Following on from my recent thoughts on female characters in YA dystopias and the Broken Bird trope, something else about the treatment of women in stories has been niggling at me. Writing those both posts, my emotional reaction was consistently stronger and more negative than seemed explicable by their topics alone – as though there was something else under it, some deeper irk I couldn’t consciously describe, but which was nonetheless feeding into my reaction. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was; and now, finally, I think I’ve drawn a bead on it. So!

Regardless of their political orientation, most people can admit that:

a) sexism exists as a part of human culture; and

b) has done so for thousands of years.

Even people who insist that our current, enlightened society is sexism-free can usually admit that, once upon a time, things were otherwise, and that this has been true for the vast majority – if not all of – human history. So, following on from this logic, any SFF novel set in either:

a) a fictional society whose culture is modeled on that of a historical civilisation; or

b) a future society whose culture is modeled on that of either a present or historical civilisation

will, unless the author actively chooses otherwise, incorporate certain aspects of real-world culture into the narrative by default. These defaults are many and varied, but the one I want to talk about is sexism. Thus: because most readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect a certain level of sexism to exist in every society – even fictional ones – authors can infer sexism as a cultural default without ever needing to explain or address it. This leads to the formation and propagation of certain tropes, stereotypes and archetypes whose existence and validity are fundamentally dependent on the narrative presence of sexism generally; and more specifically, given the overwhelming number of fantasy novels set in a sort of idealised, white, medieval Europe, on a grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles. Some examples of this are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To An Ugly Man She Doesn’t Love;
  • The Lone And Therefore Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors;
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders;
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils;
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled;
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah;
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working;
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams;
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail;
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World; and
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

And so on.

Now: as per the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they’re inherently bad, or anything like that. What I am saying, though, is that these are all comparatively common tropes, and that, even lacking specific details of the stories in which they appear, it’s still obvious that, of necessity, they all must involve societies in which sexism plays a part. What’s more, because these examples all corroborate easily with a familiar sexist framework – that is, sexism against women in a Western/European setting – they don’t require much explanation. In fact, unless the story is actively trying to write an original culture or to tweak an existing one in ways that are plot-relevant, most readers are likely to consider any actual declaration of women are oppressed for these reasons to be not only redundant, but insulting – because obviously, we already know how it works! So if I pick up a novel and learn in the first chapter that the heroine is being pressured into marriage by her father, I don’t need to ask why, and chances are the author won’t bother to tell me. Certainly, the chances of the actual plot involving a push for social justice – a sort of SFF suffragettism, if you will – are slim to none. All I’m meant to infer that sexism exists, that the female characters will be hindered accordingly, and that otherwise I should just get on with the story.

And most of the time, the author takes it no further. We are left with sexism as a background detail: one which is used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters and the total absence of others, but which is never actually addressed. Which, in instances where the protagonist is male, or where the majority of the cast is male, leaves us instantly with a screaming, red-faced anachronism: where are the actual sexists? Why, if sexism in this society is so deep-seated, are the heroes so unusually enlightened? Here is why; I will tell you the secret. Because we are meant to like them. Funnily enough, most authors have cottoned on to the fact that writing openly sexist heroes is less heroic than it is disgusting; that it’s sort of difficult to hail Weapons McFighty, Trueking Noob and Roamer Nomadson as the exalted Lords of Awesome when they’ve spent the majority of the book acting like entitled jerks.

Except, here’s the other secret: this is completely untrue.  Offhand, I could name you half a dozen fantasy novels where open, narratively-acknowledged sexism on behalf of the characters has neither prevented the book from being excellent nor the hero from being heroic. True, it’s made them more complex (gasp!) and probably less likable, but it’s also made them more human, forced the reader to actually think about sexism, and tied the characterisation to the worldbuilding in a realistic and consistent way.

This is not the only way to address the presence of default sexism. You can, for instance, construct interesting and believable histories for your male characters which explain their unusual sense of equality – provided that you also allow the women to find it unusual, rather than just taking it for granted. You can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focusing exclusively on those few exceptional women who’ve avoided it, such that your characters – and, by extension, the audience – are forced to view it as more than just an inevitable background detail. Then again, you could avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You could write an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic!

But just using sexism as a default while simultaneously including characters whose ambivalence to, distance from or disconnect with the problem only serves to diminish its impact and make it a background issue? That makes you not only a lazy, unoriginal writer, but one who actually perpetuates sexism by training the reader to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences, because that’s just how things work, and anyway women’s issues are boring.

And this is my problem, the thing that underlies all the beefs I have right now with UF and YA and dystopias in particular, but also with a bunch of other things in general: the simple fact that too many authors shrink away from acknowledging the default sexism of their settings when everything in their stories suggests its relevance. I am not asking you to use your writing as a vehicle for feminist discourse – actually, no, wait, I sort of am, if by feminist discourse you mean not letting sexism pass without comment, which is also weirdly synonymous with being a decent human. I just want you to admit that this is a problem, and that perhaps making it a background detail without any sort of commentary beyond ‘Oh my female character was being oppressed but now she’s escaped or been rescued, so that’s cool,’ is, you know, unhelpful.

For instance! Are you:

  • Writing a story where your heroine is either the lone woman in her field or one of an elite few ladies? Then tell me why! If she’s battling uphill against an entrenched culture of sexism, show it to us – don’t just rely on inference. Fighting sexism in the workplace is hard enough when you’re an office temp, let alone fighting manticores or saving the world! And if there’s no culture of sexism, then why are there so few ladies? Were lots of them killed off in a major battle? Is the job itself actually considered low-status in a context where women tend to hold higher-status positions? Or did you just default to a male majority because that’s how the world often looks and you didn’t actually think about it, even though you’re trying to write about an institution that prizes equality?
  • Writing a story where, due to some stupid quirk of magical biology, the female of the species is much rarer than the male, so that all the guys fight over her and go swoony for her lady-originating specialness?  Here’s an idea: don’t. I am truly, thoroughly sick of this trope. If I happen across one more story where there’s a bajillion boy-werewolves, boy-vampires, boy-magicians or whatever and then lo and behold, a lady werewolf-vampire-magician shows up and OMG SHE’S THE ONLY GIRL BECAUSE REASONS, LET’S FIGHT!, I will SET THE BOOK ON FIRE. To me, this is the most toxic, awful form of default sexism because it builds into biology the idea that girls must either be unspecial and irrelevant or special and put on a pedestal while simultaneously providing an excuse to perpetuate all the very worst gender stereotypes (New Special Girl Resented By Special And Unspecial Girls Alike,  Boys Fighting Over Potential Mates Ladies In A Way That’s Meant To Be Hot, Hierarchy And Sexism Are How Our Society Work So Deal With It) as a species-based culture. Plus and also, this is doubly ridiculous because healthy animal populations produce an equal number of males and females; when human populations end up with more men that women, it’s invariably because sexist cultures encourage sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. So not only does it make no biological sense, it also ends up taking some of the very worst aspects of real-world sexism and using it to justify sexy romance plots. Which, I’m sorry, no.
  • Writing a story where women’s bodies and sexuality are policed, reproduction is exalted and all the hallmarks of deeply coercive sexism apply? Then actually call it sexism! Show the consequences! Or at least, show the indoctrination! Explain how the system is maintained, how it came into being, and why people believe it! Show what happens to LBGTQ people! Don’t be afraid to write radical characters! These last two are particularly important: I am getting massively tired of sexually coercive dystopias whose protagonists are always straight people in love, and whose rebellion therefore stems wholly from not being free to choose each other, rather than from the fact that, you know, they’re living in a dystopia based around eugenics, enforced heterosexuality and state-sanctioned rape. Romance is great and all, but if you’ve built a setting founded on sexual atrocities, then glossing over them because it detracts from the romance is sort of… atrocious.

And so on.

Sexism is not the only social default thus applied – racism and homophobia continue to crop up in SFF for much the same reasons. Default sexism might well be more common, but only because the exclusion of POC/LGBTQ characters from so many SFF works means that problems of race and homophobia are even more deep-seated in the real world than problems of sexism, making it harder for those conversations to be had in reference to fictional works from which they’re too often erased. Women are everywhere – it’s hard to ignore us completely – but thoughtless authors can and do whitewash and straightwash their stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. Which is, I think, somehow more terrible than if they’d made an active decision. The freedom to  ignore the relevance of intersectionality is just another form of privilege, and arguably one more vicious than benign. Remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

In a nutshell, then:  I am sick of stories that pay lip-service to equality (sexism exists, and is bad) while actively working against its principles (but it’s boring, so let’s get over it). More importantly, I am sick of this process being so much in the way of a default setting that we’ve stopped even questioning it – making it a hidden process rather than something overt. In the immortal words of Caitlin Moran:

These days, a plethora of shitty attitudes to women have become diffuse, indistinct or almost entirely concealed. Fighting them feels like trying to combat a mouldy, mildew smell in the hallway, using only a breadknife. Because – like racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia – modern sexism has become cunning. Sly. Codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying ‘nigger’ but might make a pointed reference to someone black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, so a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes that they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing….

It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.

  1. Alaya says:

    I loved this. You’ve articulated marvelously something that has seriously bugged me about Epic Fantasy for years– in fact, I’d say that (along with this bizarro Monarchist default) is the reason why I basically can’t read it anymore. Sexism in fantasy is still sexism–why don’t the characters complain about it more? Have to deal with it/struggle with it more? I haven’t read too many (none?) of those explicitly sexual dystopias, but your descriptions make me feel like I should not bother. What a waste of a concept, if you’re not going to explicitly deal with the sexist implications.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Glad you agree! And yeah, the dystopia fail is really getting to me at the moment – by which I mean, romance taking the place of issues in dystopia is really getting to me at the moment. Both things I love! And yet, it’s all too often like putting peanut butter with bolognese: individually delicious, but alarming in combination.

  2. softsenta says:

    Hooray. Thank you for summing this up. I too get fed up by the sexisim in fantasy especially becasue it shows the poverty of our fantasys. Its fantasy for god sake. Can’t we write out the sexism completely and have the kind of world we’d like to live in. Apparently no. Actually if you will forgive the plug .I am currenlty working on a fantasy novel set in a world where women are hte entititled ones. I’ve just sent of the partial to the agent. I’m trying to do a sexy fantasy romp in which women are equal and perhaps dominant.
    The interesting thing I found (apart from how sexist my own preconceptions are) was how hard it is to then find an alternative source of struggle for hte narrative and how very tempting the old tropes are. They do make life sooo easy. But its no excuse I’ve switched to classism now. We all struggle to make a sucess of our lives in this world. At least its something we all male and female face and it reflects our modern world far more believably.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Cheers Jane! I know exactly what you mean about the preconceptions altering: it’s staggering how many traditional SFF character gambits for ladies are dependent on sexism. But you take that away, and suddenly it’s like, ‘Wait – you mean they can have adventures and wrestle with class and politics WITHOUT being disadvantaged for being ladies? REVELATION!’

      And by all means, plug away – I’m working on a project right now where the two relevant cultures are respectively polyamorous and matriachal. Maybe we should do a manuscript swap and give each other feedback? 🙂

  3. softsenta says:

    Hooray! Thanks for saying that. I’ve been wondering for a long time about fantasy in this light. I mean its fantasy for godsake! Why do we always default to a world in which sexism is so very strong? Why couldn’t more women try to create fantasy worlds in which we are more equal and not constantly being put down and in danger of being raped? One role spec fic has played historically is helping people imagine what different socieities might be like.
    If you will forgive the plug I’ve been trying to do that in book I’m working on at the moment. I’ve just sent out the partial. fingers crossed. I’m trying to create a sexy chick lit type romp in a fantsy world.
    It took a lot of work to set up a world in which women were equal. A number of things struck me in doing this. (one is my own ingrained sexisim sadly. But a life without struggle is a life half lived)
    You really are stuck for easy sources of tension when you try and make women equal. As you say, these tropes save a lot of explaination and a lot of thinking. Having that easy system we all know does say a lot of work for both writer and reader.
    You have to fall back on the heroine struggling to make a sucess of her life (which oddly I found slightly unsympathetic alas ingrained sexism here I suspect, but also material sucess is not a very heroic goal while freedom is)
    I’ve swtiched to classism as my source of oppression. Its something we all male and female experience. I’m watching myself carefully to. Trying to resist the temptation to put a little subtle sexism back th other way in.
    Thanks again for a great article.
    Jane Routley

  4. kveale says:

    Thank you for this. It’s clearly written and has helped me signpost some things I want to tilt at in my own work.

    It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

    It’s always so delightful when people put up detailed anthropological arguments about why it makes sense for women to be oppressed and kept at home in medieval times, where the existence of magic and ghosts is fine and no ‘science’ is brought to bear.

    oh, for the ability to shake people over broadband connection.

    • fozmeadows says:

      To cite my favourite ever quote, one day I will become rich and famous when I invent a device that allows me to stab people in the face over the internet.

      The issue you’re describing is one that easily deserves a post in its own right. And so I’m writing one in response, because this reply was getting far too long 🙂

      • kveale says:

        I’m simultaneously glad to have made a contribution, and sorry for whatever I did to your blood pressure.

        I’ll be delighted to see whatever it inspired, though!

  5. […] that follow. This particular article is in response to a reader comment on a previous article, Default Narrative Sexism, which is a particularly potent read for writers engaged in worldbuilding and character creation. […]

  6. I recently blogged about my disappointment with the premise of “Brave” for much the same reason. I expect to enjoy the movie, but I would rather see a story about a hero who happens to be a girl, rather than yet another exceptional-girl-overcomes-fact-that-she’s-a-girl. (

    I really enjoy egalitarian worlds because they open up more _scope_ for the female characters. In too many books, even if the character gets to be something other than a princess or a prostitute, their focus is on girl overcoming fact of girlness (of being ‘the female character’ rather than a person).

    • fozmeadows says:

      Yes to all of this. I am so sincerely looking forward to Brave, but I still couldn’t help feeling disappointed that the main antagonistic premise is that of a feminine mother trying to demasculinise her daughter. Because seriously, if you’re going to tell a story about women overcoming the disadvantage of being female, why break the only possible sorority by making the oppressor-character female? Or better yet, rather than default to the Bad Dad stereotype, why not write a wholly supportive family and have society be the obstacle? So, yes: BLAH.

      And egalitarian scope for female characters is a very nice way of putting it. Really enjoying this with my current WIP!

  7. Tuppy Glossop says:

    What an excellent post! As someone writing a fantasy novel that tries to deal with the issue of sexism, this has been quite useful to me. The plot actually involves one of the archetypal plots you described, specifically the widowed queen trying to keep her throne. One of her male rivals, however, is secretly being used by the noble family that raised him to basically cause a kingdom-wide feminist revolution. The fellow is himself is a confused nine-year-old boy, and the king’s bastard. His faction serves as the antagonists at times, simply due to the main character’s political affiliations. The main character is fairly sexist, though his attitudes change as he witnesses a lot of his society’s injustices.

    As a white male, I find that I must tread carefully with issues of gender dynamics, lest I allow my position of privilege to negatively affect my work and my outlook. Posts like this one help me stay on the right track. Thank you very much for providing such an insightful evaluation. I look forward to reading more of your writing!

  8. […] the film was sexist – I mean it showed sexism. Given how cross I’ve been recently about stories that posit sexism without sexists, it felt huge to watch an action film actually tackle the issue. As a villain, Hyperion is […]

  9. madameloon says:

    Great article! I don’t suppose anyone knows of any examples of true gender equality in fantasy fiction? I’m not talking sci fi or feminist utopia or matriachy but true gender equality. I’m writing an Honours thesis on women in heroic fantasy and I’m interested in seeing examples of egalitarianism in action and how it impacts women’s stories. I’d really appreciate the help!

    • fozmeadows says:

      Glad you liked it! For examples of gender equal societies in SFF, I’d suggest:
      – the Six Duchies in Robin Hobb’s Farseer triloy;
      – Wendar in Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series;
      – the Adem in book two of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle;
      – the soldiers in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series;
      – elven society in Katharine Kerr’s Deverry cycle; and
      – Corus in Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy.
      There’s probably more – the works of Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ would be another good starting point – but I think it’s important to note that even in fiction, gender equality isn’t a monolith, because it still has to be situated in the context of culture. All the above examples are extremely different, and most still contain inequality and prejudice; in Elliott’s books, for instance, the main character, Liath, suffers terrible abuse, not because she’s female (although some of the abuse is sexual), but because of her poverty, race and family circumstances. Similarly, the cultural vectors affect what behaviour is considered appropriate for anyone, regardless of gender, what behaviour is appropriate for a particular class, caste, profession or race, and what beliefs and actions are vaunted in society. So writing gender equal societies can still have quite a complex impact on women’s stories.

      Good luck with the thesis! 🙂

    • mollydot says:

      The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. It does start with her running away from marrying, but she joins an army without disguising herself as a man, and there are other women in the army.

  10. madameloon says:

    Great post! I’m glad to hear people talking about this – I’m doing a thesis on women in heroic fantasy and am especially interested in gender equal worlds. Unfortunately, I can’t find any examples. If anyone has suggestions it would be greatly appreciated! I’m not talking matriarchies or sci fi or feminist utopias, I’m talking actual male-female equality in a fantasy setting. I’m starting to wonder if such novels even exist …

  11. […] take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better […]

  12. […] why half the internet is routinely baffled by the presence of a black Guinevere in Merlin; why the presence of female cavalry in an RPG setting is apparently enough for people to call bullshit on the whole endeavour; why you have people like […]

  13. jay francis says:

    Finally (probably) you might want to look at what seems to be the ultimate book on the topic: Goldstein’s award winning and Jane Goodall recommended War And Gender:

    ..Which does explain very well why women warriors were NOT a common thing:

    >>>Data on strength are available from the US military – not an ideal sample, but similar to the general population in height. A 1982 report rates five areas of strength and gives male soldiers’ strength relative to females as follows: upper-body, 72 percent higher; leg extensor, 54 percent; trunk flexor, 47 percent; lean body mass, 33 percent; and aerobic capacity, 28 percent. Upper-body strength, the area of greatest gender difference, is emphasized in military training.<<<

    Remember, these are well-nourished, selected and trained soldiers. Women simply can't be trained – on **average** to be strong enough to fight men as, say, hoplites or knights. Oh – and as that page goes on to say, those strength differences make a big difference in marching with a load as well as (obviously) melee fighting.

    So if you want plausible female warriors on a semi-large scale without invoking magic then you need to look at special circumstances and tasks. These can NOT involve marching with loads. Instead look at selected light cavalry (although I'd still worry about upper body strength – maybe the regiment specializes in recon?) defensive warriors for a society low on men for the task (perhaps because they'd rather have upper status females trained in weapons than lower status men) etc. Which is interesting, because it gives you plot germs – eg Penelope wants to join the Boudican Hussars, the army's sole female cavalry regiment. It's an accepted part of Boudican society with an honorable record stretching back two centuries, but still some men distrust it, others want the prestige of seducing a woman hussar, etc. Or the Rin clan is committed to a desperate gamble: all the men are away fighting to end the rule of the evil regent. But the regent has hired pirates to raid the clan's territory while the men are away. Will Akio, the nerdy would-be nun and historian, daughter of the clan lord, be able to put together a defense using the clan's women? Should you arm the peasants the clan rules over or not? Can she control her headstrong cousin (who could be an injured male fighter or a gung-ho woman.)

    But the idea that women widely fought as warriors ever in human history, no, not really. Upper body strength made it suicidal for individuals, and fertility for civilizations.

  14. softsenta says:

    Hi Foz,
    Always love your default narrative sexism posts. They keep me on my toes as a writer.

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