You know, lots of people have written about fantasy women. Most probably better than I can. But I’m going to give it a go anyways.
Fantasy has a problem with women.
THE token (or Tolkien?) books in the fantasy genre (Hobbit and LOTR, of course) are, unfortunately, the worst offenders.
The Hobbit does not have a female character. I don’t mean a female character with a speaking role. I mean there are NO females in the book (at least not explicitly stated, other than “townspeople” and “elves,” which could presumably contain some womenfolk).
The Lord of the Rings does slightly better by having Eowyn and, unforgettably, Galadriel, but no one else of interest. No women in the fellowship. The story’s protagonist is either Frodo or Aragorn. Much of Eowyn’s character development happens in her acceptance of Aragorn’s rejection, and the growth of her love for Faramir instead. Aside from them, there is only Arwen (who says almost nothing and does literally nothing but marry Aragorn) and Ioreth, who gabs on and on in the Houses of Healing, prompting Gandalf to tell her to shut the hell up and get back to work.
It’s tempting to give these books a pass because “it was a different time,” but let’s not. Let’s instead recognize that, regardless of the circumstances, these books set a standard that the genre would have a difficult time breaking free from for decades.
The Wheel of Time series does better — it includes women, at least. However, let’s be honest: most of them kind of suck. We’ve got three of them who are completely obsessed and in love with the main character (this seems to be their predominant character trait). And I stopped reading this series in the middle of book six after being subjected to several hundred pages of not much action, but a lot of bickering between three girls who were stupid, vapid, consumed by trivialities and frankly, totally unsympathetic. Even one of the better Aes Sedai characters, upon meeting a mysterious, tall, handsome swordsman, became infatuated with his body and his “strong hands.”
The Sword of Truth series had Kahlan, who, admittedly, was badass. A great character, a strong character, and less defined by her relationship to Richard than by her desire to lead her kingdom to peace and prosperity. Perhaps at times she valued love more than duty, but so did Richard. Still, women were underrepresented in the series as a whole, with the Mord-Sith being both the best example of other, interesting female characters, and at the same time a pretty transparent appeal to male fantasy with their skintight leather costumes and BDSM-fetish-like group personality.
It breaks my heart to say it, but the Kingkiller Chronicles don’t do great in this regard. My favorite fantasy series of the last little long while, and yet very, very lacking in interesting female characters free from strong observable patriarchal influence. The biggest female character in the series is Denna, whose “patron” beats and whips her to see how far he can go before she leaves and he must coax her back to him. A poignant telling of a physically abusive relationship, but hardly the stuff of female role models (as opposed to, say, Kvothe, who even I want to be like). After Denna we have Felurian. I do not need to say more to anyone who has read the series, but in case you haven’t, let’s just say that Felurian is the ultimate male sexual fantasy, put there entirely for the benefit of Kvothe, and leave it at that.
Game of Thrones (or pedantically, the Song of Ice and Fire series) probably does the best job. You’ve got your Cersei, a truly terrible woman made redeemable only by her undying love of her children. A sexual fantasy of many, yes, but a woman who uses that to her advantage. She wouldn’t be enough, but you’ve also got your Brienne, the embodiment of the “I can do anything men can do better.” Possibly the best warrior in Westeros after Jamie…well, spoilers. BUT ON TOP OF THAT you’ve got your Arya who, while suffering from a slow storyline, is yet extremely interesting, driven and well-developed, your Asha Greyjoy, a viable contender for her father’s throne, your Sand Vipers (spoilers?) and a host of other, more minor characters. Good on you, George R. R. Martin, although I wish you didn’t feel the need to increase the already impressive presence of rape between your books and your show.
Still, that’s one series out of five. And among the rest of the genre, the ratio is probably worse.
Fantasy art has a much, much worse track record, which has been getting a lot of attention online. Don’t get me started on female armor like that girl on the right at the top of this post. At least, with the girl on the left, we can imagine she’s wearing something somewhat practical (unfortunately I saw the rest of the photos from that shoot on the stock footage site. She isn’t).
So yes. It’s safe to say the genre has a problem. It’s a debatable point (and probably an important one) whether the problem is bigger in the fantasy genre, or in the world in general. But regardless, it’s a problem.
So why is this? Why don’t we have more stories where the women hold equal footing with men? Where there are as many female characters as male characters, as many INTERESTING female characters as interesting male characters? Why are women often queens, noblewomen, or else hyper-fantasized superwarriors whose main characteristic seems to be how badass they are, despite usually being heavily reliant on a man in a romantic sense?
Why don’t women stand on equal ground with men in fantasy?
You’ll often hear that, “Well, obviously, men and women weren’t treated as equals in those times.”
IN WHAT FUCKING TIMES, BITCH?
Here is a map of Westeros:
You know what I do not see on that map?
Earth has never looked like this. Westeros is not Earth. Neither is Middle-Earth, nor any of the other worlds in which our favorite fantasy series take place.
That means that “those times” is necessarily a faulty statement. You’re referring to “Earth times” and saying that OUR PAST is the only past that could ever exist, in any society, anywhere.
We accept without question that these worlds have magic, elves, dragons, creatures of folklore and fairy tale. Do you think readers would really, truly struggle with women who hold an equal role in society with men?
Why are so many fantasy series based on Arthur-like derivatives, and none on Joan of Arc?
Even WITHOUT that in mind, let’s say you do have to adhere to patriarchal standards of Earth’s past. Does that mean we can’t create characters who are interesting in their own right, even if unequal?
Because we shouldn’t limit ourselves to badass warriors. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to manipulative, power-hungry monarchs. We should create more characters who are clever instead of colossal. We have a wealth of smart, quick-witted male protagonists who solve their problems with intelligence and aplomb. Maybe they’re “the chosen one,” too, but they prefer to use their minds rather than wade into battle on the strength of prophecy, burning everyone around them in hellfire.
Harry Potter is a great example. Percy Jackson, to a lesser degree. Ang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, depending on what you call “fantasy.”
This, of course, is one of the things I’m trying to address with my series Nightblade (and, to a lesser extent, the Realm Keepers series).
But in both of these big fantasy series, I’ve felt the need to feature women protagonists, rather than one man and one woman. Because fantasy seems worse than sci-fi or horror or DEFINITELY young adult at creating compelling, interesting female protagonists.
There are two ways to improve women in fiction and in fantasy. One method (Martin’s method, probably) posits that yes, women are generally considered subservient to their husbands, but allows them to grow beyond that. The rules grow more lax than the real world, or one woman breaks through the “glass ceiling” and makes it easier for the rest of them.
The other method is to just…have women be equal.
In science fiction, we can just put people in space. We don’t need to explain every time how they got there, what technological breakthrough put man out among the stars. We name the engine a “warp drive” and that’s that. In horror, we don’t need to explain why ghosts are real when in the real world, they’re fictional. It’s an assumed part of the story.
What does it say about society that we must explain WHY women in fantasy can stand on equal ground with men?
We are creating these worlds. We are making them up. We are God. We can do whatever we want, and we can imagine a world where what dangles (or doesn’t) between your legs has no effect on your opportunities in life.
Speculative fiction is just that: “What if the world were THIS way?” We do it with technology and magic all the time. Why not women?
Does this mean they can’t wear dresses or gowns? No. Dresses and gowns are not inherently “less.” Makeup is not inherently “less.” Riding sidesaddle is not inherently “less.”
Only societal standards and the way people are treated make them “less.”
So whether you imagine a world somewhat like our own, where women can yet be full, complex individuals with the same goals and dreams as men, or whether you imagine a society that never adopted the bullshit idea that they don’t, please, let’s all of us stop imagining that women in fantasy must be treated one way.
I think it is changing. I think it needs to change faster. It will only change if writers write different books and if readers actively seek them out.
I have a part to play in that change. So do you. Let’s make it happen.