This post is based partly on email conversations with Dylan Fox [External Link] about one of my works in progress, The Three Guineveres. In re-jigging the Arthur / Guinevere material and trying to make a workable version of my own (the movie credit would read “inspired by”), I’m wandering into some difficult areas that could give the reader the impression that the fictional character’s thinking is my own – and as it’s not very flattering thinking, I’m trying to avoid that.
I won’t pretend that this post is a complete history of anything. Everything that follows is simply my opinion on how women’s characters have got strung together – although I will, where I remember the source I got the information from, provide links to further reading. So, with any of my world building blog posts, this is as much about laying out my thinking in as logical manner as possible. It doesn’t, really, reflect how women have been treated in the genre – nor the however many hundreds of thousands of years those tropes have been developing.
In other words, here’s my recipe for building up your sexism to make it look like a well-rounded, well-adjusted member of your fictional society. I would say “it works for me” but I’ve yet to be published.
It’s All About Biology – Or Not
Let’s start with the basics – as applied to humans. The terms “man” and “woman” imply a gender and, in the simplest understanding of biology, gender is a binary matter: one is either male or female. Yeah, I know there’s more to it than that. See the later section “The Other Other”, then throw the rotten tomatoes or eggs at me for being an ignorant prat. I have no doubt I deserve it but make sure I get blamed for the right piece of ignorance.
Anyway, females get pregnant, and males don’t.
As females carry the foetus around for a significant length of time, there’s plenty of time for the males to literally leave them holding the baby Oops. I’ve got sexist too soon! The actual social structure / partnering set-up isn’t part of the conversation, yet. Less flippantly, human males have about nine months of superior mobility for every child a human female bears, covering the last trimester of the pregnancy and the first six months of the child’s life. I’ll leave it to people with first hand experience of pregnancy and people with medical expertise to beat that into a more accurate period of time.
There are exceptions to the “females get pregnant” but, statistically, they’re probably not significant. There are women who can’t get pregnant. There are foetuses (is that the correct plural?) that don’t run to term (although this requires recovery time) or self-abort before they’re even noticed. There are ways of aborting without modern technology – most of which would not be particularly healthy to the mother – and fewer ways of avoiding pregnancy in the first place. And not even modern methods are 100%. The only thing that works is total abstinence with no touching of any sort. Pregnancy, then, was an inescapable part of life for a large part of human history – and fantasy authors have a tendency to write about times before modern contraceptives.
Add to this that humans are sexually dimorphic – in other words, the average female is smaller and has less muscular strength than the average male, although the difference is not as marked as in some other species – there is an argument for what became the classic division of labour: females look after the home, men defend it or go looking for a new woman, depending on whether they’re prepared to (or allowed to) “settle down” or not.
There are a number of corollaries to this very basic set-up, which should be mentioned just to be clear that I’m not trying to be dismissive. Firstly, the dimorphism comment is an average, which means that there will be some men shorter than some women, some women stronger than some men (in the basic brute strength sense), etc, etc. However, this is the kind of blog post for crude generalisations. Then there are several (to some people, hotly debated) areas of the biological and psychological sciences about the gender-specific hardware and software (i.e. brain development and how it all works) that can reinforce the biology or make it all fall over. (See also “The Other Other” below). I know nothing about this. Feel free to tell me. Finally, biology is not an excuse to treat a woman like a brainless, walking baby-factory, any more than it’s an excuse to treat a man as if he is a brainless, walking penis. Nor is it an excuse to act like one (of whichever category).
Now let the rampant sexism begin…
The Ages of Woman
So, what does this biological difference mean for women’s roles in fantasy? Well, certain sections of fantasy are expected to appeal to one gender over another. Most people think of high, epic and / or heroic fantasy when the word “fantasy” is mentioned. Hell, most people just think of Lord of the Rings. There are, of course, other sub-genres and overlaps – such as paranormal romance / urban-fantasy-with-a-particular-structure – that are intended to appeal more to women, and some intended to appeal to both. In fact, I doubt many authors will ever say they specifically write only for men or only for women – it’s just that certain markets attract certain people more. Warhammer is not known for it’s huge female following any more than Mills & Boon are known for it’s male audience. This does not mean that they don’t exist.
Epic fantasy and the related sub-genres – the stuff that involves quests, good and evil, and old fashioned overkill – are based on centuries, if not longer, of tradition. They’re based on sagas and heroic tales that have been doing the rounds for many many generations. And even the source material is usually about some young boy who goes off, proves himself and comes back the best warrior in the area. In the most basic forms of these stories, women are not strictly necessary to these stories and are no more important than the hero’s sword or horse. They do not function as rounded characters and the story often proceeds just as well if you replace the woman with a talking object. Sometimes, it goes even better if they don’t talk. If they serve a purpose, other than the biologically obvious, it is to highlight the hero’s prowess with the lengths he had to go to to secure her. It’s about simplification and generalisation of details in order to make the plot seem as grand as possible, often to the point of stupidity. Which is not to say these things are not enjoyable but the reader needs to be aware that it is, after all, “just a fantasy”.
The first stage of (character) development for women’s roles in fantasy, then, is the Heroic Age when women are plot coupons (TV Tropes: Plot Coupons [External Links]. If women exist beyond their interactions with the hero, there is a heavily implied otherness in that their world is too different or, alternatively, not important enough for the hero to learn about. Women can either be magically wonderfully impressively beautiful or they can be background characters who are barely seen but, if this were a real world, are probably doing all the work that keeps a home ticking over.
Perhaps the biggest failing of stories that use only this stage is that there isn’t the detail in their world to support details in their character. If everything is done in broad brush strokes except for some extremely fine detail around the hero, with no indication that there is any other way for things to be, then the world will only ever be what the hero sees. If the hero doesn’t see other people, neither do we.
This is not to say that all heroic fantasy stoops to this level but there is plenty of this material so it becomes something that all fantasy readers will go through at some point and something often objected to by non-readers of fantasy – as if the whole genre were just like this and forgetting, as people do, that the men in fantasy can be just as one dimensional as the women. Though there is more glory in being the hero what does it say for character development that their most interesting feature is that they followed an obvious plot? There’s a reason people enjoy The Evil Overlord lists [External Links] just as much as they enjoy the material that inspired it.
Maiden, Mother, Crone
The most simplistic version of a woman a reader is likely to run into is that found in things like fairy tales as captured by the Grimms – rather than in retellings. I suspect this is because what have become traditional but extremely short started off as summaries of longer, oral stories. In summarising and simplifying, detail is erased – just as it is for the Heroic Age – but enough has to remain to flesh out the role, to apply a stereotype that the reader or listener will grasp straight away. After all, young men are handsome and brave (or the storyteller will say otherwise) and maidens are beautiful (I would say “fair”, but I’m relying on my British upbringing just a little too much with that one).
Differentiation, therefore, is generally made on age. It’s easy to be cynical and misandristic (it’s a real word, look it up), and claim that it has a lot to do with a woman’s reproductive value as the breakdown is usually as follows:
- Child, or pre-pubescent / incapable of reproducing.
- Maiden, capable of reproducing, not having yet reproduced, and these days a teenager.
- Mother, capable of reproducing, having reproduced.
- Crone, incapable of reproducing, (usually) having reproduced.
The child is often dropped off the top of the list and the whole thing can be mysticised (by both genders) by talking about Nature, the Moon and magic and all sorts of wonderful stuff. However, that would be a little too much as men get similar treatment, with allowance that their key feature for the purposes of story is to go off and have adventures:
- Child, incapable of waving a sword and winning.
- Youth, capable of waving a sword and, with the right training, winning, and these days a teenager.
- Father, capable of waving a sword and has already won.
- Grandfather, incapable of waving a sword and winning, but has presumably won at some point in order to be alive.
Both children and old age sit in a very special place in real life and in stories: gender does not intrinsically matter. It does, if one chooses to give weight to them, but there are few important physical differences. Children are not developed enough for gender dimorphism to add up to much and are not (or shouldn’t) be in a position where sexuality is important. Older people degrade (sorry, I can’t think of a better term) to a point where there is less difference in musculature as both genders hormones balance out. That old men don’t actually appear in stories that often would suggest that the old adage about “bold fools and old fools, but no old, bold fools” holds. After all, why would a hero listen to a long-lived coward when he has a sword to wave?
I suspect a lot of the age banding for both genders is actually social division in terms of what roles are open to an individual to play rather than specifically reproductive value or sword-wielding capabilities. (However, don’t forget that for a large chunk of our history, women didn’t have that much of a choice about child-bearing.) So, I prefer to think in these terms:
- Child, the next generation.
- Youth, the candidate for change, unsettled and ready to move.
- Parent, the establishment, settled and not ready to move.
- Grandparent, ousted by the establishment and encouraging the candidate for change, yet settled and not ready to move.
If we drop the male gender again and return to the narrow focus of women’s roles in Fantasy, this give us our second stage of development, the fleshing out of the woman-object to explain how she is of use. In keeping with my stealing names from Hesiod’s Ages of Man (Wikipedia: Ages Of Man [External Links]), and the potential for Moon references, we’ll call this the Silver Age. In other words, it looks quite pleasing to the eye and has some value but isn’t the richest or the best work.
So, if an age banding is applied to a female character, it’s to emphasise a particular type of usefulness. If gender is applied to a particularly age banded member of the crowd or background in a story, it’s intended to emphasise vulnerability (female) or aggression (male) – except when it isn’t because, for example, a woman rabid with blood lust calling for the stoning of a woman who had an affair is so much more disgusting than a man in the same condition doing the same thing. If we shuffle female children off of the list again – because they only exist to wear pink, wear bows in their curly hair and look suitably distressed as enemy soldiers charge into the city – we have:
- Maiden, beautiful and in need of rescuing, or at least marriage, or maybe just something approximating it.
- Mother, looks don’t matter, loves unconditionally, generally something to be left behind.
- Crone, ugly, wrinkly and best avoided – unless the hero needs advice.
(This would be a handy guide for any budding hero to follow.)
Where the cynical and misandristic angle succeeds is that women who fall out of the reproductive pattern generally get a free pass to “Crone” status – and not in a good way. Women who don’t or can’t have children are often treated as unnatural in folklore and the more simplistic fantasy stories. As a result they may also be evil. By logical extension, it’s rare for an evil woman to have children, unless they’re obviously doing whatever they’re doing for the betterment of their own offspring. For examples, consider the Evil Stepmothers in:
- Snow White – The Evil Queen has no children of her own. She is obsessed with her own beauty and thus, presumably, by extension her status as “Maiden”. Except that her obsession drives her firmly into “Crone” status. Will nobody think of the frown lines?
- Cinderella – The stepmother has daughters of her own. For the purposes of the story, she is evil but only because she has taken her care of her own daughters’ welfare to an extreme. In modern interpretations, her implied affection for her own children is often sidelined, making them nothing more than a vehicle for her own ambition.
- Hansel and Gretel – The stepmother and father have further, younger children to feed. I assume they need less food, being smaller, otherwise they will be next…
And the fairies in such fairy tales, whether good or evil, never seem to have children of their own. Although less specific tales talk about changelings, etc.
The Princess and The Pauper
You may have noticed that some of those suggestions also include a further stage of character development. Some of the women in those stories have developed a status of their own. There are some stories where status comes first and some where age is more important but, as a general rule, most lengths of story will actually mentioned both, or at least imply it. Maidens (which effectively means young woman) may always be beautiful but princesses are always young, beautiful and rich. Or with status. Likewise, queens are always matronly, beautiful and rich.
Except when they’re not. We’re getting to the stage when stereotypes are made to be broken. It’s very rare for their beauty to be directly threatened (they may get downgraded to “striking”) but the age banding will often get played upon so that princesses are feisty at their most patronised (imagine someone referring to the feisty prince) or rebellious at their most accepted – a result of teenage hormones. A queen will typically do things “nobly”. By which the writer does not mean that she treats the general public abominably, unless he’s Lewis Carroll.
While these are not the only roles available to a woman in fantasy fiction but a lot of high / heroic / epic fantasy is modelled on historic periods, and an extremely simplified one at that, there are a limited number of these roles to go around. Few people really know the minutiae of life in their own time, let alone another, and most people do not world build to the point when they know every job going (or necessary) to keep their world going. Maids are only worth noticing if they’re about to be tumbled, or the author is preparing to prove a point about their hero’s worth. (“Look, he talks to the hired help!” or “He’s a defender of the weak!”) More complicated roles, such as a pinmaker, aren’t worth mentioning because their role doesn’t have a direct impact on the hero’s story.
A fair part of this is a hangover from more traditional stories. This time stuff that has survived as hero tales and grand histories. Specifically, the woman as the embodiment of the land, or sovereignty. Perhaps related to the biology-led division of labour, where women effectively own the territory and men defend it or go to a new one, it’s not uncommon for earlier civilisations to pass leadership through the female line. In the British Isles, this is known to have been a factor in Pictish kingship and the pre-Roman British kingdoms of the Iceni and Brigantia. There are written sources for this (although I haven’t got any direct links). By the modern period, these women have just become the golden plot coupon, so I consider this the “Golden Age” for women characters in fantasy.
There was probably a time when such queens were not just the embodiment of but considered powerful themselves. By our time period, of course, they’ve developed some serious flaws. Consider how Guinevere is faithless, having a blatant (but unrequited in some versions) affair with another man. And if you have a look at this paper (The Heroic Age: Brigantia, Cartimandua and Gwenhwyfar [External Links]), you can see how different the version you were just thinking of is from the one current about six hundred years ago. How the mighty have fallen. However, these days her faithlessness is foreshadowed by her inability to have children. We knew she would be a rum ‘un because she’s not natural.
Which leads to another point: any woman who is not chaste or faithful to one man is, by definition, a whore. A woman choosing to go off with a man other than the hero is a serious no-no. This can be modified to allow redemption, so there are tarts with hearts (of gold), who genuinely care about their client (although maybe not outright love) but have to make a living. A queen, as in the linked example for Guinevere, should not dare to fall in love with another man and/or replace her husband and king with a better man – even if the throne is hers by right, not his. Tragedy, that is being trapped in these roles while eyeing up the love of your life, is acceptable. Actually doing something to change the situation is wrong.
Of course, as a Golden Age, this is the type of character development that some people will hark back to. “I remember when life was simpler and you could define a character simply with one or three word that was enough to describe their appearance, status and age.” When we didn’t have to walk the mine-field of characters actually having, you know, a character. Everything that has come above describes women who are subject to the whims of the male leads (or ultimately dismissed as evil). Sometimes, girls just want to be recognised as equals.
Boys’ Toys and Girl Cooties
There is an ongoing backlash of sorts against women who meekly stay at home and tend the hearth while their men folk go off and have adventures. Or wait to be rescued while the hero collects the other plot coupons. There are precedents in the old tales. Consider the Valkyries who never seem to do much fighting but at least get to look the part; and the Morrigan and her sisters who, again, dress the part but don’t seem to draw their swords. There are also the odd female warrior who get to draw their swords. I suggest looking up Scáthach (Wikipedia: Scáthach [External Links]).
They’ve been around a while in written works, often having to cross dress and pretend to be a man in order to ensure they get their piece of the action. You can find such heroines in works from Shakespeare (well, boys dressed as girls dressed as boys), R. L. Stevenson and Tolkien, showing that it was actually a historic device, not just a fantasy faux-historic one. They will generally be a sidekick rather than the hero proper. Capable but not brilliant, an equal but not the hero.
Where a fictional woman doesn’t pass herself off as a man, it’s not uncommon to find her dismissed as not much better than useless. They may come good by the end but they live in worlds where the men that surround them are blind to it. Which leads to things like David Gemmell’s Legend (which I love) having all of two women characters of any note and both having their less than impressive choice of weapon pointed out. There are also a handful of other women – barmaids and wives, some of whom prove faithless, some of whom have such small parts you never find out where their loyalties lie. Some writers have larger casts of women, i.e. G. R. R. Martin, but it’s debatable whether his world treats them with any more respect. In many cases, a fictional world can be reduced to a playground full of boys declaring they’re going to catch “cooties” because just one girl has asked to play with their toys.
For what it’s worth, as someone who has a few years of fencing under their belt, only dismiss someone carrying a point-based weapon if you’re on a battlefield surrounded by people. Cutting weapons are genuinely superior in that situation. Better still, wait until the wielder is definitely dead. Also, not all point weapons are actually lighter. Some of the earlier rapiers (civilian weapons) are just as heavy as the longswords (military weapons) of the period. And, having held a couple of two-handed swords, even a small woman is not incapable of wielding a heavy weapon. It’s just unlikely.
For the women’s characters, this is a little like permanent teenager-hood and, in the end, they must follow the obvious plot line, their rebellion nothing more than whining and an affectation. The main aim is to have a woman who can hold her own against the men, as if she were a man. At it’s worse, the role is little better than a man in drag. At it’s best, you have a chick, for want of a better description, who’s “taking names and kicking ass”. This does not always require a weapon but expect to see the term “strong woman” banded about. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. The main thing is that these women are the same as their male counter-parts but have different bodies. If they differ in other matters, it will be to react in an oddly emotional manner, illogically defend someone in need – instead of the hero having to do it and show a potential weakness – or to be a foil to a better looking person, male or female, by being unattractive and unwanted.
In terms of stages of character development, I’d consider this the “Bronze Age”. The character is cast into a particular, defined shape – perhaps a sword, if she’s going to be an obvious fighter – in much the same way that the Golden and Silver Age characters are (Heroic Age women just don’t have any character shape to speak of, they just are). In real metalworking terms, bronze is less precious than gold or silver and so the artist can afford to work bigger and bolder. In writing terms, the analogy is somewhat inverted in that the way the story is told requires a little more detail and a little more material, thus the writer must add a few more characteristics to the checklist.
Stonemasonry vs. Blacksmithing
I have a theory about life. Actually, I have several and will one day form a Journeymouse’s Grand Unified Theory, but that’s another day’s work. Anyway, the current theory about life or, more precisely, human character. Bear with me.
You are a block of stone. I don’t know what type. That’s determined by your genes and how they’re expressed, and maybe a pinch of something else if you believe in souls. While genes aren’t the be-all-and-end-all about who you are, what they are and how they get turned on defines a lot about how you react to things because they design the organs that regulate what chemicals and how much of them run through your system. While you develop in the womb, things can affect how those organs work beyond what’s just written in your genes. Then, of course, you get taught what’s acceptable – or not, if the Daily Mail is to be believed. The youth of today, etc, etc.
So. There you are. A rock of uncertain type with unknown properties with hidden fault lines running through you, probably something like your parents. But not. Because at birth, you are a whole block of stone and your parents are a sculpture in progress, so they’ve already had bits chipped off. You might be something hard like granite or soft like limestone. You might shatter at the first knock – which can happen to any block if they have the misfortune to have a fault line in the wrong place – or you might make it through life with with barely a scratch – which can happen to any block if it doesn’t get knocked around a lot.
The bad news is: you’re going to get knocked. Because life knocks the hell out of everyone. But think positive, because each experience, each chip and scratch and mark, will reveal something new about your stone. And, after all, how can you know how strong, or good, or patient, or stoic, or loyal, or faithful you are until you’ve been tested? You will never see the finished work, unless there’s some kind of art gallery before whatever comes next, but whatever your faults you will be a sculpture of abstract beauty.
If there is an art gallery, or the people left behind look at this piece of art, then a story will be told about it. In retrospect, every knock will gain significance because it led to the final sculpture and this final appearance must have been what was intended. This is a process that starts as soon as we realise that things change. We tell ourselves that things change for a reason and apply a narrative to the past, forgetting or laying aside the things that don’t match if we can’t accept the odd, apparently random, event.
Of course, this analogy does not work at all in made-up worlds. Building a world and creating characters jumps in somewhere in the middle and fills out from there. Fictional characters cannot be blocks of stone because the author knows that certain characteristics are necessary to get the job done. The author also has a particular job in mind. They also know, roughly, where those blows of life are going to land because most of them are predetermined. To cap it off, readers like smoother narratives in fictional worlds with no deciding to detour past a zoo because you don’t feel like going to work and you haven’t seen a meerkat in person, say.
So characters must be made of more malleable stuff. Writers, I reckon, should work with iron and steel – easier to move around than stone but better at taking punishment than bronze or silver or gold. It’s a material that can be cast, for those small bit part characters that only show on page for a couple of sentences as a member or a crowd, and it can be hammered out to a grand sculpture, for those main characters who must go through an almost full life. It will never be the same – or as abstract – as the real deal, but it can approximate a real person more believably than the castings of an earlier stage of character development.
And there’s the point of an “Iron Age” character. Most people aspire to write believable characters (which is not the same as real, because real is somewhat more random and abstract, see above) and part of that is being able to show that a person responds to a situation in a particular way because it is in their character, not because the plot demands it. Of course, it helps if they do follow the plot, because otherwise it’s not a story but that wasn’t the point of the blog post. Where this applies particularly to women’s roles in fantasy is this: there is no such thing as just a role. The character will be female, and of a certain age group, and of a particular status, and maybe feels the need to prove herself the equal of a man, but these individual things are not the whole of her. They are not her reasoning or her reactions. They simply summarise her circumstances and her determination.
The Other Other
Describing something as different to the norm, and therefore somehow less than it, is sometimes called “othering”. I also used the term “otherness” back up the post in “The Ages of Woman” section. It’s been applied to women, despite being roughly half the population in the world, using the male norm as the human norm. It also gets applied to a few other things that occur in real life but don’t pop up so much in fantasy land:
(Apologies in advance if I use the wrong terms anywhere.)
- Intersex – gender is not binary. In much the same way that a coin toss isn’t strictly fifty-fifty because it can land on the edge, there is more than being male or female in biological terms. The probability of some kind of – may I say gender ambiguity? – is somewhat better than landing your penny on its edge, though. I’d guess that the true historic periods usually assigned a role to the child rather than accepted an intermediate. That said, children were considered much the same regardless of gender until much older than we would, so maybe they allowed a little more self-expression among those who hadn’t become designated heirs or spares. (Wikipedia: Intersex [External Links])
- Transgender – nor does a person’s gender identity have to match the body they were born into. I doubt, somehow, that this would have gone down well with pushy, medieval parents but there was always the monastery or nunnery, if the individual didn’t find a way to fit in. (Wikipedia: Transgender [External Links])
HomoSexuality – I was going to go with just homosexuality and have a mention of bisexuality and asexuality and so on but, basically, sexuality is a big ol’ thing. It’s rarely discussed in actual mainstream fantasy books and I suspect it has as much to with it not being mentioned in the historical works that inspired the earlier works as any modern bias – which clearly exists. I believe (but can’t prove) that sexuality was a little more fluid in many earlier periods. After all, it’s buggery that’s proscribed in the bible, not all sexual acts.
- Race – skin colour plays an important part in descriptions. A lot of epic / high / heroic fantasy is explicitly Northern European and any colour indicates strangers and other places. In some cases, this is exoticised (pretty, want one) or marks them out as an enemy. This is often got around by not mentioning colour at all (therefore assumes white / “normal”) or ensuring that everyone is white. Racism is then taken out on orcs, trolls and assorted monsters.
- Nationality – often linked with skin colour but it can be easier to let this one slide. Wars are a necessary part of the epic fantasy set so no-one hugely objects to fictional nations going to war. Unless they’re obviously modelled on real life examples, using insulting stereotypes.
As with being female, these are not things that should describe an individual’s whole being, any more than it should in real life. Other than that, I got nothing. (It’s a long post and I have burn-out.)
The Women’s Role in Fantasy Fiction Blog Posts
I thought I’d make it easier to jump from post to post so the series is now linked at the bottom of each post. The six posts are: