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Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction Paperback – July 1, 2017
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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The collection includes ten articles edited by Francesca T. Barbini, editor of Luna Press Publishing, and ranges across a broad scope of fiction channels including novels, games, television shows, movies, and costume play. The compilation explores themes evoked in titles like Bikini Armour, Transgender Tipping Point, Badass Bisexual Babes, and Rape as Narrative Tool. Each article presents a topic in depth, encouraging the reader to engage in conversation, poke at the assumptions, acknowledge the insights, and even anticipate directions for the genre. It is a stimulating read.
To show how the book might help deepen an appreciation of speculative fiction, let’s look briefly at two articles from the collection.
The article by Anna Milon is titled “Bikini Armour: women characters, readers and writers in male narratives.” Ms. Milon, a researcher and current Education Officer of the Tolkien Society, introduces her topic with a poignant question that impinges on author responsibility. Given the growing popularity of the fantasy genre especially among younger readers, she asks, “What exactly are we teaching our children” about women in narratives that are male-centered and lacking in the representation of real women?
Milon surveys several feminist critiques of female representation in literature. She explores how female authors of fantasy fiction often enact the male-centered narrative, typically presenting women as “ornamental or instrumental” in the white male hero’s quest. They armor-up the female lead as the alpha-female warrior princess, quoting a source, “infused with power, sexuality, confidence, and ass-kicking prowess … [yet] only when embracing the moral and character strengths of [male] heroes can a woman embrace her sex drive as well,” that is, be a real woman. The 2017 box office success of “Wonder Woman” comes to mind.
After contrasting female leads of current novels against powerful women characters evoked in the patriarchal milieu of medieval literature, Milon arrives at “an exclusively female hero archetype lurking among the brash males and terrifying the living daylight out of them. It is the witch.” The witch is powerful because she has her own realm within the patriarchal community. She conducts the procedures forbidden to or rejected by men: midwifery, women’s health, and emotional support. Furthermore, the witch is classless and raceless, and becomes the quintessential “other” in narratives. And this distance from male dominance even makes her alluring. Finally, “she [the witch] does not attempt to change herself in order to integrate with the male narrative, because she can and does exist independently.”
Yet if the witch is the only independent female lead available in male-centered narratives, one is left wondering how a more complete repertoire might become available to female characters in fantasy and science fiction. What conditions are necessary for a widening of possibilities? Which brings us to a second article.
A. J. Dalton contributed an analysis titled “Gender-identity and sexuality in current sub-genres of British fantasy literature: do we have a problem?” Mr. Dalton is both a fantasy fiction author and an expert on British fantasy, and he provides an informative overview of the changing currents of fantasy fiction related directly to the political and economic shocks that have occurred in Great Britain over the last thirty years. In the introduction, he notes how at conferences and in book reviews some fantasy authors are being accused of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and cultural appropriation because they are experimenting with new plots, new characters, and new models as they try to write stories outside the traditional framework of “epic fantasy” popularized in the 1980s and 1990s.
Combining historical context since 1980 with multiple relevant examples of successful books, he outlines the evolution from “epic fantasy” into a variety of sub-genres, broadly tracking the economic and political events of the times (e.g., the economic growth of the 1980s – 1990s; the 2001 – 2007 period of rising terrorism; the 2008 economic recession and aftermath).
Dalton pegs “epic fantasy” to the conservative values of the 1980s – 1990s and to the prevailing assumption that “those at the top of society are … morally enlightened, socially responsible and facilitators of social justice.” He describes the protagonist of epic fantasy as working class, “chosen” to go on a hero quest, and saving the world through hard work and moral virtue. The hero not only succeeds by defeating the great danger to society but is also rewarded with higher social status, that is, he is endowed with the privileges of the elite. The emphasis is on “he” because the hero of epic fantasy is a cisgender white male.
At this point in the article, I began to see an intersection with Ms. Milon’s thoughts. And sure enough …
But it has become clear over time, states Dalton, that we are “not ruled and safeguarded by those of superior moral standing, of a noble conscience and with a sense of social responsibility.” Thus, to the extent that fiction reflects or exposes current social conditions, one can reasonably expect that the straight white-male epic fantasy genre needed to evolve given the economic trauma, political scandal, and failed military adventures since September 11, 2001 (my personal reference point).
Mr. Dalton has much more to say about the development of the new darker fantasy sub-genres—their heroes, plots and dénouements—but for a book review, this may be enough to give the gist of why the book is worth a read.
Ms. Milon does not, in my opinion, answer her question—what are our children being taught? —nor would I require it. Rather, I would like to share a bottle of red wine at a table in a comfortable pub and listen to Ms. Milon and Mr. Dalton explore the ins-and-outs of gender and sexuality in current fantasy literature. I would expect Mr. Dalton to engage Ms. Milon over the implied assumption that the white male hero narrative of epic fantasy remains dominant and unchanging … and I would enjoy hearing Ms. Milon parry Mr. Dalton’s assertion about just how different the new darker hero really is from the cisgender white male.
Alas, I have briefly reviewed only two of the ten articles in the book. In conversation all ten contributors, I believe, reveal stimulating theses and assert vigorous objections worthy of those interested in the bones of fantasy and science fiction. I recommend this book for those interested in a deeper understanding of the genre and its potential.