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, 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.