Today’s guest is steampunk, fantasy, and horror author Dru Pagliassotti! She is the author of Clockwork Heart, the first book in a steampunk trilogy. The second book, Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind, was released last month. I’m happy she’s here today, and she’s talking about her experience with writing her first female protagonist in this series after growing up reading fantasy stories about boys.
Yes, I’m a woman who writes fantasy stories and novels. But to be absolutely honest, I don’t think I’m very good at being a woman.
When I was a girl, I wanted to be a boy. All the heroes in the fantasy novels I read were boys, and I wanted to be like them. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings? Anyone who did anything interesting was a boy. Okay, Éowyn got one good line, but that was one line in a 481,103-word trilogy. The heroes in the Chronicles of Narnia were mostly boys. Of the notable girls, Lucy became a healer — why not a warrior? — and Aslan exiled Susan when she started caring about boys and fashion, which was quite the thought-provoking lesson for a little girl to absorb. Earthsea Trilogy? Ged; boy. Riddlemaster of Hed? Prince Morgon; boy. The Chronicles of Prydain? Taran; boy. Harper Hall Trilogy? Menolly starred in the first two books, but she was a musician. Where were the girls with swords? Chronicles of Amber? Corwin; boy. All those Eternal Champions? Boys. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? Thomas; boy … who rapes the girl who heals him! That was another eye-opening lesson for me. (In hindsight, I was way too young to have been reading that series….)
At any rate, the message was clear: I’d been cheated at birth. But I did what I could. I shunned dresses, jewelry, cosmetics, and romance — Aslan wasn’t going to kick me out of the promised land. I learned archery and martial arts and wanted a pocket knife; nobody was going to rape this girl.
And whenever I wrote stories, I wrote them about boys.
Gradually, as the years passed, I absorbed enough feminist theory to feel uncomfortable about feeling uncomfortable about being a woman. Yet while feminism suggested that I could be any kind of woman I wanted to be, the kind of woman I should want to be apparently embraced her inner femininity, loved her body, advocated for women and women’s issues, patronized women-owned businesses, bought women-made products, ran her own business, raised her own family, did her own housework, and still looked beautiful and self-confident every morning while she was doing it. And of course, if she were a writer, she would write thoughtful, gender-sensitive, Bechdel-test-passing, stereotype-shattering, woman-empowering fiction.
Writing a series with a female protagonist — Taya — broke new ground for me. And while I wrote, I was uneasily aware of all the ways my character and my novel failed to meet those impossible feminist standards I had imagined and internalized. “I’m writing a romance — isn’t romantic love just a myth glamorizing cultural institutions developed to assert men’s ownership over women’s reproductive freedom? Plus, it’s a heterosexual romance — am I complicitly perpetuating patriarchy and heterosexism? And Taya doesn’t like violence — have I slipped into Victorian “women’s sphere” moral fiction? And sometimes she talks about men with her female friends — Bechdel-test red alert!”
And that was just the feminist critique running through my head. I won’t even tell you about the multicultural and postcolonial critiques whispering in the background while I wrote.
Still, I did my best to create the kind of female protagonist I would have liked to have read about when I was a girl. To be sure, Taya’s not the heroine I would have written about as a girl. For one thing, she doesn’t carry a sword. But today, as an adult, I understand that the hero’s sword (or magic) was simply a symbol of his autonomy — it was the means by which he overcame barriers and protected himself and his loved ones. In the Clockwork Heart trilogy, I gave Taya a set of metal wings, instead. Her flight and her lively interest in other people guarantee her autonomy — they are the means by which she overcomes barriers and protects herself and her loved ones. Taya isn’t afraid of violence, but for her, violence is a failure of communication — it’s a last choice instead of a first.
Is that too girly? Is it a reflection of my privileged postindustrial viewpoint?
If I simply dismiss all these concerns and tell the story I want to tell, will I be silently consenting to my own oppression and the oppression of other women in this field and all others?
I don’t know. I understand more about stereotypes and institutionalized sexism now than I did as a girl, and the times — and the fantasy novels — have changed for the better. No, they’re not perfect, but they’re better. And yet … here I am, the grown-up version of the girl who wanted to be a boy. Womanhood is still not the identity that springs first, or even third, to my mind when I’m asked to describe myself. So I’m pretty sure I’m still bad at being a woman. Maybe it’s just too late for me to learn any better.
But it’s not too late for the little girls who are reading fantasy today. I hope that in some small way, Taya — and the heroines of all the books that have been discussed here this month — will help those girls figure out that there are lots of ways to be a woman.
And they’re all good.
— Dru Pagliassotti
Dru Pagliassotti is the author of the Clockwork Heart trilogy, Clockwork Heart, Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind, and the upcoming Clockwork Secrets: Heavy Fire (EDGE). She’s also written the horror novel An Agreement with Hell (Apex Publications) and various short stories. She’s a professor of communication at California Lutheran University and can be found online at DruPagliassotti.Com and on Facebook and GoodReads.