setting but not always.  Many fantasy cultures have not yet reached an age of technological sophistication, and most, but not all, deal with some aspect of the supernatural world that has some historical basis in human myth–fairies and elves, for example. (Thomas 2003:60)

I bring you to this point because, if the reader is placed in a medieval type setting, then they might expect some level of medieval type principles, which would result in the men as the warriors and the women bearing the children type structure.  Perhaps this answers to the lack of female heroes? Perhaps not.

Joss Whedon - my brain crush (picture courtesy of screenrant.com)

Joss Whedon, writer and creator of the cult hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the upcoming Avengers movie, may not be a writer of literature, but his writing sits as high as the best of them, and just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with his brain. He created Buffy because he saw an absence of strong female characters and set out to rectify it. He refused to stick by the convention that a heroine needed to be warlike or ‘manly’. Buffy was, for all intents and purposes, a typical sixteen-year old girly girl and Joss is even 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.

Although he struggled to get Buffy off the ground, the show eventually prompted a change in small screen heroines and was significant in influencing the future of strong female characters on television as we now know it.

While I’m reluctant to enter the gender issue debate, I do think it’s worthwhile to recognise the gaps that might exist in any medium, because by doing so we give ourselves the opportunity, as women and as writers, to embrace a potential niche in the market and make it our own. Perhaps, if we pay heed to the absence of female writers and protagonists in fantasy fiction, then we might follow Joss’s example, endeavour to be pioneers, and make female characters more prevalent in the genre without misrepresenting or distorting the credibility of the historical and mythical worlds in which we place them.

Do I detect a challenge?

This post has since been published at Lip Magazine and All that is Wrong with the World.

~storytelling nomad~

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26 comments on “Heroes & Heroines: Females in Fantasy

  1. Joss Whedon is my hero. I remember the first time I watched an episode of Buffy, and I was completely hooked. I watched the entire series in the following month :)

    It’s hard to find characters as engaging as Buffy in YA fiction, at least for me. I really liked L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack character, Jacky – but half the time she’s masquerading as a man. The same for another favorite, strong female character of mine – Eona, in Alison Goodman’s novel Eon.

    Personally, I would love love love to find a book where the main character is a girl who doesn’t end up being rescued by a dark stranger. I’m just saying it would be nice.

    • I love Whedon, too, but for a different reason: Firefly. I’d say the heroine there would be Zoey, who is often more combative and aggressive than her male company. Still, she’s too loyal to the male leader to be a leader herself. That said, the show would never have really worked with two captains. Or even with Zoey as captain, because she was never given the personality to make viewers love her (like Mal.)

      • Firefly was amazing, and also sadly short lived. The fanbase remains, however, and is testament to the quality of the show. Yep, definitely Zoey. Joss is so good at strong female characters…Echo in Dollhouse is another. He must be awesome to work with too, because many of the actors have played in a number of his shows. Thanks for reading :)

    • He is amazing, isn’t he!?! I have the collectors edition DVD set, and I have watched it too many times to remember!
      I’m not familiar with the characters you’ve mentioned, but I’m interested to look into them. It would be nice though, wouldn’t it? I honestly don’t know if anyone can beat the Buffster, but we can always hope! Thanks so much for commenting Gabrielle!

  2. The gender ambiguous or male pseudonym issue makes me sad. Honestly, I personally don’t even look at authors names on books–unless it’s an author I’ve come to adore–though I know others do. Also, I don’t really like pseudonyms to begin with. Publish under your own name and gender proudly!

    Unfortunately, I will admit that sometimes I choose male main characters on purpose to make the story more “gender-neutral,” or “gender-friendly,” across the board. [shameful hang of head]

    Have you ever read the Sword of Truth series? I think it does a rather good job of presenting two main characters–one male, one female–who are mirror images of each other in strength and self-reliance.

    • I’m the same, the only thing I usually notice about an author’s name is whether I’ve heard of them before and if I like/loved them or not. I have never even considered not reading a book because I doubted a female author could convey the story well, or vice versa. Likewise, I never considered a pseudonym until recently!
      I haven’t read any Terry Goodwind, but I’ve heard good things. I will add it to my (scarily long) reading list. Thanks for that!

    • Although it isn’t the primary reason I write, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to see my name in print. But pen names seems to be worth at least considering.

  3. Hi Katy,

    The whole reason I’m doing the series of interviews of female fantasyauthors is because the perception in the US and the UK is that fantasy is a bt of a boy’s game.

    I’m also a big Joss Whedon fan. Firefly!

    • Boys shmoys! I must read through some more of your interviews with that in mind! Firefly! I’m just glad he got the Avengers gig…I have no doubt he’ll do a brilliant job of it, which might give him more (well deserved) prominence amongst the more mainstream movers and shakers in television and cinema…which could lead to more Whedon shows? A girl can only dream!

  4. George Sand, Leigh Brackett, J.K. Rowling, Jay Presson Allen, Andre Norton, P.D James, Dale Messick, Isak Dinesen, George Eliot (and that’s just off the top of my head), and this is still going on? Cripes.

  5. The whole argument about male/female and their attitudes always remind me of a quote from George Carlin:

    “Here’s all you have to know about men and women: women are crazy, men are stupid. And the main reason women are crazy is that men are stupid.”

    Not that it’s entirely true nor even relevant, but… that’s what it all reminds me of.

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  10. Joss Whedon my brain crush – HA, love it! Me too, that guy is practically a demi-god in my eyes.
    My media teacher did have a debate with me once on Buffy about the ‘girl power’ and the fact that even though she is a strong character she still has to be visually appealing to males. I refuse to to agree with that though, I understand what they are getting at but if they’re suggesting a female has to me MALE-LIKE to be strong that’s not quite right either.
    Who says you can’t be kick ass and sexy at the same time?!? :P

    • Who says, indeed!!!! And yes, Joss Whedon is a demi-god! Did you see this, the other day? Amber Benson, Felicia Day, Patrick Rothfuss and John Scalzi all on video having a roundtable discussion about writing. *Swoon*

  11. If it is a challenge you see, perhaps it might be one worth taking up just because you can.

    I quite agree with your points here – however I would like to add something. Being in India there is definitely a severe limitation on what books are available and what are not and that often depends on which ones sell well enough abroad to justify bringing them here. And unfortunately, far too often I see stories of fantasy tales being written by female authors and the blurbs and such almost always seem to have some point in there about “will they be able to keep their passion in check while war rages around them?” or some other such romantic-y reference and all it does is reinforce the stereotype.
    I can’t say if all those stories have a stronger focus on the romance angle than their male counterparts (who also have love interests in their books, albiet not always and not always present in the bulk of the narrative) but they definitely give the impression they do and I feel that at least based on what I’ve seen, they often are so. And this is something that is the same regardless of whether their protagonist is male or female, someone is always in love or will clearly be in soon.

    I think female authors themselves need to break out of their own brains a little on this matter, stop thinking like a woman (in a manner of speaking) – specifically when it comes to fantasy stories.
    And for the sake of all that is sacred in literature: I would plead with women everywhere to stop with the twilight! It’s the most terribly written book I’ve ever forced myself to try (I couldn’t even finish the first one) and the way those hordes of not just girls, but WOMEN react to it does nothing but reinforce the stereotype that this is what women want and make agents and publishers seek out writer who either write stuff like it or are willing to make it happen.

    Sorry for my long, rambling post, couldn’t help the thought dump that just came through while reading.
    Oh and I think if it was possible, I’d say I’m pretty much goofy over Whedon’s brain as well – browncoat for life!
    Cheers.

    • Thanks for your comment, Spider42. It’s an interesting debate, and you make some excellent points.

      We could certainly all do ourselves a favour and write outside what’s expected of our gender, but I guess storytelling is not always about making a statement or changing the world, so much as telling the story within. If the majority of females writers are inclined to write lovey dovey scenes, then my advice to them would be go for it. You have to write what is true for you, and there is obviously a market for it. Likewise with Twilight; it’s poorly written and contains a lot of nonsense, but it resonates with a large proportion of young female readers, and I wouldn’t hold that against anybody. Teenage girls, in all their self-indulgence, need something to read too, after all.

      I think the problem is that there will always be women who write romances, just as there will always be men who write fighting, sword and war stories. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t make assumptions that ALL females write romance and ALL men write fighting books, and that writers don’t feel pigeonholed to write by those stereotypes.

      And perhaps more importantly, that we readers don’t determine what books we buy according to those assumptions.

      Thanks for the weekend reflection. It’s definitely a topic worth revisiting!

      • You’re most welcome, I enjoy and actually look forward to discussion on genuinely interesting topics.

        Thanks and I have to say I completely agree with everything you’ve just said.

        Cheers!

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