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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