"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On Feminism and Fantasy

Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, in reference to criticisms of The Lord of the Rings

Over at Heroines of Fantasy this week, our guest is Athena Andreadis, prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, and author of the blog Starship Reckless.

I will be honest: Andreadis’ guest post is difficult to understand, but thought-provoking in its own way. Before you read it (or after), I would suggest visiting the blogs of Leo Grin and Joe Abercrombie. This because what Andreadis writes is essentially a criticism of the argument between Grin and Abercrombie, so to get a more-or-less full picture of the conflict, you may need to read all three posts.

Andreadis’ thought-provoking post on Heroines of Fantasy has had me. . .well, provoked in my thought.

Her primary criticism of Grin and Abercrombie focuses on the utter lack of women authors mentioned in their debate. A fair enough point, though I can’t help but think, with all due respect to Grin and Abercrombie, that in the end they are just a couple of guys (in the same way that I am just one gal), and that perhaps these two blog posts are not entirely representative of the full spectrum of dialogue on contemporary fantasy fiction.

But what really does not sit right with me is how Andreadis uses her displeasure with Grin and Abercrombie as a point of departure to discredit male writers of fantasy across the board. In her guest post, Andreadis portrays male fantasy authors as universally misogynistic, and argues that men offer little of interest to the genre as a whole. Her list of authors producing “bland [sexist] gruel” includes well-known and much admired names like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, both of whom have produced novels that in my humble opinion deserve a somewhat more complimentary qualifier than “bland [sexist] gruel”.
So I don’t think I can follow Andreadis down this particular road, though her commentary does have me thinking about women writers, women protagonists and feminism in the context of fantasy in general.

Having worked as a scientist for more than twenty years, and taught a few of my own courses on women and science, I am not new to feminist discourse. The different schools of feminist thought provide some very powerful tools to help decipher the social constructs that characterize our culture and history. Unfortunately, a feminist analysis of any discipline is an immense topic that cannot be squeezed into a single blog post, and feminism in fantasy is no exception.

Still, as I’ve ventured into the professional world of fantastic literature, I’ve noticed on the one hand, that certain barriers that exist for women in science are also faced by women in fantasy. That if you ask a reader to mention his or her favorite authors, women will almost invariably be in the minority. That stories featuring female protagonists are often perceived as “girl stories”, while stories featuring male protagonists are acceptable reading for everyone.

So it would seem, from this and other less anecdotal evidence, that sexism is alive and well in the field, and that those of us who boast feminist sensibilities have our work cut out for us.

On the other hand, I have had the pleasure of reading a rich variety of fantasy stories about women, written by both women and men. I have met and interacted with a long string of fantasy authors and editors, men and women, who are invariably excited about female protagonists and the crafting of ever more complex roles for the women in our stories.  I've noticed that on the blog Heroines of Fantasy, which often has an overtly feminist tone, our most consistent and enthusiastic commentators have been men.

And when I explore the topic of feminism in fantasy literature, I come across compelling quotes like this one from scholar Elyce Rae Helford:

Science fiction and fantasy serve as important vehicles for feminist thought, particularly as bridges between theory and practice. No other genres so actively invite representations of the ultimate goals of feminism: worlds free of sexism, worlds in which women's contributions (to science) are recognized and valued, worlds in which the diversity of women's desire and sexuality is honored, and worlds that move beyond gender.

So which is it?

Fantasy as a traditionally misogynistic endeavor where only the boys can play, or

Fantasy as the genre that actively promotes the goals of feminism like no other?

At this point in my journey with fantasy, I would say, six of one, half a dozen of the other.

I often claim to write in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. That’s probably a little egotistical on my part, but these are two authors among many (including many women) whose work I greatly admire and try to emulate, albeit through a strong manifestation of my own voice and vision.

I know, just like every other woman who has read Tolkien, that his reknowned epic is characterized by a glaring absence of prominent female characters. And while Martin’s world has more to offer in terms of women players, I – like many other readers – have had my complaints about the way he writes his women.

But does that mean I must then denigrate these and other male authors who have committed similar “crimes” as writers of hopelessly bland sexist gruel?

Or can I respect and learn from their legacy, even as I forge a new future for the women of my own stories?

I have, of course, already answered these questions for myself.

Now I invite you to answer them as well.

You may also wish to see my previous post on Women, Epic Fantasy and George R.R. Martin.