Warning: Contains Feminism.
Second Warning: I am not an accomplished feminist scholar, a fault I lay at the highly successful feet of the women who have gone before me. I don’t always recognize when I’m being marginalized, because it is a bit of a foreign concept to me.
So… I finished A Game of Thrones. It took me three tries over about nine months, but I bested the beast. As expected, I was not overly fond of it. I’m currently reading the second book and I’ll read the rest of the series, because I am invested in a few of the characters, not all of them, but a few.
I was surprised when I didn’t really struggle with the content of the books, but rather a lack of desire to keep reading. It killed my second attempt at Game of Thrones when I left the book at my parents’ house right around the halfway point and never bestirred myself to go get it so I could finish. My parents live 10 minutes away and I’m over there a few times a week, all of which is to say it wasn’t lack of opportunity, it was lack of desire. A Game of Thrones is at least the fourth book I’ve put down for such an extended period in recent months and that is so unusual for me that I’ve mulled it over for a few days trying to puzzle out why it happened.
Today, however, I had a breakthrough. I was in the shower (a magical place for thinking) and I decided to take the Bechdel Test to a few books that were on my mind. This led to me doing something you’re not supposed to do with the Bechdel Test: use it to classify the overall feminism of a work. Some books, including A Game of Thrones passed with flying colors, others, including what I’ve read of A Clash of Kings (the second book in the series), made me rack my brain to come up with an example. When it comes down to passing the test versus passing it well most of the books I’d struggled to finish fell in the latter category. After a lot of thinking and trying on different definitions I have an explanation for what they share and why it is so frustrating.
I like to call this the isolated female protagonist or the isolated female. Look at your shelf of fantasy novels and think about how many of the female protagonists in those novels interact with other women of their own free will. I’m not suggesting that the female protagonist needs to be sent to the kitchens or anything, just that they have a frustrating tendency to be set apart from other women in a way male protagonists are not set apart from other men. Sometimes this is because comparatively normal women don’t exist or aren’t present in the books, but more often the female protagonists tend to throw off traditional roles in a way that isolates them.
The worst part is that I completely understand one part of why the isolated female happens, especially in a work trying for historical accuracy. Men hit harder than women, so the big army you’ll use to fight the epic battle is going to be made of men and your research is going to focus on depicting those men. If you’re good you’ll research not just the stuff your heroes are doing but how the cavalry, infantry and archers work, maybe even delve into what kind of men they might be when they aren’t fighting. This in turn leaves you with little to no time to even think about the half of the population not in your big army, so you ignore them, not out of spite, but because they aren’t as necessary to your writing as a whole. This means that when you write one of your female characters in a down moment you can either surround her with well-researched men or poorly researched women. It’s hard to fault the choice there.
The whole situation, both the isolated females and the lack of common women in proportion to common men is so jarring for me, personally. I know exactly what I would be doing in any other historical era. If you doubt me on this, try to find a museum without a single spindle. The idea that I and my skills wouldn’t have a useful place in a fantasy world is is a major turn off for me. It’s not really something I think about consciously, but I react positively when books show all kinds of women making things or doing things, that includes having laundresses and cooks, nurses and seamstresses. It’s a fault in a lot of books, including some by authors I love (cough Mistborn cough).
I have more thoughts on this, I’ve got examples that I’d pull out if I didn’t have work in the morning, hell, I’ve got half a mind to coalesce, gather references and look into publishing, but I mostly wanted to start a conversation so have at it! I’ll see you all on the other side of MiniCon!