Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”

The relevance of this statement to the creation of SFF stories cannot be understated. Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic. That being so, a medieval fantasy novel only needs to convince us that the old myths were true; that wizards and witches existed, and that monsters really did populate the wilds. Everything else that’s dissonant with modern reality – the clothes, the customs, the social structure – must therefore constitute a species of historical accuracy, albeit one that’s liberally seasoned with poetic license, because that vague, historical blueprint is what we already have in our heads.

But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate. And it’s all thanks to a potent blend of prejudice and ignorance: prejudice here meaning the conviction that deliberately including POC, female and/or LGBTQ characters can only ever be a political action (and therefore an inherently suspicious one), and ignorance here meaning the conviction that the historical pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia must necessarily mean that any character shown to surpass these limitations is inherently unrealistic.

Let’s start with the latter claim, shall we?

Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Leise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.

And nor is female achievement restricted to the sciences. Heloise d’Argenteuil was accounted one of the brightest intellectuals of her day; Bessie Coleman was both the first black female flyer and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence; Nellie Bly was a famed investigative journalist, not only travelling around the world solo in record time (in which adventure she raced against and beat another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland), but uncovering the deplorable treatment of inmates at Blackwell Asylum by going undercover as a patient. Sarah Josephine Baker was a famous physician known for tracking down Typhoid Mary, tirelessly fighting poverty and, as a consequence, drastically improving newborn care. And in the modern day, there’s no shortage of female icons out fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice despite the limitations society wants to impose on them: journalist Marie Colvin, who died this year reporting on the Syrian uprising; Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years as a political prisoner; fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work in support of women’s rights.

But what about historical women in positions of leadership – warriors, politicians, powerbrokers? Where do they fit in?  The ancient world provides any number of well-known examples – Agrippina the Younger, Cleopatra, Boudica, Queen Bilquis of Sheba, Nefertiti – but they, too, are far from being unusual: alongside the myriad female soldiers throughout history who disguised themselves as men stand the Dahomey Amazons, the Soviet Night Witches, the female cowboys of the American west and the modern Asgarda of Ukraine; the Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Elizabeth I and Ka’iulani all ruled despite opposition, while a wealth of African queens, female rulers and rebels have had their histories virtually expunged from common knowledge. At just twenty years old, Juana Galan successfully lead the women of her village against Napoleon’s troops, an action which ultimately caused the French to abandon her home province of La Mancha. Women played a major part in the Mexican revolution, too, much like modern women across Africa and the Middle East, while the Irish revolutionary, suffragette and politician Constance Markievicz, when asked to provide other women with fashion advice, famously replied that they should “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” More recently still, in WWII, New Zealander Nancy Wake served as a leading French resistance fighter: known to the Gestapo as the White Mouse, she once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands and took command of a maquis unit when their male commander died in battle. Elsewhere during the same conflict, Irena Sendler survived both torture and a Nazi death sentence to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, for which she was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2007.

And what of gender roles and sexual orientation – the various social, romantic and matrimonial mores we so frequently assume to be static, innate and immutable despite the wealth of information across biology and history telling us the opposite? Consider the modern matrilineal society of Meghalaya, where power and property descend through matrilineal lines and men are the suffragettes. Consider the longstanding Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where girl children are raised as boys, or the sworn virgins of Albania – women who live as and are legally considered to be men, provided they remain chaste. Consider the honoured status of Winkte and two-spirit persons in various First Nations cultures, and the historical acceptance of both the Fa’afafine of Samoa and the Hijra of India and South-East Asia. Consider the Biblical relationship described in the Book of Samuel between David and Jonathan of Israel, the inferred romance between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, and the openly gay emperors of the Han Dynasty – including Emperor Ai of Han, whose relationship with Dong Xian gave rise to the phrase ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Consider the poetry of Sappho, the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the tradition of normative, female-female relationships in Basotho, and the role of the Magnonmaka in Mali – nuptial advisers whose teach women how to embrace and enjoy their sexuality in marriage.

And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations. Even in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, it’s possible to find examples of prominent POC in Europe: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was of Creole descent, as was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famous British composer, while Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was honoured alongside Florence Nightingale for her work during the Crimean War.

I could go on. As exhaustive as this information might seem, it barely scratches the surface. But as limited an overview as these paragraphs present, they should still be sufficient to make one very simple point: that even in highly prejudicial settings supposedly based on real human societies, trying to to argue that women, POC and/or LGBTQ persons can’t so much as wield even small amounts of power in the narrative, let alone exist as autonomous individuals without straining credulity to the breaking point, is the exact polar opposite of historically accurate writing.

Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.

Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! - is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood. And if that’s so, then no historic sensibilities are actually being affronted, because none genuinely exist: instead, it’s just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the spotlight.

Because ultimately, these are SFF stories: narratives set in realms that don’t and can’t exist. And if you still want to police the prospects of their inhabitants in line with a single, misguided view of both human history and human possibility, then congratulations: you have officially missed the point of inventing new worlds to begin with.

Comments
  1. [...] Image taken from tumblr. Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to wri…  [...]

    • Kita says:

      Hi, I kind of love you.

    • Oh my god. Thank you so much for this. A friend shared this with me, and I shared this with all my friends and followers on my FB timeline and page. Seriously, this is awesome.

    • Kim says:

      Hello, this blog was posted on 4chan of all places, so that is where I found this blog.

      And first of all, I don’t really think you read much fantasy or sci-fi or really dabble in that field at all. Female pirates, really? I could show you so many examples of female pirates within computer games, books and cartoons. So not the best example I would say. To claim there is a lack of strong female characters in fantasy is just plain wrong, saying there is a lack of ethnics, well you might have a point there. But females… just read some more books and you will find plenty. A song of ice and fire comes to mind, seeing how most people would know about it through the TV-series Game of Thrones.

      And as a student at the University who has just finished a semester with a focus on European identity and state building (in Europe mind you), I must say some of your statements are dubious and obviously political. You make it sound like black people where an integrated part of European society from a very early stage, and yet this would simple be fabrication. If you have a population of 2 million people and among that population there would be 200 people of color, well that is certainly more than nothing, but that does not mean that there was a big presence of ethnic people in Europe during the time periods you refer to. And there was no lack of prejudice ether, though that was a mostly intra-European thing. Like for instance that Wendish (Slavic people) could not join guilds in Germany (Or what was a bunch of different states at that time).

      And furthermore I thought it was for most acknowledge that Arabic scholars preserving classic Greek and Roman literature was not really correct, I remember when the debate was started in the history journal I subscribe to in 2007 and it was shown clearly by a very angry professor of Greek history that the refuges escaping the fall of Constantinople brought with them much of the literature that was supposedly preserved by Arabic scholars. But it does of course serve the spirit of our time much better if it had been those Arabic scholars who preserved those works.

      And I think you forgot the most important point, both fantasy and sci-fi are for most parts written by white males and read by white males. So it is not entirely surprising that for most part they write about white males. People tend to write about what they know.

      But any way, my point was, you are also obviously writing from a view that could be described as not neutral. You have a agenda.

      • fozmeadows says:

        And first of all, I don’t really think you read much fantasy or sci-fi or really dabble in that field at all.

        I get that you found this blog through 4chan, and therefore don’t know anything about me. But it would’ve taken you all of two seconds to click the About button at the top of this blog and learn that I’m a published fantasy author. I’ve been reading SFF my whole life. This entire blog is more or less devoted to my talking about it. So, yeah, no.

        I could show you so many examples of female pirates within computer games, books and cartoons. So not the best example I would say. To claim there is a lack of strong female characters in fantasy is just plain wrong, saying there is a lack of ethnics, well you might have a point there. But females… just read some more books and you will find plenty. A song of ice and fire comes to mind, seeing how most people would know about it through the TV-series Game of Thrones.

        I never said there were no female pirates in literature – in fact, I was pretty emphatic about them being awesome! If you actually clicked the link on that comment, you’d see I was responding to someone else’s claims that female pirates are unrealistic. OBVIOUSLY they exist in literature. Also, referring to POC as “ethnics”? MASSIVE FAIL. Plus, yes, I know about Game of Thrones. I’ve been reading the books since high school.

        And as a student at the University who has just finished a semester with a focus on European identity and state building (in Europe mind you), I must say some of your statements are dubious and obviously political. You make it sound like black people where an integrated part of European society from a very early stage, and yet this would simple be fabrication.

        Again, no. The argument I’m making here is that POC existed in Europe, period – not that they were a majority, not that there were masses of them: just that they existed and were part of various levels of society.

        And I think you forgot the most important point, both fantasy and sci-fi are for most parts written by white males and read by white males. So it is not entirely surprising that for most part they write about white males. People tend to write about what they know.

        Who says the majority of SFF writers or readers are white males? That might be the default assumption, but there’s a hell of a lot of women and POC who read and write it, too, and we deserve just as much of a say in things as they do. If you look at the field globally – which is to say, including writers outside the English-speaking world – then white guys are definitely in a minority.

        But any way, my point was, you are also obviously writing from a view that could be described as not neutral. You have a agenda.

        So do you. So does everyone. It’s called being a person with context and an opinion. Neutrality in politics is an illusion.

      • You should probably stick with 4chan, then. You clearly have no idea what the actual audience for SF/F is these days. The days of white male supremacy in SF/F is **over**. There are as many fans who are female, and there are likely as many fans of color as there are of the “old guard”. There are also many more female SF/F authors than you suppose.

      • sable says:

        lurk moar n00b

    • Jimmy Finley says:

      Robert E. Howard, one of the forefathers of SFF, who gave us numerous iconic figures – most notably Conan – populated his stories with women pirates, soldiers of fortune, commanding princesses, and of course, naked dancing girls and harlots. This in the 1920s and 30s, and used as a roadmap by multitudes of SFF writers since, many of whom cut their teeth writing “Conan” stories. Robert Jordan was one of them, and his immensely popular Wheel of Time has many important, powerful, well-written women in it. I think you doth protest too much. In any equivalent groups of men and women, there are far more men who might be rovers and reivers than there are women. That doesn’t say there won’t be any women who might try, and some might be very successful.

    • Eric Bagai says:

      May I suggest the stories of SM Stirling? He writes competent, believable, strong women who change the world. His work is in science fiction, fantasy, and alternative history.

    • Melanie Baskind says:

      I remember reading John Varley’s Gaea trilogy (Titan, Wizard, Demon) in the 80’s. Wonderfully strong, complex female protagonist.

  2. chris says:

    I read Asimov for the first time as an adult; he was one of the very very few canonical SF writers I hadn’t devoured all of in middle school. At one point, I suddenly realized that there had not been ONE SINGLE FEMALE CHARACTER IN THE ENTIRE NOVEL. Finally, at page 191 of the 240-page novel, the first woman physically enters the story space: she is a naked slave girl, summoned to serve as a living mannequin.

    • Yglorba says:

      Asimov did have the Susan Calvin stories, though, which deserve some credit since they were so unusual in sci-fi at the time. (Though the realization that they were unusual is itself depressing.)

      • pakap says:

        Not to forget Arkady Darrell, her mum Bayta and, of course, Jodilachicarella (sp?), although she’s a bit of a cliché at times.

        (from the Foundation series, natch)

    • Tapetum says:

      Isaac Asimov could write excellent female characters. The problem was that he never seemed to think about the existence of women at all unless there was some need for a particular character to be female – and even then, until the character became major enough to require particularity, he tended to stick to female stereotypes.

      The result is multiple books where everyone, from the desk clerk and cab drivers, to the people on the street, shopkeepers, everyone is male, until you need a slave girl, or someone to be concerned about fashion – and then suddenly there’s this horrific stereotyped figure. All this juxtaposed with wonderful characters like Arkady and Susan Calvin.

      If you tried to read Asimov as writing from his actual world, you would think the human race was 95% male.

      • Avice says:

        But to give him credit, Asimov seems to have supported women writers in science fiction. I like to read the short story compilations he helped put together and he makes mention in a couple of the Hugo winners groups how he’s pleased so many women make up the group. I believe he also laments somewhere his general lack of female characters.

        • Jamie says:

          Asimov was an awesome person PRECISELY because he later acknowledged virtually all of his flaws as a writer without any lack of humility – sometimes going out of his way in later works to contradict his own tropes, or in reprints of said flawed works, to apologize ahead of time in Preface or Forward (and in the case of scientific errors or things that turned out to be wrong because Science Marched On – such as astronomical data – he sometimes outright demanded that no reprint happen without a correction in the front of it!).

          One example of his humility in realizing that he hadn’t known in his early career how to write women AT ALL: In some books that collect the Susan Calvin stories, you can find him basically highlighting and apologizing for the fact that one of the early stories, in which she develops a bit of a crush on a colleague only to learn he never felt the same way, was terribly written from a characterization standpoint. He basically acknowledged, in writing, that he had written that with little concept of how women might think (it’s not, in fact, quite as bad as he even implies – but it IS wildly out of character for her in that portion, and she’s a tad less awesome in that one for it. If you’re curious, the story I refer to is the one with the telepathic robot).

          He also did create more female characters with more of a role, and even POCs, as his Robots/Empire/Foundation series went on – Gladia for one, has a large importance in the overall series (and is actually not a bad character the further in her story you get), and I believe “Foundation and Earth” was the one in which they’re trying to find humanity’s original planet, and one of the nearest worlds, which they land on, the main character is actually greeted when he lands by what is obviously a woman of Asian descent and who is definitely not a stereotype of such. Heck, we even get a bizarre bit later on that addresses our norms around sex: I seem to recall the Solarians (one of the original 50 Spacer worlds) are revealed in that same arc to have altered themselves so they never need to have sexual contact with another person in order to reproduce. Basically, they’re asexually oriented people! So, they’re simultaneously Aces and intersex – on purpose (this sort of won’t surprise anyone who’s read “The Naked Sun”, but still). It’s also arguable that except for that one silly story early on, Susan Calvin (being that she’s basically the Sherlock Holmes of robot psychology) is pretty much portrayed as Ace as well; you pretty much always see her in the context of her (highly intellectual and at times risky!) work.

          Asimov was aware that he was a flawed man, and he seemed to be making some efforts to improve the way it impacted his writing. It actually makes me quite sad that he died before his time (of complications from AIDS that he contracted from a tainted tissue transplant – seriously, tear out my heart, whydontcha!). He was always a humanist, he respected women in real life, and he was obviously aware of and willing to acknowledge his blind spots. :( I feel like if he were still alive and therefore writing, past the early 1990s, we would have gotten progressively, well, more progressive fiction from him.

  3. Foz, this is fantastic! You have put so much work into all those links – I am delighted. And of course, I agree with everything you say, funnily enough.

  4. This is so eloquent and thoughtful I want to print it out poster sized and post it in every library and book store in America. But I’m poor and that’s probably not totally legal so I’ll just share it with everyone I know instead!

  5. Sarah says:

    I am reminded of “Silence,” the 13th century French epic poem that discusses a girl being raised as a boy. Nature and Nurture are personified and serve as active characters in the story. Even in the 13th Century, the immutability of gender roles were being debated. (This epic poem was Arthurian, too, as Merlin makes an appearance.)

    I often roll my eyes when people talk about history as thought it’s a monolith, as though everyone pre-1960 subscribed to one identical ideology.

    • scrivener212 says:

      A friend of mine introduced me to “Silence” as the launch pad for her senior thesis. As much digging for these things all my life as I have done, I hadn’t heard of it until she did.

    • I love ‘Silence;’ it’s one of the reasons I went to grad school. There are other medieval transvestite romances besides that one, even–it’s just such a brilliantly textbook case of ‘here are some gender confusion issues we’re going to sit down and work out.’ :)

  6. pericat says:

    I want to bookmark this so I can follow up on all the neat links! Well done!

    (Typo : s/Samuel Taylor Coleridge/Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The link and reference are correct, just the name got understandably muddled in your text.)

  7. Anne Lyle says:

    THIS. SO MUCH THIS.

    When my Elizabethan fantasy came out, most of the reader reviews were very positive, apart from a small minority who didn’t believe that gay and bisexual characters were plausible in that setting. Which simply proved to me that those readers really didn’t know anything about the period beyond having watched a couple of mainstream movies. I blogged about it in more detail, but the executive summary is: whilst “gay” didn’t exist as a fixed identity back then, there was most definitely a lot of homosexual behaviour going on, and a great deal of writing published on the topic of “masculine love” (including openly homoerotic poetry). Sure it wasn’t approved of, but it was common knowledge that it went on.

    It’s surely not a great leap to assume that if this much evidence has survived of a private and taboo activity, there must have been a lot that wasn’t even recorded?

  8. [...] Image taken from tumblr. Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to wri…  [...]

  9. Fabulous post! Thanks for pointing out how claims of apolitical-ness are really just covers for suppressing the fact that the world is a far more diverse place than the conservative Professor Tolkien allows it to be. Fantasy is supposed to be about imagining the potential of what could be, but far too often it simply serves a reactionary, rather than liberatory, function.

    • Sally says:

      “Fantasy is supposed to be about imagining the potential of what could be, but far too often it simply serves a reactionary, rather than liberatory, function.”

      Yes!

      Well said!

  10. [...] Image taken from tumblr. Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to wri…  [...]

  11. kitlat says:

    Reblogged this on My Blog.

  12. Diana says:

    I’d like to point out that this sees to be especially true with respect to transgender characters, of which there are not merely a lot of historical figures, there are even historical fantasy figures (e.g. Ozma of Oz, who despite growing up as a boy becomes the most beautiful girl in Oz, according to L. Frank Baum’s 1907 novel).

    Conservative politicians always claim that uppity women and transgender people are new phenomenon, just a product of our degenerate age and not something anyone’s seen before. I agree that limited white male geeks like this message because it accords with their own prejudices, but I don’t think that Tolkien should not take all the blame.

  13. Mara says:

    This is so excellent. I would love and adore to see this article on the Huffington Post.

    Now I’m going to pick on you. Elizabeth Cochrane (Nellie Bly) got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Asylum in NYC. I think Bedlam’s a British asylum?
    Not sure if Blackwell’s was ever nicknamed Bedlam, but haven’t seen it referred to as such.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Ah, thanks for that! I suspect you’re right – I was flipping through a lot of links when I wrote the piece, so doubtless slipped. Thanks for the pickup!

  14. Sarah E. says:

    I feel sorry for that guy who wrote to Scott Lynch — I bet he also hates those politically-correct things set in 18th-century France where the characters include trans-gendered spies and swashbuckling mixed-race composers — almost as tired a cliche as super-genius Mexican nuns. Oh, wait.

  15. Ah, yes…I had a bit of rage earlier this year when reading comments about Downton Abbey (the rage was revived with the chatter over Julian Fellowes musing over including a POC on the show) and had to blog about it: http://evangelineholland.com/writing/the-danger-of-superficial-history-in-fiction/

  16. Oh, and I saw red when someone emailed me to tell me I should take photos of black people off my history blog because they weren’t taking tea, wearing morning suits, and *gasp* speaking with white people in the early 20th century. It took me a few months to respond, and when I did, the person’s response made me want to bash my head against a brick wall.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I feel your pain. Whenever it comes to online discussions with people who clearly don’t get it, there’s always that xkcd moment of “Someone is WRONG ON THE INTERNET” vs the need to save one’s sanity.

  17. goodrumo says:

    Reblogged this on iheariseeilearn and commented:
    Great blog from Foz Meadows

  18. goodrumo says:

    Like the others, thankyou so much, my mission on earth is to tell these women’s stories. Virginia Hall another in vein of The White Mouse, Nancy Wake. http://brainsandcareers.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=2560 Noor Inayat Khan another… I will use your wonderful further introductions to write about them too. Cannot thankyou enough. Heaven.

  19. Imelda Evans says:

    Oh my goodness yes. And not just SFF but every other genre too. Women can be and frequently are, heroes, villians, and all the other variants of human people. The fact that history mostly doesn’t record them doesn’t excuse writers ignoring them in their books now. At least, if you are going to ignore and sideline them, be aware that you are doing so and why. Awareness of prejudice is the first step towards fighting it. Thank you for this post!

  20. RachaelL says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I’ve been seeing posts fly around about this question and this one is just great. An inventory of answers to “women don’t do X” is just wonderful. Plus I learned about women pirates which while I probably would have assumed there were some, I hadn’t realized there were such famous and powerful ones!

  21. PickledGinger says:

    Thank you! This is wonderful — and a phenomenon hardly limited to F/SF.

    I have forwarded the link to every parent-of-girls in my address book!

  22. This is so great, Foz! Thanks for linking to me, and thanks for collecting such a thorough resource. I LOVE that you included Dumas, as well – what an exhaustive collection of links!

  23. Facetism says:

    I’m glad someone wrote about this I’m tired of fictionalized settings being innumerate

  24. ischemgeek says:

    Excellent post. Shared on FB and a few forums I frequent because, yeah. You took a lot of what I already knew even as a gender-nonconforming teenage girl with a love of SFF as genres and synthesized it into an unapologetic whole far better-written than I could manage.

    Thanks for giving a voice to my frustration and the frustration of everyone who’s told, “You can’t do that because you’re a member of a marginalized group that I as a privileged-as-fuck cis, able-bodied white dude don’t think is important or capable of shit.”

  25. [...] on her professional historian hat over at Tor.com, while Foz Meadows has done an awesome amount of actual research (including covering the race angle as [...]

  26. gefnsdottir says:

    Reblogged this on Adventures in Vanaheim and commented:
    You know my post about “realism”? This one handily eviscerates the concept with waaaaay more links. Read the whole thing. It is PURE, SOLID GOLD!

  27. David H says:

    Anyone who thinks an African American knight is impossible has not seen the Martin Lawrence classic Black Knight.

    • Alex G says:

      To be fair, an African-American knight *is* impossible- just as impossible as a white American knight. Unless you count modern honorary knighthoods, that is (real ones are reserved for Commonwealth citizens).

      Or I suppose you could be reading a story involving time travel…

  28. [...] – from the blog post PSA: Your default narrative settings are not apolitical [...]

  29. Truly excellent post. Like others, I shall be happily clicking links for hours. :)

  30. Hannah says:

    This is a great post. Speaking as a person who does ancient stuff, I sometimes get frustrated with the great medieval/Biblical/classical triumvirate; sometimes it seems like everything in history has to be filtered through one of those lenses for it to seem interesting or relevant. People are just *insanely* surprised to find out that there are entire empires they’ve never heard of–because they aren’t part of the Intro to Western Civ narrative. Guess what, guys, people existed all over the place, and they were weird and interesting and powerful and fallible and *awesome*. Check out the Near Eastern Bronze Age sometime! There are battles and intrigue and sex and crazy mythology and badass demons that could all work pretty well in a fantasy narrative, and a hell of a lot of personal stuff that–shock–might resonate with you. (This, I think, is another problem with speculative and historical fiction: the idea that the non-SWM is a Foreign Thing, too strange and exotic to venture to represent! Readers won’t identify with them, and writing them would be too easy to get wrong. Do some research, writers! People are still people, even in wacky hats. Even black. Even gay.)

    And also, there are women. Even though people forget about them sometimes. Even within the field, I notice this–like, I’m doing my dissertation on these Hittite ritual practitioners/diviners who happened to all be old women, and the literature is all, “oh, they were probably itinerant traveling magicians,” “oh, I’m not going to include them in my book on priesthood because they aren’t state priests like these other mostly-dudes,” and, well–no. These women were at the royal court, setting down prophecies about the future of the empire, conducting evil-dispelling rituals, reciting foreign-language incantations alongside the king in major temples. They were educated, they were official, and they were serious business. One of our earliest Hittite historical documents (17th century B.C.) has a king with–shall we say–some problems inspiring loyalty in his immediate family, saying, “Don’t listen to the Old Women; listen only to me,” because they are a serious source of knowledge, influence, and power at the court, and he’s threatened by them. And in fact, there were a ton of women heavily involved in ritual and cult in Hittite religion, and do people write about them? Mostly not. Surprise.

    …so as with most of the conversations I have, that digressed into a monologue about the Hittites, but I’ll return to my original point: this is a great post. Check out the Hittite queen Puduhepa sometime; she’d fit right into your list.

  31. LexHT says:

    Excellent post. And many thanks for the all the resources.

    Wrt women to women in the wild west, you/others might be interested in Peter Boag’s article in Western Historical Quarterly (Vol 36, No. 4 Winter 2005, page 477-497). He talks about the female assigned people who lived as men in the West and who perhaps identified as men.

  32. Reblogged this on SOUL NEEDS: life-journey moments and commented:
    A fine article – and a great photograph.

    “Women – know your limits!” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=LS37SNYjg8w

  33. gaie says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post – which exposed to me my own appalling ignorance about so many of these historical characters/societies. Which I guess I could blame on having a traditional European education, but still…anyway *thank you* and I now have a wonderful list of resources and a great post to point to whenever I hear that tired old ‘but it wasn’t like that’ argument (especially alongside the ‘but it’s totally OK to have fire-breathing lizards’ argument).

  34. [...] PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical: “Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical?” [...]

  35. Evie says:

    Can we stop blaming Tolkien, who actually wrote mostly about seemingly asexual males, many of whom were described as “brown”, and one crossdressing woman?
    I think you have him confused with Peter Jackson.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Who was described as brown? Hobbits, elves and dwarves were all pretty lily-white from memory, whereas his Southrons are explicitly dark-skinned and in league with the enemy. Arwen gets far more play in the films than the books, and apart from her, Galadriel, Eowyn and Luthein, the mythology of Middle Earth is overwhelmingly male – on top of which, you’ve got one whole race (the dwarves) where women don’t feature at all, presumably because they’d be physically unattractive and all Tolkien’s women are otherwise physically stunning, whereas the men are varied. Plus and also, ‘seemingly asexual’ is not the same as ‘openly asexual’ – all it means is he wrote lots of male characters who had zero romance and/or meaningful relationships with women, which is a very different thing.

        • Or Eowyn, Galadriel, Melian, Beruthiel or above all Luthien. Even Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is hardly an oppressed and shrinking feminine flower!

          It is deeply ironic that someone who has taken the trouble to write this excellent article to point out how women are often written out of history has managed to ignore so many examples of strong women in ‘unconventional’ roles in Middle-Earth. I agree there could be more of them, but the idea that they don’t exist at all is really quite odd.

          • Lobelia is the best example, actually! She definitely defies fozmeadows’ claim that women in Middle Earth have to be “physically stunning”. (Many of them are; but it may be because many of them are elves and those, in Tolkien’s world, are physically stunning by default… He simply liked to write of beautiful things in general; some of his ideals of beauty were no doubt one-sided; but those are always subjective.)

            Lobelia’s an old woman, not at all the “Tolkien ideal”, so to say, and yet she comes out almost a hero, if in a small way.

            • fozmeadows says:

              Lobelia is a character we’re meant to dislike in the beginning, at which point she pretty much only appears off-scene; at the end, after she’s survived imprisonment, we see her in a kinder light, but even so, she’s only in the story for about three seconds.

              Tolkein wrote a number of female characters, some of them quite varied; but the vast majority have minor roles. Arwen has something like fourteen lines in the whole LoTR, for instance, and I think that entire trilogy fails the Bechdel test.

  36. Holly says:

    This is an incredible resource, Foz. Thank you so much.

    I also agree with Imelda: This isn’t just an SFF issue. Default depictions of women in other genres need to be reconsidered and judged. As you’ve so beautifully shown, the position of women (and other groups) in history is not as black and white as certain writers would have us believe. Equally, this whole argument highlights the bigotry of so many contemporary pieces which continue to maintain sexist narratives.

    Thank you thank you thank you. I have so many links to click!

  37. ChunLisa says:

    Really wonderful post. Good for teaching with too!
    My partner said, after reading this, that although he’s a feminist (apparently) he’d be turned off by fantasy book that had majority female characters. Then he said the same for gay characters. Argument ensued.

  38. lilysea says:

    Heck, I have this problem writing straight-up historical fiction. Because real women’s–not to mention queer–history has been so effectively twisted and deleted, and people are so poorly educated about it, and about the fact that history isn’t an upward trajectory of justice, that they simply find implausible that “lesbians” existed in the nineteenth century, let alone had exciting, adventurous, heroic and non-tragic lives that didn’t include rape or murder.

    So frustrating. Thanks for writing this.

  39. M says:

    This rocks. And your links are great. Thank you so much for writing.

  40. [...] PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings are Not Apolitical [...]

  41. JudithVogt says:

    Thank you very much for finding words I didn’t find myself on that issue (well I tried, a tiny blog in German …). Great work!

  42. [...] just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the [...]

  43. Tonio says:

    Excellent dissection. Meadows missed only one aspect of these readers’ complaints. Some of these straight white men may see the stories the same way that Reginald Barclay saw the holodeck, as an ego-stroking type of escapism. Many of them probably resent having to deal with non-whites and women as equals in their workplaces or as superiors, so the stories they prefer cut these people down to size or ignore them entirely. When non-whites and women turn up as historically accurate characters, it’s like the shorter Riker and sex kitten Troi turning into the real versions that don’t pander to Barclay’s self-image.

  44. Matthew says:

    Reblogged this on Love, Sex, and Thermonuclear War and commented:
    Wow, this is so many kinds of awesome.

  45. Alex G says:

    This is a great post! As another example, the earliest known author was a woman- Enheduanna, an Akkadian high priestess and princess who lived in the 23rd century BCE.

    • Jamie says:

      I believe the first recorded novelist was far from a white male, too: the author of “The Tale of Genji”, the oldest and probably first of what we would now call a novel… was a Japanese woman. :)

  46. [...] This essay contains a butt-ton of cited sources demonstrating that reality is full of real-life Characters of Color, Strong Female Characters, and Queer Characters who made their mark on history. (Including a link to my piece on Knights of Color! Foz is sweet.) Read it here: PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical. [...]

  47. [...] On bigoted standards for fiction writing. [...]

  48. [...] Raynor Roberts (Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That) and Foz Meadows (Your Default Narrative Settings are Not Apolitical) both tackle the issue of the excuse some writers and readers make that they can’t have women [...]

  49. [...] PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical [...]

  50. [...] ugh. I’m tired of having to set the same boundaries over and over again, and remind her that I am the boss of my own underpants and it is NOT okay for her to tear me down over and over again because I do not match her narrow [...]

  51. ASG says:

    most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting.

    Oh, how I wish my experience were the same as yours. :( I spent years hanging out in the grad lounge with guys who would get worked up about the way that, e.g., some famous sword-and-sandals epic got the details of bronzemaking wrong, while complaining, practically in the same breath, about how Those Feminists insist on elbowing their way into their very dudebro narratives. I think even well-trained historians (for some value of “well-trained”) can have a huge blind spot about women, PoC’s, and queer identities. In fact, some of the most reactionary crap I’ve seen came from within the academe. I worked in a very Western Civ sort of discipline, which attracts the sorts of people who can feel threatened when their (naive) sense of what Western Civ means is complicated. I think that’s changing, but the change is slow, and even new grad students fresh from undergraduate programs can have surprisingly backward ideas about what “Europe” is.

    That sad observation aside, I’d like to thank you for this post, which I will link at everyone in sight for years to come.

  52. In spite of that previous comment: I enjoyed this, enjoyed looking through some of the links; and most of all, it made me realise, again, how few good role models we often get, and how grateful I am for Arthur Ransome’s writings. Among other things.

  53. Even in the middle ages, things were sometimes less clear cut than one would think. Take for example, women both learning and teaching in universirty. Never happened before the twentieth century, right? Wrong.
    In
    Greek-Latin medical tradition was combined with Jewish and Arab medicine to teach the best of it’s time in Europe. And women both learned and taught there, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.

  54. kete says:

    I call BS. Presenting us with a lot of exceptions and singularities does not change the rule.

    And are you honestly presenting Lynch’s tale of a middle-aged pirate-mama as proof such women really existed? As for the eastern pirate ladies – they inherited their positions from their fathers and husbands. Way to go feminism!

    Not long ago I watched a documentary where a young fit male was made to live for one week as a medieval knight’s squire. What shall I tell you? He wasn’t able to wear the amour and wield a broadsword for any considerable length of time. But I’m sure chicks in the middle-ages would have been able to. Easily. Especially during their period. Without respective hygiene products and medicine against cramps.

    • Sara Amis says:

      “a lot” of “exceptions and singularities.” I am impressed with your apparent immunity to self-contradiction. Way to go, dudebro.

    • veriform says:

      Kete, you are the worrrrst.

    • Jamie says:

      Oh where do I start?

      1.) The point isn’t to show “everything was a progressive dream!” it was to show that badass people who HAPPENED to be POC, female, or queer, did actually exist and do awesome or interesting things things and have important roles in societies that we now portray as “only white males were important and did stuff”. The fact that there ARE exceptions, is the point – seeing as it was originally a response to the idea that these things NEVER happened. Not the idea “these things weren’t common”, mind, the idea that they NEVER happened. Which simply isn’t true – they happened all throughout the world and throughout history. Meaning, such a character might be “exceptional” – but they AREN’T “historically unrealistic”.

      2.) Reading comprehension FAIL. She never once claimed “Lynch’s tale of a middle-aged pirate-mama” as “proof such women existed” – she brings up the fact that there WERE middle-aged pirate mamas, as proof they existed (or maybe she forgot to include Grace O’Malley? I can’t quite recall). She only brings up Lynch’s story because it helped inspire this post… on account of some idiot claimed that the character was “historically unrealistic”, because frankly, he has historically unrealistic expectations of pirates.

      Not only were there a number of famous and bloodthirsty females who were captains of pirate ships, some continued their piracy past having kids (including one who gave birth and then IMMEDIATELY FOUGHT A BATTLE), and oh yes, there’s Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who btw were in a romantic and sexual relationship with each other, i.e. historical lesbian pirates existed in at least one instance! Are these women “exceptional”? Oh yes, of course. But they still existed, and that’s the entire point. People think of it as a male domain, but it wasn’t – probably because, you know, pirates already weren’t big on obeying the laws of the society they were pillaging from, so why the hell not? (They were, however, big on discipline, on account of they couldn’t have been successful if they hadn’t been – whereas the idiot complaining about the female pirate in Lynch’s book, assumes they were, and I quote, all “rapits”, which I’m pretty sure was supposed to be “rapists”, except that many captains did not, in fact, allow rape by their crews, so even there he’s kinda off base).

      Anyway. Onwards.

      3.) Um, what? The “eastern pirate ladies” all “inherited their positions”!? The hell they did. Ching Shih – arguably the most successful ocean-going pirate EVER – started out her working career as a PROSTITUTE… she went on to not just become a pirate of her own accord, but to command her own personal pirate navy of 80,000 people spread over 1800 ships. She was so successful at that little venture, that China basically threw up its hands and paid her off so she’d retire from piracy and give her their navy, which THEY couldn’t beat militarily. “Inherited their positions” my ass. Even if she had, you really think a woman who could build a personal navy of *1800 ships* and *80,000 people* didn’t know how to lead? Because you seem to be implying that by dismissing them as “inheriting their positions”, and somehow, I think Ching Shih would disagree…

      And finally, regarding your last utterly ridiculous “point” – which is deconstructed in several stages because there is just THAT much wrong with it:

      5.) Here is where I know that you’re a biological male: Congrats, you know NOTHING about how the menstrual cycle works! :D Fun fact: a woman who is engaging in enormous amounts of physical activity of the type you describe – physically exhausting labor, repeatedly, on a daily basis, labor that is MEANT TO TRAIN MUSCLES – will, gee whiz, STOP MENSTRUATING. The body does not typically waste expensive internal resources on reproduction (and believe me, egg cells are really “expensive” in that respect) when it thinks it’s not got the resources to spare. A woman engaging regularly in that level of activity will generally stop getting periods at all, let alone the kind of heavy ones which would actually pose a problem. Women who are professional athletes will regularly go MONTHS without getting a period.

      6.) Additionally, seeing as they’ll be losing body fat and exercising the upper body in particular, chances are, their boobs (not the glands, but the nice little round excess we consider to be “breast”) will often shrink, possibly to a damn near completely flat chest (example: Keira Knightly learned archery for her role in “King Arthur” and they literally had to Photoshop her breasts back in for the poster, because by the time the film was complete she had nothin’ there!). A woman engaging in that kind of physical activity is, most likely, not going to have to worry about her period, and in fact, push come to shove, could far more easily pass as a man on account of losing a lot of her “feminine” curvature.

      7.) Oh trust me, I asked about this once for a pseudo-medieval setting of my own – there’s actually plenty of serviceable ways to soak up the flow anyway if it does happen WITHOUT modern maxi pads, and women just kind of shrugged it off and dealt with the annoyance. For you know, THOUSANDS of years. Why exactly DID you think it’s referred to as “being on the rag”? Newsflash: they used to use rags! Also, not all women have really super-heavy flow, and for a lot of us, the “heavy” portion of the period lasts like a couple of days, tops – and in my case, is preceded by “spotting” first so I certainly know it’s coming! Speaking to other women, this seems to be pretty common.

      8.) You clearly know zip about cramps of “that” type. Not all women suffer from the ZOMG DRAMATIC cramps you’ve heard about and seem to assume we constantly have while bleedin’. With exactly two exceptions (both of which seemed to have other extenuating medical circumstances that themselves went away), I have NEVER had cramps that were actually debilitating (which I would define as either causing one to vomit, or otherwise being so painful as to inhibit movement). Really. Just twice in my entire life, apparently not even caused by the period itself (but rather, merely exacerbated by it) and I’ve been bleedin’ for like, a decade and a half. You want to know what my periods cramps usually feel like?

      INDIGESTION. Seriously. You know that annoying type of gas that just kind of roils in your gut for a while without going anywhere, occasionally hitting a pesky nerve? That’s mostly what it feels like. Maybe a bit of a clench once in a while, too – but I can usually sooth that by taking deep, belly-inflating breathes (gets oxygen to the muscles) or having a bit of hot drink. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but it’s something that’s ignorable for plenty of women (no, not all women, but we’re not talking about “all” women, we’re talking about possibilities, and it’s a strong possibility).

      Furthermore, period cramps are actually sometimes TREATED by exercise! That’s right: physical exertion actually improves a lady’s cramp problems. (And yes, this rather infamously includes sex). If anything, the annoyingly pressing need to take a crap that tends to come on the first day or so of a period (because for some reason, constipation isn’t unheard of shortly beforehand) is far more uncomfortable, and that’s usually fine after it’s, um, done. Sorry if you were under the illusion that women also poop, but yeah, they do.

      And finally, quite possibly the stupidest part and I can’t believe in this day and age of modern medicine that I actually have to explain something THIS basic:

      9.) Of COURSE a random guy plucked from modern life is going to barely lift that stuff! Has he been practicing with it for months or years? No? Then he’s doing something his body isn’t used to. Duh? This would happen no matter WHAT it was that was causing the exertion. And it would happen to anyone, ANYONE, who wasn’t used to some equivalent level or type of exertion.

      But here’s a fun fact for you: BODIES ADAPT :D That’s right! Did you know that you build muscle by using it? Because you totally do! You even build up GASP! Bone strength, because the shock of new stresses on bone will cause it to produce more tissue to compensate (irrelevant fun fact: this is actually what causes bunions. Not-irrelevant fun fact: this is why NASA is hesitant to let astronauts spend too much time in space – being in microgravity means that your body kind of figures “oh I don’t need as much bone density! Cool! I’ll move that set of resources elsewhere!” and actually causes you to lose density there, which is less than ideal when you’re returning to normal gravity levels).

      I know this is apparently totally shocking to you and all, but despite the fact that men “on average” have “greater strength”, women aren’t, in fact, all helpless fragile beings whose Poor Widdle Bodies can’t take the remotest stress: the species would have died out if we were! Because you know, we’d die just from trying to carry the weight of a baby, let alone like, living, at all. Instead, our bodies – as men’s do! – will make adjustments as needed to bone and muscle density and even form things like callouses! And sure, you can argue that testosterone makes men more muscled on average, and believe it or not I would agree – you see evidence of this in figure skating for instance, where men usually do the lifting in pairs and in singles, regularly do “quad” rotations in jumps while women typically don’t do above “triple”.

      However, please note the “typically”; what you are discussing, or should be since it would actually be on-topic and relevant to the subject, is not “will MOST women be able to do it?”, but “could ANY woman do it?”. And the answer is a quite firm yes: it is within the realm of possibility.

      Remember that figure skating reference there? Well, thing is, MEN didn’t do quad jumps until fairly recently either – and women and men alike didn’t typically do triples! The jumps have gotten crazier and crazier for BOTH sexes’ competitions, as the sport has, well, become more of a sport. Did women stick with Single and double jumps? Not at the damn top, they didn’t; Olympic level female skaters are pretty much expected to do at least occasional triples now, and they do. And there’s one or two women who GASP! Can actually do quad jumps! (Sasha Cohen, for example, who can be seen doing it pretty cleanly in practice runs here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Adbq89r-8pw ). Cohen made it look easy in that clip, but that takes a RIDICULOUS amount of both coordination and sheer freaking muscle to do that – we’re talking, standing on a slick surface on tiny blades, being able to PUSH yourself so high in the air, at such a fast rate, that you rotate more than *four* times before you land… gracefully, on one damn foot. I doubt you could do that, yeah?

      If a skinny looking young woman like that (who was like, a young teen when that clip was filmed) can muster the physical strength to do a Quadruple Salchow, trust me, other women – exceptional though they may be – could handle a damn sword (and in fact, as far as rapiers go, they should have LESS trouble then men, as women are more flexible in the spine – there’s a reason women’s fencing is an Olympic event, you know). Maybe even a broadsword, if she had to and was determined to do it. Could every woman do it? No, but not every guy could either!

      Oh, and just FYI: women actually have, on average, better reaction times than men. This is actually pretty well known about in scientific circles. It’s one reason they tend to make good fighter pilots, which is probably why there was a very successful Soviet all-female flying squad during WWII. Also, our spines are slightly more flexible, which occasionally could help in a fight – and for that matter, many, many women have ridiculous leg strength, all the better to kick a face in. So, in regards to being able to handle battle? I don’t think they’re automatically worse off then men just because you THINK of them as Delicate Little Flowers. Hell, I’ll come out and say it: never get in between two catfighters. It’s suicide. Women can be VICIOUS in a fight. Anyone who doesn’t think so, has clearly never seen a woman determined to win a fight…

      So, yeah. Suffice it to say I disagree sir. On pretty much every single one of your points.

      • “If a skinny looking young woman like that (who was like, a young teen when that clip was filmed) can muster the physical strength to do a Quadruple Salchow, trust me, other women – exceptional though they may be – could handle a damn sword (and in fact, as far as rapiers go, they should have LESS trouble then men, as women are more flexible in the spine – there’s a reason women’s fencing is an Olympic event, you know). Maybe even a broadsword, if she had to and was determined to do it.”

        Plus, swords weren’t actually that heavy:

        http://www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm

      • Lexicon says:

        Your reply is one of the best things.

        Except for using “biological male”. I am replying to say that you’re great and because I think you would like to know that “biological male” is really problematic. You might mean “male-assigned-at-birth” because people who are maab do no experience periods. But you probably meant “male, but not trans-male”, in which case the term you want is “cis-male”.

        Kudos for recognising that trans men have likely experienced menstruation!

      • Sally says:

        Brilliant rebuttal … a veritable *truckload* of bouquets!

  55. liquidmatthew says:

    Reblogged this on Liquid Matthew's Development Blog and commented:
    Amazing article. Give it a read. It’s about privilege, and fantasy, and politics, and writing, and it’s awesome.

  56. [...] PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical, Politics, YA and Narrative, Racism, Revealing Eden and STGRB, Rape Culture in [...]

  57. [...] year Foz Meadows wrote an excellent blog post essentially taking the notion that women in history aren’t good [...]

  58. [...] vs fantasy An absolutely kick-ass challenge to the idea of white male fantasy being the norm: http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2012…ot-apolitical/ Especially loving the section on women pirates, and Scott Lynch's response to the criticism of his [...]

  59. Callan says:

    I don’t know if other people who stress historical accuracy mean the same thing, but really the idea is that in the past there was a sick culture in regards to the equal treatment of women. And the concern is that we could slip back into that.

    If that’s not true and there never was any widespread bias, let alone widespread violent bias towards women in the past, that’s great! Or if it’s impossible for us to slip backwards into that crap again, that’d be great. Or if just writing about bad ass women would stop us from slipping backwards into that crap, that’d be great.

    But some fear it isn’t the case and that the latter wont end up pounding some sense into certain young male fantasy readers minds. And they will grow up into positions of power with stupid ideas that will make things start to slip back into that crap.

    How do we stop them from getting stupid ideas that slip us back into an abhorent past? Tell them the past was great already for women?

    Maybe it’d fix it. Some think it’d make it worse.

    • Jamie says:

      Why are you so worried about a specific (very specific) subset of “young male fantasy fans” when women buy the majority of books to begin with? :) And yes, that is true: even when they are making far less than men, women are STILL the biggest buyers and readers of fiction! Including and perhaps especially fantasy (most especially romance, actually, which is a female-targeted genre to begin with, but women are voracious fantasy readers too – doesn’t hurt that the genres often overlap).

      Personally, I don’t care if a certain sexist subset does not read my fiction; they’re the minority of potential readership anyway! Why would I compromise having a really cool character just to satisfy a whiny group of people who don’t want to admit that women can Do Cool Stuff? I may be in need a of a paycheck, but even for a paycheck that wouldn’t make sense, so, yeah, no thanks. ;)

  60. Tanya says:

    Thank you so much for this post – so much good information, well-written and well-posited.
    A lot of other people have already said what I want to say about this, but I just wanted to add one personal thank you – for including Soviet instances here.
    I’m a Russian/Ukrainian immigrant, and have lived in US since mid 90’s. And every time there’s a discussion about gender and equality, I feel like USSR and Russia is a blind spot. When I argue about the reasonability of something and am told it could never happen, I’m usually like, “Um, yes, we’ve had it in Russia since forever,” only to be dismissed. And all the feminist achievements only seem to exist in the Western world, to hear most people here, even progressives.
    So it means so so so much to me to see you list examples of the Night Witches, etc etc., though we also had scientists who happened to be women, and such (I understand you had to choose and edit). Thank you again!

    • fozmeadows says:

      Thanks Tanya! There was so much more I wanted to link to in this post, but it would’ve gone on forever, and I can only open so many browser tabs before the situation starts to get unmanageable :)

      It boggles me that people don’t know about the Night Witches – the whole thing is just awesome.

      • Sally says:

        Это правда, Таня, That’s true, Tanya — it was not only the Night Witches in their fragile biplanes in the Soviet military of WWII.

        Women had fought on both sides during the Russian Revolution and Civil War (and even a few in the Tsarist armies of WWI.)

        But the fascist invasion of 6 June 1941 was indeed significant. Approximately 800 000 women served in the armed forces of the USSR — as fighter- and bomber-pilots, tankists, machine-gunners, front-line infantry and cavalry, sailors, partisans, MPs, medical personnel, and especially as snipers — during the Великая Отечественная Война, Great Patriotic War. Over a quarter of this number were decorated and 90 of them received the title of Герой Советского Союза, Hero of the Soviet Union, for their bravery (A full list of these 90 can be found in “Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-1945,” by Henry Sakaida – author – and Christa Hook, illustrator, Osprey, 2003).

        And, while the bureaucracy may have initially been less than enthusiastic, Stalin himself eventually wrote of his female snipers, “Women make better snipers than men because they are less prone to posturing. When a man gets in a fight, he is typically satisfied to see his opponent surrender or run away. War, of course, is not about scaring people, it is about killing them. Some, though not all, men will subconsciously fire over their enemy’s heads in the hopes of scaring them off. But women typically just get busy killing.”

        Thanks, foz, for an amazing article, with enough links to keep me bubbling along for many years.

      • Sally says:

        Exactly, Tanya

        It was not only the Night Witches in their fragile biplanes in the Soviet military of WWII.
        Women had fought on both sides during the Russian Revolution and Civil War (and even a few in the Tsarist armies of WWI.)

        But the fascist invasion of 6 June 1941 was indeed significant. Approximately 800 000 women served in the armed forces of the USSR — as fighter- and bomber-pilots, tankists, machine-gunners, front-line infantry and cavalry, sailors, partisans, MPs, medical personnel, and especially as snipers — during the Great Patriotic War, over a quarter of this number were decorated and 90 of them received the title of, Hero of the Soviet Union, for their bravery (A full list of these 90 can be found in “Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-1945,” by Henry Sakaida – author – and Christa Hook, illustrator, Osprey, 2003).

        And, while the bureaucracy may have initially been less than enthusiastic, Stalin himself eventually wrote of his female snipers, “Women make better snipers than men because they are less prone to posturing. When a man gets in a fight, he is typically satisfied to see his opponent surrender or run away. War, of course, is not about scaring people, it is about killing them. Some, though not all, men will subconsciously fire over their enemy’s heads in the hopes of scaring them off. But women typically just get busy killing.”

        And thank you, foz, for an amazing article, with enough links to keep me bubbling along for many years.

        • Sally says:

          Apologies for the doubled-posting…

          When it didn’t appear immediately, I thought the site had ‘coughed’ over the Cyrillic script :O

  61. […] with a friend just today. And it looks like this blog post was in response to this article: http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2012…ot-apolitical/ Which I also discussed with a friend recently. Deja […]

  62. Sara Amis says:

    Yes. A thousand times yes. My own thoughts on a similar topic: http://saracamis.blogspot.com/2011/06/opinion-in-five-facets.html

  63. Maggie says:

    I’mhighly unconvinced that your link on black africans in renaissance Europe is a great one to illustrate your point. Most of the different chapters still speak of black africans in minor roles or as slaves. There is a phrase about a few being ennobled, but as a whole, it speaks more about ow the stereotype was born and than about the complexity of their presence.

    The real question, to me, is why is Europe the standard setting to riff of of for fantasy writers? There were other cultures that were just as advanced and interesting and full of quirks to explore. Seems to me that it’s important to point that out, when talking about cultural bias. The inclusion of minorities in a still stereotypically european world seems like a poor concession.

    That said, I think that fantasy novels don’t do that bad a job representing women. Or maybe it was just the books I gravitated towards. Men in most of the books I’ve read have a relatively minor role, usually as the standard love interest.

    • Aren’t those books you’ve read equally biased / unballanced, then?

      • Maggie says:

        Well men were there, in the background, most of the time, even having roles of power. The books just weren’t about them in any way. Which no, I don’t see a problem with.

    • I don’t think Fantasyland is real Europe – which is a hugely varied landscape with so many subcultures and experiences. It’s more a sort of American Disneyland mishmash of what have for some reason become viewed as ‘the interesting bits’. Fantasyland ‘Celtic’ Wales is particularly painful to read about if you know much about the history of real Wales.

      • Maggie says:

        There’s another excellent post on this blog here about how fantasy worlds are not reality and everyone should stfu about how the pseudo-medieval setting isn’t realisttic. Of course it’s not, it’s fantasy! The author has the right to build the world however the f they want. I mean sure, if there are blatant plot holes where the internal logic is inconsistant, there’s room for criticism, but that’s bad writing, not bad “accuracy”. It’s like being totally able to believe Dumbledore is a wizard, but to believe he’s gay, oh that’s totally inaccurate. Fantasy has absolutely no need for justification other than the author wanted to mentaly experience the world they created. But I have to say, “celtic” “european” fantasyland, as you so accurately portray it is kinda overdone. And I think that the real shame isn’t that less people write POC into that fantasy land, but that we’ve bought into that monolithic idealistic pseudo-celtic world as THE ideal and that deviating from that is edgy. Because it doesn’t matter what colour those people’s skin is, the culture is still acepticised wasp-fantasy with modern hygiene standards.

    • Jamie says:

      As soon as you mentioned “other fascinating cultures”, it occurred to me that actually, ancient Egypt is mined for that stuff a surprising lot of the time. So it’s a bit of an exception.

      Examples: Stargate series pretty much was built on this, most obviously, but there’s also “The Reluctant God” by Pamela Service, and while it’s technically not fantasy, I’d recommend “The Golden Goblet”, which was a childhood favorite of mine right alongside my more fantastical picks. :)

      I also think you sometimes see classical Rome mined for SFF, weirdly. Hunger Games is pretty obvious about it, in science fiction, but it might be worth pointing out the Codex Alera books – the setting is a slight riff off of Rome from what I can tell. “Codex” gets additional points, possibly, for apparently including non-white people in key roles not just in the story but society as well (I’ve only read the first book, but I seem to recall the primary female character in that is an investigator or something for the empire – and she’s described as having darker skin, IIRC). Then again, CA was written by Jim Butcher, the guy who also does the Dresden Files – which if you know enough about the Dresden Files, you know there’s a metric tonne of powerful and important females (especially in battles!), as well as a number of POC characters (funnily enough, in the books, Morgan apparently wasn’t – even though he was raceblind-cast to black in the TV adaptation- but there are a number of black and hispanic characters throughout the series).

      Also, Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series is probably worth mentioning for having done with Asian and Pacific Islander cultures, what most Swords-n-sorcery does with European cultures, in terms of lavishly “riffing” off them. All the better for including a blatantly pseudo-Inuit pair of siblings as part of the central power trio :)

  64. Keiran S says:

    This is simply a personal peeve of mine, but the majority of Greek and Latin texts were not reintroduced to the West via Arab preservation, but via Byzantine preservation. The majority of texts reintroduced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which came from the Arab world, were scientific and Aristotelian, along with two dialogues of Plato and a few Neoplatonic texts. The rest of Plato’s corpus, the works of the great Neoplatonist Plotinus, the entirety of Greek poetry, much of the rest of Aristotle, the entirety of Greek history, the entirety of the Greek rhetorical tradition – this all came from Byzantium in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as well as the revival in Greek language education, which allowed for revised translation into Latin of the entire Greek corpus.

    As far as Latin texts go, almost the entirety (if not the entirety) of Latin writing we now have was preserved by the Western Europeans. Some of it might have become lost in archives or monasteries and dwindled down to only one manuscript, but neither the Byzantines nor the Arabs had an interest in Latin thought (as much as it can be said to have existed at all).

    So, yes, there Arabs deserve credit preserving Greek philosophy, but they neither deserve all the credit or most of it – that distinction should rightly go to the Byzantines.

  65. […] image of “realistic” is. It’s an eye-opener. From there one can go to Foz Meadow’s link-loaded ammunition for the next time you run into the “all women did through history was cook and have […]

  66. gillt says:

    Great post!
    FYI: The Dahomey Amazons link takes you to wiki’s Nefertiti site.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dahomey_Amazons

  67. This is another reason I question the bible >.>

  68. I couldn’t help but hear Battle Hymn of the Republic (written by a woman, of course…) going through my head as I read this AMAZING piece.

  69. Stina Leicht says:

    I love this so much. Thank you!

  70. […] contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been […]

  71. […] me be clear–I don’t think think any narrative is apolitical. This goes beyond fiction. A friend’s father used to work for Voice of America. His father, […]

  72. Samantha Pendleton says:

    I did a paper a while back on female combatants in the 14th and 15th centuries while I would be happy to share if you’re interested. Shoot me an email at katerinfg-at-gmail-dot-com (without the hyphens).

  73. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez says:

    I know a woman, no less, who thought Nellie Bly was a fictional character. Thank you.

  74. Anya says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I was having a conversation with my boyfriend about a lack of intrinsic differences between the genders to explain the roles we’ve been shoved into. He’s not informed at all on this sort of this (which is more to blame on his good ol’ American education than anything), and he had the question of “if there isn’t any intrinsic difference than why have women always occupied certain roles historically?” At the time I mostly insisted that there have been many historical female fighters without solid evidence, and now I have it, yey! He is a huge history fan though (historical non-fiction are the only books I can get him to read) so I was wondering if you have a book recommendation to assist with his education on the real histories of female roles?

    Thanks!
    Anya

    • fozmeadows says:

      Glad to be of help!

      I do far less historical reading than I should, so most of the books I can recommend have been passed on to me without my having read them yet; nonetheless, here’s some suggestions:

      – A History of the Chess Queen, by Marilyn Yalom (which I have read: apart from being a solid and fascinating history of chess, it’s also got a lot about women’s roles)

      – A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom (again, something I’ve read, and which is a great rundown of marital traditions throughout the ages)

      – Love For Sale: A Global History of Prostitution (fascinating look at the history of prostitution and, as a consequence, the moral policing of women)

      – Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, by Florence Williams

      – Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the powerful women of early Hollywood, by Cari Beauchamp

      – Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, edited by Anne Walthall

      – Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, by bell hooks

      I’d also recommend Kate Beaton’s historical-and-literature-themed webcomic, Hark, A Vagrant!, and looking up blogs dedicated to this stuff, like Forgotten Women, Awesome Stuff Women Did and Rarely In History, which are great jumping-off points for doing your own research.

      Hope that helps!

      • Maggie says:

        Got any reccomendations for books about women in non-traditional gender roles?

        • fozmeadows says:

          None that I’ve read myself, beyond what I’ve already listed – but if you do an Amazon books search for topics like ‘female spies in history’, ‘female soldiers’ and that sort of thing, it brings up an encouraging number of different titles, which seems like a good jumping off point.

        • You might enjoy “Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society” by Kathleen Herbert. It’s a thin book, but full of interesting insights.

        • Jamie says:

          I might recommend “Hedy’s Folly”, about the stunning actress Hedy Lamar. She basically came up with the idea of oh, you know, the form of radio communications that EVERY CELL PHONE is based off? Only she’s largely gone uncredited and never saw a dime of it during her lifetime, because when she filed the patent, literally, other people werent’ clever enough to see the wide-ranging applications. She even tried to propose it to the military during the war, to help in submarine warfare, and the generals basically didn’t understand it and thus shrugged her off.

          A very sad example of a brilliant woman being told, “we’re going to ignore your science, because you’re a woman and you’re a pretty actress, so surely you can’t be a genius”. Because apparently a beautiful woman having both success in acting and a brilliant mind for engineering would make their heads asplode…

    • Maggie says:

      If you also want to read about the powerful women in history, pick up a biography of Catherine the Great of Russia, Elizabeth the 1st of England or Maria-Teresa of Austria. Russia had several great queens who did a lot for their country, actually, before Catherine the Great’s son declared male primogeniture.

  75. […] In the middle ages, they were doctors and sheriffs. In Greece they were… oh, sod it. Listen. Foz Meadows does a better job with all the linky-links, for those who desire “proof.” Let’s just put it this way: if you think there’s a thing – anything – women didn’t do […]

  76. DarkoNeko says:

    A reblogué ceci sur Darkoneko's Weblog and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  77. Jensen says:

    This is silly.

    No one has ever claimed that there were no powerful women in history; just that there were very few.

    That you are able to point out five or six, does not overturn that.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Firstly – yes, people have made that claim. A LOT.

      Secondly – there are more than ‘very few’.

      Thirdly – read this.

    • Silly says:

      [Citation needed]

      This isn’t actually true. You just weren’t taught about many of them, while others existed, but people wrote them out of history for political reasons. Archaeologically, your assertion does not hold up. Hey, take London. You know blacksmiths? Those muscle packed guys?

      Well, in 13th-14th century, a quarter of them was female, according to official documents.

      So, dude, the actual unrealistic part is the lack of woman. A story which shows some female soldiers, blacksmiths, warlords is more realistic in that regard than one that shows none.

      So, yes, your argument is indeed overturned. For instance, you are apparently unable to count.

      • Tanya says:

        I will actually chime in to say that when I was learning (a really skewed towards the proletariat) history in USSR, there was not such a heavy emphasis on OMGmenONLEH. It was pretty understood that women were up there, because a lot of times there was no choice.
        In WWII, for example, a lot of partisan (guerrilla) groups were pretty evenly split, gender-wise, and we never thought it was unusual. I mean, if your town/village/city gets overrun by the enemy, if you’re patriotic (and unencumbered by children) you take up arms and leave for the woods and sabotage things as much as you can, whether you’ve got an Y chromosome or not.

        There were a crapload of queens and duchesses in Europe, too, who did a lot of stuff, and I did not learn this in special feminist classes, but just general middle school history classes.
        Science and writing-wise, also, we (Sovki) were taught that, while the overwhelming majority of PUBLISHED authors were male, women wrote, as well, just were not taken seriously (hence George Sand).
        It was REALLY weird for me to come to the country of, you know, The Free! and learn that you guys (as a nation! few individuals excluded) police your own thoughts a lot harder than the Party policed ours. The homogeneity is mind-boggling, it’s just it’s been done for so long, it’s almost impossible to spot, unless you’re an outsider.

  78. Alex says:

    This person knows nothing about Tolkien. He wrote hundreds of very powerful female characters. In fact, all races except humans and hobbits have complete sexual equality, and humans and hobbits still have dozens or hundreds of female heroes, warriors, politicians, etc that are named. So yeah, practice what you preach, hypocrite.

    • jo says:

      There are no lines spoken by female characters in the Hobbit. There are female characters – and they never enter the story except to serve as relationships between people.

      I’d urge you to read this –> http://middle-earth.xenite.org/2011/12/16/what-are-the-roles-of-women-in-tolkien/. Looking at numbers alone in the Hobbit and LoTR, Tolkien writes of very, very, very few women compared to men. Sure, he gives them power and skill and makes them pretty badass, but I find if fairly sad that the women he wrote about are so memorable mostly because there were so few of them.

      I’ve counted 139 female characters (including “creatures”). Of those 139 characters, 49 (49!) are ONLY found in genealogies in the appendices. Most characters are mentioned only in passing. I counted almost 600 characters Tolkien wrote about. Let’s make that 550. So of that 550, 150 are female.

      Listen, I’m as much a Tolkien fan as the next nerdy girl, but the guy was not a Saint when it came to gender roles in his novels. I don’t have a problem with the Hobbit, LoTR, or even the Silmarillion. But saying he wrote about hundreds of very powerful female characters is a falsehood, and proves that you know “nothing about Tolkien.”

      I’m just going to leave this for you:

      “So yeah, practice what you preach, hypocrite.”

  79. […] another link led to Foz Meadows’ Shattersnipe: Malcontent & Rainbows wherein her “PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical” led to Kaoru Negisa’s “Magic? Sounds Legit. Black Lancelot? […]

  80. Alex says:

    You mentioned the “modern matriarchy” in India, please correct this to read “matrilineal”, it isn’t that women rule, but that descent is traced through the female line.

    This is an important distinction and a common mistake.

  81. JimBob says:

    Fantasy literature isn’t historical though, beyond a vague historical flavor or setting, and individual authors write from their own experience and perspective, and a lot of SF/fantasy fiction authors were and are part of the evil cabal of “straight white men” it stands to reason they are going to write from that perspective, and that others from that group are going to then read their work. Caucasian authors from, for example historically ethnically homogenous countries in Europe, the idea of them using racially homogenous characters is kind of obvious, the expression “write what you know” comes to mind.

    It needs to be pointed out that nobody is preventing anyone from any other background from writing and challenging the trends found in fiction, a writer is autonomous and can write whatever they want, there is no need for some enforced gender and ethnic diversity standard to be shoehorned into works of fiction, because that’s insane. Bring on the fantasy with strong female characters (wheel of time, ASOIAF and several other contemporary series spring to mind) or with roots in another culture or racial background (usually found in other ethnically homogenous countries across the middle east, Asia and Africa, written for those audiences) change it up! because complaining about it is a waste of time

    • Maggie says:

      Adding to the list, Most books by Marion Zimmer Bradley including her Darkover series and Lythande, tanya Huff’s Blood series, anything by Tamora Pierce, Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Lirael… Off the bat I can probably name more fantasy books with strong female protagonists than male protagonists…

    • Tanya says:

      You are probably from US. I’m from former USSR, and I can say that, even though race-wise USSR had been homogenous, but in sci-fi, there would always be several races represented, though, admittedly, Caucasians/Russians would typically be in the leads. So at least there was an effort, and even though the whole “write what you know” principle still applies, it’s with a more open-minded approach.
      Also, to your point that it’s pointless to complain – I believe the author of this post had no problem with the variety in books, but rather with the fact that every time a book deviates from “the norm”, there is a slew of criticism from the readers who complain that “it’s just not realistic”.
      So, I’m hoping you just missed the point of this post, rather than simply jumping to a conclusion or fighting a strawman ^_^

  82. […] Which is why I am not writing that heavily female, POC, straight-up high fantasy quest-and-battle novel I want to write after seeing this, and reading this and this. […]

  83. […] thanks to Foz Meadows and Kameron Hurley for writing thoughtful articles that have helped clarify my thinking on this […]

  84. […] Like our Female Warriors in Fantasy article by Django Wexler from last week?  Check out these other discussions of women warriors in the fiction genre We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative by Kameron Hurley and Foz Meadow’s PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical. […]

  85. […] že nedělaly. Ve středověku byly doktorky a šerifky. V Řecku byly… kašlu na to. Hele. Foz Meadows je daleko šikovnější se všemi těmi odkazy pro ty, kdo chtějí „důkazy“. Řeknu to takhle: jestli si myslíte, že je něco – cokoliv – co ženy v minulosti […]

  86. issen says:

    Agreed. Because when you’re basing your writing assumptions on default terms it just means you’re upholding the status quo. And that is definitely a political view. Thanks for all the lovely links!

  87. This is a really wonderful, well-written piece that needs to be seen. May we (Gay Geeks of New York) have your permission two reprint or link to it on our site?

    • fozmeadows says:

      Thanks, and sure thing! As long as there’s attribution and a link back to here, reprint away :)

  88. elusivej says:

    I’ve just linked people to this article for what feels like the millionth time today and I figured it was time for me to thank you for writing it. You express perfectly something I want to say on a regular basis. Thanks so much for putting this out there!

  89. […] Starkey, James Morrow, Scott H. Andrews, and Anil Menon. Description: In a 2012 essay titled “PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical,” Foz Meadows addressed the notion that “deliberately including POC, female and/or […]

  90. […] of your books strikes me as odd. I think you and others think this whiteness represents a neutral default that everyone can impose themselves onto. But where some see a default, I see erasure. I see a […]

  91. […] Ages, the Dark Ages, or really any typical Western fantasy context, but Martin is inaccurate in so many ways and if you have half a brain you should know that already, so I feel this is unnecessary. If […]

  92. It disturbs me that we think of ourselves as the lesser sex. That we actively expect to be made less of. As an author and a woman, it disturbs me. Thank you for the article. It’s very humbling. I will be more aware of it in future. One female black pirate protagonist is never enough. :)

  93. Reblogged this on Anneque G. Malchien and commented:
    Incredible stuff, very humbling. Are you a female misogynist? I know a few years ago I became acutely aware that most of the characters in my stories were male, that even as a female I felt more comfortable writing with male characters. I made a conscious effort to include more female characters in the story, and not only that, but make them important, powerful people. I hope the Fallouts as it stands reflects that. Certainly Aki is an example of a black, female pirate that should never be taken lightly, and Tenma is a chilling and powerful young woman in her own right.
    But there is always more to be done.

  94. […] Edit October 20, 2013: Some even further reading. […]

  95. […] A massive and glorious roundup of historical achievements by people who were not white and/or not ma…, including everything from scientists to aviators to pirates to politicians. […]

  96. […] PSA: Your default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical (essay; contains a boatload of links to other studies and essays on the subject) […]

  97. […] sorry, princess); the women serving currently in armies around the world, and you know what? I could do this all day, Mr Delingpole, but the point is that if you’re trying to argue that warfare is an inherently […]

  98. […] this article on the Mary Sue and continuing with glorious sarcasm from Tansy Rayner Roberts and Foz Meadows. To summarise, if you find giant fire-breathing lizards more credible than women as active […]

  99. […] this article on the Mary Sue and continuing with glorious sarcasm from Tansy Rayner Roberts and Foz Meadows. To summarise, if you find giant fire-breathing lizards more credible than women as active […]

  100. […] then, is the real problem of engagement: that fandom isn’t apolitical, and never was. The idea that debate within the community is fine, provided you don’t go […]

  101. Federico says:

    Awesome! Its genuinely awesome piece of writing, I have got
    much clear idea regarding from this paragraph.

  102. […] kyriachy dynamic of oppression and promotion is omnipresent in our interactions with other humans. Inescapable as it is, there is no such thing as an apolitical, as a neutral party. Spirituality or being able to see […]

  103. […] wanting to avoid discussing these equal rights issues is also a political message. As Foz Meadows wrote in December of 2012, the default is not apolitical.[7] It only seems apolitical because people consider it the default […]

  104. […] Big kudos – women have contributed majorly in every field throughout history (for example, this this article shows that there have even been everything from female Muslim pirates to the world’s first […]

  105. justinwoo says:

    According to what you’ve written here, actually the most unbelievable, implausible, ridiculous and indeed FANTASTICAL settings are the settings that ONLY consist of SWM in primary positions. TAKE THAT “ACCURACY!” :P Thank you for this awesome article!! :) `

  106. […] Big kudos – women have contributed majorly in every field throughout history (for example, this this article shows that there have even been everything from female Muslim pirates to the world’s first […]

  107. glmorrison says:

    Reblogged this on Lesbian Writers and commented:
    Foz Meadow’s advice for writers and readers is worth repeating.

  108. […] lo contrario. En la Edad Media, eran doctores y alguaciles, En Grecia eran… Oh, ¡a la mierda! Foz Meadows hace un mejor trabajo que yo recopilando todos los enlaces habidos y por haber, para aqu…. Vamos a dejarlo claro: si pensáis que hay algo –cualquier cosa- que las mujeres no hicieran en […]

  109. […] to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real […]

  110. Sable says:

    Let us not forget the first published work of science fiction was written by a teenage woman. Who went on to write and publish two more science fiction stories. And all three of Mary Shelly’s works contain story elements which are still common tropes in SFF works today.

  111. […] – An oldie but goodie: Foz Meadows explains why your default narrative settings are not apolitical […]

  112. David says:

    I found this article entertaining and enlightening. Its certainly good to see that someone else also enjoys looking at history, and blowing massive gaping holes in the preconceived notions of what is true vs what you’re taught in school by your horrendously biased professors who make it their goal in life to portray all society (especially those of antiquity) as discriminatory against minorities.

    However, I feel like this article is a giant red herring. I don’t find that SFF is biased one way or the other. In many ways SFF uses different races and species as a way of coding political messages about race in a way that you can’t talk about in today’s highly racially charged society. This isn’t done because people can’t stand to have a black female pirate, its done because if you make a Black Female Pirate, you’ll be lambasted for how you portrayed black females in your book if you say anything even slightly controversial.

    Most SFF writers bypass the issue of race in our society by coding it not in terms of black vs white, but in species vs species. Take for example, the common trope of elves vs dwarves, who since tolkinean times have been cast as two races, who are diametrically opposed to each other, and in many cases used as an example of racial bias. Often this example is used in overcoming racial bias. How is this a bad thing? Is it bad because one of the species isn’t black? Would it be better if one of them WERE black? and if that is the case, why?

  113. […] PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings are not Apolitical <— Also a must read. […]

  114. Firstly, wow. That was a fantastic exposition of things I myself struggle to explain and now I feel vindicated, so thank you!
    I do find myself a little annoyed by all the comments like “but what about this writer….” “but this character here is a Strong Independant Woman Who Don’t Need No Man…!”. Yes, we get it, some authors can write women, and write them well. But is it the norm? Hell, no. The fact that any deviation from the white-male character has to be defended by examples of where it hasn’t been used just proves this; why can’t we have a SFF genre where we look for the character, and everything else is vaguely irrelevant? I’m a white female, but even if I was to read a book with a pansexual, half-chinese, half-moroccan trans* protagonist, I’m sure I could still identify with them in /something/ and enjoy the story, because characterization is a thing.

  115. Foz, this is fantastic! You have put so much work into all those links

  116. insurance says:

    Foz, this is fantastic

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