Women, Warriors, and Gender Policing

I’ve avoided addressing this topic for awhile now, mostly because I think it’s the kind of subject that someone, somewhere, could write a book on. (Actually there are a few.) And since I’m busy writing fantasy books, I don’t have the time. Still, I’ve noticed that a lot of readers of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms have shown a persistent interest in Darr and its warrior women. I love this, by the way; it feels incredibly cool to have written something that gets people so engaged. But I’m also aware that it’s not necessarily my Darre, but the idea of a woman-dominated warrior culture that’s interesting, so I try not to get too excited about it. ;)

The subject obviously interests me, too. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I deliberately tried to play with some stereotypes of gender in the course of writing the Inheritance Trilogy. In addition to the example of Enefa, I’ve seen a few readers complain that Yeine doesn’t fight back in any physical way — which isn’t true, actually; she stabs Nahadoth and punches Scimina. But those readers are right in one respect: she doesn’t deal with the situation as a warrior of her own culture would, by calling out the people who’ve offended her and meeting them on a field of battle. She cannot react to threats this way during 100K, because a) it wouldn’t do any good, and b), as a woman already scorned due to her origins, she cannot allow her behavior to feed into a stereotypical narrative of “barbarism”. That will lose her potential allies, and some of what little power she has, in this society where she is already judged negatively before she ever meets anyone. This is something I have to deal with a lot, by the way, as a woman of color — there are people who constantly expect me to adhere to whatever stereotypes are lodged in their heads regarding black women. Sometimes I choose to directly confront those stereotypes, but more often I’ve found myself modifying my behavior in order to contradict them, or to emphasize my individuality. It’s frustrating that I have to do either, really. But that’s racism/sexism for you: I do not have the luxury — or the privilege — of just being myself and doing what I want to do, in most situations. Neither does Yeine, or Oree, though to a lesser degree because she’s of a different class. (Remind me, sometime after book 3 comes out, to return to this subject and how freeing it was to write as Sieh, a non-human male character.)

It’s tough, though, to counter all these stereotypes and assumptions, because they’re just so deeply ingrained — in me as well as my readers. So when I think I’m doing something groundbreaking by making my protagonist a woman who’s not conventionally attractive, then making it clear that she is attractive to people who can see beyond society’s expectations, I still have to deal with reader complaints that she’s “ugly” or that it’s inexplicable why two men (well, a man and a god) would want her. Or when I instead depict a protagonist who’s pretty but frequently exoticized — and I make it clear that the exoticization is not a good thing — I get complaints that she’s too pretty, and that this is somehow unrealistic. It’s tempting to dismiss both sets of complaints as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” but I prefer to try and understand them. And these contradictory complaints make perfect sense when you realize that this is how sexism works. A big part of sexism is gender policing — all the small and not-so-small ways in which society dictates how women (and non-women; my point is that this is centered on womanhood) are “supposed” to look/act/think, and punishes them for being different. So it’s women in general who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they’re not pretty, society penalizes them for this in a hundred ways. If they are pretty, they risk being treated like sex objects rather than real people, and they’re penalized for their beauty — for example, even their most innocuous behavior can be perceived as a violent assault on men, and therefore deserving of punishment.

I’m seeing a lot of gender policing in fantasy these days, BTW, and not just in relation to my own work. Lately it seems as though the only acceptable “strong” female protagonist is the urban fantasyesque heroine who shoots with one hand and jerks off her lover with the other. OK, that’s crude, and not fair; I like urban fantasyesque heroines when they’re well-written, and the good ones are never that simple. But it does frustrate me that other examples of women’s strength are often ignored — endurance through hardship, for example. Having the brains to use the tools to hand, even if those tools involve (or are) men. And why are so many urban fantasy heroines solitary warriors, rather than leaders of large, effective teams? It might be because us Westerners tend to romanticize the solitary warrior in general… but why do we do that? I have a suspicion that it’s because women are popularly perceived as being good at collaboration. Ergo collaboration is “feminine”, ergo working alone is more macho, and ergo a woman being a good leader isn’t really a strength because she’s just “following her nature”. ::sigh:: I’ve known so many strong women in my life, and they’ve shown strength in such a variety of ways. There’s more to being an active, powerful woman than being willing to go it alone and blow up shit.

…buuuuut, I think an in-depth examination of that subject will have to wait for another blog post. Back to my main point.

What’s triggered these thoughts is an essay I recently saw by David Adams, which is part of a longer paper translated from a Russian psychological journal. As social science research goes, this is badly outdated (1984), so take it with about a quarter-century’s worth of salt. Still, I think some of his conclusions work even today.

Here’s one of several relevant bits from the paper, which asks the question of whether warfare is somehow ingrained in the human psyche. To answer the question, Adams rightly notes that “human” includes women, so he examines the issue of whether women can or do engage in warfare, and how. In particular he asks why so few women have been involved in warfare throughout human history, and his conclusion is kind of surprising (to me): he blames marriage. Or specifically, the bonds of property and kinship that marriage establishes:

The relationship between type of warfare and type of marriage residency system can show why it is men and not women that have come to be warriors. From this it is possible to refute the claims by some authors that this sex difference reflects some difference in instincts between men and women. Women are quite capable of fighting in wars, and they have sufficient strength to run, to use spears, and to use bows and arrows, and they are certainly capable of all of the various motivations and emotions. They are usually absent from war, however, because they have been actively excluded by men. Men have maintained a monopoly on war and the use of the weapons of war. This has occurred because their wives often came from the families of the enemy. Under this circumstance, the wife would have divided loyalties and could not be trusted during warfare. Whose side would they take, their husband’s side or the side of their fathers and brothers?

…The contradiction between patrilocal exogamy and the loyalty of women during warfare has been solved by the exclusion of women from war. The exclusion is complete. Not only are women not allowed to fight, but they are not allowed to attend the war planning meetings. They are not allowed to own, make, or even touch the weapons of war, and since these weapons are used in hunting, they are not allowed to hunt with them as well. They are not even allowed to sleep with their husbands during war. In one New Guinea culture, the fingers used to pull a bow string are cut off from the hands of little girls, which ensures that they will never become warriors (Heider, 1970).

Note that he’s talking mostly about pre-industrial societies here, and in particular tribal socieities that are at the hunter-gatherer stage of development. That’s where he’s getting the stuff about wives often coming from the enemy — in most tribal societies, “the enemy” is actually a related splinter group with a similar/the same language and a long trading history. Also note his points about gender policing.

(Oh, and a note for you evolutionary psychology afficionados out there. While I happily acknowledge that animal behavior often has an adaptive [evolutionary] basis, I have yet to see evo psych’s conclusions re animal behavior successfully extrapolated to human behavior in a way that corrects for the influence of culture, including the culture of the extrapolator. The tendency to perform this extrapolation anyway is bad science, so please don’t bring it here.)

Adams’ study is relevant because it dovetails with my own more anecdotal research. I’ve mentioned before that one of the cultures I studied in creating the Darre are the Amazighs, of northern Africa. Their oral histories include the mention of a number of prominent women warriors, such as Dihya (or Dhabba, or Kahina), a queen who led the army that helped fight off invading Arabs in the 7th century; she died with a scimitar in her hand. The Greek historian Strabo talks of the Amazighs riding into battle with a calvary of 30,000 horsewomen; supposedly this is one of several possible origins for Greek tales of the Amazons. It’s hard to say what the culture was like back then, but given the fact that many Amazigh tribes are still matrilineal (children inherit property and status from their mothers, not their fathers) despite their conversion to Islam centuries ago, it seems safe to guess that they were matrilineal then too, if not outright matriarchial. In such a society, women have as much of a stake in the outcome of war as men. They would stand to lose property, status, and resources inherited from their own mothers, and due to be passed on to their daughters; they wouldn’t just lose their husbands’ property or even their own. So the prominence of women as warriors in Amazigh history would seem to illustrate Adams’ point that where men and women have an equal stake in the outcome of war — that is, where women’s loyalties aren’t divided, and where culture hasn’t policed women out of the warfare business — it’s more common to see a tradition, however infrequent, of female warriors.

Now, I’d like to say that I was aware of the Adams study when I crafted the Darre, but that would be a lie. Still, it’s nice to see some congruity between research and art, isn’t it? Along those lines, I’ve gotten some questions about why the Darre have historically excluded men from war, except as a last resort. After all, physically speaking, men are a valuable resource… but then again, so are women. As Adams points out, just because women are physically weaker doesn’t mean they’re useless in battle — especially once a culture has ranged weapons like arrows, or strength/endurance-leveling resources like horses. Many cultures allowed/still allow (male) children into combat, but an adult woman is generally bigger and stronger than a child. So there’s no logical reason for so many cultures to exclude women from combat; by doing so, all those cultures are effectively halving their own strength. But if Adams’ hypothesis is right, the reason patriarchial cultures are willing to reduce their own strength in this way is due to fear of women as potential sleeper agents, and to preserve men’s centrality in the society. So is it so far-fetched that Darren women would feel the same towards their men? Especially given that they’re one of the few matriarchies in the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; just looking at other cultures would show them how easily the shoe could be on the other (male) foot. So I imagine Darren culture implemented any number of ways to police men’s behavior and make sure they did not step out of place. I’ve talked about some of those policing methods: their womanhood ritual, which probably terrorized young men with the fear of violent circumcision and rape; their culture’s tendency to treat men as objects to be decorated and protected; the fact that men were once only allowed to fight in the defense of the home. That was the Darre of old, note; since their “civilization” by the Arameri, legal discrimination against men has largely ended. But the roots of culture run deep, and Darren men still have a long way to go before they’re accorded the same respect and value as women. Sexism’s tough like that.

::whew:: This came out waaaay longer than I intended. Shutting up now!

17 Responses »

  1. Hardly overlong. Thank yoy as always for enlightenment, and for sharing some of your process!!

  2. This is very timely since I just wrote a post about cooties in science fiction, which often seeks to exclude women outright or confine them to subservient roles (receptionists and nurses in Star Trek).

    But I’m always fascinated by gender roles and how those vary across societies. For example, in America boys are better at math because their society teaches them that money is power, but in Japan girls are better at math because money management is considered a household chore.

    I haven’t read any books of yours yet, having stumbled across this post on Twitter, but I shall definitely be on the lookout from now on.

  3. SylviaSybil,

    Yes, gendered math differences across culture (hard science is the same way — in much of India, from what I’ve been told, science is “something women do”, while business is “something men do”) are one of the reasons why I think a lot about gender policing, and also why I reject much of the “conventional wisdom” about what boys and girls are capable of. I’m a counselor, but specifically I work in higher education, and a lot of my job involves deprogramming kids (or trying to) regarding these gender-based expectations and stereotypes. Naturally I get annoyed when girl cooties, or the fear of them, starts impacting my pleasure reading!

  4. Not long enough! Thanks for writing this piece; with the increased gender policing in fantasy these days, people seem to forgot that one of the definitions of the genre is “imagine what can be” rather than “porn-influenced daydream.” There is so much more that we can do with this literature if we’d just look hard at our assumptions and embedded preconceptions and think more richly about humanity’s possibilities.

    I’m writing my first novel right now and a lot of the issues in this post are ones that I am struggling with in the story. It’s challenging to create new cultural logics and gender dynamics, but I am already finding that the story is enriched by tackling this.

  5. Excellent post. It makes me want to investigate more (which I will do as soon as I get the time).

    Regarding Americans’ fixation with lone warrior women, it has everything to do with the American ideal of rugged individualism via the very similar Anglo Saxon virtue. It’s what our society has come to almost worship, and it’s the source of both the American dream and American exceptionalism. Culturally, the easiest way for Americans to view a strong woman is as a rugged individual.

  6. Wow, N.K. — great post! Thank you. It was a most enlightening and thought-provoking read.

    I think Aaron Helton has a good point about the rugged American individual. It brings to mind the solitary cowboy image. The tough, go-it-alone, crooked-smiling character who everyone looked up to as a hero. ‘Course, that character has historically been male, but with the advance of feminism, it seems to me a bit like that image got transferred directly to women, without taking into account the countless other ways in which women can be strong. In fact, I often feel that women (and I’ve experienced this, myself) are required to be “manly” and downplay or deny some of their inherent feminine talents/strengths to be “cool”, and I don’t like it.

    I fully agree with you on the oversaturation of “feisty asskicker” female characters; I too am getting rather tired of them. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” so much. He gives us a number of female characters, of which only one is a “warrior woman” (and she too is a well-rounded character, far from the feisty-asskicker cliche). Each has a strength and beauty all her own. This is the kind of female character that I strongly feel the F&SF genre needs more of… and being a writer myself, I intend to do my part! Those girls are more interesting to write, anyhow. ;-)

    Okay, I think permaybehaps that got a bit rambly. Anyway, thanks again for such a great post—I love it when books (and their authors) make me think like this. :-)

  7. “And why are so many urban fantasy heroines solitary warriors, rather than leaders of large, effective teams?”

    I always thought that part of the reason for this is that people have a hard time envisioning a woman leading a group that includes men. You know, similar to how there’s this idea that men resent their partners when women are the primary breadwinners. It’s one thing for a woman to be independent and powerful on her own; we’re sort of okay with that now. But it’s another matter entirely for a man to be financially dependent on her in a relationship. That is embarrassing for him, somehow emasculating.

    I think this is also true in a team dynamic in which a woman is leader.

    But anyway, I would definitely love to see more strong female leader types! And count me among those who were delighted to see strong women and a matriarchal culture in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It’s really refreshing (and sad that it has to be refreshing) to delve into a world and story without fear that I’m going to run into sexism. There are so many stories where it completely ruins the experience for me, or where I’m just waiting for the moment where I cringe and throw the book down.

    There were a multitude of other reasons I loved the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, of course, but it’s very freeing to read without fear.

    And that stuff about letting boys fight but not grown women–OMG so true! And if you want to know, this is one of the things that made me shout at the screen and die inside while watching LOTR. It was a moment that showed me that this adventure was not made for me. Of course, I knew that already, but it sort of drove the point home…

  8. You say, above:
    The Greek historian Strabo talks of the Amazighs riding into battle with a calvary of 30,000 horsewomen; supposedly this is one of several possible origins for Greek tales of the Amazons.

    Can you give me more details of this, such as where in Strabo the passage is? Most Amazon stories place them in Asia Minor, not North Africa.

  9. Hi Karen,

    It’s a secondary source; I haven’t read Strabo’s writings directly. But a few years back I read a book on badass women in the history of Islam, as part of the research for this story, and I think that’s where I saw it. If I recall, it was called THE SCIMITAR AND THE VEIL… ah, here it is. Really good book, BTW — the author is a Westerner who grew up as a diplomatic brat in Afghanistan, but she seems to have done solid research. I got it from the library, so can’t check, but if I recall there was a good list of citations in the back that might help you track down the Strabo quote. The Scimitar book got mentioned to me at Wiscon a few years back.

    I’ve seen many other mentions of the Amazighs as a possible source of Amazon mythology, though — notably in histories of Africa or the Middle East (or histories written by Africans or Middle Easterners), as opposed to histories written by Europeans. The other scholarly source I can remember seeing it in is THE AQUARIAN GUIDE TO AFRICAN MYTHOLOGY, by Jan Knappert — an old book, which is problematic in a lot of ways (not the least of which is its attempt to lump all the nations of Africa into one not-very-thick encapsulation). :( But there’s a whopping heap of stuff like this in histories of the Berbers; their oral histories are riddled with stories of badass female vanguards leading armies into battle while uttering bloodcurdling screams. This even crops up in modern Amazigh music, like rai — you can find some translations of Khaled’s music online (I don’t think he’s Amazigh, note; he’s Algerian, and there are many Amazighs in Algeria, but I think he identifies as Arab), and he mentions it. (I recommend Khaled in general, note; he’s one of my favorite musicians, even though I don’t always know wtf he’s saying =P)

    My guess — which you should take with a grain of salt, because I’m an amateur historian at best — is that oral accounts of the Amazighs circulated to Greece via trade roads and so on, and as with any such accounts, they got exaggerated and sensationalized, shuffled around and retold, and in the process they mutated. Suddenly they’re Amazons instead of Amazighs, and they’re chopping off tits and immortal and so on, because the idea of bloodthirsty women warriors was just so unbelievable to the patriarchial Greeks that they might as well have been talking about unicorns.

  10. This is an excellent post. Brava. :)

    As for the kickass women in urban fantasy — ever notice that they’re actually not so kickass in the end? I’ve read a LOT of the particular subgenre, because for years all that was available was Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde, so I hopped on the trend with enthusiasm. At this point, I can pretty much predict the plot of virtually any urban fantasy.

    Strong female heroine is introduced, plot begins, SFH realizes she’s in over her head and needs the help of Uber Hot Hero, SFH fights his help, SFH ends up trapped/captured/in trouble because of her own “stupidity”, UHH saves SFH’s butt, together they save the world. There’s some slight variants on that. But inevitably, it is almost always Heroine + Uber Hot Hero. It’s almost never another woman. The underlying message being that even strong women need men in order to save the day. Ugh.

  11. Hi Nonny,

    See, that’s why I included that line about using a man as a weapon — I’m willing to make allowances for UF’s need to hit key romance tropes. That sells books. So I get that the UHHs have to be powerful and effectual; that’s what makes them hot. But I also think it’s possible to depict women working with such men as part of a team, or a woman in charge of a team using such men as assets, without making the woman into a useless piece of baggage. That was what I liked about the early Meredith Gentry books by Laurell K. Hamilton; the (then-weaker) Merry used the stronger men around her as weapons, and it was only due to her direction and determination that the whole group achieved certain goals. I like Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books for the same reason (haven’t read the latter two trilogies, though — too busy -_-); they focus on a heroine who is used by others, but uses them right back. I think there’s strength in that.

    But yeah, it’s a verrry fine line to have to walk — between showing a woman’s skills at leading/inspiring others, and putting her in the backseat to those others. I thought I’d edged close to that line but not crossed it, with Yeine in 100K, but I’ve seen that some readers still regard her as a weak character, so clearly I did cross it for them. It doesn’t entirely surprise me that some authors would forego the effort altogether. Readers are going to bring their sexism baggage to the table anyway, so why not just roll with it? (This is rhetorical, note.)

  12. That’s a good point about using men as a weapon. I hadn’t quite considered it that way. I’ve been pretty frustrated that the vast majority of urban fantasies seem to employ romance themes. I understand it sells, but I like something a little different; plus, I find that many don’t balance the power ratio well, and it ends up looking like silly woman needs big strong man to save her in the end. Particularly with the plot lines of women who are so stubborn they won’t listen to logically solid advice/observations and end up needing to be rescued. Sigh.

    (If you can’t tell, this is a long-standing rant. >_>)

  13. To SylviaSybil

    Where did you get your facts on “in Japan girls are better at math because money management is considered a household chore.” I work for a japanese firm and am interested in if this is true. All I really found on the subject was a study done by a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor.

    They way I read her report was that Japanese girls performed better in math and boys in other countries, not japanese boys. They performed the same as boys in thier country, not better or worse.

    Thanks for any info you have!

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