Friday, May 25, 2007

Women in Historical Fiction

Lance Mannion, to whom I've referred before, has been pretty vocal lately on the topic of feminism. With the release of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, he thinks it's a shame that Keira Knightley has, for all intents and purposes, been turned into a boy. His point, shorter: in an attempt to prove that women are the equals of men, writers are losing sight of the feminine aspects of their characters.

This is something that's bothered me about a lot of period pieces lately. It seems necessary to show that women in the olden days were Just As Tough as men, even though in those actual times, they were discouraged from showing it. Lance's point, an excellent one, is that women can be men's equals--and have been, throughout history--without being equal at physical skills (specifically, fighting).

From a writer's standpoint, I think these are important things to remember. In your novel, especially if it's historical/high fantasy, feminine characters (in general) survive by their wits; masculine characters survive by their muscles. Note that feminine characters are not always women; masculine characters are not always men. However, the exceptions should be notable. And you should have some balance.

In Common and Precious, there is a definite (and intentional) contrast between the two main characters, the one masculine, the one feminine (and they happen to be a man and woman, respectively, or at least a male and female tiger). Thinking back on it, I don't think it ever even occurred to Melinda (more appropriately, to me writing her) to fight her way out of her predicament. It just wouldn't be in her character. Does that make her any less strong or powerful? Well, I hope not.

Any other good examples of strong female characters who aren't just "boys with breasts" (Lance's words)?

3 comments:

NedSanyour said...

Paksennarian's Tale (sp?) tackled that stuff, and for whatever reason, was not annoying for the first couple of books. To me, at any rate. The story was set in the Generally Accepted Heroic Fantasy World, and Paks was part of a mercenary company. Women were rare, but not unknown, and while there were a couple of moments of tension due to gender, she wasn't really Jackie Robinson. The whole time, though, I wondered when it would all fall apart.
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Some MZB Darkover works that way-there is even one where the whole "man taking traditional powerful woman's role lets us see how silly these things are, as long as the individual can do the job." In so far anyone in her books is a character besides Lew Alton, women and men are different.
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I do take some exception to the, "Feminine heroes solve by guile, masculine by strength" but that is just because masculine/male heroes are so pervasive, there are classic examples of men using wits all up and down myth, classics and modern fiction- from The Trickster to Kickaha the Trickster, as it were. I think the more interesting thing you bring up is that *characters* need to be more than the sum of physical characteristics, and equal doesn't mean identical.

Must pause here

NedSanyour said...

OK, to rant some more:
To oversimplify, we will use "guile" and "strength" as problem solving characteristics assigned to gender. And these conflicts are big and exciting or they are not fiction I will be interested in.

I think it isn't just strategic tendencies, it is motivations. To descend into more over-simplified real life paradigms... Feminine problem solving is committed (say sociologists) to consensus and avoiding conflict, with an awareness that trouble could result from ruffling feathers. Masculine problem solving is more direct and usually does not account for anyone holding grudges.

It is interesting that Robin Hood, as wit and guile-based a hero as any, is also the classic masculine hero. His encounter with Little John is a great example, right down to the lack of anger at being bested in a fight. Similarly, Friar Tuck. Robin Hood lost a lot of fights, really, didn't he?

I think that what most often rings false in characters as to their gender is their goals, or definition of winning. The author may change the tools, but the characters all use them the same way. Like in your original statements, "Just giving the warrior breasts doesn't make her feminine. It makes her female."

I guess the problem is that it isn't just problem solving technique, or Definition of Victory, or level of compassion for the weak, or nurturing tendencies that makes gender convincing; it is the balance of all those.

But you really can't put that much detail in a book; furthermore, with modern writing's conviction that you can't "tell" anything, but must "show" it, we lose the narrative voice so you don't get a 3rd person omniscient view. In addition, you don't get any other point of view character attributing characteristics to anyone for the same reason. I think it is useful, if done well, for someone in the story to tell me that this or that character seemed cheerful or kind or whatever.


I can't think of anything except Eilonwy from Prydain right now, who was not just female but also "young, headstrong, and spoiled." Sort of a stereotype- but it worked as a real, well-rounded character. And very female/girlish.

More work. Must pause.

Tim Susman said...

The thing I was trying to get across, and clearly failed, was not so much that Men should be Masculine and Women should be Feminine, which you seize on here: there are classic examples of men using wits all up and down myth. In fact, one of the great Tricksters of myth, Coyote, was well known not only for dressing up as a woman, but actually taking on the role of a woman in a marriage. Similarly, you have Loki, who became a mare and fathered Sleipnir. So the tricksters definitely have a more feminine quality to them than the stereotypical masculine heroes like Thor (Problem -> hammer).

Even in the "Pirates" franchise which started this whole discussion, look at Captain Jack Sparrow, the trickster of that story. He definitely has a lot of feminine qualities about him, from his outlandish dress to his affectations--at least in the first movie. In the second movie, than feminine-masculine balance is lost with him as well as with Keira Knightley, I think, as he becomes more of just a "get into bad situations and betray your friends" kind of pirate than the "solve problems through cunning" type.

And my final point is more that the really interesting characters are ones that can achieve a balance of the two types. We talked a while ago about feminine problem solving versus masculine--circular versus straight-line, again emphasizing that there are women who employ masculine methods and men who employ feminine methods and, best of all, people who use a little of both.

There's a whole other discussion there of the dismissal of feminine thinking (i.e. holistic understanding and problem solving) in a masculine culture where the answer to a problem is to go to war, but that's for some other time. I do think that the interplay and balance between the two problem-solving types is what makes for interesting stories and great comedies.