The Status is Not Quo: Sexism in Fantasy


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.