Fantasy realms are pretty shitty places for women. Women generally aren’t in recognized positions of power. They are used as chess pieces in political machinations. They are constantly under the threat of violence and that violence is used to motivate male heroes (and inspire hatred towards male villains).
In modern fantasy, there are usually exceptions–women who wield power behind the scenes or who take on traditionally male roles within society as established in the setting–but these are explicitly portrayed as exceptions. That’s progress of a sort, but it still leaves something to be desired. Daenerys Targaryen is great, but she doesn’t make up for the fact that the majority of female characters in Game of Thrones wield little-to-no power in-universe. And I don’t just mean major, viewpoint characters but also background characters. (To stave off criticism, I’ll say that the TV show at least puts the occasional male prostitute in the brothels and female warrior among the wildlings, and GoT is hardly the worst offender in this field.)
I don’t think this is a controversial statement, though I know there are plenty of people who don’t think it’s bad. And for those people, there’s plenty of books, movies, and games out there for you. I’d just like to see something different. So when I’m crafting my own fantasy setting for my own game, I want to do something different.
Now, I’m aware of the reason for this problem and the excuse that’s generally thrown out in defense of fantasy media: realism. People–authors and fans alike–argue that women in the real world were treated like shit and the book/film/game is just portraying that realism.
On its face, it’s the silliest argument in the world. Why the hell does anyone care about realism in a fantasy world? But I’ll be generous and say the issue is far more complicated than that.
One of the great things about genre–and by “genre” I mean categories like Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Detective, Horror, etc–is that each genre comes with a built-in vocabulary. Everyone who is a fan of the genre (or even somewhat familiar with it) understands certain base, core concepts that make storytelling easier. It’s one of the reasons why genre films, for example, are able to reach huge, mass markets: not everyone understands or cares to understand what it’s like to be a well-off white dude, so Jonathan Franzen is going to miss the mark with a ton of people. But most of us have adapted the vocabulary of the superhero film and can walk into any Marvel movie and have fun. Even if the plot is incomprehensible, the symbols aren’t and that’s A Big Deal.
The vocabulary of the fantasy genre is painfully intertwined with commonly-accepted dark ages and medieval tropes. Even if most fantasy works are set in other worlds, either on another planet or in another dimension, they generally fall in line with various historical or mythological aspects of pre-Industrial Western Europe.
What does this have to do with women in fantasy settings? Well, pre-Industrial Western Europe was also a shitty time and place for women. When authors and fans talk about “realism” in the portrayal of women in fantasy, they’re really talking about a realistic portrayal of how things used to be in our world (or one part of it). Even this is reductionist to all hell and based less on the reality of pre-Industrial Western Europe and more on the perception of it, that’s what this discussion is really about. Fantasy–even fantasy that tries to break from the mold–is still stuck with JRR Tolkien’s attempts to build a British mythology.
So what is the point of all this? As I announced last week, I’m currently writing a visual novel set in a brand-new fantasy setting: Echoes of the Fey. While I’m not doing all the writing–I’m co-authoring with Jenny Gibbons of Woodsy Studio–I am doing almost all the world-building aspects. And I wanted to make sure that our world didn’t fall into these same problems, while still maintaining much of the vocabulary that makes fantasy media comprehensible.
I started at the beginning. If I was going to envision a society that wasn’t messed up for women, I had to at least come up with a theory why our society was (and still is). None of what follows is going to be explicitly stated in Echoes of the Fey, but I wanted to give readers and authors an idea of the thought process I used in developing a fictional society that is hopefully, well, less shitty to its female characters.
One of the primary conflicts in fantasy literature is that of inheritance. Who will be the next king? Who will take possession of the family fortune? Who has the rightful claim to a title, or a parcel of land? Inheritance and, perhaps more importantly, legitimacy, is key to the place of women as second class citizens historically and throughout fantasy. Unpleasant arranged marriages? Virginity as a requirement for a bride but barely an afterthought for a groom? Women generally treated like chattel? No small part of that comes out of the insecurity that a man will bear a child not his own, and pass his amassed property along to another man’s son. It’s like the central god damn conflict of Game of Thrones.
But that’s not the only reason that historically women were treated like a resource. Obviously, dudes cling to power and don’t give it up easily. But the threat of pregnancy prevented a certain amount of sexual freedom for women, and the threat of death during childbirth (or injury during pregnancy) gave men a reason to justify oppressive protectiveness.
When I started working on the world of Echoes of the Fey, I immediately knew I wanted to do away with all of this. I didn’t want a world where women were routinely relegated to the sidelines. Our main character is a woman, the cast is fairly balanced overall, and their positions in society are largely agnostic of their gender. But, assuming I wanted to take on the bulk of the fantasy vocabulary and the pseudo-Europe setting, what do I do about so-called “realism”? How do I reconcile a land full of Human houses obsessed with controlling land and inheritance, full of petty pre-Industrial European politics with a society that is fundamentally gender neutral?
Some people might answer “who cares, it’s fantasy?” and tell me I could just ignore it. They are probably right. But that’s not my style. I want to build a history of the world I’m creating and that history includes a reason it diverged from the oppressive structures in our world. Also I’m a lawyer so I guess I’m a stickler for details.
There are probably a ton of answers to this question and I encourage other writers or game designers to find them. Find a way for your world to be better than ours–and better than mine!–at least in regard to the representation of typically under-represented people. Even if it’s hard, it’s worth doing and it makes for way more interesting dynamics.
So what was my answer? What if this society had already gone through its liberation movement, many centuries ago? More than that, what if certain tools of liberation have been available for as long as anyone can remember?
This is going to sound a little silly, but part of my solution was birth control. What if in this world, the ability of everyone to control their reproductive destinies wasn’t just widespread but, more importantly, normalized? To the point where there are no longer dudes trying to take it away in state legislatures (or the fantasy equivalent).
Over a thousand years before Echoes of the Fey even begins, a certain event (that you’ll learn more about in the series) introduces humans to magic. Humans typically can’t use magic. That’s the realm of the Leshin (elves) who live to the west. But that doesn’t stop humans from trying. Over time, they develop a rough, demanding form of sorcery they come to call Low Magic. Low Magic is painful to use, dangerous to learn, and has life altering effects on the person who tries to dabble in it. But it can do many of the things that make the Leshin so powerful, so Humans still try.
Keep in mind, this all happens when the land is still mired in the Patriarchal Bullshit of our pre-Industrial European society. So one of the first things that rich dudes want from Low Magicians is the ability to verify the paternity of their children during pregnancy and make sure their sons aren’t miscarried. This is a fairly simple bit of Low Magic, but it leads to many Low Magicians turning into (essentially) magical midwives. As a result, plenty of women take up Low Magic and human reproduction quickly becomes the best-understood topic of magical manipulation.
It isn’t long before Low Magicians can prevent pregnancy altogether or, perhaps even more miraculously, ensure it. Because this is the most common task of Low Magician, it is also the cheapest they offer. All but the poorest women of Oraz can afford the care of a Low Magician to control their reproductive cycle. And there’s really nothing their husbands or lovers can do about it.
Angry Dudes are obviously pissed about this, as they still are in our world some ~70 years after the advent of hormonal contraception, and push back. Horror stories of women prevented from visiting a Low Magician spur a continent-wide liberation movement that slowly undermines the ironclad control of men throughout the Human lands. It doesn’t hurt that the predominant religion of the land, Krovakynism, is a type of goddess-worship and, as a result, Church Patriarchs are just as likely to be Matriarchs instead. The Krovakyns back the budding feminist movement and draw in the religious elite early on, making the transition way easier than the one we’re still trying to work through in our world. But this was all a long time ago in Oraz and by the time of Echoes of the Fey, men and women are fundamentally equal in society.
House Rykov, the family of our protagonist, is ruled with an iron fist by Sofya’s mother, Tamara Rykov. She passes her surname to her children and Sofya’s father passes a patronymic of his first name (Timorovna). This isn’t decided by gender, but by the relative prestige of the house name. Arranged marriages still occur, but they are just as often comprised of younger sons being given to more powerful wives as the other way around. Or arranged marriages between two men or two women, with a donor or surrogate named in the vows to assist in producing children.
That’s right, people in the world of Echoes of the Fey are also totally cool with homosexuality. In this world, no one really cared to demonize it. That’s pretty much that.
I’m not saying I came up with a perfect solution, or perfect explanation for the solution. As a man myself, I obviously worry that there’s something dumb I’m missing or that I’m dumb in general for putting this much thought into justifying my decision rather than going “oh, everyone’s equal because I’m creating this world.” I also didn’t come up with a magical explanation because I think ideas of equality are magical or unobtainable; it’s just in this world the pursuit of magic is a major driving force behind all human progress, good or ill.
Most of all I wanted to write this and put this out there, even though the subject of Low Magic contraception or the centuries-old feminist movement in Eastern Oraz will barely ever come up in Echoes of the Fey, because I want it to be something fantasy writers and readers think about. There’s nothing inherently wrong about creating a piece of media exploring a patriarchal society that mirrors humanity’s lesser days. But when almost all popular fantasy media is doing just that, I want people who create to think about an alternative. Any alternative. It’s simply more interesting, if nothing else.