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Today’s guest is Jeffe Kennedy! She’s the author of many fantasy, romance, and fantasy romance books, including those in The Twelve Kingdoms trilogy, whose conclusion won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Romance, and The Uncharted Realms series, whose first installment won the RITA Award for Paranormal Romance. Her work has also been nominated for multiple RT Reviewers’ Choice, RITA, and PRISM Awards. The Fate of the Tala, the fifth book in The Uncharted Realms series and her latest novel, was released earlier this year—and her next novel is coming soon with the release of The Fiery Crown, the second book in her romantic fantasy series Forgotten Empires, on May 26!

The Fiery Crown by Jeffe Kennedy Book Cover The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy Book Cover

I am a straddler of worlds. A longtime member of Romance Writers of America (RWA), I’m also a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA)—and serve as a Director at Large on the SFWA Board of Directors. In the Venn diagram of genres, my work sits squarely in the overlap between epic fantasy and romance. My stories are almost always built on a variation of the Hero’s Journey, except it always belongs to the heroine.

I’m also a heteronormative girly-girl. I like wearing makeup and flowing dresses, and people often recognize me by my high heels and big hats. At romance conventions, no one ever blinked at my personal style.

I entered the romance arena first, because that’s how my cross-genre books were first embraced. Romance publishers were much more willing to publish books with heavy fantasy settings and worldbuilding than fantasy publishers were willing to publish epic fantasy with a romance structure.

I feel like that’s an important distinction, as fantasy with romantic elements isn’t the same animal, mostly because it uses a different plot structure.

At the SFWA Nebula Conference in 2019, Mary Robinette Kowal led a panel I participated on where she challenged us to define a standard science fiction or fantasy plot structure. Everyone on the panel—notably all women—wrote a blend of SFF and romance. We could all come up with examples of commonly used science fiction or fantasy plot structures, and for every one we could think of numerous exceptions. After much discussion, we finally came to the realization that science fiction and fantasy elements serve as setting, while the plot structures can vary. They can have mystery, horror, action/adventure, literary, and a host of other familiar story arcs.

They can also have romance plots.

This was a huge revelation to me. I’m an intuitive storyteller, and I’d been simply writing the books that came to me. I never wanted to write cross-genre. I’d gotten great advice from many generous authors and I knew building a career as an author would be more difficult than if I wrote squarely in one genre. And I’d tried to groom my books to fit a single genre, but never seemed able to do it. That’s not where my voice led me. I didn’t even know I wrote fantasy romance/romantic fantasy until my first book was (finally!) published and that’s what my publisher called it.

After that Nebula Conference panel, I realized that I write naturally in a romance structure: very character-driven, with a focus on transformation and self-realization. My cross-genre sweet spot is when the abyss of the Hero’s Journey—the death and rebirth that allows the protagonist to transform, atone and return—coincides with the romance Black Moment and sacrifice required for them to embrace love and the personal transformation that brings.

I also love romance because I believe that joyfulness and love are profound emotions that deserve as much exploration and attention—perhaps more—than the darker experiences of our lives.

All of this is to say that I found my footing as a writer first in the romance community. Then, as my publishing credentials allowed me to join SFWA—and as readers recognized my books to be fantasy as much as romance—I began attending SFF conventions also. And I wore my big hats, my high heels, red lipstick and flowing dresses.

So, sure—we all know there will always be that guy. The socially awkward one who asks me about how hot the sun must be for me to wear a hat indoors, the one who figures me being pleasant at my signing table gives him license to relentlessly hit on me. That’s all par for the course. What surprised me were the women in SFF who told me I shouldn’t be so performatively female. One woman author became quite angry with me on a panel when I pointed out that skirts provide greater freedom of movement (if full enough) and that wearing skirts and dresses is the equivalent of going without pants—a state often touted by men as the best way to relax.

These conversations happened repeatedly at various events, with a few women earnestly advising me that I didn’t “have” to dress that way, and others suggesting that I’d never be taken seriously if I continued in my girly-girl ways. To think that I’d believed I’d be judged on the intelligence of my work and conversation.

All of this gave me pause. Why would femininity be a mark against being “taken seriously”? Especially in this day and age when we are embracing self-expression. At one SFF meeting, another woman literally threw her hands up in the air at the sight of me, commenting that everyone else was dressed comfortably while I was wearing a fancy dress. (It was a very comfortable sundress.) But I wanted to ask why it was okay for her to criticize my appearance.

Yes, we have a long history in the SFF genre of women writers being held in lower regard than male ones. The examples of female authors taking male names, and even complete personas, abound. It’s fascinating—and viscerally satisfying—to read about James Tiptree Jr. and how Alice Bradley Sheldon had so many people utterly convinced she was a man. Arguably women felt they had to masquerade as male authors to be treated the same way.

But… aren’t we supposed to be past that now?

Connie Willis has talked about a similar experience, how she was relentlessly teased for years because she wore a Laura Ashley dress with a lace Peter Pan collar to her first Nebula Conference. And Willis goes on to say that it was the feminists in the field who raked her over the coals for writing stories with housewives as heroines.

I’ve had similar experiences, of attending feminist SFF conferences—where I expected to be utterly at home as a feminist who writes SFF—only to come away feeling excluded and unworthy of interest.

Everyone should have their gender expression respected. We’ve made strides in normalizing that pronouns should be asked for and honored. In the field of SFF, more authors who are trans, non-binary, ace, bisexual and homosexual are being read and welcomed for the diverse perspectives they bring. So why are we still treating heteronormative femininity as somehow less than?

I believe this bias extends to the works also. It always dismays me when a female author chooses to give a male protagonist all the agency and action in the story. Male authors do this, too—and many male authors are making the effort to give female protagonists exciting stories—but overwhelmingly I still see SFF focusing on, if not male protagonists, then masculine qualities.

For example, the female protagonist who dresses as a boy in order to be “taken seriously.” This is a time-honored trope, and it can be interesting to explore, but it becomes insidiously present in all kinds of stories. The “strong female character” is portrayed as hating traditional female roles and activities. She must wear pants. She hates sewing and cooking—to the point of being terrible at it. She chops off her hair and she even eschews the company of other women, seeing them as frivolous, vain, and empty-headed. The reader is to understand that she is Not Like Other Women, because stereotypical femininity is weak.

She doesn’t have to dress that way. Much better to be like a man.

But, do women have to be like men to be equal? Or, more pointedly, while we’re working hard to recognize that sexuality and gender can be a spectrum, why would we scorn the far ends as less than others, even as toxic? (I have seen performative femininity compared to toxic masculinity.)

Then there’s the perspective that our SFF protagonists must engage in “big conflicts.” War, battles, individual fights—those are the exciting drivers in many novels. I’ve done them, too. In these scenarios, the women must be warriors or magic-wielders. They are not staying home to bake bread or weave cloth. The activities of hearth and home are simply not interesting in these scenarios. Interpersonal conflicts aren’t the drivers of many epic fantasy stories—unless the story is romance.

Finally, in a frequently well-meaning effort to give female characters agency—and to avoid the noxious trope of the Woman in the Refrigerator—a number of authors have declared they will not use rape or sexual assault of female characters in their books. They are rejecting the—admittedly overused—shorthand of a backstory of sexual trauma as motivation for a female character to be fierce and kickass.

The problem with this blanket rejection is that it effectively whitewashes a pervasive truth of many women’s lives. As was amply demonstrated by the #MeToo revelations, nearly every woman has faced a spectrum of sexual peril, from harassment to rape. Declaring that a female character must never have experienced any of this is akin to pretending that a female character can only be interesting if she loathes traditional female skills and activities.

She must be Not Like Other Women. Because this vast, faceless and apparently mindless mass of stereotypical women are ipso facto not interesting.

Aren’t we still looking on these women with a male gaze? They’re painted with such a broad brush, these giggling females interested only in ribbons and gowns, spending endless hours gossiping over pointless embroidery projects. Never mind the immense skill and effort that goes into textile work of all kinds. Or the near magical craft that goes into getting bread to rise properly. Or the careful tending of the garden so it produces food.

In the gaze of male-dominated stories, the heroes return home to cozy cottages that have been meticulously maintained in their absence. There’s wood for a warm fire, a meal that magically appears before them, and a restful bed with linens and blankets that somehow miraculously manifested. Of course this is all due to the women’s work, those who stayed at home and labored to put all of this in place. The labor and skill that’s so uninteresting that it rarely merits mention in an epic fantasy tale, except to be scorned by the one who is Not Like the Other Women who live such boring lives.

I’m positing that female characters may be as varied in appearance, skills, interests, thoughts, ambitions, and dress as any other character. We can move past the staid trope where “female” is a character definition. Instead of the group of protagonists with the Lead Boy, the Nerdy Boy, the Athletic Boy, and the Girl, we might find that there are other ways to characterize a person who is female. And I don’t mean presenting the Pretty Girl vs. the Nerdy Girl.

Female characters in fantasy can take on many kinds of roles, and possess many skills. In my Forgotten Empires trilogy, I have a queen who loves fashion—and is a canny politician. There’s also a warrior woman who’s vain about her hair, a female general with a hard, pragmatic outlook, a lady-in-waiting who’s exceptionally good at comforting people and another with grand ambitions. There’s also a woman who is a proficient weaver—and bomb maker.

The kinds of female characters we can portray in fantasy are as varied as all of humanity. Fantasy stories portraying lesbian, bi, ace, and other non-heteronormative female characters have made great strides in showing other ways of being female. They’re fantastic (in every sense of the word) to read. But, being a heteronormative female who likes classically feminine things doesn’t make your brains leak out of your ears. A woman with a sexual preference for men shouldn’t be subject to the male gaze any more than any other person.

“Strong” doesn’t equate to masculine, and femaleness doesn’t mean a person too oppressed to know better. Everyone should be able to dress however they like, without being criticized for it—and they should still be taken seriously.

Jeffe Kennedy Photo

Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include novels, non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction. She has won the prestigious RITA® Award from Romance Writers of America (RWA), has been a finalist twice, been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) as a Director at Large.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.

Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Sarah Younger of Nancy Yost Literary Agency.