Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is Rinn from the (largely) science fiction and fantasy book blog Rinn Reads! In November of 2013, she organized Sci-Fi Month, a month-long event celebrating all things science fiction—movies, television shows, games, and, of course, books. It was a resounding success with more than fifty bloggers and twenty-five authors participating, and it was a lot of fun. It also inspired me to read some science fiction books I’d been meaning to read for awhile, leading to my discovery of a new favorite book (Warchild by Karin Lowachee). She is here today discussing the portrayal of women in science fiction and fantasy!

Rinn Reads

There has always been much debate about the role of women in fantasy and science fiction – it can certainly be a sore topic for some.

It drives me crazy when women are portrayed only as meek, fragile little things. That may have been how we have been seen for a long time throughout history, but there are really plenty of women who aren’t – in both fiction and real life.

Personally, I like the portrayal of women in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but I know the views on this are mixed. Although the culture is based on medieval society, and women within their society are slightly below men on the social scale, none of the ladies of Westeros let that get in their way. I love how Brienne is a female knight and gets admitted into Renly’s Kingsguard. Many of the minor characters are disrespectful towards her because of her choice and appearance but she has the respect of a King (and many other major characters of the series), and she proves herself a thousand times over. I love how Tywin tells Cersei that he’s not treating her a certain way because she is female, but because of the choices she has made. The women of Westeros are products of their country – it’s tough, so they are too. All these women going from powerless to powerful, using what they have and making their own ways in the world.

I think that to portray women in fantasy and science fiction accurately, the author needs a range of women. Weak and fragile, headstrong and brave. Shy and scared, courageous and proud. Not everyone could face down a dragon. And not not everyone feels the need to burst into tears at any moment. And development – character development is SO IMPORTANT. For example, I loved how Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire went from being a timid little mouse to a confident young woman, because she actually got to explore life and her own potential. At the beginning of the book she was a very difficult character to connect with or even understand; she was just as withdrawn from the reader as she was from the fictional characters around her. And to go back to Westeros again – think of Sansa Stark. When we first meet her in A Game of Thrones, she is a young girl, dreaming of a life filled with balls, pretty dresses and honeycake. The treatment of her, and her family, at the hands of the Lannisters changes her. She learns how to manipulate the system, when to appear meek and when to defy authority. And do I even really need to explain why Arya is amazing??

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling also shows a diverse selection of female characters, and all during an important phase of life – the teenage years. The books are so influential, particularly Hermione’s character. She is smart and not afraid to show it, a bit of a know-it-all – and adored worldwide. She has inspired many young women today, shown them that’s it’s good to be smart, you don’t need to hide your brains and be ashamed of being intelligent. Don’t be scared to put your hand up in class. Ron even admits that him and Harry wouldn’t have gotten far without her. She is the glue that keeps the trio together. On the other hand, Lavender Brown is the squealing girly girl, and Luna Lovegood the quirky girl who is constantly away with the fairies (or perhaps the Nargles, in her case). There are so many other female characters in the series that I can’t really go into depth here, but none of them feel like ‘cookie cutter’ characters who mean nothing.

And then we move onto video games like Mass Effect, where actually, gender doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re male or female, it’s your choices that matter and the consequences do not differ depending on your gender. If you’re a female Commander Shepard, it’s your name that has meaning, not what’s between your legs. If you want to be commanding and authoritative, you get the same amount of respect regardless of sex. In fact, the only thing that changes depending on gender are some of your romance options!

However, there are some stories that confuse me, for example Red Sonja. On one hand I think she’s a cool character – a female warrior, tough, brave (and with flaming red hair!); but on the other hand she doesn’t exactly… wear much, so she feels like a piece of eye candy. If you do an image search for women in fantasy you get a lot of scantily-clad ladies who apparently are tough-as-nails warriors. I don’t doubt their skill, but is that clothing really sensible? Can’t we have more female warriors like Brienne from A Song of Ice and Fire, or Aveline from Dragon Age II, who are amazing and skilled, but also wear armour that actually protects them?

In conclusion, I think that the vast majority of fantasy and science fiction portrays female characters in an accurate way. As human beings, with a wide variety of personalities, opinions, appearances, sexualities, interests etc. I could think of so many more examples to share, but I don’t think I have the time or space! I’d love to hear your suggestions. Don’t let anyone tell you that fantasy and science fiction are ‘male dominated’ genres.