When I was in grade 5 or 6, I read a young adult fantasy novel entitled The Woman Who Rides Like a Man.
This book was the third of a quartet by the wonderful Tamora Pierce about a girl named Alanna who disguises herself as a boy in order to enter training to eventually become a knight of her kingdom.
I loved this book – loved the entire series – and from that moment, a obsession with female fantasy characters who could fight was born. I couldn’t get enough of stories where women wielded swords, shot bows, fought empty-handed in any sort of martial art, worked as mercenaries, commanded soldiers, and never had to fear for their safety or worry about being disrespected, for they knew how to put jerks in their place.
Stories featuring – as they’re often portrayed within the genres of fantasy and sci-fi – strong female characters.
My first (incomplete, shelved, someday to be re-conceptualized) fantasy novel contained such a character. Albeit, she was still growing into her abilities – was only just learning how to fight (from a strong female character fighting instructor, no less) – and was something of a reluctant heroine to boot.
But had I finished the planned trilogy, she would have in due course become a lean, mean, sword- and staff-fighting machine.
Then, I started writing my second (current) novel….
And suddenly found that although Obsession and Eternity are both perfumes from the same designer line, in real life, one doesn’t necessarily beget the other.
That is to say, I started becoming interested in the other “women men don’t see”, to borrow from the sci-fi short story by the same name – the women that are increasingly being overlooked by other women as well.
What we’re told we experienced
Last week, I read a excellent essay by sci-fi/fantasy author Kameron Hurley entitled “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”. It is a bit long, but well worth reading.
In this piece, Hurley writes particularly in regards to the speculative fiction genres. She describes how stereotypical female tropes and accepted “feminine” narratives and plot devices employed under the guise of art imitating life and the reality of history is an act of erasure of everything that real women are and have always been. Or in her own words,
[I]f you think there’s a thing – anything – women didn’t do in the past, you’re wrong.
It’s so true. There’s so much we don’t know about the lives of women throughout history, and may never know. For history has been recorded by men, for men, with the “manly” portions of it attributed solely to men. There have been strong female figures throughout history whose stories are barely – if ever – told.
In this regard, it’s vitally important that the spec fic genres, in seeking to imitate life through their art, include female characters who can fight and put jerks in their place. Because we always did fight (among other things), and as is quoted in the (highly recommended!) Sundance documentary, Miss Representation, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
And yet, another aspect of all this that’s as troubling as the erasure of female history and character complexity is the implicit notion within spec fic that strong female characters are best exemplified by women who are, indeed, physically strong. Women who are kickass, and aloof, and don’t hesitate to resort to violence.
There was compelling comment on Hurley’s article by a writer by the name of Kay Camden, who reposted her remarks on her blog:
I often struggle with this masculine filter that obscures our view of our world. To write strong heroines, we often give them guns…. We give them a “male” role. We make them single and childless and tattooed and badass. In real life, we often gain respect by joining the boys…. And in doing so, we’re declaring our roles to be worthless. Our playhouse to be inferior.
Our definition of heroism lives in a man’s world. How do we overcome that without undermining the value of our own roles?
This is what I meant above by the other women that men and women don’t see.
Womanhood, much like any other socially-constructed concept (e.g. sexual orientation, political inclination, intelligence, etc.), exists on a spectrum. Some women identify with what society has come to promote as the more “feminine” end of the spectrum. Others identify more with the “masculine” end. Most fall somewhere between the two extremes.
All deserve representation in all genres of fiction.
Yet a casual scan of the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore reveals a far greater number of “masculine” strong female characters. Just like a casual scan of any element of pop culture reveals that, as pointed out in an article from the Sydney Morning Herald, “[S]ociety doesn’t like girls very much…. ‘Girl’ is an accusation that’s used against boys to humiliate them.”
The article goes on to say that,
The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional.
If the dearth of strong, three-dimensional female characters in speculative fiction is a problem, equally problematic is the lack of balance in the portrayal of feminine strength.
Women who ride like themselves
When I was in grade 12, I was obsessed with the Middle Ages (particularly the roles of women during that time), to the point that I willingly conducted independent study to write my history term paper on the lives of medieval women.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this early research would lay the groundwork for my second (current) novel.
Although my novel-in-progress is historical fiction, it did start out as a fantasy story, and my objective for the story has been the same throughout both genre incarnations. Rather than write about a strong female character is who a fighter, I chose to write about a lady whose job it is to run the castle household alongside the various men in her life.
I did this because I was convinced that if I could portray the full extent of such a role – the aspects I learned about through my research that we’re not exposed to in popular media – I’d succeed in creating a female character who is multifaceted, resourceful, active, exciting, and strong without her ever having to wield a physical weapon.
I still believe this is possible. This is my peace offering to all types of women, and to men as well.
(A/N: A longer post than usual, but this is the story I wanted to tell.)