Women and Other Worlds: The Feminine Mystique Comes to Fantasy


      ‘My subject, then, is things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else: things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say.’

   So ends the introduction to Lucian’s Verae Historiae, often regarded as the first work of fantasy or science fiction in the Western literary tradition. In his explanation of how the work came to be written, Lucian appears to be refreshingly honest in laying out his motivation for writing: ‘I too in my vanity was anxious to bequeath something to posterity’. In so doing, he views himself as having been influenced by the great Greek writers of the past, such as Homer and Herodotus, and lays claim to be considered as forming part of the literary traditions of which they are the founding fathers. Yet as the quote with which we began makes clear, he nevertheless also sees himself as an innovator. Being ‘much more sensible about it than others are’, he seeks to disarm his reader by being brutally honest about the completely fictitious nature of his writing: ‘I will say one thing that is true, and that is that I am a liar’.

     It is tempting to see in all this honesty on the part of the founder of the fantasy genre a precursor of a much later preoccupation with the nature of narrative. Lucian can be read as a post-modern deconstructivist avant la lettre, the author who, in telling us a story, is very concerned to tell us that he is telling us a story. At a very basic level, it is true that Lucian and Derrida can be seen as having a similar preoccupation with the degree of relationship between the world of a text and the sensory world which we all to some degree experience. Yet Lucian’s task is much simpler than Derrida’s questioning of the fundamentals of human communication.

     Like much of the best of the genre which it sired, Verae Historiae is a satire, an attempt to puncture the perceived pomposity of the classical writers by undermining their tropes and conventions. It is an approach to fantasy writing which has proved remarkably productive: from Gulliver’s Travels to the Discworld series, many classics of the genre have partly found their origins in literary parody or imitation. Indeed, in the case of Pratchett, the process received a pleasing metafictional twist. The plot of the first Discworld novel was intended as satire of the large number of poor-quality Tolkien imitations to be found on the book market of the 1980s, thus being satire on imitations of an imitation of the ancient Nordic sagas!

     From parodies of literary form it is but a short step to satire of contemporary society and its institutions. The use of another world to highlight important and dangerous aspects of this one is another staple element of the fantasy and science fiction genre, from the role played by the gentle and somewhat parochial inhabitants of the Shire in saving the world from a demonic dictator in the East of Middle Earth (published by Tolkien in the 1940s) to the bioengineering of Crake in Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (published 2003). One of the most recent and popular works in this spirit has been the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Combining fears over the distribution of the world’s resources with an increasingly voyeuristic visual culture, she creates a disturbing dystopian future where the allocation of wealth between districts of the country is dependent on a televised gladiatorial combat between teenagers. In one crucial respect, however, Collins differs from many previous authors of the genre in choosing to make her central protagonist a woman.

     Much attention has been paid in recent writing about the genre to the issue of the feminine in fantasy. Alongside The Hunger Games, one could name The Maze Runner, Throne of Glass, and Trudi Canavan’s The Magician’s Guild as recent high profile novels which form part of a growing trend to represent womanhood in other worlds. Going beyond novels and conventional literature, the recent film Age of Ultron provoked a storm of discussion and criticism over the treatment of the female characters of the Marvel comic universe. In a similar vein, the precise nature of the relationship between the (always male) British television character of the Doctor from Doctor Who and his suggestively-named female ‘companions’ has stimulated some passionate feminist critiques and questions.

     Some might suggest that this new focus on the feminine is simply a function of a changing audience. The old stereotypes of the teenaged boy-reader (or, more disturbing, the middle-aged man who still acts like a teenaged boy) who has an excellent grasp of Elvish but a very poor grip on his personal hygiene and the writer with superb facial hair but few social skills are on the wane. ‘Geek chic’ is in; niche is the new mainstream, and a new generation of gender-conscious fantasy and sci-fi fans are demanding intelligent, capable female characters who are agents of their own destinies. Away with Princess Leia in her impractical gold bikini; this is the age of the pragmatic Katniss Everdeen.

     Yet to explain these developments solely as a function of a changing audience would be to oversimplify them. Publishers are not merely responding to a new or emerging market. Rather, fantasy and science fiction writers are doing that which practitioners of their art have always done: allowing the preoccupations and concerns of our own universe to reflect in their fiction. All art, we are told, holds a mirror up to life, and these particular artistic genres make especially clear reflections. A greater female presence in the genre must therefore say something about gender perceptions in society as a whole, and we might gain useful insights by thinking a little more deeply about the ways in which women have recently been portrayed. We might take the portrayal of Katniss in the first volume of The Hunger Games as paradigmatic of the kind of portraiture we are wanting to think about. The fact that these books can also be classified as ‘young adult’ novels adds a further dimension to the analysis. They can be said to reflect not merely a particular perception of gender but to be aiming to present that perception to young men and women, thus subtly influencing the ways in which young people perceive themselves.

     Katniss is a girl who has been forced by circumstances to become very self-reliant. She has ended up largely taking responsibility for providing for her family–mother and younger sister–which has meant negotiating a shady underworld of poaching and under-the-counter deals (as well as mastering the hunting skills necessary to obtain the products to sell in this world in the first place). She has thus become resourceful and tough, one might say something of a tomboy. All of these qualities stand her in good stead when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the ‘hunger games’ of the title. She has the skills and determination to survive in the tough conditions of the arena. In all of this, very little is made of the fact that she is a woman. And–one might reasonably object–why should it be? We as a society have largely come to accept (if we didn’t know this already) that women and men must be seen as equals; they have the same legal rights, can perform the same jobs for which they should receive the same pay, and deserve the same amount of respect and dignity. This is all as it should be.

     Yet lurking within the proposition of equality is an ambiguity. It is an ambiguity which, perhaps, also lurks within the character of Katniss Everdeen. The common definition of equality would seem to involve something like a lack of distinction or difference. The statement ‘two plus two equals four’ might be taken to mean that it is irrelevant which side of the equation one uses; they are functionally the same. Many people unthinkingly assume that gender equality works the same way, and in one sense they are correct. It shouldn’t matter whether your local head teacher or politician or bus driver are male or female; they will be just as good (or bad) at their jobs either way. Yet the demand for equality between the genders cannot stop there because the danger inherent in treating gender equality as a mathematical equation is that you end up obliterating all distinction between the terms.

     Some people have indeed attempted to live lives without gender, carefully constructing and displaying their identities in an androgynous way. Yet they are very much in a minority, and it seems unlikely that the majority would ever feel comfortable joining them in abandoning something as deeply-felt as a distinction between male and female. Instead, the definition of equality must be nuanced. Rather than seeking to deny a difference, an increasing number of people are coming to see equality as the freedom to express one’s gender, regardless of which it is. That is to say, rather than seeking to become equal by being ‘like men’, another approach is to seek equal respect for that which is distinctively feminine.

     This is a conception of gender equality one also finds in the teaching of the Catholic Church, especially in the thought of the late Pope John Paul II. Faced with much discussion of gender in secular society, he reaffirmed that in the eyes of the Church, men and women had distinctive but complimentary roles to play in the world. Yet–it is equally important to note–those roles deserved equal dignity and respect: the other strand of his teaching (based on an exegesis of the opening to Genesis) was to stress that it was both men and women who together imaged the divine creator. In practical terms, this means that the distinctive roles of the genders should not take on a similar aspect to the ‘separate yet equal’ doctrine of racial segregation in the United States. A difference in roles should not, that is, mask substantive inequality.

   However, this line of thought–as beautiful and invaluable as many find it–leaves a major question unanswered. What exactly are the distinctive roles of the genders? How, in practical terms, do they manifest themselves in everyday life? Reflection on this question was, it seems to the present writer, part of what Pope Francis was asking for when he highlighted the need for ‘a new theology of women’. It must also be admitted that the present–male–writer is definitely and rather obviously not the person best equipped to begin to undertake a reflection on the distinctive nature of the feminine. Yet he is convinced that the world urgently needs to begin that task.

     Whether one is Catholic or not, it is important to think carefully about the messages about gender that we are (consciously or otherwise) engaging with every day. And–with the greatest respect to philosophers and theologians–such thinking is unlikely to begin for most people with the densely-reasoned tomes of academic study. Rather, it is characters like Katniss that form and shape perceptions of gender. In her blend of nurturing toughness, she presents–at least for this writer–a deeply attractive model of womanhood. Indeed, in that respect the fictional Katniss reminds this writer of a very real woman, one who nurtured her first-born son with all the tenderness of which a young mother is capable and yet was tough enough, when the time came, to stay by His side until the end as He was crucified for the sins of the world.

     In the recent surge of strong, confident, and feminine heroines in fantasy writing, then, we are not seeing a merely demographic trend. Rather, we seem to be seeing the emergence in this particular area of popular culture of a new and rich image of womanhood, an image which is both true and real (in no small part because written by women with the freedom to be themselves) and an image which deserves much contemplation.

By Gandalf