The Status is Not Quo: Sexism in Fantasy

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This past week, I had the misfortune of speaking with another fantasy author who thought that sexism in medieval fantasy “makes sense”. She was defending another author’s sexist assumptions about a work we were critiquing.

I gave her what I hoped was my best are you fucking kidding me? look before proceeding to explain the obvious: “It’s fantasy. You make up the rules.”

I don’t know why I would have to explain that to another fantasy author. It’s interesting that some fantasy writers think unicorns, dragons, and magic are totally possible in a fantasy framework, but not a world without sexism as we know it. The latter would obviously inconceivable, and, totally unrealistic. (Not that! No!)

The only rebuttal I have for this beyond “you make up the rules” is this fine article from The Mary Sue: An Analysis of Sexism in Historical Fantasy.

There’s not much I can add to this already, except to mention that the only reason we see history as “a bunch of (straight white) dudes doing stuff” is because in Western culture we have systematically silenced, ignored, dismissed, diminished, and sometimes just erased the narratives of anyone fell outside of that. This obviously includes women. But anyone who seems to think that women (or any other marginalized group of folks) have not always participated fully in human culture and history strikes me as disingenuous and lazy at best.

This could be me being a judgemental tosser, too, but I am really just fed up with these kind of attitudes in fantasy and science fiction. It’s as if we make it an excuse not to question the status quo, when, in fact, speculative fiction — really good speculative fiction, like all really good fiction — is deeply predicated upon the idea of questioning the status quo. From Mary Shelley to Heinlein and Asimov, on down to more recent authors such as LeGuin, Delaney, and Octavia Butler,  the entire point of these authors’ seminal and often groundbreaking works was to take the world as we know it and turn it sideways just enough to make us look again. This is the power of speculative fiction.

6 thoughts on “The Status is Not Quo: Sexism in Fantasy

    1. Strong female characters are amazeballs. 🙂 If you like fantasy, you should check out Kristen Cashore and N K Jemisin (The Inheritance Trilogy) for a good dollop of complex, varied, and strong female characters. Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley are great too.

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  1. I definitely agree! It’s fantasy, so if the fiction is going to be sexist, then it should be addressed at least. All fantasy fiction is going to use a social order, but the good fantasy fiction indicates why it’s there (and hopefully makes it clear that an unequal social order is problematic).

    Plus, there are some strong medieval women to take a cue from. I’ve just been reading about a Viking Chieftan’s wife who was abducted and made his queen without her consent. In revenge she poisoned him, took her son away and ruled her own country. So it’s not like there’s no inspiration.

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    1. Hey! The Vikings are GREAT example of a historical culture where gender is not what we could assume it to be. Their social order was largely focused on status and maintaining status and honor, regardless of gender.

      There are also totally loads of strong medieval women, especially if we are willing to forgo the old idea that strong = doing what dudes do. Women medieval nuns and mystics didn’t go around being warriors and chopping men’s heads off too often (that whole religious thing), but they definitely contributed significantly to medieval culture and literature. Julian of Norwich (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich) and Marguerite Porete (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marguerite_Porete) are two great examples of this, and really, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

      If we wanted to go further back, we could even use examples of Sappho and Hypatia in the ancient world.

      But even women who are not named implicitly in historical texts are still contributing to historical economies and cultures, even through things like weaving blankets and planting and harvesting crops and child-rearing. Our view of history (and narrative) focuses often on exceptional individuals, rather than seeing from the perspective of “common people” who contribute in ways that may be less “big”, but are no less important in the scheme of things.

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  2. I love that you wrote this article! Some of my most beloved authors are women, for example Marion Zimmer Bradley. She was a female pioneer into the world of science fiction writing, and could write the hell out a strong female character. (Sorry if that reads weird but I truly love some of the women in her stories) Very nice post.

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    1. Ta, thank you. 🙂 Thanks for reminding me about Marion Zimmer Bradley too, because she was another important science fiction author, especially with the representation of women.

      Most of my favorite authors happen to be women and people of color too. I am not sure why, except that I gravitate towards post-colonial authors and writing more, and many women and people of color in recent fiction do fall into the “post-colonial” camp. Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston have been especially important to me, as well as Sherman Alexie and Gloria Anzaldua. With the exception of Morrison (Beloved) and Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) these folks aren’t necessarily speculative fiction writers though.

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