I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly progressive and inclusive writer, but apparently I’m not immune to the corrosive sexist tropes that squat, goblin-like, in the shadows of the fantasy genre. It wasn’t until I was hunkering down to edit my manuscript that I noticed one glaring fact– not a single woman appears in the text until page twenty-four. I don’t mean any significant female character; I mean any female at all. It could have been someone’s mother, wife, or sister. Some random woman selling fish in the market or serving ale in the tavern. But there isn’t a single female in sight for twenty-three pages.
Do women just not inhabit my fantasy world or am I sidelining them because women didn’t get to do all that much in ‘those days’? This is something that shows up in a lot of fantasy novels. We write worlds in which women exist in the shadows or live under the thumb of men while we proclaim that this is just historical accuracy. It’s laughable that fantasy writers, whose genre exists to create worlds unlike our own where anything is possible, still struggle to imagine any reality in which women are not treated as inferior or unimportant.
There has definitely been a significant shift in the genre since I was a kid. Female fantasy writers are becoming far more common, and many of them are starting to reach the same heights of fame as their male counterparts (examples include J.K Rowling, V.E. Schwab, and Sarah J. Maas).
But there are still hurdles left to jump. There seems to be a pervasive belief that only adult fantasy is ‘serious fantasy’. Children’s and young adult fantasy (YA) are treated as ‘fantasy lite’, which has some unsettling undertones when you consider how many of the writers in these genres are female versus the largely male realm of adult fantasy.
Within YA fantasy by women, we can see many of the same problems that plague fantasy as a whole. Sarah J. Maas, best known for her international bestselling Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses series, is a good example of how sexism and toxic masculinity can seep into the work of a female fantasy writer.
As the books in her series have progressed, Maas has shown a growing interest in romance and the relationships between her various characters. However, many of the men that she writes are sexually aggressive and highly possessive of the female characters they are with.
Maas writes characters that are fae, and she uses this as an excuse to write them as territorial, animalistic and traditionally (toxically) masculine. A common thread between both her series is the idea that once a couple is ‘mated’, the male becomes extremely territorial and will quite literally attack other men in order to protect ‘what is theirs’. There’s a lot wrong with this, on many levels.
Maas is just reproducing some of the sexist tropes that have plagued the fantasy genre for generations. Her use of women as ‘prizes’ to be won by her male heroes traces its roots as far back as The Lord of the Rings (where Arwen serves as little more than the prize Aragon wins after he completes his quest). Tolkien was writing in a time when fiction still remained a dominantly male realm, and his work reflects some of the issues of sex and gender that were prevalent then. But what about now?
Movements like #MeToo highlight the continuing issues of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence towards women in many twenty-first century societies. Women are still held accountable for the actions of men, often on charges of dressing provocatively or turning a man down (leading him to perpetrate violence as a result). In a world where women are still fighting for safe access to abortion, equal pay and equal treatment, it isn’t surprising that the social issues of our world begin to bleed into our fiction.
For writers like Maas, and for myself, the issue becomes that we write in response to the negative attitudes we internalise from the world around us. Maas is as much a product of the society she lives in as I am. She writes men who reflect our society’s continued acceptance and romanticisation of male aggression and possessiveness. Similarly, I relegate my women to the background, perhaps because I live in the background of my own world.
My internalised belief that I don’t deserve to be the hero of a story is what makes my heroes overwhelmingly male and my female characters almost non-existent. Maybe the act of unlearning our own internalised experiences of sexism is much harder than we think it is. Then, how can I, how can any of us, do better? How can we write fantasy stories that will positively impact the next generation of female fantasy writers? How do we break the cycle of sexism, female invisibility and toxic masculinity that remain so pervasive amongst the writers of our own generations?
Why are there no women in the first twenty-three pages of my story? Is there any reason they shouldn’t be present? If not, then I need to think about writing them into the story. The women who are already there need to be given space to breathe beyond the restrictions that exist in our world. I need to open myself up to the possibility of a world where women are equal to men, where they don’t have to live with the same fears and doubts as I do.
Fiction, particularly fantasy, allows us to imagine worlds in which things are done differently than they are in our own. We can rewrite entire tracts of history, undo centuries of discrimination. There is power in these imagined worlds. What we write can influence the world around us, giving readers an imagined reality they can strive for in their own.
I want the girls and women who pick up my books, and the books of other fantasy writers of our time, and not see a ‘boy’s club’ of male heroes and patriarchal ideas. I want them to escape into a world where they can be anything. I want them to have the fantasy stories I never had, and I want them to take those good bits of imaginary worlds and turn them into a reality of their own.
Lisandra Linde is an Adelaide-based writer of fantasy and creative nonfiction. In 2017 she co-founded the online arts magazine Tulpa Magazine, at which she is a managing editor. She is currently working on her honours thesis on women’s mental illness narratives and the personal essay at Flinders University. She tweets at @KrestianLullaby