Yes, I realize my post title looks a little like a thesis topic (save for the Talking Heads reference, hah!). And although I will be the first to dispel the often nebulous and detrimental highways and byways of literary criticism, I can’t be completely free of it.
But to the point. I am a woman, and a writer. And by and large, a lover of fantasy, science-fiction, steampunk, and a great many other genres and subgenres. Fantasy comes first, and always has, by way of Tolkien, Lewis, and L’Engle, with whom I attribute to saving my sanity as a child and, in many ways, showing me what I need to do with my life.
But I can’t help but feel altogether disappointed, most of the time, when it comes to women in fantasy. I think my first big disappointment came from Tolkien, really. Certainly, there is Eowyn; and Arwen and Galadriel wield their own powers well. But as far as the main characters in the story are concerned, there are no women–not in the fellowship, not from the Shire. Eowyn, the only woman that takes up a sword and fights has to disguise herself as a man to get any respect at all, and in the end, quietly marries and has done with it.
This “warrior-princess” role has been adopted as one of the main archetypes in fantasy fiction in the years after Tolkien, with its own adaptations. You can’t peruse the shelves at your local bookstore without the busty, iron-clad, berserker-haired shield maidens with less skin coverage than a garden-variety stripper. Oh, she’s sexy (if you’re into… that, I guess) and savvy, and she’ll fight as well as any man. But more than anything, she sells the books.
No, I don’t have a problem with women fighting. I also understand that the bias regarding women as warriors stems from age-old legends and myths; these are stories in which “men are men, and women are women” to put it to the old cliche. And that’s fine. But by and large, the sexist view of women as trollops is only bound to discredit fantasy as a genre even further.
What bothers me about women in fantasy is the tendency for authors to simply stop asking the hard questions. Women are very different than men; we face different issues growing up, and we even think differently (recent science has done some fascinating research into this area). For this reason women in fantasy tend to fall into the Arthurian dichotomy–either you’re like Morgan le Fay: an adulterous, evil-minded, conniving crazy woman, or you’re like Elaine: fragile and honorable, but damaged and idealistic. Of course, there are plenty of shades in between. I haven’t read everything, and I doubt I’ll get the chance to before I die–but you get my point.
This is all quite dangerous territory. And I don’t suppose I have a concrete answer; really, it’s a comment. I want more. I want more from heroines than dressing up as men and fighting; I want more of the conflicts and difficulties it takes being a woman; I want more writers to play with our heads, challenge our concepts about gender and sexuality. It seems in the realm of fantasy fiction that the possibilities would be endless! And yet, so much fantasy writing simply chases its tail around, being “familiar” and “expected” and, ahem, boring.
But, I guess chain mail bikinis sell books, right? And that’s what publishers want. So maybe if I ever want to get myself published I have to compromise a bit.
No, no. That won’t do. That won’t do at all!