Thursday, March 10, 2011

In Defense of Traditional Gender Roles in Fantasy

OK, a title like that is bound to generate some controversy.  Piss people off, in fact.  And that's without all the discussion, some civil and some rancorous, that's gone on in the blogosphere in the last couple of weeks about morals, nihilism, "feminization", sexuality, differences in content due to author gender, and what exactly constitutes epic fantasy all stirring people's emotions up.

I'm not going to get into all of that here.  At least not in this post.  But I came across something I did want to respond to in a couple of these threads.  While it's not my intention to yank anyone's chain, that's probably certainly going to be one of the results.  So be it.  I've sat on this post for a week and a half, tinkering with it, to try to make it say exactly what I want to say and as much as possible eliminate any possibility of miscommunication on my part.  I'm not sure I've succeeded, but if I'm going to post this, I need to do so and move on.

Here's what I want to take issue with.  Foz Meadows, a writer with whom I'm not familiar, wrote a lengthy and eloquent post on her blog in which she discusses some potential reasons why women are more willing to read fantasy written from the "male gaze", as she and others call it, while male readers as a whole seem less willing to read fantasy written from the "female gaze."  No hard data was offered to support this idea, but I'm willing to accept it both for the sake of discussion and because I think she's probably right.  Now I'm not quite certain what this "gaze" is that some bloggers are referring to, unless it's simply a more trendy or politically correct term for viewpoint.  If it is, I don't see the reason for new terminology, and if it isn't just another word for viewpoint, I wish someone would please define it and explain how it differs from viewpoint.

But I digress.  The statement I take issue with is this:  "...the struggle, not just for female equality in traditional male fields, but for male equality in traditional female fields."  That in and of itself I can ignore.  But...someone on Kate Elliott's blog (quite a ways down the comments) said, "One of the things that took a long time to sink in with me is the realization that while all the various woman's lib movements over the past century and more have allowed women to attempt traditionally men's roles without lesser and lesser danger of shame as the years go do NOT have the same freedom to adopt female roles."  The tone of the comments that followed seemed to suggest that men should try to assume female roles.  It was evident from several discussions that these opinions are shared by more than just these two women.

I respect the right the authors of these posts have to their opinions, as well as the right to post those opinions.  That doesn't mean I agree with said opinions.  No disrespect or personal attack intended, ladies, but what the hell makes you think we would want to assume female roles? 

I posit that not only have men had the freedom to adopt female roles and characteristics if they so wished (and some have) for a long time, probably at least as long as women have had the freedom to adopt male roles, but that in the last few decades men have often had female traits thrust on them whether they've wanted them or not.  In the interest of being more sensitive and less aggressive of course.  And the traditional male role model, both in fantasy and in the broader culture, has come under fire.  It may be that some men don't want to read fantasy written from a female perspective because they want traditional male values affirmed, and they are not finding them affirmed in the broader culture.

Now I realize not all male role models in fantasy are positive, and I’m not saying they all are.  I also realize not all women want to read fiction written from that perspective.  I’m not saying they have to, or even that they should.  I’m simply saying don’t condemn the men who do choose to read that perspective and not a more feminine one. 

Should men be sensitive to others, whether the others be men or women?  Of course.  But the conditions under which a man will show compassion or sensitivity, and the manner in which he shows it, will often be different from the conditions under which, and the ways by which, a woman will show compassion.  A good writer, one without a political or philosophical axe to grind, knows this.  And can show it in fiction.

Am I saying female characters should be maidens in distress, waiting for a hero to rescue them?  No.  Those types of women are boring.  I like strong, multifaceted female characters in my fiction, but not all of them should be able to swing a sword anymore than all of them should be able to sew.  Do I want to read about male characters who are all muscle bound fighters, without emotions, who use women as sex objects?  No, they're pretty boring, too, as far as fictional characters go.  And they're certainly not the type of men I want to hang out with.  I blogged about Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom a couple of months ago.  Read that book to see men who aren't afraid to fight, yet are still family men who exhibit compassion, although not in the manner of 21st century family men. I want to see a variety of both men and women, strong and weak, good and bad, competent and idiots, shallow and honorable.  Just like in real life.

And that means I want to see characters that assume traditional gender roles, because most of the people I know, and I know a wide variety, do for the most part fall into the traditional roles to a greater or lesser degree.  Yes, there's variation in the roles they assume, and no, not everyone fills these roles the same way.  That's fine.  Just as some characters don't fit the traditional pattern at all, like Joan of Arc to name one historical figure, I don't want all the characters in the fiction I read to be completely traditional either. I want to see variety, both within traditional roles and outside them.

The male perspective is valid, just as the female perspective is.  And they are equally valid.  I'm not saying the male perspective is more valid than the female perspective.  There are enough writers working in the field of fantasy today that everyone should be able to find something they like written from a perspective they like.  I'm a male who likes strong, heroic male characters in stories that tend to deal with what are considered to be "male" themes.  I don't want the heroes to be perfect, but I don't want the majority of them to be morally ambiguous or antiheroes, either.  I don't want to read entirely from the male or female point of view, nor do I want to read only male (or female) writers.  I want to read both.  And I do.  It's the differences that make things interesting.  While I want variety, I also tend to prefer certain types of stories and characters over other types.  Just like you do.

What I don't want is people trying to tell me what I should and shouldn't have in my fiction (or life), regardless of whether or not I agree with their philosophy or share their biases.  Many of the comments on feminization and related issues dealt with how male readers reacted to how male characters were seen by female characters, often in sexual terms or situations.  I personally have no interest in reading that viewpoint (or gaze if you prefer).

Does that mean I have a gender bias?  Probably.  I have no problem admitting that I have biases that influence my preference for certain writers.  Neither, to her credit, did Foz Meadows.  She very openly and frankly discussed her own biases.  For that I commend, respect, and applaud her.

There's no reason I should be expected to read works written from viewpoints I'm not comfortable with or don't like, or simply have no interest in for that matter.  Whether or not I expand my mind by reading beyond my comfort zone is my choice and mine alone.  The feminist movement was about giving everyone choices.  That should include the choice to stay with any traditional male/white/heterosexual/capitalist/libertarian/whig/antidisestablishmentarian/spartan/persian/neanderthal/whatever viewpoint I like in fiction, and to do so without people who have an apparent agenda getting their shorts in a knot if I don't and reacting as if my preference is some horrible thing because it isn't their preference.  Or to put it another way, if I, as a male, choose not to assume traditional female roles or choose to read from the female gaze only about certain aspects of life and not others, that is my business and none of yours.  Don't tell me what I have to do or what I should do.  Or to be more diplomatic about it, I'll respect your freedoms and tastes if you'll respect mine; I won't try to change you, if you won't try to change me.

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