The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy (and everywhere else, but for now, fantasy)

One of my favorite manga is a shoujo (girls’) comedy serial called Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge (YNS), sold in the US as The Wallflower. Now, the Japanese title has a more complex meaning than a phrase like “the wallflower” can encompass, in part because it’s referencing a phrase that’s fairly esoteric to Japanese culture — the idea of quintessential Japanese womanhood, or the yamato nadeshiko spirit. But the story itself is fairly simple: four hot guys are offered the chance by an eccentric millionaire to live in a stunning mansion, rent-free — but in exchange, they have to transform her ugly-duckling niece Sunako into a “real lady”. This is Sunako:

Sunako, the protagonist of Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge; image shows a depressed-looking girl in a tatty sweatshirt, with long unkempt hair that hides her face, and no expression.

…Yeah, so it’s a challenge for the guys. Each episode pretty much consists of the guys attempting to change Sunako — a socially awkward and terminally shy goth who doesn’t give a damn about makeup, clothes, or any of the things girls are “supposed” to like — into something she doesn’t want to be. Their efforts usually backfire spectacularly, often resulting in the guys themselves ending up in some kind of mortal danger from which Sunako — who also happens to be a world-class chef, a deadly martial artist, a master of disguise, and freakishly strong — has to rescue them. (It’s utterly cracktastic, and highly recommended.)

I like Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge because it’s about a girl coming to terms with one of her culture’s most powerful gender paradigms. What the story gradually makes clear is that Sunako already embodies the virtues of yamato nadeshiko perfectly — not by adhering to the guys’ superficial stereotypes of what women are supposed to be, but by internalizing those virtues and expressing them in her own unique way. In comedic fashion, the series asks important questions: Why is it somehow unwomanly to be gothy, or to be a good fighter, or to wear something other than “pretty” clothing? What’s so womanly about being delicate and flighty if, well, you’re not? (A running gag of the series is that the four guys are delicate and flighty — but they all consider themselves perfectly manly men.) And by the same token, why is it somehow out of character, or “unrealistic”, for a woman who’s a martial arts master to also excel at cooking and keeping house? If Sunako were a character in an American novel, I suspect a lot of readers would label her a Mary Sue. I think this label is often misapplied to female characters who are not wish-fulfillment fantasies, but simply competent in too many ways.

These are things that most women in patriarchal societies wrestle with, frankly, across ages and cultures: superficial, externally-imposed conceptions of womanhood versus internalized, personally-defined conceptions of womanhood. If a culture for some reason depends on a clear distinction between men’s and women’s roles — maybe because men have most of the power, and society has evolved to justify that — then it becomes harder and harder for men and women to choose for themselves what “manhood” or “womanhood” means. Instead they’re forced to struggle within rigid definitions that don’t really fit anyone perfectly, often because they don’t make any real sense.

But not all of those struggles are as blatant, or as easy to name and shame, as the ones in YNS. Take, for example, the current paradigm of what constitutes a “strong” woman in most English-language fantasy.

Let’s put aside more technical definitions of character strength (like agency) and focus on gender roles. I see a lot of women in fantasy who are power brokers, good fighters, sexually assertive or dominant, technically/scientifically and sometimes magically competent — all good things. All in defiance of the kinds of stereotypes that have plagued women in America*. But I’m beginning to wonder if, along with rejecting the stereotypes imposed on women by society, we haven’t also rejected all characteristics commonly ascribed to womanhood — including those that women might choose for themselves. Why is it hard for a female character to be considered strong if she’s self-effacing or modest, for example? Lots of women who are trailblazers and asskicking heroes are modest. This is all of a piece with America’s ongoing devaluation of traditional women’s gender roles, like being a housewife. (Or a househusband; we also devalue men who chose “women’s work”.) I can’t remember the last American fantasy I read that starred a housewife. I’m hoping there are some out there — recommendations welcome — but offhand, I can’t think of any. But housewives can be great characters, if they’re written right.

Here’s the problem with this wholesale rejection of both societally-imposed and self-chosen “typical” women’s behaviors — in the end, it amounts to a rejection of nearly all things feminine. And that’s definitely not good for women.

And yeah, I’ve got a dog in this fight. It annoys me when readers think Yeine isn’t strong because she doesn’t stab enough people. Or that Oree isn’t strong because she gets by with a little help from her friends. (I’ve complained before about the way “rugged individualism” has been romanticized — and to a degree masculinized — in American culture. Sometimes solving problems needs to be a team effort, and being good at teamwork is an often-overlooked strength in fantasy.) I’m not saying these characters couldn’t be stronger; there’s always room for improvement in my writing, IMO. But I don’t see a lot of rants about Nahadoth being weak because he can’t control himself, or Itempas being weak because he broke under pressure. Nobody complains that Madding doesn’t smite enough people. It’s only my female characters who get held to these rigorous standards, and judged harshly for their failure to conform.

I think there’s a simple way to fix this problem, though: more variety. Writers need to craft female characters who range across the full spectrum of women’s roles and behavior — and we need to find a way to depict the strength within these women regardless of how “feminine” they are, or aren’t, on the surface. By the same token, readers need to stop embracing only superficial examples of strength in women. We need more than ice queens, or femme fatales, or feisty gun-toting redheads juggling harems of men, or mighty-thewed chainmail bra-wearing Conanettes. We also need librarians and nurses — or loremistresses and doulas, if you prefer. And women who are surviving abusive relationships, and women who can’t have children or don’t want any and aren’t defined by either, and mothers who aren’t perfect. Women who are crooked-but-well-meaning politicians, women who are underappreciated lab assistants, women who start their own businesses and fail, and women who are thaumaturgists by day and kindergarten schoolteachers by night. Women who like dressing in men’s uniforms, and who can wield a chainsaw like a Ginsu knife, and who think anatomy and physiology is the coolest subject evar, and who can cook and sew and give a roomful of thugs a beatdown… Basically, we need more women like Sunako, whose strength comes from something inside her. I want to see female characters who are judged strong based on their choices, their determination, and their refusal to be limited by what others think — not what they look like or do for a living/hobby.

This isn’t too much to ask, is it?

* Using American here because a) it’s what I know, and b) we’re talking about English-language fantasy, and the bulk of that is published in the US

51 Responses »

  1. It’s not too much, but that doesn’t mean it’s *easy.*

    Something I’m wrestling with as I try to complete my edits on my own first novel. And it frequently has me up, late at night, chewing over the same problem. Or one like it.

    How do you write convincing female characters – well any character, but I do agree that the female lead has a heavier burden to carry with the current/past/and future state of the genre – who are heroic but who do not become obvious characicatures and thus signal a possible rejection of the very gender you’re trying to bolster?

    It’s easy to make a strong, capable, ass-kicking female hero in a fantasy setting. Even with the constraints I have, which is a world that is deeply rooted in classical Antiquity, there are all sorts of examples of powerful, dynamic females. Despite the highly patriarchal culture you find in the Hellenistic age, you can discover them if you know where to look.

    The real trouble I’ve encountered, is going so far that I’ve effectively written their gender out – that I’ve made a Herakles with tits, rather than an Amazon. This isn’t really something we worry about with male characters, is it?

    So should female characters only be cast as women of the household, no stronger than it takes to operate a loom or bear a child? That doesn’t work or feel satisfactory either. Again, I look to my best examples, wild priestesses, queens, warrioresses, and the goddesses themselves, of course. More room here, I suppose, as while it is historically inflected fantasy, it is *fantasy* very much and epic in its scope and thrust. What I can not abide, I discard and weave out of whole cloth.

    But then male characters have this burden as well. In part. It is difficult to have an adventuring hero, who is an overweight, middle-aged lecture of rhetoric – or a baker, or the man who runs the local bathhouse and suffers from both dry skin and gout. Not impossible, and good characters are where you make them – but both genders have this problem. Not a lot of housewives and not a lot of househusbands, because you’ve got to scale down your issues, or come up with something very creative, to have them take the place of the more usual suspects: brawny warriors and sword-maidens, conjurors and witches, kings and queens and all their tumultuous spawn.

    I have a novel, waiting for its time in which the protagonists are exactly that, the lowly, the homemakers, the butcher, the baker, the widowed tailor’s wife, the dairy maid. But it’s a hard trick, and we’ll see if I pull it off. Or if readers will yawn, and ask where the broad chinned fellow with the big sword and the assassin-trained, lithesome young lass with the leather pants and miniscule top are.

    But that’s the struggle that transforms pap into something closer to the ambrosia of the gods. Stick with it, and you’ll find the middle path. Full of rocks and thorns and poisonous weeds that even the goats will only piss on. But beneath it, sometimes, you’ll strike a seam of purest ore.

  2. I never saw Yeine or Oree as weak. Yeine may have been more physically competent, but I never expected Oree to be a fighter. She had her own strengths. She never really buckled or caved… well, once or twice. With good reason.

    But whose plan was it when she and Shiny escaped from the House of the Risen Sun?

    And who – I loved this bit – took a running head start before diving out of the fantasy equivalent of a skyscraper window?

    And Yeine stood up to everyone, Arameri, godling and god. She also took on mothering Sieh, which is a test of strength all on its own.

    Writing strong female characters is something that has weighed on my mind for sometime now. I’m working on my first novel, and three (so far) of the main characters are women. Actually, I need to count how many female characters there are vs how many male. Doubt it’s balanced right now. D’oh.

    One of these women is an accomplished swordslinger, another is a politically-involved noblewoman. Both, in my mind, will be strong women in their way. What concerns me is trying to portray that accurately on paper.

    The third is the protagonist and she’s… well, she’s the chosen one. Sort of. I’m mucking about with that trope a little. Anyways. She’s the first chosen one in at least a few hundred years, and in that time her community has shut itself off from most of the world. So whereas other kingdoms/countries have moved on a bit, this little community is still fairly conservative.

    She’s also the first female chosen one EVER. And the people of the community aren’t happy about that. Some put her down a lot, some just openly worry she won’t be strong enough or skilled enough or good enough to fight the Big Evil.

    I figured her story arc would basically be her going out into the world and discovering her own strength, eventually casting off much of the self-doubt and low self-esteem the community instilled in her. But I worry that this story may be somehow too sexist, or that I will be seen as sexist for coming up with it.

    All I can do is try.

    So yeah, writing strong women is a topic of interest for me. Thank you for your advice. :)

  3. For housewife heroines, the one that came to mind for me is the main character of Patricia Briggs’ Raven’s Shadow and Raven’s Strike. I was so excited to pick up a book where the internal conflict of the character actually resonated with my own experiences as a wife and mother. Truly you don’t get a lot of that.

    I also agreed with what you said about the devaluing of what are perceived as feminine traits and interests. Whenever I pick up a book where the female character’s inability to do needlework of some kind is used as shorthand for ‘too good for that *girly* stuff’ I want to throw it.

  4. This touches on the anxiety I (and presumably other western women) have towards traditionally feminine activities, in that we know we’re theoretically still allowed to like them, but are somehow frightened that if we *actually* like them, the whole of feminism will irrevocably backslide. Which, apart from sucking, is ludicrous. And yet so much oppression was maintained through an insistence on sexist paradigms that we’ve started assuming causation rather than correlation between traditional femininity and patriarchy; as though women who liked cooking or dressmaking were the actual problem, and not the social imperative that approved of them doing precious little else. So instead of escaping oppression for equality, it’s like we’re stuck in this logic-rut of escaping femininity for masculinity – which is toxic as hell because, one, it creates an atmosphere where women who choose femininity are seen, in some sense, to be choosing oppression; and, two, it creates absolutely no incentive for men to take up feminine roles, or even to consider them as necessary. Which, you know, they are – just not as the exclusive domain of women.

    Anyway: awesome post!

  5. So, to be clear, most of my problems with Yeine and Oree have to do with their character arcs focusing on getting the guys. Not just the guys, but the most amazing, interesting, and secretly-powerful underdog guys in the entire damn universe.

    Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.

    Yeah, I admit, I do have the same problem with the entire Romance genre.

  6. I am going to look for that manga serial! It sounds great.

    I didn’t think Yeine was weak, what she went through would destroy anyone “weak”, but I’m a female engineer who likes to knit and cook in my spare time though, and may not be quite the average case…

  7. In what I’m trying to write, I’ve realised that I’m casting back to the classic Avengers — that is Steed and Mrs Peel. Except that my main female protagonist is Steed, and the main male protagonist is Emma Peel.

    Steed is the character who has the connections, does the fast-talking, bluffs the villain, masterminds the plot, and gives Mrs Peel the assignment. Mrs Peel is the cool fighter in the leather catsuit, the quick-thinker and the agent on the spot, and the one with exotic interests (such as art, or becoming the new Queen of Sin) that come in useful. Steed fights when necessary, but fights very dirty, and generally tries to avoid it.

    The question is if I can get away with it.

    (And speaking of “Hercules with tits” — I remember discussing a particular female Doctor Who character with a friend, a while back. It was Romana (classic Doctor Who, companion to the 4th Doctor, from the _City of Death_ Story. My friend was saying that Romana was a very “masculine” character, in that she got to be cool, calm, collected, logical, and skilled. My question was, since when had those characteristics been restricted to males? Since when had any woman with those characteristics been considered “male character with tits”?)

  8. I actually recently ran across a novel that featured a married suburban mother of two as a butt-kicking demon hunter (California Demon by Julie Kenner). While there were parts I didn’t like, such as the perpetual drive to be the stay-at-home super-mom who can do everything, it did seem like demon stomping was the next logical level to take the other ideal to.

  9. You may be interested in this essay on Severus Snape as a female hero.

  10. I would like to see more positive feminine role models. The “oh, but I’m so much better than other women, because I hate sewing” is a personal peeve. But I’d also like to see more who are truly allowed to be masculine, without being labelled as “men with boobs” for failing to wear sexy clothes and makeup whilst smiting. Or getting the “no women would think like that” treatment.

  11. I’ve only seen the HBO show, haven’t read the books, but what about Queen Cersi from Game of Thrones? I mean, sure it’s still a clearly patriarchal society, but even in her “traditional role” as Queen, I think she exhibits quite a bit of power – albeit mostly through treachery. She’s a rather amoral character, but maybe that in itself is in defiance of the stereotypical role of women as “pure”?

    And I feel like these political women are relatively common in fantasy. Or maybe just fantasy video games?

    I dunno, just a thought.

    Oh, and by contrast, Daenerys Tar-whatever-an (I can’t spell these damn fantasy names) is more of a stereotypical “helpless” sort of female character, but evolves into a rather strong one, I think, as the show continues. She’s still every bit the loyal wife (and I had some problems with her being more or less raped into acquiescence) and “pure” in her morals/ethics, but she proves to be a lot stronger than her brother, who lords over her in the beginning.

    Martin’s women clearly aren’t perfect, but I think he does some interesting things with the characters.

  12. *sigh*

    You know.. I had to reread a sentence in your first paragraph because when I read ‘eccentric millionaire’ my mind was then confused by the following ‘her’.

    And I’m not even sure if it was the ‘millionaire’ part or the ‘eccentric’ part, or if it was something about the two of them together. Considering how many episodes of The Secret Millionaire I’ve watched, both US and UK versions, you’d think I’d know millionaires are not all men.

    So *sigh*.

  13. I haven’t read widely in supernatural romance, but I think others have already pointed out some examples there of housewives as strong female characters.

    That you restricted it to American hampered me, because I thought of some Diana Wynne Jones characters.

    But I was just reading some essays by Joanna Russ and she points out that British sf/f is coming from a different background than American sf/f. I don’t know if we’re getting any closer together with time and Internet-aided cross-pollination or not. (The recent discussion about a lack of female British sf writers points to something still being different between the two.)

    But man, there is one book where the female character was so different because she was a housewife and mother and wasn’t being asked by the story to also be butt-kicking. And I wish I could remember what book that was!

    But that I have trouble thinking of examples does mean we need more of them.

    Going to television, there’s “Medium”. And.. um… Bewitched?

  14. Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, published 20 years ago (by Baen!), is a story of a housewife. Jo Walton reviewed it on Tor.com about 18 months ago.

    Also, speaking of Jo, her book Lifelode has a main character who I’m told (by Farah Mendohlsson, whose name I have just spelled wrong) identifies herself as a housekeeper. It was published by a small press.

  15. “Whenever I pick up a book where the female character’s inability to do needlework of some kind is used as shorthand for ‘too good for that *girly* stuff’ I want to throw it.”

    I am _so_ with you on that one. I’ve grown very tired of books in which “warrior women” can’t cook or sew – like male soldiers never have to do either on campaign!

    In my forthcoming novel, I have a lot of fun with such stereotypes. My secondary PoV character is a 17-year-old Elizabethan girl, who lives disguised as a boy because she has no family and wants a respectable job (there being few options for a young woman in her position apart from prostitution). She works as a “tireman” for a theatre company – basically a costumier-cum-dresser – thus enabling her to use the “feminine” skills she learnt at her mother’s knee in a “masculine” capacity (most tailors were men).

    A lot of her character arc is about maintaining her disguise as she grows into womanhood, because of the safety and freedom of action it gives her, whilst she struggles with her growing attraction to the hero. My intention was to write a female character who appeals to both male and female readers because she’s believable and multifaceted: clever, determined, vulnerable, flawed.

    My publisher (Angry Robot) is staffed by men, and my agent is male, so I haven’t had any feedback yet from women in the genre. It’ll be interesting to see what they, and readers of both sexes, make of my heroine!

  16. This post is a very eloquent take on a very frustrating phenomenon. It’s not just that in too many works of fiction being “strong” is equated with being masculine only with a great rack, it’s that feminine-coded activities (other than maybe motherhood, because sacred and all that) are actually villainized, or at least portrayed as too dumb to live. I especially remember rolling my eyes at the scorn heaped on female characters who went out of their way to dress up or prettify themselves in any way, especially since somehow the majority of the their heroic, non-girly counterparts seemed to have acne-free skin and naturally healthy hair, all the freakin’ time. And it’s really distressing that this sort of thing is, it seems to me, most pronounced in children’s and YA books (and the fanfiction written by girls in that age group). It’s been how many years, and Susan is still locked out of Narnia.

    For positive portrayals of more ‘traditional’ femininity, I always really liked Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwater books. Her heroines are chiefly healers and homemakers, and the battling and sword swinging is conducted off screen by the menfolk, but that’s not to say the women aren’t powerful and awesome. When I was in elementary I mostly read books about warrior types, male and female, and much kicking of ass, and I loved it, and I still do, but I was also a scrawny, shy girl in real life and I remember the ladies of Sevenwaters being very potent alternative role models and avatars.

    Okay, I rambled on longer than I intended….Mostly just wanted to say interesting post, with lots of interesting feedback and links in the comments!

  17. In the Young Wizards series (in which the core characters are all US-based) the most powerful wizard on Earth — the one who manages the planet’s magical “software” — is a housewife in her late twenties.

    Sometimes you just let the characters get on with kicking ass, and don’t spend time worrying too much whether their roles either challenge people’s expectations or fit into them. :)

  18. Someone beat me to “The Interior Life”, but I’ll add “Mathemagics” by Margaret Ball, whose main character is both a housewife and a swordswoman from an alternate dimension (the novel was inspired by her story in “Chicks in Chainmail”).

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  19. This is something that I also struggle with, as a reader and a writer. I’m all for ‘strong female characters,’ but it’s got to the point that I roll my eyes when I hear that term (and its sister, ‘kickass’), because so often it means a very narrow, masculine definition of ‘strong’.

    I agree with Polenth about the female character who is smug about not being able to sew! Not having much time for embroidery is one thing, but sewing is a basic, practical life skill in any society that doesn’t have mass produced clothing…

    Of course, epic fantasy travelling parties with a Polgara attitude to who does the cooking is just as irritating, let’s face it!

    Foz has a very good point that modern women often shy away from traditional domestic skills, out of the very real fear that it won’t take more than a hiccup of a backlash to force us back into a place where these skills are all women are valued for. But I like to think we can find a balance of these worries in fantasy fiction, especially considering how many modern women are also embracing the domestic arts as hobbies, rather than necessities.

    The awesome thing about fantasy is that we can do anything with it – can allow for professional women and domestic women, and women who have (shock, horror) more than one trait at a time. But you know, not too many traits, because there’s that dreaded Mary Sue accusation, right around the corner… All I can do myself is try to pack as many women as possible into my stories, so as to not have all my eggs in one basket.

    YNS sounds awesome – I will definitely check it out!

  20. I have to thank the African-American man who introduced me to reading Alice Walker for giving me a better vision of balancing femininity and strength than what I had known up to then. It was reading her, Zora Neale Hurston, and Josephine Herbst that led me to the realization that one could be both feminine and strong. Well, that, and growing up in a microculture of strong farm women.

    When writing fantasy, I do tend to fall back on the diaries and accounts of Western US farm and ranch women to create my characters, not so much early settlement periods but late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Yes, there’s a hella lot of white privilege and class privilege in some of those accounts (not so much class privilege, though, when you realize that for some of those women, it was either knuckle under and fail to survive, or get tough and survive in a poor economy). Those accounts don’t tend to be well-known for the most part. But some of the soul-searching and decision-making is no different from the dilemmas articulated by feminists today.

    There are also good accounts of contemporary ranch (and farm) women which help to point the way. Many ranch (and farm) women get out there and work alongside the men because there’s just no one else to do the work, especially in a hardscrabble setting where they’re economically close to the edge. They pride themselves on being able to do a man’s job–and still be feminine when it’s time to get off the horse or tractor and come into the house. Of course, in that culture, handcrafts, cooking, and decorative touches are not exclusively feminine (that subculture has its own issues, true, including race/gender/class privilege). But it can be a decent model for competent women who still embrace their feminine side.

  21. Is it necessary that a fantasy heroine be an ass kicker?

    Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series and her SF novels often include women who are protagonists, but they’re not out there fighting and killing. Their agency, which is large, isn’t about that. A lot of them are married, or partnered and have children or are about to have their first baby.

    One of her protagonists, Jill, is an ass kicker, but as she evolves through the knotted wheels of her incarnations, that goes by the way into another kind of agency all together.

    Love, C.

  22. A lot of all this seems to be that it is getting more and more difficult for people to recognize a story as a story at all unless there is lots of violence, which means also you have someone you pull for while hoping somebody dies, the more awful and prolonged and bloody the death the better.

    It seems that’s a battle we’re not going to win, at least in fantasy and sf, which is so much about adventure. But — why must it be shopping or else killing, or even killing before shopping and killing after shopping? Buffy did that pretty well, but we saw her kicking ass a whole whole whole LOT more than shopping and when she went shopping she had to dust vamps anyway.

    Love, C.

  23. Loved this. You stated things as I feel them. (Even if I don’t like anime as a rule. There are exceptions, however rare.) This is exactly why it bugged me to see Sarah Conor in Terminator II. She discarded everything that being a woman and a mother was about, and I was supposed to think that was cool? The message I got out of that was “only the male survives.” Excuse me? Um. No. She should’ve been a mother to her son. Ditching him like she did was not a good thing in any way. I ranted for a month after watching that film. :-)

  24. I have a novel coming out in February and it wasn’t until recently that I realized readers might have a problem with the protagonist, because her plot revolves around protecting some children. What a stereotypical feminine role!

    I mean, I didn’t write it that way. I didn’t intend it that way. The kids needed a protector and I prefer to write about women. And I personally think she’s a strong, interesting character. But how many people are going to reject her just because she’s a babysitter instead of a badass?

    It’s something to brood about.

  25. The devaluation of certain aspects of femininity doesn’t exist in a vaccuum: there are reasons for it, and trying to reaffirm the importance of a given characteristic is not going to go very far if the underlying issues aren’t addressed, any more than simply rejecting those characteristics will, because their value isn’t inherent to them but created by the social structures that situate them in relation to others. The work done by a housewife isn’t devalued in the same way when it’s done outside the home, or by someone who’s explicitly hired by the people living in the home: cleaning, sewing, cooking, and child-care are all things that are paid when it’s in a professional setting. (Though obviously with varying degrees of prestige and remuneration, because of intersecting hierarchies: a housemaid probably gets paid less than a high-end industrial cleaning service worker, a grade school teacher less than a university professor, a short-order cook less than a chef, a sweatshop worker less than a high fashion designer, and so on.) In a capitalist system, labour is devalued to create profits for bosses/shareholders/venture capitalists; in a domestic system, labour is devalued to profit the head of the family, who is freed from doing housework or paying market prices for it, and so can work outside the home longer hours and earn more; in a feudal system, the slaves, serfs and peasants’ labour frees up the knights to go around fighting each other without worrying where the bread (and the armour, and the animal husbandry that supplies the horses) will be coming from, etc.

    If one is going to write a fantasy that tries to mess with gender roles but still has the same social structures that creates the gender roles we have in real life (for a given experience of real life), then the changes in gender roles will not be applicable in real life but only in fantasy. The complexity and entrenched power of the social structures we have to deal with are the reason it’s so damn difficult to escape the roles they create, and why isolated instances of gender-role-bending don’t necessarily carry over from one generation of writers and readers to the next.

  26. …and, for instance, the reason white women’s domestic work was more highly valued during the expansion of the United States was because there was no industrial competition for it: no industrial-grade production or line-assembly to provide goods faster and more steadily than what they could do at the domestic grade. Access to trade, slavery, and industrialisation all change the assigned value of work within domestic settings. But the class of men who were freed to go out to work (or amass capital) outside of the home and who didn’t want women competing with them once women’s roles inside the home were devalued then demanded continued privilege and services from that class of women, access to trophy wives instead of hard-working domestic partners. And the dialectics of sex (and race, and class) transform along with the economics of the time.

  27. Regarding Nahadoth, one of the things that really struck me about him was when he told Yeine that he considered having the choice of who defined him to be freedom. It really exemplifies how little control he expects to have over his life, and I have to wonder if that’s a product of being enslaved, or a reaction to his memories of being alone.

    Yeine did have an inner strength, but throughout the book she was always reactive, and almost passive, which hid it – and you commented yourself that you regretted not giving her a chance to show her strength in her own skill-set before putting her in a position where she had to use an entirely new and foreign skill-set to survive.

    As to Oree, the image that springs to mind for her is “I chose to believe”, and the strength involved in burning herself up to empower one of the three primary gods, a fundamental force of the universe.

  28. First of all, I love that you chose Izumi Curtis. I love “Fullmetal Alchemist”! Speaking of strong women, one of my favorite characters of all time is Mirany from Catherine Fisher’s “Archon” series. She’s mousy and shy and self-conscious, but she pretty much saves the world and she doesn’t do it by killing people or literally kicking ass. It’s all about her faith and determination shaping everything.

    Personally, I love both Oree and Yeine and I like that they need help sometimes or falter in certain situations. It makes them feel real, in my opinion. I’ve started to notice that it bothers me when a character is super strong all the time and doesn’t have weak moments.

  29. Yes and yes again to The Interior Life by Katherine Blake. Jo Walton’s discussion of it mentioned how rare the valorizing of the domestic realm is in fantasy.

    Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse is pretty domestic when the vampires, shifters and fae give her any time to herself.

    Patricia McKillip has some scholarly and domestic heroines, but I’d have to hit the books to provide titles & names. There’s a moment in the Riddle-Master trilogy where an ancient goddess turns out to be working as a henwife, which I love.

  30. I enjoy Laura Resnick’s series which features a nice actress/singer who does not go around stabbing people much. But I think the tough enough stuff comes from what you’ve touched on before — the discomfort with women’s pov’s, specifically the belief that women authors writing about women are obsessed with sex and romance. Even kick-ass females like Harrison’s Rachel Morgan and such are complained about because they notice that males they encounter are good-looking and sexy. Male leads do this too with women characters all the time — but that’s the default, we’re all used to it and so it does not bother readers on average and they’ll downplay it if you point it out. But a woman who is giving a female perspective on attractiveness, hetero and/or homosexual, is discomforting and reinforces the stereotype that the heroine’s love life is all the books are about. (I’ve gone 10 rounds with male online pals that the claim that Patricia Briggs is more romance obsessed than Jim Butcher, for instance, is based almost entirely on this concept.) And there is a fear for some that this “feminization” and romancing will infect fantasy fiction and take over (girl cooties.)

    So what most readers are comfortable with is a woman who is operating by violence (supposed male trait,) as soldiers, and dealing with male concerns of a military nature — not the minivan, getting kids to soccer practice, having “us” time with the vampire boyfriend, working at a boring, non-computer game job, etc. — not anything that might lead to the “feminine” world of domesticity, relationships, women’s sex drives, jobs considered feminine, and all those icky women’s feelings. Stabbing things is safe. Careful discussion and empathy like Yeine shows are okay in a guy, but in a woman lead, makes some readers uncomfortable.

    But while the woman can stab things and be powerful, she also should not be too good at too many things. There are a contingent of fans, mostly male, who believe there really is no realistic way in a pre-gun setting that a woman could be an effective fighter against men, despite historic examples. So even if you had Yeine stab more, then you’d still run into claims that she was not realistic because of it.

    I think these attitudes do change over time, and do through variety. If readers run into a story they really like, then they’ll champion that female character as the glorious “exception” to their previous complaints, and having opened the door to the idea, their views do adjust.

  31. Waaahhh… Nora-sama, you’ve done it again!!! As always, you’ve perfectly encompassed the vast scope of a social injustice that bugs the heck out of me and summed it up with beautiful coherency. All I can say is, I’m so glad you’re out here fighting the good fight for those of us who couldn’t do it nearly as well!

    I agree about the need for a greater scope of “strong female characters,” because it’s especially true in American fantasy that “strong female character” has now become its own sort of archetype, and it’s just as blah as any other stereotype, particularly because a lot of writers (both male and female), who feel they *ought* to include such a character, do so without really understanding them, and therefore, hasten the archetype to its flat, dismal, unpopular end in SFF culture. It’d be cool to see housewives featured as major (and somehow, powerful) characters in SFF as well, but I actually think we’re still in need of the butt-kicking types–at least, ones that are REALLY effective.

    Have you seen NARUTO? That friggin’ show… I love the rival action, but have you noticed the women in that series are *particularly* ineffective? No matter what age or rank or purported skill-level, they ALWAYS LOSE. @_@ It’s like Kishimoto can’t stand the thought of a female beating a male. Ugh. But anyway, superficially, it *looks* like there are lots of “strong female characters” in NARUTO, but since not a single one of them can actually bring it when push comes to shove, I feel like the kids who read that series are subliminally being told that women are ineffective, even the “strong” ones aren’t really going to do you any good in the end, and even out of the realm of fighting, will only be wishy-washy figureheads at best, and whining, lovesick morons at worst. =__=

    Which is why I’m glad to hear about YNS–I’d seen it before in the manga section but I thought it was a standard reverse harem-type manga and didn’t pick it up. Definitely will now!

    Speaking of surprisingly strong women, Sunako reminds me of the main chara of this other manga (that I translated, incidentally ;-D) called Maid Sama! by Hiro Fujiwara. The moral of the story is a little less clean-cut than YNS’s, it sounds like, but I enjoy how the title character–despite being forced to work as a maid in a maid cafe–is like the Anti-Moe Heroine. As one reviewer put it, “she beats everyone up–not in a cute way, but in a demonic way.” Awesome. I’d love to see more “less obvious strong women” heroines like Misaki and Sunako.

    Thanks again for a fantastic and thoughtful read!

  32. From today’s AP article on Japan’s new World Cup Champions:

    “The women’s side goes by the name “Nadeshiko,” after a mountain flower thought to be a symbol of femininity in traditional Japanese culture.”

  33. Love the Yamato Nadeshiko shoutout (and Izumi Curtis! XD).

    I don’t think there was a single thing I didn’t agree with, or haven’t been struggling with myself in my own writing. Here’s to a future full of interesting characters and a deeper approach to both femininity and masculinity (and being-a-person-ity).

  34. I read your first 2 books in the Inheritance Trilogy (eagerly awaiting the 3rd) and I thought all your characters were true to form. Both male and female characters did the best with what they had and some of them grew due to their experiences. I really enjoyed your post about female roles and I look forward to more writers (both men and women) taking a cue from you.

  35. I always found it interesting that myself and my best friend in high school, 2 honors students and generally competent, active girls, both really wanted to be housewives (I have a househusband right now. Go fig.)

    Also? Fantasy-like novel staring a housewife: the ongoing webseries Tapestry – http://wysteriaclimbing.com/tapestry/

  36. I am so glad to see that I’m not the only one bothered by a lot of the “strong” female character trends of the past few decades. I’ve written about it as well. I’m still trying to feel out the idea, get a sense of what feels right. Not so much by gender-roles as you concentrated on in your post, but broader than that.

    I see the search for strong female characters more as our search for our woman’s place in the world. Like children growing up (dependent) and becoming adolescents (completely independent of men or anyone else for that matter) trying to assert ourselves–often in a rather antagonistic, rebellious, overly assertive way–we just don’t know what strong is supposed to look like. We don’t have very many good role models. In literature, in films, in our society.

    We shouldn’t have to loudly prove our worth to anyone. We don’t need to prove in every fight that we can fight or do xyz just as well as men. And so on, and so forth.

    The ultimate strength of character is when you know yourself, your talents, skills, and weaknesses–and when you’re mature enough to recognize that you’re not the only one in the world, that men and women (individuals) have qualities that complement each other. We need to be comfortable enough with ourselves to be interdependent with each other. Then we can have strong female characters–women that are truly strong, not overcompensating for a hidden inferiority complex.

    I am in the middle of reading your work and was very pleased to discover you’re thinking this topic through as well. Yeine is great. Add my voice of gratitude that you understand where true strength of character lies.

  37. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you for a great post, I’m sharing it with all my friends.

  38. “Here’s the problem with this wholesale rejection of both societally-imposed and self-chosen “typical” women’s behaviors — in the end, it amounts to a rejection of nearly all things feminine. And that’s definitely not good for women.”

    – Have you read Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl? Her basic point is exactly this: derision directed at femininity (in women or men, cis or trans) is simply misogyny in a more socially acceptable outlet. It’s a great read.

  39. Thank you for this – as a stay-at-home mom who also considers herself a feminist, this is something I really struggle with personally. I grew up assuming I would have a “career”, because in the environment I was raised in it was pretty much assumed (though not explicitly stated) that smart, progressive women have careers.

    I love and value what I do, but when I meet people from my life pre-kids, I realize I’m embarrassed to tell them what I do.

    Re: housewife heroines: Science fiction, not fantasy, but what about Ekaterin in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Komarr”? Also, though not American, Jo Walton’s “Lifelode” is excellent.

  40. Diana Gabaldon, though shelved in the romance section really wrote a Historical/Fantasy/Sci-fi/Romance disguised as a Romance. The character in that is married.

    I would name Michelle West as a PoC that has married women in critical roles, but she’s Canadian, so that’s clearly cheating.

    That would also cut out Morgan Llewellyn, though she writes predominantly from a male PoV, she write about strong women through the men’s eyes and how they live u to being equals. Women of all types sizes and shapes. But that’s still cheating.

    Then there is the YA series, Juniper and Wise Child by Monica Furlong, but she’s not living and she was from England. To me it’s the visceral reaction of loving Laura Ingalls Wilder and finding there are herbs and magic behind it. If you want a story about the power of house and home, this underscores it several times over.

    Then there is Mermaid Song–which is super rare (I.e. hard to find), and features a strong well–merwoman. Alida Van Gores, but she died early (cancer). Though the main character isn’t married, she still holds her own against the men and isn’t defined in her femininity by wielding around a sword or waving a hanky in the wind–well water in this case. She’s no Xena, yet succeeds beautifully in probably the best mermaid story I’ve ever read.

    Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan has a woman who isn’t particularly good at fighting go against a society that is anti-woman, anti-her class, and pretty much defeats the society. Mental strength is the major theme, though there is some heavy Christianity laced into the theming. But Sherryl Jordan is Australian, I believe.

    The other two I would think of are Melanie Rawn and Patricia Wrede, but they haven’t written a lot recently in the realm you’re thinking of. Mageborn series by Rawn turns gender definitions on its head, making men subservient to women, and quite a few married, but it’s a different power dynamic. And Wrede in her lesser known Lyra series deals with a warrior that also tries to keep her femininity–though it’s a weaker example.

    Jane Yolen, is British, so doesn’t count, but one of her main characters spends most of the book married. The Great Alta.

    And then there were two novella by Paolo Bacigalupi / Tobias Buckell that cover women that are neither in the tower or butt kicking. #149 I Should be Writing 32:00 minutes in. (Tobias) mentions the dilemma of the Heinlein babe or the buxom warrior.

    I think the problem is that women are being boxed into “strength” in masculine terms of society. That’s usually determined by short-term physical strength, or physical strength period.

    But women have often been built for endurance. ^_^ The joke goes, men are built for the *cough* sprint *cough* and women are built for the marathon (having a baby). The problem is that people are focused on the sprint, rather than the marathon and then asking how the marathon could be the sprint.

    Oddly enough I’ve seen more strong women on women’s terms in Asian media than in US media which tends to polarize their women as either being the babe in the tower or the Xena with the boobs in a really tight (often Red Sonya-like) suit. Yet the US criticizes East Asia (well, to be honest most of the Asian countries) as not being “feminist” enough. But after seeing some really strong Bollywood heroines, mentally strong Japanese women, take-no-prisoners-son-you’re-not-leaving-the-house Koreans, and some really dynamic Taiwanese and Chinese women… I can’t agree anymore. It also kind of ticks me off to see women snub other women in other cultures as being ignorant about feminism and then impose their own beliefs about how feminism in that country should be run when they haven’t even lived as a woman in that country for one minute.

    Which is why my current project has a girl running towards a betrothal, several women, and features heavily all that so-called icky women’s stuff, say like politics, running the local religion, making clothes, running a household while your husband is gone, dealing with marriage and dealing with having children during all of that to secure oneself in the political structure. Historically accurate BTW, that women used to have that much power. In India, some people think that women ran all of the shrines and religious ceremonies. And after reading about how Chinese women dominated men with gossip, it changed my mind about the power of being a woman in an oppressive society as being a position of “weakness”. It’s the shift to agriculturalism that takes away a fair amount of power.

    We definitely can do better.

  41. @Rachel — Jane Yolen has a home in Scotland, but she’s not British: she’s a US citizen born in New York.

  42. Most of the feminine characters I encounter must first be compared to my mother, the retired peace officer. When I was young, I helped her clean her gun belt and launder her uniforms, and it was impressed upon me that there was nothing more stupid than a drunk driver, which she took a lot of pride in catching before they got into an accident. In her autumn years, she still isn’t very feminine by most cultural standards, so I don’t imagine many women being feminine as a result – it is something some people do, but it takes work and patience.

    This comparison, which most everyone can perform, reinforced the notion of variety, because everyone’s mother was different. If the projenitors of the characters could use the subtleties present in their own experience, we’d have a wider range by now. But is an individual more accessible than an archetype? You name a few above that I am also familiar with – the mary sue, the ice queen, the she-man, and the femme fatale are all iconic and so comprise the lazy ways to portray a female character. However, this happens a lot (though not as completely) with male characters as well. It’s refreshing to be introduced to characters with nuance, but when the summer blockbusters and new york times best-sellers must maintain their yearly quotas, I doubt anyone will take the time when a few easy, cultural-charged icons are available. Therefore, it is up to the alternative and foreign markets to introduce more nuanced characters that require more craft to make relatable, and it is almost nice that the range of female characters is so limited as this makes the task straightforward.

    -FW

  43. I agree that there need to be more roles for strong women in literature, and since I really like the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I hope you will be writing some of those books ^.^

Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

Read Sample Chapter 1


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