Have you ever started writing something thinking to yourself: ‘yep, I’m definitely opening a giant can of worms with this one’? That’s how I feel right now.
In the last few years I’ve become more interested in science fiction, fantasy and horror, branching out from my usual contemporary YA and historical fiction. Throughout these years I’ve come across a lot of great books and a lot of not-so-great ones.
It’s true that in recent years many SFF authors have been vocal about racism and sexism in their respectable genres – but for every well-written SFF books, there are two awful ones. And when I say awful, I mean sexist in the broadest sense of the word. Not only in science fiction and fantasy, you can find these characters anywhere (Ana Steele and Bella Swan anyone) but I do feel a lot of the problems are manifested in these genres more visible and more often. It’s seems very normalized and not as popular as a discussion topic.
Why don’t we have more stories where the women hold equal footing with men? Where there are as many female characters as male characters, and as many interesting, well-rounded female characters as male characters? Why are women often queens, duchesses, or else over-fantasized warriors with impractical clothing whose main characteristic seems to be just how badass they are, despite usually being heavily reliant on a man in a romantic sense?
Rape in SFF
There is something about SFF that makes these gender issues inherently visible to me. Rape is very overdone in sci-fi and fantasy, and often used as a plot device. We see rape scenes when men need to assessed their dominance and women need to be considered weak. We see rape when we need a reason to hate a character and we see attempted rape when the author needs to let his or her audience know that the female character is indeed capable of protecting herself.
It’s not that we should never discuss or feature this subject matter, in my opinion it has its place in every genre, but when it’s used as a plot device it reinforces the idea that women can never be the equal to men because most men will never have to worry about the threat of rape unless they go to jail. It reinforces the idea that forcing someone to have sex with you makes them weak and you strong. Rape is a serious subject matter and I’ve seen it too often used to just squeeze a few tears out of the readers or to show that a bad guy is really bad. Let alone the times where I’ve read about rape and then the wrongness of it was never called out.
Letting go of the strong female character
I think we focus too much on strong female characters in books. Especially in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, female characters are either strong, independent (and often very boyish because how can you be a strong and feminine, right?) or weak and submissive. It’s very black and white, like there is no grey.
Instead, I would like authors to focus more on well-rounded, realistic characters. I would like to see more female characters who are multidimensional in the way that they are both feminine (not the same as being sexualized, btw) insecure and strong. Just as I would like to see more men expressing vulnerability while also being badass in books.
I think part of it stems from the way we view gender in our modern society, another part is that I think that authors want their characters to be polar opposites from each other, making one character strong while to other is inherently weak.
The ‘male’ genre
We still view science fiction and fantasy as a ‘male’ genre, even though many great female authors have made this genre what it is today. It’s true that female science fiction and fantasy writers are still encouraged to use pseudonyms because males don’t tend to pick up books written by female authors, especially not in the science fiction and fantasy genres.
In the end, no book is perfect. Writing this post isn’t meant to bash science fiction and fantasy books. I actually love both of those genres, but this is an important topic that deserves to be addressed and discussed.
It fills my heart with joy when I read a book in which the characters, both male and female, are complex, flawed and diverse individuals that are allowed their own space. Books are changing. These genres are changing. And it will only continue to change if writers put it in their books and readers actively seek out these books.
We all have to play a part in that change we want to see. You do, but so do I.