MIND MELD: Strong Women in SF/F
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This one is for the ladies! In the past few years we’ve seen the rise of some pretty kick-ass (physical and otherwise) women in SF/F and Urban Fantasy, and I thought it might be fun for the ladies to weigh in on what they think of the evolution of women in fantasy, what “strong” means to them, and also include some examples of strong women in fiction that have caught their eye! I want the guys involved too, so please don’t be afraid to weigh in in the comments!
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
Linnea Sinclair is a former news reporter and retired private detective who yearns for more adventure than ‘Hold the presses!’ and stacks of case files can provide. The role of starship captain was her dream long before James T ever uttered “Beam me up!” Writing stories is her way of living that dream. When she’s not tinkering with a recalcitrant sublight drive, you can find her in southwest Florida (winters) or central Ohio (summers) living with her very patient husband, Robert Bernadino and their thoroughly spoiled cats!
I think that, to a great extent, SFF pioneered the stronger female character, so as far as the evolution of women in SFF, we’re to some extent “there” already. That “there” has now flowed over into other genres, like mystery, romance, and the cross-genres such as urban fantasy, SFR, etc.. But does this mirror changes in society or is society mimicking its favorite reads? I’m not qualified to answer that. I know there’ve been articles done on the influence of Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura on female fans’ decision to pursue the sciences. Wikipedia and Helium are two of many sites that reference the character’s impact on Dr Mae Jemison’s career. And I’ve received many emails from fans citing one of my female characters as “role models” for their own lives; one fan told me how she deliberately channeled Captain Chasidah Bergren (GABRIEL’S GHOST, SHADES OF DARK) in order to take control of a particularly difficult corporate meeting.
What I do hope to see is more women reading science fiction, and I think that will come from the genre promoting strong lead female characters.
As for my own list of fave kick-ass femmes (in no particular order as I’m right now two-finger typing around a large cat sprawled on my laptop keyboard…): Tanya Huff’s Torin Kerr, Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax, Elizabeth Moon’s Kylara Vatta, Julie Czerneda’s Sira, Sara Creasy’s Edie Sha’nim, PJ Schnyder’s Kat Darah, Marianne de Pierres’ Parrish Plessis… then there are fabulous secondary female characters in books by R.M. Meluch, Ian Douglas, Jack Campbell…and that’s just for starters.
Totally out of the genre, I can recommend Laurie R King’s Mary Russell Holmes character. Brilliant!
What’s been happening is something that popular urban fantasy in general does very well: Subverting genre. Writers of this type of story take beloved and well-known myths, folklore and legends and twist them on their ears. We challenge established institutions and attitudes and celebrate the individual and the rebel. We take elements from other genres and mix them up and break rules. And, yeah, we also take strong female characters who were traditionally page candy in comic books or the fur-bikini-wearing helpmeets in hero’s journeys and giving them brains and self-actualization journeys of their own.
Dudes, as it turns out, don’t corner the market on bravery or the desire for adventure and to find meaning in the world.
Like every good subversive revolution, this one has begun with over-the-top caricatures and archetypal bad-asses designed to make a point. That’s why we see tight leather, tattoos, crazy hair colors, big fangs and even bigger weapons. However, I believe we will start to see this exaggerated trend even out and mellow a bit as the genre evolves. I hope so. I see female heros every day in my real life, and I learn from them as much as I learn from the amazing men in my life. As it turns out, fangs and wands and stilettos are not required to slay monsters, but for a while to come, we’ll probably continue to see fantasy lead the way in promoting the female-as-hero theme. Our fantastical and mythic metaphors allow us to play with these ideas in a way that is not too threatening to accepted norms.
Since the first stories were told around fires, men have played the leading roles. They’ve had fascinating adventures and taught us lessons about life. Meanwhile, stories about women were relegated to the cooking tent or at the birthing bed. In other words, stories about men were for everyone, but stories about women, alas, were just for women. This is changing, but it’s slow and frustrating for those of us who believe there’s wisdom (and a kick-ass good time) to be gleaned from female characters and storytellers.
My hope is that we will eventually get to a point where stories are not assigned gender at all. Where we realize that the function of all story is to entertain and enlighten us about being human. The female gaze has as much to offer us about the human condition as the male one. Where, finally, we are not surprised to see books about strong women (written by strong women) embraced and celebrated.
I’m interested in interesting, complicated characters with real problems and real ambivalences, who screw up and battle with themselves as much as they do giant tentacled monster beasts, handsome or otherwise. Of course sexual identity, sexuality, race, species should all determine who your character is. The way they are in the world will affect their experience of the world. We should be looking for deep, rich, intriguing, fully-realised characters, whatever bits they have between their legs. Do women often get short-changed in this department? Yeah, unfortunately. But I think there are great examples of female characters who come off like real humans too, in all their messy glory.
I’m all for kicking monster butt (although doing so in stilettos seems very impractical) as long as they also have, you know, a personality. Here’s the hot tip: are you writing this character as a real person? You’re good.
Some books I’ve read recently that did this really well:
Jesse Bullington’s Enterprise of Death, where Awa is a former-slave-turned-reluctant-necromancer plagued by a conscience and haunted by the terrible act she committed out of misplaced love and loneliness.
Kameron Hurley’s God’s War where our first introduction to assassin/bounty hunter Nyx is her selling her womb so she can buy extra weapons in a ferocious world of bug-magic and war with gender roles reversed.
Warren Ellis writes mad, wonderful women, as do Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker in comics – and Bill Willingham who writes wonderful female characters in Fables.
Kaaron Warren’s Slights featuring an incredibly disturbed and disturbing young woman and the array of characters in Walking The Tree were fantastic.
And I’m absolutely loving Max Barry’s Lexicon (only out next year) and his lead Emily, a runaway con-girl turned sinister linguistic manipulator who might undo the whole world. She’s real and she hurts.
The role of women in science-fiction and fantasy has had more backsliding than forward momentum, historically. For every book that featured a strong, deep female character, there were ten that relegated women to the standard roles of support, victim or holster. As urban fantasy exploded, often crossed over with romance, women have become a key force in the genre. As kick-ass women become more and more visible in genre fiction—as main characters, heroines, villains—I think readers will start treating their gender in much the same way they treat the gender male characters: unremarkable. It won’t be a question of how much a reader likes a character “as a woman”, but how much they like a character as a killer, a fighter, a pilot, a magic-user, a vampire hunter.
While gender has a lot to do with shaping who a character is and how he or she takes on the world, it’s not the end al/of all. In Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, Atticus O’Sullivan isn’t a remarkable druid because he’s a man. He’s not clever and ancient because he was raised as a man. He’s a remarkable druid because he pays attention. He’s clever because his Druid master thunked him on the head until he stopped “cockin’ it up again”.
In the same vein, Kalayna Price’s Alex Craft isn’t a good witch because she’s a woman. Her gender has nothing to do with the way her father treated her, or the reason she’s so determined to overcome. It could have been so easy for Ms. Price to take that route—to give Alex inferiority issues because she was just a girl in a powerful world—but she didn’t. Alex Craft is powerful because of spoilery reasons that have nothing to do with her gender. She’s determined to succeed on her own because of the way her father lives his life.
In both cases, neither character is defined by their gender, even as their gender shaped them. An excellent balance.
In my favorite fiction book, The Hero and the Crown, the main character, Aerin, constrained by the social awkwardness of youth, struggles to overcome obstacles that no other female I’d ever read before then had dealt with. Struggled, and succeeded. In the follow-up, my equally-as-favorite The Blue Sword, Harry—a girl!—has her chance to find her place, and it’s not to be the pawn or support of a man. What I loved best about both of these women is that while they eventually found love, that love did not shape who they were. It didn’t force them to bend, or cower, or alter. It was a natural process, an organic side effect of learning who they were.
Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Glen is all about a woman who is kickass in her own way, constrained by the time period and social mores, and who perseveres through some of the worst tragedies a person can live through. My own Tarnished, a series that features a woman constrained by the Victorian customs of her day, showcases Cherry’s adaptability and skill, balancing the social message of “women can’t” with an integral message of “yes, they bloody well can!”.
None of them are remarkable to me because they are women. They are remarkable because of what they accomplish and how they accomplish it.
That is the future of women in science-fiction and fantasy. Characters who are strong, and flawed, and petty, and sympathetic, and skilled, and unskilled, and angry, and sweet, and everything else that men aren’t just encouraged to be, but considered “the norm” when they are. Objectifying a gender is all well and good—I like me a fine set of abs or a shapely backside as much as the next person—but as we continue on this path, eventually we’ll all come to realize that kickass women in fiction are no more or less remarkable than a kickass man. That a story about the suffering of a woman because she’s a woman is no more or less poignant or true than a story about a man suffering because he’s a man. Individuals are where it’s at, every story is its own story, and every character is exactly that—an individual with a personal story to tell.
I love a strong heroine that kicks ass, however I would like to see not only those physical butt kickers, but also more nuanced types of strength from the usual tropes. Strength and butt kicking comes in a number of forms after all, and not all of them are merely about physical strength or aptitude.
That being said, my favourite kick ass heroine of all time is Morgaine from the Morgaine Cycle by CJ Cherryh. I remember it being my very favourite story as a teenager, and she still stays with me. She was the first example to me of a ruthless, driven female character.
I think kickass heroines became more common as more women authors found publishers and audiences, especially in traditionally male-dominated genres such as speculative fiction. There was a glass ceiling that needed blasting through. Even though there are kickass women in other genres, urban fantasy has particularly been associated with the gun-toting, leather-wearing heroine ever since Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake shot the door down almost twenty years ago. Now, I think we’re rapidly reaching kickass saturation. The UF genre is maturing, and we’re seeing a swing away from total kickassitude to more complex characters who have room for growth—just as with the best male characters. If you look at three of the most enduring UF heroines—Mercy Thompson, Rachel Morgan, and Sookie Stackhouse—they are not kickass at all. Mercy knows when to ask for help and cultivates her allies. As powerful as she is, Rachel is up to her ass in alligators as often as not. Sookie’s….well, the woman is more about spray tan than serving up a can of whoop-ass. In the next few years, I predict more heroines who can usher urban fantasy into a new era where the gender of the hero/heroine is less important than the complexity and richness of the character and the ingenuity of the plot and worldbuilding.
Since “in general” is so insanely broad as to be its own lengthy essay, I’ll try to focus on the evolution of women in scifi/fantasy in the last twenty years or so—especially as it relates to urban fantasy. For me, this evolution looks a little bit like a backwards 7. There is a long, steady incline that reaches a certain point, and then flattens before starting to slide down again.
The kick-ass ladies of the nineties are what drew me into urban fantasy in the first place. Buffy Summers was my first real kick-ass heroine. She was a strong girl-turned-woman who embraced her powers, her strength, and was still able to be feminine. She also killed monsters on a very regular basis. She was, as Joss Whedon intended, the opposite of every cheerleader cliché in modern horror movies, and I loved her.
In books, the ranks were also filling with series by Kelley Armstrong, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, and Patricia Briggs. Kick-ass ladies in fiction were embraced, readers were finding them, and more publishers wanted them. With the explosion of urban fantasy in 2008 and 2009, we saw a huge diversity to the kinds of kick-ass heroines being written about. We’ve seen single moms (Kelly Gay), half-vampire assassins (Jaye Wells), witches (Linda Robertson), selkies (Nicole Peeler), zombies (Diana Rowland), and humans (Alison Pang) added to the mix of the more popular vampires and werewolves and hunters thereof.
The explosion also occurred during the height of True Blood‘s popularity on television. And like any trend, it fell from its height last year and is still finding its feet again. Urban fantasy grew too fast, and a lot of fabulous heroines never found the audience they deserved (heroes, too, but that’s not what this is about). This is the short, down-slant side of the backwards 7. The assortment of kick-ass heroines we once had are disappearing off bookshelves, but they aren’t disappearing from scifi/fantasy overall—at least, not that I can tell.
Kick-ass heroines will always be fun to read about, and they’ll never go away completely—they’ll simply be harder to find. They’re overshadowed by popular trends, such as the latest infatuation with erotic romance (which is a genre I love, so don’t think this is a diss) and “fanfiction” (which I used to write years ago, but for God’s sake, don’t sell it, people!). The money is apparently in such stories, so this is where publisher money is going, and some fabulous authors who write erotica are getting the recognition they deserve. Kick-ass may no longer be popular, but it isn’t gone.
As for the future of women in scifi/fantasy, I can’t even begin to guess. I’ve never been good at predicting trends. My hope is that kick-ass heroines hang around for a long, long time. I read urban fantasy for the characters as much as the world-building. I love to read about women who stand on their own two feet. And while I like a little romance in my urban fantasy, I adore heroines who aren’t defined by their love interest. She’s strong with him, but she’s also still strong without him. I hope she never goes away.
I think we have begun to equate “kick-ass” with emotional strength, and that bothers me, because nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve known many women throughout my life who were weak in character but had the ability to “kick someone’s ass.” Fighting did not make me, or those other women, strong in any sense of the word. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to throw a punch or use a weapon—all you need is a little skill and a lot of nerve.
Three scifi/fantasy novels that had a profound effect on me when I was a young woman were Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre, The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge, and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. None of the women in these novels went around kicking ass, but they were women who understood themselves and the world around them. They acted from the core of their beliefs, and while they made errors in judgment, they made their own decisions. Vonda McIntyre’s Snake was my hero. Her strength lay in her knowledge and her ability to utilize that knowledge to control the events around her. She didn’t kick her antagonist’s ass to escape him; she used her understanding of medicine and human nature to defeat him.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, the notion came that if women attained the same physical and sexual prowess as men, then that would translate into equality. That is not true. The traits of kicking-ass and screwing around don’t make men strong; they certainly don’t make women strong. We’ve left behind emotional strength—read: character—in favor of superficial traits.
I blame Buffy. She’s a caricature, a joke right down to her name. When the series came out, I watched it in disbelief. I envisioned a group of guys sitting around trying to come up with new ideas and landing on: Let’s have this teeny chick fight vampires! Yeah! Yeah! And she’ll weigh 98 pounds soaking wet and kick the ass of 200 pound men. Ohhellyeah! And we’ll make her a Valley-Girl and we’ll name, oh shit, guys I got it! BUFFY! Because what is the first thing you think of when you hear the name “Buffy”? Why, you think of a teeny, blonde Valley-Girl! I know I did.
I got the joke. My daughter didn’t, a lot of young women didn’t. They saw themselves kicking ass and taking names, and it was cool, finally cool that it was a woman doing it instead of a boy or a man. That level of cool I do understand. Really, I do.
And there is nothing wrong with this type of character or caricature. The Buffy-characters of the world let us have fun through pure escapism. They kick ass, they always get the guy; they are witty and fast and bounce back with style. Characters like this give us the ability to imagine ourselves in a whole new spectrum. No harm, no foul. It’s not wrong to love kick-ass characters. It’s not wrong to have fun.
Likewise, I’d hate to see us shift completely away from kick-ass ladies, because they are fun and they show us one aspect of being female. However, the scene starts to shift off-balance when we allow this type of caricature to become the ideal to which we all aspire. If the fans are noticing, then maybe we, the authors, should be paying attention too. Perhaps the trick is to show more variety in both our characters and in characterization to encompass all kinds of women. There is nothing wrong with kick-ass ladies, but let’s broaden the spectrum a bit so that we see the thinkers and dreamers too. The inability to kick-ass doesn’t automatically translate into weakness; sometimes, the refusal to use physical force denotes maturity and self-confidence.
I am hoping that the future of female characters in science fiction and fantasy brings us a blend of characters that gives us a world as diverse as the one we live in. The stories we write are important, because science fiction and fantasy are some of the first forms of literature that young people turn to for enjoyment. I know I did. I also know that McIntyre, Vinge, and Zimmer Bradley gave me some high standards to live up to, both as a person and as an author. So I would like to see less ass-kicking and more characters who understand the delicate balance between force and diplomacy. Self-awareness creates strength—not swords and guns.
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve enjoyed devouring both science fiction and fantasy novels in my spare time. Over the years, I’ve noticed a gradual change in attitudes towards women in SFF. Classically, the woman’s role was as a damsel in distress, as a prize to be fought for and/or claimed by the hero, or as a counterpoint to the harsher, masculine side of the equation. Someone to be wooed, coddled, “tamed” or protected by the stronger male lead(s), a princess to be rescued from the dragon’s clutches. These ladies might rise to powerful positions, but even in books published as recently as the 1990’s it wasn’t uncommon for the societies portrayed to be male-dominated. Even when the women were leaders of some flavor (e.g., Lessa and Moreta of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, Goldmoon and Kitara from the DragonLance Chronicles trilogy, Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, and Kahlan Amnell from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, to name a few), their strengths were rarely–if ever–an advantage over or greater than the strengths or position of the men they shared page time with.
More recently, particularly in urban fantasy, it is far more common to find a female character who is powerful and capable without the need to rely on a male character to prop her up. With the popularity of urban fantasy heroines like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson, and Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan, there has been a tremendous surge of genre novels embracing feminist theory–and giving women equal footing with their oftentimes dangerous love interests. In some cases, these women command as much or even more fear and respect from their enemies as the lead male roles, which is a fascinating change from the bulk of popular fiction I was reading as a teen. There’s more to this than just physical or magical power. It’s the way they are portrayed as leaders and thinkers and doers, in the way they are portrayed as confident and in command even when you know they’ve never been more terrified, and how they are the ones making the hard choices, even when it hurts.
While this is certainly not the case in all popular genre fiction–one need only look at Bella Swan from the Twilight franchise to see that–I do believe that as our society becomes more accepting of women’s rights and equality, so too shall we see an increase in leading women in SFF who are portrayed as more than just delicate flowers in need of a man’s strong, guiding hand. I’m sure there will always be some element of a romantic interest giving the heroine aid in her time of need, but I also believe that as genre fiction evolves, we’ll see more characters like Rachel Morgan popping up. Women who are tough and capable in their own right, who aren’t afraid to turn to their friends for help, who can melt the faces of the Big Bad, and who can still enjoy a good shoe sale or wearing a new skirt now and then.
The long answer requires a bit more background. I grew up on a fairly steady diet of fantasy and sci-fi, though I was limited by what I could find in our local public library and what my aunt would let me borrow. This was around the mid-80’s, so with the exception of Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Tanith Lee, that meant the majority of what I reading (and reading about) was male. Male authors. Male protagonists. Male gazes. Women characters were often sexual props or women were not given much attention as a whole – and I have to say it absolutely colored my perception, both of how I viewed myself and other women in general.
It wasn’t until high school/college when I discovered a large number of female authors who wrote about strong female characters that I realized what I’d been missing – Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey, Kate Elliott, and Jacqueline Carey, to name a few. All of them wrote stories from the viewpoint of strong women. It was extremely eye opening because I found I could really relate to these characters in ways I hadn’t been able to before.
And then Buffy happened. And yes, I know that Tanya Huff and LKH were writing about strong women and vampires before Buffy, but when Buffy showed up on the scene, the idea of “kick-ass woman dealing with the supernatural” became mainstream. And paranormal romance took off too – not only could a woman protagonists kick a vampire’s ass, but she could sleep with him too.)
So where does Urban Fantasy fit in?
The thing is, UF really comes in two flavors. “Old School” UF, which I call BB (Before Buffy) – this is UF with more of a mythic bent, where the very atmosphere or city is a character in its own right. Think Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, for example.
The newer UF doesn’t really bear as much resemblance to its forebears as it does to Paranormal Romance. (Which was done on purpose. My understanding is that the publishing industry more or less created this new style of UF to tap into the PNR readers .) So here we’ve got our strong female characters in an urban environment, but romance may or may not be a specific part of the plot. Or at least, it’s not required – which tends to give authors a bit more flexibility in terms of storytelling. Although it does seem that the lines tend to get blurred sometimes, so it could be that we’ll see a genre offshoot. Urban Fantasy Romance, perhaps?
Now, I love the fact that UF allows for female characters who can hold their own with the bad boys of the supernatural world but who are also allowed to be vulnerable at times. They can be sexual creatures. They can be mothers. They can be immortal demon slayers or law enforcement officials, lawyers or librarians. We now have a plethora of characters the average woman can empathize with and relate to. In a nutshell, it’s fabulous to have women characters who aren’t placed on pedestals and who aren’t reduced to merely the Madonna/whore trope so often prevalent in straight fantasy.
But there can be a downside to this, too. Sometimes it feels as though books in the latter flavor of UF are not taken as seriously as the former. Whether that’s because love and romance are often part of the equation or just the fact that we’re seeing so many of these stories through the female gaze, I don’t know, but I would hate for these books to get pigeon-holed so that the only defining characteristic is “kick-ass woman protagonist.” By doing so, we potentially limit all the stories that could be.
And while there are successful male UF authors – e.g. Jim Butcher or Kevin Hearne – there are relatively few male authors when compared to the number of female authors. (And also, the male writers tend to write male protagonists, so I’m not sure if that’s a fair comparison, frankly.) One of my biggest fears is that UF will become the “women’s fantasy” category in the fantasy genre, simply because it then becomes so easy to dismiss. (Much the same way that sci-fi/fantasy appears to dismiss romance, for example.)
So where do I think UF is headed in the future? Well, I hope that the trend of strong female characters continues, yes – but I’d also like to get to a point where we no longer have to ask these questions. Ideally, Urban Fantasy should be defined simply as fantasy which takes place in an urban environment, regardless of the sex of the protagonist.
In the end, I just want to read good stories.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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