Thursday, March 29, 2012

Girl Heroes in Current Fantasy Novels: A Lament

by Stella Atrium

Back to my first complaint.  I was making a case that women characters are cheated in sci-fi / fantasy stories.  A reader countered my assertions that several writers present the young lead hero as a girl.  So I decided to look into this trend that is a common trope for the 2001 -2011 decade.

Bone Doll's TwinI read The Bone Doll’s Twin (the trilogy) by Lynn Flewelling where a boy/girl named Tobin starts out as a boy due to magic, because the girl heir would have been killed.  She fights the last battle, though, in full armor on horseback wielding a sword AS A GIRL.  The ambiguity of gender confusion was interesting, but the forest witch was a more fascinating character.  This book, at least, presents the troubles of other women who want to join the fight, or who serve fighters.

I read the Poison Study series by Maria V. Snyder where a girl named Yelena is trained by a mean minister named Valek who later admits to sexual interest and becomes her savior when her foolhardy trust in his lessons get her in trouble.  They succeed together, but he has all the real power.  There’s another female character in this story named Star, but she serves only as counterpoint.

I read The Book of Deacon, which is the first in a series by Joseph R. Lallo.  This female lead character, a too-naïve girl named Myranda, is always alone and persecuted until she reaches hidden island where everybody has magic; a cloying feast of description and little plot.  She also bonds with a mean, mysterious character older than her and with sexual interest.  She sheds all the security and friends in this paradise to follow him into trouble.  Do you see a pattern yet?  Curse of Chalion

I read The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold and enjoyed every paragraph.  This female character has a brother who should be heir, and a teacher who is more than he seems.  However, she has a mother and grandmother, a BFF and ladies-in-waiting.  Within the feudal society where the bad guys have no redeeming qualities, she makes decisions to side-steps the fate that only a woman would face – marriage to the wrong man as a pawn in court politics. The solutions were too easy, but the character of Cazaril was a delight in his fatalism.  A fun romp into formula writing.

I’m currently reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson because of the buzz on GoodReads about the next upcoming book in the series – and something about a video game based on the series.  Here the primary character is a guy named Kelsier with specific powers based on real physics. I can see the appeal to sci-fi readers who are mostly guys.  The female lead, since his wife is long-dead, is a street waif named Vin who…  wait for it…  has special powers she knows nothing about because she was orphaned from her noble family.

Another big surprise…  in Mistborn there are NO OTHER WOMEN.  Oh, yeah, there’s a cook who cuts Vin’s hair so she looks more like a girl. Where are her sisters, aunts, cousins, BFFs, younger girls she persecutes?

Guys…  Women live in a world of women.  Women solve problems differently than how men solve problems.  Women don’t act on inflamed anger or rush into danger like Keifer Sutherland in 24 – so not believable (even for a guy).

Where are the stories where women solve the kinds of problems that women have using the kinds of resources that women can gather?  Unwanted births, little access to wealth, no voice in the public square, the demand to follow custom, submission in a confrontational situation, secret revenge, and more.  Stop putting a sword in their hands and look around.

How do women succeed in adversity?  Here’s a hint…  They work WITH other women.

Aaahhh, I feel better now.  Got that off my chest.


Grumpy Bulldog, March Madman said...

Sounds like you should go write that book. There is something vaguely sexist in books where the female hero needs bailed out by males, even in books written by women! And don't get me started on "Twilight"...

Stella Atrium said...

Grumpy Bulldog... So true, and I was wondering why this formula got so reinforced in fantasy novels.

Twilight is so simpy with the smoldering looks and no strength until they smell blood. Is Hunger Games showing a stronger female lead for you?

Anonymous said...

(This entry was considerably longer than I anticipated, and is as such split into two postings, one of which will be a reply to this one)

Please excuse my tardiness here(supposing you read this). I was only directed to your blog today, and I have yet to complete all of the reading, so I ask your pardon for anything I say that is covered elsewhere.

I certainly agree that female characters are largely cheated by modern fantasy(I can't speak for sci-fi, as I rarely read it). However, I would argue that the source of this problem is somewhat different from the one that you have put forward.

As you point out implicitly, the majority of fantasy authors(or, at least, "mainstream" fantasy authors) are male. On the other hand, there are plenty of female authors who fall into the same pits as the males - Rowling and Vande Velde come to mind immediately - and so the issue is not likely to be based in authors not understanding the "typical" female psyche. Rather, I would propose that the issue comes from the very structure of the genre. The general structure of a fantasy story is fairly hard-set in the minds of the adherents of fantasy. War truly is the ultimate expression of conflict, and also causes everybody and their cousin to begin taking action of some sort. As such, most fantasy stories will concern themselves with a war, or at least something very similar. Stories that do not will likely focus on a single character's troubles, and as such will not as completely explore the setting. At this point, therefore, the author has to make a choice between fleshing out the setting and moving away from "normal plot." Many, many fantasy writers begin as worldbuilders, and as such will opt to err on the side of setting, and so most of the market concerns itself with wartime.

Given this, it is easy to see why female leads are more often than not inconsistent with realistic strong females: The author writes the story's skeleton mentally, and then adds characters. If I want a plot that has the progression A>B>C>Battle, my protagonist should be in the battle, and as such some kind of warrior. If I then decide to make said protagonist female, I have effectively made it imperative that this female be given a weapon and the knowledge and temperament to use it. At this point, the author will generally jump through all sorts of hoops to explain how this particular character gets around the actual reason for females being excluded from war(which actually made sense back in the day before all this "weaker sex" nonsense, and before population exploded).

Anonymous said...

(apologies, I had to split it into three)

It is for this reason that supporting female characters are also often excluded. It can often be difficult to insert a character with the problem-solving techniques you describe into a story that centers around armed conflict while still giving them a plot-changing role, and such characters are therefore often glossed over. It's not so much saying "they're unimportant" as "their effect is more subtle than cleaving goblins, and infinitely more difficult to write a story around that most readers would find engaging."

At this point, I'd just like to address the "sexual interest" issue that you bring up by saying that people, be they male or female, become infinitely more helpful if they have sexual interest, often going so far as to actively aim to help when unwanted. As such, supporting characters are particularly likely to have a sexual interest in the protagonist, and at least one interested character is more-or-less guaranteed.

I feel like I'm rambling a little, so I'll just comment on one more bit. You ask concerning stories that include the solving of the problems:

"Unwanted births, little access to wealth, no voice in the public square, the demand to follow custom, submission in a confrontational situation, secret revenge, and more."

I would argue that, at least in the fantasy genre, many of the problems listed would be more or less impossible to actually solve while remaining realistic.

I'll agree that this sounds like a fairly sexist thing to say, but I've done quite a lot of thinking ever since the whole "average warrior princess" movement became popular about how reasonable it is to try and justify it, and I've come to the conclusion that it is next to impossible for most society archetypes. As I'm sure you know, the original reason for keeping females out of war-zones was that females were simply more useful as survivors than as martyrs from a "race-survival" perspective, seeing as females are the limiting reagent in procreation. In other words, females are considerably less expendable than males. If one wishes to maintain a genetically diverse population, one only needs 20% of the population to be male, at least last I checked my numbers. As such, females were kept from the battlefield under the rationale that, if the battle went badly, at least the race would have a much higher chance of surviving. Conversely, men were sent into battle under the rationale that, even if they all were killed, there would still be enough back home to rebuild the society.

Anonymous said...

From here, it isn't too difficult to see from where a lot of the societal issues that have plagued women arose. Men, already relative testosterone factories, widened the "physical strength gap" considerably, what with all their military training and societal emphasis on physical strength, and so were more able to be controlling. In addition, because leaders always like to keep army-morale high, customs were begun that centered around making men happier, including the use of women as sex-objects. Finally, since the whole rationale behind keeping the women from battle was to ensure that the society would have as high a potential population as possible, women were expected to engage in activities conducive to this end, namely childbirth.

I want to make perfectly clear that I am not saying that any of these are "good," or even "suitably justified." I am simply pointing out the social pattern that led to them in order to highlight just how difficult they are to remove from a fantasy setting. In most fantasy settings, the huge population explosions that made the foundational justification defensible has not yet occurred. Populations are still fairly small, and women are still necessary for population rebuilding. Once you have a couple million people in a country, individual women become less important procreationally, but such a country is simply not historically accurate for the target time-period. As such, solving the problems that you list would entail completely remaking society as a whole. I would actually go so far as to call it impossible except in isolated cases(in other words, in the *particular case* of the protagonist).

Societies wherein it would be possible could be thought of(indeed, some are historically attested), but in such societies these issues generally don't exist to begin with.

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