Hello book bees and welcome to another discussion post! For this post, I will be discussing the differences in reading fantasy books by male authors and fantasy books by female authors. To keep things simple, I will mostly be considering the divide in gender representation. I will discuss intersectionality in a later section, and may reference representation of BIPOC and LGBT+ people but today I will not be diving in depth into those topics. Additionally, when it comes to intersectionality and the discussion of BIPOC authors and characters I am a white person, so it is important that you listen to BIPOC writers and what they say on the topic over what I may say.
CW: This post will feature discussions of sexual assault, rape, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and other sensitive topics. I will be including further content warnings where appropriate, but please be aware that these topics come up and read with caution.
Problems I have with Male Fantasy
I do enjoy fantasy books written by men, and I have read plenty of them. But there are a lot of problems that often crop up. This isn’t exclusive to fantasy, of course, but I’m focusing on fantasy in particular because this is something that actually led me to abandon the genre for a few years. Something about fantasy settings can bring out the worst in male authors, as though the presence of fantasy elements gives them liberty to introduce sexist and horrible plotlines for their female characters (if they have any).
The first issue I usually have with a male written fantasy book is the lack of female characters, or at least the lack of good female characters. A lot of the generic high fantasy produced by men imitates Tolkien’s gender ratios without the payoff of the female characters that are present in that seminal work of the genre. Nine times out of ten when reading a fantasy novel by a male author, I find that I can count the amount of female characters on one hand. I also find that those characters fall into archetypes such as the damsel in distress, are victims of sexual assault (something I’ll come back to in a bit), or are irredeemably evil in a way that is intimately tied up in their gender. It’s frustrating to read entire books and series in which all of the representatives of my gender are boring, annoying, or otherwise flat.
CW for following paragraph: Sexual assault, rape, abuse
The second problem I have is that the worst and most graphic depictions of rape and sexual assault I have ever read have been in male-written fantasy novels. I don’t know exactly what causes this to happen, but I have definitely noticed a pattern that male-written fantasy seems to often portray the worst in men. To give credit where credit is due, the authors generally make it clear that the rape and sexual assault is bad. Revenge and punishment is often had, and the male heroes and protagonists don’t partake in sexual assault. However, the descriptions are still there, and often with zero content warnings. I’m privileged that these descriptions while uncomfortable are not strong triggers for me and I am able to read and process them without detriment to my mental health. However, I often skip these descriptions and DNF these books because of them. I have experienced enough threats, misogyny, and sexual harassment that I have no need to read about those experiences in fantasy–a genre that I consider an escape from the ills of real life. There is not and never has been a plot purpose to the inclusion of such graphic depictions of rape and sexual assault. And yet, rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse in relationships are often used by male authors to explain a character’s personality. These are used as character backstory to either demonstrate how good and moral a character that opposed these actions is, or to demonstrate how horribly abused a character was (usually female, but not always), or to demonstrate what a monster an antagonist is. While including characters who are rapists is one thing, including graphic depictions of their crimes is an entirely unnecessary other thing.
I find that fantasy novels by men are also often less well rounded and yet lauded as better than female authors’ works. Women write some incredibly unique fantasy worlds with interesting and surprising twists and turns, and yet are passed over for awards and recognition in favor of male authors whose stories are predictable at best. This is not to say that every fantasy novel by a man is poorly written and unimaginative, but to point out the discrepancy that exists in recognition and famous names. The gender gap in fantasy has led to a variety of tactics and techniques to promote female authors. The most commonly known one is the use of initials instead of full names because of the demonstrated bias that readers have against picking up a fantasy novel with a woman’s name on the cover. Different worldviews and experiences lead to different writing styles, worlds, and plotlines. It’s time that the voices of women writers in fantasy were bolstered.
“Strong” Female Characters
I am hardly the first to point this out, but male authors (and some female authors, to be fair) tend to write what are supposed to be strong female characters that just…aren’t. A good example of this not in the fantasy genre is the way Joss Whedon writes Black Widow in the Marvel universe. In Whedon’s writing of her, she is considered strong and badass but only so long as she conforms to a certain ideal of feminine and mourns the fact that she cannot have children. Female characters written like this–supposedly strong but ultimately weak when stripped of their fighting prowess–are frustrating to read. You see this a lot in fantasy where a female character is constantly touted as the best fighter, or the strongest mage, but is stripped of her power as soon as the main male protagonist with his lack of experience and lack of talent bests her in battle (usually only because of sexual tension).
There are a lot of tropes and characteristics of this type of female character in fantasy. Usually, she is bitter and mean due to some trauma in her past that either isn’t all that traumatic (reinforcing the idea that women are hysterical) or is all that traumatic but she isn’t given the character development to move past her grief unless of course the main male protagonist offers her love and affection. If she is a skilled warrior, she learned so by being trained against expectations of women usually by her father or brother(s) and is constantly underestimated by others despite also having a reputation as a warrior. She fought and clawed her way to where she is and she disdains all women who didn’t do the same, isolating her from literally everyone because the men don’t respect her either.
Yes, there are women in the real world who did claw their way up to the top of male dominated fields, and there are women who did that to the exclusion and isolation of their peers of all genders. However, there are a lot of women who use their positions of power to bolster other women and help others and have a lot of friends, family, and coworkers that like and respect them. It doesn’t make a female character strong to be a loner who hates everyone and is equally hated for their nonconformity. In fact, it creates an unrealistic expectation for young and impressionable readers that in order to be powerful and strong you need to be alone.
Experience: Reading a Female Fantasy Author
I have at various points found myself reading a good fantasy book and then looking up the author to discover they were a woman. It’s no surprise to me, considering my lack of patience for overhyped male authors, that my favorite authors are almost always women and my favorite books inevitably written by women. The experience of reading fantasy from a female author is one I enjoy immensely. I find the characters more diverse, well rounded, and respected. I find the plot focuses less on imposing trauma and pain on people and more about the hope that rises up in a dark fantasy world. The villains have more interesting motivations, or at least are more interesting people to read about, and the worlds are explored more. A lot of the fantasy written by men that floods the cheaper shelves of bookstores and the free ebook world is self fulfillment in the form of a fantasy world, largely based in the author’s preferred fantasy world of choice and pursuing the traditional adventure and romance plot the author aspired to have when younger.
There’s also not a lot of respect for female fantasy authors as compared to their male counterparts. I had a creative writing professor in college who disparaged any popular series written by a woman but was unable to see that he didn’t feel the same about works by men. This bias is everyone from writing professors to literary scholars to publishers to literary agents and even down to authors and readers themselves. While I simply don’t have the time to really delve into the facts and figures about gender bias in the fantasy genre in this blog post, I can cite my experiences as writer and reader. In that same professor’s class I worked on a fantasy project with a group of four other women and one man. Guess whose parts of the project the professor praised most? Guess whose parts the professor though worthwhile despite his strong bias against fantasy writing? Male fantasy writers are more respected for going against the masculine grain to write still highly masculine stories but in a fantasy setting. Female fantasy writers are considered just another one of the pack of wildly delusional women.
There is a lot of room to be creative in fantasy. If you want to see just how nuts people can get, look up anecdote threads on any social media site for Dungeons and Dragons tales. Everyone who’s played had a crazy idea that somehow worked during a campaign. The same can often be true of fantasy stories, because ultimately if there’s dragons and magic and whatnot then the limit is only your imagination! And yet. Women who write diverse worlds in which racism (fantasy or otherwise) never existed, or world where women have always been in charge, or worlds where gender doesn’t even exist are often criticized for having created unrealistic worlds because apparently despite fantasy being what it is we still have to include all the pain and trauma of the real world.
Intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a black feminist scholar, to describe the experiences of black women within the framework of feminism. Historically and still today, discussions of feminism and the experiences of women worldwide tend to focus by default on the experiences of white women. Crenshaw thus introduced intersectionality as a framework with which to understand that the experiences of a black woman can be significantly different than those of a white woman due to the multi-faceted nature of the discrimination against people of color, black people in certain countries such as the United States, and black women specifically who face many levels of oppression within the frameworks of whiteness, wealth, sexism, etc.
Intersectionality is often used by feminist and queer scholars to describe the social stratification that needs to be considered when discussing oppression and privilege. This stratification considers a variety of factors from sexuality to gender presentation, education and wealth, to race and skin color. This framework considers that looking at different women’s experiences requires an understanding of the different factors at play in each one.
The reason I am including a brief discussion of intersectionality is that this conversation has largely lumped all women together in the face of fantasy writing. But it’s important to understand that even within the texts of female fantasy authors, there can be factors of racism, colorism, internalized misogyny, privilege of wealth and education, homophobia, and transphobia. I’ve read one fantasy author’s entire body of work–almost thirty novels–and she has never featured a gay or trans character. I’ve read other female fantasy authors who despite best efforts represent racist tropes in their attempts to include diverse characters without sensitivity readers. As a white woman, it is my responsibility to understand my privilege in seeing myself in fantasy writing which should be some of the most diverse in fiction but frankly isn’t.
As a queer woman I can speak to the under representation of queer characters in fantasy. Often times, queer characters are sidekicks and side characters that are just there for the representation points. A lot of fantasy writers (some female but most male) argue that the inclusion of queer characters in a high or epic fantasy setting based weirdly on incorrect assumptions about medieval Europe is unrealistic. If you’ve got dragons, though, you can include a gay person. Or five. Or fifty. Heck, I wrote a fantasy novel for NaNoWriMo one year that featured exactly zero male characters and only one straight woman! And it still made sense because the whole time they were dealing with a dragon, and magic, and witches.
The point I have briefly wandered away from is that fantasy authors tend to present diversity in fantasy elements but don’t seem to ponder presenting real diversity. Using fantasy racism as a metaphor for real racism is a tired trope often poorly done by white authors without a full understanding of what the very real effects of long term racism and racial oppression are like. Including queer characters in your story only for them to still fear discrimination and violence isn’t new or gritty or interesting or diverse, it’s tired and harmful.
There’s been a lot to chew through in this post. Admittedly, this topic is probably better discussed in literary theory journals and by more seasoned scholars, but a lot of those journals are also behind academic paywalls and filled with academic jargon that isn’t always easily accessible to readers. I’ve discussed these topics before in academic settings and in personal conversations, so I feel comfortable transitioning some of the ideas I’m accustomed to discussing to talking about the differences I have observed in my experience reading fantasy novels. I do think that people in the bookish communities are aware of gender gaps and intersectionality, and that there’s interest in promoting more diverse authors in our favorite literary genres.
How about you book bees, what are you thoughts on this topic? Please feel free to share in the comments!