Seeing standard gender roles in fantasy is boring, to me at least. I get a ‘been there done that’ kind of feeling when I see women hanging around taking care of kids or waiting to get rescued, or when an entire army is made up of manly men. If you’re going to convince me to accept magic, strange creatures and some kind of epic quest, I’m going to ask why the chicks seem to be filling traditional Western gender roles. Even when some plucky heroine appears and sets out to do something interesting, half the time she’s dressed like a man or she faces discrimination for acting like a man. *CoughEowynCough*
You might say that a lot of fantasy is set in a something like the past so, naturally, men fight wars, rule nations and get entrusted with the fate of the world. Most women stay at home taking care of stuff and getting used as pawns by their menfolk. We don’t have to think about these things; they just makes sense and seem natural. It’s important to remember our Western views are only traditional to a small part of the world and only represent a few hundred years of gender relations. Also, they’re typically ideals and few people really fit cultural standards. So, put yourself out on a limb and don’t just put your characters into the slots we have ready and waiting. Think about why men and women do what they do and then play with it. It will not only force you to think outside the box, it will strengthen your ability as a writer.
Here are a few suggestions for ways to change things up, or at least topics to think about:
- Try reversing some gendered trait. For instance, make aggression a feminine trait or make fashion something men follow obsessively while still being considered ‘manly.’ These things aren’t innate to the sexes, they’re cultural.
- Think about why characters holding certain positions are male or female. Are your army’s generals all men? How come? The ancient Chinese queen, Fu Hao, was the third wife of Emperor Wu Ding and one of his best generals. There are oracle bone inscriptions mentioning her success in battle and in bringing back tribute from neighboring groups. This didn’t stop her from becoming a mother either.
- Play with your marriage customs. Going for something exotic? Polygyny is when a man has multiple wives but a much rarer form of polygamy is polyandry, where a woman has multiple husbands. Also, who is the head of the house, the man or the woman, and what does it mean for the family?
- Don’t just exclude women from the political sphere. Throughout history, women have managed to play politics even in strongly patriarchal societies. Emperor Augustus’ wife Livia had a son from her first marriage and it’s thought she poisoned or had banished most of the other males in Augustus’ family to ensure her son would inherit the throne.
- Who are the religious leaders? Are they exclusively male or female? Is it a mix? In Ancient Egypt, there were priests and priestesses, though which groups were more powerful changed over time depending on which god ranked highest.
- Think about who does the farming. In agricultural societies where women remained in charge of food production, they retained power. The Iroquois are the classic example of this. Women owned the land and farmed it. If they didn’t like what their men were doing they cut them off from food. They could stop a war or start one this way.
- Do you only have two genders? Why? Four or five are way more interesting.
- And remember women are just as hard on other women as men. So, a plucky heroine out to prove women are capable of something or other not only has to confront male bias and discrimination, she has to deal with the possible alienation of her friends who will want her to ‘act like a girl’ and conform. Remember high school?
Hopefully, I’ve encouraged some of you fantasy writers to think about the roles men and women have in your stories and then to mix it up! Do some research on other cultures; see what quirky or interesting traditions they have and think about how you would write about them. Read Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. Try challenging yourself and see where it takes you!
Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She will be starting grad school in the fall and until then plans on spending her time querying agents and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.