Saturday, 7 April 2012

Essay: On Women In Fantasy

Yes, yes, I know - all those acres of dead trees and terabytes of cyberspace already filled with thoughts on the subject, undoubtedly way more erudite than mine. What can I possibly add to the discussion? Well, not a lot, probably, but the more fantasy I read, the more these ideas swirl around my brain like smoke, so this is my way of clearing out the fog.

Women in fantasy: it's a fairly broad topic, but I'm going to look at three aspects. Firstly, women both read and write fantasy (contrary to popular belief). Secondly, there's the question of how women fit into the fantasy world created by the author. And thirdly, what roles do women play within fantasy stories. These last two are connected, of course.

Before I start, I should state, for the avoidance of doubt, that I take it as axiomatic that women are just as capable as men in virtually all areas. There are a few physical differences, of course. Women are equipped by nature to conceive, give birth and suckle babies. Men are equipped to piss standing up. Men are, on average, a bit taller and a bit stronger than women. And that's it. Anything beyond the basics is open to argument, because, even if differences are measurable, there's no knowing how much of that is innate and how much is due to cultural pressures. Are men really better at reading maps and fixing engines, or are they just taught to be? Are women inherently more interested in appearance and better with people, or is it just the way they've been brought up? Who knows.

So how much of fantasy is written by (and read by) women? That's another 'who knows' question. There are no definite numbers, and it's a fluid situation anyway - new authors come along all the time, published authors quietly stop writing and no one asks readers what gender they are. I checked the fantasy books I own, and 35% of the authors are female, as best I can tell. I don't deliberately seek out or avoid female authors, I simply buy books which catch my interest. Wikipedia lists around 450 fantasy authors (those well-known enough to merit their own page), and around a third are identifiably female. Lists of 'best of...' or 'top however many of...', on the other hand, tend to have a smaller proportion of female authors. One best 25 list had just 3, which is 12%. This may simply reflect the historical situation - when many of the classics of the genre were written, writing was seen as an activity for the leisured, educated classes, at that time mostly men.

There is a perception that fantasy is largely written (and read) by blokes. So is science fiction, the theory goes, and historical drama and hard-edged thrillers and the like, while the softer genres, like romances and cosy murder mysteries, are a female domain. One female author writes historical fiction and fantasy using a name with only initials, to disguise her gender, because of a belief that men won't read them if they knew the author was female; her romances, on the other hand, use her first name. One male author writes science fiction and fantasy with a full, male name; and he writes urban fantasy (the sort with a semi-clad weapon-toting female on the cover) using only initials. There is one fantasy author with a long list of published works whose gender is, even now, unknown. I have no idea how much author gender matters to readers, but if authors believe it matters, then it does.

I never used to think much about this, because my first and defining experience with fantasy was J R R Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'. There was fantasy before Tolkien, of course, and the whole long history of legends and sagas and myths and fairytales informed everything he wrote. Nevertheless, a great deal of what came after was based on his work, and it still influences the genre to this day.

There are three aspects of Tolkien's work which have become traditional in fantasy. Firstly, it's set in a world without much technology. There are water or wind powered mills for grinding corn, there may perhaps be printing presses, but that's about it. When Saruman industrialises Isengard and later inflicts a smaller version on the Shire, it's seen as a Very Bad Thing, covering the clean, fertile land with smoke, debris and pollution, and enslaving the population. There are stone-built towers and cities (often built in an earlier age, and with the aid of magic), and there are metal weapons and tools, but most construction and artifacts are primitive.

Secondly, Middle Earth is a much simpler place than the modern world. It's not the densely crowded, semi-urban and heavily agricultural land that the author actually lived in. Instead it's a vast empty wilderness, with pockets of civilisation dotted about, each essentially isolated from all the others. There are many thousands of years of history, full of wars and other troubles, but somehow it feels very static and unchanging, with no science and no progress towards improvement, stuck in a time-warp of primitive agriculture, albeit an idealised Victorian version rather than the medieval feudal system. And when trouble comes, it's a straightforwardly evil Dark Lord, rather than the complexities of clashing politics or religion or economics.

Then there is the role of women in Tolkien's world. They were there, of course, but relegated to bit parts - wives, daughters, barmaids and the like. It was the men who buckled up their swordbelts and sharpened their daggers and went off to war against Sauron (with just one exception, which I'll come to later). Curiously, virtually all the key players were nobility or outright royalty, something which is often forgotten, but this too is part of Tolkien's mid-twentieth-century English world, where events of tectonic political importance were always the province of the higher levels of society. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir - all were princes, kings or similar. Even the hobbits - Bilbo, Frodo, Merry and Pippin - were 'gentlehobbits', that is, wealthy enough not to have to work. Only Sam, Frodo's loyal-to-a-fault servant, was truly working class.

So it's not a surprise that the three main female characters were aristocratic too. Arwen is the archetypal princess, protected by her menfolk, beautiful, dangled like a peach as motivation for Aragorn (as if defeating Sauron wasn't motivation enough!) and then wheeled out as a marriage partner because, after all, he's the king, so he has to have heirs. You can see why Peter Jackson itched to put a sword in her hand in the film version.

Then there is Galadriel. Now she truly is a powerful woman, because she has one of the three elf rings, but she uses it in subtle, secretive ways here and there rather than getting on a horse and riding off to war flashing it (the elves are really a bit wimpy in the book, they leave most of the swordwork to the humans). She has a man to keep an eye on her, too (Celeborn) just in case we mistook her for a fully independent woman. And somehow the whole business with the mirror makes her seem like a bit of a scary witchy lady.

And so we come to Eowyn (the exception mentioned above). Eowyn gets to wear her sword and ride off to war with the men, and I have to admit that her confrontation with the Ringwraith ("No living man am I!") is one of the great moments of the book. But let's not forget that the main reason she decides to do this is because she has been spurned by Aragorn, who tells her she should stay at home and look after the women and children and old folk and leave the fighting to the men. That, right there, is a woman's dilemma in a nutshell: dull self-effacing duty while you hang about waiting for your man, or else go for personal glory and stuff the women and children. She chooses to die in battle, and it's possible to read into that an unsettling subtext: without a man, she might as well be dead (and let's not forget, she is only 'cured' of illness at the end of the book by accepting her wifely role in life). Still, whatever her motives, she turned out to be pretty nifty with a sword and single-handedly inspired a whole trope of dynamic fantasy warrior babes.

These three archetypes, the princess, the witch and the warrior babe, formed the backbone of women's roles in fantasy for decades. For men, the options were similar: warrior or knight, wizard, priest, prince or king. The working classes could be either gender, in theory (the merchant, thief, innkeeper, farmer and so on), but at all levels of society, it tended to be the men who carried the story forward, and women were a sideline.

Tolkien was, of course, only reflecting the ethos of his time. When he first went to Oxford to take his degree in 1911, women had no right to vote or be a member of Parliament, could study but not gain a degree, were constrained in owning or inheriting property, were barred from many professions, and were taxed as a unit with their husbands, allowing them no financial privacy (this last was not changed until 1990). Women were respected and treated gently, but were seen as unquestionably inferior - wives, secretaries, helpers, certainly, but weak and delicate, not fit for important work. Men were in charge - of nations, of businesses and industry, of religious practices, of hospitals, of their own homes.

When I first read 'Lord of the Rings' in the sixties, this situation had changed hardly at all. Women had by then gained the right to vote, stand for Parliament, to be awarded degrees and to control their own fertility, but were still second class citizens, subservient to fathers and husbands and male bosses amid a still patriarchal society. Even towards the end of Tolkien's life, the obscenity trial of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' in 1960 considered the question of whether it was a book a man would want his wife or servant to read (although the lawyer concerned was much derided for proposing it).

But from then onwards feminism took hold, women became more assertive and vocal, and equality became enshrined in law in Britain, as in many other Western countries. During this period, I read a lot of science fiction, and then baby and child-rearing books, then computer programming manuals, and eventually, when I finally regained the time to read as a hobby again, popular science books. It was only in 2010 that I came back to fantasy, after discovering George R R Martin's 'A Game of Thrones'.

For a while, I read uncritically. There had been changes in the genre since Tolkien's day, naturally. His charmingly bucolic and simple agricultural setting filled with noble lords and honest workers had given way to something darker. The established norm now was the medieval feudal system, with the countryside filled with ignorant, mud-bespattered peasants and towns and cities seething with lowlife: thieves, assassins, whores, drunks, rapists, pickpockets, gamblers and a whole lot worse besides. Tolkien's simple-minded but honest hobbits with their well-regulated Shire had given way to anarchy.

Now there's nothing in principle wrong with that, of course. Fantasy writers can find their inspiration where they will, and it was inevitable that there would be a reaction against the sweetness and light of the elves and hobbits and the noble warrior taking up his sword to defend the realm and rescue the princess. A little gritty realism was probably long overdue. Now, one of the notable features of the feudal system was that women were subordinate by law. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were owned by their fathers and husbands. They were dutiful daughters, staying at home, marrying a man chosen by their father, bearing him children to continue this process into the next generation. Women who fell outside this system also fell outside the law - they had no choice but to become whores or thieves, or opt out of society altogether as nuns.

It tends to be forgotten, however, that everyone was owned under the feudal system. A woman belonged to a man, but he in his turn belonged to the local landowner, who belonged to a greater lord, who himself belonged to the king, who answered ultimately to God. Serf and free man alike owed obligations of labour and time to their superior, who himself had responsibilities to protect them. In such a system, it was easier to deal with family units rather than individuals, and the man tended to be the head of the family and therefore its representative. Usually, the whole family worked together to run the farm, weave the cloth, make the furniture or whatever the family business was, but the man was the figurehead, responsible for public dealings. If he died without an adult son, however, his widow routinely inherited all his obligations and rights. She could take over the property, the business and the family. If he belonged to a guild, for instance, then his widow could take over his membership and train apprentices. It was a pragmatic recognition that she was an essential part of the family business, just as capable as her husband. [See footnote on historical realities]

I never thought much about all of this as I was reading. I soaked up fantasy like a sponge, and none of it seemed terribly far from Tolkien's vision: men ran the show, women were there on the sidelines as love interest, to be captured by the bad guys and rescued by the heroes, to tend the home fires as wives and mothers, and keep things going while the heroes save the world. Sometimes they appeared as witches, to cast evil spells or make dire prophecies. Motivation and plot devices, basically. Now, some fantasy did have female protagonists alongside the men, helping out with the business of saving the world, but as often as not they were a token gesture, or else they still fell into one of the three classic roles: princess, witch, warrior babe. Or whore. There are a surprising number of whores and concubines and the like in modern fantasy. And even when they were out there fighting alongside the men, they still often ended up as love interest, or got captured and had to be rescued. How often does a male character have to be rescued?

Still, it all seemed fairly normal to me. Fantasy is, after all, a backward-looking, traditionalist genre, so it's not that surprising that so many works are rooted in the medieval, and portray women in subservient roles. But then I read a sequence of books that made me stop and think. The first was Glenda Larke's Stormlord trilogy, in many ways a conventional fantasy, but outside the standard medieval backdrop, which had some wonderful independent-minded female characters who, when captured, managed to escape by themselves. Then there was Sue Rule's Shehaios trilogy, which was set in an egalitarian society, facing up to a more patriarchal one. And finally Andrea K Höst's Medair duology featured a female protagonist and a genuinely gender-neutral society and story.

And then, by contrast, I read Richard K Morgan's 'The Steel Remains', which could hardly be more different. It's set in an extreme form of the medieval feudal system, and virtually all the female characters encountered are whores, or sex slaves, or are simply promiscuous. There's also a mad witch, and a bossy mother (married off to a man she disliked at the age of thirteen). The only main character who is female is employed at the whim of the emperor, and although she has the potential to break out into independence, and has elements of warrior-babe-ness, she is still the token female. I cannot remember a single female in a normal, everyday role - an innkeeper, say, or middle-ranking servant. I enjoyed the book, on many different levels, and it was wonderful to see a main character who was openly gay, but the portrayal of female characters made me uneasy.

For the first time, I started to notice how women were portrayed in fantasy, and then it became impossible to read a book without noticing. In fact, when I re-read the first four books of Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Revelations prior to the release of the last two, I was struck by how helpless the women seemed, something that hadn't even occurred to me on the first read. Even when they were acting apparently on their own initiative, there was often a man (or a wizard!) behind the scenes manipulating things and setting the agenda. And inevitably they got captured and had to be rescued, made bad decisions or simply plot-related decisions, or else, like one character, gave up entirely and became catatonic for several books.

Now in all fairness, although they started at a ridiculously low point and climbed very erratically to reach a degree of autonomy, all the women did eventually end up as sensible human beings, acting intelligently without being prompted by a man. I have to say, too, that most people reading the books have no problem with the portrayal of women in them, and the author also disagrees with my assessment. But that's fine. I am simply stating my observations at the time.

It is a curious thing that while women in the real world have been steadily acquiring greater independence, in legal, financial and professional terms, in fantasy there seems to have been a trend away from that, and a retreat even from Tolkien's respectful if patronising attitude, towards something much more negative. I am not going to talk about agency, or the role of rape in fantasy, or misogyny, or whether there are differences between male and female authors - I don't have either the degree in feminist studies or the long list of already read fantasy to guide me. I can only talk about what I have personally noticed in the relatively modest number of fantasy books I've read to date, and wonder about it.

Firstly, there is the question of the types of society portrayed. In epic (or high) fantasy, the author has a completely free hand to invent whatever kind of world he or she likes. It is disappointing, therefore, that so many turn to some caricatured version of the European middle ages, complete with male primogeniture, arranged marriages, male-dominated religion and all the rest of it. And generally there are taverns with serving wenches and brothels and the emperor's harem, and all the usual paraphernalia. Maybe it's just laziness, who knows, but given that these authors can be endlessly creative with monsters and plot twists and magic systems, is it asking so much that they at least think about what sort of society they are creating, rather than regurgitating the whole cliché?

Then there are the roles women are playing in the story. This is not just a matter of character roles, like the princess, witch, warrior babe, whore and so on, but how they impact on the plot. Is the princess there for the hero to fall in love with, or is she actually moving her own armies around? Is the sorceress standing on the battlefield hurling spells at the enemy or even the enemy herself, or is she just required to spout the prophecy that initiates the hero's journey? Is the warrior babe actually fighting alongside the men, or is she there just to get injured or captured, and need to be rescued? And does she hang up her sword with relief when the men come along?

These two issues - of women's place in the created world, and the role they play in the story - are related, but they are not the same. It's perfectly possible for an author to create a traditional medieval world, and yet have female characters who are intelligent, spirited and act on their own initiative (which is to say, normal). Equally, the created world can be twelve kinds of awesome, and yet relegate women to no more than bit-parts designed to motivate the main characters (men). But it does seem to me that if an author starts with the idea that women are confined to passive roles and subordinate to men in their invented world, it's going to be that bit more challenging to make them act independently.

I've mentioned three examples above where I felt women were treated properly, all by female authors, and one, by a male author, which was different. I don't want to make any generalisations from that, or suggest that those four are particularly representative of their gender. There are male authors who write wonderful, fully autonomous female roles, Daniel Abraham, for one (in all his books). Chris Wooding's Braided Path trilogy had several good solid female roles, who drove the plot just as much as the men, if not more. George R R Martin manages to create females in his A Song Of Ice And Fire series who are every bit as devious, selfish and amoral as their male counterparts. And if you want examples of the reverse, of female authors writing submissive and subservient women, I would suggest a look at any number of paranormal romances, the popularity of which is unnerving evidence that a lot of women really like the idea of a creepy undead blood-sucking boyfriend. Eeww.

In contrast, the urban fantasy sub-genre is also becoming the natural home to one particular kind of feisty fantasy heroine, the semi-naked leather-clad young woman toting an array of guns and knives (according to the cover), who spends her life chasing down demons and ghouls and various not-really-human enemies. This may seem at first sight to be similar to the vampire-loving heroine, but in one kind the woman is often a victim, needing male help to survive, whereas in the other kind the woman is a kickass Buffy-style heroine, albeit with a (largely male) Scooby gang. A sort of ultra-warrior-babe, which is fine as long as she really is acting independently and not just following a male agenda, Charlie's-Angels-style.

It is perhaps significant that so many of these feisty women pop up in urban fantasy, which is mostly set in the present day, and not so much in epic or traditional fantasy, which usually has a low-technology, often historical, backdrop. In a modern setting, active, self-motivated women are a perfect fit, but virtually all historical settings, no matter the location or type of culture, tend to have the sort of hierarchical social structure which leaves women at the bottom of the rankings. This does make it more difficult to create female characters who act independently. A princess in such a society has to sit at home in her castle with her tapestry waiting for her prince to carry her off (so that she can spend the rest of her life in his castle with her tapestry, of course), so how is she supposed to go off on that quest to find the magic thingummybob? She can't do it without breaking away from the strictures of her society - becoming a rebel, in other words. Or else a bloke tells her to do it. It's not impossible for authors to find ways round the problem, but it takes some ingenuity.

From an author's point of view, it's a lot of bother to create a world in which women have true equality. There are a lot of details to be taken into account. Education, for instance - are boys and girls raised and taught equally? What about contraception and child-rearing - science fiction can remove reproduction from the equation altogether with futuristic technology, but fantasy can't assume such things. Then there's the matter of choice in sexuality, sex partners and pregnancy - how much freedom will women (and men) have in this created world? And - a big question - who looks after the children? Then there are working roles - will women have the right to maternity leave of some sort? And even without the issue of children, how much freedom will anyone, men and women alike, have to take on any job they feel drawn to? How do economic constraints affect things? Will they even be paid for their work? All these things need to be thought about, even if not every detail finds its way into the story. It's easy to understand why authors shy away from all that bother, and buy into a simple, easily-understood template, like the feudal system.

Yet it does seem strange to me that an author who will spend many hours devising (say) an intricate magic system, or multiple religions, or complex political tapestries, or a whole array of weird and wonderful non-human creatures, will spend no time at all thinking about the role of women in that created world. They will simply be dumped into the time-honoured roles - princess, witch, whore, warrior-babe. Sometimes this is deliberate, of course, as with Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Revelations series, where he set out from the start to create a very traditional type of fantasy, as a counterpoint to the newer gritty style. And sometimes an author will acknowledge the issue, but not want to divert too much attention away from the story, so there will be an occasional female guard (say) to demonstrate the gender neutrality of the created world. This is all fine - so long as an author has thought about the problem, and not simply bought mindlessly into the whole medieval subservient female scenario. Not every book has to have a gender-neutral society, and stories about global conflict and vast battling armies are going to be more towards the testosterone end of the spectrum anyway.

But fantasy has one major card up its sleeve for female equality, and that is magic. If a character can simply recite a spell or wave a wand or wiggle their fingers to unleash great powers, then there is no reason why the reciter or waver or wiggler shouldn't be a woman. And, unlike Galadriel, there is also no reason why she shouldn't be out there in the thick of the action. A witch (or sorceress or wizardess or female mage) can defend herself as well as her male counterpart, she can be just as aggressive if need be and she can leave all the sword-wielding to the men, if she wants to. As mentioned, powerful female characters with magical powers turn up in urban fantasy, set in the modern world, but they work just as well in more traditional fantasy too. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card for authors, because it allows them to create truly independent female characters while retaining the conventional medieval backdrop (if they want to).

The ultimate question is whether it really matters. The patriarchal society has been with us for millenia in virtually all cultures, so fantasy is only reflecting the real world, after all. Even in today's world, where many countries have enshrined equality in law, the reality is not quite like that, and there are still many countries which are unapologetically unequal. Fantasy doesn't even have to reflect the real world anyway; one of its virtues is precisely that it's an escape from reality. So perhaps there's no reason to agonise over it. Fantasy doesn't have to be an equal opportunities employer. No one is going to insist that every book has as many female as male characters, that a fantasy army is fifty percent female or that every evil witch is balanced by an evil wizard (or a good witch, for that matter). Authors have the creative right to tell their stories however they feel is best, even if that means that the troop of heroic questers is all male. It doesn't really matter, does it?

Everyone will take their own position on the question, but my own feeling is that, yes, it matters, at least in some areas. It matters that the proportion of male to female fantasy authors reflects the readers of the genre. It matters how women fit into a created world. It matters how women are incorporated into the story. No one would (or should) insist authors follow strict guidelines, but it matters that fantasy readers and authors and publishers are aware of the decisions they make, and ask themselves the difficult questions: why is this character male or female? would it matter if the gender was different? is that female character acting like a real woman would, or is she just there as support for the men? should the next book I read or review or publish be by a female author? And in the end, that is probably as much as we can expect at this point in history - that authors (and the rest of the publishing world) be aware of the pitfalls and consider their creative decisions with the greatest care.

I have to say that I think the future is quite rosy. Yes, there are plenty of dinosaurs around who think that women have no business writing fantasy (or anything else, for that matter). There are plenty of fantasy books filled with dynamic male protagonists and timid, helpless females, who only get active after they've been raped. There are plenty of fantasy books with virtually no women in them at all. But there are also shining beacons of hope, who write about real women acting intelligently and independently. There are bloggers and authors and readers discussing these subjects in depth. And there is, I believe, a whole generation coming into the fantasy field who regard gender equality as normal, who write wonderful stories with heroines who run businesses or countries, use magic adeptly, organise armies, educate themselves and others, have realistic relationships with men or women who respect them, and manage to raise families while doing it. Fantasy women are finally emerging from the high tower and the brothel and the kitchen, and taking their place alongside men. If you doubt that, you only have to look back to Tolkien and the others of his era, and compare that fantasy with the work of Höst and Larke and Rule and Abraham and many others. There's still a long way to go, but fantasy is getting there.

[A footnote on historical realities] I have not said much here about the historical accuracy of portrayals of the medieval period in fantasy, since it's not germane to my point - whether an author's chosen setting is true to history or not, there is still plenty of scope for women to be portrayed in a full range of characterisations, from fully independent to totally subservient, as their creator wishes. But author Daniel Abraham has an interesting blogpost on the subject here.


  1. Yes, yes, I know - all those acres of dead trees and terabytes of cyberspace already filled with thoughts on the subject, undoubtedly way more erudite than mine. What can I possibly add to the discussion? Well, not a lot, probably, but the more fantasy I read, the more these ideas swirl around my brain like smoke, so this is my way of clearing out the fog.

    You know, you should never appologise for writing an essay, especially such a great, intelligent analysis of women's role in fantasy books. NEVER.

    That, right there, is a woman's dilemma in a nutshell: dull self-effacing duty while you hang about waiting for your man, or else go for personal glory and stuff the women and children. She chooses to die in battle, and it's possible to read into that an unsettling subtext: without a man, she might as well be dead (and let's not forget, she is only 'cured' of illness at the end of the book by accepting her wifely role in life). Still, whatever her motives, she turned out to be pretty nifty with a sword and single-handedly inspired a whole trope of dynamic fantasy warrior babes.

    I loved this bit because it summarizes the role of Eowyn so well. Yes, most fantasy writers never go beyond the historical (or maybe even medieval) roles of women, even though they sometimes give them a sword or other weapon and allow to fight, at least temporarily, along the male leads. Sometimes I am more or less ok with that, sometimes it pisses me off, depending on other factors like the quality of writing, world building etc.

    Fantasy doesn't have to be an equal opportunities employer.

    Very true. But it is definitely more interesting if a fantasy novel breaks a mould here and there.

    Thanks once again for a great essay!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, I'm glad you enjoyed my ramblings (when I was writing this, I kept thinking - no one's ever going to bother reading all this right to the end, it's nice to know that someone did!).

    2. You are really too modest. You don't ramble - if you want to read real ramblings visit my blog ;p. And I tweeted your essay. It is really good and readable to the very end. I agree with you that we should make authors aware that we, the readers, pay attention how they treat female characters. After all women do read more and they should have more to say. There is no better way to communicate your wishes than writing such an essay.

  2. Hi Pauline
    I nearly cried with relief when I read this! Your post echoes very closely the thought process I've taken to developing the thesis topic for my Honours degree - I'm writing about the differences between male and female heroes' journeys in fantasy and how female heroes in patriachal fantasy worlds will always be confined to certain actions, roles, and representations. I'm advocating the creation of gender-equal fantasy worlds and attempting to write one myself - despite all the almost unthinkable difficulties and questions it entails. Your post is very cogent and well-reasoned and I'm very grateful for your mentions of Sue Rule and Andrea K Host - I have been seeking examples of truly gender-equal worlds and have been utterly unable to find them. I will look into those two ASAP!
    I'm so glad to have found your blog!

    1. Thanks for your comments. My ramblings are not nearly as erudite as a degree thesis - I'd really love to read your work when it's finished, so I hope you'll publish it somewhere on the web. There's a whole storm of debate (for want of a better word) going on at the moment about gender roles in fantasy, and misogyny, and agency, and such like, which I'm sure you're aware of. There's a lot of heat, but not much light, to it, and I think the whole subject needs to be examined coolly and objectively, away from the abuse and shouting that the internet inevitably engenders.

      Andrea K Host is a wonderful writer, and her Medair duology is a cracking read on every level. Sue Rule's work is more conventional, in some ways (she has a male protagonist for the first two books, for instance), but I liked the way she designed her egalitarian society as a communal agricultural/hunting arrangement, contrasted with a more patriarchal, Romanesque, society.

      Good luck with the thesis!

    2. Thanks for the reply, Pauline. I'll definitely put the thesis up online somewhere when it's done.

      You're right about 'a lot of heat, but not much light'. I'm finding threads and debates and posts on this topic all over the place but no one is saying much more than, 'Isn't this fantasy? Can't we just write women as equal?' The few examples of gender-equal worlds I've been pointed to have turned out to not be gender-equal at all - they start with rape scenes, or the language is intrinsically gendered, or it is set in a very clearly patriarchal world where some women are exceptional enough to stand beside men. It appears we all have very different ideas of what gender equality really means.

      However, I just read a couple of promising posts over at Andrea K Host's website, and the first few pages of Medair seem promising, so I'm hoping she's the example I've been looking for!

      If you can think of any other gender-equal worlds you've come across in your reading I'd be interested to hear about them!

    3. It's actually quite rare (in my experience) to find a totally gender-neutral world. There are an awful lot which have just bought into the patriarchal system, so that a 'strong female' character has to break away or rebel or abandon everything. Even in a non-patriarchal world, things tend to be tilted towards men, somehow. There are more male characters than female, or the lead characters are men, or there are kings and dukes. I think there is a huge unconscious bias in authors, so even when they *think* they're writing a strong female, they fall into the cliches - she has a rape in her background, or she's the evil witch, or she's a whore or a concubine or some such. Why, why, why are there so many whores in fantasy nowadays?

      Personally, I don't mind if the world itself is gender neutral or not, so long as the female characters act like real, normal women, and aren't just cliches or sex objects. There are quite a lot of authors (male and female) who write wonderful female characters.

      But if you want to find more truly gender equal worlds, I suggest you contact Andrea K Host direct, and ask her for a list of like-minded authors. I'm sure she has a network of friends who write similar stuff, and she seems like a nice lady who would help out.

  3. I know this is a very old post, but I've only just stumbled across it, and it's very thought-provoking. I have read all kinds of fantasy books, and the whole patriarchy-as-standard approach is so all-pervasive that I only notice it when a book deviates from that. In fact, I can only think of one fantasy book with a matriarchal society, and that is the Ambrai series by Melanie Rawn (which isn't even finished, annoyingly).

    I like to think that the tide is turning though, just like they are in romance. Thirty years ago all Mills & Boons heroines were 18 or 19-year-old virgins who were swept off their feet by some arrogant 35-year-old git, but these days everything is much more equal. It's not quite there yet, but that too is a reflection of real-life society, unfortunately.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, and old posts on blogs never quite go away, do they? This one still gets plenty of reads. I agree that things are definitely better than they used to be. And at least the subject is being discussed nowadays, and authors, reviewers and readers are beginning to look at the decisions they make.