There has been quite a bit of talk around the blogosphere recently about how “realistic” having strong female characters in epic fantasy novels might be. Apparently various authors have been getting complaints from outraged fanboys over their use of strong and independent women. Didn’t they know that in medieval times women were all busy in the kitchen or having babies? Having them actually go on adventures totally ruins the careful world-building that you have done to justify the inclusion of magic, dragons and so on. And as for pirate queens, well, no self-respecting, red-blooded fantasy writer would ever do that!
There have been some quite entertaining responses. Tansy Rayner Roberts put on her professional historian hat over at Tor.com, while Foz Meadows has done an awesome amount of actual research (including covering the race angle as well).
Because such things tend to run and run, I’m guessing that there will be follow-up articles popping up all over the place. One of the things I am expecting to see people say is that it is about time that someone actually wrote more epic fantasy with strong women in it, because there is so little of it about. Which of course is silly, there’s plenty of it. The trouble is that much of it is written by women, and so it doesn’t get noticed by a lot of people.
I’m naturally proud of my authors, so I’d like to point out that Juliet McKenna has been writing fine epic fantasy for years, all of which contains plenty of female characters of different types. Some of them are adventurers, or professional magicians, while others are wives and mothers. You could try her out, starting at the beginning.
I’d also like to give a shout-out to my pal Glenda Larke. Her latest series, the Watergivers trilogy, is excellent, and is also set in a very different world from the run-of-the-mill pseudo-medieval fantasy. Finally, of course, there is Mary Gentle’s Ash, which is a magnificent piece of work.
The other thing I’d like to note is that the reverse argument is not true. That is, while it is not “unrealistic” to have strong, independent women in your fantasy, it is not “sexist” to not have them. Sure, remarkable women have existed in all periods of history; doubtless far more than have actually had their stories recorded. They have a place in adventure novels for the same reason that remarkable barbarian boys from far off Cimmeria have such a place. But not everyone was like that. The majority of women in medieval societies had fairly tough lives, and unless your fantasy world has invented modern medicine the dangers of pregnancy will loom large over your female characters. Even with modern medicine, women still have it tough, especially in less wealthy countries.
If we produced fantasy novels where the only female characters were strong and independent then we’d both be erasing the very real struggles of women in the past, and forfeiting the opportunity to create parallels with women’s struggles today. Besides, I have a sneaking suspicion that a fantasy novel that only has strong, independent women in it will probably only have one or two women in it (the heroine, or the heroine and her rival). Realistic worlds have all sorts of people in them, and roughly 50% of them will be female.