Q. How do you feel modern fantasy (by which I mean fantasy written today) jibes with the "Me, Too" movement, if at all, as women are so often portrayed as the objects of action instead of the actors themselves?
A: I think the objectification and infantilization of women is something one continues to see throughout literature and other forms of media. The damsel and the shrew are still the most prevalent female archetypes one sees, followed by the female warrior. However, I also think a sea change has been underway for quite a few years, and authors have more awareness that giving their female characters agency is a goal of good writing.
What you don't see often, at least in my readings, are female characters who hold positions of power in a routine way. Female leaders (political, military, economic, etc.) are still presented to readers as unusual or special.
Q: Can you point out a few authors/books who ARE doing this well?
A: I spent some time thinking about an answer to this question. Two authors who receive a lot of flak for their treatment of female characters, but who I think do a good job presenting women: are GRR Martin and Peter V. Brett. Both include episodes of sexual violence against women (and boys/men) in their work, and both have been criticized for these scenes being gratuitous or sensational and not having any real bearing on the plot or character development. I disagree, and I think Danerys being married to Drogo at 13 (in the book) and having to figure out how to not only survive as a child bride in an arranged marriage to a violent and callous warrior but to thrive and triumph in it, was essential to her development as a woman who can turn every situation to her advantage. Meanwhile, because Brett's work includes polygamous relationships (as well as incest and sexual assault), he's been accused of writing male fantasies. I disagree because his female characters consistently demonstrate they have agency within the constraints of the society they live in. [And, I'll have to finish this later because we're going somewhere.]
Q: Haven't read any Brett, but your GRRM answer is interesting. Yes, he is often accused of even hating women, but, as you say, Danerys is triumphant. I do wonder, though, because while I know many women who read GRRM, I've never heard one say, "The sex scenes are so awesome." Don't know that I've ever heard a man say that, either. I mean, are they even necessary?
A: Regarding whether the sex scenes are awesome in Martin, I'd ask, do they need to be? In real life, sex in a committed relationship is often perfunctory. It can be nice, but it isn't mind blowing every time. It's not necessarily even romantic. In ASOIAF, the only loving relationship between equal partners in the book is between Ned and Catelyn, and there is a really nice, realistic (to me) scene from Catelyn's POV in the beginning of the first book, which comes in right after they've finished. After that, almost every other sexual encounter is coercive, perverse, or otherwise taboo, which I imagine Martin does deliberately, to show the rottenness of Westeros. One exception is Jon and Ygritte, whose lovemaking was sweet and innocent--but then their relationship, like so many others, is founded on lies, so it's corrupt at its core too. Regarding the gratuity of the sex in Martin’s work, I also think people tend to conflate the sometimes absurdly gratuitous sex in the HBO TV series with Martin’s books. There isn’t anywhere near as much sex in the books as appears on the TV show. There are no brothel scenes with Peter watching his employees “practice” in the book. Tyrion and Shae have a lot of sex in the books, but that’s important to show how Shae hoodwinks Tyrion into falling for her so utterly. And most of the sex scenes between other characters are not explicit—there’s a lot more foreplay and morning after material than there are outright descriptions of the act.
So, in my view, the sex doesn't have to be "great." Martin isn't writing porn, he's writing fantasy about the struggle for power and resources between different political entities and different species. The sex scenes advance the plot and/or develop characters, and I don't find them gratuitous. In fact, if every sex scene was "hot," I might be more inclined to feel they were there for the sake of sensationalism rather than plot advancement.
I wanted to finish answering your original question, which was to name some authors who do a "good job" presenting female characters. One little-known indie author whose worldbuilding and storytelling I found really interesting, especially in her first book, is E.P. Clarke. In The Midnight Land, She created a society based on pre-Christian Russia in which women hold all the political and social power. That in itself isn't terribly unusual, but what I found interesting is that she didn't make the women Amazons and the men weaklings, which is what you usually see in books where the women are on top. The men in her world are still bigger and stronger than women, but instead of this being the foundation for their societal power, it's the reason why they lack power, because of a the societal belief is that "men are brutes" and too violent and stupid to be trusted to do anything requiring thought. With this foundation, she goes on to show how female leaders can be just as corrupt (or incorruptible) as male leaders. The Me Too question applies to her work as well, because she shows how women as well as men may use sexual harassment and sexual assault are used as tools of subjugation, which is really what they are. I guess my point is, if women routinely held the reins of power in society, they would be just as likely to do good or evil, as male leaders. We see this really well in Martin's work, as the reigns of Danerys and Cersei develop.
Q: Ah, okay, so let's revert to the more-traditional for a moment: who are some of your favorite heroines and villainesses?
A: Hmm, well, one of my favorite heroines is Rebecca from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. She is stalwart and unflinching in her passive resistance to Brian's designs and desires, and (spoiler) her refusal to yield causes Brian to sacrifice himself to save her. Tenar from the Earthsea Cycle is another heroine I've loved over the years. She's another traditional heroine in the sense that, at least in the Tombs of Atuan, in which she's a teenage girl, she could not or would not have broken free from the Old Gods without Ged's influence and help. In Tehanu, however, the mature, 30- or 40-something Tenar steps into the role of hero (rather than heroine--I see these terms as describing the narrative roles of protagonists rather than being strictly gender-related). In Tehanu, she assumes the role of mother and protector, and she is the primary force in keeping the title character, a young girl named Tehanu, safe from the people who want to use her or hurt her.
I can't really name a villain that I "love." I really don't like villains--I love it when authors show me things from the antagonist's point of view and give me some way to identify with them, but then that person really isn't a villain any more, is she/he? I do like Cersei in HBO's GOT, but I hate Cersei in ASOIAF, because in the book she's stupid and boring. In the TV show, she's written as being much more clever and much more interesting.
In case it's of interest, here's a blog I wrote describing my ideas about how hero/heroine shouldn't be used to refer to the protagonist's gender, but rather their narrative function in the story.
Q: I think your hero/heroine argument is fascinating, and I understand what you're getting at. I wonder if it isn't just a question of semantics. I have some very strong female characters who are actors -- rather than being acted upon. I also have one notable male character who I suppose would fit your heroine role, but whom I just think of as having less testosterone, less need to show off, and is a great deal more sensitive. He's also a character of fluid sexuality, so I wonder if I'm subconsciously writing to some stereotype, although I see him as a very real person.
A: I think it's really hard to write male characters as sensitive souls and not have readers interpret them as weak, because our collective idea of male strength is centered on the courageous fighter/protector/warrior archetype. I suppose it could be to a degree hormonal, and then reinforced by societal bias that rewards males who embrace conflict (whereas females who wade into fights continue to be censured UNLESS they prove themselves twice the combatant of their male competitors). But we all have biases against compassion and empathy in males. Even when stories are about physicians or artists, they're nearly always portrayed as brilliant assholes (more or less). The truly nice guy is rarely the hero of any story (unless it's a comedy), although some of my favorite fantasies do feature kind-hearted males as the main hero (LOTR, the Earthsea Cycle, and the Demon Cycle [though Arlen is very pro-human and not at all compassionate toward the demons who are trying to wipe out humanity]). In A Wizard's Forge, I was playing with tropes and so I gave the prince in that novel all the stereotypical attributes of princesses in fairy tales and fantasies: he's beautiful, kind, and smart, and he sings. But even I couldn't leave him like that, because I too have an internalized bias against heterosexual men that aren't conventional tough guys--so I had to prove Ashel is tough, and I put him through double hell and had him hold tight to his principles and goals to prove it.
Q: Well, I suppose improvement starts with awareness, no? We're thinking about these issues, at least, and trying to write better, more well-rounded characters who don't conform to these age-old tropes.
A: Exactly. I think we've come much farther with women characters in that they have a broad palette of acceptable roles in stories now, be it queen, serving girl, warrior, merchant, mage, etc. You still see complaints about how all too often the plot puts the "strong female character" in need of rescue by a male character, but at least women can BE anything in stories. In fantasy, it seems like male protagonists still tend to be warriors or fighting magic-wielders. They're rarely peaceable scholars or pacifist healers. Of course, I'd love for your readers to correct me on this. Perhaps I'm just not reading the right books.
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