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The Age of Man- Sexism in Fantasy

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on November 23, 2015

Why are you all playing in Tolkien's clubhouse and then acting surprised at the "no girls allowed" sign?

The Lord of the Rings was not the first fantasy novel ever written but considering the impact that it had on the genre it may as well have been. Since then wave after wave of fantasy authors have been recreating his world with minor alterations. More recently we have seen deconstruction works written that are all terribly clever and highly praised and still telling the same damned story except under the guise of being "ironic."

The Lord of the Rings was an amazing book. It opened up the possibility of created, layered, mythology in fiction. Admittedly what most future authors took from it was elves and dwarves and wizards rather than the possibility of scope but that isn't the focus of today's complaint. Lord of the Rings spanned millennia and a dozen nations and races with rich intricate histories and it contained 3 women in total. One of whom was mainly referred to rather than seen.

If you want to find the root of a cultural problem you look at that culture's history. In the pulp fantasy era women existed for either sex or as a trophy. They had no personality beyond a physical description and they very rarely wore clothes. Following generations drew from pulp and the Lord of the Rings to create their own little worlds and the sexism was refined and set into fantasy as a foundation.

Now we have Gamergate and the Sad Puppies. We have men who lose immersion in a story if there is a female blacksmith but not if there is a dragon. They harken back to history as their first defence. "A female smith isn't historically accurate." Fantasy is not history. It is under no obligation to fit the historical mold. Much of the fantasy genre draws from our real world's history as inspiration but it has no requirement to. Not to mention that historically, despite the ridiculously sexist societies that women in the european middle ages lived in, there are still historical records of female smiths who could forge rings around their male counterparts.

The real world and a fantasy world intersect in only two places. In the mind of the author and in the mind of the reader. If the author is sexist or has unwittingly absorbed the sexist themes of the genre then their work will reflect that. If the reader is sexist or they have absorbed the negative themes then they will reject a story that does not conform to their idea of a fantasy story. Because the fantasy genre is so incestuous it is in no way surprising to find that sexist themes migrate into works that do not even address matters of gender.

The vital point that many fantasy authors who are trying to remain neutral on the subject of sexism don't seem to realise is that all art is political. If it is not promoting change then it is supporting the status quo. So much of fantasy is devoted to being unchanging, arcadian fields and forests as far as the eye can see, by repeating the same patterns over and over it is enforcing crude gender roles in the name of "accuracy."

Normally when a genre stagnates people lose interest. When fantasy stagnates, its die hard fans claim that it is better than ever and keep things afloat until the next good book comes along. Complaining all the while about the literary ghetto that they are consigned to.

New work is being done in the fantasy genre. Exciting new stories are appearing from outside the mainstream humdrum of straight white men and being ignored as vigorously as possible by those biased reviewers and publishers that want to maintain the status quo. Even at the cost of their own success. Change is frightening. Societal change can be downright terrifying to the people who benefit most from the current design of a society. But to people who withdraw into fantasy to get away from all the issues of the real world, change is the death of their safe place. The doors to Narnia are swinging shut. The age of man is at its end.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More