Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their 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 overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point – in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them – preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.

 

So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.

 

Comments
  1. Tasha Turner says:

    If I’m looking for reality in fantasy novels I am confused as to the definition of “fantasy”…

    Great post. Well said. I think I’m new to your blog thanks to a blog that linked me to Kameron’s post. But yeah I keep wondering how 50% of the population doesn’t exist & that so many think that the world is and always has been mostly populated by white men. As a kid this left me very confused in geography and history classes.

    In fiction I’ve been amazed at the number of white rich princes out there as well as dragons.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Chosen One is about the most exclusive job description on the market – yet it’s amazing how many of them you encounter in fantasy. Who knew?🙂

  2. T.L. Bodine says:

    I found this blog through that essay, and I’m grateful for it — this blog has certainly enriched my life🙂 As an English major, one of the things that always shocked me was just how “modern” certain things (especially matters of love and sexuality) are in even the most ancient narratives. It was also shocking to read things from multiple cultures and time periods that were outside the inevitable Westward progression of “civilization”. It’s easy to fall into the though-trap of “modern = progressive” and believe that every value we hold today is by definition more liberal than the values of yore, when that’s just patently untrue. And that’s only accounting for a tiny subset of society, not the whole world.

    Yet, as a writer, I sometimes hesitate when writing these self-same characters. The danger in writing LGBT or minority or any other “outlier” characters, is that once you do, you’re inevitably writing “about” them. By which I mean, you have the pressure of asking, “What message am I sending about X population? What stereotypes am I inadvertently portraying? Will people understand that I’m writing about THIS individual person, not that X character is a representative of X culture/race/gender?”

    That’s a lot of pressure to handle.

    • fozmeadows says:

      It’s definitely a lot of pressure, but it’s the kind of thing that can hopefully improve not only your writing, but your understanding of tropes – by stepping back to look at what we’ve written while asking what it says (or could be seen to say) about our subjects, we’re learning much more than if we just assumed we were destined to get it right.

    • Tasha Turner says:

      The more people who write outlier characters the more normal it will become to see them and the less pressure future authors will feel. So not only will you grow as an author but you might see during your lifetime it become “normal”.

      I’m seeing more and more of these discussions popping up. And I’m finding my way to outlier bloggers from white cis male bloggers.

  3. […] women have always fought in wars and done everything else that men did, those women were outliers by pointing out that the whole bloody fantasy genre is comprised of stories about outliers. So why is a white farmboy who is secretly a prince more acceptable to many than a black female […]

  4. Ash says:

    I was just wondering how to reconcile the character of Stephen Black in ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ to the idea of defaulting to the reality of historical prejudices. (Slight spoilers for the book so apologies if you haven’t read it). I thought that it was a more powerful indictment of the racist society of the time for it to portray Stephen’s situation in Regency England as ‘realistically’ as possible because of the inherently subversive nature of Stephen’s narrative trajectory. Although I would have also loved to have seen him also be one of the magicians who brought magic to England because can you imagine how awesome it would have been if Norrell, Strange and Stephen were to interact as equals and screw shit up together? I think that stories where characters overcome oppressive systems are important enough to still be needed to be told, especially when they’re done with subtlety and to the accompaniment of a character with agency as it is done here. But I dunno really, it’s definitely not the only interpretation to be had.

  5. […] Realism & Outliers (fozmeadows.wordpress.com) […]

  6. That’s quite true. I’d also point out that fantasy is often aristocracy-focused, and nobility as a fraction of a medieval population is probably a smaller fraction than female soldiers are of soldiers in general throughout history.

    Additionally, why should representation in fantasy be winner-take-all? It’s not as if only a single novel is allowed to exist at once. If there were only one story ever written about a warrior, then maybe that One Single Warrior Protagonist should be male, to reflect real-world demographics. If, however, there are thousands of stories about warriors, then maybe the protagonists could reflect demographics without each individual character being average: a fifth to a third of them could be female, and so on.

  7. […] Foz Meadows on Realism & Outliers: […]

  8. Lee says:

    If you can accept dragons, magic, alternate histories, etc. but choke on a female fighter or a protagonist of color, you’re not worried about “realism” — you’re worried about privilege. And there are a gazillion books out there which will cater to your severely-limited definition of “fantasy”; go read them, and shut up about the ones that don’t.

  9. […] Foz Meadows talks about realism and outliers in SFFH. […]

  10. […] themes regarding gender and acceptance are (unfortunately) still very current and relevant to the conversations held in the field today. The Left Hand of Darkness has so much to unpack, that I’d have to […]

  11. […] as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – […]

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