In my last post I broached the topic of how women are portrayed in fiction. I think I made it clear that I am not a feminist, that I do not have an particular disagreement with the use of graphic material in general, and that I have no actual problems with male centered media. However, this doesn’t men that I don’t recognize the fact that the mistreatment of women in fiction is a problem, or that there is a relative lack of female centered media in some genres and/or mediums. For instance, I can’t think of many female centered comic books, and while Urban Fantasy has a high number of female authors writing female centered works of average or higher quality, Epic Fantasy doesn’t have many (or at least I haven’t found many good, published ones… actually aside from Gail Z Martin and K.E. Mills [neither of which I particularly like, though my issues with Mills have more to do with personal style preferences than quality, while her writing is strong, I get bored…] I can’t actually think of any off the top of my head apart from Ursula Leguin, and all three focus on male leads).

This is, I think, one of the key problems. For instance, if we look at works written by female authors, I’m guessing (I haven’t actually done a study, though perhaps somebody should) that most of them pass the Bechdetest, but I wonder how man of them would pass a male oriented view of the test. As a male author I have to admit that I don’t really know what women think about, or what they talk about when I’m not around. I can write believable, realistic male characters because I am a man, but I struggle to write believable, realistic female characters outside of a man’s perspective on them. I could, obviously, write female characters that thought and acted like men, and if I did so, then I could easily write works that pass the Bechdel test. However, I don’t think that giving men breasts and calling them ‘Lucania’ is a working answer to the underlying problem. Certainly a significant part of the reason that many television programs don’t portray realistic females is due to the lack of female Television writers. I’ve no doubt that many will argue that this shows obvious sexism in Hollywood’s employment practices, and it is certainly a possibility (there isn’t much that I’d put past Hollywood), but this strikes me as a kneejerk reaction until I see evidence that writers are actually being rejected because of their gender. Ultimately, there are many reasons why women are under-represented in certain professions, and equally over-represented in other professions.

There is also conflicting evidence and arguments concerning the amount of women who are actually trying to write speculative fiction (see here and here for two very different sets of numbers). So, one very real possibility for the very masculine view of women portrayed in Science Fiction and Fantasy is that not many women are actually writing science fiction and fantasy. As I pointed out above, men aren’t women, and while some of us do our best, writing good female characters doesn’t come naturally to us. It is also very possible that there is a degree of sexism in the editing and reviewing industries that is involved. However, it is equally possible that there is simply a lack of interest. A fairly high percentage of reviewers (both professional and non-professional) are male, and this brings me to conflate a point I made in my last post with a point I made above.

Men and women think differently, and this leads the genders to different hobbies, pursuits, enjoyments, etc. While I tried very hard to read The Necromancer King by Gail Martin, it just wasn’t very good. The Accidental Sorcerer by Karen Mills, on the other hand, was actually a well-written book. It just wasn’t one I was particularly interested in. Like Mark Twain, Mills’ story just didn’t click with me, and this has been true for the majority of female authors that I’ve read. I do enjoy a few female Urban Fantasy and light fantasy authors such as Patricia Briggs and J.K. Rowling, but again, other well known female fantasy authors such as Stephanie Meyers, Suzanne Collins, Charlaine Harris, and Anne Rice hold little interest for me. By and large most of the men that I know (and this by no means equals all) tend to prefer to read male authors than female authors. Likewise, most of the women I know tend to prefer female authors (though, again, this by no means equals all). Does this mean that those people are all sexist? By no means. I think a much better explanation is found in the above claim that men and women think differently. Likewise, men and women tend to write differently, and enjoy different styles of writing.

So, while I do certainly think that it is important to support the female authors in the science fiction, fantasy genre already, I think that if we really want a stronger percentage of good, strong, realistic female characters we need a higher percentage of female authors, publishers, and reviewers. Which, of course, presents its own set of problems. …There’s never an easy answer, is there?

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2 thoughts on “The Treatment of Women in Fiction Part 2

  1. Interesting perspective. If you look at mystery writers women have long dominated the field. In the fantasy side of science fiction women have had a very significant role since Andre Norton essentially began the field. You also find strong heroines in these, but not of the obvious sword swinging type. Subtle, indirect, and complex tends to be the rule. Apparently you picked selectively from our bookshelves. I’m wondering how much of this is a function of the selected genre of writing rather than otherwise.

    1. Hmm… I honestly can’t believe that I forgot about Andre Norton. I read quite a bit of her stuff growing up. There’s also Mercedes Lackey, though I’ve never really liked her stuff, and Anne MaCaffery, but again the same problem exists with her. Like I said, I think a part of this is just a matter of interest. There are relatively few female authors (even those with very high quality writing) who write in a way that pulls in my interest. So, I come back to thinking that this is, at least in part, a difference in the way the genders approach story-telling.
      I do think that this is at least partially a function of genre. One of the above links discusses actual submissions to a specific publishing house (Crisp Publications, I think). They went through their received submissions for a year (2011 if I remember correctly) and found that only 32% of the Speculative fiction novels that they’d received were written by women, and the vast majority of those were either YA fiction or Urban Fantasy.

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