Fantasy for the Feminist

So, as of my writing this article, I just finished reading a rant (linked below for the curious) on why Science Fiction and Fantasy are not only not feminist genres, but almost outright anti-female. Now, while I agree with some of the points made in this article, I must say that I think the pieces of media chosen to represent two entire genres are rather tell-tale. Many of them are by male writers/directors, written for a primarily male audience, and are about men. The examples are also nearly entirely film and video game based, which ignores the entire basis of the genre: literature. The only book mentioned in this article, The Hunger Games, is actually listed as a success. So, if you are a woman who’s looking for Fantasy (as that’s the genre I am passionate about) that makes the Bechdel Test look silly, where do you start? Because it does exist. In spades.

There were three authors who really shaped my introduction to the genre of Fantasy, and two of them are as good a place to start this article as any. First, The Chronicles of Narnia. No, don’t run away yet! Just because Narnia is by a man doesn’t mean that it’s not a series of works that celebrates the strengths of women. Remember, Narnia was originally written for a little girl named Lucy. The series is littered with female characters who don’t fit the expected archetype of the 1950s and ‘60’s, when the books were written. Lucy and Susan are both well known archers (look out Katniss!), and Lucy is shown participating in a battle in A Horse and His Boy. In that same book, Susan is reminded that just because it would be politically and diplomatically expedient to marry Prince Rabadash, that’s not a good enough reason to marry someone she doesn’t actually like. Avaris not only runs away from an arranged marriage, but she steals her dead brother’s armor to do so! She openly rejects the traditional life demanded of her by her culture and leaves Calormen behind with the slave boy Shasta, who turns out to be a Prince named Corr. She later marries Corr, not because he’s the Prince and will be a King, or because of true love, or because they always got along, but because they were friends first and everything else second. Two of the major villains in this series are women as well, but their gender is never really remarked upon. They are bad people because they do bad things, are greedy, ambitious, and do not care about others. And there are just as many male villains who are guilty of the same sins. Perhaps the only thing that you can really complain about is that no book in this series passes the Bechdel Test. However, the only book where love and marriage is ever really discussed is A Horse and His Boy. Much of what the Bechdel Test is about is that women in mainstream media are shown as being love/sex/man obsessed, and function as either accessories to men or are so surrounded by men that they cease to somehow be female. In Narnia, nearly every time a female characters is treated by a male character as somehow less because of her gender, she firmly shows that she is every bit the equal of the males around her. While wearing a dress, and in no way compromising her female identity.

If you do want some reading that passes the Bechdel Test in the juvenile/young adult genres, might I suggest anything by Tamora Pierce? Pierce really gave me my love of Fantasy when I was twelve and reading The Song of the Lioness Quartet for the first time. The protagonist, Alanna, wants to be a knight. Except that this profession is limited strictly to men. So she disguises herself as a boy for the eight years training takes and goes on to become the most legendarily skilled knight of her generation. Much of Alanna’s interactions with other female characters revolve around the idea of what it means to be a woman. Is Alanna any more or less a woman because she lived as a boy for eight years and is a professional fighter? The answer comes back as no: she simply made a set of choices that were right for her, her personality, and what she wanted from life. She is no less a woman for being a knight, and she is no less a knight for being a woman. Pierce was one of the first fantasy authors to write young adult novels featuring strong female protagonists in the 1980s, and she’s still one of the leading writers of that genre.

My last suggestion for younger readers is Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. These books are about turning the traditional fairy tale on its head. In order to escape her life as a princess (and the inevitable marriage to some boring prince or knight), Cimorene runs away and volunteers to become a dragon’s princess. She’s very unhappy when someone turns up to ‘rescue’ her. As time goes by, Cimorene’s dragon Kazul becomes the King of Dragons (even though Kazul is female: Queen being a separate and apparently boring job), and Cimorene is required to save the King of the Enchanted Forest. She’s a character who does the unexpected, makes choices because they work for her, and kicks butt by being resourceful, smart, and fearless. This is a fun, endearing read that features a lot of two females talking about anything but males.

Moving into more adult waters (but still accessible to teenagers), Mercedes Lackey is another writer who was writing strong women before it was cool. Back in the 1980s, women in adult fantasies tended to either be the romantic partner of the male protagonist, or the female version of the archetypal barbarian (Barbarella, anyone?). A number of women readers and writers were getting rather sick of this trend in Sword and Sorcery. And so Lackey started spoofing this trend while reinventing it in a series of short stories for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorcerycollections. Lackey later reworked some of these and turned them into two novels, Oathbound andOathbreakers. They follow a duo of women, Kethry the mage and Tarma the fighter. 1980s tropes would make Kethry a sexpot...and while she is beautiful and nobly born, she was also forced into an abusive child marriage. She’s not interested in being any man’s plaything ever again. Tarma is under a religious vow of celibacy that has made her a functional asexual, though her gender identity is still very much female. Kethry is also soulbound to a sword that bears the inscription “Woman’s Need calls me; As woman’s Need made me; Her Need must I answer; As my maker bade me.” This leads them to wander around having adventures rescuing women from all kinds of situations. These books are about as close to a Feminist wet-dream as you can get before Feminism just turns into man bashing.

Another pioneer in more Feminist SF literature was Anne McCaffrey and her Pern series. Now, the further you get into this series, the more Science Fiction it gets. However, the first book,Dragonflight features dragons in a pre-industrial society, so left to its own devices it’s fairly standard Fantasy fare. Part of this is due to the original publication date of the book: 1968. It was very hard for a woman, writing under a female name, to break into Science Fiction at that time, so McCaffrey went at it sideways. Dragonflight also lists one of the earliest female protagonists in modern Fantasy, and Lessa isn’t someone who takes ‘no’ for an answer. ‘Never been done before? Great, but it makes sense to do it now so that’s what’s going to happen. Deal with it.’ Lessa is shoved into a role that’s fairly well pre-defined for her, and she constantly pushes the boundaries and reinvents the rules to suit her. Keep in mind, this book was published only five years after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and you can see a lot of the viewpoints of that generation of women in Lessa and other of McCaffrey’s characters.

The last fifteen or so years has seen an explosion of strong female characters in Speculative Fiction as a whole, and Fantasy has been incredibly blessed. Urban Fantasy has come to specialize in strong female protagonists, as have several Steampunk authors. Most of Paranormal Romance is written from a female perspective, and several authors (male and female) have responded to questions about strong female characters with answers that amount to, ‘They are strong characters, and gender doesn’t affect that. Why are we still asking this question?’ But there are a few standouts from this era that I’d like to leave you with.

You likely recognize Patricia Briggs from her Urban Fantasy series, Mercedes Thompson. And as kick-ass as Mercy is, Briggs has an even better series to talk about in terms of Feminism. The Raven’s Set follows Seraph and her family as they rescue Seraph’s husband and put an end to a group that’s stealing the magic powers of other people. Seraph is interesting because she’s a wife and mother, and that’s how she’s defined herself for most of her life. When she goes adventuring, she takes her children with her (though they are mostly grown), and she creates a strong bond with the woman who is functionally her daughter-in-law. As a mage, Seraph is still highly effective and powerful. If you’re looking for a reflection of the career woman of the baby-boomer generation, here she is. She’s a wife, mother, and has a calling in her own right, and she’s successful at all three.

The last book I want to talk about is a bit of a departure from the rest. For me, Feminism isn’t just about gender equality but what it means to be female and what we as a society want being female to mean. (There are those who will argue with me on that, but that’s fine.) One of the most remarkable trilogies to talk about gender identity is Lynn Flewelling’s The Tamir Triad. Tamir was disguised at birth to hide her sex; in order to not be killed by her uncle, she needed to be male. She spends her entire childhood as Tobin without any idea that underneath a spell that causes her to be physically male, she is actually female and will one day have to return to that physical form. The spell starts to break during puberty, and on top of the normal physical changes, Tobin/Tamir must struggle with gender identity. What did it mean for Tobin to be male? What does it mean for Tamir to be female? In the backdrop is an entire society who is also grappling with the idea of gender roles and the rapid change in acceptable gender roles that has taken place over the course of a single generation. So here we have a character who is not only transexual (albeit not of their own choosing), but someone who is dealing with gender identity and gender roles simultaneously. There are few examples of a character like this in any media format, and whether you want Feminist Fantasy or not, you need to read these books.

I think I’ve shown a good case that not only is Fantasy not anti-female, but that it has a longstanding Feminist tradition. The depth of that tradition is rarely reflected in mainstream media channels such as television and movies, in part because Fantasy as a genre is not widely represented in film. Many Fantasies have all the production issues inherent in a period film plus the need for CGI and other expensive special effects. Yes, The Hobbit Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy have seen massive international box office success, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. Right now, film outlets are leaning towards Science Fiction, Horror, and Dystopians for their profits. This has left Fantasy with film representation by works that still represent the norm from the 1980s: boobs in leather, a sole female among many men, and a lack of female/female relationships of any kind. Even looking beyond the works I’ve talked about here, Fantasy-on-film doesn’t represent even a tiny fraction of the overall genre.

So please don’t tell me that you don’t like Fantasy because you’re a Feminist. Don’t tell me that Fantasy is about pin-ups and she-men who don’t represent who you are as a woman. All this tells me is that you don’t like Fantasy because you don’t understand what it is, its history and rich traditions, and haven’t a clue about the bulk of works that form the genre. Put down your tv remote for a day, pick up a book, and enjoy.

The rant that sparked my rant. Beware, it’s tragically uneducated in the genres it chooses to discuss.

Artist Credit:

The image of Tauriel the Riveter is an original work by David Powell, found at http://www.theonering.net

Janea A. Schimmel

Janea A. Schimmel

Janea is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Speculative Post. She's previously worked on the group Speculative Fiction blog The Ranting Dragon, as well as on her own personal blogs. She's currently enjoying the freedom of writing and editing full time, on The Speculative Post, the illusive novel, and freelance opportunities as she transitions from Lansing, MI to the Chicago area. In her previous life, she worked in an urban public library where she gathered rather too much fodder for stories.

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