Today’s guest is fantasy author and speculative fiction editor Barbara Friend Ish! The first book in her series The Way of the Gods, The Shadow of the Sun, is out now, and the second volume is scheduled for release next year. Last year, she wrote a guest post here titled “I Still Believe in Small Press” after making the difficult decision to focus on her own writing instead of the work she was doing as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Mercury Retrograde Press—and I’m thrilled she is back today, this time talking about conceptions of feminism in science fiction and fantasy characters!
Women in SFF: the Next Wave
Lately I have been haunted by the feeling that I am doing feminism wrong.
I’m writing a fantasy series. In the early books, there is only one female point-of-view character out of four—and she’s a weak person. Weak, not because she’s female—though I am uncomfortably aware of how much in opposition to the current standard for female characters she is—but for reasons that serve the story. A gender minority, because of thoughts on gender roles I hope the text will convey. She’s not a weak character, I hope; I am doing my utmost to give her robust life. But she’s definitely a person who doesn’t measure up to the current feminist ideal. And as I write her, alone in my study, I am uncomfortably aware of the judgment that will be leveled against me for this creation. It has led me, after much self-examination, to become aware of the limitations the current generation of women writers impose upon ourselves.
Literature, even SF and fantasy, reflects the society that produces it. The roles and characters of women in our literature are and ever have been mirrors of our roles and society; the ubiquity of men as central to fictional stories reflects the central role of men in society’s story. There’s a reason why we call our species “mankind”: our language and syntax carry our culture’s assumptions and priorities as thoroughly as do our stories.
Once upon a time—historians date this period to sometime around the middle of last week—men were men, and women were plot devices. Women served two basic story functions: as obstacles/antagonists and as love interests/story goals. The former function was fulfilled by bitches, harpies, and whores; the latter by good women—largely chaste, but always true to their men; supportive, devoid of needs or agendas that did not serve the male protagonist’s development.
More recently, particularly during the previous century, new options became available to women, and accordingly to female characters. They were allowed to have interests of their own, indeed careers, as long as those things didn’t interfere with their fulfilling their functions as designated by society and literature. A woman could be almost anything she wanted to be—and then go home and handle the cooking, the cleaning, and the sexual needs of her mate. As ever, the consequences for violating these rules were severe: shaming, shunning, loss of acknowledgment of a woman’s feminine status.
Literature, as is its wont, reflected society. Notable examples in SFF lit come from Heinlein, whose novels are populated by manly men and brainy women who could solve a Very Complex Equation or pilot a spaceship and then, most important of all, demonstrate their liberated status by being sexually available to everyone. These were some overachieving women; this was the face of so-called liberation. Women were not only able but required to do it all.
When feminism really got going, a new party line developed: women didn’t actually need men, except to fulfill their needs for love and womanly validation. In SFF, we had a sudden explosion of kickass heroines, usually with tattoos prominently featured on covers to show they were edgy but still fully sexualized for any available male gaze. There was a whole new breed of expectations of women now: they were to be strong, independent, as tough as any man.
At each stage of the development of expectations imposed on women, those expectations have been prisons for the women who must live them. Always we internalize the oppressive stories and not only impose them on ourselves but on our peers and daughters. Indeed we have tended to be the enforcers of society’s myths regarding gender, frequently far harsher regulators than men: shaming women who claim sexual pleasure for themselves as sluts; decrying women who voice their own needs as bitches, harpies, destructive forces in their men’s lives. We are the first to look for some clue to how a woman who is subject to violence may have brought it on herself.
Today we live in a new, scarcely visible prison of societal expectations, and it too is reflected in our literature. The categories for women are still “compliant with societal norms for women” and “unacceptable”. Women are still harsh enforcers. It’s just that the standards to which we hold one another look different now.
We must be feminists. We must do it right, whatever that means. That’s another reflection of the limitations we place on ourselves and internalize: now we judge ourselves and one another for not being feminist enough. We have created a new ideal and are once again constrained by it. This is not freedom or authenticity, either. As writers we must only write female characters who uphold feminist ideals. Our female characters must be kickass. Weak female characters are anti-feminist, and we write them at our professional peril. Reading and enjoying them exposes us to mockery.
I think it’s time to take a good look at the limitations we’re putting on ourselves as readers and writers. I suggest that female characters, like male characters, should come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of kickassery. If a male character is weak, no one decries that character as an insult to men everywhere. Instead we examine his role in the story and what it might mean. Male characters are allowed to be real.
I think it’s time we accorded female characters the same courtesy. I think it is our job as feminists of every gender not to place and attempt to enforce yet another set of unachievable standards on all women, but to recognize that some are kickass, and some are heroic in other ways, and some are just not heroic at all. And that they can fulfill all the roles in the story that we can imagine for them, and their presence in those roles can teach us about being human, rather than simply about how we are supposed to be as women.
To be painfully clear: I love kickass female characters. I acquire them as an editor; I read them as a reader; I write them as a writer. But not all of the worthwhile female characters uphold the standards we as a society impose on women. It is the job of writers not to produce moral tales that demonstrate correct behavior, but to hold up a mirror to humanity and help us understand what being human means. It is the job of readers, inasmuch as they have a job, to decide for themselves what those creations mean; what it means to be human.
Female characters need to be allowed to join that quest. They need to be themselves in all their myriad flavors, and to be accepted on their own terms in the way we do male characters. I propose an adjunct to the famous Bechdel test, which we can use to discover whether we are faithfully portraying female characters in SFF. I think it’s pretty simple:
If the female character in question were a man, would you consider that character’s actions a stain upon the identity of men?
I suggest that if the answer to that question is “no”, and yet you consider the female character’s behavior an insult to women, then you have just bumped up against an area in which society’s programming regarding women has infiltrated your brain. What you do with this awareness is entirely up to you.
Barbara Friend Ish is the author of the Compton Crook Award Finalist novel The Shadow of the Sun and the 2015 novel The Heart of Darkness. She moonlights as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for Mercury Retrograde Press. Books edited by Barbara have been covered by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Locus Magazine, and electronic and print outlets worldwide. Her cats run her life.