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December 8, 2012 2:26 PM   Subscribe

I am BUSY today, far too busy for a rant, but then I felt one coming on, and was worried I might end up with a migraine if I tried to stifle it. You know how it is. So let’s talk about sexism in history vs. sexism in fantasy.

Dan Wohl at The Mary Sue examines the idea that actually existing historical sexism can excuse sexism in fantasy fiction, on which Tansy Rayner Roberts, quoted above, elaborates:
History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.
(Tangentially related, Kimberly Klimek's dissertation Forgetting the Weakness of Her Sex and a Woman’s Softness: Historians of the Anglo-Norman World and their Female Subjects which looks at a particular period in history often used as inspiration for fantasy novels, which was particularly rich both in historians and interesting and powerful women both.)
posted by MartinWisse (127 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
The series Rome, which I enjoyed for the most part (well, at least the first season), was a particular offender in this. There's a ton of really important women in the Late Republic that they just ignored, though we know a lot about them, in favour of the entirely fictional sex adventures and revenge porn that was Atia vs Servilia. Don't get me started on what they did to Livia, who was essentially tossed on screen to indulge in mild kink with Octavian, or Octavia, who was there bascially to commit incest and be trod all over by everyone.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:45 PM on December 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


Seeing as how I've always wanted to write a fantasy novel, I've thought a lot about this. The fantasy world, being a pseudo-medieval one, is extremely sexist. The problem with that is that the women you bring in wind up automatically being defined either as participants in that sexism or defined by their resistance to it. It's especially problematic considering that the way I want to go there are a number of characters who are very much in loveless arranged marriages.

But this essay has a critical problem: its actual treatment of sexism in fantasy is tremendously shallow. There is no substantive discussion of specific fantasy novels or their tropes; the way women warriors and love interests are treated deserves a lot more attention than is given here. Instead it's a very shallow "fantasy is sexist" message with very little concrete behind it. There's a lot more to do here.
posted by graymouser at 3:10 PM on December 8, 2012


Of course, the actual medieval world (as in, real-life history) was probably more sexist than Western society, by most modern standards. Factor that into the equation, as you will
posted by mafted jacksie at 3:13 PM on December 8, 2012


The problem with that is that the women you bring in wind up automatically being defined either as participants in that sexism or defined by their resistance to it. It's especially problematic considering that the way I want to go there are a number of characters who are very much in loveless arranged marriages.

You know, all of those are things that went into Game of Thrones and resulted in some incredibly memorable and great characters.
posted by Artw at 3:24 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, all of those are things that went into Game of Thrones and resulted in some incredibly memorable and great characters.

Sure, but The Wheel of Time has a ton of female characters who never think about, talk about, or even talk to men except to further their political agendas and that also leads to some great, memorable characters. (The Wheel of Time is not perfect on the gender-issues front, but if nothing else it passes the Bechdel test on a scale absolutely unprecedented in modern epic fantasy.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:28 PM on December 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


This was a great article and a great post. I am playing AC3 right now and the author is right - there is absolutely no reason why the sexism of the past should inform the sex of the protagonist, who is 100% ahistorical. Only the sexism of the present can do that.
posted by rebent at 3:45 PM on December 8, 2012


We read and write the sexism and misogyny we know and can understand. No one writing fantasy today has lived in a medieval society, and I wager that few fantasy writers have lived in modern analogues of traditional agricultural communities (rural India, rural Guatemala, whatever).

The patterns of gender relations in those communities, not to mention medieval gender relations, would be rather incomprehensible and confusing to both writers and readers. Why do these people feel this way? What makes one thing or another significant? What makes this or that ritual meaningful? What motivates dowries, or ghost marriage, or bride kidnapping, or honor killing, or a million other cultural motifs attested in modern and premodern societies around the world? Well, we don't know unless we can experience them. We can certainly describe them ethnographically, but, like the ritual of shaking hands or throwing a baby shower in societies that don't practice them, it's rather hollow and devoid of significance.

It actually seems pretty plain to me that a writer who sets out to write the sexism of a desert nomad or a mountain herdsman dips into own experiences and preconceptions about how gender relations in these communities might look and feel. And the pieces the writer brings come from the modern world. It's how you imagine one would denigrate and oppress women, limit their social agency, and minimize their social visibility. This is modern sexism and misogyny that you are writing into your fantasy epic. I mean, lots of people find the stories of, e.g., Flannery O'Connor painfully unpleasant to read and the relationships among the characters in them bizarre and irrational. There's a rationale behind them, but it's the rationale of O'Connor's perception of her times. And that was only 60 years ago, not 600.

I think it's disingenuous and blinkered of writers to claim that the misogyny in their books is for the sake of a patina of historical authenticity. That misogyny is as anachronistic as the heroic quest is artificial.
posted by Nomyte at 3:46 PM on December 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


And you know, if your political system is inherently and essentially misogynist and that is essential to your worldbuilding, then throwing a few women into that system to see what cracks first is actually the most interesting thing you could do.

She talks about politics and magic, but this is one of the most interesting plot hooks you can use for poking at any system in a fantasy setting (and lots of other settings too). Clashes between sexist systems or between systems that are patriarchal and systems that are matriarchal are interesting too; books like the Mists of Avalon (conflict between patriarchal Christian power and matriarchal pagan power, with some druids sort of thrown in as wild cards to tip the scales to one side or the other when necessary) can be really interesting political novels with a bunch of magic and stuff in there.

I can think of others where the culture clash is particularly interesting because of different ideas about how to treat women; Tamora Peirce writes a standard women-disguising-herself-as-a-man-to-become-a-warrior story in the Alanna series, which has many of the hallmarks of a standard sweet coming-of-age YA story for the girl power set, but her distant prequel, Beka Cooper, actually goes into detail about the sexism that a main character faces in a society with makeup pretty similar to the Western world today. The main character has to face similar amounts of sexism as a guard as I'd expect many female police officers have today and she occasionally has to face more extreme sexism as a result of a new version of their religion where the Goddess is a gentle mother; the backdrop of the Beka Cooper series gives us the background on how the much more sexist Alanna world came to be. It's a fantastic bit of worldbuilding that never takes over the story, but it adds depth and flavor that you don't have in worlds where sexism is taken for granted.

I think the big difference is between having a world that is sexist and a narration that is sexist. It's possible to use either (or both) to good effect; one can write from the point of view of a narrator who is prejudiced in any number of ways and use unreliable narration to get that point across. The Temeraire series, for example, does this, with Lawrence's discomfort with being around female warriors being palpable and a part of his general discomfort with anything that disrupts his sense of propriety (and everything disrupts his sense of propriety). His being forced to become comfortable with different social mores, from addressing women by their military rank and learning to live in a less regimented military life than he's used to, is part of his character growth, and though there are still some problematic ways in which women are used in that series (for some reason only women are ever referred to by their first names in the third person narration, little things like that), learning to deal with women as comrades, equals and sometimes superiors ends up being a significant part of Lawrence's character growth, and the conflict between his rather aristocratic and chivalrous ideas of women and relationships with the reality of the actual women and girls in his life ends up creating consistently interesting conflicts and places for character interaction and development. However, most books use sexist narration in a sexist world in a way that is unexamined, managing to leave out both any possibility for the sexist world or sexist protagonist to add depth or conflict to the story and instead alienating people who aren't sexist.

It's also quite possible to write a fantasy novel that mostly ignores sexism and writes a mostly egalitarian society: Garth Nix's Sabriel and Rachel Hartman's Seraphina come to mind. Hell, even Seanan McGuire's October Daye series ought to qualify, since the fae world is pretty minimally sexist, focusing their subjection energies on half-bloods instead of women.

I should also note that I think one of the biggest problems with sexism in the fantasy genre is that books that deal with sexism end up getting classified as "girl books" in one way or another. Wheel of Time is absolutely precedented by something that passes Bechdel with flying colors, and that's the Mists of Avalon series, but that's a girl series so it doesn't count.
posted by NoraReed at 3:51 PM on December 8, 2012 [17 favorites]


Artw, the second linked essay basically disagrees with you. And my own point was the problem of avoiding the dilemma of limiting women to participating in or defying sexism, not exploring it.
posted by graymouser at 3:58 PM on December 8, 2012


Seeing as how I've always wanted to write a fantasy novel, I've thought a lot about this. The fantasy world, being a pseudo-medieval one, is extremely sexist.

But there are literally an infinite number of fantasy worlds. They can't all be sexist!
posted by IjonTichy at 4:05 PM on December 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


Wheel of Time is absolutely precedented by something that passes Bechdel with flying colors, and that's the Mists of Avalon series, but that's a girl series so it doesn't count.

Hm, I wouldn't classify Mist of Avalon as epic fantasy, which is why I specifically qualified it that way. There are lots of SF books in general that have tons and tons of female characters, but Tolkienesque save-the-world hero quests tend not to - they have these huge well-drawn worlds that somehow have no women in them, certainly not women doing plot-critical things. The Lord of the Rings itself is the worst possible version of this.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:13 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Even if I bought the "but the real world was shitty in X way during Y historical era, so my fantasy book/show/game has to be toooooooooo" excuse (which I don't), there's a difference between exploring these topics and luxuriating in them like a hot tub, and I say that as someone with a pretty high tolerance for the grim, bleak, and sadistic. Books 3-5 of A Song of Ice and Fire make Lars von Trier's body of work look like Lilith Fair by comparison.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:15 PM on December 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


(And I should further qualify that by saying sometimes they have women in typically male roles, being generally indistinguishable from the men except by occasionally getting raped - that, to my mind, does not qualify in the least, and actually tends to fail the Bechdel test too, because they tend to be so scattered throughout the plot that they never talk to one another except by accident.)
posted by restless_nomad at 4:17 PM on December 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess I think of epic as "super long, spanning a shitload of books" more than "featuring a heroic tale in a certain vein".
posted by NoraReed at 4:17 PM on December 8, 2012


Yeah, it's an imprecise term for sure. Sorry for the confusion. (And it's possible Avalon might even qualify under my definition - I don't *think* it does, and Arthuriana is kind of its own subgenre anyway, but I haven't read it in years and years and years. I have not read any of the prequels, either.)
posted by restless_nomad at 4:21 PM on December 8, 2012


The Mists of Avalon - like The Firebrand (also by MZB) - is a form of epic fantasy, though not a quest story. So is Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars, Robin Hobb's Farseer and Live ships, or Bujold's Curse of Chalion, or Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana - and all manage to have very important, interesting and sometimes even powerful female characters. Some of those characters act in ways that would be non-typical for historical women (female courier in The Crown of Stars) or actively fight against their lower status (such as disguising themselves as men, as in The Live Ships - just as real historical women did in the medieval and early modern periods) -- but in other books, the women doing typically feminine things are themselves important, interesting and powerful characters. But that's because none of these writers (not all female) define important actions as being those typically done by men - action takes place just as often in women's quarter's as in the council room or on the battlefield.
posted by jb at 4:29 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is a commonality between most of those books, too.

My remark about Jordan was partly a joke - everything about the Wheel of Time is on an unprecedented scale, or at least it seems like it as I am trying to reread it - but partly serious. I would kind of like to gather and analyze the data, but I suspect somewhere between 60 and 75% of the speaking characters in the series are female - not just the major ones, not just representative ones in all the major groups, just flat-out most of the characters in the series.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:39 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even if I bought the "but the real world was shitty in X way during Y historical era, so my fantasy book/show/game has to be toooooooooo" excuse (which I don't), there's a difference between exploring these topics and luxuriating in them like a hot tub, and I say that as someone with a pretty high tolerance for the grim, bleak, and sadistic. Books 3-5 of A Song of Ice and Fire make Lars von Trier's body of work look like Lilith Fair by comparison.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:15 PM on December 8


I don't think that's the problem with ASOIAF, myself. Given that ASOIAF is based on the War of the Roses, and is pretty much "this is a standard fantasy novel see dragons NO WAIT THEN EVERYBODY DIES INCLUDING THE GUY YOU THOUGHT WAS THE HERO" - I mean he can't critique the standard quasi-medieval fantasy book without using that setting - I think the sexist society is necessary. I think where ASOIAF is problematic is that GRRM wasn't apparently able to stop objectifying his female characters during the sections written from their own points of view. It's just weird as hell for somebody to describe the heaving of their own breasts. But, aside from that, I think he succeeded in writing believable, strong women with goals and agendas of their own. I wouldn't want to put ASOIAF forward as an example of fantasy done right in this respect because there's so many instances where it falls down, but it's also not a great example of the worst offenses of the genre.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:53 PM on December 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Other than the commonality of "books jb likes"? :) I'd be curious to know what commonalities you see, so that I can look for more books like them.
posted by jb at 4:54 PM on December 8, 2012


I'll say this for Jordan, his women characters certainly aren't any more flat and interchangeable than the men.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:55 PM on December 8, 2012 [16 favorites]


I really disliked the way the writer of that rant kept cycling through CAPS LOCK, Bold and Italics every few paragraphs.

Another way to include women in the action is to build a world where there is a reason for women to take non-traditional roles of an otherwise medieval setting. Ian Watson's Black Current series is an example.
posted by 445supermag at 4:55 PM on December 8, 2012


Artw, the second linked essay basically disagrees with you.

Well, you know, it's entitled to its opinion, but I would say that if you're going to use a pseudo medieval dynastic setting then it would seem weird not to leverage the baggage of that for story and character purposes, and a little weak to skirt around it entirely.
posted by Artw at 4:56 PM on December 8, 2012


Mind, Jordan did paint a lot of those women in very broad stereotypes *crosses arms, tugs braid* and much of the setting is very much a women magick like this, men like that. Not to mention all that Women's circle business back in the Shire Two Rivers (teehee, the men think they rule the villages but it's actually us women who do).
posted by MartinWisse at 4:56 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Of course, the actual medieval world (as in, real-life history) was probably more sexist than Western society, by most modern standards.

I hope you realize that thesis was actually what the original essay at Mary Sue was refuting, at least as an excuse for writing fantasy.

It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

Exactly. There's a great case in point: Boudica. (Boudica! Boudica!) She was basically written out of history for centuries. The story seems to illustrate certain fascinating things about Britannic society as in opposition to Roman, such as acceptance of female primogeniture as a legitimate succession of chieftain. The whole story might not have happened if Roman law had simply allowed her to reign as the local noble and proxy. So this is in fact a real, historical struggle between political systems with a woman at its center, and climaxes in a real war. There is a dramatic treatment -- an Andrew Davies film for the BBC.
posted by dhartung at 4:59 PM on December 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


The fantasy world, being a pseudo-medieval one, is extremely sexist.

Why? Certainly medieval England was sexist (though as the article says, perhaps not as much as we think) but what would medieval England have looked like if the humans there had been in regular contact with the egalitarian elves of Sherwood?

For that matter, what if the Hymenopteran Underqueen of Yorkshire wanted to seal an alliance with the human King of England through symbolic marriage? Which gender of child would she send? Obviously not a worker, but there might be political reasons for her to send a mindless male drone rather than a princess. How would the Prince of Wales react to that?

This is fantasy. Use your imagination.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:02 PM on December 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


(teehee, the men think they rule the villages but it's actually us women who do)

I have always thought Jordan tried really hard to show women and men as different but complimentary and both were necessary for balance. The great tragedy/original sin of his world is the taint on the male half of the source of magic and thus all men being somewhat suspect and the more powerful men being the MOST suspect and thus the whole world and relations between men and women were out of balance, but neither was superior. He does seem to use a lot of male and female stereotypes but in his world men and women have to be different for it to work right.

My thinking on sexism in medieval/fantasy settings were more the result of the fact (FACT) that men are stronger and better than fighting than women (talking averages here-Brienne is an outlier) and as such women get relegated to second class (pretty much just like peasants/commoners and pretty much for the same reason). In a world like ours where we have harnessed mechanical means for production and prosperity we have both made sexism and slavery a thing no longer necessary and in many cases actually counterproductive. In a world ruled by physical weapons and the only real dependable source of power is muscle it seems sexism might just be all but inevitable. In addition the physical risk women have in pregnancy is also much, much higher in such a world and this also results in a very different viewpoint in equality between the sexes.
posted by bartonlong at 5:06 PM on December 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think that's the problem with ASOIAF, myself. Given that ASOIAF is based on the War of the Roses, and is pretty much "this is a standard fantasy novel see dragons NO WAIT THEN EVERYBODY DIES INCLUDING THE GUY YOU THOUGHT WAS THE HERO" - I mean he can't critique the standard quasi-medieval fantasy book without using that setting - I think the sexist society is necessary.

Yeah, I get what he's doing, and it was initially a relief since trad-dragons are really not my thing. Maybe it's that I'm exhausted as I near the end of Book 5, but he just seems to be having way, way too much fun torturing these folks.

I think where ASOIAF is problematic is that GRRM wasn't apparently able to stop objectifying his female characters during the sections written from their own points of view. It's just weird as hell for somebody to describe the heaving of their own breasts.

Definitely. He might have avoided that if he'd done the rough draft in first person (which obviously would be cumbersome in the final version). Trying to inhabit the viewpoints of a bazillion characters is a pretty tough row to hoe regardless, and the results are bound to be hit and miss.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:08 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


In addition the physical risk women have in pregnancy is also much, much higher in such a world and this also results in a very different viewpoint in equality between the sexes.

**is suddenly inspired to write a fantasy series where women have evolved unhinge-able pelvises (like snake jaws) that make birth painless and almost always nonlethal.***
posted by emjaybee at 5:28 PM on December 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


Do most fantasy novels have anything to do with the (European) middles ages, though? And if so, which part of the middle ages? They seem to have all these great battles, when nobody in Europe actually had the means to raise an army strong enough to take the larger cities, which made getting into a pitched battle rather stupid, for the most part. This poses a big problem for epicness: a bunch of French nobles once attacked a near-starving, inferior English force, when all they had to do was to shadow them and deny them supplies, because they were all courageous and stuff. The stand happened near a place called Agincourt.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:39 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


[meta commentary goes in metatalk, thanks.]
posted by restless_nomad at 5:41 PM on December 8, 2012


Why? Certainly medieval England was sexist (though as the article says, perhaps not as much as we think) but what would medieval England have looked like if the humans there had been in regular contact with the egalitarian elves of Sherwood?

The fantasy world I've been working on is sexist because it's based on feudal property and primogeniture, and it's about the end of this social order. If you believe (and I do) that sexism is rooted in forms of property and production, then you can't have a feudal society with egalitarian sexual / gender relations. Also, there are no elves in my particular world, although there are non-intelligent dragons and some degree of magic.

The other thing is that the world being sexist is something I want to actually explore, both in terms of the characters' attitudes and, for some of them, their failures. Particularly in the "loveless marriage for political reasons" department, but also in a bunch of other ways.
posted by graymouser at 5:46 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


My thinking on sexism in medieval/fantasy settings were more the result of the fact (FACT) that men are stronger and better than fighting than women

There are several martial arts designed for women; there are a ton of accounts of both the female warriors that you would surely call outliers and orders of female warriors and/or armies that included women. From just doing rudimentary research on this I'm noticing a lot more mainstream acceptance of women within the military or of guardians of their own persons/households within Japan and China, and considering the amount of stories, legendary or no, of women disguising themselves as men in order to fight, it seems it would follow that a more egalitarian society would have more women in the military, even if they have less strength on average (which may be less the case in cultures that don't socialize girls to get less exercise than boys in early childhood, or this may vary by region, I couldn't find good data on it because the cool stuff's all in academia's walled gardens) and in spite of pregnancy. And history aside, if women were so goddamn incompetent as soldiers because of ~biotruth~ they'd probably, you know, be in the modern military less.

In any case, the sort of combat you get in fantasy isn't restricted to the kind that works in wars; there's a lot of spying and disguising oneself to sneak through enemy territory and pushing oneself through small spaces and befriending local witches and stuff like that. Hell, sometimes you even get fantasy without much or any combat! (I know, gasp, shock.) So fantasy isn't shoehorned into sexist societies because of the relative strength of women versus men for the same reason it isn't shoehorned into making all of its characters malnourished, foul-ordered, toothless, illiterate and dying of plague.
posted by NoraReed at 6:25 PM on December 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Related: Author Scott Lynch responds to a critic of the character Zamira Drakasha, a black woman pirate in his fantasy book Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second novel of the Gentleman Bastard series.

spoiler: the last line is "Thank you for your sentiments. I offer you in exchange this engraved invitation to go piss up a hill, suitable for framing."
posted by mephron at 6:36 PM on December 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


does anyone actually care what scott lynch says? IMO the first book in that series, which is the only one I consumed, was amateurish to the extreme. If I am wrong and it's actually held in some acclaim, please let me know.
posted by rebent at 6:39 PM on December 8, 2012


It's fantasy. It's right there in the name. You can do whatever you want. Why should we keep retreating back to Ye Olde Fake Europe? Create a truly original setting, and you can do all kinds of things to gender relations, without having to constantly either adhere to or consciously subvert what was going on in a certain 500ish year span of European history.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:46 PM on December 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


NoraReed : She talks about politics and magic, but this is one of the most interesting plot hooks you can use for poking at any system in a fantasy setting (and lots of other settings too). Clashes between sexist systems or between systems that are patriarchal and systems that are matriarchal are interesting too

If, and only if, you have the goal of writing a book about gender inequality.

If you just want to write a story set in some arbitrary historical period, yes, women will exist, but sorry gals, every lady in ancient Rome didn't secretly work as some sort of undercover 0th-wave feminist. Yes, they no doubt had their own set of power-struggles; with rare exceptions, however, those struggles simply had no relevance to the world outside the salons.


"And you know, if your political system is inherently and essentially misogynist and that is essential to your worldbuilding, then throwing a few women into that system to see what cracks first is actually the most interesting thing you could do."

Not every story needs, or wants, to "see what cracks first" as far as the historical accuracy of the work matters. Most stories want to tell the story, and simply usurped the setting as little more than a plot device. I find it more common that the author needs to gloss over what breaks when they add F14s to the Battle of Hastings, than wanting to go out of their way to lampshade it.
posted by pla at 6:54 PM on December 8, 2012


Seeing as how I've always wanted to write a fantasy novel, I've thought a lot about this. The fantasy world, being a pseudo-medieval one, is extremely sexist.

But there are literally an infinite number of fantasy worlds. They can't all be sexist!


Nor do they all have to be pseudo-medieval, and indeed I think we've seen a trend start away from that. If you look at a lot of the fantasy worlds being constructed by new writers (those of The Lies of Locke Lamora, or The Name of the Wind, or Abercrombie's The First Rule trilogy all come to mind), most of them are shifting out of medieval into early modern/Renaissance, and some go much farther - Mieville's Bas-Lag books may be kind of a class of their own, but they offer a useful precedent. Heck, Temeraire was mentioned earlier in this thread, and that world is basically Napoleonic. Harry Turtledove has written a series exploring fantasy World War II, if I recall correctly.

The idea that fantasy worlds need to be medieval is almost entirely a legacy of JRR Tolkien (admittedly with some traditional cultural yearnings towards Arthurian Britain mixed in). I mean, unlike some people, I don't think Tolkien is the font of ALL EVIL in the genre, but his influence on this level has been a bit hegemonic. But before him you saw people like Robert E. Howard (more ancient than medieval), Clark Ashton Smith (same, but also networking with present-day fantasy and straight-up alternate worlds), and Lovecraft, whose stuff is admittedly straddles some genre borders. But then, crossing such borders isn't something fantasy writers should be afraid of, either, in my view.

There's no reason, outside of Tolkien's influence, that the majority or even a particularly sizable minority of fantasy works should be set in alternate universe versions of seventh-through-thirteenth century Western Europe. There really isn't. And hopefully that overdependence will continue to decay, because there are so many other interesting stories to be told.

In a world ruled by physical weapons and the only real dependable source of power is muscle it seems sexism might just be all but inevitable.

Which means that sexism is inevitable in any fantasy world that doesn't incorporate, oh, say, magic. Or large numbers of mythical beasts, some of whom might be humanoid and available as labor. Or summonable demons, or interfering gods, some at least of whom are female. Or any number of other obvious genre tropes that are pretty much ubiquitous.

And even in the real world, the "only dependable source of power" being muscles doesn't lead to the guys with muscles ruling the world. If so, there would never have been any societies ruled by kings (who, even if they were great warriors in their prime, get old eventually), much less queens, or clerics and other religious figures, or merchant cabals.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:55 PM on December 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't think Tolkien is the font of ALL EVIL in the genre

I get frustrated when fantasy species are even more sexist that medieval Europe. Think of Tolkien's dwarf women, who he marginalized to such an extreme degree that even male dwarves talk about them like they're unicorns.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:06 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fantasy worlds are pseudo-medieval for a whole bunch of reasons, of which Tolkien is only one. Fantasy before Tolkien was prominent was also pseudo-medieval, although with more of a turn toward antiquity than toward the renaissance; Tolkien cemented it and Dungeons & Dragons has also been a massive anchor keeping fantasy in the middle ages. There's also the fact that the Arthurian myths are a major part of fantasy to consider.

It's much harder to build a coherent world with a higher technological level; the documentation for the middle ages is pretty good, while for antiquity it is sparse. So in terms of building a low-tech but comfortably civilized world where magic fits in nicely, pseudo-medieval makes a hell of a lot of sense. Pseudo-renaissance just doesn't work out as well, since you run into things that are so specific culturally and technologically to how our world is. Dark ages are easier than renaissances.
posted by graymouser at 7:07 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, they no doubt had their own set of power-struggles; with rare exceptions, however, those struggles simply had no relevance to the world outside the salons.

Not really -- attempted assassinations and revolts cooked up by women are a recurring pattern in Roman history, not at all rare exceptions. Not to mention that the arrangement and dissolution of marriages and the resulting alliances of families had huge influence in Roman politics and that socially influential women could make their husbands' and sons' careers. In pretty much every society where there's been a familial component to power (which, until very recently, was almost all of them) women have affected politics, because how could they not? It doesn't even require being a 0th-wave feminist, it just requires wanting your kid to come out ahead and not get murdered by his cousins or what have you.
posted by ostro at 7:19 PM on December 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.

In history, from primary sources through most of the 20th century (I will absolve our current century-in-progress out of kindness but let’s not kid ourselves here), the assumption has always been that men’s actions are more politically and historically significant to society, BECAUSE THEY ARE PERFORMED BY MEN.
Something about this bothers me. Yes, there is the trend of historians having, er, historically overemphasized male-centric cultural practices. But it also seems disingenuous to say that women had an equal hand in society when what is meant is that women also existed, albeit in low-status positions forced on them by an all-male power elite.

Women were overtly oppressed for much of history, and that oppression often took the form of unequal access to education and cultural resources. Women did not contribute as much to certain developments in, say, 19th century chemistry, because women did not have equal access to the academic institutions where these developments were being made at that time. Surely, suppression of women intellectuals occurred, and often. But the greater tragedy is that otherwise brilliant would-be scientists did not get to make the contributions they might have made, simply because they were denied education and access to the reigns of power. Replace chemistry with literature or politics. It strikes me as strangely unfeminist to assert that this was in fact not the case and that women have been contributing equally all along.
posted by deathpanels at 7:34 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you just want to write a story set in some arbitrary historical period, yes, women will exist, but sorry gals, every lady in ancient Rome didn't secretly work as some sort of undercover 0th-wave feminist.

Of course, the cares, concerns, expectations, and beliefs of people around the Mediterranean in Roman times were in many ways so much more limited and totally different from what we expect the characters in fantasy novels to do, think, and care about. It would be really hard to structure a plot without doing one of two things:The action-oriented, character-based plot, which is essential to contemporary fantasy, is so grossly anachronistic that your choice of setting is basically wallpaper. You're just picking and choosing which exotic elements to include for "authenticity."

Given that, I find it weird and icky that misogyny is such a common choice for fantasy writers. It's also not clear why genre readers are so eager to read about misogynistic made-up fantasy worlds that "take inspiration" from history.

I know this isn't at all charitable, but the first reason that comes to mind is that standard epic fantasy gives some readers the license to imagine that its familiar, comfortable misogyny is doubtlessly an automatic consequence of natural law, while efforts to improve women's rights are an artificial and probably temporary distortion of those laws. I don't doubt for a second that there are better competing explanations, but I've lived with a person who believed exactly the above.
posted by Nomyte at 7:40 PM on December 8, 2012 [16 favorites]


rebent, I didn't post the whole thing, but I'll summarize:

Basically, someone bitches about him having a woman leading a band of pirates and it being 'politically correct' because a woman could never lead a band of vicious pirates, and the reply is, in short, 'things work differently in my world, why do you find it so important that in a fantasy world gender roles must be the same as in our world?'
posted by mephron at 7:42 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


If you just want to write a story set in some arbitrary historical period, yes, women will exist, but sorry gals, every lady in ancient Rome didn't secretly work as some sort of undercover 0th-wave feminist. Yes, they no doubt had their own set of power-struggles; with rare exceptions, however, those struggles simply had no relevance to the world outside the salons.

I don't know as much about Medieval Europe, but that's simply not true of the periods of Rome generally most attractive to writers: the Late Republic and earlyish empire. In the Late Republic the curious nature of Roman marriage and inheritance laws meant that women even when they married tended not to become part of their husband's family, which meant their loyalties were often tied to their birth family and sometimes that they could inherit more than their brothers. Sure they were restricted but there are any number of Roman women whose actions had consequences outside salons. (Which they didn't really have.) Even if you look outside the old families you see this, for example, in families like Cicero's, where his wife's actions were critical in getting him recalled from exile - she even got dragged across the Forum for his sake. His daughter Tullia went with her husband to the consul Piso to beg for mercy and ended up marrying a glamorous Caesarian in a (disastrous) third marriage, much to his embarrassment, but whose influence was useful when the civil war between Pompey and Caesar was in full force. It was expected that wives and daughters would work for their children and brothers and it was acceptable that they act publicly for them if it were needed. Sure, they weren't going to march at the head of an army, but they certainly helped get the army voted to relatives and they weren't shrinking violets confined to the house and weaving.

Even in Greece you can come up with a smaller list of women involved in warfare and who might turn the battle in ways that people who just think it's all about swords and leading the army don't bother to consider. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, had his almost certain victory snatched from him by an old woman with a good aim who threw a tile at his head and killed him. And here's Pausanias on another unusual Greek battle:

"When Tegea was at war with Sparta, when Charillos king of Sparta made the first invasion, the women armed themselves and lay in ambush under the hill they call today Sentry Hill. When the armies met and the men on either side were performing many remarkable exploits, the women, they say, came on the scene and put the Spartans to flight. Marpessa, surnamed Choira, surpassed, they say, the other women in daring . . . The story goes on to say . . . that the women offered to Ares a sacrifice of victory on their own account without the men, and gave to the men no share in the meat of the victim."

Is this fictional? Almost certainly, but if a Greek writing in the second century CE can imagine something like this happening and if a Greek town can put up a monument to women fighting victoriously, it's pretty sad that modern fantasy writers can't imagine them doing the same.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:43 PM on December 8, 2012 [17 favorites]


If you just want to write a story set in some arbitrary historical period, yes, women will exist, but sorry gals, every lady in ancient Rome didn't secretly work as some sort of undercover 0th-wave feminist. Yes, they no doubt had their own set of power-struggles; with rare exceptions, however, those struggles simply had no relevance to the world outside the salons.

A few points:
  1. We're talking about fantasy. Not historical fiction. And, as previous posters have said, even if we were talking about historical fiction, you would still be wrong.
  2. I was talking about an interesting plot hook. Not EVERY interesting plot hook. Just culture clash ones, and how sexism can play into them in interesting ways. There are a TON of narratives that deal with cultural clashes between groups, including (but not limited to) groups with different ideas of how to treat people or marginalized groups.
  3. The idea that a book that includes any exploration of Issues or -Isms (gender inequality, sexism, misogyny, race, ehtnicity, transgender issues of any kind, LGBT issues of any kind, etc) has to be ABOUT that Issue or -Ism is a bullshit preconception that consistently gets perfectly good books stuck into genre ghettos, because a book with a main character who is a member of [insert any socially oppressed or marginalized group that actually exists in reality, that is, not drow or from District 12 or something] or even that features issues that apply to [members of said group] are hard to market to members outside of that group.
Most stories want to tell the story, and simply usurped the setting as little more than a plot device.

Dude, what stories are you reading? Settings and cultures give characters the background to make their stories interesting and compelling. The dynamic, changing corridors that give Hogwarts a personality all its own, Bag End as a home to come back to, the cultural legacy of the Jedi and the overwhelming power in the Death Star, the vibrance of Jordan College as seen from the roofs, the opening of a wardrobe onto snow: these backdrops are what pulls us into a story and makes us care. Either you are reading really godawful stories, or you're only noticing setting when it either is sexist and deals with it (and so is a Book About Gender Inequality) or when it's unsexist and doesn't refer to it (in which case it is Historically Inaccurate).
posted by NoraReed at 7:45 PM on December 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


So in terms of building a low-tech but comfortably civilized world where magic fits in nicely

But it doesn't fit in nicely. Not as a really existing thing, with real effects. Unless you actively create barriers (magic can only be performed by people of a certain blood type/caste/supernatural origin), magic becomes technology. Spells to create fertility, in fields or among populations, to destroy vermin, to destroy enemies on the battlefield, to communicate over long distances - these are going to transmit themselves as fast as technology ever did - faster, in fact, since in the case of magic you usually only need to know the right words, gestures and maybe have some spell components. Again, unless you actively construct barriers to this.

And Jesus Christ, the supernatural generally makes an even bigger problem. You're telling me that the average demon/god/demigod can't explain with patent ease to the average sorcerer or wizard how to construct a steam engine, or a mechanical clock, or some other device that will let him pursue their common ends more swiftly and effectively? Again, unless you have some sort of carefully tended narrative hedge to defend against this - I think that the Forgotten Realms setting has the goddess of magic actively preventing people from discovering gunpowder or some similar nonsense.

But then you have Eberron....

Magic is only difficult to reconcile with anything other than dark ages because your definition of magic has been engineered to work with dark ages and only dark ages. It's like saying that you can't have computers in a science fiction story set in the future, because you've decided that the only proper definition of a "computer" is a punch-card machine circa 1950, and we don't use them anymore, so why would future people do so?

Again, the best argument against this idea that the dark ages is the "natural" state of fantasy is the growing range of authors fitting magic in quite effectively in post-medieval/industrial settings. Rothfuss' institutionalized, early industrial (workshops, artificers, etc.) magical practitioners, Mieville's teeming cities of devices and artifacts, and magic as a weird combination of high energy physics, performance art, and alchemy. MacLeod's The Light Ages and Pullman's His Dark Materials background the magic a bit, in their case substituting earlier scientific models (what if the aether was real, what if Paradise Lost was pretty much just history written by the winners, etc.), but its really the same thing called something different: a world where the laws governing reality are radically different.

Heck, even if we accept this weird premise that the form magic can take must inevitably correspond to the forms they took in people's imaginations in our world (where it doesn't work, so that's ridiculous on its face, but let's accept it nonetheless) - magic didn't first appear when the Roman Empire fell, and it didn't disappear when the first cannon fired at Calais. Nor was it restricted to Western Europe. Can we not write Renaissance-era fantasy with Renaissance-era magic? Or have ghosts rapping tables and corpses reanimating in the cobbled streets of of fantasy-verse London and New York?

There's an idea. Industrializing societies using re-animated corpses for labor in dystopian "Shelleytown" factories, while the working classes starve for lack of money to buy food - thus, in turn, swelling the available labor force. Anarchists wield stakes and garlic against vampire aristocrats. Historians and lawyers quarrel amongst about how much to trust the souls of the deceased as witnesses to the distant and immediate past, while some ghosts pretend divine status and gather cults of fanatical followers.

Or the Renaissance - The artes magicae are taught alongside artes liberales and artes mechanicae (or whatever they're called in alternative-Latin), stones imbued with the properties of the proper constellations are used to strengthen fortifications against the attacks of flying machines propelled by the imprisoned souls of demons, as city-states make pacts with the powers of the upper air and the deepest seas to protect their fleets of war- and trading-ships.

This stuff writes itself. As opposed to dark ages magic, which is structurally difficult to explain for reasons explored earlier, and which goes down easy for no other reason than that most readers have never encountered anything else. Thankfully, that is changing.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:49 PM on December 8, 2012 [20 favorites]


But, duuude, people don't read fantasy for thought experiments in sociology, they read it for story!
posted by Nomyte at 7:54 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Basically, someone bitches about him having a woman leading a band of pirates and it being 'politically correct' because a woman could never lead a band of vicious pirates

SAY WHAT NOW?
posted by Artw at 7:54 PM on December 8, 2012


a fantasy series where women have evolved unhinge-able pelvises (like snake jaws)

It's like if H. R. Giger did his rendition of vagina dentata mythology.
posted by XMLicious at 7:57 PM on December 8, 2012


I keep chewing on this issue, but I think I'll leave it there, because this is a bit tangential to the main point of the post, which is about women in fantasy rather than magic in fantasy. But broadly speaking, when you're positing a world where the very laws of reality are different, maintaining gender roles in the cause of being realistic is patently ridiculous. Heck, it would be ridiculous even if you believed that gender roles are influenced by/determined by said laws of reality, much less if you take a more nuanced approach. It's just post-facto rationalization for lazy worldbuilding.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:00 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Actually reading Medieval literature is a pretty good antidote to the problems Tansy Roberts and Dan Wohl are talking about. It's a bit of a eye-opener if you haven't done this.

We find things in ancient literature and history to draw inspiration from. What we take inspiration from and what we choose to ignore says a lot about us and how we see the world, and not so much about the time period in question.

I haven't read Kimberly Klimek's dissertation yet. Although she's talking about historians, it seems relevant.
posted by nangar at 8:07 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you just want to write a story set in some arbitrary historical period, yes, women will exist, but sorry gals, every lady in ancient Rome didn't secretly work as some sort of undercover 0th-wave feminist. Yes, they no doubt had their own set of power-struggles; with rare exceptions, however, those struggles simply had no relevance to the world outside the salons.

Well, ok, but it's fantasy, where we don't have to actually worry about exact realism. And it's not like every man worked as a secret master of whatever, but we're not writing a history of every person in the town, we're picking up a few people (people who we made up, because this is fiction, and inserted into an imaginary world, because this is fantasy) and telling their stories. Imagining that only the men's stories could be interesting or have any effect on things bigger than a salon is a rather impressive lack of imagination.
posted by jeather at 8:08 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Think of Tolkien's dwarf women, who he marginalized to such an extreme degree that even male dwarves talk about them like they're unicorns.

Partly this is due to the immense amount of unicorn pornography consumed by impressionable young male dwarves. It leaves them poorly socialized in interactions with female dwarves. This appears in one of those damned "unpublished works" books, I'm pretty sure.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:22 PM on December 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Again, the best argument against this idea that the dark ages is the "natural" state of fantasy is the growing range of authors fitting magic in quite effectively in post-medieval/industrial settings.

And yet the majority of fantasy writing is pseudo-medieval, and will probably continue to be so for a while now, because it's not like D&D went away, and the main non-literary sources are now things like the Hobbit / the Lord of the Rings films and the Game of Thrones series on HBO. Much of the rest is modern/urban fantasy which is its own unique mixed bag.

I didn't say that it was a natural fit, but rather that the pseudo-medieval world makes world building easier. I'll stick by that statement. Doing a pseudo-medieval story means you don't have to spend nearly as much time on what your readers already know, and can focus on what you want to do in terms of your other ideas (story, cosmology, history etc). Also you get things like knights and castles and such for free, and can do with them as you wish. A piece of fantasy that does world-building well outside of "pseudo-medieval Europe" will tend to be remembered for the stunt of doing a different world well; one that does it poorly will not be noted at all.
posted by graymouser at 8:26 PM on December 8, 2012


You know, even using Renaissance or Edwardian European history as a basis isn't that imaginative. Hell, even Asian or African history-mining is somewhat demonstrative of a paucity of imagination. Where are the fantasies set in wholly unique worlds, ones without historical precedent (i.e. not just agrarian wherever with magic tacked on)? Perhaps an AskMe will come of this...
posted by adamdschneider at 8:34 PM on December 8, 2012


Man, this whole discussion is reminding me of why I stopped reading fantasy unless it was written by women. And not all of those. If I can have dragons, I also want women who are heroes, not just trophies. It's hilarious and weird to say one is ok but the other is over the line somehow. Unless your actual fantasy was more about oppressed and hot women rather than dragons.
posted by emjaybee at 8:50 PM on December 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


TBH I think the notion that fantasy and quasi-medieval settings go hand in hand is pretty much busted these days anyway. The bulk of the fantasy material I've read over the last few years has been either present day or some kind of quasi-19th Century setting with steampunk elements, but there's a ton of other settings available, from diverse secondary words too alternate and secret histories throughout the ages. Even D&D is getting a little Steampunky these days. In short of you're doing medieval fantasy it's because either you really want to or for some reason you're aping old stuff.
posted by Artw at 8:59 PM on December 8, 2012


Artw: I think it's possible my broad tastes are somehow given away in my user name. ;-) Though Fafhrd and the Mouser had a good healthy dose of antiquity in the mix.
posted by graymouser at 9:25 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you just want to write a story set in some arbitrary historical period, yes, women will exist, but sorry gals, every lady in ancient Rome didn't secretly work as some sort of undercover 0th-wave feminist. Yes, they no doubt had their own set of power-struggles; with rare exceptions, however, those struggles simply had no relevance to the world outside the salons.


Even if you ignore the numerous fact-based refutations above this simply does not make sense. Even if women are just sitting at home, are you seriously saying that men were not affected by their wives, mistresses, or female friends? That the personalities, beliefs, attitudes of their individual mothers, sisters, daughters influenced men's growth, development, and worldview not one whit? Have you ever been in a relationship with a woman? Are your female partners all the same? Your grandmother exactly like your mother? Your aunt exactly like a female co-worker? None of these individual women in your life are having their own, individual, personal interactions with you? Even in the most sexist, repressive societies men differentiated between the different women in their lives, lauding or decrying who they were and what they did. These interactions have their own effects.

To argue that women had no relevance whatsoever is to argue the members of 50% of the population were essentially interchangeable with respect to their relationships with men. And that simply isn't realistic; you would need a society where men and women did not interact at all for that to be the case. And even then, the absence of women, and the strictures placed on society necessary to maintain that separation, would be having its own effect.
posted by schroedinger at 9:29 PM on December 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


AdamCSnider: "There's an idea. Industrializing societies using re-animated corpses for labor in dystopian "Shelleytown" factories, while the working classes starve for lack of money to buy food - thus, in turn, swelling the available labor force. Anarchists wield stakes and garlic against vampire aristocrats. Historians and lawyers quarrel amongst about how much to trust the souls of the deceased as witnesses to the distant and immediate past, while some ghosts pretend divine status and gather cults of fanatical followers."

oh god please tell me you have a publish date
posted by rebent at 9:42 PM on December 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


There already is excellent and beleiveable high/epic fantasy in premodern setting with good female characters who don't constantly face abuse because they are female - and who can be important and world-changing in both masculine and feminine ways. Bujold's Paladin of Souls has a world-saving heroine who is a 40-something (and not very fit) widow. It's been done - so claiming "it can't be done" just sounds like laziness, or sexism.

Not that every author need approach it in the same way. Tanya Huff's medievalish fantasies tend to just erase most gender differences (maybe because the ones I read were about magic users, musicians and assassins, not soldiers); Tamora Pierce talks about the limits that female soldiers face -- Alanna is never as physically strong as her male colleagues and has to work at other skills. Other authors set their stories in worlds with strong gender roles - but don't use it as an excuse to ignore women altogether. Instead, they write that feminine story into their world, instead of writing it out like historians have for so long.

Every lost prince has a mother, after all - and maybe her story is as interesting or more interesting than his.

But yeah, most of the authors I've been reading lately - just about all, really - have been women, because they are the people writing characters (male and female) that I can relate to.
posted by jb at 9:48 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


A really good fantasy story about a sexist in a sexist society: The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window
posted by Artw at 9:50 PM on December 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


So the argument is: a) medieval Europe wasn't like that; b) you don't have to represent history anyways.

But if you don't have to represent history-- why should it matter exactly how sexist medieval Europe was? Write a book depicting institutions more or less sexist than medieval Europe, it's fine.

I don't understand why depictions of sexism are a bad thing to begin with. Sure, occasionally, there's an author who seems to get off on it, and that's gross (but the worst recent example I can think of here is Larsson, not fantasy at all). But overall, depictions of sexism are not endorsements of sexism, any more than, say, Orwell's depiction of totalitarianism should be seen as an endorsement of totalitarianism.
posted by nathan v at 10:19 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, so I've seen what exists so far of Game of Thrones, and am ripping through ASOIAF as fast as I can, though only for the past week, so I'm about midway through A Clash of Kings at this point. These articles were spot-on and very well-written and I agree with almost everything they said, but...

Right now, where I am in these books so far, they seem to be all about the decline and fall of a great civilization due largely to arbitrary and poorly-designed power structures, gender-roles being one of the most notable. And in this sexist universe, roughly half the time is spent in the narrative of varied female characters, and while I don't know where the story is going exactly, right now it appears to be the story of Dany's eventual return to conquer Westeros as the existing political structure falls apart.

Basically, while GRRM certainly has some issues with leering at his own female characters, it's not fair to say that the sexism in the universe is noted but not challenged. I feel like all of the female characters are challenging it, either directly (Arya, Brienne) or more subtly (Cersei, Sansa) but it's something that has to be dealt with. Likewise, this whole system of controlling sexuality is notably shown to affect male characters as well - what a shock! - as shown in, say Jon Snow, or Robb Stark, and on and on.

In other words, I feel like sexist power structures are welcome in a story where the overriding theme is about how fucked up and wrong the power structures are, and one in which women are given equal narrative time, besides.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:08 PM on December 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


I don't understand why depictions of sexism are a bad thing to begin with.

I think it'd be overstretching to say they are, but arguments that fantasy settings have to be all grim and super sexist are pretty bullshit - if your setting is that way it's because you've made an artistic choice, and I'd you're going that way it's probably better if you've got some kind of reason and have thought out the implications.
posted by Artw at 11:12 PM on December 8, 2012


Cersei

It probably helps to be played by Lena Headly, but towards the end of Season 2 of the TV show she makes a convincing case for being the most interesting character in the the damn thing - not bad considering the setup could have just left her as a cardboard bad guy.
posted by Artw at 11:23 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


sorry gals, every lady in ancient Rome didn't secretly work as some sort of undercover 0th-wave feminist. Yes, they no doubt had their own set of power-struggles; with rare exceptions, however, those struggles simply had no relevance to the world outside the salons.

But what about all those historians who are convinced (convinced I tell you!) that Livia poisoned practically everybody who died in the damn place for about a hundred years? I mean, if nothing women did mattered a whit, why is half of Roman history in a certain period the history of scheming women trying to get their sons into power? Even if you think that this probably isn't what happened, that Livia wasn't a mass murderer, and that there are other perfectly rational reasons things played out the way they did, the fact that these historical women exist to be speculated about implies that, no, women weren't just sitting home knitting togas or whatever you think.

Also, did you know that there were Byzantine Empresses? No, I bet you did not.
posted by Sara C. at 11:36 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't understand why depictions of sexism are a bad thing to begin with.
posted by nathan v at 12:19 AM on December 9


I don't think that's the argument, or that's not how I'm reading it. The idea is, you can depict a sexist society without the narrative being sexist; that is, your female characters must in fact have their own goals and aspirations (because everybody has their own goals and aspirations), and if the book ignores them because the world your book is set in is sexist, then the narrative itself becomes sexist. So there's a distinction between setting and narrative that I think is important here. (This is why I think GRRM is a bad example, because he's flawed, sure, but he's still got fully fleshed-out women with agency and desires of their own - an editor alert to the omniscient breast thing could have fixed the issues with his books without too much trouble and in that alternate universe we'd be using him as an example of good writing alongside Bujold and others.)

Additionally, of course, it would be awesome if writers took the trouble to think through the implications of their world's structures - if you have magic, for example, that's going to change a lot of things and gender roles shouldn't be off-limits. It's bad world-building to regard gender roles as immutable. But if the world you're writing about is sexist, and you've still got fully humanized female characters, I think you're likely okay.

Industrializing societies using re-animated corpses for labor in dystopian "Shelleytown" factories, while the working classes starve for lack of money to buy food - thus, in turn, swelling the available labor force. Anarchists wield stakes and garlic against vampire aristocrats. Historians and lawyers quarrel amongst about how much to trust the souls of the deceased as witnesses to the distant and immediate past, while some ghosts pretend divine status and gather cults of fanatical followers.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:49 PM on December 8


Please make this book happen.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:44 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


And on my point above, I'll mention what is arguably the match-to-a-fuse moment of most of the plot of ASOIAF - Ned Stark's execution. When Joffrey orders it, unexpectedly and over pretty much everyone's objections, he says that Cersei and Sansa "have the soft hearts of women," and proceeds to act as a petulant boy pretending to be what he understands to be a man.

And then everything goes to hell for all sides. Cersei and Sansa, though not at all allied, had used their positions to come to an agreement which took a hell of a lot of work from both of them. An agreement which would maintain some degree of peace and honor and humanity. I believe that GRRM was signalling a major theme by having his most villainous figure dismiss all of that by labeling it as feminine and then having that villain commit the series most reckless action as a rebellious rejection of their bargaining.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:50 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Artw: that is a brilliant story. Thank you for posting the link.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:51 PM on December 8, 2012


Basically, someone bitches about him having a woman leading a band of pirates and it being 'politically correct' because a woman could never lead a band of vicious pirates

Well, that's someone who didn't bother to do even the bare minimum of research.
posted by lumpenprole at 1:15 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I used to read a lot of epic fantasy back in the day, I put up with the near total absence of interesting or powerful women because oh well, of course it was 'historically accurate' that there were no such women. Then I read The Histories of Herodotus (400BC) and there were more cool, active women in the first chapter than in thousands of pages of 'modern' fantasy. Queens murdering their way to the throne; queens massing armies and building cities; there's a female admiral at the battle of Salamis, for pete's sake. Boy did I feel like I'd been suckered.

See also, jobs of Victorian women. My goodness, some of them aren't prostitutes or bored housewives! How about a story about one of these machinists, or fishing-rod makers, or 'an agent or factor'? I get especially angry at modern 'Victorian fiction' writers who manage to have fewer women making their own living than freakin' Dickens.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:36 AM on December 9, 2012 [14 favorites]


Also, did you know that there were Byzantine Empresses? No, I bet you did not.

Oh, oh, oh, that gives me a chance to plug an interesting book about women in power in the Byzantine Empire: Barbara Hill's Imperial Women in Byzantium 1025 - 1204: Power, Patronage and Ideology. It looks at a period in Byzantine history when there was a cluster of powerful women around the throne, who were actually able to shape imperial policy, not in least who would actually become emperor because the circumstances were such that they had the opportunity to do so. It looks at how women could hold power in a society that while not quite patriarchal (women could inherent and supposedly held control of their bride's gift) was ideologically opposed to women being anything other than mothers, wives or widows. It turns out that being of proper imperial stock could actually trump being female at times, yet as a woman you still had to adhere to societal expectations or get criticised for it.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:07 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


So many words above, and no mention of Ursula Le Guin?
I'm surprised.

(I don't have much to add to this thread. I like my fantasy well enough, but I struggle to find female writers who write in a way I care for. And I know I can't write female characters worth a damn.)
posted by Mezentian at 3:29 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, there is the trend of historians having, er, historically overemphasized male-centric cultural practices. But it also seems disingenuous to say that women had an equal hand in society when what is meant is that women also existed, albeit in low-status positions forced on them by an all-male power elite.

But that's not what the article is saying. What it is saying about history is that:

a) Not all women were in low-status positions, and more of them did noteworthy things than you'd think; and
b) a lot of the women in low-status positions still found a way to influence things from that exact low-status position.

The person behind the person in power can still wield an awful lot of influence or have an agenda. Just ask Lady MacBeth.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think GRRM takes a bit of unnecessary criticism- by the end of Book IV, Cersei (in my opinion) has become one of the greatest villains/tragic heroes in any genre of fiction. It is interesting to note also that so much of the warfare and political maneuvering he describes is pretty much lifted from Barbara Tuchman, who herself was (in part) trying to explore the previously elided role of women in warfare and politics during the Hundred Years' War. Part of GRRM's problem in this respect is that he dials the violence up to 11 in pretty much all circumstances.

As others have pointed out, a lot of the problem here comes from intellectual laziness on the part of many authors. Setting your story of magic and adventure in a poorly-disguised Medieval Europe (particularly one based in a limited understanding of actual medieval society) leads to this sort of shorthand in constructing believable female characters. Many fantasy authors should try reading the kinship and marriage chapters of an Intro to Anthropology textbook. Try constructing your society around matrilateral cross-cousin marriage and see what that does to gender relations. Or make something up, like pluri-local polyandry in a semi-nomadic society, and see where that gets you in terms of power and property.

More authors could even try exploring a society with radical gender segregation, but where women still play a very active role, such as Sparta (of course, Sparta opens up a whole other barrel of monkeys because of "teh ghey").
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:42 AM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


One series I rather like disposed of the problem rather neatly by mentioning in passing that the reason that sexism was not really a factor was that a small random percent of all children born, male or female, turned out to be sorcerers who had powers that made all ordinary humans utterly helpless in comparison. So the society evolved to treat men and women equally because of the risk that if you didn't, your daughter would promptly explode your head when her powers manifested in mid to late adolescense.

But even that was a series which chose to have an explanation, for its own reasons. You don't really need one at all. The excellent Seraphina has been mentioned - the society is relatively egalitarian because, well, why not? It ISN'T EARTH. If you are making your own world, you are making your own rules, and as long as they are internally consistent, who cares? If anyone reads Seraphina thinking, "Why aren't women more oppressed? This is totally inappropriate in a medieval-ish setting!", then they are the ones who have a problem, frankly, since they are accepting, you know, dragons before they accept premodern feminism.

Now, if a story is set in something that is clearly "earth with some changes" - if it *is* set in Rome or some such, which is actually rather less common than the different world setting -- then yeah, it might be nice to either have an explanation of how these changes have affected women's status, OR for the author to have done the research as to how a woman could play an important role in that time, if they want to have an action heroine. But as numerous posters have pointed out, neither the first nor the second is particularly hard. Minimal thought leads to the first, and minimal research leads to the second. I've read plenty of non-fantasy historical novels with plausible active heroines. So, the excuse for not having one is not "accuracy" so much as "they didn't want one". (This does not mean that there cannot be valid reasons to make all your characters male. I simply mean that "accuracy" is a pretty piss-poor excuse EVEN IF you have set your story on Earth in some historical period.)

And the excuse that fantasy must be set in medieval Europe is ludicrous. N. K. Jemison has some good things to say about that, among many others.
posted by kyrademon at 6:23 AM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


TheWhiteSkull:

Those forms of marriage in anthropology textbooks are intimately linked with pre-agricultural societies. Unless an author is interested in writing something set in basically pre-history, going too far afield in terms of gender and marital relations is going to mean that you're either carefully building a cause for these gender relations or you're ignoring the relationship between forms of family and forms of property and means of production. If you don't want your story to be primarily about how this fantasy world has alternate gender relations, it's intellectually lazy to change things up for the sake of being different.
posted by graymouser at 6:25 AM on December 9, 2012


Artw: that is a brilliant story. Thank you for posting the link.

Sadly it missed out on a Hugo due to being in the same category as a Ted Chiang story. I think it would have been a worthy winner.
posted by Artw at 6:57 AM on December 9, 2012


Why don't they just make a Ted Chiang Award and give it to him whenever he pops up so other people have a chance at winning something.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:11 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, you know, it's only every other year.
posted by Artw at 7:25 AM on December 9, 2012


Those forms of marriage in anthropology textbooks are intimately linked with pre-agricultural societies. Unless an author is interested in writing something set in basically pre-history, going too far afield in terms of gender and marital relations is going to mean that you're either carefully building a cause for these gender relations or you're ignoring the relationship between forms of family and forms of property and means of production.

Why are you talking about prehistory? In historical times, we've had agrarian societies with polygyny, polyandry, matrilocal, patrilocal, avunculocal, multi-generational households and nuclear households. While there were differences in the property rules and means of production, these are not the only things that dictate family forms - southern/eastern Europe and northern-western Europe, for example had very similar means of production in c1500, but different family formation (multigenerational vs nuclear).

Sure, you're not going to have a patriarchal society with high levels of primogeniture treat sons and daughters the same way (except that lower class people in Tudor England didn't value sons as much as in China or India today). But what if - in your fantasy - women farm and men hunt/herd? Just in our own Earth history, that formation has produced matrilineal societies (eg Iroquois) and patriarchal (a lot of east Africa).
posted by jb at 8:05 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now, if a story is set in something that is clearly "earth with some changes" - if it *is* set in Rome or some such, which is actually rather less common than the different world setting -- then yeah, it might be nice to either have an explanation of how these changes have affected women's status, OR for the author to have done the research as to how a woman could play an important role in that time, if they want to have an action heroine.

One of the problems with "earth with some changes" settings is that authors don't necessarily do a very good job of extrapolating those changes. Novik's Temeraire books are a case in point. I like the characters, I enjoy her examination of dragon psychology, and I find her efforts to make the Napoleonic Wars go more or less "according to script" (with with dragons!) pleasurable. The wider her scope gets, though, the harder I have to work to suspend disbelief. I still read them, but the Early Modern historian in my head has to keep yelling "lalala I can't hear you!" Similarly, there was a Victorian-Age-with-Magic book I read years ago where there was all this Celtic stuff because "magic had kept out every invader since Caesar." And... Victoria... was the queen. And men wore bowlers. And... um.

So it gets a little crazy. Let's imagine an alternate Rome where magic works and most women have access to spells that control their fertility. This would go a long way toward ensuring greater equality between men and women in all cultures. It would also ensure there was no Rome, since Rome established itself by stealing women from surrounding communities, most notably the Sabines. Now, you could probably hand-wave that away and just go on with your Altera-Rome, but a completely fictitious setting might be easier to avoid this sort of thing.

On the other hand, I would relish a fantasy novel where Livia was able to just become Empress rather than try and manipulate the sullen and ungrateful Tiberius, and it would be even better if she could toss fireballs around or summon demonic legions or something, so ignore what I said above.

If any of that was interesting, I would recommend Gillian Bradshaw's Render Unto Caesar, a thriller set during the later part of the reign of Augustus. The hero is an Alexandrian banker, who is brave but not particularly martial, and the "muscle" in the story is a woman who is a believable combatant and an interesting and complex character marked by the difficulties of being an unusual woman in an extremely patriarchal society but isn't defined solely by them. It's well worth a read, although it is not fantasy (unless you assume praying to Isis has some effect).
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:30 AM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


NoraReed : Dude, what stories are you reading?

Fluffy escapist fantasies. Not "period-accurate" historical dramas.

And y'know, I doubt this will go over well on the Blue, but I consider the scantily clad beautiful warrior-women no more or less "realistic" (or sexist) than the impossibly-buff Conans or the uberclever-beyond-Einstein Merlins or even the lucky-beyond-lucky Rincewinds.
posted by pla at 9:21 AM on December 9, 2012


Well, if you consider them no more or less realistic than super buff Conan, than why not a super buff warrior woman instead? Why not an incredibly sexy male character who uses his sexuality to move the plot along? Are we assuming that women long ago didn't have this new fangled "female sex drive" that modern feminists insist on? That's the problem itself, that people think feminists are like, inventing new properties and characteristics and motivations that have always existed. There are not only two possible categories, the impossibly sexy woman and impossibly brute man. (I don't mind impossibly sexy women, but I do mind a story that sticks with brave-strong-man and sexy-but-insignificant-woman because it obviously thinks this is some kind of deep truth about human nature. This is just plain foolish besides being boring and insulting.)

If, and only if, you have the goal of writing a book about gender inequality.

That a book "about" the struggles and experiences of women is "about" gender inequality is a loaded mischaracterization, I think. It's about women. (As well as men, usually.) Women deal with gender inequality more consciously than men, usually. Writing about female experiences and subjectivity is just writing good female characters. If you don't want to write good female characters and you don't want to write any brave, strong, two-dimensional female characters either, fine, but it's your choice.

For women these stories that offer nothing but sexy, ineffectual women offer very little in the vein of identification; the female characters are not well-developed and neither represent an accurate representation of female subjectivity (instead imposing some kind of objecthood or just poor characterization on them) or a fantastical escape for women (most women don't fantasize about just being a very sexy object to which things happen in accordance with male wish fulfillment). I used to read a lot of fantasy nonetheless, but it was sad that I was always half identifying with cool male characters and half with terrible female characters who honestly made me feel pretty shitty.

But overall, depictions of sexism are not endorsements of sexism, any more than, say, Orwell's depiction of totalitarianism should be seen as an endorsement of totalitarianism.

I would like for this to be true, but people like to read about "bleak" things, and they like to read about rape for whatever reason. Thus we get stories full of "historical" (see: historically lazy) women being spat at and raped or whatever. Other people above are totally right that classical and Victorian literature are themselves more interested in the lives of women than most modern depictions of classical or Victorian times. Stabbing people with a sword is not the only thing that constitutes "story" in a fantasy novel; it's very possible to take an interest in the lives and influence of women in any period of history. Some people want to read solely about male-populated action-based plots or F14s in the Battle of Hastings with no exploration of their impact, but these are not the only stories, they don't constitute fantasy qua fantasy, they are a specific type of fantasy story.

I mean, I enjoyed the hell out of Dune, even though you could complain about the way women were portrayed as support characters or schemers-- but at least they were included and important to the plot. There were moving scenes that heavily involved women, and women did things in their "historical" positions as women. They operated as wives and mothers but in very interesting ways.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:06 AM on December 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Why not an incredibly sexy male character who uses his sexuality to move the plot along?

More than a few of those. I'm think Fritz Leiber, maybe some CAS and Vance - basically rogues in general.

Not-quite-fantasy but definatly epic modern vetsions would include the protagonist of the recently concluded Nicolai Dante.
posted by Artw at 10:14 AM on December 9, 2012


does anyone actually care what scott lynch says? IMO the first book in that series, which is the only one I consumed, was amateurish to the extreme. If I am wrong and it's actually held in some acclaim, please let me know.

I think you'll find that your perception of it was not exactly the norm: http://www.sffmeta.com/showbook?bookNo=655.
posted by advil at 10:53 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, Artw, I'm glad those stories exist (and I was thinking of a few examples while I typed too). It's just that discussing the issue like sexy woman and strong man are "equal" expressions of the feminine on one hand and the masculine on the other is the kind of overzealous essentialism that makes these stories limited and sometimes sexist.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:59 AM on December 9, 2012


an alternate Rome where magic works and most women have access to spells that control their fertility
umm - since there was nothing illegal about infanticide I don't think this would have made much difference?

Also, weren't Spartan girls brought up in barracks and trained in warfare much like the boys were? (Although I don't know if they had to scrounge their food in the same way.) I've read somewhere Sparta was a much better place to be female than neighboring Athens - more opportunities, more fun, many more rights and much less beating-up...
posted by glasseyes at 12:00 PM on December 9, 2012


I'm writing a fantasy novel right now, set in a sort of Victorian/old American West milieu. I had some internal debates about racism, skin color, sexism, gay rights, etc. I've always written strong women characters and I didn't want to have their entire story dealing with inequality. So both men and women serve in the military, the primary substitute for Christianity has women as the priests (and more important the being they worship is a female who has a strong opinion on these matters), and being gay is no big deal at all. Because it's my damn world and someone doesn't want to read about that kind of world, they can go somewhere else. I'll even borrow Lynch's framed invitation.

Now racism I do deal with, because I have different races other than human. And subjugation is still present because civilization is pushing out at the frontier and those on the other end don't have a say in it. And that's plenty of weight for a fantasy series to carry on its own.
posted by Ber at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2012


umm - since there was nothing illegal about infanticide I don't think this would have made much difference?

What? Not much difference between the physical risks and ordeals of pregnancy and childbirth versus normal life? That seems delusional.

Also, a urinary tract infection could kill you if it didn't just incapacitate you for weeks. I want a spell for that.
posted by Salamandrous at 12:36 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


In the fantasy stories I'm creating, I simply don't want to deal with the struggle against female oppression, patriarchy and all that. I wanted to do something involving interesting women going out and having adventures. So I decided to avoid pseudo-medieval Europe, and set it in the far distant future. In the empires the use of magic has lead to a somewhat egalitarian society- being able to read mind or set things on fire is not restricted by gender and had a strong effect on society. I'm sorry if my inability to restrict women characters to prizes for uber-masculine heroes disappoints greymouser, but I have little tolerance for the standard sword-and-sorcery sexism.
posted by happyroach at 1:24 PM on December 9, 2012


graymouser,

pb has already pretty much made my point re: kinship. Every society has systems of kinship and marriage, and all of them were pretty much defined by the Structuralists a long time ago.

But to develop my point further, take the example I made up- pluri-local polyandry. The Great Lakes cultures (among others) have already shown us that that semi-nomadic agrarian societies can exist. Within this context, I'm thinking of two possible ways in which a kinship and marriage system of this nature might be organized.

Perhaps it is a situation in which a bride travels to the various residences of her husbands at ritually prescribed intervals in the calendar. We might then imagine a system in which male-line parentage is attributed based on where the child is born, rather than where the child is conceived. If we then assume patrilineal inheritance in this system, we can begin to see how it might have different implications for different characters within such a relationship. If we assume matrilineal inheritance, the implications of place of birth become potentially even greater for the mother.

Another situation might be one in which a woman has control over land and property, and her various husbands spend much of their time away from her residence, engaged in raiding & trading. In this instance, we could invent a scenario in which a woman's land and wealth is necessary in order to provide backing for her husbands' ventures. Here a woman might select her husbands based on their potential success in these expeditions, and the return they might provide on her investments. Perhaps even some sort of "groom-price" is involved. We could also imagine a degree of tension, should more than one husband be present at a given time. Rather than suitors trying to coerce Penelope into marriage in order to gain control of Odysseus' lands, they compete with each other in order to gain support for their economic activities, going as far to sabotage each others' plans. There might even be proverbs like "A Wise Woman Keeps Her Husbands Apart, A Poor One Watches Them Sport for Her Amusement" (it sounds more pithy in Teptalish).

Furthermore, both these examples could potentially be written for patriarchal, matriarchal, or egalitarian societies. A clever author could determine how each might provide motivations for his characters.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think you mean jb, on the kinship thing? Different awesome person.
posted by XMLicious at 1:29 PM on December 9, 2012


Huh. For what it's worth, I recently wrote a short story in which the main character is performing in a (fictional) opera based on the life of Tamar of Georgia. My character is singing the role of Tamar's daughter Rusudan, who later loses her mom's empire. In my contemporary, realist story the medieval Caucasian action is kind of a side issue, but there's tons of material there if anyone wants to pick it up.
posted by tangerine at 1:43 PM on December 9, 2012


Oh, yeah- jb. I've got food on my mind.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:48 PM on December 9, 2012


One of the linked articles mentioned Skyrim, which I think is an interesting case study here in terms of comparison.

Skyrim has no institutionalized sexism in it. Like, at all, as far as I can remember. You probably don't need a reason for this choice, but one exists anyway, which is that both men and women will play the game, oftentimes cross-playing for the fun of it, and it just has no place in the story.

However, racism is a HUGE element of the Skyrim universe, and while not super-endemic to the plot, is nonetheless crucial to the world. That element of the world was specifically designed in, however, rather than just used because it was easy and explained away with "history." And the game wouldn't be half as good as it is without it.

So yeah, I'd say that archaic prejudices can exist in fantasy worlds, but should have intentional motivations rather than post-facto justifications.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:16 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Phew lots to think about here. Even medieval Europe during the 'dark ages' by our standards was not across the board sexist in all social constructs. I can't help but think of the Irish experience which in my mainstream history classes was always lumped in or seemingly with all of Western Europe in terms of it's social and religious constructs and history as basically following the same sort of path. Years ago I picked up a book my Mom was reading, a historical novel, which at first I thought was more fantasy then historical fact, as the main character is an Irish woman who not only had power but her own legal agency not dependent on any man. I thought I was reading one of those stories about a female outlier. Far from it.

If anyone hasn't ever heard of the Sister Fidelma series and it's author Peter Tremayne (his fiction nome de plume) or Peter Berresford Ellis his real name and is interested in medieval history that throws the typical understanding of women's experience during the Dark Ages for a loop then I strongly recommend checking it and many of his works out.

The Sister Fidelma mysteries are set mainly in Ireland during the mid-seventh century AD.

The law of primogeniture, the inheritance by the eldest son or daughter, was an alien concept in Ireland. Kingship, from the lowliest clan chieftain to the High King, was only partially hereditary and mainly electoral. Each ruler had to prove himself or herself worthy of office and was elected by the derbhfine of their family - a minimum of three generations from a common ancestor gathered in conclave. If a ruler did not pursue the commonwealth of the people, they were impeached and removed from office. Therefore the monarchical system of ancient Ireland had more in common with a modern-day republic than with the feudal monarchies which had developed elsewhere in medieval Europe....
Ireland, in the seventh century AD, was governed by a system of sophisticated laws called the Laws of the Fenechus, or land-tillers, which became more popularly known as the Brehon Laws.... Under these laws, women occupied a unique place. The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or until recent times. Women could, and did, aspire to all offices and professions as co-equal with men. They could be political leaders, command their people in battle as warriors, be physicians, local magistrates, poets, artisans, lawyers and judges. We know the names of many female judges of Fidelma's period - Brig Briugaid, Aine Ingine Iugaire and Dari among others. Dari, for example, was not only a judge but the author of a noted law text written in the sixth century AD. Women were protected by law against sexual harassment; against discrimination; against rape; they had the right of divorce on equal terms from their husbands, with equitable separation laws, and could demand part of their husband's property in a divorce settlement; they had the right of inheritance of personal property and land and the right of sickness benefits when ill or hospitalised. Ancient Ireland has Europe's oldest recorded system of hospitals. Seen from today's perspective, the Brehon Laws provided for what might be considered a society approaching an almost feminist paradise.


The Fidelma mysteries are not fantasy but the medieval world she inhabits upon first introduction sure feels like it.

In several of Ellis's academic works he delves into this eras history (and earlier) in great detail and it's utterly fascinating especially after getting the typical education on the history of Western Europe.

In relation to the discussion about basing fantasy stories in a typical medieval setting without all the typical sexism this particular world is ripe for the picking. Couple that with some exploration into the history of the Celtic people's which Ellis covers in some of his other works and the foundation is there for fantasy setting which would hold quite a lot of familiar tropes but be different enough to seem like fantasy to a lot of people.
posted by Jalliah at 3:43 PM on December 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


One of the things I liked best about the Scott Lynch novels was that not only were there women everywhere (and no one was saying, "Oh my! A female swordsperson! How unusual!") was that there were different flavours of women! Love interest ones, rough ones, cold ones, fragile ones, funny ones, brave ones and kick-ass ones. Scarred ones, brutal ones, intelligent ones, stupid ones - in other words, women written as real humans, with real personalities and a feeling that they weren't all just facets of the same idealised female. The first time I read them I was so relieved that there was this panoply of different, female characters I nearly jumped for joy.

And good on him for his smackdown - it's a fantastical world, dumdum. If he wanted to have pink elephant shaped zepplins that released baskets of cupcakes in there he could, because he made the damn world up!
posted by gerls at 4:43 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


If he wanted to have pink elephant shaped zepplins that released baskets of cupcakes in there he could, because he made the damn world up!

There isn't really a history of pink elephant shaped zepplins that release cupcakes being repressed though, is there?

Oh, wait, maybe there is? I've never heard of them before... erased from the history books?
posted by crossoverman at 6:28 PM on December 9, 2012


This thread has gotten me to start rereading the 'gates of Galvoie' section of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. I remembered the bit about Gawain and 'the girl without pity', and how shocking her complete rejection of the knightly code of honor was when I first read it years ago and had no idea what to expect. I had forgotten what a big chunk of the story that was, and that there's an enchanted kingdom ruled by women. (Apparently some of the enchantment is technological, mechanical weapons that don't require knights to operate.) And I'd forgotten that meeting the girl leads to him going there.

Now I've got to go to the library and get a good translation.
posted by nangar at 7:28 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anyone who knows me around these parts will know me as a strong-minded feminist. I will occasionally deal with stories that have no women in them (LOTR, Reservoir Dogs, the Foundation trilogy, Lawrence of Arabia) but I consider them to be pretty badly flawed. Anyone who builds their world without female characters in it is bad at worldbuilding, period. I don't understand why this is controversial.

I LOVE A Song of Ice and Fire. Just love it. And one of the biggest reasons I love it so much is because it has so many female characters. So many! So many of them are POV characters! And they are all different people! They have different personalities, different goals, different methods; the one thing they all have in common, not just with each other but with all the characters regardless of gender, is that they are all trying to secure their own agency in a world that would strip it of them. They all have different ways of doing that, too--Sansa tries to marry her way to agency, Cersei and Catelyn try to parent their way to agency, Brienne is fighting her way to agency, Daenerys intends to take it with an army, Melisandre is calling on her terrible god, Arya just says "fuck all y'all I don't go down easy." Even the secondary and tertiary characters have lots of well-defined, interesting women in them (the Sand Snakes? Margery Tyrell? The Queen of Thorns? Ygritte? Gilly? Mirri Maz Duur?).

And also, these women, they menstruate. They conceive, they bear children; they die in childbirth, sometimes. They miscarry, they give birth to still children. They contracept, and their access to contraception is limited by class and is both enthusiastically supported and barely tolerated by the patriarchal system, depending on the circumstances. This is a big reality of women's lives before medicine, and it goes along with the fact that all wounds have a tendency to fester and the bloody flux can wipe out an entire community. So often, those parts of a woman's existence are just ignored in fantasy.

And then! There's the way he handles consent to sex, or lack thereof. In a patriarchal system, women do not own their own consent; their fathers own it until they are married, and then their husbands own it. In a lot of epic fantasy, this is just handwaved away, it's never solved but it's never a problem. But it is a problem, and Martin shows it being a problem, and not just for sweet Sansa. When Brienne is being threatened with rape, Jamie demonstrates one of his first glimmers of humanity by trying to pre-arm her with coping strategies, because he knows that 1) rape is awful and 2) it would be particularly awful for Brienne, who is a swooning romantic. (Because Martin's broadshouldered female knight isn't a swaggering tomboy, she's a swooning romantic. Because gender identity and gender presentation are orthogonal.) But the secret he eventually strikes on to keep her safe from that particular assault is to imply that her father won't ransom her if she's not a virgin; that's the only motivator that the Companions respect, even temporarily.

The books are not without flaw, both from a feminist perspective and a pure storytelling perspective, but as a woman who reads and loves a lot of doorstop fantasy, these are the best ones I've ever encountered for me as a female reader. I haven't seen the TV show, though; I understand it's a lot boobier, rapier, and more gratuitious than the books. But I love reading these books, not despite the grim meat grinder that he puts his women through, but partly because of it; because I live in a world that is not as different from Westeros, gender-wise, as I wish it was, and watching these women struggle and frequently prevail within it reminds me of my own struggles and victories. And that's why I experience A Song of Ice and Fire as quite the feminist work, despite its setting.
posted by KathrynT at 10:18 AM on December 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical:
Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! - is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood.
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:15 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's an excellent link, nooneyouknow - thanks.

My favorite line: "to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical?"

Writing about women isn't "pushing an agenda" - it's recognizing half (or slightly over half) of the human race.
posted by jb at 12:10 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Writing about women isn't "pushing an agenda" - it's recognizing half (or slightly over half) of the human race.

Stepping back for a second: what fantasy works written in the last couple of decades actually take a Tolkien-style "no women please"* stance? Because there is still a lot of reacting to unspecified things except for GRRM who obviously has a lot of women in his work. It's not in stuff like Malazan Book of the Fallen or Wheel of Time or anything else I can think of reading lately, so where exactly are the women-free zones in fantasy? Are they just in books I haven't been reading?

* In The Hobbit of course; Tolkien had women in LotR, and more prominently in several tales in the Silmarillion.
posted by graymouser at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2012


KathrynT, why did nobody tell me any of that about ASoIaF? That's honestly the first take on it that made me want to read it soon (up till now, I've just figured I'll get around to it eventually for cultural awareness purposes.) Most of what I've heard about it has been blah blah dynastic struggles politcal maneuvering horrible people everywhere. Does not make it sound appealing to me at all.
posted by asperity at 1:46 PM on December 10, 2012


It's not in stuff like Malazan Book of the Fallen or Wheel of Time or anything else I can think of reading lately

Malazan was specifically what I was thinking of above when I talked about women who are indistinguishable from men except when they're being raped.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:00 PM on December 10, 2012


In The Hobbit of course; Tolkien had women in LotR, and more prominently in several tales in the Silmarillion.

The three women with speaking roles in the Lord of the Rings just highlight the vast, ridiculous lack of women. They do not make it a Series with Women In. The Silmarillion is hardly any better - there's maybe one (Galadriel, of course) who has any agency at all beyond being a love interest or object of rescue. (It is possible I am forgetting one or two, but I am confident the point holds overall.)

While I like Rothfuss's Name of the Wind etc, I think it's very much in that vein as well - there's a major female character who, so far, hasn't done much of anything beyond being the Unattainable Love Interest, and beyond that... I don't remember any. I mean, I know there are some female tertiary characters, but again, that doesn't help.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:09 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Stepping back for a second: what fantasy works written in the last couple of decades actually take a Tolkien-style "no women please"* stance? Because there is still a lot of reacting to unspecified things except for GRRM who obviously has a lot of women in his work. It's not in stuff like Malazan Book of the Fallen or Wheel of Time or anything else I can think of reading lately, so where exactly are the women-free zones in fantasy? Are they just in books I haven't been reading?

It's not just about the existence of women, but also how the women who exist in these works are characterized. The main reason I gave up on Wheel of Time was how awful all of the women were--by the last book I read they were all portrayed as whiny, conniving, and/or hopelessly in love with Rand despite his total lack of positive qualities.
posted by schroedinger at 2:10 PM on December 10, 2012


The main reason I gave up on Wheel of Time was how awful all of the women were--by the last book I read they were all portrayed as whiny, conniving, and/or hopelessly in love with Rand despite his total lack of positive qualities.

That's a totally valid take, and I think it only improves a little bit as the series goes on, but the thing is, everyone in the series is whiny, conniving, and hopelessly in love with someone who has no detectable positive qualities. The writing gets particularly tic-y in ways that are much more noticeable with the women, and I think there are some core flaws in it that undercut its central thesis about the equality of the sexes (gender essentialism is a screwed-up basis to start from, imo) but the central thesis is that the sexes are equal, and I think it mostly works on that basis.

But yeah, if you can't stand the characters, you can't stand the characters. Can't blame you even where I disagree with you.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:15 PM on December 10, 2012


The writing gets particularly tic-y

Hehe, a couple friends gave up on the series before I did (which was one chapter into Book 8), and one of them had this to say about it: "Every Aes Sedai is the picture of cool serenity. Every Warder is a barely-tamed wolfhound."
posted by adamdschneider at 2:21 PM on December 10, 2012


Perhaps it changed after I stopped (I think the fifth book?), but to me it felt the main male characters were all supposed to be seen as Nice Guys and so misunderstood, while the female characters were just horrible bitches. His theme of women and men being equal in magical power doesn't change his differing portrayal of them as people.

Anyway, it is that kind of theme that I see repeated more often than "women don't exist". Women are regulated to side-roles, or if they're put in roles the roles are ridiculously biased.
posted by schroedinger at 2:21 PM on December 10, 2012


Writing about women isn't "pushing an agenda" - it's recognizing half (or slightly over half) of the human race.

That's an agenda in itself. Especially if you're to shoehorn it into the fantasy genre, where females may not represent half the human race. This thread seems all about, well, not quite pushing an agenda, but more all about pulling an agenda. And of course, an agenda that subtly varies from person to person. Hell, it looks like it took KathrynT's spiel to sell GRRM's series to asperity, even if asperity's description (dynastic struggles politcal maneuvering horrible people everywhere) pretty much fits. Dynastic Struggles-Politcal Maneuvering-Horrible People Everywhere, Now With More Girls!

I'm a lukewarm reader of fantasy, for a variety of reasons, gender being a fairly small subset. One of these days, I'll pen my fantasy novel, which I'm sure is bound to disappoint, because in my created universe, my pet peeves about gender roles simply take second, third or fourth place to my other priorities on how my universe should operate.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:22 PM on December 10, 2012


Graymouser, the more common problem is not that no women seem to exist in the world at all, but that such women that exist are either (1) agency-free objects, (2) little more than canvasses upon which the author projects sexual fantasy, or (3) a single token woman in an otherwise all-male group whose defining trait is "look this one's a girl!"

I've heard one or more of those problems being attributed to work by such authors as Robert Newcomb, Terry Goodkind, John Norman, Joel Rosenberg, and others.
posted by kyrademon at 2:25 PM on December 10, 2012


Dynastic Struggles-Politcal Maneuvering-Horrible People Everywhere, Now With More Girls!

That totally works for me, provided the women get to stab things, too -- I mean, I read the hell out of I, Claudius nearly twenty years ago and don't really want to read about the Ladies' Auxiliary of Poisoning, Conniving, and Childbearing again in a fantasy setting.
posted by asperity at 2:32 PM on December 10, 2012


to me it felt the main male characters were all supposed to be seen as Nice Guys and so misunderstood, while the female characters were just horrible bitches.

I think there are two things going on there - one, the women do horrible bitchy things but often (not always) have perfectly understandable motives, but it's way harder to read them generously when "women are conniving, controlling bitches" is a stereotype we're always primed to read, whereas when the men do horrible, controlling, conniving things we're primed to read them as being Strong Effective Leaders.

Second, the three main dudes spend longer being Clueless Doofuses Who Need the Plot Explained to them, which keeps them harmless for longer - after the fifth book, Rand in particular turns into an absolute ruthless lunatic with a cosmically terrible white knight complex, Mat's a rakehell who tries to the best of his ability to flee responsibility at every turn, and Perrin... well, Perrin stays the most sympathetic, but he's absolutely paralyzed by indecision for about four books and I wanted to strangle him the most after a while. Whereas in the seventh book, Nynaeve finally grows up and becomes a genuine badass, Egwene is the most effective and, I think, genuinely sympathetic character in the books, and Elayne actually gets to do the queening she was set up to do and does a tolerably good job of it. Plus there are tons and tons of secondary female characters I just adore. (And some I want to strangle, but that certainly goes for the men, too.)
posted by restless_nomad at 2:39 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


where exactly are the women-free zones in fantasy? Are they just in books I haven't been reading?

I don't know - since most of the books I read these days are by women, most have had great female characters. I never thought GRRM's books had a problem with lack of women or sexism, but then I stopped around the end of book 2 or 3 due to another completely different problem (I hate cliff-hangers) - I hadn't yet seen that much sexual violence, so I have no idea how he handles it.

Maybe there aren't women-free zones anymore - I'd be happy for it.

That's an agenda in itself.

The point of noone's link is that NOT writing women is itself also an agenda - there is no such thing as "no agenda", rather "which agenda?"

And, as the original link points out, traditional history isn't agenda-free - it marginalizes women (largely because the sources do). Historians are trying to be better, but sometimes we are still locked in by the choices made by source producers and preservers: I mention almost no women in my dissertation research (except 20th century historians) and I don't discuss gender at all, because there are almost no women mentioned in my sources (actually, I only have a few individuals in my sources - I have a lot more "townsmen" and "inhabitants"). But fiction is not dictated by the sources - fiction can go back into the kitchen or the women's quarters and ask "what's happening here?" even when nothing survives for historians.

As for non-human characters: no one is complaining about people writing about species with different sex balances or no sex/gender whatsoever -- those themselves can lead to some very interesting writing about gender. But when writing about humans, living in a mixed society (again, no one complains that the monks in Cadfael are all men, though I notice Ellis Peters has no problem fitting lots of female characters into the stories anyways) - the author has made a choice when he or she only writes about men.
posted by jb at 2:44 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


kyrademon:

OK - I can't say I've read Newcomb, Norman or Rosenberg, but Terry Goodkind's work is generally awful, and I hated it. So ... maybe it's what we read. A lot of the fantasy of the past 20 years that I have read was by women, and as such tends not to have these problems. I think that "hey fantasy tends to not have women in it" is a bad statement and needs further examination. These critiques have all been far too wooly and vague for my taste, and since most of the specific analysis in this thread has been of Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, I feel like they need a much more thorough grounding.
posted by graymouser at 2:45 PM on December 10, 2012


The Links seem more specifically focused on post-Tolkien Fantasy Epics in proper Elves & Dwarves and & Wizards pseudo medieval D&Desque settings, which A) is not all of fantasy and B) IMHO is stacking the deck a little as its a subgenre dominated by awful generic crap. But, you know, Sturgeons law and all that.
posted by Artw at 2:55 PM on December 10, 2012


Well, it's the Tolkienesque fantasy that's most likely to be defended by inaccurate appeals to historicity, I think - urban fantasy, steampunk, etc, don't have that problem so much.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:59 PM on December 10, 2012


(one of my big problems with the bulk of said sub genre being the general idea that monarchies and aristocracies are an inherently great thing - so GoT turning out to be Dynastic Struggles-Politcal Maneuvering-Horrible People Everywhere was actually one of the things that sold it to me. )
posted by Artw at 3:01 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dynastic Struggles-Politcal Maneuvering-Horrible People Everywhere, Now With More Girls!

But see, I LOVE DS-PM-HPE books. Love them. So imagine how thrilled I was to find such a book that is actually written about a representative sample of the world it is set in!
posted by KathrynT at 3:36 PM on December 10, 2012


But see, I LOVE DS-PM-HPE books. Love them. So imagine how thrilled I was to find such a book that is actually written about a representative sample of the world it is set in!

I enjoy a good DS-PM-HPE myself, so the first two books were groovy. Midway through Book 3, I realized the series is less of a DS-PM-HPE than a slow motion fictional snuff film on paper. Now that I'm 40 pages from the end of Book 5, I'd say it's a parody of the world's longest slow motion fictional snuff film on paper, as penned by Ramsay Snow. But here I am, still reading the godawful thing. What is wrong with me?

Next I think I'll move on to something more light and cheery, like re-reading Jude the Obscure, having an Atom Egoyan film festival, or (actually on the agenda for this week) listening to the new Swans and Scott Walker records.

The best case scenario for Books 6 and 7 is if they never see the light of day. The second-best scenario would be if the Prologue of Book 6 reads, "One bright sunny autumn morning in the Narrow Sea, the Doom of Valyria Redux occurred and, within a few minutes, obliterated everything from The Land of Always Winter to Qarth. The End."
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:01 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


rebent: "does anyone actually care what scott lynch says? IMO the first book in that series, which is the only one I consumed, was amateurish to the extreme. If I am wrong and it's actually held in some acclaim, please let me know."

Nominated for some relatively serious awards, it seems.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:41 PM on December 11, 2012


The Algebraic Properties of Equality in SF - guest post by Stina Leicht on the blog of cstross.
posted by Artw at 8:34 AM on December 15, 2012


I was told this would be a better fit as part of this conversation rather than as something on its own, so here's this:

PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical, which features a line that sums up this amazing essay/fact-checker on some of the most persistent myths that lead authors down the strange path of insisting on straight, white, male characters as some sort of neutral guarantee of accuracy and relatability: "what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical?"

thanks for letting me know, LobsterMitten!
posted by batmonkey at 9:27 AM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hey, thanks for posting that. I'd read quotes from it but not the whole thing, and it's great.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:47 AM on December 16, 2012


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