Are female characters in Fantasy subservient to their male counterparts?

Discussion in 'SFF lounge' started by Ackernon, Aug 25, 2011.

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    Ackernon

    Ackernon New Member

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    It has long been my belief that female characters in Epic Fantasy are not equal to their male counterparts and too frequently are only there for eye candy in the visual media or at best a love interest for the male leads. While we have come a long ways from the days of the "Gor" novels of the 60's, do you agree or disagree that more strong, capable, 3 dimensional female characters, with real life issues, would be a fine addition to modern Fantasy storytelling?
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    Vargev

    Vargev he who never sleeps.

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    I do, but saying that there are already several female leads who are strong and capable.

    Red Sonja for one.
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    Menion

    Menion ze Spaniard!

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    Yes, but there are many, many more male leads then female.
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    Ackernon

    Ackernon New Member

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    You are correct. Frankly there are more leads in all genres of fiction. But my question is why? There are at least as many adult viewers and readers of Fantasy that are female as male.
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    sabolich

    sabolich New Member

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    Hmm. Are you speaking of film or literature, or both? Epic fantasy is filled with guys wielding swords, and a few females, too, but in the real-life scheme of things, a woman competing with a sword on a battlefield is likely to have a somewhat shorter life expectancy unless she is really, really good (and I'm a girl who once was in the Army, running around in field gear keeping up with da guys, so don't hit me).

    Most of my high fantasy is written with a male in the lead role, but my first book, Firedancer, has a strong female lead, who has her share of problems with gaining acceptance but doesn't back up worth sh--, eh, beans. I have seen the discussions that ask whether women can write SF/fantasy as well as guys, with some guys admitting they shy away from female names on the cover and others declaring it makes no difference. I do know that some female writers deliberately avoid putting women in the lead role because they feel the male audience will not want to (or be able to) relate to a feminine point of view. I think there is a general fear of girl cooties and "mush" when the protag is a woman. This, unfortunately, leads to the general preponderance of butch, kick-butt, steely-eyed females who are basically guys with boobs and not allowed to be women.

    There are, however, some really excellent female characters in SF. C.J. Cherryh writes excellent secondary female characters, like Mallory in the universe of her Downbelow Station, and Ilisidi in her Foreigner series, but those are SF, not fantasy. Her lead in Gate of Ivrel is a strong woman with a kick-butt sword. You might try that one.

    If you look beyond epic fantasy to, say, urban fantasy, you get into cool characters like the lead in Emma Bull's War for the Oaks which is a fun combination of hard rock and Faery. But I agree that you sort of have to look hard for high fantasy that uses a female lead. Whether that is a combination of authorly fear, an accurate reading of the likelihood of audience acceptance, or a bow to the realities of medieval-type warfare, I don't know for sure.

    Or maybe other women authors, like me, find it's just fun to write guys!
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    Quokka

    Quokka wandering

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    I think that Fantasy is at least as equal an opportunity employer as general fiction. Just looking at some of the popular series at the moment like Robin Hobbs, GRR Martin, Steven Erikson all contain strong female characters either physically, intellectually, politically etc, living their own lives that intersect with the male characters without being subserviant to them.

    Obviously there's still plenty of fiction where the female characters are supporting cast and not individuals but I don't think it's something inherent in Fantasy, particuarly literature, Hollywood probably lags behind.

    There are still many more male leads than females but there are also many more published male authors than female authors, the ratio of both is changing. Male authors may be more capable of creating complete female characters as attitudes change but would at least some of them be reluctant to create leading characters of the opposite sex out of a concern for not getting it right?

    I recently finished a science fiction novel from the 50s and I really noticed how the main character's wife was left undeveloped for the majority of the story (who herself was important in a very small group) so we're heading in the right direction at least.

    In fact it stood out because I've read some brilliant female characters in science fiction, so could Science Fiction be in front of the curve?
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    Rommel

    Rommel New Member

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    Ever read a David Eddings Book lately? All his females are male butt-kicking ladies, magically, wifely or even fighting wise. The guys always end second.
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    GNath

    GNath New Member

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    OGN!

    i dont know about fantasy but in real life i have observed that women tend to become increasingly vulnerable to male ego especially in developing countries.

    In conservative societies (certain asian countries) females are mostly found in kitchen cooking most of the time. Its really crazy. The male gets to retire but never the woman.

    Once she becomes mom, its as if she is the Ultimate Engine to carry all the coaches of responsibilities!
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    Parson

    Parson This world is not my home

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    I'm not sure if this relates, but a study was made of American cartoons aimed at ages 7 and up, and who watched them. It was discovered that while both males and females related to males in the super hero role, males soon did not watch shows with women in that role. So, cartoons with female leads did not get the ratings and did not last. Much to the frustration of the woman who was reporting this finding. Her goal was to create female leads in cartoons.
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    Ackernon

    Ackernon New Member

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    Interesting. Do you happen to have a source for this data?
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    Parson

    Parson This world is not my home

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    Sorry, I don't have a source. It was a television program I was watching maybe 5 years ago. I couldn't even begin to tell you which program it was. Googling for several minutes did not turn up anything like an official study.
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2011
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    Parson

    Parson This world is not my home

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    Sorry, double post.
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    thaddeus6th

    thaddeus6th Active Member

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    Hmm, that is interesting, Parson.

    Lots of fantasy is set in a world that's quite similar to medieval England, so opportunities for women to be involved (if there's a high level of realism and low level of magic) are naturally more limited. Individual women are easily capable of being warriors, but on a large scale this is less likely (women are generally weaker than men and, more importantly, suffer a high mortality rate in childbirth. If lots of women fought and died then it'd rapidly depopulate a country, whereas the same is not necessarily true of men, as a man can easily, and without risk of death [usually] have a wife and various mistress).

    So, I'd argue the difference, historically at least, was that men were more expendable and that this carries through into fantasy. Of course, fantasy does have opportunities for women, with individuals breaking the mould (like Boudicca or Zenobia), as well as magic being a leveller.
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    Thadlerian

    Thadlerian Riftsound resident

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    This is possibly the most interesting question in the genre. I made a thread about it several years ago, kind of long-winded and directed at Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Here: http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/11424-lets-coin-a-new-term-wotism.html

    I haven't thought very much about it lately, as I haven't been reading all that much genre lately.

    I could talk about The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, and how the contrast between the male and female lead mirrors tendencies found in Jordan's books. Or about the character gallery of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy where - as a rule - men are heroic and women problematic. But I don't feel quite as radical as I used to in these matters - they're complex, and not as black and white as I expressed them in the above thread.
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    sabolich

    sabolich New Member

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    LOL. I haven't heard anyone ranting about WoT women in awhile, but then, I quit reading the series when he started spending two pages describing walk-on characters in excruciating detail and never advancing the plot. But that's a whole different discussion.

    Parson, that is a sad survey. I wonder at what age the boys stopped watching the girl superheroes, and if that was because they really couldn't relate, or because they had already been taught girls are inferior, or if the writing of those shows presented the girls in a way that just really turned them off. Nature hardwires us to a certain degree to view the opposite sex in certain ways, reinforced (usually pretty blatantly) by the culture we happen to grow up in. So this is kind of an interesting observation on the part of that researcher.

    Quokka, you may be right about SF leading the way in presenting women as something other than meek little subservient add-on characters. The very environment of space demands a tougher breed. But then again, do ALL the women have to be kick-butt aggressive to be accepted as viable characters? I would love to have seen Uhura save the Enterprise at the crucial moment with a push of a jamming button on her communications board just once.

    Can a woman win by wiles without being called a manipulative witch? Not all men are alpha males, but not all alpha males always win. Sometimes the ordinary Joe walks away with it all, and we always cheer when he does (bespectacled, skinny, frowsy Harry Potter springs instantly to mind). So why can't the plain Jane who doesn't spend her life pumping iron and shooting up the scenery be as sympathetic a character, or accomplish as much using other skills? Rowling's Hermione saves the boys over and over, on brains and talent, not brute force. Do guys worship at her feet? Not likely, Viktor Krum excepted. I would have to wonder how many guys are members of the Hermione Granger fan club who aren't lusting after Emma Watson.

    Sorry, this is becoming long-winded. I am interested, though, in why we feel the women characters are only viable heroines if they are kicking guys around. Or am I mistaking the trend?
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    Mouse

    Mouse roar

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    I love strong female characters. I get really annoyed when there aren't many female characters in books (Dorian Gray springs to mind!), strong or otherwise. I didn't like that there were no women in the Fellowship.

    But, I get that these books were written back when women and men weren't equal, so I don't expect anything else.

    Lots of the books I read now pretty much all have strong female characters in. For example, I've just finished Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. The character of Hester Shaw is a really screwed up, facially disfigured girl, and yet she kicks more backside than the lead male character.

    Also, by 'strong' I don't necessarily mean physically strong. I like it when female characters are interesting too. There are too many books/TV shows/films where women are just bits of fluff.

    As for men/boys not really relating/liking books where women are the heroes, I kinda think that's changing nowadays too. For example, my YA books have a girl as the main hero. I vaguely thought girls would probably enjoy the books more than boys, but one review (from Read Between the Lines) was by a 14 year old boy. This is what he said:

    Which always made me smile.
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    Connavar

    Connavar New Member

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    Men not relating to books where the women are heroes is bad excuse.

    In the hands of a good author a female lead hero will be liked. Trouble with fantasy of certain type is that there isnt many good writers writing Ripley/Xena/Buffy type ass kicking heroines. There are bad writers writing them like the writer of Sword of Truth....

    Too many authors both male, female think the hero of fantasy by definition must be a male for some reason. Its like they must make another straight and arrow or a barbarian male hero to sell....
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    Parson

    Parson This world is not my home

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    I agree that this was a sad survey, which is probably why it stuck with me all these years. As to the "why" I'm not sure any amount of research would give anything definite on that. Humans are such complex creatures that motivation is often fuzzy at best.

    If a first person illustration is helpful. I have a 6 year-old grandson who lives with me as well as a 4 year-old granddaughter. Up until this this year it didn't seem to matter to him the gender of the lead character in any cartoon he watched, but I can see that it begins to matter to him now. His Dad, who sees him every other weekend, is a serious "red-neck" but our home is seriously egalitarian. So I would tend to think nature more than nurture, but impossible to tell.

    Mouse, I would agree that things are getting better at the adult level. But I suspect any 14 year old boy who is writing book reviews (on line?) is likely not a trend setter for that age group. And would be viewed a bit askance by his peer group.
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    Mouse

    Mouse roar

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    Are you saying he'd have to be a bit weird to like my books, Parson? ;)

    I think that boys are perfectly happy to read about female heroes in books. Look at Philip Pullman's HDM. Lyra is the hero and lots of boys happily read the books. Same with Garth Nix's Sabriel books.
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    thaddeus6th

    thaddeus6th Active Member

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    It may not just be a question of boys not liking female leads. It might be that some female leads are written in a very feminine way (in the same way that some comediennes have 'being a woman' as their main material) and that this turns chaps off.

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