Did you know that human history is full of examples of sexist, patriarchal societies where women were discriminated against? I’m sure you are, as a reader of The Mary Sue. I’m pretty sure you are as a person alive in the 21st Century, too. Yet so many of the historically inspired fantasy worlds we love are remarkably intent on reminding us of this.
When I raise this issue with someone, I often get some variation of this in reply. Sexism in (to pick the most obvious example) medieval fantasy is okay or even desirable, the thinking goes, because in the real European Middle Ages sexism was the status quo. There’s no denying that, but fantasy is called fantasy because it’s a fantasy. There were no dragons in the real Middle Ages either, but we don’t have a problem including them.
For me, a prime case study for this is Game of Thrones, being the medieval fantasy work that’s attained the most mainstream popularity in quite some time. So much popularity that you’ll find a cookbook inspired by it and its novel antecedents on endcaps at your local Barnes & Noble. Stumbling across it, I flipped open the front flap and was asked:
“Ever wonder what it’s like to attend a feast at Winterfell? Wish you could split a lemon cake with Sansa Stark, scarf down a pork pie with the Night’s Watch, or indulge in honeyfingers with Daenerys Targaryen?”
Which I found rather amusing because, while I think it’s an extremely well-made show that I usually enjoy, I have a hard time thinking of a fictional world that I would less like to actually live in. I say that as a male who doesn’t want to fight petty wars or be cut in half; the situation for women, with Westeros’ unbending gender roles, rampant prostitution, and ubiquitous culture of abuse and rape, is obviously much worse.
Don’t get me wrong: I think Game of Thrones is quite successful when it comes to portraying interesting, complicated female characters, and a good many of them, especially in its second season. You could even say that it’s impressive that George R. R. Martin, not to mention the actresses who play them, have managed to make characters like Lady Catelyn, Arya, Daenerys, and the awesome Brienne of Tarth as compelling as they are considering they’re members of a fictional society that is designed to minimize women’s power over the world and themselves. Plenty of less talented people have designed such societies and ended up with female characters that are accordingly marginalized.
What I question is the purpose of creating an imaginary civilization to be this way in the first place. I agree with Becky Chambers when she says that if female characters are pushed to the sidelines in a video game, “‘that’s just how it is in that world’ is not good enough.” I’d say “that’s just how it was in the real historical setting this is based on” is not good enough either—and I don’t see much beyond that when it comes to most sexism in fantasy.
In my opinion this applies to all historical fantasy, including that which turns the “history” dial up a lot higher than Game of Thrones does. Look at Assassin’s Creed III, which takes place during the American Revolution. Making the protagonist—who, it should be noted, is a surreptitious, ninja-like killer—a woman was reportedly considered, but according to the game’s creative director Alex Hutchinson,
“I think lots of people want it, [but] in this period it’s been a bit of a pain. The history of the American Revolution is the history of men. … There are a few people, like John Adams’ wife, [Abigail]—they tried very hard in the TV series to not make it look like a bunch of dudes, but it really is a bunch of dudes.”
You don’t say. So we should just sit tight until you work in a historical period that isn’t the history of men then?
Spoiler alert: There basically isn’t one, certainly not before the 20th Century at least, that’s been written that way. The history of the American Revolution might be the history of men, but that’s because the history of pretty much everything is the history of unequal gender roles.
I don’t mean to badmouth history altogether. On the contrary, I’d characterize myself as a lover of history, and I think it’s terrific that so many creators of fiction are inspired by it. We have a ton to appreciate when it comes to the people, stories, and art that history gives us, just as we have a ton of bad things to recognize and learn from so we don’t do them today.
But I think we need to think hard about what the point of historically inspired fantasies are. I think the main purpose of drawing upon history to inform such universes is to take advantage of the cultural and artistic motifs that are part of our shared human folklore, and that’s it.
I’d argue that they rarely have much to do with exploring issues of the real history in question—the patriarchy of Game of Thrones is commented on but never seriously challenged, and I doubt many people playing Assassin’s Creed III would consider the protagonist’s maleness a statement about gender issues of the time.
Which is why preserving the patriarchal societies in so many fantasies doesn’t make sense to me. I understand the argument that we should not whitewash history, and I fully agree—when it comes to actual history scholarship. But abiding by the historical fact of sexism in a fictional universe that is otherwise not bound by historical fact, I’d say, accomplishes nothing as much as reinforcing the idea that it’s the default order of things.
That’s a problem because of the ways it still is the default order of things. Art has had enormous power to affect progress, but it can also have a troubling fealty to traditions both real and imagined. It’s that impulse that led to Katee Sackhoff being booed at Comic-Con for playing a character whose version in the original Battlestar Galactica was male. Or makes Aaron Sorkin wistfully yearn on The Newsroom for the days when America was the greatest country in the world because we “acted like men” and were “informed by great men.”
And while it might not qualify as art, I cringe at how an edutainment behemoth like the History Channel chooses to emphasize the manliness of history as much as it can. Their miniseries about 19th Century robber barons or how science shaped human history might be fine programs, but I don’t know why they need titles like The Men Who Built America or Mankind.
History needs to stop being used as an excuse in the fantasy stories of TV, film, and video games that are, in general, male-dominated whether they’re history-based or not. Women and girls deserve to fully participate in all fantasy constructs, including the most traditional historically inspired ones. And without, to quote Becky Chambers again, the “Hey Sweetheart Scenario,” in which even when a female character is a warrior/soldier/monarch/lumberjack, she still has to combat frequent prejudice about her gender. Not only is that perpetuating “sexism-as-default,” it’s also incredibly lazy writing.
As far as I’m concerned that even applies to stories set in what otherwise seems to be the real world, if they’re dealing with fictional characters. I don’t fault the makers of John Adams for failing to hide the fact that the political machinations of the American Revolution were carried out by a bunch of dudes. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Earth Prime-set stories about female pirates, female Old West gunslingers or all-female ’50s rock ‘n’ roll bands. I think more of those would be a very good thing.
The creators of fiction don’t have to repeat the sexist past. Look at counterexamples like Xena: Warrior Princess, Skyrim, or The Sims Medieval, which take place in historically inspired worlds yet show men and women as equal in pretty much every way and, furthermore, treat that as normal.
Or even better, just examine Assassin’s Creed III a little deeper. Alex Hutchinson said that history tied their hands when it came to the game. But then they made the main character a Native American—a bold decision I applaud, and also one that makes little historical sense for someone who commands Patriot troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill and captains frigates in the Caribbean Sea. And there’s an even more pointed counterexample: They gave the main game’s PlayStation Vita counterpart, which takes place in the same time period, a female protagonist after all.
When it comes to fantasy universes, no matter their level of historical inspiration, sexism is—like everything—a choice. And it’s one that should be made a lot less often