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Feminist Fantasy Means More Than a Kickass Female Protagonist

Minor caveat: this post is a bit wandering, and for that I apologize; but I had some thoughts that I really wanted to share and discuss, because this is a hairy subject. I look forward to thoughtful input. – C

Is it just me, or do some fantasy authors just take any opportunity to remind their readers that prostitution is A Thing?

You know what I’m talking about. The main characters are riding into a grimy section of town to take care of secret main character business. The narrative is describing the ramshackle buildings, the big dirty men glowering on street corners, the smells (fish, sweat, urine), and especially, the women of the night/women plying their trade/painted women leering as the main characters pass. After all, the common refrain goes, wherever men with money congregate, a certain trade/the oldest trade/a woman’s trade necessarily grows up around them.

Historically speaking, this is not inaccurate. And for all the examples of people, especially women and girls, being forced into prostitution and exploited, there are as many examples of people choosing sex work and it being liberating for them in myriad ways. Here is where I state explicitly that in our modern times, I’m both against exploitation and for rights and protections for sex workers.

But when the mention of prostitution crops up in fiction–speaking specifically of fantasy, because that’s my wheelhouse–to me it feels…squicky. Two main reasons for this.

The first is simply that it feels creepily voyeuristic, especially when the author is male, doubly if the point-of-view character is also male. One mention in a manuscript, I can get over. But repeated mentions, and it starts to stink of weird romanticization of a more open sex trade. This may just be a personal reaction that I have, though.

The second line of reasoning is more serious. The sex workers described are literally set dressing. “So are the big dirty men!” you might say, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s a pattern issue here; that the sex workers are always women, never men, and that these mentions of prostitution to set a tone tend to happen in books with a dearth of female characters at all population levels, from primary characters on down to background folk.

So reminding us over and over that dingy fantasy neighborhoods are populated by laboring men and the women who service them sets a tone alright–at the expense of all the female characters. This may be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I’m tired of stories where there are one or two well-developed, competent and compelling female characters, but aside from them, the stereotypes remain. Women as objects, and women as victims.

The mention of prostitution every time characters wander into disreputable areas is just one way in which top-down feminist fiction writing (focusing on creating one or two kickass feminist protagonists) fails. Another common way this manifests is when the author needs to convey the cruelty in an antagonist or world. Which unnamed servant to show being beaten? A female one, obviously. Because it’s so ingrained in us to think of women as victims that that’s the scene that pops up in our minds, and it doesn’t occur to us to realize that it would be just as cruel no matter the gender of the person being beaten.

Even a not explicitly violent narrative in which the background female characters are described by their attractiveness (“the pretty serving girl” who is taunted by the other tavern patrons, for example, or “the flab-faced fishwife”) sets them up as either an acceptable or unacceptable romantic or sexual object, and by doing so, assumes their availability as such. This creates an atmosphere where that availability is an expectation, rather than one that emphasizes relationships that grow out of genuine mutual interest.

That may seem like a fine distinction, but it’s a meaningful one in a society where a female protagonist is expected to end up with someone. Rey expresses no romantic interest in anyone in The Force Awakens, but there are fandom ships cropped up for her with Finn (the most sensical of them), Kylo Ren (who she loathes) and Poe, with whom she literally never interacts. On a more personal note, I remember the way, in high school and college, our mixed-gender groups of friends tended to treat everyone as potential–or even eventual–boyfriends or girlfriends. This expectation of romantic pairing off contributes to the kind of sexual entitlement, especially of men towards women, that does lead to violence.

Allowing the women who do show up in the background of a narrative to be classed as only objects or victims throws a “not that kind of girl” understanding over any female protagonists. The Female MC overcame hardship and is no longer treated like trash! The Female MC is a deadly fighter and woe betide any man who tries to grope her! The Female MC is privileged and wealthy and is therefore deferred to! The Female MC is intelligent and respectable and knows how to avoid bad situations! I know you know what I’m talking about.

When women in the background are put down, any women who are lifted up by the narrative are necessarily disconnected from their NPC sisters. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have exceptional female characters, without implying that their exceptionalism is what saves them from being treated as an object or a victim like all the rest of their gender. In fiction especially, we can counter the expectation that this is how women are treated. This doesn’t mean ignoring things like prostitution, or sexual assault. There is a place in stories for these things. We counter the expectation by writing with an awareness of how our perceptions of these things play with the text, and by questioning their utility in the narrative.

The importance of applying intersectional feminism to a whole manuscript goes beyond the representation of women; this matters to representations of all marginalized characters.

Never, never forget that everything in your manuscript is chosen by you to accomplish something. Make sure you know what that something is, especially if it’s built on the back of a certain kind of character.

[Adjacent note, since I finished THE SHADOW THRONE the day before posting this but after it had been drafted. Slight spoiler for TST: There’s a scene where Marcus is trying to convince his commander Janus that a regiment of female volunteer soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to join a battle where soldiers are sorely needed, because of the danger of rape in the camp and should any of them be captured. Janus compares that threat to the threat faced by the soldiers in the last campaign, of being flayed and eaten alive by their adversaries, and asks Marcus why sending women out with a possibility of rape is worse than sending men out with a possibility of torture.

There’s a worthwhile discussion in that, I think, but it raises an important point related to this blog post. Rape is not a sexual act, it’s a violent one (violent here meaning with the intent of exerting power over and/or harming another person); just because to our world, it seems to be the first act of violence that comes to mind with a female victim doesn’t mean it’s the only, or even worst, way to inflict violence. If for some reason your narrative requires violence and you jump immediately to rape–as I say above, ask yourself why. What are you accomplishing? If you’re only seeking to inflict trauma on your character, there are myriad other ways to do so that don’t reinforce the use of rape as a way of silencing and dominating women, something that is deadly persistent today.]

13 thoughts on “Feminist Fantasy Means More Than a Kickass Female Protagonist

  1. A thoughtful post, Cait. As a male, I’m comfortable putting women into stories (or how else could I possibly write stories!), but I’m not at all comfortable with putting feminism in there. I am, however, interested in avoiding the sort of gender blindness that is an inevitable consequence of my own time and place. So thanks for the comments that are more about how to write good stories than how to write good politics.

    WRT prostitution specifically, I’m also a medieval social historian, so I’ve come across the topic more than once. It’s not really my field (my research is on guilds), but I’ve read a bit. AFAIK, male prostitution did not exist. As you probably know, in many cities, prostitution was regulated by the government, and I know of know mention in the records of males, either as gigolos or as homosexual prostitutes. It might be interesting to invent something along those lines, maybe for a non-human race, just as an exercise in sociology.

    Also, wrt that scene in The Shadow Throne, it’s worth saying that men were at risk of rape as well. And you’re quite right that it was as much a violent as a sexual act.

    What really bothers me about the kind of writing you detail is similar to what bothers you: it’s set dressing using stereotypes. It’s lazy writing. It’s lazy writing that perpetuates inimical stereotypes, and so doubly contemptible. Moreover, most of the time there’s really no need for it because it doesn’t drive the plot. It’s just color, except it uses human beings. And you’re right, much too often it’s uncomfortably salacious and juvenile. Like listening to teenage boys brag in the locker room.

    One last thing. I’m getting really tired of kick-ass women. They’re starting to clock in along with muscle-bound heroes. Neither are interesting. I want the ones who have faults or challenges or quirks or demons along with their kick-assery. You know … actual stories.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post.

    -= Skip =-

    1. Thanks for commenting, Skip! I think we’re 98% in agreement, though I have to admit to finding myself a little amused by your stated discomfort with putting feminism in stories, when your desire for “actual stories” with interesting characters that don’t perpetuate stereotypes is *exactly* putting feminism in stories, and the point of this post.

      As a side note, while that information is interesting, historically it doesn’t really matter if there were no male prostitutes because in science fiction and fantasy, we’re sort of literally making everything up. There’s no need to be bound by historical accuracy in this genre (with the exception of time travel narratives, perhaps). Of course, I’d much rather just decrease the offhand mentions of prostitution-as-set-dressing than include male sex workers in the descriptions, haha.

      1. I agree with you 98%. 😉

        Females yes; feminism, not so much. I don’t figure I’m qualified. . I don’t much care for anything that ends in -ism, but also I don’t think I’m versed enough in the feminist movement, which is incredibly complex and varied, to be bold enough to declare I have put feminism in my stories. If the reader wants to declare my work feminist, I have no problem with that. But I don’t see myself going into the story with that agenda. I’ll click Send now and hope that made sense.

        -= Skip =-

        1. I understand the distinction that you’re trying to draw, but it’s honestly purely semantic. If you go into writing a story with a dedication to not using stereotypes, especially in regard to characters who are female/of color/disabled/otherwise non-mainstream, you’re writing with feminism in mind, even if you don’t want to call it that.

          I appreciate your reasoning for not claiming it, and there’s no pressure to do so if you’re uncomfortable with the terminology. (Though for what it’s worth, using the term “feminism” in its intersectional sense goes toward ameliorating a lot of what makes people uncomfortable with it.)

          1. Kewl. In the end, what matters is what I actually write. Once I’m a famous author. Uh huh.

            Also, I love something having an intersectional sense. Meaning as a Venn diagram, right? 🙂

            -= Skip =-

          2. Totally like a Venn diagram! The idea is that rather than viewing “woman” and for example, “black” as separate identities, we recognize that they overlap and the self lies in the intersection of them, and we need a social movement that acknowledges those intersections. 😉

          3. >The idea is that rather than viewing “woman” and for example, “black” as separate identities, we recognize that they overlap

            Yeah, I’m pretty sure there are black people who are also women. 🙂

            I get what you’re saying, though we’d have an explosion of movements. How about black females who are rich (or poor)? Who come from another culture, or who have this or that chronic disease, or … well, you get the idea. Pretty soon it’s all intersections and no roads.

            More to the point, I’m not at all sold on the notion that fantasy is the place to hash that stuff out. Contemporary literature seems a better fit. Not that this lets fantasy writers off the hook, but I do believe that if one is after genuine social change, there are better places to spend one’s efforts. The first question with art must always be does the art succeed. If the first question is, does the art fulfill an agenda, then it isn’t art, it’s politics in a suit.

          4. This may not be your intention, but you’re coming across as kind of sarcastic and it’s beginning to annoy me. Just so you know.

            There is no “explosion” of movements because the point of intersectional feminism is to be aware of and encompass them all. Feminism has always been a broad movement; intersectionality provides it with greater specificity and depth, and gives it the direction it needs to actually improve as many lives as possible. Your intersections/roads metaphor doesn’t make sense because *intersections are crucial* both to how we understand and discuss identity, and in identifying and addressing the needs of those who are marginalized. Frankly, if anything, prioritizing “roads” (what is that supposed to be anyway, singular identities?) over “intersections” is exactly how feminism has failed in the past.

            Contemporary literature may be able to address these things more directly, but fiction, no matter the genre, is not exempt from the way social issues affect the reading of it. Considering too that SFF often involves completely new worlds, it seems like an ideal genre in which to explore questions that we can then apply to our own world.

            This will be my last comment with you on this subject. I’ll refer you to another post I wrote addressing feminism in fiction:

          5. >This may not be your intention, but you’re coming across as kind of sarcastic and it’s beginning to annoy me.

            Sorry. Didn’t mean to annoy. Last comment; over and out.

  2. Well, I might be slightly guilty here (there are prostitutes in one of my books…but one, at least, isn’t completely window dressing without character, although it was a “walk-on” role. And there’s no suggestion that it was her prostitution that victimized her – it was purely wrong-place-wrong-time-wrong-class and it could have been any one of a number of other people in that place at that moment. But there are also a lot of women in that book who are soldiers, and the second in command (and real “power behind the commander”) is a woman.

    I think that if we are going to change fantasy as a genre, it might have to, at least in part, occur as a subtler, slower re-imagining for some of us (and to be fair, I wrote that book in 1999, and I was a lot less aware and younger.)

    1. It doesn’t sound like your book is like the ones I’m talking about. This perspective isn’t a wholesale argument against sex workers or sexual assault ever appearing in fiction–I have an attempted rape in FROM UNDER THE MOUNTAIN.

      And 1999 is a long time ago. 🙂 The value in critiquing past work is so that we know how to move forward. We can’t change what’s been done, we can only do better.

      1. >This perspective isn’t a wholesale argument against sex workers or sexual assault ever appearing in fiction
        Yep, got that. It’s because your article did not paint with the broad brush that I took the time to reply.

        BTW, I found your article on a bounce from someone in the Fantasy Faction. Just thought you’d like to know!

        -= Skip =-

  3. Agreed, and I hate to say this isn’t something I’ve thought about much, if at all. >_< I've always tried to write women as people, not as background details or set dressing or victims, and I'd like to think I've gotten better at that over the years as I've become more aware of, well, all of this.

    It bothers me that I still see this happening, though. I read part of a trilogy where every single woman was either a whore, a former whore (who still made herself available as one if necessary) or a whore-to-be (because surely falling on hard times means prostitution is the only available option). The only exception was the main love interest, who was a bastion of incorruptible pure pureness. I struggled through the first book largely because of this, and stopped a few chapters into the second when I saw it not only continued but got worse. Gah.

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