Monday, August 18, 2014

The Role of Women in Speculative Fiction

“Too long, didn’t read” version: Basically, I outline why I was never as passionate as many other women about the “women should be heroes in speculative fiction” conversation. Also, I explain what direction I think the genre should take. Warning: it’s practically a rant due to how rambling this gets.
Disclaimer: I do not in any way claim to be an expert on this particular subject, nor is this post meant to convert the reader to my perspective. Instead, I use this to help contribute to the ongoing conversation on “diversity in speculative fiction.” (No, women are not a minority in population, but they have historically been a social minority in speculative fiction, which makes this a relevant point to address before I discuss other avenues, i.e.: race, ethnicity, disability.)


If you’re a speculative fiction fan—reader or writer—then I’m sure at some point, you have been introduced to the conversation on women in science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, or some other subgenre therein. This conversation focuses on the historical marginalization of women as protagonists, the prevalence of women as the Damsel in Distress, and the assumption that a woman can maintain three common roles in fiction: young innocent girl, sexy love interest, and old woman who is often a maternal figure.
While this is a very important subject and has done a lot of good for the genre (dialogue is always a good thing to keep a genre from growing stagnant or too privileged, especially when the publishing industry is so overrun by a limited pool of writers and topics to tackle), I have never been particularly moved by “feminist speculative fiction.” You know what I mean, right? Tamora Pierce, Nnedi Okorafor, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Gail Carson Levine . . . that sort of thing.
And it’s not because I have some sort of internalized prejudice about girls who save the day or anything. Some of my favorite books of all time are A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle (I preferred it to the vastly overrated Newbery winning A Wrinkle in Time), The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Shannon Hale’s earlier works, and the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima. My favorite Marvel Comics character—and superhero—of all time is Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel, who is now deservedly the Captain Marvel. So it’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching girls save the day. The problem was that with stories that are obviously implied to be feminist in nature, it makes me feel like I’m being preached to, you know?
And though I know that this is not a bad thing, it’s still very much a case of preaching to the choir, and when I read fiction, I have no problems with reading books that feature themes of feminism, LGBTQ, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and so on but I read mainly for entertainment. It doesn’t matter that much to me if I agree with the author’s politics as long as the story is well written. Of course, that’s up to you—we all have our taste. This doesn’t mean I haven’t picked up sf books that are written from a very social justice perspective to see the other side—I have, and that’s precisely why this blog post exists.
Part of the problem with fiction like this is that, like anywhere else, if you’re a woman, you’re encouraged to want to read about women being awesome. As someone who’s spent most of her young life reading books about girls and guys alike being awesome, this hasn’t bothered me. Then again, I’ve often avoided literature that seems to exist solely to see how much the publishing industry can milk out of the trend (see: grim and dark fantasy, dystopia, vampires). And this tends to lead us into the next part of the conversation, the term “strong female characters.” Am I the only one who wants that term to go away forever? (No, I am not.) It seems like no one can agree on what it means and it seems to imply if you don’t have “strong female characters,” your novel is not worth reading, which isn’t really fair.
Sure, it’s kind of scary how easily some authors, men and women alike, can just write out female characters from a story or easily stereotype them, but is it that important that we need to analyze every novel based on how feminist it is? Yes, this is important to see how gender roles are viewed in society and the media we consume does tend to lead to reinforcing stereotypes depending on how often we see them. And yet . . . . I think there’s a problem with this method. It seems to imply that the most important thing to do when talking about girls and women in fiction is to measure how they’re reflected when compared to the male characters, and shouldn’t there be more to it than that? Can’t we judge them as people first, as in how interesting and complex they are? These days, feminist fantasy is practically a genre and even in novels written by white straight men like Brandon Sanderson we regularly see Action Girls appear in his stories.
However, there is a very good counter argument. If one were to look up the number of female sf writers when compared to men, and look up how many series are led by females when compared to males or how many might have a female protagonist but have a mainly male supporting cast, it is often astonishing. A solution proposed is to simply not write that many men and write about a bunch of women, which is perfectly fine to do. It’s true that men have often been seen as “the default”—does every story really have to always have a man at the forefront? Not really. And honestly, that’s my personal solution to the problem: more women.
For example, relatively new fantasy author Max Gladstone (who we will return to in my next blog post) has been praised for not only his genre fusions of epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and legal thriller, but also for the diversity of his stories: the lead in Three Parts Dead is a black woman, the leads in his latest novel, Full Fathom Five, as well as several other characters are women of color. Men and women are portrayed in his books as being completely on equal footing, and there’s pretty much an equal number of men and women, except in Full Fathom Five, a rare example of a book by a male author that has more women leading the story. And maybe that’s the real problem here: Most Writers are Male, as TV Tropes has taught us, and our society has hit us over the head with the idea of women being very different from men and that they can’t possibly be written about exactly the same way as a male character—and in a way they can’t, since female characters come under so much more scrutiny, which makes this problem cyclical: the few women who are represented are judged for how well they hold up in terms of feminism, while writers who are afraid of getting it wrong don’t even bother.
Of course, maybe the problem is just me. Maybe I should read some Ursula Le Guin, Gwyneth Jones, go back to Octavia Butler after getting bored 90 pages into Parable of the Sower. . . . I’ll admit I’ve never cared for fiction “with a message.” For me, it’s all about how you’re portraying things in terms of realism. I’m a history major in college and take the psychological and sociological elements of speculative fiction very seriously and can be very easily annoyed when a writer seems to be writing a book solely to do something different without thinking about how this could work sensibly. Some writers have done it and impressed me, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan—like, say, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring or Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince. I didn’t really read The Hunger Games (I skimmed it due to my dislike of Collins’s writing style), but I found Katniss to be one of the most interesting protagonists in young adult science-fiction. Not likeable, necessarily, but you can’t say that girl doesn’t have a whole host of layers to her behaviors, which should be the goal.
I suppose this is mainly due to Girls Need Role Models, of which I felt I had plenty growing up—even though it was and is unintentional, almost all of my favorite authors are women, many of whom wrote excellent characters, male or female, and I never thought they wrote either gender differently—and isn’t that a good thing? Part of the reason why I liked them was because they were interesting: they yelled at people, they worried, they cried, they panicked, they sometimes just plain were wrong and were called out for it. And that’s why I loved them. They were human. This is one of my main problems with a lot of young adult speculative fiction these days: It’s all about, can the girl take of herself? Does she hook up with a boy? Does she conform to traditional gender roles without questioning them? I get why these questions are asked, but the most important question: Are they believable? Do they grow? Nobody asks if a male character needs to be saved or if he never actually beats the bad guy. In fact, people find that refreshing because of how things have been historically in the genre.
For example, my favorite novel of 2013 was the young adult science-fiction novel Quicksilver by R. J. Anderson. If you’ve heard of it, then you know that the protagonist, Tori, identifies as asexual, and she does: it’s refreshing to see someone who’s not interested in sex who’s female or remaining celibate for religious reasons. And Tori is exactly what I love in a character, male or female: she has skills—engineering; she has a well-developed back story and motivation; she grows as an individual, but it’s not in any way easy. And above all, she’s a person. Tori keeps secrets from Milo, lies to everyone, has tons of insecurities that she denies for half the book, and she often needs help from Milo for saving or emotional support.
It’s perfect.
That’s the problem. We don’t have enough stories where the female characters aren’t idealized. I get it—speculative fiction is an escape. But since everything’s gotten grim and darker these days, psychological ramifications need to be brought up more. I mean, look at Hermione in the Harry Potter books or movies. I can’t stand her; you can tell she’s Rowling’s self-insert. As the only girl in Harry’s circle, she’s Ms. Exposition, she is always right, and when she’s wrong like in Half-Blood Prince about Draco Malfoy being a Death Eater, she never suffers the consequences, unlike Harry and Ron. Over the course of the series, she locks two twelve-year-olds in a closet and drugs them, physically harms male characters, curses a girl for telling the truth to Umbridge about the DA, and continues to yell at Harry and Ron for not studying while also doing their homework for them. You could argue that these are supposed to be flaws, but does she suffer for them? Not really. Compared to Harry, who suffered the loss of Sirius for being wrong about seeing his godfather captured, or Ron, who is often treated like a complete idiot by Rowling after the first book, when he actually was just as useful as Hermione, she was let off far too easily. (And don't even get me started on when she physically attacked him with those birds in Half-Blood Prince. . . .) In other words, Positive Discrimination. The solution? We need more girl characters.
To continue with the Potter example, what if, say, Harry had another close friend who was female. Why just three? I understand that boys typically like to have friends of the same gender, but why not have another girl hang out with Harry? Like a female Neville, perhaps? Sure, there was Luna, but she didn't show up until the fifth book. Who said Dumbledore has to be male? Or Ron? And not just the heroes, either: What if Alastor Moody, and the Death Eater who pretended to be him, were female? What if Quirrell had been female? It wouldn’t change that much, would it? (Though I’ll give Ms. Rowling this: she wasn’t afraid to present women as awful people or incompetent, like Rita Skeeter or the aforementioned Dolores Umbridge.)
These girls or women could be anything: pretty, homely, or ugly; smart, dumb, or simply uneducated; poor, middle-class, or rich; white, black, or something different all together; straight, gay, bi, pan; gender-conforming, transgender, gender queer; strong or weak; active or passive; able-bodied or physically disabled; and so on. More women and girls being represented, like actual statistics tend to show, would do so much more. I mean, this is speculative fiction: Who says that just because your society is medieval in technology you have to keep gender roles the same? (And this goes for any other diversity.)  
So my ending to this rant? I want more women. At least when you have more female characters you have less incidents of an individual character or piece of media being forced to represent such a large and varied group of people. (Again, counts for anyone that doesn’t fit the "able-bodied and neurotypical Christian Western straight white cis male" default.) Feminists have done a lot for the representation of women in this genre, but it seems that when there’s a male author, unless the protagonist is female (example: Thursday Next) the number of female characters is often severely diminished when compared to the male. This doesn’t mean I suggest turning this into quotas. Oh no. I am completely against the idea that just because diversity is a problem every author should try to include it—then it becomes tokenism, and that’s even worse than not being seen at all because it often just spreads stereotypes.
No, I mean this on average. In reality, the average of men to women is about 1:1. When this becomes reality in terms of literature, then I think we’ll have finally made it to that sweet spot.

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