Women in fantasy

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Chilari, Mar 10, 2013.

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  1. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    Moving on from the Bechdel test threads, I think it's time we got this discussion moving again. I have not called this Bechdel thread part 3 or whatever because I think we've moved past discussion of the test format - the consensus seems to be that it's a blunt tool and not necessarily useful - to discuss how we can improve portrayals of female characters, where it has been done successfully or badly in recent published fiction, and look at character archetypes which are either exclusively men or exclusively women, and examine why this is and how we can challenge it.

    But there are rules, to prevent this from getting out of hand again:
    • If you don't think this needs to be discussed, don't discuss it. Leave the rest of us to discuss it.
    • Don't characterise any position you do not hold. This leads to straw man arguments.
    • Let's keep away from real world gender politics and just discuss the topic as it relates to characters in fantasy stories.

    One thing brought up in the last thread was that there are rarely female characters who are genuinely cowardly - they're either frightened, briefly, for the hero to help out, or brave, self-assured women. What other flaws or strengths do you rarely see in a female character that you often get in male characters?

    You also see a lot of female warrior types who either try to keep up with the men, or exceed their abilities. But you don't often see male characters in female social spheres or professions, trying to prove they're just as good as the women. Is this because the activities generally written about in fantasy are usually traditionally male activities, like soldiering, or is there something deeper? Has anyone read anything, or writing anything, that shows a male character in this situation. I think it could certainly work in situations with mages - if magic is generally a feminine pursuit, whereas swordplay and physical fighting is more masculine in a particular orld, a male mage trying to make his way in a normally female pursuit would be possible.
     
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    This one, with the new DC 52, really ticked me off when I read it.

    I've never been a fan of DC, so this isn't me being a fanboy. And it's not just that they did this to a woman, but that they're clearly doing intentionally, and they're doing it to well-known, well-loved characters who were doing just fine before the sexualized relaunch. They're abandoning strong women for sex appeal, and that's pretty much them saying that the women in their audience don't matter, they're not even going to try.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2013
  3. Chime85

    Chime85 Mystagogue

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    Oddly enough, I too liked the idea of having a female coward in a story. It is a rare sight (in fact, no examples come to mind) to have a female coward.

    I think someone touched upon a very good perspective when it comes to writing in the previous thread. That is, two not assign genders to characters until you* have fleshed them out. It gives the character more body when you set your mind to consider, more freely, what a person is. This eliminated the unintentional trap of thinking what would a man do, or what would a woman do. It also eliminates any agendas a writer may or may not have regarding (for lack of a better phrase) the battle of the sexes.

    *hypothetically
     
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  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    It may be that some writers will shy away from something like abject cowardice out of concern for being accused of writing "weak" female characters. The thing I see most often is that however the female characters are portrayed, they're monolithic. The author seizes onto one defining characteristic, whether it's that they need saving, or they're the brave warrior type, or the snarky self-reliant rogue, or what have you, and that's about as far as the characterization goes. With male characters, on the other hand, while you will see some central traits that take center stage in the presentation of the character, the author is much more likely to look beyond that and try to add further depth and complexity to the character. In other words, the male characters are more real, whereas the female characters are there precisely so the author can say "see what I did here with this strong female character?"

    Ah, well this gets into complexities, right? The fantasy worlds we read about will, in the vast majority of cases, reflect the value systems of the society in which the writing was produced. That value system is mirrored in the fantasy world. If you look at a patriarchal system, all the high-value role are the traditionally male roles. The easiest and most obvious way to try to reflect women as strong or powerful is to move them into the traditionally male sphere. It's a mistake, in my view, in that it gives up the fight one step too late. Moving the males into traditionally-female roles will work, but I think you've got to build a very different society around such a story - one in which the patriarchal value system is not assumed. That's hard for writers to do, and maybe harder for many readers to relate to. Even in the fantasy context, where literally the entire world is at your whim in terms of design, value system, power structure, etc., the default and by far most predominant situation is one in which the patriarchal value system is presumed, and then everything else one might call world-building is built on top of that.

    In terms of books, one thing you might look at is The Gate to Women's Country, by Sherri Tepper (in fact a lot of Tepper's works will serve, but this one relates specifically to a matriarchal society). It's a well-written story, as all of her's are, and also a pretty interesting take on biological sex determining value system and valued or devalued roles. I won't tell you where she ends up with it, but it's worth reading.

    Also, anything by Octavia Butler is excellent. Kindred and Parable of the Sower, for example. Fledgling was also great. Butler touches a lot on gender issues, and her female characters are complex and real (see for example Parable of the Sower. Great character; haunting book in many ways). Also, Butler was a black woman, and a lesbian, writing spectacular works in a field that still remains largely dominated by white men. So you'll get a unique perspective on character from her, and I think it is instructive to see how she deals with characters and creating the empathy and understanding in a reader that really makes one care about her characters.
     
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  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    Yeah, that's pretty bad. There is an interesting link at the bottom giving a 7 year old girl's perspective on the character. Using sexual abuse as a punishment or consequence for female characters is not uncommon in fantasy media, particularly if the female character has progressive views toward sexuality. It makes for a very shaky line if you're an author and you're going to incorporate rape or similar elements into a story, because it is so easy to turn the whole thing into a punishment (or at least to make it look that way), or to fall into the trap of then turning the rape element into something that is about the male character (his redemption, or lack thereof, whatever), making the rape of the female character nothing more than a vehicle to develop and/or comment on the male character. Most of the time when I see this, I don't feel like the author handles it very well.
     
  6. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I see a problem with this character type. Maybe I'm being short-sighted, but how would one write a cowardly character of any gender & still have that character be proactive? I assume we're talking about MCs here & not some tertiary character.

    I'm a big believer in the need of a character to eventually be proactive if the reader is to relate. When I say eventually...sooner rather than later.
     
  7. WyrdMystic

    WyrdMystic Grandmaster

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    I can't recall any female cowardly characters in fantasy - they seem to be mainly reserved for horror, in particular, horror movies...and then mainly the sorrority girl slamming the door, running up the stairs and locking themsleves in the bathroom, or running out back and tripping, spraining the ankle...and on and on ad nauseam.

    Saying that, I don't think male cowrads are particularly prevelant either. I think this is because the 'coward' archetype isn't one that really suits a fantasy MC. Though a character may start as a coward, they grow and evolve until they become brave in some way, either by facing their fears or doing doing something heroic that is against their original nature.

    I also think 'coward' can be defined different ways...for instance, isn't someone who throws up and shakes and hides in extreme situations who also forces themselves to get into those situations to achieve a goal actually brave??

    I think not choosing a gender before fleshing the character doesn't really work - mainly because you are picking traits and then saying, because of those traits, that must be a man or must be a woman.

    As for the DC comics thing, that's down to the sexualisation of youth through pop culture. Comics are a dwindling franchise and, unfortunately, one of the quickest way to increaser a fan base in modern society is to sexualise it.
     
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    This is an outstanding point.

    Most of my favorite female characters are very feminine and follow feminine pursuits (those their society dictates to be feminine). However, they wield enormous influence & power...in many ways their strength is derived from femininity. I'm not talking about power wielded by influencing men to exert power by proxy either, although sometimes that can create a compelling character full of contradictions.
     
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  9. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Dark Lord

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    Actually, the cowardly hero is pretty well-established in fantasy fiction. I'd say Rincewind is the quintessential modern example, though you could also make a case for Ciaphas Cain (a coward so pragmatic he effectively becomes a hero through risk minimization.)

    As for Starfire, I think Shortpacked sums it up.
     
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  10. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I'm not familiar with any of these characters.

    My question isn't "if they exist"... It's how do you write one to be proactive? If I'm going to write an MC type character, I want them to be relatable and sympathetic. I just don't think you can get a powerful effect without proactivity on some level.
     
  11. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Dark Lord

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    I don't want to attach too much weight to this argument, since I'm not specifically arguing for more cowardly protagonists. (Truth be told, one possibility I imagined was a female version of the spinelessly traitorous Beni from The Mummy.) I'm just interested in more variety in general.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2013
  12. Lucas

    Lucas Lore Master

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    The "damsel in distress" is the archetypical example of a female coward. Cowardice is however not seen as a vice amongst females.
     
  13. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Valar Lord

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    Hmm...some of Lovecrafts male characters were cowardly...or at least not particularly brave. However, they did sometimes survive their encounters with alien monstrosities, though often they spent time in the insane asylum afterwards.

    As to female characters...I see a lot of 'urban fantasy' books on the shelves which appear to revolve around kick-but female characters, be they vampires, werewolves, witches, or demons (or some combination thereof). Many of the authors are women.

    For my own writing...lessee...

    'Bethany' - makes a brief appearance in chapter one of Labyrinth and is slated to appear elsewhere. She is an exiled princess, raised in isolation. Not as good socially as women are supposed to be, and more self reliant.

    'Ann' - wife of the MC in Labyrinth, appears but briefly. Alienated, because her husband is gone much of the time and it is a lackluster political marriage to boot.

    Dr Isabella Menendez - healer and wizard, major character in Labyrinth, refered to elsewhere. She is an old woman in Labyrinth, but was also married several times. She is lonely, having outlived her husbands and children, and can't really relate with her grandchildren. She is also afraid of the Church inquisition, first seeking refuge with a major family of sininster repute and then venturing to the edge of the map.

    'Theodora' - one of the MC's of 'Empire'. Attractive, barely out of her teens, of impoverished aristocratic stock. She has to contend with her parents efforts to set her up with men of other aristocratic families, most of whom she despises (ones old, ones a psychopath, ones perpetually ill, and so on). Theodora and her companions are agents for a wealthy, well connected merchant. In the first tale, she is 'bold', but not particularly 'brave', and is deeply scarred by what happens.
     
  14. Jamber

    Jamber Mystagogue

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    A character of any gender trapped in a circumstance they need rescuing from is hardly cowardly. Odds are simply overwhelming them. Rapunzel in her tower isn't cowardly; she's just locked in. What's significant about traditional representation is that women were so often portrayed as passive in that way. (It could be argued that the Bechdel test can help expose this kind of passivity, though as I said once before I feel it's inappropriate to novels.)

    On another note, I often feel bravery is coded very differently for men and women. Has anyone else felt this way? A woman who rescues her child from the jaws of a lion is often seen as just operating under 'maternal instinct'; a father who did the same thing is applauded as a hero (maternity is not coded as in any way 'heroic'). Aliens is complicated for this reason -- Ripley should seem purely heroic, but there's a sense where she's also acting out an anguished maternal instinct (her flesh-and-blood child having died). As a childless younger woman I remember feeling a little annoyed that she couldn't just be heroic without the maternal stuff; now it actually seems a little radical (there aren't that many woman-saving-the-child stories). Angela Carter did a luminous rewrite of Bluebeard where the bride is rescued by her mother. The only myth I can think of that follows mother-child heroism is Demeter/Persephone, and it's kind of a split tale.

    Sorry, I'm waffling. My basic point, I suppose, is that context is just as important as characterisation. I wouldn't feel a female mercenary who fights men for their purses to be heroic in itself, but against a social setting in which rich men oppress poor females, it is. As well, against a history of representation in which women are passive and walked-over by males, the 'kick-ass' femme could be said to be representationally heroic. Rapunzel lets a man climb up her hair (I gather original versions had the old hag become aware of the goings-on only when Rapunzel's belly started to swell). Against some contexts there's a weird kind of heroism in that.

    Just my thoughts,

    Jennie
     
  15. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Dark Lord

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    Speaking of Rapunzel, what's everyone think of how she's portrayed in Disney's Tangled? Her ultimate act of heroism is
    promising to stay with Gothel and never leave in return for the chance to save Flynn, attempting to sacrifice her future to save the life of the man she loves.

    It's not the conventional sort of heroism, but I found it quite powerful.
     
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  16. Nihal

    Nihal Valar Lord

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    I think it's harder to portray a coward woman because it's the expected behaviour of a woman. A man who get paralyzed by fear or run away is a coward, a woman who does the same thing is being a woman.

    Sad, annoying, - I particularly find this line of thought outrageous - but true. That's how our society usually sees the issue. The character won't ring as a coward to the most of your readers, she'll sound more as a "being a woman". She would be annoying, yes, but not exactly rejected as a coward in the same way male MCs would be.

    Having this in mind, portray a coward woman would require an additional effort to convince the general audience that this kind of behaviour, in this female character, should be despised. You must either give a reason powerful enough to make the coward act sound really coward - like using the expected motherly instinct against the character, E.G.: A mother throws her own child to a wolf and run away -, or carefully disconstruct this notion by other means, as describing a whole society of brave women.

    These are the easiest ways to do this, but I can think of a trilogy called Abhorsen where one of the MCs - female - acts as a coward and was pretty convincing in this role. I'm not sure of why, I guess she was successfully portrayed as a person before being a woman.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2013
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  17. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    FYI this isn't something new to DC. Look at number two on this list. The 6 Creepiest Sexual Encounters in Comic Book History | Cracked.com They did it to Nightwing, aka Dick Grayson, aka the original Robin, long before this.

    Coincidentally I Starfire and Nightwing were a couple once upon a time.
     
  18. WyrdMystic

    WyrdMystic Grandmaster

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    That doesn't ring true with me. I think things have generally moved on from that view point and acts of caowardice are generally the norm amongst both genders in real life, hence the person who has the guts to step in and save someone is heralded as a hero.

    It's not fantasy but the female MC in Copycat suffered from extreme agorophobia, and ultimately overcame that fear to get the baddie. I think that shows that cowardice and bravery are subjective. It's not the amount of danger that is the true measure of bravery, but the amount/strength of the fear that is overcome. Also, a brave act from someone without fear could as easily be a result of stupidity and therefore not really brave at all as there was nothing to overcome.

    The example of the mother saving a child from the jaws of a lion is one, I think, that shows that the maternal instinct is one of the strongest driving factors in nature.

    I don't think it's 'just' being a woman, I think its a sign that women are, in some ways, much stronger than men. And neither do I thing the mother would not be thought of as being a hero. The issue is more that she would be thought of being as more of a hero because she is a woman, whereas a man would just be doing his job so to speak...that's the line that doesn't sit right with me

    EDIT - Ninja'd
     
  19. Chime85

    Chime85 Mystagogue

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    Steerpike from gormenghast. He is the embodiment of a coward through most of his life. By all means, he cheats the system as it were, but he hides himself from those who watch him. He uses authority to gain power, not his positive merits. By all means, he is the villain, he is also the hero.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2013
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  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I would say a coward is someone who doesn't just freeze or run, but who actually does really despicable things out of fear.

    Women, I think, aren't expected to stand up and fight against a larger male adversary, but that's not really the same thing. It's not cowardice to recognize that you're outmatched, and most women who freeze and run haven't made any special commitments to show bravery, like becoming a soldier.

    But I can't think of a female character who does really despicable things because she's afraid. Well, not in the genre, anyways. I can think of some women on television who do really despicable things because they're afraid of losing the guy, which probably just proves the point even further.


    I don't know, that seems like a reasonable plot point by comparison to what they're doing to Starfire, and also like a piece of reasonable social commentary. Starfire, in the new 52, isn't being raped; she just has trouble telling humans apart, or remembering anything about them, so she doesn't care who she sleeps with because she hardly knows the difference.

    That seems like a low point, to me, in terms of portraying what female sexuality means, and a pretty far degradation of what had been a relatively strong female character.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2013
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