Why Is Fantasy So Mean to Women?

Here’s another one of those topics worthy of an entire book, and I’m trying to address it in a little tiny blog post.

But the fact is that there is a great big pile of fantasy novels whose depiction and treatment of women suggest that the author has major problems with half the human race. Not all of these authors are B Team hacks you never heard of. Some of them have written best-sellers. In Robert Jordan’s enormous Wheel of Time series, almost all the women characters are shrews, resembling nothing so much as a passel of academic feminists in funny clothes. And in George R.R. Martin’s even more enormous Game of Thrones series, all of the women seem to be either scheming witches, insatiable sex addicts, or idiots, or some combination of the three. (Well, OK, there are a few pitiful female victims in perpetual need of rescue.)

Behind these two we find a vast army of damned fools who hate women and use their art as an excuse to indulge in misogynist daydreams. Here we find an infinite procession of dark images, all of them centered on female characters being abused in nasty ways. I won’t bother to name any of these authors or their works. I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought somebody bought one of these books because of anything I said.

I suppose, if you delved deeply into some other genres–maybe film noir, or hard-boiled detective novels, or spy thrillers–you might find almost as much depiction of women as mere sex objects, deserving of maltreatment. You won’t find it in the great fantasy novels of Tolkien, Lewis, Eddison, et al. But the back ranks of fantasy are chock-full of it.

Why is this? I throw it out there as a question, because I don’t know the answer. Is it original sin and human depravity playing out in fiction, or some evil aspect of an imperfectly-Christianized culture? Or both? Beats me. All I know is, if I wrote stuff like that, I’d be a bad guy.

Any thoughts, anybody?


7 comments on “Why Is Fantasy So Mean to Women?

  1. Lee, First of all thanks for your posts – while I don’t comment often, I do enjoy your posts and understand the effort and dedication it takes to get them out on a regular basis.
    Women in fantasy fiction? – Yes it does seem like much of it is acting out a writer’s desires or what they perceive to be marketable. I was a big sci-fi reader for much of my childhood and continue today in my 60s. I was not interested in fantasy till when I was 20 or so and a female friend passed me a “DragonRiders of Pern” episode and I quickly got hooked. When the series eventually gets around to showing they were a colony planet from Earth and it took on a bit of a science fiction turn it got me very solidly hooked. This led me to trying other fantasy – such as the series about the “Tarnsmen of Gor” and they of course had a pretty solid sampling of women slaves, and the usual mistreating and then rescue by the hero.
    I think some of this is a base urge for the males (at least my idea of a proper male) to try to save the damsel in distress. All the better if said damsel is scantily clad in strategically ripped garments and way beyond the average in beauty and physical attributes. Of course no evil monster will capture less than beautiful women – at least not in fiction.
    So most of us thrill to the hero saving the damsel – and even the women I have asked seem to identify with that fantasy some as long as we don’t portray the female as brainless. I think the female side of the species likes to see themselves as sought after and definitely rescue-able folk. And if the scantily clad female can fight and swing a mean sword with the best of them, all the better. If memory serves (and it often does not) my readings 40 years back of some of the “Conan” series would be a good example. As a born and raised child of Texas, you can imagine my surprise when I found out their author was a Texas fellow from the early 20th century days.
    I think its safe to say fantasy will often have a layer of sexual attraction in many writers – but we can hope that they will stay in carefully layered sexual imagery and not dive further into more detailed or graphic depictions which are best left to other categories of writing. My wife points out that the imagination is still key to enjoying a good read -and when an author gets overly into details on a scene with a sexual content – it robs the reader of using their imagination to render the scene in what ever level of detail they wish that will fit with their morals and reading interests.

    1. It does seem that, in many different categories of fiction, it’s getting harder and harder to tell where the story-telling ends and the soft-core porn begins. Fantasy is anything but alone in this.

      Great comment, though, Mike.

      Years ago my mother, a very intelligent woman, but with no literary taste at all, gave us one of those Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear books. I tried to finish it, but found it unreadable for several reasons, not the least of it the author’s habit of repeatedly pelting me with detailed, play-by-play descriptions of sex acts. I’ve never quite understood what that was supposed to prove. But at least the female characters weren’t getting brutalized.

  2. Good post, Lee. I have seen this mind set played out in every area of life, with fiction, fantasy, and every other venue. Some is very subtle, while
    recently it has become much more blatant. I have pondered this all my life. As a toddler of two, at family gatherings, I would go back and forth between the men’s group conversing on the veranda and the women in the dining room, listening intently to the conversation and trying to understand the nuances. After growing up, and especially after becoming an avid Bible reader, and reading some of the extra-Biblical writings such as the Scroll of Jasher, I see a somewhat less than favorable and respectful attitude toward females has existed almost forever. I see no cure until the Lord, Ruler of the Universe returns to set all things straight.
    This is not to say all men are women haters, not by a long shot, just that this attitude has always been with us. Women contribute their share to this unfortunate situation by various means which are too numerous to go into here, but it is just another of the curses that began in the beginning and has worsened. All we can do is live with it and try to keep our minds focused on the things exhorted in Philippians 4:8-9.

    1. My mother would never permit the males to withdraw to a room of their own while she was talking at them. We had a big family, and there was never any of that sexual separation in it. You think of Edwardian dinner parties: “And now the gentlemen will withdraw from the ladies to enjoy their cigars and port.” I don’t think I ever heard of what the ladies got up to while the gentlemen were separated from them.

      But really, there was never anyone better for a good, long talk than the women in my family; and I’m glad I picked it up from them. Too many men can’t talk about anything but sports.

  3. True, today’s males keep their heads pretty much buried into computers
    or something else to keep them from having to actually become good conversationalists. Part of our culture these days. Not all – but many.
    Good for your mother.

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