Canny political players, not pawns or victims
March 25, 2016 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Writing women characters into epic fantasy without quotas, an essay by SFF writer Kate Elliott.

SFF writer Kate Elliott challenges the received wisdom that women don't show up much in written history (and therefore in epic fantasies based on such history) because they just weren't interesting, and didn't have any power or agency. Women throughout history ruled, traded, played politics, led armies, owned property, were skilled in the crafts, had a say in their own marriages, fed their families and communities, outlived men, wrote treatises, satisfied their own sexual desires, and married and divorced freely.

If we don’t hear about them, it’s hard or even impossible to see them. It’s not only male writers who leave out women; female writers do it too. We all do it because we’ve been told women didn’t and don’t matter unless they were allowed to be like men and do like men, or to support men’s stories, or unless men found them sexually attractive or approved of them. We’re told women were passive and repressed and ignorant and therefore empty. But it isn’t true.

Women’s stories don’t trivialize or dull a narrative. They enrich it. They enlarge it.
posted by suelac (32 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
“I always wondered why the makers leave housekeeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn't it what all the great wars and battles are fought for -- so that at day's end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tale tells how the Lords of Manva hunted & gathered roots & cooked their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn't say what their wives & children were living on in their city left ruined & desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house & honoring the gods, the way we did in the siege & under the tyranny of the Alds. When the heroes came back from the mountain, they were welcomed with a feast. I'd like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, Voices
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:44 AM on March 25, 2016 [31 favorites]

File off the serial numbers for Isabella of Castile or Cleopatra VII, and you have something akin to Game of Thrones. History really does have almost everything in it.

But my view of fantasy is much more along the lines of the Tolkien-Chesterton-Gaiman law. The existence of dragons is less important than the principle that they can be defeated.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:02 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is a thing that I always seek out in my history. It's astounding to me, how the more I read in history, the more I realize: we've always been here. Smart women, queer folk, people who might have wanted the same things I did; it's not just me and my age-mates. I don't have to construct a sense of belonging for myself out of nothing. I can tie myself and my existence to traditions of women who saw the lines society set out for them and thought "I want this, and that, and not those. How do I make it happen?"

It's a way of humanizing history, and at the same time it's a way of giving roots to modern people. It's so, so liberating to figure out how to imagine oneself in another time and another place and not have to construct a strange Frankenstein self out of the good traits that I have but which are only reflected by men in the stories we're told, along with the traits about myself that come from being myself. And at the same time, history makes so much more sense when you see people from other times and other places as people with the same biases and thoughts and desires as you'd ascribe to any people you might meet on the street. This weird limpid history-of-the-victors I got in official history classes is so alien when you think about it, and of course like all histories it tells you at least as much about the people writing it as the people it's ostensibly about.
posted by sciatrix at 10:03 AM on March 25, 2016 [17 favorites]

File off the serial numbers for Isabella of Castile or Cleopatra VII, and you have something akin to Game of Thrones. History really does have almost everything in it.

Or, hell, Queen Nzinga! You've got rulers seizing power, you have a woman who grabs her kingdom and loses it and takes it back again with a new army she raised. You have weird foreigners who don't have the country's interests at heart but say they do, and you watch the queen toy with alliances and pit different foreign nations against each other as her allies. There's civil unrest all over the region, and a princess and queen who brings order by making a home for slaves who escape the men driving them west. And at the end of it, you have eighty years of peace carved out for two countries joined into one, against all odds. It's a hell of a story, so why does no one ever tell it?!?
posted by sciatrix at 10:08 AM on March 25, 2016 [16 favorites]

Related: Vicki Leon has collected many stories of uppity women through history. I have a copy of one of her books (Google books preview), and most biographies are a page or two at most, so it's quick reading that will send you in search of more information.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:24 AM on March 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

File off the serial numbers for Isabella of Castile or Cleopatra VII, and you have something akin to Game of Thrones.

Personally, I'd like a Matilda of Tuscany.

OTOH, Anita Sarkeesian's latest project is to make animated bios of Murasaki Shikibu, Ida B. Wells, Emma Goldman, Ching Shih, and Ada Byron. I don't think it has been mentioned in MeFi yet.
posted by sukeban at 10:27 AM on March 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm pretty fond of Ching Shih, one of the greatest pirate captains of all time and one of only a few to retire from piracy and die of old age. (As a North Carolinian, I did learn about Anne Bonny and Mary Reade in 3rd grade as part of the mandated Pirate Unit, but they were small-time crooks to Shih's mighty battle queen)
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:35 AM on March 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

lately, I've been reading through histories of the Ottoman Empire, and a generally underappreciated facet of Ottoman politics were the haseki sultans or chief consorts to the Sultans who were often women captured and enslaved but had learned how to work the politics of the Seraglio to rise in power and favor, and eventually get their sons installed as Sultan. This is somewhat referenced in the article, but essentially, succession in the Ottoman Empire was not about primogeniture, but about survival of the fittest, with ever sultan's death being the culmination of a years long winner-take-all struggle, where the winner became Supreme Ruler and every other viable contender who did not succeed was either ritualistically strangled or sent into exile. And, since we're often talking about teenage or young adult men, most of that politicking in the mature years of the empire was performed by their mothers, who exercised influence with the sultan while he was alive, then would often rule in regency as valide sultan until the heir came of age.

The most famous was probably Roxelana, who originated the title. And Kösem Sultan was responsible for installing 3 sultans who were sons or grandsons of hers, and then wound up getting strangled when she was plotting to have her grandson deposed for being a bit too uppity. It's all super fascinating, and their imprints are all over the character of Cersei Lannister and Margaery Tyrell.
posted by bl1nk at 10:59 AM on March 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

Chinese imperial palace politics were kind of the same, if dozens of TV dramas don't lie. Wu Zetian and Cixi were two of the most notorious empresses (Wu Zetian on her own right, Cixi as dowager empress).

A bit to the north, Mongols also had some fierce queens. Jack Weatherford's books are mentioned in the article, but here's to Khutulun and Mandukhai the Wise.
posted by sukeban at 11:39 AM on March 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

While we're mentioning awesome historical women who were political powerhouses, I'd like to add Isabella d'Este to the list. I don't know if the translation is any good, but Maria Bellonci's novel Private Renaissance is outstanding.
posted by lydhre at 11:44 AM on March 25, 2016

It's not just queens whose historical lives made these great stories, though. Nicola Griffith's Hild is a good novel based liberally on a woman who became a saint, for example, and Elliot's broader point has more to do with SFF (and how people use history to construct fantasy worlds) than history per se. If anything, lower-class women often had a little more in the way of freedom because their labor was so absolutely essential to support their households than upper-class women did--I'm thinking here of ancient Greece and Rome because that's where my historical background is best, but I think it also applies more broadly to other cultures.

The wide-eyed farm boy who goes on to be somebody influential is a hoary staple of sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Where are the stories about farm girls who be somebody, instead of dating somebody? Or, hell, where are the stories about women who make a life for themselves as smiths, or traders, or translators? The background roles of these stories don't always need to be cast male, either, but many of them wind up that way by default.
posted by sciatrix at 12:29 PM on March 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I just finished reading Ancillary Justice which [minor spoiler] is narrated by a character that literally cannot comprehend gender, but defaults to female pronouns.

Holy shit, was it enlightening. It's an epic slap on the face to every Fantasy and Science-Fiction author who marginalizes or excludes female characters.

Every character in the book is female.... Or not..... Maybe. It's pretty incredible how the story doesn't change at all when every character's gender is unknown or ambiguous.
posted by schmod at 12:53 PM on March 25, 2016 [20 favorites]

I just grabbed Molly Tanzer's Vermilion and am super excited to read it.
The book luxuriates in the gritty, hardscrabble texture of the Old West, the creak of russet leather and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Even the incorporation of talking animals is done with a low-key subtlety, as much of an exercise in homegrown magic realism as it is a flexing of the fantastic.

For all its love of 19th-century Americana, though, Vermilion is decidedly not U.S.-centric. The hero is Elouise "Lou" Merriwether, a 19-year-old psychopomp: someone hired to guide the spirits of the dead to their final resting place. She's also Chinese-American, born of a Cantonese mother and a British father, and Tanzer doesn't overlook the racial discrimination and institutionalized bigotry of the era. As with the best alt-history, Vermilion confronts the issues openly, then weaves them seamlessly into the plot and setting, from the indifference of bygone San Francisco to its Chinatown residents to the dehumanization of Chinese workers by railway bosses.

Lou not only navigates her mixed race, but her ambiguous gender. She prefers to pass as a man, and when she embarks on a quest halfway across the continent at the behest of her estranged, widowed mother, she discovers that there are many different shades of gender and sexuality beyond her own.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:08 PM on March 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I love the Ancillary books, but just to be a heartless pedant:

We're told that Seivarden is male. And one time Breq presents as female to a non-Radchaai, but we aren't told whether that's because she has obvious female secondary sexual characteristics or just has long hair or is wearing green pants or whatever the culture on Ice Planet Zebra uses as signifiers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:17 PM on March 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

Clues about anatomical sex come out through the series. But as Breq explains, anatomical sex has little to do with gender among civilized Radchaai. It can be changed with a trip to the clinic, has no bearing on reproduction, and is an unreliable signifier of self-identity or cultural status. (It's a milder version of the lecture we get in Player of Games, where the narrator admits it is arbitrarily assigning pronouns and scolds us for being ignorant savages.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:47 PM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

But with the Ancillary books, I think the effect is supposed to be this perpetual rebuking of/foregrounding of our desire to "know" something recognizable about the characters' gender. As I was reading them, I found myself moving back and forth between experiencing the books as almost entirely about women as we understand women (because of all the "she" pronouns), paying obsessive attention to physical cues which might tell me what gender people "really" were, and trying to read the book in a truly non-gendered way. I don't think the main purpose of the pronoun business is as much to school us in some kind of Way To Do Gender as to make us have a different experience as readers. It's not exactly important, that is, whether Seivarden is "really" male or how stable gender is among the Radchaai.

Another series that is of interest if you want something that foregrounds women: The Marq'ssan series. Every viewpoint character is female, though there are a couple of important male characters (and the book is about patriarchy and the choices among rebellion and accommodation). Reading those books was really powerful for me because they cover so much ground. Even other SF novels that basically only featured women (Ammonite, The Female Man, etc) had less of an effect because they were much shorter and took less time to read. Also, the Marq'ssan books have a really, really effective and terrifying female villain. The book that is told half from her point of view is really disturbing, because you start to like her, in a way.

Now, I have to say that these are not the most beautifully written books in creation, especially the first one. But the day that I really got into the first one (after about sixty pages) I immediately ordered the remaining five from the press, and basically pestered them into shipping them ASAP - I had to read more.

They're weird books with some weird eighties sensibility, but they do a LOT of stuff that nothing else does. (Warning - about half of the second book is the story of one of the main character's resistance to and ultimate destruction by imprisonment and torture; another plot arc concerns a radical lawyer who is imprisoned and tortured by the American regime. The books draw a lot on DuChamp's experience as an activist against US intervention in Latin America, and they are haunted by the treatment of women dissidents in those countries.)
posted by Frowner at 2:00 PM on March 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

As I was reading them, I found myself moving back and forth between experiencing the books as almost entirely about women as we understand women (because of all the "she" pronouns), paying obsessive attention to physical cues which might tell me what gender people "really" were, and trying to read the book in a truly non-gendered way.

Right. I kept trying to look for subtle clues about Seivarden's gender, obsessively analyzing every subtext I could find.

The epiphany came when I realized that the author wasn't burying clues -- Seivarden's' gender was actually irrelevant to her identity and the story. I can't help but feel that the author did this deliberately, given that we're given a few small scraps of information about Seivarden's physical appearance (and are casually told that the character is biologically male, when that detail is essentially not revealed about any other character).

Just like the way the author casually drops "Oh, by the way, nobody in this universe is white. Wasn't that a silly thing for you to have assumed."
posted by schmod at 2:16 PM on March 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Frowner: It's not exactly important, that is, whether Seivarden is "really" male or how stable gender is among the Radchaai.

On the one hand, I agree. But books can be multiple things at once, and Breq's description of Radch society as diverse in personal choices in costume, grooming, affect, language, and later, body modification has a particular resonance with my personal queerness, which is very aware at times about how trivial shit is used to communicate my position within a gendered class hierarchy.

But that's taking off into a derail.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:34 PM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the things I like about Tamora Pierce's work is that she foregrounds the invisible web of women that surrounds her characters (often women trying to succeed in men's worlds), having our heroine interact with maids and seamstresses and laundresses and so on, who have information and support and skills to contribute to our heroine's success, and it stretches from the lowliest maids to the queen.

One of the weak point about Game of Thrones for me is that this web is lacking. GRRM easily imagines the various male servants and lackeys and supporters who surround the male characters, but his women are isolated from interaction with other (lower-class) women who would be SURROUNDING them. Sansa never gets hooked in to the female information network in the castles she lives in, while Littlefinger, et al, always have servant spies and sources. There's just this total dearth of female extras, and no web of women surrounding and supporting the female characters and creating competing, if half hidden, networks of knowledge and information that men only have limited access to.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:46 PM on March 25, 2016 [33 favorites]

I feel like it's important to say that not teaching this stuff, leaving women out of history or making us nothing but objects or victims or tokens, is not only inaccurate but harmful.

I remember 4th grade very well, and being told by some snotty boy that women had never done anything important, only men, and therefore boys were better. And in that dark pre-internet age, my education had given me nothing to fight back with. I felt he must be wrong, but I was still afraid that he was right, that I was just nothing, doomed to failure, never to be significant, because I was a girl. No matter how good I or any woman was, some guy would always be better. No woman could ever be the best at something.

That was also an era when "battle of the sexes" episodes were popular on TV shows, and the dudes generally won or else it was a draw. When women were only in movies to be hot, stupid, weak and rescued. Also the age at which I started to become aware of things like rape and sexual harassment. Men were bigger, they were stronger, they were more powerful; the best I could hope for in dealing with them was that they wouldn't hurt me.

That was the year I went into my first depression. My parents were baffled and I was too, but now I feel pretty sure that all those forces converging on me had a lot to do with it. I dropped out of advanced math; why bother? I stopped getting As in general. Why bother? Girls would never be as good as boys, after all. I learned how to do well enough that people would stop fretting about me, which meant I learned to become just ok enough to be invisible. And I stayed that way for a long time; I didn't really start to wake up again till college.

I see young girls today who make it past that age with their fierceness intact, but still too many of them that don't. That shit is still out there. We still get erased or told in a million ways we are less than, never as good as, men. So this little essay matters. Stories like these would have mattered a lot to me, if they had been taught in class not as "extras" or "weird trivia" but as history, just like all the male rulers and discoverers were history.
posted by emjaybee at 4:03 PM on March 25, 2016 [16 favorites]

Sansa never gets hooked in to the female information network in the castles she lives in, while Littlefinger, et al, always have servant spies and sources. There's just this total dearth of female extras, and no web of women surrounding and supporting the female characters and creating competing, if half hidden, networks of knowledge and information that men only have limited access to.

I don't know. Sansa had Jeyne, and recently that overly interested girl in the Vale, but circumstances made her a pariah for much of the story. Cat didn't seem to have that network, but we're given an incident that explains why. Cersei had her ladies, but just saw them as something to exploit. Danny is a bit of a mix of Sansa and Cersei. The Tyrell and Martel women certainly had networks, but they're mostly not POV characters. Arya and Brienne are sort of off that map.

I see what you're saying, but those networks were perhaps underdeveloped rather than absent.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 4:57 PM on March 25, 2016

I'd like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.

I guess GRRM read this essay but only made it as far as "I'd like to know what the food was."
posted by atoxyl at 5:05 PM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

One more note then I'll shut up. I don't think the complex sexual politics in the Ancillary novels make a lot of sense if gender and sexuality are really primary and Breq is just blind to it (a popular interpretation.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:07 PM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wait. Don't shut up. How do you read it?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:24 PM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The thing that I most loved about the gender in the Ancillary series was the realisation that I had totally read many fantasy and sci-fi books where every single character was male in the way everyone was female in Ancillary world, and I had found it unremarkable for the genres. Even though I knew this, to experience it on such a visceral level was a real wtf moment for me.

When we had kids, a similar epiphany was realised upon seeing how few children's books have any female characters, at all. Not a single one.
posted by smoke at 6:39 PM on March 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Breq is a weirdo, but if the Radch truly cared about gender, she would. More specifically, she never encounters any gender-related problems in her dealings with other Raadchai—in whose business she is all up in—so I don't see how it could be read that the Radch cares much more about gender than Breq does.

My own take is that Breq and the Radch are firmly (perhaps militantly) agender or monogender, but Breq herself is a bit asexual to boot. She derives pleasure from tea and singing and that's about it.
posted by nom de poop at 7:23 PM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Oh and matchmaking/meddling.)
posted by nom de poop at 7:25 PM on March 25, 2016

I see what you're saying, but those networks were perhaps underdeveloped rather than absent.

I haven't been watching the show, but at least in the books I'd say that the networks Eyebrows describes really are missing. They show up around some of the side characters but in the told-not-shown way, and none of the main female characters has that kind of deep embeddedness in those networks.

The broader point the essay makes about the limited roles for women is so true. I don't read a lot of SFF books these days, in large part because so often the characters (and especially the women) are so thin, just vehicles to carry the story to the next battle. Essays like this are a reminder that there is better genre writing out there and I should make more of an effort to find it.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:37 PM on March 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is actually one of the things that draw me to Korean and Chinese historical dramas. Despite their often rigid view of gender, there are so many with female protagonists who do interesting things.

The producers of these shows aren't making excuses that women could never do anything interesting because they lived in a strict patriarchal society. You want a show about a palace cook? A gisaeng? A noblewoman who wants to become a doctor? A ghost trying to find out how she died?

And I suspect this is because the audience for these dramas is largely women. The producers don't have to have enlightened views about gender; they just have to know that women find women's stories interesting. These stories often take place in settings with strict gender roles and limited opportunities for women, yet the stories are still found in abundance.

It's just another excuse for men (and some women) to avoid addressing how women are not considered subjects--people--with lives as interesting and as complex as men's. To avoid their own shortcomings in how they view women. I'm getting progressively less and less patient with people like this.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:03 PM on March 25, 2016 [16 favorites]

Wait. Don't shut up. How do you read it?

Spinning my wheels on a response. I think the idea that Radchaai sexuality is all about social class rather than gender or sexual orientation as we know it is brought to a head with Raughd in Ancillary Sword. The gender role reversal of a (probably) female rapist and a male victim is intentional, and Breq gets a bit didactic in laying out the problem of authentic consent in the face of classism and racism. Breq's relationship with Basnaaid is initially difficult because Breq just can't give Basnaaid clientage without implications of quid pro quo sexual favoritism. Seivarden's crush on Breq initially looks like your write-by-numbers romance, but ends up being all about the military hierarchy.

All of which, I think, would look quite different if any of the participants were written according to lazy gender role expectations.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:46 PM on March 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

[GRRM's] women are isolated from interaction with other (lower-class) women who would be SURROUNDING them.

In Lorna Doone, the heroine is kidnapped into a fortified stone hill in eroded limestone terrain, very steep -- the hero occasionally scrambles heroically up the waterfall on one side. The gate is impregnable. Etc etc.

But her nurse, when she can't talk her way in through the gate, apparently just toddles up and down the cliffs carrying clean clothes and soup (not, IIRC, shortbread). No-one is at all surprised.
posted by clew at 11:51 PM on March 25, 2016

Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy cannot be recommended enough! It's this wonderful blending of fantasy and history that meets along 'the Silk Road' where Mongolia, China, & Tibet merge together. What I love about the story is that Bear has peppered her series with strong females throughout. And it's not just the ruling class that has a powerful queen or a princess but wizards and warriors who wield political power through strength. And much more.

Early on in the first book, Range of Ghosts, our main protagonist encounters a group of older women who are herding horses on the steppes. It seems like such a small thing but it could easily have been that traditional stereotype of grizzled cowboy-esque men herding on an open plain. Bear makes it all very normal. That some of these women are pregnant and haggling with other locals and fighting off bandits is just normal every day living in this reality. And it's wonderful to see it treated as such an everyday thing.
posted by Fizz at 8:49 AM on March 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

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