“If a fantasy world is completely invented by the author, and he can create any kind of magic and government s/he wants, why not make the women completely equal?” This is a recurring question, and a good one. Fantasy books in which the women hold important positions in society set an example for young readers, by saying, this is possible. I believe this strategy, when used on television, has been effective in combating sexism, racism, and homophobia—even when writers accidentally fold biases into the stories.
Of course the society we live in today is more egalitarian than any before it. Women fill leadership positions in everything from universities to government. Unfortunately, it’s not enough, and earlier successes in the United States are beginning to erode. In the last election, for the first time, women ended with fewer seats in state and national legislatures than they had before—and this is important, as new laws are pushed forward which attempt to limit their reproductive rights. When the future is uncertain, it helps to depict the best outcomes in our stories. Doing so both guides and inspires.
But should this be a requirement for all fantasy authors? No. Definitely not. And here is why: it has been only decades, not centuries, since women have had the right to vote. Since a number of women, and not just a lucky few, have held important positions in science departments, hospitals, and businesses. If you go back hundreds rather than tens of years, women had even fewer options. Does that make them less interesting? No; a woman who achieves any sort of victory in a patriarchal society has a compelling story. I don’t want to abandon it.
Note that ‘few’ options does not mean ‘zero’ options. Much has been discussed today on the topic of historical authenticity, and I must admit, few things make me more nervous than discussing history on the internet. That’s because history is not a series of declarations—nor a battle of citations—but rather a study of available sources that results in an evolving story. However, all available information taken as aggregate, I would rather my daughter live today than five hundred years ago. Easy.
But why go to the past for inspiration? Because it happened. Because our past led to our present in ways we cannot see or understand just from looking. ‘The past is another country’ is something one of my professors used to say, but at the same time it is not; people are people, wherever and whenever they are, and they deserve our efforts at understanding.
But here we enter into dark territory. When you have a society in which women have fewer options, you can narrow their options to almost nothing and turn them into perpetual victims. I wrote before about how uncomfortable I was writing from the point of view of a slave in Knifesworn, and how, if I had planned it properly beforehand, I would have avoided using slaves at all. But once there were slaves there, I could not ignore their story; I had to give them one. I could not let them scrub the floors and carry silk runners, invisible and oppressed, and never explore their situation. I can only hope that I did it well, that I did not make light of the kind of abuse that results from one person having absolute power over another.
Should we avoid writing about people in difficult situations if we can’t do it perfectly? Again, no. Writing is about exploring the human condition. I trespassed when I created an old fighter with trauma; I trespassed when I created people of color; I trespassed when I created someone who had been imprisoned most of his life. I am none of these things, and yet I felt the impulse to explore them, because they are all part of the human experience. In the past I have often been afraid to do something if I cannot do it perfectly—but now I realize that I can only try, and in the trying, learn valuable lessons.
But I digress somewhat. I mean to say that by presenting a woman with less power than the men, a writer is not necessarily making the statement that this is the standard, or that this is what s/he prefers to see. While I cannot speak for all writers I will say that exploring all aspects of human life is not something we should shy away from. If we don’t do it well, we will have to take our lumps—but there is no reason not to try. By trying we say to many women from the past: your story is important. Your struggles, your suffering, and your triumphs matter. I respect them and I want to learn from them.
So in the end both approaches are valid. On the one hand, authors can present the image of what could be—the egalitarian society with female rulers, fighters, mages, and everything else. The more people read such things, the more they will come to expect it, and that is a good thing. On the other hand we have the other stories, the ones about women who overcame great obstacles for even the smallest achievements. These stories show strength and determination and can be a source of pride.
Every socially conscious writer struggles somewhat with the balance between responsibility and tale-telling, especially where the next generation is concerned. Nothing has surprised me more about writing than the fact I’ve had to face my own basic assumptions and biases over and over—may it never stop—it is educational. But I do not think there is only one way to be fair to women in our stories, nor only one way to present engaging, realistic female characters.