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An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (4, a.k.a., The Women in “Mad Men” Should Have it So Good…)

3.17.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.10: Women in Epic Fantasy (3, a.k.a, The Women in “Mad Men” Should Have it So Good…)

Fritz Leiber, "Swords against Death," Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Fritz Leiber, Swords against Death, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser (art by Jeffrey Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Good Afternoon, Everybody!

Mad Men (AMC)

Mad Men (AMC)

January Jones, Christina Hendricks, & Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men

January Jones, Christina Hendricks, & Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men

This past week Sophia & I played catch-up on some television series via Netflix and began Season One of AMC’s Mad Men.  When I wasn’t stopping Sophia from lunging at the screen or muttering about the failings of my gender, I thought about how the themes introduced in Mad Men (misogyny, adultery, objectification, etc) parallel not only the 1960s American culture of the series, but also some essential problems with parts of the epic fantasy genre’s depiction of women for the past sixty years (since Tolkien’s works became truly popular in the 1950s and 1960s & until his death in 1973).

Edgar Rice Burroughs, "John Carter & Dejah Thoris" (art by Frank Frazetta)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, “John Carter & Dejah Thoris” (art by Frank Frazetta)

Robert E. Howard, Conan the Adventurer (art by Frank Frazetta)

Robert E. Howard, Conan the Adventurer (art by Frank Frazetta)

Besides Tolkien & Lewis, my first introductions to epic fantasy back in the 1970s and 1980s included the “sword and sorcery” and “pulp” parts of the genre, stories such as the Conan books of Robert E. Howard (d. 1936), the Barsoom series of Edgar Rice Burroughs (d. 1950), and the Lankhmar books of Fritz Leiber (d. 1992). At the time I also was very much into everything Stephen King (Salem’s Lot, The Stand, The Shining, The Gunslinger, etc), an author whose autobiographical Danse Macabre sent me rushing to the bookstore to find all that I could of the “cosmic horror” genre of H.P. Lovecraft (d. 1937).

Stephen King, The Gunslinger; Book One of The Dark Tower series (art by Michael Whelan)

Stephen King, The Gunslinger; Book One of The Dark Tower series (art by Michael Whelan)

H.P. Lovecraft, "Shoggoth" (art by Craig J. Spearing)

H.P. Lovecraft, “Shoggoth” (art by Craig J. Spearing)

As a teenager (yes, as I begin this reminiscence & critique of the genre, let’s remember that time of life shall we?), what captivated me about authors such as Howard, Burroughs, Leiber, Lovecraft, and King were that their stories were, respectively, the faux-medieval wanderings of Conan, the off-planetary adventures of John Carter, the bizarre otherworldly demons & mindscapes of Lovecraft, and the camaraderie and adventures of Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, and, in the case of The Gunslinger, a medieval epic quest cum Western cum Sci-Fi/Fantasy epic.

Red Sonja #1 (1977, art by Howard Chaykin)

Red Sonja #1 (1977, art by Howard Chaykin)

What I didn’t realize was that just as Tolkien & Lewis had created an fantasy genre in the 1930s through 1950s that mostly ignored or marginalized female roles (& characters), another generation was waiting to recast those epic fantasists’ works into a decidedly negative spin that introduced a profusion of women across a spectrum of literary & comic book genres that was completely at odds with the current of the times and the force of history with regard to the continual battle for women’s rights & fight for dignity in their depictions in popular culture.

Terry Goodkind, Wizard's First Rule (art by Doug Beekman)

Terry Goodkind, Wizard’s First Rule (art by Doug Beekman)

John Norman, Tarnsman of Gor (art by Boris Vallejo)

John Norman, Tarnsman of Gor (art by Boris Vallejo)

That is, just as the women’s and feminist movement was beginning to pick up steam and gain popular support in the U.S., a new generation of epic fantasy writers were imagining worlds and stories where women were just as much captives, slaves, and S&M models as their Victorian-era predecessors could have ever imagined; in fact, the depictions were decidedly worse, because by endowing a female with the name of “main character,” certain authors felt that such prominent featuring of women as protagonists or antagonists meant carte blanche to depict women in ways that weren’t realistic or complimentary at all!  Ways that would make the treatment of women in any episode of Mad Men seem tame in comparison…

Next time: Surveying the Dark Side of Epic Fantasy’s Depiction of Women 

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