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 »