I'm in another Storybundle this month--another of those "Women In" collections, this time Fantasy, and as usual it's a great communal experience. We all get together, help each other push the bundle, and read other's books. It's fun, it's profitable. It spreads the word about a variety of books and writers.
This one has me thinking about the whole "Women In" phenomenon, and where fantasy used to be versus where it is now. What goes around comes around, but there's always a new angle to it, one way or another.
It's been interesting watching fantasy evolve out of the primordial soup that was, primarily, Tolkien. There were other ancestors, of course, and other strains of fantasy, but by the end of the Sixties, Tolkien was the one name that ruled them all.
Out of Tolkien came the clones. Some were so close that they followed the actual plot outline of The Lord of the Rings, and a handful of those sold as well as if not actually better than the original. There were actually readers who complained that Tolkien was a bad copy of his own bad copies.
And that was the Seventies, and a good chunk of the Eighties.
In the Eighties, something happened to the perception of fantasy as a genre. Very Serious People decided that fantasy was easy, fluffy, comfy, and you just made it up as you went along. It therefore followed, by the logic of such things, that it was full of girl cooties. Real writers wrote science fiction, which was brawny, male, and preferably hard.
Of course there were guy fantasy writers, and some of them were monster bestsellers, but for the most part, fantasy was the province of the Female Fantasy Writer. I still have my pink FFW button from that era, and the pink fluffy bunny it's pinned to.
It all seems rather quaint now, and it's been pretty much forgotten as the women's side of history so often is. Somewhere in the Nineties, fantasy stopped being a girl thing and turned into a guy thing, so that come the new millennium, Very Serious People were very seriously declaring that women were just beginning to enter the male realm of fantasy.
The one exception being urban fantasy: you know, the one with the tight leather pants and the vampires and werewolves. And a few guys making buckets of money off it, but mostly it's full of girl cooties. Real fantasy is brawny, male, and epic.
Nobody is going on about how you just make it up as you go along, which is a big improvement. But the old divide is still there, and so is the age-old putdown of the women's side.
This is an old song. Really, really old--as old as what we know of human history.
A few days ago, through my Twitter feed, I happened across Mary Beard's lecture on "The Public Voice of Women." It's a couple of years old, but the subject matter is truly timeless.
Beard argues that women's voices have been diminished and silenced for millennia. Women were told to shut up in Greece, in Rome, in the Western Middle Ages (and from what I know of history in general, this is by no means unique to Western Europe). She lists example after example and source after source. It's endemic. It's deeply embedded in the culture.
What's amazing to me is not so much that this has been going on for so long, but that it's now being called out, and people are making an actual effort to change it. Of course there's backlash, and some of it is seriously ugly. But the ugliness is being called out, too. It's no longer possible to just reflexively diss the female voice. There are, finally, consequences.
That's major. It can get really, really tiresome to fight the same battles over and over and over again, and to watch the older battles and the women who fought them be systematically and consistently erased. But when I realize how deeply ingrained the silencing of women is, I find it all the more remarkable that there's actual, perceptible progress. Women's voices are actually being heard--and sometimes even being taken seriously.
Just watching television from the Sixties, or reading books from the Seventies, I can see how perceptions have changed. I'm right now in the middle of a reread series for Tor.com, rereading the early works of one of the foremothers of modern fantasy, Katherine Kurtz. The books are holding up, for me, much better than I ever thought they would, but their gender politics is dire. It's also completely in period, and in character, for the early Seventies when the books were published.
In these books, beginning with Deryni Rising, the protagonists are all male, and the medieval setting is heavily and unquestioningly patriarchal. The female characters are few, and every one is in some way problematical. They're all either evil sorceresses, flutterbrained idiots, or Noble Females On Pedestals. None of them is a rounded human being. That's reserved for the male characters.
And that was completely normal and unobjectionable around about 1972. It really is striking that, less than forty-five years later, it's not only seen as a problem, it's no longer the standard approach to female characters in fantasy. Even if the writer doesn't honestly believe in women as human beings, he still comes under pressure to make a show of writing Strong Female Characters.
That's a sea change. Will it last? Now there's a question.