Fantasy fiction and feminism: Why writers must shun old tropes, aim for stronger female representation
For many young readers of fantasy fiction, a female protagonist means romance and a male one signals everything else — fantasy, adventure and intelligence
At a children’s literary festival recently, a boy who was standing in line for a signed copy of The Hidden Children asked me, ‘Are there boys in the book?’ He’d obviously read the blurb which talked about the journey of a girl in search of extraordinary powers, meeting another girl and not a boy, which is often what a YA book blurb summarises. I told him there were indeed boys. ‘The boyfriend?’ he asked, and I shook my head and said, ‘Just a friend.’ He wasn’t convinced and I told him to read a chapter while I signed other books. Fifteen minutes later — he was a fast reader — he scooted away and zipped back with the money for the book. I downplayed the frogs jumping in my tummy and coolly asked him if he’d liked what he’d read. He said, ‘Yes, the boy seems smart and the girls sound like boys, so it’s okay. They are not whiney.’
Whiney, I thought and cringed. The conversation stayed with me. For him, a female protagonist meant romance and a male one signalled everything else — fantasy, adventure and…intelligence. How can I blame him? For Indian children, fantasy comes packaged in two formats. One, our epics: fantastical renditions of maybe-true events, stories of blue-coloured boys fighting seven-headed snakes, and giant turtles being used to churn the oceans. Two, fairy tales and stories from distant lands where carpets fly and princesses sleep for thousands of years after pricking their finger on a spindle, biting into an apple, combing their hair even — wait, what was Rapunzel’s story again?
The women all eventually have to be rescued, of course, because like I often say, we are, after all, born of the rib of Adam, and like a Horcrux — our meaning ceases to exist if our vessel is destroyed. We are therefore tradeable pawns when we are beautiful, or witches when we are, God forbid, beautiful and smart. Who would want to be us? Not the boys for sure. The Grimms Brothers have a lot of explaining to do.
What about our epics, you ask? Of course they are to blame but no more than the world’s greatest epics. The epics were never about women. As Devdutt Pattnaik says, 'All these stories exist in a patriarchal set-up and are written by men. Let us never forget the context of the epic. God, in most religions (except Hinduism to a degree), is projected with male forms and male pronouns.’ He’s not excusing them, just contextualising. And according to Pattnaik, nowhere in the world of patriachal epics is the female character given as much power as in the Ramayana.
It’s true we’ve come some way from thinking it is okay for strange men, even if they are princes, to kiss a a girl on her lips without her consent. And we are told to constantly remember that story, and so representation is a reflection of the zeitgiest. The fact that my comfort read, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), is so full of men that Peter Jackson had to beef up the romance just to ensure he could have a woman on the poster is a testament to how many excuses I make for how he wrote Eowyn. I tell myself the book was written only a couple of decades into the suffragete movement. I read on even as Germaine Greer cries into my ear "...it has been my nightmare that JRR Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century.”
In fact, the other day, I was mansplained female representation. 'But you are everywhere in LOTR,’ the man said, 'you are Galadrial, you are Mother Mary, you are Radha, you are Draupadi, so powerful.’ I bit my cheeks in restraint, and considered his statement. He’s right. Representation has never been our problem, because it can’t be — where there are men there need to be mothers, and wives whose job it is to become mothers. But while we talk about how the type of representation impacts girls, we must know it also informs boys, especially at a formative age when they are learning how to make sense of the world and the opposite sex. If #MeToo has taught us anything, it is that men learn about how to treat women when they are boys, and we keep saying they think they are entitled, but our literature is nowhere close to telling them they are not. We raised an entire generation of boys to think marriage and men are more important the winning the greatest battle of your life.
I still wince when I read, ‘I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ Eowyn, my heroine, finds her happiness in Faramir despite winning, in my opinion, the greatest battle in the book. That her battle with the witch-king remains my greatest source of pride screams my need for representation. But you also cannot help a boy thinking this also infers a woman’s greatest joy is to be married. A generation of boys thought to themselves, ’She just killed the Witch-King but marriage is what she really wants. We are her goal.’
Even when we are given significant representation and power in fantasy, we are witches ‘born to serve’ like the Bene Gesserit in Dune. The depiction of women in Dune is problematic in that it masquerdes as feminism, yet their singular goal is to produce a male Bene Gesserit Kwisatz Haderach, who can do their job better because he’s a man. Even Ursula Le Guin understood this when she admitted how she was just “a woman pretending to think like a man” and that her much-loved Earthsea books “are a total complete bust” as feminist literature. She says, “men were at the centre” of fantasy and admits that “from my own cultural upbringing, I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard”. It would take her another 17 years to come up with Tehanu.
It’s not like people didn’t try. Herland written in 1915 by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman tells the story of three men who find their way into a society composed solely of women. The men conclude inequality wasn’t ordained by the universe but by a patriachal society.
While Margaret Atwood held the feminist beacon high in adult fiction with The Handmaids Tale, young adults were still obsessing over dead cheerleaders (RL Stine). Lyra from The Northen Lights by Philip Pullman was a breath of fresh air, but older protagonists could never escape romance and crossover to YA that could be read by both sexes. Even if the protagonists were strong, ambitious girls, the covers of Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Everworld by KA Applegate suggested it would be better read by girls. It would take a TV show to crossover and create a heroine that would appeal to everyone, and unravel, with a deftness bordering on love, the arduous journey that is coming of age, of finding love and keeping love in the face of keeping self. Buffy explored the frontiers of sexuality well before any literature ever did.
If anything, the books took a turn for the worse as the century turned. We suddenly went from a Sophie Hatter in Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones to Bella, a character who single-handedly set the clock back to the early 1900s. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, the YA phenomenon of my generation, sold over 120 million copies worldwide and was translated into at least 38 different languages around the globe. It did this on the back of the weakest, whiniest character ever created. Every teenage girl wanted to be Bella, until they didn’t. And so Katniss was born, the antidote to Bella. The Hunger Games wasn’t just a ‘girls’ book, it was a book for all people alike, young and old. And while it had some romance, because life has romance, it wasn’t about a girl and boy, but a girl leading a rebellion and making her own decisions which appealed to boys and made it a Hollywood blockbuster with a strong female lead.
I will never stop reading The Lord of the Rings and I will pass the baton on to my daughter, because, above everything, it is a great story of our times, and we cannot help the times we had. But we can change the future, and it will be good for us fantasy writers to constantly remind the world that the future can indeed be female.
Reshma K Barshikar is a features writer and the author of The Hidden Children (Two Ravens) and Fade Into Red (Penguin Random House)