Recently I have both read an interesting topic on the role of female characters in fantasy literature, and had a couple of discussions with a friend concerning whether female characters are portrayed ‘realistically’. I want to jot down some thoughts on this – I do not have a feminist agenda, but it is a subject that interests me, and I would invite you to share in a discussion on the subject.
When looking back over fantasy literature, including the original fairytales that most modern fantasy is descended from, it is clear that women started very much in the damsel in distress role. Women were relegated to the sidelines, waiting for a man in shining armour to rescue them from the jaws of dragons. Realistic? Maybe for the time in which these tales were written. After all, for every Eleanor of Aquitaine (seriously, if you do not know of this celebrated Queen of England, I would invite you to read some of the amazing tales of her life), there was a submissive noblewoman whose role in life was to please her man. Even back then, though, there were certain female characters in fiction that became more than a bit part in these stories: Morgan le Fay is often represented as a powerful woman in her own right.
Since the early days of fantasy fiction, we have seen an ever-increasing number of female protagonists – in fact, the whole realm of urban fantasy is now populated by sassy heroines! But how many of these women are portrayed in a realistic light? And who is to judge realistic? Can such a sweeping generalisation ever be applied to the many different female characters who now stride through fantasy fiction?
Let’s open the floor with a comment found on the SFF World forums made by Kat G (I sincerely hope she doesn’t mind me taking her words!): “And actual women would be what exactly? Never bitchy? Never bossy? Never whiny? Someone who's tough when it's acceptable, like in a fight, but not with a guy? You like certain kinds of women, but those aren't the real women and the rest are fake. The range of kinds of women characters and female behaviors readers accept and are interested in tend to still be much narrower than the range of kinds of male characters, because readers are often uncomfortable with women acting in certain ways, especially nagging, worrying, anger, rudeness, cruelty, selfishness, aggressive behavior -- all things that women quite frequently do, but which society says proper women don't do or don't show, and certainly don't do with a male. And unfortunately, in SFF, this is particularly still a problem, and one that needs to be challenged sometimes, not coddled.”
The quote above resonated with me. It does strike me that there are few examples of women realistically portrayed in fantasy – I would love you to disagree with me! I see the female characters in David Eddings’ work: collectively smug and condescending towards their menfolk. I see the female characters in Laurell K Hamilton’s work: almost too-kick-arse, wanting to be better than the men. I see the female characters in The Wheel of Time: seriously, did Robert Jordan not speak to any women? At all?
I say few examples because there are some decently-written female characters around. GRRM portrays women with all their foibles – nagging, tempers, fear for their men, incapability. Somehow they have some of the worst characteristics yet remain interesting and, above all, real.
One suggestion made in the same discussion is that strong women are automatically portrayed as bitchy and/or ruthless, with few redeeming characteristics; that unless they have this approach to life, they are not deemed to be as strong as their male counterparts.
Another thought put forward is that female characters are currently put in a box marked “ultra-positive, nice, spunky heroines”, because this is how people want to read their women. And then the writers are criticized for producing bland, uninteresting clichés of women. Those female writers who seem especially guilty of this are then condemned for not producing good, gritty fiction such as the Abercrombie’s of this world.
Lastly, I want to consider the idea of Mary Sue characters (this is defined as being a female character without flaws, who is often considered a wish fulfillment fantasy of the author who created them). There are a number of examples I can provide for this (Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake character is too easy to target here!), but I shall go with Ayla from Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and subsequent novels in the Earth’s Children series. We (or at least I!) read with incredulous disbelief as Ayla single-handedly developed horse-riding, spear throwing, using flint to create fire, taming animals for pets, sewing up wounds, and many more. All this as well as being unbelievably beautiful and generally talented at everything she turns her hand to. Men rarely suffer in the same way from being presented as Gary Stus, which seems to lend them a greater realism.
In conclusion, I would say that we cannot apply a sweeping generalization and say that all female characters suffer from a lack of realism in fantasy literature – but I would state that women are struggling in comparison to their male counterparts. I would welcome your thoughts – please leave a comment!