• Fiona McIntosh: Voyager Author of the Month

    Fiona McIntosh was born and raised in Sussex in the UK, but also spent early childhood years in West Africa. She left a PR career in London to travel and settled in Australia in 1980. She has since roamed the world working for her own travel publishing company, which she runs with her husband. She lives in Adelaide with her husband and twin sons. Her website is at www.fionamcintosh.com.

    Her latest book, The Scrivener's Tale, is a stand-alone and takes us back to the world of Morgravia from her very first series, The Quickening:


    About The Scrivener's Tale:

    In the bookshops and cafes of present-day Paris, ex-psychologist Gabe Figaret is trying to put his shattered life back together. When another doctor, Reynard, asks him to help with a delusional female patient, Gabe is reluctant... until he meets her. At first Gabe thinks the woman, Angelina, is merely terrified of Reynard, but he quickly discovers she is not quite what she seems.

    As his relationship with Angelina deepens, Gabe's life in Paris becomes increasingly unstable. He senses a presence watching and following every move he makes, and yet he finds Angelina increasingly irresistible.

    When Angelina tells Gabe he must kill her and flee to a place she calls Morgravia, he is horrified. But then Angelina shows him that the cathedral he has dreamt about since childhood is real and exists in Morgravia.

    A special 10th Anniversary edition of her first fantasy book, Myrren's Gift, will be released in December!

     

     

Frodo or Froda: Switching Gender in Speculative Fiction

Part 1

A Writer Goes on a Journey calls Twilight clichéd, and considering the sexist views throughout the series, it’s not hard to see why. The story revolves around a helpless heroine who is constantly in need of rescue by supernatural men. She has no sense of self outside of her relationship to them. Given the demographic—teenage girls—the popularity is disturbing, or at least revealing. It did make me wonder though: How is speculative fiction representing gender? Are we writing brave new worlds of equality or reinforcing more traditional roles?

A quick way to assess gender bias is to give the protagonist a sex change and see if the plot still holds. I tried this on my first love, LOTR. (I am a huge Tolkien fan. I actually leaned Elvish when I was a teen so I could write in my diary without fear of discovery!) However, when Frodo becomes female, the story just doesn’t work. Tolkien wrote in a masculinist hegemony, and it shows.

Eowyn, the maiden of Rohan, has to disguise herself as a man ...

Eowyn, the maiden of Rohan, has to disguise herself as a man ...

He portrays women via the male gaze—maidens with flowing hair, long dresses, and male protection—fathers, brothers or husbands controlling their lives. Eowyn, the maiden of Rohan, has to disguise herself as a man to ride into battle and kill the Nazgul lord. She must reject her feminism and lie to achieve her goals. This tells us something about the gender constructs of Middle Earth.

In the Shire, we don’t meet any females aside from Sam’s Rosie, who gets a few paragraphs, and Bilbo’s hostile aunt, who gets perhaps less. The temptation is to assume the females are in the role of child rearing, bread-baking and other domestic tasks. If Frodo were ‘Froda,’ he wouldn’t make sense as the ring bearer without reconstructing gender norms in the Shire—a full rewrite.

For example would we find ‘Froda’ living sequestered with bachelor Bilbo for all those years, and later living alone with her faithful servant Sam? Although a homosexuality is not implied when these figures are male, heterosexual complications arise with the gender switch. We have no model for it in the present ‘life in the Shire’ and to avoid jarring the reader the ‘feminist’ qualities of hobbits would need more development.

To remain consistent to the work—where females must become like males to have an impact—hobbits might have to be written as an androgynous race (much like the Dwarves). In this way female hobbits would lose the feminine identity and gain effectiveness. Another possibility is to give them ‘higher powers’ as in the race of Elves.

Galadriel and Frodo ... or Froda?

How many parts of Lord of the Rings would change if the main character changed gender?

Conceiving that female hobbits could be rewritten to accommodate ‘Froda’ as ring-bearer, Smeagol the Gollum would have to switch gender as well. As a shadow figure—the dark side of the psyche that knows nature’s ways and the hidden paths yet is damaged and twisted by life—Gollum’s gender must match the ‘light’ figure’s as they do in myths, dreams and fairytales. Again, more rewriting.

What do you think? Is speculative fiction widening our views of classical gender roles or reinforcing traditional ones? Does your favourite hero or heroine withstand a gender switch without confusing plot or meaning? Does it matter? I’d love to hear your comments!

Kim Falconer is the author of the Quantum Enchantment series, beginning with The Spell of Rosette, and continued in Arrows of Time. She is currently working on a second trilogy, and yet has the time to also run Falcon Astrology!

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44 Responses

  1. What a fascinating post – as always, Kim!
    I suppose Twilight is fulfilling a romantic ideal, of true, instant and endless love with the first boy you meet – an inexplicable link that does not reply on something as small as ‘getting to know’ someone’s personality first!! I must say, I enjoyed the Twilight series alot as escapist fiction – in the same way I do romance novels. But I am also an older reader with a bit more knowledge about the world than a teenage girl (not necessarily lots more, to be fair!). I think if girls are reading Twilight then hopefully they are also reading other books with different sorts of heroes and heroines, to gain a better understanding of relationships, good, evil and all the shades of grey and so on. But a little bit of wish fulfillment isn’t a bad thing either. It’s not unlike my extreme teenage crush on Leonardo DiCaprio – I vaguely knew he was never going to waltz into my living room and sweep me away but it was a nice dream ;).

    And as to the question – does your favourite hero or heroine survive a gender switch, I can say unequivocally that none of mine do – I think gender is irrevocably tied to personality and character – in both life and fiction – which in turn affects the story being told. If you live as a male or as a female, then certain aspects of your character conform to, or fight against the male or female role, and this in turn shapes who you are (by this I am certainly not saying one cannot change gender, just that it affects your personality).

    To turn it around completely, can you envisage Rosette as a male and still hold the themes and ideas in The Spell of Rosette? And JARROD is an even more interesting concept as a sentient being who could be changed …

    Thanks for a great post!
    Nat

    • I think something similar. If a character can survive a gender switch, then there is a problem. It means that their gender has just been assigned as an arbitrary characteristic, like eye colour. Personally, I think any trait assigned to a character should have some significance and not just be randomly decided. (Why do they have brown eyes? Because all their family does.)

      As for gender roles, it grates to see modern feminist values being imposed on characters living in different cultures (Pause for a moment to consider one character acting like this and others wondering what they are on about.) but the opposite is just as annoying. It is quite possible for women to be confident/assertive/independently minded within the bounds of their society and within that society’s gender roles. It probably happened more often than me think, because history only notes those who rose to prominence, not those who take over the running of the family business because their husband is missing/off fighting/locked up, while raising half a dozen (mostly) well-balanced kids and fending off potential suitors. That takes a certain sort of strong-willed person.

      OK if you’re writing fantasy you can argue that those values don’t apply, but morals/gender roles/whatever are a result of the type of society that people live in. A predominantly agricultural society will have different slots and values to an industrial society, a hunter/gatherer society or a fishing-based society (where most of the men are away more of the time).

      Of course in our modern world, we have different expectations again, including that some women will step outside those expectations, but this comment is getting rather long so I’ll wrap it up.

      But I was originally going to say, speculative fiction is a good battleground on which to explore gender roles, which makes imposing badly thought out or inappropriate roles onto characters all the more pointless.

      • Hi Momissa,

        Good point about not assigning gender without reason. It would be interesting to talk to authors about why they choose male or female (or child or animal or alien or technology) as their protagonist. Those would be insightful interviews!

        When you said It is quite possible for women to be confident/assertive/independently minded within the bounds of their society. my eyes bugged out because that is the very thing I was discussing with BothersomeWords on Twitter this evening.

        We were talking about Bella Swan (still, I know…) and agreed that some of Jane Austen’s women were very powerful in the confines of their society, as are some of her men (and some very weak). We both said ‘Elizabeth Bennett’ at the same time, I think–a very potent and effective character.

        Jane Austen wrote almost 200 years ago and had an extraordinary influence on ‘the novel’….amazing writer!

        Spec fiction is a fabulous stage to explore gender roles, I agree! Thank you for bringing your insights to the discussion.

      • Sorry, Monissa! !

      • Such great points, Monissa. I am also thinking, in terms of powerful women who are not recognised by society, of the stories you hear about women in some cultures that we might traditionally regard as dominated and even victimised; governed by strict rules imposed by males who have much more freedom. On the outside it appears that they are downtrodden but behind closed doors you discover that in fact they run the household and have all the power; the man answers to the wife etc.
        It’s a different power play and much more complex, of course and there’s SO much more to it than that but there is that double-play of public gender role and private gender role and power and assertiveness and so on.
        And there again, the reader (or viewer of a situation) brings to it their own societal experiences and prejudices and understandings of the situation.
        If an author is writing this example, what do they need to do to convey this – who is their audience and what point are they making? Which soiety are they writing to/from? Which gender perspective are they writing and which one are they writing from? What do they show/conceal from their audience?

        And then again, thinking of the various other family structures we have in society – many cultures will celebrate the male as being the most valuable – big strong man, must be breadwinner; wife is there to make babies and keep house and look after strong man but who is it that so often enforces this? The matriarch, the grandmother or great grandmother who everyone is determined to please. Even the “strong man” will bow to her wishes. Let’s take it back to Kim’s Austen example – Lady Catherine De Burgh? A strong woman who despised the same qualities in other women and expected her strong men to marry quiet, dutiful women.

        Love your point about, eg, women rising to the challenge of taking over business because all the men were at war. That was a huge change in society. Affected both genders. And look at the changes now, as more males stay at home with the kids while the wife goes out of home to work. That’s a gender role shift. It affects language, behaviour and social constructs.

        I definitely agree that none of my favourite characters survive a gender shift. Because all my favourite characters are well-written and feel “real” to me. Because I HAVE been brought up in a society wherein gender plays a part, it is an essential part of who I am and I can identify with others in part because we identify as being one gender or the other (or in some cases, deny one or other or both genders – which still requires recognising the existence of those genders!).
        I still feel that there are some qualities that identify as intrinsically male or female – even if they can be “played” by either gender. I can’t think of a book I have read that has stripped this out and still allowed me to completely identify with and warm to the characters. And I agree – if a character can easily be swapped from one gender to the other then something there has not been thought out carefully enough, it is a shallow depiction of gender.
        That said, an androgynous character is interesting and needs to be done well. I actually think of Jarrod as coming close to this because surely, for him, gender WAS/IS a choice? He really IS playing a role, through and through!
        OK.. now my comment is getting out of control…

  2. Hrmm messy topic!

    Let’s go with the medieval fantasy world, which most fantasy is in. Women were things, connected to evil, spawns of the devil and should be kept away from society for certain times of the month.

    Although there were some women who rose up and became powerful in their own right, or through manipulation, would women have really thought about equal rights? Can we as writers impose a 1970’s feminist view of equality upon the time/setting chosen?

    Like in some fantasy, David Eddings, Sara Douglass and I think Fiona McIntosh, the hero always knows that spousal abuse is wrong – but nothing in their society teaches them this. This doesn’t mean that all medieval folk believed it was right, of course, but where do they get the idea from?

    But on the opposite side, would any of us feel for a character who thinks that spousal abuse is okay? Do our own minds comprehend that it was the norm way back when? Even a few decades ago, that sort of thing was swept under the rug and never to be discussed. Can I, an 87 model, ever understand the morals and beliefs that came before, say like when divorce was a rare and shameful thing?

    Think I got a bit off topic, but you inspired me to think 😛

    • I suppose another question to ask might also be: shouldn’t a book be gender-biased to a certain extent? Surely if it wasn’t then the main character might as well be androdgynous (I hope I’ve spelled that correctly) … and to me, less fun than a character completely enveloped in self-expression.
      But then, my favourite book involves a supposedly androdgynous creature, a robot, that exudes masculinity and learns to love … ^ ^
      Nyssa, where do they get the idea from? Who knows exactly, but someone has to have it at some point and then share it – and maybe learn that others have it too. Perhaps it’s evolution :). If we were all locked in a room from birth, would some of us try to escape out of some instinct or would we all stay? Would one of us trying to escape lead to others doing the same?
      I think you can retroactively try to understand previous morals and stances by looking at things in our current society or in different cultures that have the same outrages or shame etc attached.

    • Nyssa, good point: Can we as writers impose a 1970’s feminist view of equality upon the time/setting chosen?

      (And thank you for YOUR review on AWriter . . . It inspired this post!)

      I think as writers we won’t do well to impose anything …but what we can do is contrast.
      We can explore this issue of gender as identity vs. gender as performance, if we want, and the worlds we create are wonderful opportunities to do this. Not impose though!

      No one picks up a fantasy book to read a dissertation on feminism. We want story–adventure, feelings….if those come through a contrast of ‘What if it were so…what if it were not so…’ then maybe the mind opens to something new along the way!

      I’d be glad if you can not understand a world where divorce (choice) was rare and shameful. Know it historically and live something beyond such limiting beliefs!

      Thanks again!

      • One thing I learnt in anthropology 101 a few years back was really interesting. Our Western idea is of two genders: Male and Female. Even though we all seek different sources for our writing, most fantasy agrees with this split. However there are some cultures in this world which think there are three or more genders! I forget what they are called, but one group identifies three genders: male, female and feminine-like males. In another culture, could ‘male-like- females be another complete “gender”? We all look at what’s on the outside, but what about the places that look at both action as well as genitalia?

        Could we understand a book where there are two physically different types of humans, but four or six gender identities?

        🙂

      • I’ve heard this too Nyssa. Even within our own society, there are scientists arguing that, biologically speaking, it’s more accurate to talk about five genders than two, and that gender exists on a continuum rather than being binary.

        There have been a few sci-fi authors that have looked at alternatives to binary gender. Ursula K. LeGuin created a race that are androgenous and can become male or female at will for mating purposes in The Left Hand of Darkness, and Robert A. Heinlein contrasts human and Martian gender roles in Stranger in a Strange Land. I’ve never come across the idea in fantasy writing though…

      • Nyssa, Hendo,

        Thanks for pointing out ‘our Western ideas of two genders.’ Just saying that loosens our ‘grip’ on socially assumed ways of thinking and invites a wider view.

        The ‘Third Gender’ was coined when anthropologists were having trouble categorizing sexual and gender prescribed behaviours in different cultures (that did not fit into ‘our’ notions of gender roles.) There’s an introductory article on it called The Great “Third Gender” Debate. Worth a read.

        M. Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies, who first identified “third genders” in an anthropological context, were attempting “to draw attention to the ethnographic evidence that gender categories in some cultures could not be adequately explained with a two-gender framework.”

        But the ‘ethnographic’ component is under question–some scrutinizing the idea that “third genders” are inherently progressive and emancipatory. Interesting evaluation follows, centred mainly on examples from ancient and contemporary India.

        And Hendo, yes!

        The Left Hand of Darkness I was ‘saving’ for part two–there is so much material on this and insightful comments from interviews with Ursula Le Guin. (More on this to follow).

        Another writer that explores gender ‘switching’ is Tanith Lee (thank you my Captain!)in her duology Don’t Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine, (now in the single volume called Biting the Sun. This is also a SF work and here gender is something the ‘life spark’ or soul chooses whenever they put in for a new body (frequently!) Lee portrays gender as ‘performance,’ like ‘do I wear a dress today or a tux?’. Reproduction is not accomplished through the sexual ‘act’ but by DNA extraction. In this way, your biological ‘makers’ (parents) can be both male, both female or one of each. It’s interesting to see how gender does not determine personality so much as decorate it. (Lee shows us the same character as female, then male, then female again.) Enlightening read!

      • Kim – Great points: “I think as writers we won’t do well to impose anything …but what we can do is contrast.”; “Know it historically and live something beyond such limiting beliefs!”

        That’s what I love about spec fic – so many ideas to explore. It’s the perfect place for contrasting and going beyond what we know and believe.

        And all these thoughts on gender and performance are fascinating. Really, even when you look at western culture, gender is always a performance. We might have definitive words for it, but we are all schooled to dress and behave according to expectations of behaviour – even those who are trying to oppose or subvert those expectations.

        Fabulous post.

    • That’s such a good point, Nyssa. I often find myself reading medieval-style books wherein the entire society and setting is perfectly described but the characters’ actions are too modern. And by that I mean exactly what you have said – the males treating the women too much as equals or behaving as though beating women is wrong in such a way that feels off-kilter because, as you say, there is nothing in that world to make that “normal”. In that medieval time, the “strong man” ruled the “weak woman” and for anyone to have behaved otherwise would have been strange.
      Some writers, though, do manage to carry that off anad again it comes back to characterisation and perspective. Written well, they can get away with it, but there has to be a reason for it and it has to be wrapped up in the character, the society and the interactions.
      I think if gender comes into play – and if something such as a man beating a woman (or being frowned on for doing so) is part of the action, then it is in play – it has to be treated like anything else in that world. It has to be examined by the author and dealt with. Jennifer Fallon has explained in the past that if you’re inventing a new world and you’re going to have, for example, a creature such as a cow with three legs, you have to have a reason for that and think through all the implications and consequences of that – it’s not enough for the creature just to be. Otherwise, why not just have a cow? Likewise I think with gender and behaviour – if you’re going to have, for example, a medieval world and it’s a carbon copy of the medieval world we all learned about at school, you have to think about the implications and consequences of that. You can’t take that and then impose 1970s gender behaviour onto it UNLESS you have reasons and explanations for it.

      • Precisely, Vertigo! Such as in Ever After, there is a reason for Drew Barrymore’s character to be so forward thinking. Her father was a baron and could afford books like Thomas More. That’s where those beliefs came from. Without that context, how would one know if it is possible to live outside of what they know, particularly serfs/peasants?

        Thomas More wrote and thought things way ahead of his time, but he was a lord at court. He saw the corruption and was educated. He was a lawyer, a scholar, a statesman, and at one point even became Lord Chancellor of the English court to Henry the 8th.

        And I’m pointing this out because as you know, traditionally the hero is a farm boy 😛

      • Nyssa,

        Ever After is a great example. Woven behind the action and intention is a reason (a why) for her ideas. What better place to come from than a well stocked library! (Jane Austen would love that!)

        Time travel (or travel from a distant land) can play with this ‘introduction of new ideas’ in so many ways because the ‘library’ is in the mind of the person who travels (farm boy or otherwise!)

        🙂

      • Time travel I think is a bit of a cheat sometimes. A lot of the time, the inhabitants too easily and quickly let go of everything they know and bend to the wisdom of someone else.

  3. An insightful post, Kim, and too true. It’s difficult for any author I think to completely write outside the shared pool of images which make up everyone’s social and intellectual environment. Speculative fiction, which is my favourite genre, often gives itself permission to question recieved histories and themes but even it too is susceptible to blind spots. I think you have hit on a significant one and I wonder whether it is tied into Western conceptions of the hero generally. I’m reminded of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” which wonderfully unmasks mythology and the hero’s journey as essentially being the same across many different stories and essentially being male. I also think your argument could segue into discussions regarding gender representation in fantasy games like, for example, “World of Warcraft” which plunder the fantasy environments of Tolkien, etc, for their mythological and popular cultural references. There is much to be said about the game’s use of ulginess for representations of “other” and its use of Western ideas of feminine beauty as indicating good. And, of course, we see similar gender signals in speculative fiction as a handy shorthand for characters and their moral orientation towards the hero/ine.

    • Jason, so glad you dropped in. Your comments hit essential points.

      I had whole paragraphs of Joseph Campbell hero insights in the first draft of this post. Ridiculously too long. But the male as ‘hero’ and female as ‘other’ seems the backbone our mythologies are built on. And there they rest, as you say, in our ‘shared pool of images’.

      As I mentioned earlier to Nyssa, the story of Psyche and Eros is shocking in terms of her lack of effectiveness and she is our archetypal heroine! Insects and plants have to save her–yet those are representations of Aphrodite–the goddess that posed the challenges in the first place. Fascinating in a ‘strange loop’ sort of way!

      Good point about gaming. How deeply embedded are those images–and do the games (and our literature) reinforce these ‘handy shorthands for character’ in our youth? I think they must.

      Even though Laura Croft is heroic in an action hero way, she is visioned (disproportionally so in the game) through the male gaze. Are we going forward, back or sideways?

      At least we are talking about these things. That has to be forward, don’t you think?

  4. I agree that Twilight offers a kind of fulfilment — a fantasy of ‘reunion with the divine’. A return to source. It’s a sacrificial love, a giving up of power, a surrender of self–like Psyche and Eros. You know the story? She is the ‘hero’ but her way is not charging off with a sword and an army or magical powers. She achieves her goal through breakdown, surrender and appeal to, ironically, Aphrodite (the goddess that is presenting the tasks in the first place.)

    Psyche, not unlike Bella, cries and rants and attempts suicide. She gives up her cause each time and in that moment of surrender, help arrives. It is a very different motif than that of Jason, Hercules or even Perseus. It is an archetypal story and not surprising that we see it resurface in Bella Swan–and see the collective embrace it so intensely.

    When gender is an identification of character, as it is in our culture, it does make it difficult to switch sex and maintain plot–if there are rules that say females can do this but not that–males are this but not that. The exercise itself can reveal some of the deeper biases against both sexes–the ones we don’t see or think about but write anyway.

    Judith Butler speaks at length on gender representations in literature. She counters that gender is a ‘performance’ not a given; it’s what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are. Seen in this way, our identities, gendered and otherwise, do not express some authentic inner “core” self but are the dramatic effect (rather than the cause) of our performances.

    How would Jarrod go in a female Tulpa body? You might be prognostic there. I can say no more!

    My stories do address gender biases in many ways–the futuristic earth’s masculinist hegemony where the Hammer of Witches is reinstated as doctrine vs. the temples of Gaela where gender is not discriminated against or used as a point of separation.

    Could Rosette be a young man come home to find his family murdered? Go learn from Nell? Train at Treeon? I think he could, but as you say, what then of Jarrod? Things would have to change–but the essential meaning and purpose of the characters stand. Until book 3 and then I’m completely out on a limb! *wink*

    Thanks for this wonderful discussion, Captain!

    • Thank *you* :-). What a fascinating concept – that ‘gender is a ‘performance’ not a given; it’s what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are’ – I can see how one can look at gender this way, rather than being the thing that affects, it is the affection – I am not entirely sure I agree though!
      Do you think there are cultures where gender is not an identifier? On earth, I mean. I can’t think of any – to the best of my knowledge, most animals divide into certain behavioural patterns according to gender (humans included – although we think more philosophically about it, I suppose). I wonder what those particular fish who change gender think? 🙂
      And I like the hints about the next book!

  5. So much of gender differential in fantasy is rooted in the fact that,outside modern urban fantasy, the worlds are usually pre-technological. This means that if you have a woman as free to do what she likes as a man of that world is, you have to account for how it is possible. In real-life pre-tech societies, men had a role in which physical brute strength was important – fighting, hunting, farming, blacksmithing or whatever. Women were tied down by the lack of birth control and the lack of safety when they ventured out because they just aren’t as physically strong.

    If you want to even things up as a fantasy writer (without making the woman exceptionally physically strong)it is perfectly possible – one of the glories of writing fantasy is that magic can give her the edge she needs to be considered an equal.

    However, make your heroine much like a masculine hero, and suddenly she can become unlikeable to the average reader (and vice versa with a feminine male). Readers have their hang-ups… A kind, gentle woman is admired; a kind, gentle man is weak. A powerful, abrasive man is brave and a leader. A powerful, abrasive woman is just unpleasant.

    Twilight was perhaps so successful because so many teenage girls dream of being what they aren’t – beautiful and wanted, and for a moment they could pretend. If Meyer had made her heroine successful because she competed with males on their level, she would not have been so appealing to female readers because it would have made her too different from the readers.

    • Great points, Glenda. We can write our experimental worlds were genders are equal, kind sensitive men are not weak and potent women are not abrasive…but there might not be a strong readership for it!

      People want to identify with the characters–as you said re Twilight. It fulfills a fantasy dream (thank your for stating that so clearly) I also think the reinforcement of traditional roles for women offers a sense of security for teens who are already in them. It’s validating. I wonder what would have happened though if Meyer had made her heroine able to individuate–to find strength within herself. If she had grown in this direction, would it have offered a model? A guiding light?

      But then not everything is about ‘growth’….sometimes it’s about immersion in a beloved fantasy world, and that is nourishing for the soul, no matter what else is going on.

      Thanks for contributing!

  6. Great post, Kim!

    As far as I can see, gender biases in fantasy worlds are a result of two things: 1) the preoccupations, experiences and/or prejudices of the author (we are all creatures of our times…) and 2) the author’s Agenda, with a capital ‘A’. For example, Tolkien evidently wrote from the perspective of a male British upper middle class professor of the 1950’s, with a deep love of history and languages. He wanted to create a sort of Edda for the English. His tastes were resolutely conservative, so finding so many wives and mothers, and only a few, rather conflicted female warriors in his work is hardly a great surprise! That said, it goes with the world he has created, a world based on 10th century nordic legends, after all.

    Frankly I always loved Eowyn because she was so un-manlike. She’s fierce and fiery, but hasn’t got the physical brawn to go with her towering spirit. That makes her a *more* interesting character, in my view. You’ll always remember Eowyn… you don’t remember the hundreds of boring, manly men who fought at her side. I like characters who do things that are hard for them to do. (Which is why I root for Frodo, who is very ‘female’ in his smallness, physical weakness, and general lack of all qualities hefty and powerful. Frodo even shows those supposedly ‘female’ attributes of hesitation, patience, and tenderness of heart.)

    I couldn’t help thinking of my own works in progress, of course… and realized that I seem to love making life hard for my female characters. 😉 Gender biased worlds are not only the norm in history, but a good plot device in fantasy. They provide blocks and restraints to fight against. I respect a character who overcomes all odds to do something amazing… male or female. And some of the traditionally effective means of overcoming odds are the ones you list in your post: The rejection of feminine qualities and attributes. Disobedience. Cross-dressing. Telling tall, tall tales to get what you want and need… 🙂

    Thanks for the good discussion!

    • Hi Mary,

      I’m completely with you on Tolkien’s intentions for Middle Earth and the cultural influences of the times in which he wrote. It would probably be quite shocking to find there weren’t traditional gender roles in his worlds! Yet now we are writing in different times and it’s interesting to examine what we as writers are creating in the post modern fantasy worlds.

      I love the way you highlight Fordo’s qualities of patience, and tenderness (I found him so particularly towards Gollum–his shadow figure). The relationships between the male hobbits are some of the strongest bonds in all the characters.

      I’m just thinking of the Ents now…the male trees. The Ent wives left them, so we don’t get to see them either! Interesting…

      Thank you for bringing your insights to the discussion. 🙂

  7. Both the Lord of the Rings and Twilight are products of the era they were created it and this era is evident in the world that the writers created. The pov on gender becomes a part of the world, making it hard to change the protagonist’s gender and still make the existing story work.

    On one hand it’s disappointing, but on the other it’s a sign of a well-developed world and story.

    I’d have a problem if today we were only seeing a patriachal pov in novels, but luckily we not. Tory Alexander (The Ancient Future/Chronicle of Ages trilogies) and buffy are both modern examples of the hero. Okay, now I know that traditionally the hero is male, and I have a problem with that as it is not integral to the archetype or to it’s role.

    I think we need to stop associating gender with the hero as by considering buffy, tory alexander and the many others as ‘heroines’ almost belittles them. Mainly because the notion of a heroine comes from romantic medieval literature where they were traditionally an object, a prize (in a sense Bella fits perfectly into this role) that is outdated in our time given the social change that has occured. The heroine archetype does not accurately account for sidekicks and other types of characters that now appear in stories in a similar capacity.

    If you’re setting a story in a particular historical time frame then yes, you do need to consider the culture of the time for accuracy. Gender as a subject is always going to come into stories, intentionally or unintentionally while the world is where it is. And even then it’s part of our never-ending quest for individuation.

    • Hi skaldi,

      Thanks for highlighting novels that do not reflect a patriarchal POV. And your point that ‘maleness’ is not integral to the archetype of the hero is important. The archetypal ‘male’ and ‘female’ are ideas that can be expressed by either sex. The myths weren’t literal in that way, but metaphorical.

      Your last paragraph really hit home to me: If we’re writing historical fiction then yes of course–write the gender as it was perceived (as far as we can understand it). And yes, gender will come into the subject intentionally or unintentionally. So let’s make it intentional! Let’s be aware of how we are portraying the men and women we write about. The road to individuation begins with awareness!

      Thank you for your contributions!

  8. Hmm, interesting topic.

    I write fantasy myself, set in a society that is only vaguely medieval, and when it came to the question of gender roles in it I decided to avoid patriarchy because I was bored of seeing it in fantasy all the time. Sure, the medieval world was male dominated, but we’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction, so to heck with that!

    So I decided to make the genders equal; there’s racial prejudice, but nobody ever gets treated unfairly because of their gender. Sexism has never really affected or interested me, so I never felt interested in writing about it.

    Gender is still important, though, because as several people have said, regardless of how a person is treated their gender will still affect their personality.

    One interesting thing I noticed in my own characters is that nearly all my female characters are tough and no-nonsense, even unemotional. In fact, one or two of my male characters turned out to be more sensitive than they were! The reason for that is pretty simple: it’s because I grew up around strong women and every important male figure in my life has been of the more thoughtful, gentle sort. I believe it makes sense in the context of the story (nearly all the female characters that appear have had difficult lives and have been forced to be self-reliant and resourceful, the more sensitive male characters are either young and immature or just plain damaged), and it certainly makes sense in the context of my own life experiences. As they say, write what you know, and that’s just what I know.

    Amusingly enough, one of my agents criticised the human protagonist of Dark Griffin for not being “manly” enough, because he’s a troubled, depressive character who really has nothing to fight for (at least for now). Others, however, said they really appreciated having a protagonist whose problems *aren’t* all solved by a couple of fight scenes and a magic spell, or a pep talk from an old mentor. People said they liked the fact that he’s not really a heroic character, but rather a real person dealing with problems that don’t involve saving the world or defeating evil (in my world, there is no such thing as evil anyway).

    As for me, I eventually decided that I don’t care whether my protagonist is a hero, or whether he’s suitably masculine. As long as he’s believeable as a human being, I’m satisfied. The same goes for all the others.

    PS: Twilight and the hysteria around it – from crazy fans *and* crazy haters – is pure hilarious and as far as I’m concerned it’s there to provide free entertainment to people like me who don’t give a hoot.

    • Hi Katie,

      You said, Sure, the medieval world was male dominated, but we’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction, so to heck with that!

      Good point. I like it, and I like your world where genders are equal. It’s also relevant that you can see your own influences translating to the work–sensitive men, capable women. I think stories tell as much about the author as they do about the characters! (which I try not to think about too much 🙂

      And yes, we don’t have to squeeze our protagonists into narrow definitions–hero, suitable masculine etc–we simple have to make them believable. Definitely!

      Thanks for dropping in! This is such a stimulating conversation (it’s also happening on the Voyager FB page!) 🙂

  9. Hi Kim, fantastic post!

    I remember having a similar discussion on the messageboard a while back. I like your take on Eowyn, that she has to reject her femininity completely and disguise herself to meet the standards of ‘hero’. It’s probably also worth noting that as a reward for all her heroics, Eowyn gets slotted back into the traditional female role in her marraige to Faramir.

    Glenda makes a great point about thinking WHY women could be disadvantaged in a medieval world, and how magic can balance this. Societies don’t exist in a vacuum, there are a multitude of different factors that effect how they operate; technology, religion, economics and cultural exchange don’t even scratch the surface! I agree with many of the other posters that a writer shouldn’t have to feel constrained by history, but taking these factors into account helps to create a rich, believable society.

    • Hendo, yes, good point. Eowyn is rewarded with Faramir (who initially pities her and finds her ‘fair and sorrowful’). She does seem to fall in love with him eventually but only after letting go her ‘desire for glorious death in battle’ which seems to be a reaction to Aragorn’s disinterest. I find Eowyn heroic on all counts, though what she really wants is never made clear (to me). Was it to you?

      A rich and believable society . . . That’s the goal and if the writer takes the social ‘norms’ of their world too far (for the readership) people are not going to be able to immerse. It just won’t be ‘believable’ to them.

      We can write cutting edge ideas, but if they are too eccentric, too far out to relate to or even glimpse, we won’t have much of an audience to share them with!

      Thanks for dropping by 🙂

      • Hehe, fair point there Kim, not every reader has had sociology and anthropological theory beaten into them *g*. Steven Erikson, for example, has quite a dedicated readership but he’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

        I agree, Eowyn’s motivations are hard to read. I think her underlying desire is to be part of the glorious warrior culture that she’s been raised around but denied membership because of her gender. I think her feelings for Aragorn are mostly rooted in that, because he respects her, and her desire for death after he denies her is more a reaction to the males closing ranks on her than a’jilted woman’ scenario (I’m not suggesting that that’s how you read it Kim, that’s based on what I’ve seen others suggest). Aragorn more or less says this to Eomer in the House of Healing, if I remember correctly (it’s been awhile, and the book has started to blend with the movies in my head).

        In that sense I think Eowyn is a great feminist rolemodel, she’s actively challenging the injustice of her society, and not just reacting to the men in the story (though it can be read that way). I suspect Tolkien was well aware of what he was doing there, feminism didn’t spring out of a vacuum in the 70’s after all. I just think she got let down in the ending. Maybe it comes back to what you said about the reading audience earlier, the world wasn’t ready for that feminist narrative yet?

      • Hi Hendo,

        I also got the feeling Eowyn is longing for the glory of battle after all those years of putting up with Wormtongue and the ill and poisoned king. She’s going stir crazy and Aragorn is a glimpse of freedom. She also falls for him and his rejection seems to embody everything that’s been denied her, not just him the man.

        But I can’t quite get why they trained her for battle, sword and horse skills, if she is not allowed to use them because of gender. Was it just ritual training never intended for the real thing? In my books there are cultures were women train with swords alongside men and there isn’t any question about using their skills when the time comes. The sexes are equal. But to train and then not ride to battle? What point? (Or was she meant to guard the retreat? I need to reread!)

        Eowyn was let down in the end, perhaps. She did ride into glorious battle and she did achieve greatness but she was still so sad. Tolkien healed her with a man–a traditional role–basically a fairy tale ending. But who knows, maybe she and Faramir are out their patrolling the boarders–side by side hunting down stray Orchs! Maybe it’s our conditioning that assumes otherwise 🙂

        Great thoughts on this. Thank you!

      • Hmmm, interesting thought there, why would they impart skills they wouldn’t let her use? I’ve got images of a father indulging his strong willed daughter before she reached puberty and was expected to act the lady. There was also that great line in the movie that ‘woman without swords can still die upon them’, but I can’t remember whether that’s canonical or not. Perhaps all the women in Rohan were taught the basics as a contingency?

        Herodotus makes a mention of female Sarmatian warriors in his History (granted, not considered the most credible of sources *g*). According to him, Sarmatian women fought alongside the men and weren’t allowed to marry until they’d killed a man. We know that a contingent of Sarmatian cavalry was stationed in Britain by the Romans (there’s been some suggestion that the legend of Arthur is connected to the descendants of these Sarmartian Auxilaries, but that hypothesis was suggested well after Tolkien’s time), and historical documents refer to them in the 5th Century AD, around the time of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain. Tolkien has said that with the Rohirrim he wanted to recreate the Anglo-Saxons as a horse people. Is it possible that he was influenced by the Sarmatians? Probably not, but it’s fun to speculate 😉

  10. Great topic! I confess to loving LOTR the first time I read it, and having no problems whatsoever with Tolkein’s almost nervous fumblings with his female characters. And yet by the time I’d read the first two Twilight books I wanted to smack Bella upside the head and tell her to grow some self-respect.

    How is this possible?? Because I read LOTR when I was 14 and my world view had been formed by a mix of fairytale romance and upper-middle-class English reverence for the nobility of those who went to war in Europe. I believed without question that if I were feminine and helpless and virtuous, a prince in commoner’s clothing would sweep me into everlasting happiness. But I read Twilight after experiencing decades of expansion of my genuine feminine power.

    My subjective reaction is informed entirely by my own filters. I now revel in those female main characters who demonstrate how to be powerful without needing to be masculine about it – Buffy, Starbuck, Rosette, Nell.

    Do I roll my eyes when my 13yo niece proclaims how much she LERVES Twilight, and how romantic she thinks Bella and Edward are? Sure. But I do my best not to lecture her about the feminist struggles I went through. Coz really, what would be the point?? She’ll figure it out for herself.

    My only regret is not buying the T-shirt I saw on sale at Melbourne’s Supernova this year: “… and then Buffy slays Edward. The End”. Hee hee!

    • Twilight seems to be creating a lot of new feminists. It’s weird that way.

      Ooh, I saw that t-shirt at Borders! And Then Buffy Staked Edward. The End. I swear I saw that on an avatar before then.

      When is someone going to put one of MY avatars on a t-shirt, eh? You tell me when, man, ’cause I’m still waiting!

  11. Janette,

    You pegged that for me. I also read LOTR at age 14 (on a different shore but still–14). I saw the men as golden drops of sunlight–brilliant examples of capability, accomplishment and daring. They were things I wanted to be but didn’t know how and when I read Tolkien I immersed in their world. I rode at their sides. I was apprentice to Gandolf and companion of Sam. I was in heaven, and I didn’t even have to die!

    If I’d read Twilight at that age I would have probably lavished in the ‘romance’ of it without any feminist dystopic alarm bells going off. It’s pretty hard to follow the dialog with that blasting in your head!

    Thank you for bringing age-relevance into closer view (Nyssa does say this several times in her review…for those under 20…)

    And I appreciate your point that ‘arguing for feminist struggles’ may not be necessary or productive. We each find our own way–the whole point of individuation. It makes me wonder if the question of gender bias can not even rise until one reaches a certain ‘point’. I didn’t want equality when I was reading LOTR for the first time. I wanted a dad, a divine father/hero to blaze the way, and I got one.

    🙂 That T-shirt! LOL Thank you 🙂

    And also, Rosette’s stoked to be in such fine company. Cheers!

    🙂 Kim

    • Did I sound totally together on the not-shoving-feminist-arguments-down-nieces’-throats? Make no mistake, I’ve had to bite my tongue pretty hard. Sigh.

      Love your comments re the males in Tolkein – very true for me too, which is why I still reread and love LOTR all over again every couple of years. Except I just wanted to join the Rohirrim. All that horseflesh… brrrrr….

    • Love that t-shirt, in fact, already own that t-shirt (jinx.com if you have cravings – then we can all look the same – was unsurprised to find myself wearing mine at the same time as someone else at Conflux. To make this relevant to the gender post he was wearing the male version and I, um, wasn’t ;o))

      Totally agree about age making a difference to the reading experience… as well as culture and society and history and everything else. LOLling at “men as golden drops of sunshine!

      I too read books at the age of 14 that would probably make my toes curl now IF I was reading them for the first time (familiarity means they are probably still comfort reading and I’d be relatively blind to their faults). My needs and desires as a 14-yr-old, or even as a 9-yr-old were quite different to my needs and desires as an adult. How much of that is the psychological/subconscious need for safety/protection one gets from a parent? That said, I don’t recall ever being especially enamoured of stories in which the fair maiden always required rescuing! It was always the story itself that drew me in; the characters. And actually I was always far more interested in the inhuman characters! Thus proving the point about how important it is to write characters well!

      I have always been pretty good at compartmentalising. I read Twilight and couldn’t put it down. It got a little harder with book two and by books 3 and 4 I was ready to hurl the books across the room – as so many have said before me. But all along, in the back of my mind, I was aware that they weren’t really written for ME, they were written for girls younger than me and perhaps they would adore them. I can see the appeal. While part of me is screaming “Edward is a stalker!” and rails at Bella’s constant need to be rescued and failure to be proactive, I can turn off the analytical switch and just enjoy the story on its face-value. If you don’t take into account everything you know and read about our society, culture and history, the story is a little less frustrating. Ie: if you don’t think about women caught in abusive or controlling relationships then perhaps you can view Edward’s actions as deep love rather than disturbing obsession; if you don’t think about Edward and Bella in a feminist context Bella doesn’t seem weak or Edward controlling, he does just seem like a protector. In short (too late for that, heh) if you take out the expectations of culture and age and history and so on, it’s just another love story.
      As adults we bring so much more to our reading experience than we do as children or as teenagers. And we want different things. As a child my reading experiences were totally different than my teenage experiences and my adult ones and everyone experiences reading differently. I am sure passionate readers read differently to sometime readers. Kim, you say “he story revolves around a helpless heroine who is constantly in need of rescue by supernatural men. She has no sense of self outside of her relationship to them. Given the demographic—teenage girls—the popularity is disturbing, or at least revealing.” – I can’t help thinking of the girls I was at high school with, who identified themselves purely in terms of the boys they were dating or flirting with. None of them were particularly academic. None of them read much – but I can imagine that Twilight would probably have been one of the few books they would have picked up and read. I wonder what they would have thought of Bella?
      Heh – I say my reading experiences were different at each age, but now I think about it, as a child I’d pretend to be various characters from favourite books… as an adult, hmmm, I think I try to channel Buffy et al when I’m at the gym. Maybe I just never grew up.

      • Hi Vertigo,

        I wasn’t ‘thinking’ when I wrote ‘golden drops of sunshine’–just remembering the feeling. It’s making me laugh because the Sun, Ra, Apollo, are masculine images of enlightenment, individuation and achievement. All the things that enraptured me then, and still do. (In astrology, the Sun is equated with the ‘authentic Self’. So ‘golden drops’ fits, though I’ve called men other things, on occasion, that have a different ring.

        (Just thinking of my grandfather, a Leo named Golden Bell Falconer–He had the confidence and self-direction of a Spartan and I don’t mean threadbare here either!)

        You said, if you don’t take into account everything you know and read about our society, culture and history, the story is a little less frustrating. This is an important point because we do bring our own biases to whatever we read. If I’ve got a ‘charge’ on something (let’s say, ‘abusive relationships’) I’m going to spot them with my mega-enhancing x-ray early-warning detection devices before the first sentence is out. I might miss deeper nuances of the story because I’m all in a twist over a character’s choice of companionship.

        I’m going to try your way–compartmentalize. Read the story, immerse and allow for the experience. If I want to review or critique, I can do that after!

        Thanks for dropping by!

        🙂 Kim

  12. Late but still… very interesting discussion! I don’t see my fave characters as other gender. And sadly generally speculative fiction does reinforce traditionalism with gender issues. Especially as seen from the LGBT point of view.

    But I also think if any fiction could play with gender issues it is definitely speculative fiction. I love the ideas of a third gender or androgynous beings. Also I guess it should be easier here to explore gender from the spiritual point of view. But is it? (hmm… I’m not a writer, so have no experience) And if we see a being first and foremost as a nongender soul or energy, physical gender is really only a ‘performance’ (I love that name!). So if gender is not the core, so it shouldn’t be hard to switch it, at least in the story where traditional roles are not the center of the plot. But it would be needed from the writer to be extra cautious from the beggining of creating characters, because I guess it is easy to fall into tradition.

    I wanted to write sth more, but don’t remember now what it was 😉

    But as for the “Twilight” I must admit I liked the series mostly because of the “Imprinting” thing among shapeshifters for finding “the one”. It is really close to the concept of Twinflames. Even if the author didn’t know it.
    And Bella&Edward love was also very close to that concept, that’s why IMO huge popularity of the series. Fantasy or not everyone deep down longs for ‘the one’.

    Ola

    • Hi Ola,

      The author would have to be very aware of how they portray gender (as core or essence or as something we perform)right from the start and I don’t think that happens often. We bring our own biases and cultural conditioning to the work and it shows. A deconstructed piece of fiction is an autobiography of the author. 🙂

      Interesting about the longing for ‘the one’. This is what I was saying about divine love–the search for the numinous in the other. It’s actually a spiritual longing though it can have powerful sexual components. Plato talked about this and we call it ‘Platonic love’ which is a bit of a goof because Plato, as I understand him, wasn’t dismissing physicality. Quite the contrary. But somehow that aspect was whitewashed and we have this huge misnomer.

      What Plato said was before we incarnate, we all belong to one of the choir of the gods. We all know which god we owe allegiance to. We know our spiritual home. And then, we incarnate.

      And we forget.

      We don’t know our god, our choir or our people and we roam the earth with this sense of longing and searching. It’s a divine homesickness.

      And then we meet the beloved.

      Plato said, in the eyes of the beloved we see our spiritual roots. We recognize at once our choir, our god, our home. We fall in love with those eyes, that look, the person…we are swept away.

      But the person isn’t the god, the home. They have simply reminded us of it. Still, we see them as ‘the one’. Divine.

      I think there is something very profound and beautiful in this idea–and something very tragic as well….and if Bella and Edward capture it, there is a glimpse for us too of our choir. A memory.

      Thank you for bringing this up. In that light, it is not gender at all, but reunion with the divine.

      • Wow, this discussion gets deeper and more philosophical every time I come back to check on it!

        If I have a weakness that I recognise, it’s that I’m not very good at writing romance. The reason is simple: I haven’t really had any romance in my own life, and nor am I the slightest bit interested in changing it. Yeah, I got involved with a guy who turned out to be a jerk. How did you guess?

        Anyway, when I write romance I often feel a bit lost, and I would never expect anyone to find my efforts all that realistic. If they are, then I must be a good guesser.

      • Hi Katie,

        Yes, when I start touting Plato we know it’s moved to the 6th dimension 🙂

        Romance . . . I think writing it involves a lot of fantasy. We don’t have to have ‘been there’ if we can imagine what ‘there’ might be like. I’m thinking now ‘Romance’ is a whole other blog topic. Interesting!!!!

      • Thank you Kim for your reply, and clarity and depth of your words.

        So finding and being with a person in which we find the expression of ‘The One’ here in physical is like a preparation before joining in love with “The One”.
        Yes, I agree it isn’t about gender ultimately.

        But I’ve heard some concepts about balancing our inner feminine and masculine to be ready for that ideal connection. No balance = not coming home to “The One”. So the gender as a physical expression or performance of the incarnating soul is learning and seeking that balance.

        And in that learning a soul sometimes forgets that it’s balancing and overdo the outer ‘gender performance’. And the pure at it’s core masculine ‘performance’ is stronger and more active by nature. Pure feminine ‘performance’ is passive by nature. Active is always more visible than passive.

        So that’s maybe why ‘Frodo’ cannot become ‘Froda’ so easily? Untill the souls will be more concious in balance in the physical world, and the gender ‘performance’ will not be important so much anymore to express what’s inside…hmmm…

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