Quote of the Day:
“Feminism is the radical opinion that women are people.” -Seen on a bumper sticker; I haven’t been able to find the original.
Yes, people, and not the Masters of the Universe.
Bits of this will concern feminist science fiction too, since a lot of the problems afflicting the two genres are the same.
1) Simplistic solutions are recommended for complicated problems.
Since feminism is itself a complicated movement and includes many, many different concerns not held to the same level of importance by everyone involved, it always puzzles me that feminist speculative fiction authors think paradise can be achieved with a few simple changes. In bad feminist fantasy, it’s usually, “Just listen to the witches, and everything will be all right.” In bad feminist science fiction, it’s often, “Let the women govern the planet/fly the spaceships, and everything will be all right.” The problems between the sexes, and a lot of them inherent in the social systems, can supposedly be cleared up if people just let a group of “special” women do whatever they want.
I’m sorry, but I really don’t think that all war will cease if women come to power (see point 2). Nor can I accept that a fantasy society is good just because it’s matriarchal, or a ruler right for the throne just because she has the right set of genitals, something that really bothers me about Lynn Flewelling’s fantasies. Most speculative fiction readers no longer accept that a man is good at something just because he’s a man, or that kings should automatically rule over queens. So why should they accept it the other way around? And why should they believe that everything will be all right, even for fictional characters, if the polarities are only reversed?
2) The genre affirms the stereotypes the authors find pleasant.
Women are not less clever or more emotional than men in a lot of feminist fantasies, but they are less violent, more compassionate, closer to nature, and more possessed of magic and favored by the gods.
I don’t see why female mages should be special or more revered or more powerful just because they’re female. Yes, sometimes there’s an explanation in the story itself, like a goddess favoring priestesses, but most of the time the author isn’t content to leave it an explanation; she wants the readers to find it a reason, and agree with her. Even worse is when the women are apparently right just because those who disagree with them have made mistakes in the past.
“Oh, but witches must be right! They were persecuted!”
Sorry, no. Persecutions are usually a lot more complex than that. The witch hunts of Europe were far more complicated than the suppression of some gentle nature religion (which most likely didn’t exist; most accused witches were Christian). Find another way to make me feel sorry for your characters. Give them faults.
I also hate the picture of women as gentle, never-angry, inherently spiritual and maternal creatures. I’m female, but I know that I’ve gotten violently angry in my time and wanted to rip something apart, and I don’t like children, and I’m an atheist, so I don’t consider myself spiritual. On the other hand, I don’t think those things make me male. I would love to see more portrayals of women who do follow those traits without it being explained away as, “Oh, she was raped, so she hates men,” or “Oh, well, she lost her faith, but she’ll get it back.”
3) The feminism is too often upper middle-class, white, First World feminism.
Betty Friedan did a great thing by writing The Feminine Mystique, but too many feminist writers seem to have assumed that’s all there is to feminism. What about the feminism of Third World women, or women of other races and classes in the United States itself, or lesbians, or, for that matter, fantasy and science fiction characters who have never known our world? Taking problems and solutions that grew in one social setting and plopping them down unaltered in another creates trouble.
Some problems will probably show up as long as you have recognizably male and female characters (rape, reproductive battles, division of labor), but not in the same form as they took in twentieth-century America. Others are peculiar to our own time (the obsession with pornography, the “discovery” of ancient matriarchal cultures, the glass ceiling). You do your science fiction a disservice if, after generations of changes, they are still offering the same solutions to the first kind of problems, and you do your fantasy a disservice if the women expound on solutions that depend on twentieth-century technology or knowledge to make work.
4) Feminism is often not a movement, especially in fantasy.
Those persecuted groups of witches rarely try to rescue non-witch women from confinement or torture. The spoiled princesses often don’t care about anyone but themselves; they see other noble girls as simpering idiots following the usual rules, in fact. Even those science fiction heroines out on the edge of tomorrow get impatient with women who don’t act the exact same way they do.
Some of it might come from not studying the history of feminism, but I think assuredly the rest of it comes from that unfortunate speculative fiction tendency to have a black-and-white mindset, Us Vs. Them, and the genre fulfilling so many teenage fantasies. There’s something very satisfying about the dream of running away from home, doing what all your family and so-called friends thought you never could, and coming home to lord (lady?) it over them. Unfortunately, when it’s every story out there, it makes the genre vapid and stale.
If you’re writing a feminist fantasy, though, and especially if it takes place in a society where the heroine could easily make contact with other women and join them, reconsider this. Other movements in fantasy really are movements: the attempts to get a hero back on the throne, say, or stop slavery. Why not involve more women, including the ones your heroine turns her back on at first? If the heroine is capable of breaking out of social strictures in the first place, enough to decide she doesn’t want to be forced to marry or have kids, she should be able to start thinking of women as a group, or at least start thinking of women of her own class as a group.
5) Do not use rape as a plot device, goddamnit.
This is too convenient for too many fantasy authors. The child is the result of rape and grows up unwanted and unloved, boohoo. Mention is rarely made of how it affected the mother, because the author is too busy paying attention to how horrible the child’s life is. Or a woman is raped as a cheap way to introduce angst or tragedy into a life that the author obviously can’t plot well. Everyone sheds fake tears for her, and then she goes and gets her fake revenge, and then she goes on and gets her equally fake happiness. Or, even worse, she becomes a neurotic warrior or a lesbian because of rape, which make those seem like traits that couldn’t possibly come from anywhere else.
I have one thing to say:
Using rape like this cheapens not only the problem itself but the character reacting to it. You don’t need it like that. In the hands of a good writer, happenings far more “minor” than rape, abuse, torture, or near-death can become problems for the character. You really, really don’t need to rape your heroine. Yes, even if you want her to be a lesbian or have an unwanted child.
If you do introduce rape into the story, give it the respect it deserves. It isn’t just a way of producing a twist in your story, or one problem among many. It’s a devastating event that requires more ink and time than most authors care to give it.
6) Sex is approached in a variety of discomforting ways.
This reminds me a lot of the way that some fantasy authors will write characters obviously based on their own families or hated high school classmates just to get revenge. A lot of feminist fantasy authors seem to be working out their own ideas about sex. This is fine, as long as it fits into the story. Too often, it doesn’t.
And it goes to extremes. Sex is treated either with prudery that would make Mary Poppins stare or as a contest that can never be equal. Some heroines are completely chaste, don’t need men (or women either), have all sorts of sexual neuroses, and so on. Others are completely at the mercy of abusive men when the story begins, but by the end of the story, they’re completely in dominance over a man.
Where are the equal relationships? The ones where sex is seen as just part of the relationship, not the end or the all? Above all, why are “strong men” represented as those who surrender to a woman? A “strong woman” isn’t one who surrenders to a man, and she isn’t someone who lets her life revolve around sex, either, I should think. I don’t understand the heroines who are so consumed by sex, both the act and the gender, that they let it determine their lives. (I am looking straight at you, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Anne Bishop, and Sherri Tepper).
It’s gotten to the point where if the female character shows a sign of a sexual neurosis, or is abused by a man, I bail. The relationship is not going to be equal, whatever happens.
Another genre that drives me nuts. When it’s good, it’s very, very good, and when it’s bad, it’s horrid.