Fantasy and sci-fi need both more strong, successful, proactive, problem-solving, fear-conquering, butt-kicking women. I’ve known this for a while (sadly, nowhere near long enough), but it’s one of those things that simply can’t be said too much.
Why? Well, partly because girls deserve to have the same kind of awe-inspiring role models as us boys. When I was a kid, I had Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Spider-man, Batman, Madmartigan, the Doctor, Starbuck, the A-Team, Michael Praed as Robin of Sherwood, Michael Knight… The list goes on and on. No, they’re not all terribly ‘good’ role models, but there’s at least a range to be had there. On the flip side of that, who did the girls get? Princess Leia (maybe Ellen Ripley, but Aliens is hardly child-friendly viewing). That’s about it. And let’s not forget that, to this day, Leia’s remembered more for the gold bikini than, say, throttling Jabba the Hutt, facing down Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, or all that awesome gunplay (seriously, I think she racks up more Stormtroopers than any of the male cast – hopefully, we’ll get to see her do it again soon).
The easy objection to this line of reasoning is that girls just aren’t as interested in action/adventure, sci-fi & fantasy, so they don’t need role models in those types of settings. Thing is, it’s not true, and will increasingly become more untrue now that genres and settings that were previously seen as exclusively nerd culture are starting to look eerily mainsteam. However, I’m prepared to let this point slide. Let’s assume, against all evidence and reason (and World of Warcraft’s subscriber base) that sci-fi and fantasy are never going to have the same appeal with girls and women as they do with boys and men. Doesn’t matter. It changes nothing. We still need more female characters. Why? Because it helps teach boys that they’re not superior to girls, that’s why. Because it reinforces the point that women are far more than the objects of desire and damsels in distress that they’re so often labelled as. And because, frankly, there’s a lot of traffic in the other direction at the moment.
Take a look at blockbuster movies. I’ve watched the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer today. I’m really looking forward to the film. But… There are five ‘Guardians’. Four men, and one woman. Not a great ratio – especially as there are other female characters that could have been included. Worse, in amongst the trailer’s scenes of Rocket, Groot, Drax and Star Lord causing mayhem, what’s the signature scene for Gamora, the ‘deadliest woman in the galaxy’? The woman in question sitting around without her top on. Nice going. I’m sure she’ll be far better served in the film itself, but there’s that whole adage about ‘only getting to make one first impression’ to consider.
There are glimmers of hope, I’ll grant you, but glimmers aren’t enough, and they’re never as bright as they first appear. Yes, Black Widow has pivotal roles in three of the Marvel films. Yes, Mystique’s character arc in the excellent X-men: First Class, and Days of Future Past is as much about her struggle to choose her path as anything else (in fact, you could argue it’s the motive force behind the whole of the second film). But let’s not forget that Black Widow’s the only female Avenger yet to grace the screen – after six years of interconnected movies – and that in Days of Future Past Mystique is the only woman in the core cast (in fact, I think she might be the only real female speaking part in the whole of the 1973 section of the film).
This isn’t a new problem, but it’s odd the form it sometimes takes when it repeats. Tolkien’s often derided for being sexist. But you know what? Eowyn is fantastic – one of the stand-out characters of The Lord of The Rings. Come on! She rides out to the greatest widow-making field of the Third Age, and kicks the crap out of the Witch King – not exactly the expected response either in Rohan, or in Tolkien’s mid-twentieth century Britain. (No, I haven’t forgotten that Merry helps, but as he’s a Hobbit we can probably count ourselves lucky that he didn’t just sing a song, or stare miserably at the camera instead.)
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Tauriel is introduced into the trilogy of Hobbit films. She’s definitely capable and kick-ass (hooray!), but she’s also quickly painted as as the love interest for not just one, but two of the sprawling cast of male characters. Because why would a woman possibly want to get involved in the Quest of Erebor without taking the opportunity to shop for a husband as well? Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory once more…
Too many companies and publishers seem to believe that including female characters – let alone smart, capable ones – is detrimental to sales. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a default setting that needs to be constantly challenged. Yes, there are other problems as far as equality is concerned, and I don’t mean to downplay any of the issues concerning representation of race, religion, etc. But, returning to my own corner of the world, a character’s gender is the one thing that you always know when reading a book – you’re reminded of it nearly every time they speak. This isn’t a plea for positive discrimination, or an outbreak of gender-swaps in established intellectual property (the world probably isn’t ready for Thorina Oakenshield, or is it?). It’s just a suggestion that maybe our heroes can better reflect society as it is, because that can only be a good thing, right?
Remember at the start I said I’ve known this to be a problem for a while? Truth is, I didn’t realise how accepting I’d become of the whole situation until I started writing Shadow of the Raven. I was determined to make sure that Arianwyn – my female lead – was an interesting, relatable and inspiring character. This, I’m pleased to say, I think I managed. Problem was, as my wife pointed out to me, I’d then populated most of the other speaking parts with men. There wasn’t a good reason for it – I’d just written them that way on autopilot. Somewhat abashed, I set about redressing the balance. And you know what? The book was all the better for it.
So I have one question to all the writers and storytellers out there, whether world-famous, established or aspiring: how much better would your story be with more women in it? It’s certainly not going to make it worse. And who knows, you might just give a growing lass (or lad) a role model along the way…