Gender in Fantasy

26 Apr

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Do you only have two genders? Why? Four or five are way more interesting.
  8. 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.

25 Responses to “Gender in Fantasy”

  1. Samantha W April 26, 2010 at 12:42 AM #

    Women in politics within these fantasy worlds can be particularly interesting, as I envision them to be more sneaky, and better at word play that makes you agree with whatever they are saying. 🙂

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 7:38 AM #

      i agree, they can be really manipulative and sneaky and it’s awesome 🙂

  2. Angela April 26, 2010 at 4:28 AM #

    I love how anthropology fits in here in some sort of way 🙂 I’m taking a basic anthropology class right now, which I love, so I think I can understand this article more if I didn’t take the class.

    But wow. 4 or 5 genders. Crazy but interesting 😉

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 7:49 AM #

      yay anthropology! I’m glad you like the class, so many people don’t. if you do a unit on sexuality you’ll probably talk about genders. in modern america there are more than two, though people argue about how to divide them up

      • Angela April 26, 2010 at 6:43 PM #

        I don’t think we`ll talk about genders in modern America. We`re concentrating more on Japan since I live here. XD

        But I can`t believe that no one over there likes it. D: Anthropology is a popular subject at my school, but I guess it has to do with my teacher. He`s always going around cosplaying and reading dozens of Japanese girl magazines.

        • Kat Zhang April 26, 2010 at 6:47 PM #

          Lol. Sounds like a character!

  3. Victoria Dixon April 26, 2010 at 7:56 AM #

    Great suggestions, Jennifer. I want to add, there ARE a few things inherent to the sexes and there are books about what those things are. One of the books is called “What Everybody Is Saying” and discusses body language. It points out what body language signals are universal for men, women and entire cultures. Another great book is “You Just Don’t Understand” which discusses the differences in approach, pov and conversation between men and women. I’m positive there are more out there, I’ve just read portions of these two ;D

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 5:19 PM #

      interesting books, i like tannen a lot but i also have to say nothing is truly universal. if there was something anthropologist would be dancing for joy; you’ll always find one village that breaks the rule. i’d suggest reading gould’s “the mismeasure of man” which deals with how culture affects science. even scientific studies fall victim to flaws in their design based on the cultural biases of their creators. and a lot of the ways the genders communicate is based on cultural feedback which reinforces certain behaviors and influences the ways our brains develop.

  4. Vanessa April 26, 2010 at 9:58 AM #

    Loved the article, Jenn! Although now I feel that I need to go back to the beginning of my WIP… ahahaha :p

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 5:19 PM #

      or just ignore everything i said! lol

  5. Rowenna April 26, 2010 at 12:04 PM #

    Great points! It’s interesting to me that people so often see the past as having these black and white, cut and dried gender roles. It didn’t–and it was constantly evolving! Women did hold power, often in ways we don’t associate with traditional roles, but still gave them status. For instance–in ancient Rome, women often maintained strong relationships with their fathers. This meant an outlet for a bad marriage, influence in the political sphere, investment in the economic world–lots of “ins” that we think of them not having because they weren’t donning a toga and speaking in the Forum. Just one very geeky example–sometimes things are more than they appear, and as writers, we can play with that!

    On number one–love the example of men following fashion instead of women. Makes me think of eighteenth century “dandies.”

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 5:24 PM #

      that’s a great example! and then there were all the women who snuck into the army for hundreds of years, but we rarely hear about them either!

  6. tymcon April 26, 2010 at 12:34 PM #

    Nice. Is this youre first blog post for this? Wow four or five genders. That kinda made my head spin. Would’nt that kinda alienate the reader since it’s so not-our-world sort of thing. Mind you if someone actually made it work people would probably buy the book regardlessXD
    I actually love the female protaganists who are feminine but not subservient. Who says you cant enjoy swordfighting and still enjoy (insert feminine activity). Lol i did’nt want to say anything in case i got given out to if it’s genderalising.

    • Savannah J. Foley April 26, 2010 at 2:44 PM #

      Jenn is one of our newers contributors, yes. We’re so glad to have her! ❤

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 5:37 PM #

      yup first post, it makes your head spin because you’re thinking of men and women as firmly set categories, but when you factor in different sexualities it’s not hard to get more 🙂

      • TymCon April 27, 2010 at 5:08 AM #

        Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh i was thinking of Men, Woman and a whole diffrent gender with diffrent organs e.t.c.
        I like it. It’d be a nice twist for homosexual to be above hetrosexual genders.

  7. Praya April 26, 2010 at 4:31 PM #

    Excellent article! When I started my WIP I found myself slipping into writing the typical orphan princess/estranged father scenario but I stopped myself with a “but why are you doing that?” and now have ended up with a matriarchal setting that is so much fun to work with, but a bit out of control really, haha. I need to figure out exactly what I’m doing…

    Back to the article though – this more than two genders concept blows my mind. How would that work exactly? And I also love the idea of women controlling power by controlling the food source. It’s like, oh you think I should keep my mouth shut and play house? NO FOOD FOR YOU. 😉

    Very much enjoyed reading this, it’s got my head ticking over all sorts of things now!

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 5:31 PM #

      i love matriarchal societies, it sounds like a fun project!

      i put the ‘more than two genders’ because i knew it would throw people for a loop 😀 when most people think of two genders they think of heteronormative (straight) men and women. lesbians and gay men fall outside our standard gender roles, that makes four, then there are transexuals which just make everything more complicated, so it’s not that hard to get five 🙂

      • Praya April 26, 2010 at 5:42 PM #

        Oh right gotchya. I was thinking along the lines of another gender altogether. That would be trippy.

        And I’ve got number five- there are hermaphrodites too!

  8. Angela April 26, 2010 at 6:40 PM #

    All this different gender stuff makes me think of Ursela K Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 9:54 PM #

      I love that book, there’s one edition that has three versions of the first chapter, one with male pronouns, one with female pronouns and one with gender neutral ones she made up.

  9. Kat Zhang April 26, 2010 at 6:48 PM #

    Again, I really liked this article! Really made me think. 😀 Also, I’m enjoying Priscilla the Evil perhaps a little too much for someone so far removed from the usual middle grade reader, lol

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 9:50 PM #

      i’m glad you like it so much! i wrote it to be funny to adults too, lol

  10. Judy April 26, 2010 at 9:47 PM #

    Great post! I am considering gender roles especially for my heroine in a fantasy setting. I find it interesting how women always have to prove something (they have to excel and have higher expectations placed on them for being a mother, a warrior, a politician, a general, etc.), but it would be refreshing to see a different take on gender expectations.

    • jenn fitzgerald April 26, 2010 at 9:59 PM #

      yeah, even in fantasy they still have to work harder. savannah’s novel is a big twist on tradition but I’d like to see more that change things so dramatically

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