Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is poet and fantasy author E. J. Beaton! Her debut novel, The Councillor, is often described as “Machiavellian fantasy” (for more about that classification, see her essay here). The Councillor was recently published in the US, Canada, and internationally and will also be available in Australia on May 18.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton - Book Cover

The Imperfection of Clever Women
by E. J. Beaton

How clever are women allowed to be in novels?

That’s a question no one should need to ask. If women are equal to men, then surely, we must be allowed to be equally represented on the page in all our messy humanity – clever in some ways, unwise and naïve in other ways, and negotiating everything in between.

But there is often a prickliness in the reception of female characters. We judge female intelligence with a readiness to find women wanting. If a female character seems too clever, then she must be a Mary Sue, with everything too easy for her. If she seems not clever enough, she becomes a disappointment in the arena of logic. A character who is clever yet flawed will often receive these criticisms at the same time: she is too clever for some readers to like, and not clever enough for others.

These attitudes reflect the sexism we direct towards women in real life. We expect women to fit into certain boxes, and then we angrily claim that they have failed to do so.

But what if we approach female intelligence with a willingness to embrace women as full human beings, not to cut them down? How might we view intellectual women then?

Logic and emotional intelligence

If you’ve mixed in academic circles, you’ve probably noticed that it’s possible to be very clever about some things and lack knowledge of other areas – sometimes, enormous areas.

For example, someone can be a specialist in their particular field, yet be totally ignorant of other domains of knowledge. Or a person may be skilled in several academic disciplines, yet unable to apply their knowledge practically in a workplace or in everyday life. In other cases, they might have a laser-like focus on certain pieces of scholarship, yet gloss over sub-genres of knowledge that fail to pique their interest.

A similar gulf can occur between logic and emotional intelligence. It is interesting to explore the development of one kind of intelligence in a character who already possesses another. If a woman has spent her childhood immersed in study, it’s only natural that she may need to do a bit of learning when it comes to relationships. That journey towards social development can reveal something of the struggle to become a well-rounded person.

Friendships, working partnerships, romantic and sexual relationships… these things can all prove challenging for someone who hasn’t had much practice. We can make space in stories for women who are intellectual but need to work at their emotional intelligence. Importantly, this can mean allowing time for the interpersonal elements of the story. A clever woman need not only go around conducting experiments or practising deduction – she can also navigate her urges, struggle with her desires, and work out how to manage the chaos of her insecurity.

Clever VS infallible

Even a highly intelligent person is apt to make mistakes. This applies as much to women as it does to men, but often, we mete out a different judgment to women when they stumble. Clever female characters often bear the burden of strict expectations, and especially the expectation of consummate skill.

Yet women are complicated beings, just like men. When we unburden female characters of the need to be perfect all the time – when we allow them to be intelligent but also fallible – we reflect the real experience of being a woman. Female intellectuals who err can remind us of the times that women falter on the path to success in a tough job. They can illustrate the reality of trying and persisting, of learning and developing, and of wanting to smack oneself in frustration over an obvious mistake.

If we deny female characters the messiness of errors and slip-ups, we are asking them to be less human than men. I think women deserve the same breadth of psychology on the page.

Sex and the intellectual

Sexual desire can prove a double-edged sword for women. Sometimes, a sexual element is expected in women’s stories and discussions in order for them to appear “interesting” to the public – take the proliferation of female comedians focusing on sexual material, for example. Yet the same sexual element can be used to write off women’s work, to deride it as juvenile or immature.

The bare fact of the matter is that intelligence and sexual desire are not incompatible. Women can seek out sexual experiences and pursue a career; they can focus on logic at some times, and focus on desire at other times. Classifying sex as a distraction from the serious or the political means simplifying female subjectivity, in a way that infantilises women.

If we don’t call rape scenes juvenile, then why should we see female desire as immature? Is sex only permissible when it is violent or miserable? And are women not allowed to desire it – even when the female gaze is a disruptive force, pushing male aesthetics aside?

Layers, layers, layers…

The books I love most contain a compelling story arc, but they offer more than a bundle of plot twists – they include a rich writing style, emotional depth, and character development. These layers of a novel sit beneath the surface like the tiers of an opera cake. They might look easily arrayed, in their delicious confection, but they take hours of work to build, and in combination they make something that is beyond a single ingredient.

A complex female character is a layered creation, too. Triumphs and errors, logic and emotion, work and desire can all swirl together in a woman’s story. An intelligent female character can engage with all of these elements within one narrative.

How clever are women allowed to be on the page? Very clever, I’d hope.

They should also be allowed to err, to desire, and to feel. Just like the rest of us, off the page.

We are, after all, gloriously imperfect.

Photo of E. J. Beaton E. J. Beaton is the author of the fantasy novel THE COUNCILLOR, published in March 2021 by DAW Books, to be followed by a sequel. You can read an excerpt here.

To learn more about E. J. Beaton, visit her website where you can find blurbs and read her essays on bisexual visibility, Machiavellian fantasy, motivation, and more. You can also follow her on Twitter or on Instagram.