Reading fantasy and Sci-Fi from a gender perspective

I have changed yet again more than I bragained for. Due to the project I am working on, I became too aware* of gender issues, and as a consequence I cannot read fantasy or Sci-Fi just to relax as I used to. I look at those worlds from a gender perspective now, and oh, how it is depressing. 

In 2020, as the pandemics setalled in, I changed netflix with audiobooks. I listened to about 30 fantasy books or more that year. The number of the books declined in the next two years, but it is still my go to when I am working on a project or I just do not want to think (except now this also makes me think 🤦🏼‍♀️).

Even before embarking on my current art project, I was a bit disturbed by the (apparent) lack of female writers in fantasy and Sci-Fi. So, I decided to search specifically for them and bumped into Sarah J. Maas and her Court of Thorns and Roses which is a revisited version of Beauty and the Beast, but I enjoyed it especially for the fea characters that are quite different from the rest I have encountered. I just noticed she released a new book in the series, so I listened to it and it’s Beauty and the Beast meeets Danielle Steel actually, especially with the voice of the reader 😅. And of course, it normalizes yet again the sexualisation of women and how there is (an illusion of) power in sex for women. In her defense, Maas objectifies men as much as women and promotes gender equality between men and women, in general.

The blood rite described in A court of silver flames is a pretty accurate description of how our society treats women and says we are not as good as men, with the three female feas kidnaped to participate in the rite because they dared to challange tradition and learn to fight to defend themselves. There, they found themselves on a mountain, only dressed in night gowns, while the males were dressed in armour. The blood rite in itself is an accurate metaphor of how society is cruel to men too, but at least they all have equal chances outside their own skills.

In 2021, I found Ursula K. Le Guin who seems to be revered by a lot of women, but I only decided to read Earthsea recently, as back than I was emersed in Brandon Sanderson’s and Raymon E. Feist’s writings. I am sad to say that out of all I read, Earthsea is the most disappointing, both in terms of writing, story and it is the most misogynistic fantasy world I have encountered, and they are all quite misogynistic.

This is the problem now. I am painfully aware of the stereotypes promoted in these writings so much that I can no longer read the book that used to be my go to for relaxation, Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azgaban. It makes it worst that Harry’s world is a modern world. Most fantasy worlds are inspired by the Middle Ages, which is no excuse for promoting the views of that time, but it is an explanation for the world being violent and misogynistic. Most stories happen in a time with little to no technology, violence and war and where humans might have some predators, so physical strength is important. On the other hand, physical strength isn’t important for magicians, so it is no excuse for female magicians to be as discredited as they are.

These worlds are more or less discrimintaing when it comes to races, but most are discriminating against women, and the female characters are stereotypical and poorly written. Except for Brandon Sanderson’s writings. I am particularly fond of Skyward’s Spensa. I also ador Jasnah Kholin from Stormlight Archives. Vin from Mistborn is also well written and the main character, but also the only noticeable female character in the series, unlike the other two where there are quite a few complex women present in the stories.

This month, I picked up Raymon E. Feist’s  Riftwars Saga where I left it off last year. There are so many books in the series, I feel I will never finish it. I also have mixed feelings about it in terms of gender equality. Two years ago when I read the Empire trilogy (the saga is split in batchs of 3 books, each one recounting the major events in Midkemia or related), I was displeased that the main character, Mara, was written by a woman, Jenny Wurst with whom Feist co-wrote the three books. Now I realized it was the sensible thing to do as his other female characters are quite stereotypical, not given equal importance as male characters, and otherwise depicted just as whores or used to lure and manipulate men. Whenever a woman of power appears in the story, her sexual appeal is her strongest trait and power. Unfortunately Mara didn’t escape from this objectification either, but because she is a main character of three books, her character is more complex and nuanced, no thanks to Feist. I understand the limitations of a man not to understand women and this idea that “you write about what you know”, but it applies only if you are a beginner. Documentation and information provided understanding. You only have to want to and he clearly doesn’t.

For instance, there are Pug, the main character of the entire Saga, although at times he isn’t that present in some stories, and his wife, Miranda. They are both powerful magicians. I don’t mind he was made more powerful. It makes sense, but she is depicted in a negative and inferior way unecessarily. For instance, the author says at one point, that Pug and Miranda had like all couples things they didn’t like about each other: Pug doesn’t like how Miranda has her own agenda and doesn’t follow everything he says or asks for permission to do things, and she doesn’t like that he has more power and has seen more things than she did. It is also a world filled with toxic relationships presented as normal, as how things “normally” are. Also, normalized yet again lack of understanding between genders.

To be fair, Feist does try to promote gender and interracial equality. He also presents any race encountered in nuances: none are inherently good or bad, but rather a sum of their historical context. He presents change as possible, but a slow process. Same goes for Brandon Sanderson. All races are, no matter how much either authors want to depict them as different from humans, human like, and in some of cases it is very apparent the cultural inspiration (appropriation?) for each of them.

The same issue with other races can be found in Sci-Fi as well, where on other planets one can find different human-like creatures, with a human-like culture variant, whether they look like hamsters, spiders, some sort of type of bird-like creature (Expeditionary Force by Craig Alanson), stone men, wolf-ish creatures (Space Team by Barry J. Hutchinson), crabs in human-like suits or smells that can take over mechanical machines. In this respect, Brandon Sanderson seems to me the one who strained his imagination most in creating the crystal like creatures called Resonants, the smells called Figments and the cytonic slugs, taynix, which I’m particularly fond of, and, of course, the ultimate beings not human like at all in physical aspect, the Delvers, all to be found in Skyward Series. This series also has the best AI character out there, M-Bot. Yes, better than Skippy from Expeditionary Force. Bite me!

Expeditionary Force, an endless series a 15 novel series (quite sad it ended actually) from Craig Alanson, is a reflection of the current American society, struggling with emotional intelligence and gender equality, normalizing women that deny their feelings for fear of seaming weak, but presenting a male main character that explores his emotions more than your average man would allow himself to do so for fear of seaming unmanly. Furthermore, this is the only series, fantasy or Sci-Fi, where rape isn’t normalized. There is one scene with an attemped rape in a refugees human camp, and the guilty man was killed by the other men in the camp.

I would say Sanderson doesn’t normalize rape either, but neither is it present much, except in Mistborn where it isn’t presented as something men do because they are men but rather because they are educated to believe that they are entitled to behave this way. Also, now I understand why some women cringed at Game of thrones – another series I don’t think I could read again.

Gender violence is also present in Sanderson’s writing as well, but I read it more like class violence rather than gender violence, since high ranking men or women tend to be violent towards those under their social status. I also find that his books normalize prostitution, which I actually agree to. It is a job. If it would be legalized, submitted to social rules and stop being something taboo, it would even be safe.

I also searched for women that write Sci-Fi, and found Linsdsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire. Not something I would recommend, but not bad either. The female characters are nothing special, except Yumi, your friendly spiritually high neighbor. With the star seer characters, the story crosses form Sci-Fi to fantasy. Also an endless series. Stopped reading after book 3.

I started The wheel of time by Robert Jordan, which I do not know if I will finish as it has 13 books, but the last three are written by Brandon Sanderson, so I might just grind my theet and pull through. This is also a typical world, except the man magicians are discriminated against, although female magicians aren’t liked by the people either, though fear of magic by common people is frequent in most fantasy worlds irrespective of gender.

What is missing entirely from this domain of literature in terms of gender equality are all other genders except male and female, or if they are present, they are attributed to other species than humans. For instance in Skyward, the Diones are non-binary. I would like to see more of this, especially in fantasy.

In Stormlight Archive, the parshendi have several forms, and in most of them they are asexual apparently. There is an interesting thread about it here. What prompted me to search for this, was the fact that Syl told Kaladin that ancient spren had four genders as they weren’t imagined by humans (implying they were imagined by parshendi).

So, I am still into fantasy, just unable to listen to the books mindlessly anymore.

You may not be aware, but what you read / see in tv shows/ movies shapes your believes even if it is fantasy.

* initially I wrote “sensitive” instead of “aware” and realised that it has a negative connotation on me instead of this society not being fair to everyone as if I shouldn’t care or demand that, because if you are strong enough you can pull though anything. You only demand kindness and fairness when you are weak. However, weakness is not something bad. Creating a safe space for the weak is what differenciates us from other animals, you monkeys. 

** I realized I haven’t mentioned Lord of the rings, but I, for whatever reason, am not fond of that world. After reading it once, more than 10 years ago, I never felt like revisiting that place. I also doubt there is anything revealing gender wise, except the usual misoginy. Yes, the elves are ruled by a queen. So is in Feist’s universe. Still a patriarchal world view over all. I do not remember any sorceress or godess doing something notable, or the elf queen for that matter. I do have a poor memory though 🫠

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