Women In Sensible Social Situations

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.

7 thoughts on “Women In Sensible Social Situations

  1. While on the subject of strong women in fantasy, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War Trilogy has the most bodacious collection of powerful effective and complex women heroines I have read about in many years. Especially interesting as the religion practiced on this dystopian world is identifiably Islam.

  2. And you might go back to Alma Alexander’s “Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven” – both of them epic historical fantasies with plenty of strong female protagonists with minds of their own, with dreams and aspirations and with the strength to go after them…

  3. # Apparently various authors have been getting complaints from outraged fanboys
    # over their use of strong and independent women.

    Myself, I’ve mostly heard this argument from fangirls (who weren’t really outraged, I will admit, but I’ve been surprised at how often the arguments against powerful female characters actually come from women (but I’m wondering now if I listened to/remember them because I felt their claims had more weight)), so I’m a little bit O_o at you here (you should, of course, have said ‘fanpeople’).

    However, as usual, I totally agree with everything else you say. Firstly, there were women throughout all the ages who managed to go adventuring or lead armies into battle (admittedly often dressed as men) and secondly, are we now requiring fantasy to be historically accurate?! Well, then what’s the point?! (I fear I am using too many interrobangs. I have just had a bottle of wine*). If we want to do historical accuracy then one has to point out THERE WAS NEVER MAGIC AND DRAGONS. Also, can we get Conan to wear a jumper? I’m no expert in human pre-history, but I’m pretty sure (from the covers of books that I’ve never read) that Hypoborea did not have a mediterranean climate, yet we never get “Conan battles hypothermia”. Maybe that’s why he always looks so miserable on the book covers, because he’s stood there thinking “Crom, I’m cold.”

    Furthermore, how ‘realistic’ are the lives of men in these stories? For most men in the middle ages/prehistory/etc life would have been nasty, brutish, and short (and diseased), with little opportunity of leaving the social stratum they were born into. Sure, a few did (like the women mentioned above) but most didn’t. So is it time to drop the standard “farm-boy discovers his destiny, marries a princess and blows up an anti-planet weapon” that we’ve seen so often in fantasy?

    If we insist on ‘realism’ in fantasy then most of the stories will be short and disappointing, regardless of the gender of the protagonist. We already cut a massive amount of slack to male characters in this genre. (Most of them didn’t go off adventuring in real history, in the middle ages they couldn’t leave their Lord’s estate without his permission) so fantasy is written about the outliers of society, not about the daily lives of ‘most people’, men or women. So why do we suddenly have to ‘get real’ when the protag is female?


    *If there is anything regrettable in this post when I sober up in the morning, then it was written by my evil twin, Sebastian, okay?

    1. When you’ve sobered up, if you still need it, I’d be happy to explain how the ways in which women complain about “strong women characters” are qualitatively different from the ways that men complain about them.

  4. This depends how you define fantasy, after all, as you have championed, it isn’t all about the history of western Europe.

    Also, why do women have to be unusual to be strong? Perhaps they can be stuck in kitchen with babies, sure, but that took a lot of doing, a lot of strength, wearing down their bodies and doing all the scutwork and being told they were sinful brainless garbage besides.

    An example of a strong impressive woman in a traditional role in a fantasy novel roughly based on a western European historical setting who rapidly comes to mind is Taveth of Jo Walton’s Lifelode. I’m sure there are others I’m not thinking of.

    And well, as for suggestions on other women who fit western European history, I encourage writers to mine literature (the Wife of Bath) as well as history (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen; two relevant books being “Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe” and “The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe”
    Admittedly I mention these more vis a vis trans characters, but a lot of the women in these studies are not necessarily trans . . . and modern western categories of course don’t map neatly etc . . . oh and one more, with impressive strong women with disabilities “Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor”)

  5. I have to agree with much that is being said, particularly about the points that Cheryl made how women going off on adventures is sometimes seen as women who are “outsiders” or women who go against the grain. But then, fifty years ago I remember all the girls in my high school picking their colleges for which ones were most likely to produce marriageable material. So we have all changed in how we see women’s roles within our own lifetimes. This is bound to be reflected in what we read and write.
    The funny thing is, since I am a woman writing a fantasy review site (BestFantasyStories.com) I have a tendency to put in plenty of books about strong women because I love them. But my male readers have actually complained that they would like to now and again see some fantasy books on our site that have strong male leads. So it may be a matter of selective reading too.
    It does seem to me that there are some great strong women characters in all types of fantasy. Cherie Priest’s steampunk series The Clockwork Century comes to mind, as does the character of Kes in the High Fantasy series The Griffin Mage Series by Rachel Neumeier. Gee – I do see a pattern here of women writers, but that shouldn’t be surprising. I think the characters are out there, we just need to give them room to breathe.

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