As the first stop on the Black Spring Blog Tour organised by Walker Books, I am really pleased to welcome author Alison Groggan onto the blog today discussing female characters in the fantasy genre.
Patriarchy in fantasy – letting the women shine
Along with a goodly proportion of the western world, my family and I trotted off over the Christmas break to the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of The Hobbit. We took the precaution of seeing the movie in 2D, and, truth be told, totally enjoyed ourselves. Even the indulgent opening scenes that harked back to The Fellowship of the Ring only prompted nostalgia for the days when the children were younger and we ritually attended The Lord of the Rings trilogy every Boxing Day.
Whatever you think of The Hobbit, whether in glorious 3D HFR technicolour or on the page, one thing is unarguable: it’s a Boy’s Own Adventure from beginning to end. Aside from random feminine extras in the background, we counted two women in the film: Cate Blanchett reprising her role as Galadriel, and a nameless elf blowing a flute. Women in this world of adventure and peril, one of the ur-narratives of the modern fantasy genre, scarcely exist.
This was par for the course back in 1937, when The Hobbit was first published. The influx of women writing SFF, from Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, to authors such as Margo Lanagan, Kate Elliott, Kate Forsyth and myself (to name a very few) signals a significant change in the Boys’ Own dominance of fantasy.
But the presence of women (or of people of colour, or any other so-called minority) in fantasy narratives remains controversial, and the fantasy genre is still too prone to white them out as decorative, characterless, generic extras, if indeed they are held to exist at all. The excuses given for what is actually lack of imagination (this is fantasy, right?) or plain bad writing often come down to so-called “historical accuracy”: writing about sexist worlds means that it’s perfectly acceptable for writing to be sexist. In Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical, http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/psa-your-default-narrative-settings-are-not-apolitical/ author Foz Meadows magisterially takes this idea down and shows it for the shabby, historically inaccurate laziness it is.
Since Tolkien, an idealised (or dystopic) patriarchal society has often been the standard default setting for mediaeval fantasy, with very boring results for women, both as characters in the novels and as readers. Yet this need not follow. In Black Spring, (which is set in an imagined 19th century world) my female protagonists, Anna and Lina, live in a deeply sexist and classist society. Anna, a highly intelligent and literate woman, is a servant. Lina is a passionate, wilful aristocrat, saved by her noble birth from being put to death as a baby because she is a witch. The central tragedy of the book is in fact driven by sexism. As Anna observes: “Lina’s only real crime was to be born a woman, with powers and instincts that were thought proper to belong only to a man.”
The viewpoints of Anna and Lina are contrasted with the opening and closing narratives of a pretentious (and rather comic) wannabe writer, Oskar Hammel. He encapsulates, if you like, the “acceptable” misogyny of this society, whereas other characters, such as the evil wizard Ezra, show its violent underpinnings. What matters for me is that this society is viewed through the eyes of the women who have to live in it, and especially through the sceptical and questioning eyes of Anna. Although, as the major narrator, she might be a little invisible to readers, for me Anna was the character I most enjoyed writing, and I think she is the real heroine of the book.
Of course it’s true that sexism is a historical reality. That doesn’t mean that historically-inspired fantasy writing need be sexist if the author chooses to imagine a patriarchal society. In fact, it’s really easy not to be sexist. All you have to do is to take your female characters as seriously as the male characters, to believe that their actions are just as significant in the story, and to ensure that the women are as complex, as interesting and as dynamic as the men. As, indeed, they have been throughout history.
Black Spring by Alison Croggon was published by Walker Books on the 3rd of January. This is the best retelling of Wuthering Heights I have ever read and I would highly recommend it.
To find out more about Alison Croggon: