Most fantasy authors choose a low-tech setting for their alternate worlds. Without going into the reasons for that, which are themselves fascinating and sometimes illogical, I will go straight to the result: by choosing low-tech we catapult ourselves backwards into history, often choosing to build a society that is less progressive than our own.
This ensures your mages reign supreme over swords and arrows (although some medieval weapons were badass, if you ask me) – but that’s not the only reason to do it. The more road blocks you can put in front of a character, the better. Readers tend to identify with the underdog, the person who is struggling against great injustices, and therefore what’s better than putting him in a society where things are unequal?
But then we get to the women. Romance gets complicated when you have a historically-adjacent setup of empowered males and disempowered females. In the United States, where this blog resides, women constitute 51% of the population but make up only 17% of congress, and they continue to struggle for control of their own reproduction. We moderns have not succeeded in working out our own issues, so portraying them is tricky. What’s worse is that romance in itself – its tradition of broody men and devoted women – is a ‘how not to’ guide for our daughters.
In short, we as writers tend to combine low-tech/less progressive settings with our own society’s pervasive sexism as expressed in romance’s literary tradition. The former is obvious, and may include attention-getters such as an abundance of prostitutes or rape. The latter is subtle and more problematic for me.
For the purpose of this post I am limiting my comments to fantasy. I haven’t read enough science fiction to know what I’m talking about – and I suspect the complaints I’m about to enumerate don’t apply. Before I continue I’d also like to admit I’m not immune myself to any of the criticism herein.
I rarely find what I consider to be an adult relationship in fantasy (some exceptions include but are not limited to Lynn Flewelling, Carol Berg, Teresa Frohock, J.V. Jones, and Bradley Beaulieu). Too often an extremely young man meets an extremely young woman, a bond is made, and that’s it for the rest of their book/lives. Even if they spend a large part of the book separated, their love remains true. For a woman it tends to be more dire, and the only way she can get out of a relationship is if the man is evil or dead. A son of mine has offered this in defense of the men: the only way they can get out of it, he says, is by taking on the brand of ‘cheater,’ which is usually a signpost on the way to ‘evil.’
So that’s it. They’re stuck. He might be broody, but she’s patient and understands. The female protagonist might have some issue with intimacy, but he’s a gentleman and he understands. Then something comes between them – magic or a big bad – and they overcome it are finally united/reunited at the end. A comfortable story. We’re all familiar with it and we know what to expect. It’s fun to see them eventually get together. What’s more, it’s historically adjacent and therefore seemingly more accurate for our low-tech settings than modern experimentation and sophistication.
Here’s the problem. There are dozens and dozens of fantasy romances out there in which women dedicate their heart, bodies, and wombs to one guy at a young age (and vice versa, except for the womb part). Sex without love and commitment rarely occurs, unless there are prostitutes or seductive faeries around for the men to enjoy. Children, once conceived, must be be given birth to, unless there is a tragic miscarriage. It closes our leading women into restrictive roles – not professionally, as fantasy women might be mages, healers, even fighters, but socially and emotionally as chaste, nurturing people.
You see, we writers, sensitive to sexism, will often make the man the less likable member of the relationship. He is the one who makes mistakes; he is the one who is broody or doesn’t communicate, while the woman is more perfect. This is problematic. What happens is that the female ends up as part mother, part therapist, urging him on to be a better man, helping him to cope with the hardships of growing into an adult relationship or defeating the big bad. She becomes a catalyst in the story of him: his sounding board, his love interest, the thing that spurs him towards improvement. Many authors handle it better than I have depicted here in this paragraph, but my point is the same. In trying to show what we think is good about women, we reveal ourselves: what’s good about women is that they motivate and inspire the men.
What’s wrong with being nurturing and wonderful? Well, nothing! But they can’t all be like that. And in real life, a strong female might just break up with the broody guy with issues. And where are the unlikable women, the prickly females? They are too few and far between. My daughter pointed out to me that women want to see imperfect heroines, flawed characters to whom they can relate, not a confidence-busting, idealized image.
Repetition encourages itself, especially if we get pleasure from it. In other words, the more we repeat these troublesome romantic scenarios – and add the payoff of a cathartic first kiss or sexual encounter – the more they will echo in our books and in our daughters.
I don’t have any answers, and I’m frequently guilty of the same offenses I’m outlining. All I try to do is be more aware of it. I try not to make sex a shameful thing. I try not to lock men and women into their roles. I try to give women choices, no matter how small, given the setting. But I am not perfect by any means.
Finally, near the end of my post, I will admit that I see things changing. I see a lot of progress. I expect in the comments there will be many examples of great books that in no way fall into these romantic traps. But we are not finished yet.
When cries of sexism go out, we shouldn’t reflexively dismiss them or offer long defenses. We should search for whether there is an underlying truth. You know when you are walking along in the dark, and there’s just the tiniest patch of ice on the sidewalk, but your foot just happens to land right on it and begins to slide? That. You thought you were on firm ground, but you were mistaken; there was something there that you couldn’t see. Our own biases, our own skewed perceptions, are sometimes impossible to perceive. Writing is a learning process. So we try to learn.