On representation, women and imagination

Warning: rant ahead.

I just (well, yesterday) finished a book that made me angry enough to have a proper rant on Twitter…

There was nothing wrong with the book, per se. Decent writing. Nice worldbuilding. Good action plot, keeps everything moving in a save-the-world sort of way.

But hooo boy. I had two major problems with it; the cliche’d baddies, and the lack of representation – by which I mean women. I’ll rant about baddies some other time…

So, the book. It started with an Army and Fighting, so ok, men. But there was a woman! In the main party! Yay! She…did things, in a vaguely useful way, and then suddenly got all Emotional and Caused Problems and Had A Cry About It To The Hero. *sigh* Aaaand then she fell in love with the…well, I suppose he was sort of the sidekick-hero. I saw that one coming from Chapter 2 – although actually, I guessed there would be a love triangle. Kudos to the author for not doing that, and also for not dwelling on it. So some plus points there.

But every other main character, or secondary character? Male. The only exception was two women – who, admittedly, were leaders, and did play a suitable plot point – and whose inclusion meant that the novel scraped the Bechdel test….by two sentences. Two.

The frustrating thing is that I can cope with that when it’s needed. Yes, armies were primarily male. Yes, there are situations where all-men is fair. Yes, there are points where you are going to only encounter prostitutes or slaves.

But for frick’s sake, where’s the imagination? You’ve created a world with monsters, dragons, giants, evil armies, magic – and you’re telling me you couldn’t envisage a world where women maybe fight alongside men in the armies? You’re telling me that in these interesting and imaginative communities you have your hero encounter, the women simply clean or cook or get raped? That’s it?

I am not asking for every character to be gender-swapped. I’m not asking for 90% women. I’m not asking for a radical overhaul. I’m asking for some thought.

Since 60% of our current population is women, maybe that should be considered a default? If you want 90% male characters, you’re going to have to convince me that your world is set up in a way that allows that. You’re going to have to explain to me why women only cook or clean – and why men don’t get raped (as it’s only women victims), don’t have gay relationships (suspicious that we don’t see any despite the 90% men), don’t stay home to look after the kids (because only women care about children!) You’re going to have to explain to me why your worldbuilding allows for dragons and magic, but won’t allow a woman to handle a sword, or command an army, or even do something like be a scout – as apparently that’s not a very martial role, but martial enough that it can’t have a women in it. You’re going to have to explain to me why the baddies aren’t women, and why the odd people that are encountered along the hero’s Heroic Journey are. All. Bloody. Male.

There was nothing to stop at least half the secondary characters in this particular book being female, and nothing to prevent a lot more female names cropping up. It wouldn’t have changed the plot, wouldn’t have changed the lines, it wouldn’t have changed the characters. But it would have made the damn thing a lot more realistic for those of us who happen to have different genitals, and therefore apparently can’t be soldiers, or baddies, or leaders, or onlookers, or anything interesting you choose to put in your slice of dreamland – all we’re seen fit for in this slice of fantasy is slaves, victims or whores.



NB. To be a little more fair to this particular book; there was a gay relationship mentioned (briefly, for a sentence, and then never brought up again) and as mentioned above, two of a community’s leaders were women, plus one of the main party was female. Apparently one of the main characters in the next book is female as well; I’m actually looking forward to reading it, even if I am feeling a bit cynical and jaded at this point – it’s clear to me that there’s been no actual malice here, just a complete lack of any thought put into trying to represent things other than the default male. But the book did also struggle with fantasy baddy cliche, so that’s another rant…

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at writingandcoe.co.uk. When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.