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heroes and heroines: females in fantasy

Despite my love of all things fantasy and a slight (read: considerable) reading obsession, I have to admit that until it was pointed out to me recently, I didn’t really notice the distinct lack of a female presence in the science fiction and fantasy genre. I mean, I just wanted to get lost in the story, you know? I wasn’t really fussed if it was written by a man, woman or your neighbour’s talking llama, as long as it was well-written, entertaining and for a few hours a day let me escape to my merry reading bubble.

But try as I may to reach my happy place, I found I simply could not with this new found information. I started noticing the severely unbalanced male to female writer ratio in my book collection and began questioning the male protagonists in my favourite stories. Whatever happened to Harriet Potter, the girl who lived? Did Tolkien not think Frodina could have saved Middle Earth? Surely Bella could have survived in a world without Edward Cullen saving the day every ten pages?

The revelation came to a head, however, on discovering that my favourite author had changed her name from Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, to the ambiguously gender neutral Robin Hobb when she began writing her bestselling series, The Farseer Trilogy, led by male protagonist Fitz. The reason? Apparently boys are reluctant to read anything written by girls for fear of catching girl germs and being subjected to lovey dovey romance scenes when what they’re really after is war, sword fights and Tarzan-like displays of chest-thumping male domination.

‘Really?’ I hear you ask. Well, apparently Hobb is not the only one afraid of this outcome. J.K. Rowling’s use of her first name initials is not mere happenstance, and when I recently attended this year’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Melbourne, I listened with interest as Australian fantasy author Jennifer Fallon expressed her regret at not giving herself a male pseudonym for similar reasons. She has even been quoted as saying that had she changed her name to John Fallon, ‘all the boys out there who assume that all female fantasy writers write soppy romance fantasies would pick up my books and read them and I’d be much, much richer.’

Now, I know that boys can be pretty boneheaded, but for it to make such a difference in a society where I like to think we have reached some level of gender equality; for it to have reached the point where authors are putting considerable thought into changing their names in order to sell their books, well that does surprise me. Not to mention, it makes me consider my potential (and at this stage very distant) future in writing fantasy fiction. Should I be considering a male pseudonym?

I’d like to entertain my suspicions that the shortage of female protagonists within the genre itself has to do with the simple fact that a great deal of fantasy novels are set in a mythical past, which often resemble a folkloric history of our own. Although fantasy ultimately has the creative license to build a world that doesn’t adhere to what we know as reality, a reader usually needs something to connect with, something familiar, in order for them to relate to and follow the story without too much effort on their behalf. This is what writer and teacher of fantasy, Melissa Thomas, refers to in her Teaching fantasy: Overcoming the stigma of fluff as the ‘Blue Skies, Green Grass’ theory, where the world within the story has oceans, mountains, forests, and fields and abides by your standard up is up, down is down rules, unless of course it is stated otherwise.

So, could it be that if the reader is placed in a world they recognise as a medieval type setting, as is the case with a great deal of fantasy novels, that they might then expect some level of medieval type principles, where the men are the warriors and the women bear the children? Perhaps this answers for the lack of female heroes?

Joss Whedon, writer and creator of the cult hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the upcoming Avengers movie, may not be a writer of literature, but his writing sits as high as the best of them, and just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with his brain. He created Buffy because he saw an absence of strong female characters and set out to rectify it. And he refused to stick by the convention that a heroine needed to be warlike or ‘manly’. Buffy was, for all intents and purposes, a typical sixteen-year old girly girl and Joss made a point of surrounding her with men that had no problem with the idea of a female leader. Although he struggled to get Buffy off the ground, the show eventually prompted a change in small screen heroines and was significant in influencing the future of strong female characters on television as we now know it.

While I’m reluctant to enter the gender issue debate, I do think it’s worthwhile to recognise the gaps that might exist in any medium, because by doing so we give ourselves the opportunity, as women and as writers, to embrace a potential niche in the market and make it our own. Perhaps, if we pay heed to the absence of female writers and protagonists in fantasy fiction, then we might follow Joss’s example, endeavour to be pioneers, and make female characters more prevalent in the genre without misrepresenting or distorting the credibility of the historical and mythical worlds in which we place them.

Do I detect a challenge?

By Katy Hulmes

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12 thoughts on “heroes and heroines: females in fantasy

  1. Hi Jessica!

    Thanks for your feedback and for the links.

    I hadn’t seen the ‘after post’ but had read Tara’s first post on gender bias in the world of literature and my word did those comments get feisty! The statistics definitely don’t look to favor female writers so it’s definitely a topic worthy of discussion, in my opinion.

  2. A good article, Katy. And I’ve been keenly following the debate arising from the great news of the Stella Prize. I recently completed my first adult novel and I have commenced my next novel which is YA, with a ‘myth and legend’ theme and I have deliberately created a young, strong, female protaganist because of the points you succinctly raise above.

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  4. Well, you are right. There’s not much to argue there. But I was pleasantly surprised by Pullman’s His Dark Materials series having a lovable, spunky girl as the protag. I’ve also noted that more *older* female writers seem to entering the science fiction and fantasy genre. I don’t have any hard numbers to back that up, but that’s what I’ve noticed. Of course, that could be because I’m one of those older, female writers. 😉

  5. Thank you Shirley! And yes, what a fantastic initiative the Stella Prize is.

    It’s also wonderful to see both female writers and strong female protagonists making a stand for their place in literature. I look forward to seeing your bestseller on the bookshelf one day!

  6. Hi Nila!

    I loved Pullman’s His Dark Materials, although the movie adaptation was such a let down, as they so often are. But you make a good point that there are female protagonists out there with some bite!

    Good to hear you’re making your mark as a female writer of speculative fiction and look forward to seeing The Lorena Libre Mystery Tales in stores one day!

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  8. Nicely written and good points. I like how your writing style/voice is so clear. And yes, when I first heard about J.K.Rowling’s reasons for the “J.K.” I was so sad. Yes, the world needs strong women heroines. I have always been quite fond of Eowin…”I am no man.” I love her! But, of course, hers is a relatively small role in Tolkien’s huge world…

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