Knee-jerk Masculinity in the Fantasy Genre?

This is going to be a touchy subject, but it coincided with something I was intending to write about anyway, so here goes.

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Writer Ed McDonald has done a couple of experiments on r/Fantasy. First he asked people to list their favourite magic-using character, then he asked which three fantasy characters you would like by your side in a demonic apocalypse. In both cases, the responses overwhelmingly listed male characters.

We have two further questions to ask, based off these results:

  1. Why are the results so skewed?
  2. Is this an actual problem?

Now, in regards to the first question, it is entirely possible that the skew reflects the demographics of the respondents. But after considering my own hypothetical responses to McDonald’s experiments (Gandalf for the first, undecided for the second) – the only female character I would have considered for the demonic apocalypse question would be Granny Weatherwax (Discworld). Basically, I would have contributed to the skew myself.

Why is this? It is probably true that most fantasy characters are male – a reflection, perhaps, of who is writing the stories, who is reading them, and market demands. I have seen it suggested that some people associate female authors writing about female protagonists with “girly, romance-orientated” stories (an association that is, of course, criminally unfair). It is noteworthy, however, that there is a genre tradition, from C.L. Moore to J.V. Jones (and of course J.K. Rowling) of female authors hiding behind gender-neutral initials, which suggests that the market does at least see it that way, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, male fantasy authors from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin have served up unlikely sausage-fests among their invented families – Tolkien gives Fëanor seven sons but no daughters, while much of Martin’s non-Stark nobility skews male to an equally ludicrous degree (Walder Frey has twenty-eight children, twenty-one of whom are male – Martin then tries balancing this by having a handful of families where girls vastly outnumber boys).

One occasionally runs into the excuse that fantasy is male dominated because it is frequently concerned with military-orientated affairs, war traditionally being a masculine activity. This argument wears a bit thin when one considers that (1) it’s fantasy. “Historical accuracy” does not apply – even the likes of Robert E. Howard can write a female warrior – and (2) McDonald’s experiment centres around magic-using characters. If hitting things with a sharpened stick is masculine, surely magic is a more level playing field? Female magic-users are a time-honoured part of the genre for as long as it has existed.

On the other hand, if one bothers to look closer at the genre, it isn’t as though there aren’t a host of powerful and interesting female characters out there (there was sufficient material for me to write a four part series – 1234 – on female characters in Tolkien alone). Even if we in the genre are often a bunch of blokes writing about blokes, we are at least capable of writing about women too. Why is it, then, that we as a readership (based off McDonald’s results) prefer to embrace fictional males over fictional females?

If I would hazard a guess, it might be that I as a male instinctively find it easier to slide into identifying with men. Knee-jerk masculinity, perhaps: nothing inherently insidious, no conscious desire to perpetuate a patriarchy or anything, but it is still something that does need recognising. This in turn ties into what I was actually going to write about today.

You see, a while ago, I was going through my short story folder (the last year or so has seen me largely put Old Phuul on hold while I work on shorter fiction), and I noticed that the protagonists were overwhelmingly male. I had no particular issue with diversity of ethnicity or sexuality – but, clearly, part of my subconscious was treating “male POV” as the default. It was purely a subconscious thing too: at no point did I sit down and decide to make the character that way. Nor did I have the experience I did with Wise Phuul, where I realised while writing it that the main character was (to my surprise) bisexual – I never encountered anything that told me that I had erred, and that I was actually writing a woman.

Is this a problem? In one sense, no. If the story works perfectly well with a male protagonist, I think it’s wrong to artificially go back and tinker with it in that way, not least because that is the very definition of tokenism – giving a particular character a particular ethnicity/sexuality/gender solely in order to get brownie points. If one is writing in order to get brownie points, rather than writing to explore characters, themes, plot, and setting on their own terms, then one has left the path of wisdom. Rather, what I have been doing since I realised my “male” default issue is to start with a character I know is female, and tell the resulting story. That way I can write a story that both shifts me out of my POV comfort zone, and is true to the character in question. The result, among other things, is that It Shines Bright Tonight, my 13,000-word sword and sorcery novelette, is told entirely from the POV of Svelia, a female guardsman.

Returning to the earlier question of McDonald’s experiment. Is there something wrong with an audience so clearly preferring characters of one gender? To be honest, no. Readers will identify with whomever they choose, and as suggested above, there are perhaps more opportunities to identify with male characters in fantasy than female characters. It is entirely wrongheaded to suggest that someone is at fault because they prefer Gandalf over Galadriel. I think, however, that it is still something we ought to be aware of – I, for one, found it a strange experience to confront my own biases head-on. From that point of view, McDonald’s experiment is a thoroughly worthwhile one.

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2 thoughts on “Knee-jerk Masculinity in the Fantasy Genre?

  1. Really great post – lots of important points in this discussion. I’m female and often dont enjoy reading female main characters in fantasy, with the exception of Vin from Brandon Sandersons Mistborn series. Sanderson did a really great job of balancing out gender stereotypes between Vin and Elend.
    Theres a lot of room in the market for female MCs with more adventurous and melee type roles, but as you said, sometimes it just doesnt fit the context and that’s fine too

    Like

  2. One could also note that the restrictions in the poll made male characters more likely. It was a question clearly skewed towards the nerdy/rpg/magic playing cards end of the evaluation spectrum for literary characters. If one had asked for the most interesting, most tragic, most sympathetic etc. character, more females might have been mentioned. (Or not, as there is probably a skew towards that spectrum in the particular readership.)

    Like

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