Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gender Issues: SF vs. Fantasy

Okay, so, nerd that I am, I’m perusing through my copy of the 1998 version of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant (Don’t judge. You know some of you do it, too.) and found the following entry:


“GENDER: Fantasy as a genre is generally perceived as more hospitable to women than SCIENCE FICTION and HORROR, and more flexible in the choices it offers than historical fiction or romance, yet the standard patriarchal bias imposes limitations which are seldom subverted or even questioned. Whereas sf as the potential to question gender roles and try to envision new ways of living, fantasy looks to the past, seeking out patterns and archetypes.” (Clute and Grant p. 393)


Hmmm. Interesting. I’d never thought of looking at the genres that way. In fact, my first thought was to disagree and say modern speculative fiction on all spectrums has opened up to all sorts of new views. Some I agree with, some I don’t, some more mainstream than others. Especially with the boom in self- and indie publishing, my instinct is strong female characters are making a charge to the forefront of literature.


Twenty to thirty years ago it was difficult to find strong female characters in either sf or fantasy. You could find them if you looked, though.


All of Anne McCaffrey’s female characters, although some might argue a little stereotypical, were strong. Her books (mostly in one universe, by the way) are sometimes more “science fantasy” than science fiction. Dragons? Yeah, genetically modified lizards bred to telepathically bond with and fly around with a human. Cool. Did she look to the past for patterns and archetypes or did she question gender roles and try to envision new ways of living? Dragon-riding women leading raids on brimstone from a rogue red planet? A woman whose brain lives in and runs a ship? A singer who fails to graduate from school but instead becomes someone who runs ships? Definitely envisioning to me.


But she was a female writer. What about a male writer from that same time frame?


Piers Anthony, on the other hand, may have a few strong female characters in his Xanth, Apprentice Adept Series, and Incarnations of Immortality series, but they’re hidden beneath his male characters’ misogynistic, sexually explicit (and sometimes disturbing) attitudes toward them. Don’t get me wrong. As a kid I loved reading the first 10 or so of the Xanth series and the first set of the Adept and Incarnations series. However, when I go back and look at the text I’m shocked at the attitude displayed toward women: objects. In the Adept series the “love interests” were robots and animals. Literally. Worse, his later volumes add another level of “ick” (I’ll let you research that on your own if you wish), receiving more negative reviews in Amazon than positive (which is disheartening for me because I grew up loving his work!)


So, in his fantasy and SF worlds, Piers Anthony definitely used old patterns and archetypes.


But what about today’s speculative fiction?


Well, I hate to fall back on the popular, but let’s look at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Hermione Granger. Definitely fantasy, here.


First, she wasn’t the “chosen” one, but she was always saving the day. Why? Because she was clever, smart (two different things!) and persistent. She hung in there when everyone else, boys and girls included, ran screaming like banshees, and was truly one of the great heroes of the story because of who she decided to be, not because of who she was BORN to be. And in the end did she cave to the stereotype and marry Harry Potter? No!


Definitely envisioning a new world in fantasy land.


And as for modern SF, let’s slip on over to cyberpunk and Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. The two main female leads, Y.T. and Juanita, both have amazing hacking abilities to help Hiro Protagonist (If you haven’t read the novel you should and yes, that is the main character’s name.) He relies on both of them to do their job to save the world from a Sumerian herpes-like disease that affects both the physical and ‘net physical beings. It’s a trip and so are his women.


Snowcrash is definitely a new world, his female characters strong, yet he relies a lot on patterns and archetypes, but it's for a reason and not with a negative attitude toward them in any sense.


So...do I agree with the definition? No. As with most generalizations, the definition can be true about some works and not about others. Since it was written 16 years ago, it may be invalid altogether. However I still think it’s worth considering the message we’re sending as we pass books into the hands of our children. What’s the message we want to send? Read it first, then decide if it’s appropriate.

Revision. You gotta read it first before you can revise.


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