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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy author M.J. Kuhn! Her debut novel, Among Thieves, is described as “a high-stakes heist novel set in a gritty world of magic and malice, and perfect for fans of Six of Crows!” While waiting for its release on September 7, you can read some great posts on her blog, find her on Facebook or Instagram, or follow her on Twitter.

Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn - Book Cover

I think most of us have seen those posts online calling out some of the super cringey ways some cishet male authors describe their female characters. But sexism in writing isn’t all ridiculously personified breasts and damsels in distress. Sometimes, it’s a lot more subtle than that. So subtle, in fact, that even self-proclaimed feminists like myself need to be wary of falling into the traps.

That’s right. This is gonna be a call-out post—of myself.

Well, sort of.

Growing up, I read almost nothing but fantasy—and I read a lot of it. Some of my favorites at the time were the classic, old-school fantasy series. The “fun” thing about many of those older fantasy reads, like tales by Tolkien or Jordan, is that the female characters are either nonexistent, or their arcs are almost completely defined by their desire to impress or win over the male characters around them. Not exactly a great template for young fantasy writers who want to tell stories about compelling, self-possessed women. The good news is, the market is definitely shifting to include more stories about characters who are not white, cishet men! Finally, stories about complex female characters actually have a fighting chance! The bad news is, in order to actually write those stories about compelling women, authors have to fight more than just outdated industry standards.

We have to fight our own internalized misogyny.

How many of us have caught ourselves having unwelcome, socially conditioned thoughts regarding other women (or ourselves)? In everyday life, internalized misogyny can show up in the form of body image issues, or a general unconscious bias in favor of men (ugh). But it doesn’t stop at the tip of the pen. If we’re not careful, it can seep into our writing as well.

That horrible, unwanted sexism tends to creep into my own first drafts in a few places. The first is small, but ultimately still important, in my opinion. Unnamed side characters. The random guards my characters must sneak past, the tavern-keeper they order an ale from once—you get the idea. 99% of the time, in my first drafts, I automatically default to writing these characters as men. Which invariably results in Editing Brain M. J. reading through that draft and saying, “WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN IN THIS WORLD?”

The other place I find myself fighting against my own social conditioning is in building the female members of my main cast. Every fantasy project I have ever written has had a majority female cast… and early on in every single project, I have had to fight against the trap of the Strong Female Character™. You know the one. She’s strong because she’s muscly and ice-cold and unfeeling. In other words, she’s as flat as a piece of cardboard. Every project, I have to remind myself that my emotionally vulnerable female characters are just as strong as the scarred, jaded ones. A warrior can have feelings and still be a badass—even if she’s a woman.

Those are just the few that I personally struggle with, but there are more! Fantasy worlds riddled with unnecessary sexual violence, manuscripts filled with oversexualized descriptions of female characters… Internalized misogyny is a sneaky thing. So, how do we combat it? How do we cure ourselves? I won’t pretend I have all the answers here, but I don’t think there is a silver bullet for this particular werewolf. I think it’s just like any other kind of internalized or unconscious bias… you have to put in the work. It’s all about self-awareness—catching yourself in moments where that social conditioning is taking over, and taking a moment to stop and think: “…wait a second, I don’t really believe that.” Then rinse and repeat that literally for the rest of our lives and careers.

When it comes to the battle against internalized misogyny in writing, I know I’m not perfect, but I know it’s a battle worth fighting… so dammit, I will keep fighting it!

Photo of M.J. Kuhn
Photo by Amanda Pregler
M.J. Kuhn is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered university employee by day. She lives in the metro Detroit area with her husband Ryan, a dog named Wrex, and the very spoiled cat Thorin Oakenshield. You can find more information about M.J. online at MJKuhn.com.