Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Females in Fantasy and SF


R&D Studios

I went to a great workshop at the Romance Writers Conference where we covered characterisation. One of the things that came up was being sure to make the heroine worthy of the hero. We had to exercise our 'inner mother-in-law' to decide if she was good enough for him.

Then later at a panel of Paranormal and Dark Urban Fantasy writers with Denise Rossetti, Keri Arthur, Emily Gee and myself we were talking about how the heroines in these books are allowed to get away with a lot more than the heroines in mainstream books. They can take more than one lover and they don't have to deny their sexuality.

It made me realise that there is still a big divide in what we will let female characters get away with, compared to male characters.

Sarah Rees Brennan wrote a really good post on women in fiction here. Her section on 'Harry Potter and what if HP were really Harrie Potter, how would we feel about her?' confirmed this feeling. Her point was that we let male characters get away with a lot more than females. if you had a female character who was amazing good at everything and men were constantly throwing themselves at her, wouldn't you feel annoyed by this character? She cited James Bond as an example.

If it was a guy in the illustration above he would be wearing sensible furs, maybe with his chest bare. He certainly wouldn't be wearing the equivalent of a chain mail bikini.

In SF and fantasy are we creating female characters who are restrained by the gender limitations of our own society? What do you think?

24 comments:

Satima Flavell said...

Sadly, that's often what we are doing. A lot of it is due to the cover art, which can't be blamed on the author, but a lot of it is inherent in the writing. After nearly 50 years of feminism, we still have books that portray women as sex objects, first and foremost (and not all of them are written by men) and books that encourage unrealistic views of relationships. (I recently read one in which the couple swore undying love on the strength of a few internet chats and one night of passion!) We also see books that sport supposedly "strong women" - but they're only strong because they beat men at their own games. For heavens sake let's see a few books about women who don't wield swords but nonetheless show themselves to be brave, resilient and resourceful enough to overcome their obstacles, without ever being cute, manipulative or domineering.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Satima.

So true. We are all products of our time and we haven't really come that far in the last 50 years.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Interesting point, Rowena! Ironic, isn't it, that while an incredibly strong and capable male protagonist is an "Edward Cullen" or a "James Bond," an equally strong and capable female protagonist is simply a "Mary Sue."

Amanda Green said...

There is one series -- and I won't name it -- where the female main character could handle herself in what is normally viewed as a male field (or would be if this particular world existed). She was competent, good sense of humor, conflicted over certain aspects of her life, girly when it was appropriate and confident. Sex was present in the first books, but it wasn't the primary focus. Then, for some reason, the books changed and so did that main character. Sex has become the driving force of the books and, frankly, her driving force. If it's male, or even remotely male, she sleeps with it. Mixed in there somewhere is a bit of plot. But you have to work hard to find it.

This isn't the only series where this has happened. What gets to me about this series is written by a woman. Now, I'm not a militant women's libber. But I do have to wonder what a female author is thinking when she takes a main character who is strong and believable and likable and turns her into something that is nothing more than a caricature of what she'd once been. Such changes don't help put more strong, realistic female leads on the shelves and that's unfortunate. Worse is when the author refuses to take any responsibility on the change in her character. Sorry, but if the writer isn't responsible for what goes onto the written page, book after book, who is?

John Lambshead said...

Dear Amanda

I think i know the series. I loved the first few but the rest.....

John

Ori Pomerantz said...

In SF and fantasy are we creating female characters who are restrained by the gender limitations of our own society? What do you think?

Characters have to be believable and likable to their audience. This means they are culturally restricted beyond the ultimate limits of humanity. IIRC, John Lambshead said that when he wrote The Temple of Thorns he had to tone Perseus down to make him acceptable to a modern reader.

Beyond that, fifty years of feminism might alter a culture. But they won't erase five millennia of recorded history. They'll certainly not erase millions of years of evolution. It's possible that some gender roles are genetic, in which case you won't have believable human societies that don't have them, at least as conventions.

Anonymous said...

Satima Flavell said, "For heavens sake let's see a few books about women who don't wield swords but nonetheless show themselves to be brave, resilient and resourceful enough to overcome their obstacles, without ever being cute, manipulative or domineering."

I think Fawn from Bujold's Sharing Knife series counts. Yes, she's the less visible of the two partners but her husband, Dag, remarks very often how she helps him think in new ways and deal with some pretty overwhelming problems.

But your point is well taken- there aren't many others who aren't either (wo)men competing in a man's world (by today's standards if not those of the very future society they come from), are basically sex objects or very background secondary characters.

Come to think of it, I'm remembering a conversation I've had about video game characters or anime characters who are very often kind of effeminate looking teen-aged boys. Now part of it may be target audience (teenagers), but there seems to be some bias against males identifying with female characters but less so for females with males (at least in active things). Though my feeling about the effeminate part is because the designers have wised up to the fact that teen-aged girls like to play video games as well as teen-aged boys so want something that looks kind of in between genders so both groups can identify more.

"Lady" Dawn

matapam said...

As Ori said, millions of years of evolution have produced _us_. Our modern Western society has softened the relationship between genders, but it's brand new and still pinching a bit.

As writers we have to avoid raising too much of an ick factor and losing our readers, so we do have to heed cultural norms and break them only for specific effects.

For women with multiple sex partners, how does this work? Well, we could have a prostitute . . . but I'll bet readers want her to fall in love with only one man, and by the end of the book give up her career. We could have a Sorority Party Girl, but I'll bet the readers will expect her to fall in love with one, and only one, man and clean up her act.

I'm afraid though, that most sexual promiscuous female characters are more acceptable as the Bad Guy, or possibly a Comedic Side Kick. The Main Character, the one we're trying to get the reader to identify with has to be Good, in most senses of the word.

matapam said...

As Ori said, millions of years of evolution have produced _us_. Our modern Western society has softened the relationship between genders, but it's brand new and still pinching a bit.

As writers we have to avoid raising too much of an ick factor and losing our readers, so we do have to heed cultural norms and break them only for specific effects.

For women with multiple sex partners, how does this work? Well, we could have a prostitute . . . but I'll bet readers want her to fall in love with only one man, and by the end of the book give up her career. We could have a Sorority Party Girl, but I'll bet the readers will expect her to fall in love with one, and only one, man and clean up her act.

I'm afraid though, that most sexual promiscuous female characters are more acceptable as the Bad Guy, or possibly a Comedic Side Kick. The Main Character, the one we're trying to get the reader to identify with has to be Good, in most senses of the word.

Francis Turner said...

There is one heroine that I can think of in SF (and for that matter in pretty much any pigeonhole) who acts like a man sexually - Friday (by RAH). The book Friday is interesting for a shitload of reasons beyond the heroine but the heroine is IMO relevant to this topic because she ends up happily ever after with the men not the man.

Unfortunately even feminists get their knickers in a twist about her as I noted in a blogpost a few years back.

---

The problem with Fawn from TSK is that she's genetically unable to do the "groundwork" which is key to the books. I don't think it weakens LMB's idea but it does make it hard to see Fawn as more than a shadow. Even though her husband appreciates the spark of intuition/scientific experiment that leads her to ask the hard questions it is obvious that her world sees her as an adjunct of Dag rather than an individual in her own right.

On the other hand we have Meb of the Dragon's Ring. In fact I think there is some interesting comparisonto be made between Fi{o}nn/Meb and Dag/Fawn.

Kate said...

Of course we are, although probably not consciously. We all grow up with a set of basic assumptions about how the world works, and those are buried so deep in the subconscious we don't have any idea they even exist most of the time - unless you do something like I did, and move to another country.

Even though the US is a lot like Oz, there are still enough differences to trip me up over my assumptions and blind spots. Since writing is so personal, no matter what we do consciously, our subconscious assumptions are still going to leak out.

Without wanting to sound rancid feminist (as opposed to the common sense variety), I can't think of a single colloquial word for promiscuous female that has a positive connotation. For a male? Start with "stud" and work your way through the list.

At the same time, female characters have gotten a lot more assertive and competent, so there's progress. It's one of those shifts that takes multiple generations to work its way through into the collective subconscious.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Ori,

your point about the gender roles hit the nail on the head. I started to get into that and deleted it from my post because I thought it was going on too long.

For all the legislation we can't remove the fact that females grow human beings and without this ability the human race would cease to exist. Yet, females are treated abominably by all but the first world countries and even in those countries a woman is more likely to be murdered by her significant other, than a stranger.

And WHY do we have to keep apologizing for feminist comments? I just caught myself about to do it then.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, I know the series you mean. I LOVED the first four books.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Fawn, I must hunt up LMB's new books. I have all her old stuff.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, good point, we have to make our characters accessible to the contemporary reader.

But in our genre we should be able to push the boundaries, just a little.

Kate summed it up with the comment that if a guy is playing the field he's a Stud, if a girl does this she's a slut.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I can think of quite a few old sword and sorcery paperback covers with a male hero with rippling muscles clad only in a lion-skin loincloth - these guys always have big swords though :)

In terms of what appears in fiction - aren't the writers just delivering what the readers want? Both male and female?

Ian Flemming said of his character James Bond 'All men want to be him, and all women will want him'. He is pretty dated now, but there was probably some truth in this once.

Doesn't the promiscuous Bad Guy have appeal to both sexes?

What do you gals think of promiscuous females?

Anonymous said...

You need a better picture for your example: your choice of pictures is just bad. No, I can't imagine anyone--male or female--wearing armor like that.

But I also can't imagine a Great Cat who lets her tail drag on the ground.


That said, I agree with you that it's a bit odd that female characters are so constrained by the tradition "Romance Fiction" tropes in science fiction and fantasy (with the notable exception of "dark" fantasy.)

-mac

Dave Freer said...

Thank you Francis. I read Rowena's piece, (and Satima's comment) and thought to myself hang on... haven't I just written a female lead character, who is neither cute, nor domineering, or manipulative in any sense that has anything to do with her sex. She is not beating men at their own game, she behaves in keeping with medieval tech level society woman (which is not a typical fantasy feature), and rises far above those limits (without trying to pretend they wouldn't exist). She does not wear fur or chainmail bikinis. She is undoubtably the heroic character of the story. She is (I hope) also definately not a boy-dressed-as-a-girl (the inverse of something you see too often with writers who do not have much experience of say boys, writing boys who behave like girls, and vice versa of course.) I suspect there are other heroic female lead characters out there who do not out-swordfight the men, or behave according to the expected mores of the late 20th century... but, as with Dragon's Ring, and LMB and Heinlein (what company I put myself in;-), I very much doubt anyone is even going to notice. They'll make a song and dance about something they don't like - but they'll be dipped in shit if they'll encourage authors to write or publishers to buy books that don't make those mistakes :-(. Rather like the whole racefail viciousness - more fun kicking someon who they feel did something they feel they don't like, than encouraging any of the many struggling authors that have tried very hard to be racially honest and inclusive.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it's the gender limitations that control female characters' acceptable sex lives, so much as it is our ideas about "Happily Ever After."

We all want true love, both giving and receiving, and that is tough to have with sharing. We all "know" that the party girl is going to have to stop sleeping around before Mr. Hunk will admit to his love (as opposed to lust).

Perhaps if we set out a different life's goal, clearly, from the very start, we could change the readers' expectations of what constituted a "Happily Ever After" and the female characters could be promiscuous and still achieve that. I guess the question is, can we do it well enough that the reader will be satisfied, warm and cozy at the end of the book.

MataPam

tanaudel said...

Re Satima's comment on strong female characters who are "only strong because they beat men at their own games", I just read Robin Miller's autobiography "Flying Nurse" and was struck (and amused) that she refused to dress like a man just because she hadn't gained admission to a men's club... and would do aircraft maintenance in a dress. Her personality and character was endearing - unabashedly a woman, occasionally very 'feminine', but bold, daring, adventurous and generally remarkable, and not at all what I usually see in works of fiction.

Francis Turner said...

PS a much expander version of my Compare/contrast comment regarding Dragon's Ring and TSK is up at my blog - http://www.di2.nu/200909/22.htm

Mikazuki said...

Jessica Amanda Salmonson had tackled this question and came up with the anthologies Amazons and Amazons II. They are excellent testimonies to the potential of strong female characters, displaying a kaleidoscopic collection of feminine heroism. I found the stories captivating, and the writers pioneers of their genre.

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