An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (9, Women’s Treatment in Epic Fantasy of the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries)
An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (9, Women’s Treatment in Epic Fantasy of the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries)
Good Afternoon, Everyone:
To continue from Tuesday, I’m giving some final thoughts on the presentation of women in the epic fantasy genre & using Bram Dijkstra’s art-historical book, Idols of Perversion: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture as a template to compare & contrast how far we’ve come (or regressed) in depictions of women.
Back in the latter 20th century, the problems with the depiction of women in epic fantasy paralleled what was happening in comic books at the time; that is, in the 1970s, there were a host of females given their own comics, but that didn’t necessarily mean that their roles went beyond a version of 19th century hyper-sexualized fantasy types. In addition to the names of these females — Tigra the Werecat, Satana the Devil’s Daughter, Shanna the She-Devil, Hellcat, Vampirella, et al — any personality or role that the women served as characters inevitably were secondary to the clothing worn (or lack thereof).
(Note: The continuity of Victorian Age male fantasy/fears continues in the present. Compare the figure of Troudouze’s “Salomé Triumphant” in the 1886 painting (left) to Frank Cho’s 2008 rendition “Tigra” (right), a Marvel Comics character created in the 1970s; in the first, we have a temptress with a “come hither” look whose face is right beside a mask of a jungle cat, and in the second, the woman herself has become the predatory tiger.)
Comic-book and epic fantasy creators from the mid-20th century to present too often remained fixed within Victorian types, and all done with something of a smoke-and-mirrors trick; that is, in comic books & pulp novels, by creating a female version of Conan the Barbarian in the guise of Red Sonja, one could argue (and many did) that the mere presence of a “female lead protagonist” evened the epic fantasy playing field.
During that era, Wendy Pini certainly seemed a representation of that ethos, proving that a woman could enjoy sword-and-sorcery interests and maintain a well-regarded reputation as a comic creator and businessperson. That is, while she was one of the earliest cosplayers at comic-book & sci-fi conventions dressed as Sonja, she also contributed to the comic book medium & fan culture (with husband Richard) in the long-running Elfquest series. Given that sort of framework, an argument by pulp-era fantasy enthusiasts might run “how could women possibly complain about not having a presence in the genre, if Red Sonja’s now a major cultural presence, fighting the good fight in her armored bikini?”
I’d answer that a woman could still complain plenty! Be the issue “access” to a job, or representation in a literary genre, equal-opportunity is more than just having a place at the table; it’s what one is able to do within the definition allotted by others within an industry, and ensuring that any definition is based on performance and ability, and not preconceived expectations or bias. Unfortunately, we still seem to be in an era where the presentation of women in epic fantasy hasn’t matured past Victorian/pulp/197os norms. And, yes, to forestall protests about these examples, I do understand that Red Sonja and Shanna’s bikini variations might be considered “equal” female analogues to Conan & Kazar’s loin-cloth togs, but when we look at the broader contexts of comic books and epic fantasy in the present day, I’d still stand by the assertion that we’ve a long way to go in presenting “heroic” characters of both sexes that don’t rely on pin-up body types or clothing.
Getting back to epic fantasy, inarguably more women in the 1970s through 1990s did begin to appear in creator roles (novelists & comics) and as characters across all sub-genres of “fantasy” since the days of Tolkien and Lewis, but so too did there continue the abuses of gender portrayals. These ranged from visual stereotypes (females presented superficially as beautiful, ugly, or a hyper-sexualized fantasy images), to one-dimensionality (female character as part of descriptive backdrop, with no personality or character arc), to gender-based cliché (princess waiting for a prince, victimized wife / mother / daughter / sister, untouchable goddess, wise & good or conniving & evil witch), to, finally, females literally or figuratively portrayed as a males in all but name and biology (the Amazonian heroine, swords-women, girls disguised as boys, barbarian queen).
As with any creative expression worthy of critical evaluation, literature of all kinds ought to reveal aspects of the human condition through entertainment, engaging the reader in a way that lingers long after a book or short story is put back on the shelf or an e-reader’s screen goes dark. I’m not a prude, but by my early twenties — and especially after the eye-opening experience of reading Bram Dijkstra in that Romantic Literature class — I realized that one didn’t have to have any literary critical expertise to realize what made a good story: simply featuring a female in a novel did not bring “parity” between the sexes to the epic fantasy genre.
Indeed, there were a few authors from the 1960s through 1990s whose works introduced a plethora of females, but I simply couldn’t get into them because of recurrent themes of what I’d term “ennobled slavery” (John Norman’s Gor series), and the fetishized torture, rape, and sado-masochism that prevailed in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series.
Lastly, from the same era, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice books skirted the edges of all these themes, but I’ll admit that Martin is even-handed in his approach to the sexes: there aren’t many likable characters of either gender. In relation to the 19th century images from Dijkstra’s book, though, I’m inclined to follow Meghan Murphy’s assessment of Game of Thrones, the HBO television show based on Martin’s works: http://feministcurrent.com/7578/
For me, despite Martin’s assertions that he’s striving for a “historically” accurate rendering of a medieval world, many of Martin’s depictions of women & sexual violence align neither with what we’re learning about the medieval history of gender, nor with the literature I prefer to read. Moreover, defenses of his work in the blogs don’t really address the issue of “authorial discretion” that lies at the heart of any debate about issues of rape, sexual violence, and gender stereotypes in literature. That is, truly skilled writers can do much with “imagined space,” and letting the reader’s own imagination follow a horrible scene through to its end.
You don’t have to show every explicit moment in a story. If you do, and that depiction is sensationalistic and exploitative, call it what it is: porn, S&M, etc., but don’t call it epic fantasy. Don’t call a bondage fetish that’s existed in depictions of women since the 19th century something like an “equal depiction of prisoners” moment; that is, to paraphrase some of the blogs I’ve reviewed, don’t make a straw-man defense of Joffrey’s slaying of Ros in Game of Thrones (above right) along the lines that, “if a male prisoner were bound, no one would complain at the manner of his death.” And certainly don’t do it when making references to a book series and tv show where some of the scenes might make Emperor Nero wince (yes, in pic to right, that is a stallion’s heart the character “Daenerys” is eating in GoT; compare Daenerys’s moment to the Gueldry’s 1898 painting [above] where sick & invalid women line up to drink cups of slain oxen blood [to give them strength], and ask how far we’ve come as a society in depictions of women). As we’ve seen in the last few blogs, there exists a whole history of negative & inflammatory cultural encoding about women that shouldn’t be disregarded when crafting a story of filming a television series.Of course, a free marketplace allows for all kinds of entertainment, & if these kind of fantasy stories aren’t one’s cup of tea, a consumer can go elsewhere, pick another tv show, or read a different book. However, I’m still a fan and creator in the genre, and I’d really like to see epic fantasy along the lines I’ve charted in earlier blogs, where writers treat both female and male characters with a sense of depth and complexity, and a focus on story lines that still can startle and amaze, but not serve as a platform for the promotion of thinly disguised degradation and misogyny. In short, I’m decades older than my college days, and I now read a wide variety of the sub-fantasy genres that have emerged in the marketplace (urban, dystopian, steampunk, etc), but I still don’t go in for the pages-long descriptions of Mord-Sith tortures (women/men, women/women, etc.) that appear in Goodkind’s version of fantasy.
I don’t have any hard-fast rules for a new 21st epic fantasy, & this series of blogs on the genre has been an attempt to work out some essentials for the generations that have passed since J.R.R. Tolkien. As a writer and fan, I don’t want censorship nor imposed norms, but surely we can do better. Literature has been appreciated for centuries since the invention of the novel by societal & artistic critiques that are almost self-governing. An epic fantasy story should be obliged to meet the same criteria as any other respectable literature, otherwise we’ve made no gains in the genre since the pulp-days of the early 20th Century.
Thankfully, we’re entering a social media age where discussions and reactions are almost instantaneous, and the many female authors (and characters!) who populate the epic fantasy landscape offer me hope for the future. There’s a real demand in the marketplace for females who are fully realized heroes and villains, and not caricatures of these outmoded (yet still top-selling) types I’ve been discussing. “Old guard” ways of thinking rarely stand up to objective scrutiny in the blogs (even if millions of dollars are still flowing into films & tv shows that negatively portray women), and we can only keep trying to make sure that some of the abuses I’ve highlighted are potentially becoming part of our past. And yet …when thinking about some of the current offerings in the science-fiction and fantasy market, I have to wonder if that hope’s well-founded, and maybe you should, too. Last year’s firestorm that centered around the cover & dialogue between Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg of the Bulletin of Science Fiction Writer’s of America (SFWA) reveal that some of the 19th Century modes of thought about women haven’t completely evaporated. (I read the text, & agree with the observations Foz Meadows made in her blog (with weblinks & recaps) http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/)
There still seems a long way to go, but I’ve spent a lot of time in these epic-fantasy blogs offering ideas about how many great fantasy stories are currently being told. However, until we can look at each of the titles & subject areas in Bram Dijkstra’s Table of Contents (from Idols of Perversion) and definitively answer that those subjects aren’t relevant or present anymore, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Writers and fans ought to demand and seek out epic fantasy that doesn’t perpetuate Victorian Age male preoccupations & fantasies. How? A place to start might be checking out the images and titles from these past two blogs (https://ajcarlisle.wordpress.com/2014/03/25) and then ask yourself some hard questions as a creator or reader.
For example, are female characters in the stories you like depicted as a “type” (the household goddess)? Are females’ roles within the story “window dressing,” without substance or personality, and present in the story only to serve part of a plot? Does the female in the story you’re reading exist as a personality beyond stereotypes? When you read an epic fantasy that features women, do you sense a male author behind the words, or an agenda at work in the narrative (e.g., along the lines of “I’m only writing historically accurate fantasy fiction that depicts a male patriarchic society,” etc.)? Are depictions of sexual violence needful to tell the story, or could the same kind of narrative line be followed without exploitative prose? Finally, does the intrinsic worth of a hero or protagonist rely largely on the depredations and misogynistic expressions (physical & verbal) of the villain?
These are the kinds of questions that should be asked not only of epic fantasy, but of any work of literature; as creators and fans we don’t all have to be Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, or Bronte in rendering believable women, but why not strive toward that kind of wide canvas which allows for a veritable world of characters?
Only time will tell. I know in my little part of the sandbox, I’m trying to write women who I’d like to meet (or run from, if she’s a villain). We’ll just have to see if writers and fans in the epic fantasy world are willing to make the 19th Century Male Fantasies about women a relic of the distant past.
Next Time: Characterization in Epic Fantasy…Who are these People?