Pierce and Gaiman: Writing Women as People

I was practically born with a book in my hand. Words, whether the creation of or the internalizing of, have been a constant of my life ever since I could read. This intense love of reading has shaped my character and worldview. From Ray Bradbury to Naomi Wolf, a wide variety of writers, geeky and not geeky, have had their hands in creating the person I am today. Today’s post is, in a way, a love letter to two of those writers, the two most dear to my heart. (It’s also partly to convince anyone who stumbles on this post and has never given either of them a try, to go to the library/bookstore/friend’s house and pick up a copy of one of their books.)

The first, chronologically, is Tamora Pierce. I discovered her Protector of the Small quartet when I was in middle school, at exactly the right time. The series follows Kel, the first girl to go through the process of becoming a knight, after the rule prohibiting women from becoming knights was abolished. (That was due to the brave efforts of Alanna, featured in the Song of the Lioness quartet, who disguised herself as a boy in order to become a knight.) Pierce’s fiction is always empowering to young girls, featuring strong, realistic characters of both genders, and destroying the well-known myth that swords are for boys. From the moment I picked up First Test, I was in love.

Pierce is a pioneer in young adult fantasy. The Song of the Lioness quartet was published in the ’80s, at time when library shelves weren’t exactly bursting with girl-friendly fantasy novels. This has changed to some degree, and certainly when I was in middle school, many of the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure young adult books were about girls and/or featured strongĀ  female characters. Being pretty divorced from young adult fiction right now, I’m not totally qualified to make this statement, but when I do browse the shelves, the post-Twilight young adult fiction world seems to be a pretty dismal one with paranormal romance overshadowing badass girls and women wielding swords and magic. Luckily, Pierce’s novels are still being discovered by generations of young girls in need of empowerment, not a boyfriend. (Although there is nothing wrong with having a boyfriend.)

Tamora Pierce handles it all: magic, battles, romance, even periods. And she does it in a way that made 11-year-old me damn proud to be a girl. In a previous post, I mentioned Pierce’s positive portrayal of “not white” people. While often her books take place in Tortall, a sort of typical European country, not all of her main characters are white. One of my favorite Pierce characters is Daja, the girl in the Circle of Magic who becomes a magic-wielding blacksmith. I don’t know of many other fantasy novels, young adult or adult, that feature a black girl at home both in the forge and amongst magicians.

Unfortunately, I no longer read Pierce’s work. I, being an adult and all, have moved on from young adult literature. (Although I will totally read the Numair series when it comes out. I’ve been waiting way too long.) There is nothing inherently wrong in being an adult who reads (some) young adult fiction, but it’s no longer for me. This is a shame because, frankly, there isn’t much in the adult fantasy world that can compare to Pierce. I’m always looking for something to fill the void in my heart and in my fantasy collection that, at age 12, was filled with badass women but is now filled with princess-babes and evil sorceresses.

One writer who helps ease the pain is Neil Gaiman. In a dismal sea of adult fantasy/sci fi/horror/comics populated with hot chicks and women with power who are inherently evil, there are Neil Gaiman’s works. Gaiman is a cross-genre magician, and has enjoyed increasing mainstream success in the last few years. I couldn’t be happier that Gaiman is getting mainstream attention (he was on Craig Ferguson’s show and will be on The Simpsons!). After all, in addition to being a wizard with words, structure, sheer imagination, his female characters are like actual characters. Real people. Even when men are the main characters of his work, he doesn’t skimp on characterization for the women, like so many male authors do. He even carries on the Alice tradition of the girl heroine in Coraline, which has been adapted into everything short of a TV series (well, a film and a graphic novel, anyway).

My first exposure was Neverwhere, lent to me, in high school, by my Tori Amos-loving older sister. Gaiman and Amos are long-time pals who are constantly mentioning each other in their work. It’s enough to be close friends with a fiercely unapologetic feminist, but Gaiman doesn’t stop there. His work is one of the only mainstream adult fantasy (for lack of an overarching genre) writers who I never have to worry about getting a female character sexual assaulted, marginalized, dismissed, or just unfairly characterized. Gaiman respects women, and his work obviously shows it.

In particular, his groundbreaking Sandman series is pretty remarkable for many reasons, but especially when its women are considered. I’m not sure that today DC (who owns Vertigo) would even want to publish it, given its strong female characters, lesbians who aren’t even hot (why bother being a lesbian if you’re dumpy looking?), total lack of sexual assault, and habit of not drawing women to look like pin-ups.

I’ve become discouraged by adult fantasy after too many novels that absolutely ignore women, or include women only as prostitutes, mothers, and destructive schemers. I left the Piercean world of fantasy and entered a much bleaker, much less welcoming world where women are hot or evil or vapid, but rarely the well-rounded real people of Pierce and Gaiman’s worlds. Thankfully, Pierce’s work has endured, and she continues to write the same girl-empowering books she always has. And Gaiman isn’t going anywhere, so I know that whenever I want a well-written, imaginative story (regardless of genre, or even age level) I’ve got a woman-friendly ally in him.

I will end this by urging all of you to pick up a book written by one of these authors, and swim in the refreshing oasis they each built out of what can be a dry literary desert. (And if you know of a woman-friendly, empowering author, whatever genre, that I should know about, please leave a comment!)

-Joanna

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Musings on Fantasy’s “Brown People”

Here at geekalitarian, the question about fantasy that most perplexes us is: why, when you can create absolutely anything you want to, would you simply reinforce the inequities in race and gender we see in real life? Especially in high fantasy, where many simply stick a few magical things in the Dark Ages and call it a fantasy world?

In grappling with this question, I have begun to write a story based in the world Bat Cat here and I created. The two countries present in the story are not white; they were not based on medieval European cultures. I’m having a hard time conveying this without saying things like, “half-circle headdress that looks like a sun — it’s like an Incan headdress, get it?” Apparently, I’m not doing the best job.

I presented this story to my fiction-writing workshop. No one seemed to realize none of these characters were supposed to be white, despite all the brown skin I mention. Someone suggested I not simply stick to old Eurocentric fantasy tropes (though not quite in those words), particularly in the way that characters talk. I find the idea of changing dialects to reflect different regions to be an interesting idea, but I don’t really know how to accomplish that without making up a language or using ethnic stereotypes. Part of that problem probably has to do with the fact that there aren’t really examples of that for me to follow. Rarely are “brown people” given a large enough speaking part in high fantasy to warrant the genuine creation of a dialect.

Most of my classmates admitted they don’t read much, or any, fantasy. So their assumption that, “it’s a fantasy world, obviously everyone is white, even when their skin is brown” can be forgiven to some degree. Fantasy is definitely painted as a white man’s genre in the mainstream consciousness. It’s a real challenge for fantasy writers to break these stereotypes, not only because it’s so easy to fall back into the old Eurocentric modes, but also because of the necessary cultural sensitivity. How do you describe a fictional people based loosely on a real-life culture without becoming stereotypical, yet while making sure everyone knows it isn’t just more and more whitey?

One way to avoid racism and caricature is by not making the generic “brown people” that appear in HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones. This isn’t, of course, the only place “brown people” like this exist, but it is the most relevant right now, in part because of the crossover popularity of both the TV show and book series. Amidst all the other things to be offended about while watching GOT, Bat Cat and I couldn’t get over the barbarian treatment the Dothraki people were given. Think of any stereotype of “brown fantasy people” (nomadic, libidinous, half-naked, violent, etc.) and you have the Dothraki. Some cite Tolkien himself as the father of fantasy’s “brown people.” Sure, they were evil, and on the periphery. And he introduced the amalgamation of Persian, Hun, and general African that defines “brown people” in fantasy to this day. But Tolkien helped to invent modern fantasy, in the early twentieth century. That doesn’t mean we have to continue his outmoded tropes into the twenty-first century.

A typical fantasy racial breakdown, as seen through Game of Thrones:

“Brown people” look like this:

They’re sorta dirty looking, live in tents and have mustered up enough technology to weave baskets.

White people look like this:

They ride horses, make real metal armor, and seem to be going somewhere important, rather than mucking around in the dirt.

One of the most striking things about HBO’s Dothrakis is that they stripped from them the palace and mosaics (hints of civilization) the book’s Dothraki have. When Bat Cat began to read the book, we were stunned at the (rather offensive) changes HBO’s series makes to the novel. Khal Drogo and The Dragon’s marriage consummation was consensual, for one. For some reason, HBO decided to take a decent (though far from equitable) portrayal of non-whites in fantasy and make it offensive. (This was probably the same board meeting where they realized there weren’t enough breasts or prostitutes, and people didn’t say the word “whore” nearly enough.) I would hardly consider HBO to be a progressive, egalitarian channel, but it would have been nice if they hadn’t downgraded the Dothraki people the way they did.

It’s difficult to think of a portrayal of “brown people” in fantasy that’s not of an uncivilized, “less-than” nation. Only Tamora Pierce’s worlds come to mind, where the non-whites weren’t all confined vaguely to one group of people. She actually bothered to create separate nations for different kinds of “brown people,” like she did for the white people. Pierce has even written books that focus mainly on non-white people! Crazy, I know! I can’t imagine what fantasy would be without racism and sexism! A little better, a little more welcoming? …No, of course not. Everyone knows only white guys read fantasy books.

-Joanna