If All Were Equal

fisherby Chantal Boudreau
When someone mentions female characters in fantasy, some stereotypes come to mind. There is the damsel in distress, the plucky princess, the matronly queen or the bawdy tavern wench, just for a few examples. These seem to show up everywhere, unfortunate tropes who sometimes serve as sidekicks and who often give the male hero extra purpose to their cause, but don’t have much purpose in their own right.
Then there’s the flip-side – the “strong female” character: the man-hating amazon, the stoic and noble female warrior who is an exception to the norm, the experienced sorceress or priestess who often proves self-sacrificing. While they may have a prominent role in the story, they tend to be loners and atypical of the women in that particular fantasy culture. Most of the women in the story other than that one outstanding character fall into the traditional medieval female roles: the maids, the gentlewomen, the housewife mother with multiple offspring, perhaps an assistant to some professional or the healer/midwife.
What I enjoy more, but rarely see, is a fantasy society that is counter-culture, where men and women share roles with unbiased equality – where it’s the norm rather than the exception. Considering this is not something we’ve managed to achieve even in our own modern society, it would be nice to find more of that in the fabricated worlds of fiction. There, such a societal scope is an option for its creator rather than what we’re forced to live with in the real world. Why not break with tradition?
How does a writer apply this concept effectively? Lately, I’ve been watching the television show “The 100” that does a fantastic job of this. While it is post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction with YA elements rather than fantasy, it is a great example of gender-bias free storytelling. Just as a list of the female characters who aren’t what you would normally find in the average speculative fiction tale, you have the leaders of three of the factions who are female (the leader of the rebellious 100, the leader of the techno-savvy “Sky-People” and the leader of the tribal “Grounders”.) The head of security for the Grounders is a fierce and unyielding warrior woman who is now mentoring one of the 100 women in warrior-training as well. The head of engineering for the Sky People is a woman and their female leader is also a medical doctor. Even the more demure female characters (residing with the Mountain Men) have their moments of bravery.

The leaders make tough decisions too, and sometimes fail, but pick themselves up and move on, coming up with new strategies. At one point, one of these women chooses to kill a man who was once her romantic interest rather than see him tortured before execution as part of a punishment from their allies (he did murder innocents because of a misunderstanding and a mental break – and he was in the wrong.) She doesn’t fall apart after the fact, even though it was a painful and tragic decision for her. You just don’t see that in the average tale that presents women as predominantly soft and emotional. A typical female character would never be able to spare a loved one from torture by killing him, specifically because of their romantic relationship (“I can’t kill him – I love him.”)

Better yet, in “The 100” nobody questions these characters’ competency because they are female. Real people who have experienced life as both man and woman say that for the most part what they’ve found in our society is men are assumed competent until they are proven otherwise whereas women have to prove they are competent before being accepted as such. This unfair set of gender-biased assumptions often carries over into fiction. I’d like to see that change (as I’d like to see it change in the real world.)

I’ve made an effort to use men and women equally in responsible positions in my fantasy stories. The head of a major mercenary guild is a woman, Magic University is headed up by both men and women at various times, the head of the Renegade resistance in Feltrey is a woman, the Jadorans and Templars of Oron are equally men and women, assassins and soldiers as well as wizards. One of my heroes is a middle-aged female retired schoolteacher. A character’s competency has no basis in gender, age or social status. Everyone has their strengths and potential and are recognized for what they bring to the table.

In my fantasy fiction, I choose to not have a woman’s competency challenged just because of her gender. I hope to see this become commonplace in the fantasy I read, maybe inspiring more change in our own society in future.

16 comments on “If All Were Equal

  1. Sexism in fantasy comes from the culture that spawns it. So do stereotypes. I am really tired of them, too – which is why my husband and I created most of the societies in our world setting – Menelon – in a way that strips gender bias (and most racial biases, too) from the equation. There are hundreds of social stressors an author can use to drive tension in a book’s setting – the gender/racial discrimination tropes in modern fantasy are TOO EASY – they’re tiresome, boring, and really need to fade into the obscurity they so richly deserve.

    If you’d like an ebook copy of the first book in our first trilogy, Raven’s Tears, so you can read for yourself, I’ll be happy to send you a copy. I would honestly like to know what you think, given how well you spelled out this issue in your post. I haven’t watched the show, but just from what you’ve written about your own fantasy stories, you indicate a decent grasp of how subtle and indirect gender bias can be.

    Great blog post – I’ll be sharing it on Twitter right now!

    • Thank you – I’d love the opportunity to read your book and if I enjoy it, I’d be willing to review it on my personal blog, Word Blurb. It does sound like something I’d find appealing.

      • I hope so. I’ve been snooping around for your public email and can’t find one. If you’d like, email me at the gmail address I’ve used to comment here and I can send you the epub or mobi version, whichever you prefer.

        Now I’m really interested in Fervor and its sequels – “science fantasy?” Awesome!

      • My contact information can be found at https://chantellyb.wordpress.com/contact-me/. My e-mail address is listed so that the spambots won’t get me, but you should be able to figure it out. While I do have some paperback copies of Fervor on hand (as well as PDF copies) and Amazon has a few in stock, it is currently out of print. My publisher decided to clear house and released all of its authors. I’m still waiting on my written releases so I can find a new home for my small press-published books, but I should have them shortly. At present, only my self-published Snowy Barrens Trilogy is in print.

        I would prefer a PDF copy if you have one. I had a Kindle app but it corrupted on me, as did my last two e-readers. I’ve resigned myself to sticking with PDFs.

  2. Great post, Chantal. I try to put an effort into avoiding female stereotypes in my books, but reading this makes me realize there is a difference between having strong woman characters and treating genders equally. It gives me food for thought for how I develop stories in the future. Thanks for posting!

  3. I read a post on Robin Hobb’s Facebook page a little while ago asking her readers whether it mattered to them if characters were male/female; The general consensus seemed to be that no it didn’t – but then in Robin Hobb you have a great writer of rounded characters regardless of their sex.
    Frankly I find some of her characters a little too close for comfort in the accuracy of her portrayal of some of the more craven aspects of the male of the species.
    But with a lot of fantasy female characters are just “window dressing” and two dimensional. It is this that makes them stereotypes – their just glossed over so that the writer can get back to the hero and the rest of the boys.
    And as you have said everyone has their strengths and potential and it is this that should be celebrated. So maybe it is time for all fantasy writers to up their game to show that gender does not matter. Great post.

  4. Oh, this is timely! I’m trying very hard to portray an alternate early modern Europe in my fantasy series in which women have political and social equality in most cases. It’s very difficult to keep from falling into stereotype as well as creating a culture that makes equality remotely plausible. I love reading books that do this well, and just hope I can pull it off, too.

  5. I tried consciously to create strong female characters in my books, especially in the fantasy titles. Yes, some are evil, but some are good. There are also weak women and weak men, too. I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of making all women character positive in a reaction against endemic biases in our society.

    • I use a mixture of weak and strong female characters too, as well as middling characters that have their moments of weakness and of strength. They exist in an equal mixture, as they should. If you stereotype either gender, not only do you lose the opportunity to tackle gender bias, but you also tend to create two-dimensional characters.

      I believe in equal opportunity villains also. I have pretty nasty villains of both gender and in some cases male-female villain tag teams who work collaboratively. Actually, creating villains of both genders outside the tropes allows further means of breaking stereotypes. Having female villains who are not “mean girls,” “nasty hags” or “power-hungry queens” is another way of doing that.

  6. Pingback: Fairy Tales and Fantasy Revisited | Guild Of Dreams

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