Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly: Part VI
Today I’m ranting about a fantasy trope that has been around since at least Homer (the Greek one, not Mr Simpson). It just goes to show that sometimes venerability doesn’t mean quality.
6. The Female Seductress
In a nutshell, this may be summarised as “female character uses her sexuality to get what she wants from a male character.” Why do I think the fantasy genre needs to move beyond this? Simple: it reinforces nasty social stereotypes about both men and women, and makes characters less interesting as individuals.
Let’s start with the malign influence it has on male characters. It reduces them to shallow lust-driven caricatures, and ignores potentially more interesting motivations for action. It promotes the idea that men are slaves to their sexuality, to the point where they can be lead around by their penises (in reality, while most men do indeed want sex, we also want lots of other things too). The individual is being defined here entirely by an alleged attribute of their gender, and that is an unhealthy situation. Worse, it’s only a short step from this trope to insinuating that a male character who isn’t ruled by his sexual desires has something wrong with them, or even that he isn’t a “real” man. Screw that, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Then there is the effect it has on female characters. By establishing a scenario whereby a woman can manipulate a man simply by promising or withholding intercourse, you establish a straight-out barter situation. Men “want” sex, therefore women are “gate-keepers” who determine which lucky man gets to put his penis in a vagina. It carries with it the immediate implication that female characters are incapable of wanting or enjoying sex purely in and of itself: sex becomes a reward for one gender and a chore for the other, rather than an activity of mutual pleasure. And once you start doing that, you start misrepresenting human motivations, giving rise to assumptions that simply don’t hold in the real world. Worse, it can be used to sustain a fundamentally misogynistic setting: in a situation where men rule, the author can pretend that “no, really, women have power too.” Sorry, but let’s not sugarcoat sexism.
I would like to think that this trope can be replaced with a more individual focus. It’s not unreasonable to explore a character (either male or female) who does try to use sexuality to get what they want, so long as it is clear that this is an unhealthy personality trait that manifests itself in combination with someone else’s equally unhealthy personality (i.e. being willing to be lead around by a promise of a bit of bedroom fun). In other words, the seduction operates purely between specific characters, rather than as a generic attribute of one’s gender. Moreover, given the continuing ubiquitous nature of this trope (I won’t single out specific authors here, but it is undoubtedly going strong as a genre convention), it is important to think about this before writing it – there is plenty of room for subversion and deconstruction. In any case, there is absolutely nothing wrong with portraying a male character as having a low sex drive, and a female character as having strong desires: the key being individualised portrayal.