Feminism is not a dirty word. (I actually read a book recently with that statement in the title, and I stand by it.) A lot of people shy away from the term “feminist” because they think it means “insane man-hating career/sex obsessed woman (who may or may not be a lesbian.)” Even I’m careful hen using this term, lest my meaning be misconstrued. While such people do exist, they are the extreme end of the spectrum and have no bearing on what I consider feminism. That is, that women should be treated politically, socially, and economically as equals to men.
Fantasy and science fiction are wonderful because you can break so many stereotypes. With a lot of realistic fiction, especially in historical fiction, there are certain limitations, certain expectations and roles that people play that can be difficult to change without losing a sense of authenticity. But science fiction is usually set far into the future, often on other planets. Fantasy deals in alternate realities and fairy tales. The potential to explore and turn traditional gender/racial/economic/sexual roles upside down is all around! And I’m sorry to say that a lot of writers who deal in science fiction and fantasy don’t take advantage of that potential.
Since a lot of fantasy is set in medieval look-alike worlds, we tend to get medieval values. Women are passive objects to be won while men do all the fighting, rescuing, political maneuvering, and pretty much anything else interesting. Science fiction often has male military leaders, male soldiers, male explorers… Women are very often not present at all, or, if they are, they get regulated to sexual roles or are presented in a very wooden or unrealistic manner.
Obviously this isn’t the case for every fantasy or science fiction story. And I should point out that while there is nothing inherently wrong with having characters fill traditional gender roles, that shouldn’t be the only role that they can play. (And that goes for men as well as women.) Older science fiction and fantasy often get a pass from me because the social mores of the time necessarily colors the way the plot and characters are presented. But even in modern stories, I rarely see the envelop pushed.
We can be so much more than this.
I mentioned in my “Gender, Color, and Sexuality” entry that my female characters outnumber my male characters by a significant margin. For years, I avoided writing male characters because I thought that in order to write realistic males, I would have to be one myself. That was kind of an icky prospect, so I just stuck with females. (However, none of my women were lesbians; that entire concept didn’t come onto my radar screen until well into high school.) But as I started to meet more guys, hang out around them and became friends with them, I realized, “Hey. They’re like me. Physically, we’re different and we’re often raised with different social expectations… but other than that, they are just like me. They have hopes and dreams (that don’t revolve around sex) and personalities, and….wow. They’re people.” And that’s when I started being able to write male characters. It really enriched my females as well because now I wasn’t thinking in terms of diametrically opposed genders; I was thinking about people and what makes them tick.
Now, a brief caveat: While I agree that we’ve come a long way with our presentation of female characters, I don’t like it when people say, “But we’ve achieved equality in fiction! Look at all the strong female characters there are!” And they then proceed to show me image after image of female warriors who can kick butt as hard as men do.
I don’t see that as “strong” except in the physical sense. Are female warriors awesome? Sure they are, and I’m glad to see them! Heck, my protagonist Ryn Élan from Ravens and Roses is a warrior. She’s basically the head of Marina’s Special Ops. But that isn’t all she is. Her fighting prowess isn’t her only strength, nor do I consider that her defining feature. Too many stories only show women who are “strong” when compared to the stereotypically masculine standard of causing the most collateral damage. While that is a strength, I don’t think that all women can (or should) be forced to become warriors to be considered equal to men. I don’t think that’s right, fair, or truly equal.
If men can be portrayed as loyal, treacherous, brave, cowardly, serious, funny, sardonic, naive, cheerful, pessimistic, sadistic, altruistic, independent, submissive, leaders, or followers….then women should be portrayed in a variety of ways as well. Gender shouldn’t be their defining feature. People are complex, so characters should be complex as well. We are a sum of our experiences, as well as genetics. That’s what makes us human.
And that, I think, is the real goal of feminism: To get people to stop pigeon-holing others based on physical differences or on arbitrary or outdated social constructs. Yes, the male and females sexes are physically different. Yes, we do have different chemical mixes in our brains and bodies. But this is a spectrum, not a ping-pong match. We aren’t just animals, blindly obeying instinct. We think. We empathize. We remember. We impart knowledge to the next generation. We are HUMAN.
That is why we need feminism.
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For more amazing articles about the writing of female characters, please check out the links below:
“I hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall on NewStatesman
“The Problem with Wonder Woman” by Shoshana Kessock on Tor.com
“One Woman’s Defense of the Disney Princess” by Rose B. Fischer (a wonderful reminder of why we have to be careful passing judgement on older material)
“Why I Write ‘Strong Female Characters’ “ by Greg Rucka on i09
“25 Things To Know About Sexism & Misogyny in Writing & Publishing” by Chuck Wendig on TerribleMinds (Be sure to check out the links he provides…there are some doozies.)