Friday, May 13, 2011

Keep Dem Women Folk Outta Ma Fantasy Books

As of 5/15/11 Rogue Blades removed all comments that accused the writer and any commentators of sexism. Note that the sexist comments still remain.

I've been temporarily distracted by the TIO threads on Absolute Write, but now I'm here and ready to write yet another post on sexism. However, this isn't your run of the mill sexism.

I've been following the comments on this article for two days now. I've determined that the sexist attitudes of these male fantasy writers are why I prefer to read Science-Fiction over High Fantasy.

Instead of continuing on a repetitive rant towards the outrageous disgusting attitudes of sexists, I will assume that all of you are well versed in that discussion. I want to talk about the way women are portrayed in fantasy.

Over on Rogue Blades, we have many misusing the word Anachronism. An Anachronism is when the Ancient Egyptians are shown to use Gameboys and play Violins. A women shown to be a strong fighter in a fantasy novel is not an Anachronism. Firstly, fantasy takes place in another universe. Secondly, women warriors often disguised themselves as men to fight in wars and many women fought in wars or led battles.

With this same attitude, we can infer that women, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans shouldn't be portrayed as anything but slaves, barmaids, and inferior human beings in High Fantasy simply because they were at one point seen as such in history; notwithstanding that Dwarves, Elves, and Dragons are allowed to exist, but a 110 lb 5'4 women is not allowed to kick major ass. To certain writers, that's simply not plausible.

I want to read more fantasy. Really, I do. But I'm unable to read it when women are constantly oppressed and seen as lesser beings in a world based on fantasy. Writers, you can create a world with any rules you choose. Yet, you continue to write sexist worlds to have your characters overcome the sexism. Can a girl fight monsters without having to deal with sexism? Does every girl have to disguise herself as a boy to fight in a war? This has nothing to do with cultural or social constructs. In your world, you don't have to have those.

I know this comes off as harsh, but please, see where I'm coming from. As a black reader, I purposefully avoid books that claim to present the "black" experience. I don't want to read about slavery or racism on a constant basis in contemporary fiction, so why would I want to read about it in fantasy? You have the opportunity to create a world that doesn't follow the cultural restrictions of our own. Please, take that and run with it. Not female warrior has to face sexism to prove that she's just as good as the guys. Not every female warrior has to be harassed, raped, or overcome the 'horrible men' to prove that she's a woman.

I'm not saying that sexism doesn't exist or that we shouldn't combat it in fiction. I'm saying that in a fictional world, you don't have to follow the same restrictions of this world. Nor am I implying that every single fantasy book with a female warrior can't have sexism in it. I want the genre to get mixed up a bit. Also, I wouldn't mind having some people of color there either. The SWASP version of America doesn't exist in a fantasy world. Just remember that.


  1. Cory, this is awesome. I actually was listening to one of my favorite writing podcasts a few weeks ago where a fantasy, scif and horror writer talked about women in spec fiction. One of the writers explained how he knew fantasy writers who refused to write women as equals in fantasy because "it isn't historically accurate." Medieval fantasy =/= historical fiction. He said he could not abide writing in worlds where women were subservient and I couldn't agree more. His heroines are awesome, too.

    From my experience, writers who write kick ass female heroines include De Lint (Riddle of the Wren's main character fought with a sword and kicked ass, and she was never sexualized. There was no romance), Tamora Pierce (Alanna), Philip Reeve (Oh, Hester Shaw), Brandon Sanderson (the author from the podcast) and Patricia C Wrede, to name a few. 

    Also, on POC in fantasy. Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea only has brown or black-skinned characters ( except for the backwards, northern barbarians. Octavia Butler or Samuel L Delaney, too, but they're more scifi.

  2. Great points.  That's why I loved the character Starbuck on the new Battlestar Galactica.  She kicked ass and fell in love just like the guys, but no one made a big deal out of her female gender.

  3. I agree, to a point. People can create a fantasy world of there own were the things in "our" world don't exist or are different. It's not hard, so why don't people do it? Well, people write what they know, even when creating a completely different world. Plus, as a reader, you don't relate to a character because they're a prince or thief running away from the king's men (I don't read fantasy too much) you relate to them because of their personal, internal struggles (father died. Mother hates you. Friends hate you. The love of your life just walked away, etc, etc, etc). And I, as a woman, cannot relate to a female character who stands equally among or above men. To me, this type of woman is unrealistic because in my life I have suffered sexist remarks and attitudes from others and will in the future. I rather read about a girl who's a barkeep who pulls a sawed off shotgun/dagger/sword/whatever on the bastard who sends a sexist remark her way. I can relate to that more than to a women who doesn't suffer any sexism. Sounds backwards and sad, I know, but it's the truth.

    Now I'm not saying women can't fight dragons, swing swords or be the heroine. Woman CAN do all that in reality (except slay dragons, since dragons...don't exist). I'm saying that getting rid of the one thing all women can relate to is extinguishing the one absolute connection.

    Oddly enough, I'm not a feminist. I'd say the same thing about any race or sexual preference. Hope that makes sense.

    Great article by the way :). You guys always find awesome issues to blog about. 

  4. If you want to read more fantasy with strong female characters, I'd suggest reading Steven Brust.  His Vlad Taltos novels and the Khaavren romances take place in a world where men and women are equal, though the society is (basically) faery, and not human. Also, they're just awesomely written.

  5.  While the article brings up good points about the disadvantages women might face in combat, I take issue with the idea that fantasy has to have a war element. The idea that someone becomes heroic by kicking ass on the battlefield seems shallow and archaic to me.

  6. What a fabulous post, yet again. I'd post something of my thoughts but my brain just isn't working today and I wouldn't want to totally confuse myself - and others - on the subject. But let me just provide a bit of input:
    I think that, if you're going to write a medieval/historic fantasy, and you're a guy writer, that you need to think about how women would really have felt about being left behind during battles - dive deep into the flesh of your characters and realize that although women these days have totally evolved, we did get our ideas of independence from somewhere. Women were equals to men "way back when" - if you're not going to show her physically strong, at least recognize every other strength she provided during the tough times of your book. If you're not going to allow her to kick any ass, at least make up for that because you think you're "historically accurate."
    And I don't know if that made any sense so I apologize and think I'll go now with one last comment: you guys over here write the best posts and everyday I'm looking forward to something new! Keep it coming!

  7. As a woman who has done karate, horse training and riding, dance and gymnastics, I find arguments that say women just can't physically or mentally adapt to combat situations laughable.  I also have a male cousin who participated in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) and the military, and he regards women as being very capable in combat situations.  He fought women in SCA medieval-type mock battles and said that they frequently kicked his ass. 

  8. There is also the fact that fighting isn't all about strength and speed. While men tend to be stronger and faster, women tend to have better technique and usually have higher pain tolerances.

    Not to mention that a good fight in fiction often requires a certain amount of intelligence and quick-thinking. Women are equally capable in those areas.

  9. That's a great point; why is war the central point in most high fantasies? Perhaps more importantly, why does it seem the main requirement of a "strong" female is kicking ass? Don't misunderstand me, I'm the daughter of two Army captains but why is feminism seeming to mostly equal violent heroines (especially in YA)? Is having a kick ass female an "easy" or superficial way out? I would like more female characters who are strong and courageous because of their intelligence or compassion.

  10. What pisses me off about these comments "anachronistic" comments is about how blindered they are. The heaviest swords archaeologists have uncovered are around 6 pounds, and those are mostly ceremonial and not for fighting. Most swords uncovered have ranged from 2-3 pounds--a peasant woman spent her days hauling heavy buckets of water, cast iron pots, harvesting all day in the fields often with a child on her back, chopping firewood, slaughtering animals...look at developing countries today where women still carry hundreds of pounds of goods tied to their upper body. So really a woman couldn't handle a 3 pound sword? Maybe she wouldn't be trained in it and maybe warrior women weren't common, but I have no doubt she'd have no problem wielding one for a short time if needed.

    Some good (mostly) high fantasy: Patricia Briggs (most everything but Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega which is urban fantasy, although those are excellent too), Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly, Kencyr series by P.C. Hodgell, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Allison Goodman, a lot of Mercedes Lackey, Nnedi Okokafor, and Robin McKinley.

  11. URGH! You tell them! This always drives me up a wall.

  12. I would love to see more strong women in fantasy.  I have always loved Tamora Pierce's book set in her Tortall Universe because those women could kick butt!  Graceling by Kashore is another of my favorites because Katsa is so strong.  Great article!  I hope the fantasy authors out there take heed!

  13. This is one of the things that drives me crazy about fantasy! I think you said it best when you said, You have the opportunity to create a world that doesn't follow the cultural restrictions of our own. The whole fantasy genre is a chance to start again, to stretch our imaginations and see what's possible.  Instead, it mostly seems to end up in a quasi-mediaeval world, with all of this world's attitudes towards gender and female roles.

    My long-held belief goes like this: fantasy is not history.  It can certainly borrow from history, but it gets to re-invent it.  That's what makes it potentially so amazing!  It seems ironic that fantasy is a genre in which writers can take chances and do incredible things, yet the vast majority of it seems to folllow the patterns and tropes of the stories that have gone before.

  14. I like Graceling too, but I felt that Katsa was strong at the expense of being a jerk, like when she wanted to torture that mind reader kid for looking at her the wrong way.  Plus I couldn't get over how abusive she was to her horse.   

  15. I actually read an excellent review on GR describing Katya's behavior. It
    basically stated that a woman shouldn't have to be an abusive overpowering
    jerk to be strong woman. I've never read Graceling, but because of Katya,
    I've been putting it off for a while.

  16. Another great blog post and, of course, I fully agree. 

    See, because I'm a woman.  And I'm not white.  But I grew up in a household full of boys who loved sci-fi and fantasy.  Wanting to fit in--because I was the baby of the family, and because my only sisters were 10 & 16 years older then myself--I embraced just about everything my brothers did.  The books, the movies and the comic books.  And I'm glad I did because I really enjoy both genres.

    When I was a kid sci-fi and fantasy were probably the only genres that had intelligent, independent and capable women for me to look up to.  True, most of those women had sexy bodies that were scantily-clad (don't get me started on this point, or I'll never shut up), or for whatever reason had to wear a dumb skirt (Xena, I'm looking at you!).  But at least they were more then just weak, prettily dressed princesses waiting for a prince to show up and save the day. 

    That said, most of these women, if not all, are white.  Sure one could easily argue some of the xmen aren't white, like Jubilee & Storm, but most are.  Which is fine.  It doesn't bother me so long as minorities are represented, and clearly, in that specific example they are.  (Plus, I'm really talking about fantasy books and movies here, not-so-much comic books).

    But most genres are guilty of not doing the exact same thing.  Until the 'Latin Invasion' of the late 90s, women who had Latin heritage--who actually look hispanic--seldom, if ever, starred in movies (When I say 'starred' I mean played the main character, not just some sassy latina side-kick).  And as far as I know, hispanic women, or women described to have such characteristics, have never been the heroines of books (of any sort). 

    But I'm going off on a tangent. Back to the subject at hand.

    I read the blog entry that inspired you to write this one.  I wanted to smack the guy that wrote it.  Not so much for what he said (although that was irritating in and of itself), but how he said it.  Also, all the comments he made trying to defend his sexist mentality, and then claiming he wasn't sexist. 

    I was going to comment in response to everything he had to say, but made the decision not to.  Because clearly, there was no changing his mind. 

    If I had posted I would have said that some Maori communities allowed their women to fight when they went into battle.  They didn't have to, but hey could if they wanted.  Same thing applied for women of some Native American tribes, like the Navajo, Comanche or Delaware.  They too had the right to go off to battle with the men. 

    So, yes, women warriors did exist back in the day.  They didn't have to disguise themselves as men in order to join war parties.  Were they as strong as the men they fought?  Who knows.  Maybe they were.  Or maybe they were just smarter and faster and that made up for their physical handicap.  But, of course, these women didn't live in ancient or medieval  Europe and weren't white so are probably of no interest to Jonathan Moeller, the writer of the article that you refer to. 

    P.S. I highly suggest you check out The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and The Broken Kingdom, books 1 & 2 in the Inheritance Trilogy written by N.K. Jemisin.  She is a black and she writes fantasy books featuring black heroines AND warrior women.  The protagonist in the first book is actually BOTH, coming from a society where the women go to battle and the men stay home and protect the home, as the last, but very effective, line of defense.  Have you heard of these books or the author?  I've read both of the books I just recommended and I really liked both of them.  Really, I did. 

    Also, you should check out her blog: and see if you can get an interview with her for a future blog post.  I'd love to read that. 


  17.  I haven't heard of N. K. Jemisin, but that book series sounds awesome.  Time to update my reading list.

  18. Ditto And thanks for the long comment Penny. You taught me something I new
    about the Maori.

  19. Fun fact: Samurai wives were expected to defend the home while their husbands were away. They usually fought with a naginata, which is basically a pole with a curved blade on the end. A longer weapon meant that it would be difficult for bigger and stronger fighters to attack them at close range.

    Also, if you're looking for a fantasy book with a Hispanic main character, there's one coming out soon called Luminous. Check it out here: (I came across it while stalking peoples' blogs. I've never actually read it, so I can't vouch for whether it's good or feminist or whatnot, but it seems promising.)

  20.  Oh, hey, I found the blog post I was talking about.  Check it out:

  21. Yes, that was the biggest problem I had with the book.  I enjoyed Cashore's creativity, but I didn't think Katsa was very likeable at all.  She is practically an anti-Bella, which should be a good thing, but I think she was a little too extreme in that regard.  I don't really mind her not wanting to get married and such, it was more that she was angry and violent, and if a male character had treated his love interest in the way she treated hers, it would have been seen as sexist.  I am all for feminism, but I don't like it when it becomes a double standard.
    All in all, though, I like Cashore as an author and liked "Fire" quite a lot.  She had a good relationship with her horse in that one. :)

  22. Back in the day, I read some of the Gor books