Two Sides of the Coin

Alternately titled, “Women in Fantasy, and Why You Just Can’t Please Anyone.”

A recent post on Fantasy Nibbles got me thinking, once again, about the issue of women in fantasy, and how they’re portrayed. Now I’ll grant you, this doesn’t just apply to the fantasy genre, but it’s the one I know best, so let’s stick with it.

I figure there are two sides to every story, and I also find that most people focus only on one side of this debate. And if they admit the other side, it’s usually only to dismiss it with a healthy dose of scorn. So I’m here today to talk to you about both sides, but I’m going to start with the scorned one.


An word that most people admit you need to take seriously these days, and how all cultures need to be respected and understood before judgments get made. Except when it comes, of course, to a culture’s values when they go against your own. Then they’re fair game and need to be changed.

This is often at the heart of a lot of debates about women in fantasy, and I find that often the only consideration it gets is, as I previously stated, dismissal. People will argue and say that you can’t use the “excuse” of the culture the female characters were raised in to justify why they behave the way they do.

And I say, “Why not?” I’m not saying that every woman will be a happy housewife in such a case, but if you set up a culture in which only men are allowed to weild magic or blades, well, that’s why your sword-and-sorcery novel has two male protagonists and no women in sight! These things have to be taken into consideration, and moreso than just derisively saying that it’s not a good enough excuse.

When does it stop being an “excuse” and start being a “reason”?

Now yes, you can easily take this a step further and say that if the author’s going to create such a world then perhaps there’s some misogyny going on. Or perhaps the author doesn’t know how to write women properly. Or maybe they’re just more comfortable writing men. Or any number of other reasons.

Culture plays a big part in things. How we’re raised in this culture tells us that it’s fine — even expected — that we fight for those whom we see as oppressed. That we believe that women and men are equal in rights and potential. And our culture also teaches us that we have to be respectful of other cultures because they are just as right and valid and worthy of existing as we are. But that often does get throwh out the window when it comes to seeing other culture not following our ways.

I’ll give you a great real-world example: France “banning the burqa.”

“But Ria,” I hear you say, “Islam is a religion that oppresses woman and they’re forced to cover their faces, and the only justification is that it protects them from horny old men who can’t keep it in their pants!” And on some level… you’re utterly wrong. Because some followers of the religion only cover their heads with hijab, those pretty headscarves you see many Islamic women wearing. Faces exposed, hair covered. And it does have to do with sexuality, but less to do with horny men not keeping it in their pants. Consider it the equivalent of why in many places, women can’t walk around topless.

And, I’m going to point out, why many women don’t want to and wouldn’t even if they were allowed. Why? Because our culture has deemed that it’s unacceptable, even if the law says it’s okay. Is that wrong? Is the culture that says it’s perfectly fine for women to walk around bare-chested more or less “advanced” than our own?

With the example that I gave, many French-Islamic women were mightily PO’ed that even wearing the hijab was banned, that they couldn’t express their religion in a way that was literally nothing more threatening than a choice of clothing. It was oppression in the name of freedom. You’d think, if — as many people seem to express — that all women the world over secret want every right and cultural aspect of us in the civilized West, they’d be jumping for joy at an excuse not to cower under the patriarchy anymore. But no, they were happy with their lives, doing what they felt was right.

The point of this example was to show that culture is a tricky thing that needs to be taken into account, and that not every female needs to live up to Western standards of what a strong woman should be. Amazing though it may sound, some women actually enjoy being housewives. Some take the greatest pleasure in their lives being wives and mothers. Some have no interest in being what current stereotypes dictate a strong woman should be.

In forcing the “strong woman” stereotype, part of the old group that used to be pandered to is now alienated. Hell, sometimes the alienated group isn’t the one that used to be pandered to, either. Sometimes it’s the same group.

Look at a lot of 90s movies. Seriously, go look at them, especially the ones made for teens and young adults. The token characters are clear. That was done as an attempt to balance the scale a little, to try to give minorities more screentime, to try to be inclusive and correct old stereotypes. And what did it do? It created a new stereotype.

Don’t believe me? Can you honestly say that the kick-ass heroine in tight pants with a bared midriff isn’t a modern urban fantasy stereotype? Do you think it was done to objectify women? Not bloody likely. It was done as an attempt to create strong female lead characters. And what it did was just create another stereotype for people to rail against.

I’m not saying that stereotyping isn’t an issue, and that it doesn’t need to be addressed. But, well… As I mentioned on Fantasy Nibbles, I once saw a rant against an author who wrote a female lead who was strong, competent, and didn’t care about finding a romantic interest. The rant was that the author was downplaying female sexuality and pretending that it didn’t exist, and thus was being insulting to women the world over.

You can’t win ’em all.

Women are capable of being more than “the farmwife,” “the love interest,” and “the Amazonian warrior.” We’re all on board with that. But what we’re not on board with is that while women are capable of being more than those things, they’re also capable of being those things too. Tell me, and be honest about it, that you don’t know anybody in your life that couldn’t be summed up with a stereotypical role title. Are they less valid as people?

I understand the concern. Media isn’t always about portraying the way the world is so much as they way the world should be. When you write characters, you are, whether you intend it or not, creating role models, because somebody is going to relate to your characters. And it’s a good idea, then, to write role-models that are positive. In the case of women, write them as capable people, independant and able to live happily without a man at their side, with a weapon in hand, willing and able to do what it takes to get the job done.

(Oh, wait, scratch that “without a man” part, because in doing so, I guess I’ve just downplayed female sexuality again. Right. Women always need a man to be complete.)

Want to know one of my favourite characters in a novel, someone I consider my hero and role-model? Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, I shit you not, she’d been someone I’ve admired from childhood. Even if you assume everything that happened in her books is entirely fictional, she is a strong person, able to stand up for herself and endure repeated trials. She’s talented at the things she needs to do to get through life, even if those things are needing to know how to cook and sew properly. She may be afraid of many things, but she faces those fears because she has to. She knows how to sacrifice for the greater good. She’s feminine, but still able to go play ball with the boys. She doesn’t take crap from people, and doesn’t let injustice stand when she can do something about it.

If you ignore the name I mentioned, you’d probably think that was a recipe for a winning character, one whom today’s females can relate to and admire. But in the well-known name and remind yourself that she grew up to be nothing more than a farmer’s wife during a time when women were treated like property, and oops, I guess she’s not so strong after all.

Except that she is. A woman can be strong in her own right, without needing to be an ass-kicking tight-pants-wearing midriff-bearing sword-slinger. More important than a strong character, I think we need to see more real characters, and reasons behind their realism. I can relate to and draw greater inspiration from a Victorian-era farmwife than I can from a generic urban fantasy heroine these days, and I think that ought to say something in its own right.

So in conclusion, cultural background is important and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily, creating strength doesn’t have to mean screating a new stereotype, and you can’t please everyone.

4 comments on “Two Sides of the Coin

  1. Very interesting. I'm a big fan of culture in fiction and the culture behind fiction, so I definitely see where you're coming from.

    I think what's often missed is that all characters in a story can be stereotyped, of both sexes. You can look at a male lead in the same way as a female lead and pigeon hole them anywhichway you choose.

    Also, people in general aren't as good as writing women as they are men, because writers as a collective have had less practice. Up until recently, men were the penholders and so all dominant characters were also male.

    This has led to centuries of practice in writing realistic male characters, but not so much for women. We just need more time to get the balance right, I think :)

    Wow, that was long. I'll go have a lie down.

  2. Interesting stuff :)
    I'll be the first to admit I didn't really think yesterday's post too, usually it's water off a duck's back..but this week, it's just getting to me!

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