Where are all the women?

Written by Elizabeth Bear

If women existed in the real world at the same ratios in which we exist in epic fantasy, the human race would be obliged to reproduce as do anglerfish. Which is to say, with one large female swimming along, going about her business, while a plethora of smaller males clamp their jaws onto her flanks, graft their bloodstreams to hers parasitically, and allow themselves to be dragged along with her wherever she happens to roam because it’s their best chance of having the opportunity to release a stream of milt over the eggs that she will inevitably deposit.

But human beings are not anglerfish. In fact, our gender ratios tend to slightly favor females, barring outside intervention such as female infanticide.

Which begs the question, in a typical epic fantasy: where are all the women?

You’ll generally find a few—one or two—in the well-worn roles of hard-bitten female mercenary (or female knight-errant), femme fatale, and love interest for the male protagonist. And there are arguments made that medieval women just didn’t do anything interesting, so why would there be stories about them? Sure, there were a few stand-out exceptions, but we can’t have more than one exceptional woman in a book, can we?

And certainly there are homosocial environments that one might be writing about, if one is writing a fantasy grounded in or directly inspired by the real world. Cold War submarines, for example. Monasteries. Men’s prisons. You know the sort of thing.

But most fantasy novels don’t necessarily take place in de-facto homosocial environments, unless the author decides to build their world that way. Women, historically, handled logistics; learned trades and practiced them either as their husbands’ unacknowledged partners or widows; kept the economic engines of their societies and homes turning whether the men were home or were off at war. Women also ran off to become pirates and scientists and great statespersons at a rather alarming rate, given the barriers to entry and the chance of erasure during and after their lifetimes. If those women were exceptional, well, no more so than the exceptional men who surrounded them. And yet, we don’t have a problem with writing about men who break the rules or stand above their peers.

Those rules are apparently only intended for women.

I think the problem is that some writers (and some readers) have spent a lot of time internalizing our societal narrative that women… just aren’t interesting. The things we do and have done don’t make good stories, or if they do, those stories are women’s stories, and not for general consumption.

I get asked a lot about how I manage to find stories for so many women (and gender-diverse people) in my books. It’s pretty easy: I manage because I think women are interesting people—at least as interesting as men—and that women have really cool adventures, and that books should have stories about cool adventures in them.

I’m not trying to write books specifically for women, or specifically about women, but rather books about people. People having adventures. People who are powerful and privileged in certain ways and not in others. People who may chafe at their social roles, or accept them even when they are not necessarily comfortable or healthy. People who do what they can do with what they have on hand, because it’s interesting to present the perspectives of the scrappy underdog, the person who is struggling with societal constraints, whose freedom of action may be limited but who still has problems to fix and places to be.

Stories. About people. Having adventures and learning things.

I hope you like those kinds of stories too.

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44 thoughts on “Where are all the women?

  1. Biology says it’s the men who have really cool adventures because it’s the men who are exoendable. Women are too valuable to risk in this way. Mario has to defeat all the enemies and jump through all the hoops because he’s just s lowly plumber. Toadstool doesn’t have to do these things because she’s the princess. In this respect, Super Mario Bros is like real lifem Feminism is a fantasy, and can only make sense in a fantasy, not in real life. Feminism is not realistic so you can make your stories more feminist or more realistic, but not both.

    1. It’s convenient to cite a flawed understanding of some monolithic “Biology,” which is apparently a dictator? in order to ignore history and society and the real world and what women actually do, and have done, and have endured, and have accomplished in order to push your political agenda.

      I understand.

    2. Mr. McLean, this is nonsense. I don’t know what world you’re living in, but it’s certainly not the real one.

    3. I only came here because a female fantasy author on twitter just told me someone used Super Mario Brothers as a biological argument against feminism and I had to see it to believe it.

  2. “Biology says it’s the men who have really cool adventures because it’s the men who are expendable.” Its ironic that you chose to illustrate your point with video games, which are notorious for treating female characters as expendable.

  3. Well first up, I am a women leaving a reply. And I totally disagree with your analysis. And obviously you and I read very different fantasy books. E.G. Who is in Mistborn? Ninefox Gambit? Daughter of Smoke and Mirrors. The Bone Season. The Fifth Season. To name a very few…..

    1. I gave Ninefox Gambit a cover blurb, actually. ;D
      It’s an excellent book! (I’d call it space opera, personally, but it definitely has fantasy elements.)
      And I agree, there are definitely fantasy novels around with great women in them. It’s still, alas, not the zeitgeist for it to be so, because if it were, people wouldn’t constantly ask me if it wasn’t hard to find enough interesting things for women to do to make my fantasy novel casts about 50% female.

      1. I agree with the crux of your article 100%. Women are as interesting and complex as men… often more so. The problem I have is the agenda that seems to be being pushed by sites like Tor as of late: for writers to write more books with females as the leads in fantasy books, as well as minorities, or non-cisgender characters, etc.

        Two of my favorite books are Mieville’s The Scar and Perdido Street Station. The style of writing, the weirdness and imaginative concepts are absolutely awesome. I wish there were more books like these out there, but, sadly, they are few and far between (Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories come very close). I would never choose to read a book based upon what gender the lead character is or is not. I choose my books based upon the overall concept, which I feel is more important than what I feel is an SJW agenda (and this is coming from a Mieville fan, mind you). Coming back to Mieville, even though he likes to shoehorn his political beliefs into his books, some of which I agree with, some I do not, I still read him because he is trying to create an interesting fantasy world first and foremost.

        I hope I’m making my point clear, because I feel like I’m mucking it up, but–I suppose–I just feel weary (and wary) of seeing the same article every week when I check my Tor updates, only written by a different writer. I want fantasy with an agenda for writing an interesting and creative story (China Mieville’s Bas-lag books are some of my favorite of all time). I don’t want fantasy written with an agenda of ‘look how many female-leads, or minority-leads, I have in my books, and you should have more female-leads, too.’

        1. The agenda of pushing female-led books is a problem, while the agenda of promoting male-led books wasn’t something you’ve felt the need to mention?

          1. As I wrote earlier, the agenda of writing good stories is what I hope authors focus on. I do not choose books based on the gender of the lead, and I do not need to justify myself to anyone.

        2. Well I do. I’m a woman, and it gives me a strong sense of identification when it’s a female protagonist. Doesn’t mean I don’t go see or read stories with male protagonists, but I often get more enjoyment out of the ones led by women.

  4. Thank you for writing such interesting tales. I recently enjoyed your Karen Memory (why is the title spelt differently?). I have noticed recently that there seems to be many more female protagonists that once there were, with yourself, Elizabeth Moon, Becky Chambers and others writing them. Please keep up the good work.

  5. Big fan of your work!
    Yes, I like to read stories about women doing adventurous things. Happily, there seem to be a lot more of them out there than there were 40 yrs ago … although it’s possible my perceptions are skewed because, back then, I was dependent on my grade school & local public libraries.
    Fantasy novels tend to be about exceptional people, so we’re already reading about the extraordinary few.
    I think there are some things that hold up cross-culturally. Women generally pay a greater price for stepping outside social norms.
    Personally, I’ve always appreciated the books that imagine a different kind of world–Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, the middle-grade sports novels of RR Knudson, Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion books, etc.

  6. Read more Brandon Sanderson. His novels are full of fascinating, powerful women. Why do you bring biology into this otherwise interesting subject? If you want to just address the anthropological angle, daughters were sold or traded and so they were groomed to be desirable from an early age in order to claim the interest of the richest man possible, in order to benefit her father, essentially. How would a girl break that mold to become an adventurer without falling into a clichéd role? She wouldn’t. But a story is about an exceptional person, not the boring day-to-day life of a peasant, so if we tell stories about unusual women in “Medieval” (as you put it), how would she compete with powerful, strong, brutal men on the equal terms you demand? (Hint: She wouldn’t). Unless a woman is exceptionally strong or agile in hand-to-hand combat, she’ll fall on her looks and personality and hope to God some man wants to marry her. I wouldn’t say realism is necessary in fantasy, but the Joan of Arcs of history were rare because they could not compete physically. If demand a female heroine who isn’t using magic to get her way, and only her mind and strength? No, absolutely not. I want as much suspense of disbelief as possible when I’m reading a good book. So she trained with Ninjas: Okay, fine, but she must have SOME reason for being able to defeat a man twice her weight and strength, otherwise I ain’t buying it.

  7. Perhaps, if you look at the genre since its inception, but I have found that in the last decade or so, any book I grab from the shelf will often have a female protagonist. I am not complaining about that since I am able to identify with those not of my biological sex. A Heroine can be identified with for their heroic actions.

    While Ms. Bear’s works are an exception, my issue with modern fantasy (epic or urban) and Sci-Fi has more to do with the poor story-lines and horrible writing than with the sex of the main character(s).

    PS. and yes, throughout history, men were considered expendable and women were protected (as “lesser” or as property).

  8. Whenever I read a post like this it’s a wee bit depressing. Hard to see people who have divided up the world into categories and filed people away into separate bins. In my books I plan to not even mention race, and I’d avoid mentioning sex too if he/she weren’t so integral to the language.

    There are so many more important things about a person.

    1. Normally, I find that, when a person talks about ignoring a person’s sex or skin color, it’s because they’re never affected by the negative things people often experience. (In other words, they can afford to ignore those problems.) For example, as a white male, I’ve never thought to myself, “Why aren’t there more stories about people who are similar to me?” because the vast majority of stories ARE about people who are like me. (That’s one of the more benign examples, of course.)

      1. Speak for yourself. Here I am, poor, uneducated white trash by urbanite standards, female, and somewhere on that oh-so-trendy ACE spectrum the kids have made up since tumblr became a “thing”. Instead of whining about an industry dominated by women (yep, from top to bottom, publishing is run by a majority of women), I got off my butt and wrote what I wanted to write. If women want to see more female authors, well, hey, instead of the feminist clap-trap, let’s point that finger back at ourselves. The ball is in our court. Women dominate romance, urban fantasy, erotica, and have a pretty good voice in literary fiction–if we want more women in sci-fi and fantasy, it’s up to us to get off our duffs and write it. Whining and protesting means nothing if we’re not willing to take up our collective pens and make the difference we want to see. No one is a victim of sexism here unless they want to be, because we -own- the publishing industry.

  9. I started off wanting to disagree with the author…but then I realized that when I read the back cover of a fantasy novel and it’s about a man, boy, or dudes, I tend to put it down in favor of those that are about women. I don’t think I have a bias against men necessarily, and I have read many many many with men as protagonists, but I am drawn in more easily if it’s just us ladies doing all of the derring.

  10. Maybe it’s my reading habits, but I always seem to pick stories with female protagonists and/or prominent female characters. And I generally find them far more compelling reads. Multifaceted characters – regardless of gender or orientation – are far superior to the ‘standardized’ fantasy tropes. I try to focus on this idea in my writing, as well.

    PS – Thank you. Now I have a story-seed swimming around in my head about human/angler-fish…

  11. I think you see this cause so many fantasy adventure tales seem to take place in the wilderness. Where are the women? In keeps, in towns, on farms with their husbands & children. What are they doing? Trying to keep it all together while their menfolk are out adventuring. They’re managing the crops, storing/making/dispensing food and clothing, running shops & businesses, etc. Essentially the tedious and indispensable work of keeping life going. Instead of latching on to roaming women, the males are doing the roaming and settling back at keeps, towns, farms to get what the women are producing.
    Its not as exciting to read about that kind of work but as a woman I love stories where the “home front” has its own crisis, challenges, and worries with time out when the men come calling (for good or ill). Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight series has lots & lots of emphasis on keeping civilization going. We need more like that!

  12. N.K. Jemisin completely revitalized epic fantasy for me. I had given up on the genre. Then “100,000 Kingdoms” came along and reminded me what i had loved about the genre and did it better.

    Sofia Samatar’s “Olandria” books also shook up boring epic fantasy including the linguistic obsessions of authors like Tolkein & Lloyd Alexander. The Olandria books, to me, take on many of the characters and narratives that Tolkein and those who followed in his steps ignored. If I imagine the map in the front of a typical epic fantasy book, Samatar’s stories are about the margins of the map not the center.

    Women of color are leading the charge towards more interesting fantasy and sci-fi. It’s great.

    (for people looking for more books check the James Tiptree Award website. Not just award winners but short list & long lists. Talk to a librarian about books you’re looking for. They have tons of resources to help you find amazing books. Librarians love it when people request books. Many libraries loan ebooks so be sure to ask about those as well)

  13. Why should only men killing “enemies” be an interesting story? In real life, that is called murder, not heroism. How are other interesting things like invention or politics “too dangerous for precious women”? And saying that the work is physically too hard for frail women is nonsense. Women in many cultures do the majority of the work while men just sit around waiting for an opportunity to play hero by killing someone or something (the majority of the food in hunter – gatherer societies again comes from the women, not the men). There only seems to be one way men count as heroes (as warriors), while women do many different things to keep society running. How is that less interesting? What we need is a more sensible definition of what a hero is.

  14. Been where for quite a while, but I’m not going through big publishers because I’ve no interest in that route after a piss-poor publishing experience with a trad. publisher. I don’t have the $$$$$$ or time (or energy) for huge advertising campaigns, so of course, not as easy to find. I suspect that’s the way it is with many female AND male authors. Per reading? I find most of my favorites are males. Not sure why that is, except I enjoy those books more–perhaps it’s a style thing, or a lack of over-the-top romantic arcs, or they tend to write more in the genres I read more. In any case, plenty of female authors out there in all genres–you just have to go look.

  15. Men who argue that women can’t be fighters because they are weaker than men obviously assume that they will fight men. Why can’t a woman fight other women? And why is it “more realistic” that a man wins against a dragon than that a woman wins against a man? The first is a much more uneven match.

  16. I have a Fantasy reader for over half a century. With all due respect to Elizabeth Bear (whose writing I enjoy), I think she is wrong. What she said is fairly stated . . . for an article 20 years ago, but not now. To say that there are not enough women leads nowadays is simply not true. In fact, I find it very hard to find a new male protagonist in good new S&S stories. From books to films women are leading the way. Even high viz television and movie S&S stories have the strong women. Game of Thrones is a good example. How many strong male leads (good or bad) are there driving the narrative? Jon Snow, who knows nothing, is the only one. All other are women. You could argue Jaime Lannister, but even he is put off to the side for now and become secondary. All the other males (good and bad) have been killed off by . . . the women. Don’t think I am in mourning over the emergence of the strong women protagonist. I am not, as long as the story is good. Having said that, you folks must realize having a heroine in a sword and sorcery story, where the woman is the sword carrier and defeating a horde of males and orcs without some magic is somewhat more difficult to believe than a Conan the Barbarian or Druss the Legend lead. Today, I see more and more good women authors where in the past could count on one hand the number successful female writers. The stories and the female leads reflect that.

  17. I think the problem isn’t so much a lack of gender diversity in fantasy so much as it is a lack of NARRATIVE diversity in fantasy.

    Look at fiction outside of fantasy. Women are *everywhere* in fiction. The stories of women, their interests, their journeys, their relationships. And in traditional folklore and fairy tales? Again, women everywhere. And not warrior women, or women doing “bad ass” things in the physical sense, but women in relatively “traditional” roles, doing interesting things, solving interesting dilemmas, going on interesting journeys involving magic and the fantastic.

    There is no lack of female-oriented narratives out there, particularly female oriented narratives that touch on the fantastic. Why does it seem so hard for them to make their way into fantasy fiction? Especially with the close connection between women and folklore?

    How did fantasy become a genre of psuedo-medieval worlds and warrior adventure fiction dominated by narratives from gaming and comics?

    There is nothing wrong with that – everyone needs their thing. But just throwing more female characters into the same old narrative in the same old sexist “pre-industrial” world isn’t going to do it, at least for me as a reader. The narratives themselves need to become more diverse.

    There is some of this going on, with writers like NK Jemison and Theodora Goss, and YA fantasy has always been filled with female oriented narratives. But as an adult woman I want more *adult* fantasy fiction with these kind of stories. Women whose heroism has nothing to do with “fighting skills.” There is some out there, but I feel like you really have to search for it.

  18. Many fantasy stories have non-human protagonists. Why can’t a female troll be stronger than a male troll? Grendel’s mother has no name in a story told by biased men, but she was a more dangerous enemy than her son.

  19. I have actually written a fantasy that has more female than male characters and is based in a non-Traditional setting. My world is influenced by India, China, and Tibet. One of my main characters is an animal with psychic powers. You can imagine anything.
    My hero, as far as writers go, is Ursula K. Le Guin. I think that the world of fantasy fiction is finally catching up to her. Wish me luck as my book is out on submission. My lit. Agent is Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media.

  20. I’m a female reader and I like to read fantasy books with male protagonists (including those on the lgbtqa spectrum). I have noticed that most urban fantasy and YA fantasy books have female leads. A majority of these degenerate into romances which I don’t like. The rest end up being fake feminist types which I find equally annoying. I don’t want that same result in epic fantasy.
    Epic fantasy or any other fantasy needs not more but a better representation of women, a much better characterization.
    The last book I read had a male lead focusing on the usual main problems: saving his friends & kingdom, gathering support, defeating evil villain, etc. There were some strong females but, most annoyingly, the main female friend was always worrying and angsting about her crush. Even if she is not a fighter or mage or princess, even if she has only a minor role, why are women like her given such a shallow or narrow outlook? She doesn’t even have to be exceptional. She just has to be realistic – a real, mature, intelligent, living, breathing, thinking person.

  21. The problem I’m having with this article is that it feels more like a blatant marketing effort. I mean, she’s arguing about a lack of women in epic fantasy underneath a giant cover photo of her epic fantasy novel which just so happens to be coming out in a week. I don’t blame Ms. Bear for this, after all she is a professional writer, and thus SHOULD be engaged in marketing campaigns. I just have trouble agreeing with the timing and validity of the message.

    From my perspective, female representation in epic fantasy (characters as well as authors) has never been better. Of course, the ratio of male-to-female characters is still not where it should be, but significant change can’t happen overnight; any serious observer of the genre would have to admit that there has been marked progress in the past 10 years. So to ask “Where are all the women?” is not nearly as helpful as pointing out recommendations to readers…they’re out there, we just need to spread the word and help this progress along until it reaches an ideal future state.

    That said, fans of epic fantasy should look no further than the following authors, all of whom give women respectful and significant roles in their works: NK Jemisin, Michelle West, Brandon Sanderson, Janny Wurts, Garth Nix, Kate Elliott, Steven Erikson, Jacqueline Carey, Trudi Canavan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Robin Hobb, and of course Elizabeth Bear herself.

  22. I feel obliged to mention AN ACCIDENT OF STARS and A TYRANNY OF QUEENS by Foz Meadows, which has many strong female and male characters–for us Statesians, it begins in Australia, where things are slightly different from the US to begin with, and then jumps to a wonderful fantasy world where there are lots of perils and villains and heroes and at least a couple of strong older women, which we don’t often see in anybody’s fantasy. Burble on, etc.

  23. Have you checked out Joe Abercrombie’s work? Some really strong female characters throughout, I’m not saying you’re wrong by any stretch but thought you might enjoy his stuff based on what you’ve written above. Best Served Cold and Red Country are great places to start but if you go from the First Law Trilogy right through to the Half a War/the World/a King you won’t be disappointed – he writes his characters with real depth too

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