Women’s point of view in fantasy

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Hervör, a shieldmaiden in the Poetic Edda

Thanks to Daniel Greene, a YouTube creator whose channel presents commentary about speculative fiction, I am working my way through The Wheel of Time series, a collection of fifteen books written mostly by Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson after the original author died. The series draws inevitable comparisons to the works of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin in that it presents a detailed world of multiple cultures with a long total history, and its magical system and cosmology — particularly the notion of time as an endlessly circling wheel — derive a lot from Eastern philosophies, something that until recently has been unusual in the realm of fantasy, a genre that much more often inhabits some mythical portion of the European Middle Ages.

With a series that runs well past four million words, there is a lot of material to discuss. What I wish to look at here is the battle of the sexes that dominates Jordan’s world, along with comments about how it fits into the treatment of sex and perspective in speculative fiction generally.

First off, I have to admit that fantasy and science fiction have all too often been written from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy when it comes to its attitudes about women — and about a lot else. The hero enters a fantastical world — be it Mars, the hollow interior of the Earth, a lost continent, or on and on — and finds himself having to rescue the beautiful maiden from the locals. What she looks like is patterned after the author’s notion of beauty, and yes, I have Edgar Rice Burroughs in mind here. The maiden may as well be a blow-up doll for all the contributions that she is allowed to make to the story, and in the case of The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson, she is administered regular discipline — what today we would call abuse — to make her conform to the man’s will. And with the book covers that cheap paperbacks have had through the years, the impression that speculative fiction is more about pornographic fantasy than anything else is understandable.

Fantasy’s high priest, Tolkien, demonstrated that the genre does not have to be puerile, elevating the storytelling into the style and depth that would have been a credit to Dante. His treatment of women can be criticized today for how few female characters appear, but Galadriel is a leader of her people, one of the powerful figures in the story, and Éowyn’s line in the film, “I am no man,” is but a simplification of what she says in “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields.” Yes, she goes on to get married and settle down as a healer and gardener, but slaying the Witchking is surely one of the key achievements in the War of the Ring.

It is fair to say, though, that the female point of view was neglected in books that sought to escape the ordinary world. And then came Robert Jordan. Many of his main characters are women, and if that were the only consideration, he would deserve praise for inclusiveness. But the problem is that these characters are stereotypes of black-and-white sitcom women. They are meddlesome, nagging, shrewish control freaks who denigrate every man they encounter — except when they turn into giggling puddles over the one they fall instantaneously in love with — and they cannot be in a room together with other women without squabbling.

This is a shift from the perspective of a teenage boy to that of the worst impulses of Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show. And thus it is in no sense progress for feminism or even for interesting narratives. There is a good story buried in The Wheel of Time, but it struggles to emerge from the heavy layers of bickering biddies and the lashings of dominatrices. The books compel these stereotypical terms by presenting not a single sympathetic female character. There is no need for this — no need even for men who write, as Carl Sagan illustrates in Contact and as Stephen King does with Susannah in The Dark Tower series.

One solution to this is in motion these days as more women write speculative fiction. Ursula K. Le Guin was a leader in this, and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country showed how to present a matriarchy that is more than just a shallow war of the sexes. But all writers need to treat each character as an individual with natural motives, and our point of view characters need to be people whom readers will enjoy inhabiting for the duration. This is meaningful diversity and empowerment, and it makes stories that our audiences will want to read.

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