One of the comments that we have received about ‘Diaries of a Dwarves Rifleman’ is that we have female characters fulfilling traditionally male roles, and that we don’t make a big dealabout it. In ‘Rage of Angels’ one of the three principal characters is a female in a combat arms role in the military and no one around her thinks this is odd. Any number of the supporting characters are females, mostly in what are traditionally male roles. In ‘The Shield Maiden’ the protagonist is a female warrior in Sweden during the Viking era. This last one is cheating as a ‘Sköldmo’ is a traditional female role in their culture. The egalitarian view expressed in our stories is a product of my own beliefs and is not because my co-author is a woman (my wife Linda in fact.)
Most medieval fantasy is accused of reinforcing stereotypical male/female roles. Generally the men go around doing the fighting, adventuring etc. while the women stay home, cook and clean and raise babies. In my experience this is a valid accusation. Medieval fantasies overwhelmingly enforce stereotypes in this regard. Because they should.
*Plugs ears and winces at the cries of outrage*
Here’s the thing- fantasy may be fantasy but it must ring true, make sense and be internally consistent for it to be any good. Every major human society since the dawn of history has viewed the woman’s primary role as housekeeper and child-bearer. Yes, there have always been women in ‘men’s roles,’ but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. The ‘norm’ throughout human history conforms to the stereotypes.
“But this is fantasy,” you might protest, “Surely we need not be bound by those traditional roles? Surely we can reflect modern values and egalitarianism in our medieval societies?”
Yes, yes you can. But consider history- there is a reason that cultures in different environments with different morals, religions and values all conformed to similar models of male-female roles. It was what worked best, and it worked best that way because of human biology. Women get pregnant and have babies, and for the majority of human history the only way to avoid that reliably was to abstain from sex. But let’s face it, humans are lousy at abstaining from sex. For women sex is not always a voluntary act, either, and contrary to what some mouth-breathing morons believe a woman can get pregnant from rape as easily as from sex.
The reasons for the dominance of patriarchal cultures are the subject of entire books and cannot be adequately covered in a single blog. The fact is they did (and sadly still do) dominate. This is because for the bulk of human history it was simply what worked best. Was it oppressive and a shitty deal for women? Pretty often, yeah. Women were treated as cattle, as property and as slaves. Did it suck? Yep. But it was still, biologically speaking, the most logical and functional arrangement.
This is not to say there were not societies where women had more or less rights. There were. In Moorish Spain women could own property, divorce their husbands and operate businesses and many did. The Scandinavian cultures accepted female warriors. Even in the more repressive societies women often took on men’s roles by abstaining from sex, often by masquerading as men. Pretending to be a man both made it easier to assume the male role and to some degree protected them from rape.
Traditional male/female roles are appropriate in medieval fantasy. Then why don’t we show that in our own fiction?
The female dwarves in ‘Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman’ were able to easily assume men’s roles in part because they were genetically/magically engineered to be mine-slaves by an immortal despot. He gave them very long lives (up to 300 years) so they could perfect their crafts and need less replacement. He also made the women so that they could only get pregnant every twenty-to twenty-five years. This would allow them to replenish the pool of slaves with minimal impact on their productive time. They are unlikely to get pregnant and even if they do it happens seldom enough that it is a gift, not a burden. Even when it happens a pregnancy and child-rearing is simply a blip in a career that can stretch for centuries rather than a life-defining event. Female dwarves can assume ‘male’ roles because there is no logical reason for them not to.
What about the Sköldmo in ‘The Shield Maiden?’ If biology is dictating traditional roles as a matter of necessity then how are they able to pursue a warrior’s path? Simple. They abstained from sexual intercouse. That’s a 100% effective way of preventing conception. When they did eventually marry they took off enough time to have a baby, but their households were structured such that they needn’t abandon their career, just take a hiatus for a year or so.
So, if we are to write plausible medieval fantasy are we doomed to perpetuate sexist stereotypes? Only if you need it as a plot device. There is a very simple work-around…
I am convinced that when future historians look back on the twentieth century they will view one of the changes that occurred in the same league with the invention of fire and the wheel. Not mass-production. Not radio, television or even the Internet. Not even splitting the atom. No, the major world-changing invention of the twentieth century was this: wide-spread availability of contraceptives. For the first time women had a real ability to overcome their biology and fully assume men’s roles… without giving up sex. Nor could they be forced into pregnancy by violence. For the first time any woman could fully devote herself to any career she was physically and mentally capable of performing. Just like a man.
So, if you want to write medieval fantasy where women are largely forced into traditional roles it doesn’t mean you are a sexist pig, you are just being realistic. But if you want a more egalitarian society simply give them wide-spread and effective contraception, whether it is in the form of herbs or a magic charm or whatever. The hallmark of humanity, what really separates us from the animals, is our ability to rise above our nature. The author has the ability to give or withhold this boon from their characters based on what best serves the story… which may not agree with modern sensibilities or our personal beliefs.
This is an extremely complex issue and has many nuances that I wasn’t able to go into in the limited space of a blog. It’s a subject worthy of discussion, and I look forward to that discussion.