Guest Post: Gender in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Hello, all. My name is Sanjiv and I’m a member of the Banana Bunch. I’ve collaborated with Chebk on the Psych 101 posts you may have seen here. I am currently working towards my PhD in Clinical Psychology, where I focus on research and clinical work related to children, trauma, and evidence-based mental health services. Currently, most of my reading and writing occurs within academia, but, outside of my ivory tower, I enjoy science-fiction, fantasy, and early 20th century American literature.

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Last month Chebk and I attended a science fiction convention. Overall, I found it was an enjoyable experience, but I regretted attending one panel (Chebk actually tried to get me to leave the panel early instead of silently fuming in my seat). The topic was “Kick-ass Women in Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” From the panel description, it sounded like an interesting and relevant discussion. Instead, I found it to be an infuriating reminder that our society (and more distressingly, the authors and audience of fantasy and science-fiction) is far from gender equal.

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My immediate problem with how this panel was carried out was that there was no discussion from either the panel or the moderator on how they were defining man or woman. They were very clearly using Western binary definitions of gender without any recognition of doing so. Descriptions of men and women, with men as assertive achievers (the leaders, militia, heroes) and women as nurturing supporters (relegated to the sidelines) were referenced and reinforced. All of the questions posed by the moderator were constrained to this very narrow understanding of the construct of a woman, but stated as though they were discussing a universal and static concept.

Gender is something many people misunderstand. Gender is not sex (physiological sexual characteristics). Gender is a construct created by society. There is nothing concrete or fundamental about the idea. It exists in different forms between and within regions, countries, ethnicities, and cultures – there is no single, overarching definition of man (masculine) and woman (feminine), or requirement for binary categories (only two genders).

Gender is a topic that has been researched and written about in great length, and I encourage all of you to dip into the literature (it’s fascinating stuff!), but I’ve found the words of Dr. Lindsey Doe to be both succinct and comprehensive: “Gender isn’t the parts of your body, it is how you express your body in the context of culture”.
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My next issue is related specifically to fantasy. Throughout the panel, the gender of various characters were referenced without the context of the work in which the character exists. In other words, interpreting characters through their gender as defined by our current real world (and in this case, American) social constructs, without including the context of the worlds of the authors. To be fair, this is a problem for both readers and writers. Authors often write their personal and societal biases into their work (consciously and subconsciously), so readers are not always amiss in interpreting characters through their personal/societal understandings of gender. So why do I take issue with this?

Because it’s fantasy/speculative fiction – you can write what you like. Authors talk about unique world-building and its integral part in the creation of speculative fiction, but I find there is a heavy reliance on narrow and strict interpretations of gender that is rarely acknowledged.

I have heard the argument that the gender representations of fantasy (it’s sexist tendencies) come directly from its historical inspirations (Middle Ages of Europe). Although gender inequality was present, I find that this argument lacks an understanding of what history is (rather, how it was written and who it was relayed by). In short, our accounts of history are quite sexist. Men wrote about the contributions of men. (A whole other post; others have written on this.)

Lazy interpretations of history aside, why should fantasy be constrained by the gender roles of the Middle Ages? Magic, dragons, and other mythical beasts were certainly not present, and yet it is easier for us to accept those things as real than a non-patriarchal society.

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Related to this is the idea that sexism is the default attitude of these medieval-inspired societies.  A woman is pursuing a “masculine” profession? She’ll undoubtedly be experiencing prejudice related to her gender. When we see a “strong woman” character, we often see that the defining struggle of her character is related to her gender and her fight for acceptance from her male peers and from her society. This plot line isn’t inherently bad, but I find it is rather ridiculously overused. What does it say about the progress our society has made in gender equality and understanding gender that when we present a fictional woman in “real world masculine” roles, she must be looked down upon by her society, discriminated against, and continually struggle to prove herself as an equal? I find that it serves as a constant and frustrating reminder (perhaps insult is a better word) that my current society does not see women as equally capable as men – even in their imaginary worlds. By doing so, we simply continue to reinforce that such a setting, such an experience, is the norm.

As authors, we have the ability to imagine and create worlds where we define what it means to be a woman or a man, or neither and both. In worlds where we seek escape, imagination, and freedom, where we willingly — easily — accept the existence of magic and myth, why do we hold so strongly to something as poorly defined and falsely constricting as gender?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below!

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