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Olden Lore

Is “Historical Accuracy” a Good Defense of Patriarchal Societies in Fantasy Fiction?

Are you aware that human history is full of examples of sexist, patriarchal societies where women were discriminated against? I’m sure you are, as a reader of The Mary Sue. I’m pretty sure you are as a person alive in the 21st Century, too. Yet so many of the historically inspired fantasy worlds we love are remarkably intent on reminding us of this.

When I raise this issue with someone, I often get some variation of this in reply. Sexism in (to pick the most obvious example) medieval fantasy is okay or even desirable, the thinking goes, because in the real European Middle Ages sexism was the status quo. There’s no denying that, but fantasy is called fantasy because it’s a fantasy. There were no dragons in the real Middle Ages either, but we don’t have a problem including them.

For me, a prime case study for this is Game of Thrones, being the medieval fantasy work that’s attained the most mainstream popularity in quite some time. So much popularity that you’ll find a cookbook inspired by it and its novel antecedents on endcaps at your local Barnes & Noble. Stumbling across it, I flipped open the front flap and was asked:

“Ever wonder what it’s like to attend a feast at Winterfell? Wish you could split a lemon cake with Sansa Stark, scarf down a pork pie with the Night’s Watch, or indulge in honeyfingers with Daenerys Targaryen?”

Which I found rather amusing because, while I think it’s an extremely well-made show that I usually enjoy, I have a hard time thinking of a fictional world that I would less like to actually live in. I say that as a male who doesn’t want to fight petty wars or be cut in half; the situation for women, with Westeros’ unbending gender roles, rampant prostitution, and ubiquitous culture of abuse and rape, is obviously much worse.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Game of Thrones is quite successful when it comes to portraying interesting, complicated female characters, and a good many of them, especially in its second season. You could even say that it’s impressive that George R. R. Martin, not to mention the actresses who play them, have managed to make characters like Lady Catelyn, Arya, Daenerys, and the awesome Brienne of Tarth as compelling as they are considering they’re members of a fictional society that is designed to minimize women’s power over the world and themselves. Plenty of less talented people have designed such societies and ended up with female characters that are accordingly marginalized.

What I question is the purpose of creating an imaginary civilization to be this way in the first place. I agree with Becky Chambers when she says that if female characters are pushed to the sidelines in a video game, “‘that’s just how it is in that world’ is not good enough.” I’d say “that’s just how it was in the real historical setting this is based on” is not good enough either—and I don’t see much beyond that when it comes to most sexism in fantasy.

In my opinion this applies to all historical fantasy, including that which turns the “history” dial up a lot higher than Game of Thrones does. Look at Assassin’s Creed III, which takes place during the American Revolution. Making the protagonist—who, it should be noted, is a surreptitious, ninja-like killer—a woman was reportedly considered, but according to the game’s creative director Alex Hutchinson,

“I think lots of people want it, [but] in this period it’s been a bit of a pain. The history of the American Revolution is the history of men. … There are a few people, like John Adams’ wife, [Abigail]—they tried very hard in the TV series to not make it look like a bunch of dudes, but it really is a bunch of dudes.”

You don’t say. So we should just sit tight until you work in a historical period that isn’t the history of men then?

Spoiler alert: There basically isn’t one, certainly not before the 20th Century at least, that’s been written that way. The history of the American Revolution might be the history of men, but that’s because the history of pretty much everything is the history of unequal gender roles.

I don’t mean to badmouth history altogether. On the contrary, I’d characterize myself as a lover of history, and I think it’s terrific that so many creators of fiction are inspired by it. We have a ton to appreciate when it comes to the people, stories, and art that history gives us, just as we have a ton of bad things to recognize and learn from so we don’t do them today.

But I think we need to think hard about what the point of historically inspired fantasies are. I think the main purpose of drawing upon history to inform such universes is to take advantage of the cultural and artistic motifs that are part of our shared human folklore, and that’s it.

I’d argue that they rarely have much to do with exploring issues of the real history in question—the patriarchy of Game of Thrones is commented on but never seriously challenged, and I doubt many people playing Assassin’s Creed III would consider the protagonist’s maleness a statement about gender issues of the time.

Which is why preserving the patriarchal societies in so many fantasies doesn’t make sense to me. I understand the argument that we should not whitewash history, and I fully agree—when it comes to actual history scholarship. But abiding by the historical fact of sexism in a fictional universe that is otherwise not bound by historical fact, I’d say, accomplishes nothing as much as reinforcing the idea that it’s the default order of things.

That’s a problem because of the ways it still is the default order of things. Art has had enormous power to affect progress, but it can also have a troubling fealty to traditions both real and imagined. It’s that impulse that led to Katee Sackhoff being booed at Comic-Con for playing a character whose version in the original Battlestar Galactica was male. Or makes Aaron Sorkin wistfully yearn on The Newsroom for the days when America was the greatest country in the world because we “acted like men” and were “informed by great men.”

And while it might not qualify as art, I cringe at how an edutainment behemoth like the History Channel chooses to emphasize the manliness of history as much as it can. Their miniseries about 19th Century robber barons or how science shaped human history might be fine programs, but I don’t know why they need titles like The Men Who Built America or Mankind.

History needs to stop being used as an excuse in the fantasy stories of TV, film, and video games that are, in general, male-dominated whether they’re history-based or not. Women and girls deserve to fully participate in all fantasy constructs, including the most traditional historically inspired ones. And without, to quote Becky Chambers again, the “Hey Sweetheart Scenario,” in which even when a female character is a warrior/soldier/monarch/lumberjack, she still has to combat frequent prejudice about her gender. Not only is that perpetuating “sexism-as-default,” it’s also incredibly lazy writing.

As far as I’m concerned that even applies to stories set in what otherwise seems to be the real world, if they’re dealing with fictional characters. I don’t fault the makers of John Adams for failing to hide the fact that the political machinations of the American Revolution were carried out by a bunch of dudes. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Earth Prime-set stories about female pirates, female Old West gunslingers or all-female ’50s rock ‘n’ roll bands. I think more of those would be a very good thing.

The creators of fiction don’t have to repeat the sexist past. Look at counterexamples like Xena: Warrior Princess, Skyrim, or The Sims Medieval, which take place in historically inspired worlds yet show men and women as equal in pretty much every way and, furthermore, treat that as normal.

Or even better, just examine Assassin’s Creed III a little deeper. Alex Hutchinson said that history tied their hands when it came to the game. But then they made the main character a Native American—a bold decision I applaud, and also one that makes little historical sense for someone who commands Patriot troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill and captains frigates in the Caribbean Sea. And there’s an even more pointed counterexample: They gave the main game’s PlayStation Vita counterpart, which takes place in the same time period, a female protagonist after all.

When it comes to fantasy universes, no matter their level of historical inspiration, sexism is—like everything—a choice. And it’s one that should be made a lot less often.

Dan Wohl blogs about baseball for a living, and he has also spent hours upon hours playing Skyrim as a female Dark Elf warrior. He would love for you to follow him on Twitter: @Dan_Wohl.

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  • Kate Holloway

    “the patriarchy of Game of Thrones is commented on but never seriously challenged,”

    I strongly disagree. The point of the patriarchy in Game of Thrones is to question the misogyny in our own society. Even though the fandom itself can be quite misogynistic at times, I do believe the text strongly criticizes strict gender roles through the stories of Arya, Brienne, and even Cersei and Sansa.

    The reason we harken back to the patriarchal societies is because we are, in fact, living in one. Fantasy and Science Fiction is a way to critique our own society so the fact that we still have patriarchy means we’re still going to see it in our literature, since people are commenting on it.

    The idea behind a lot of these “other worlds” is to make comments about human nature and society in general. An author can’t really do that if the elements he or she wants to criticize are not present. If they were, it would be more of a utopian fiction.

  • Kim Pittman

    I despise Game of Thrones just because of the way the female characters are treated. I didn’t even make it to the end before I chucked the book in disgust.

    Fantasy and Science Fiction give us the ability to create less flawed worlds or at the very least differently flawed worlds. Just because it was that way before doesn’t mean we should continue to do it in our new works.

  • Anonymous

    I hear there are a lot of wars in these fantasy novels too; we should probably stop that as well. Let’s all read about strong female characters living happy lives in peaceful societies where everyone respects them, that sounds like fun.

  • thecynicalromantic

    I think the question of “portraying sexism in fantasy: y/n?” is as pointless and simplistic as a lot of other often-had discussions on “should this type of content be in a thing or not”, when the real question is, as always, how is it treated? There is no one correct way to write fantasy; there are multiple awesome ways and multiple shitty ways, and while we probably don’t need more of the shitty ones, the whole point of continuing to produce new stories is that the new stories are different stories from the ones already written.

    The “sexism is historically accurate” defense varies in side-eye-deservingness dependent upon what kind of story the creative work in question is attempting to tell and how it approaches other shitty things about history and whether or not it is well done and a lot of other stuff. I think the horrible sexism showcased in Game of Thrones fits perfectly with the way the series is written, because the worldbuilding for GoT basically goes like this:

    1. Take Middle Ages
    2. Remove all non-shitty things that are not food
    3. Keep all shitty things and turn them up to eleven
    4. Add more shitty things
    5. Punch audience in feelings

    The entire series, on many levels besides the chivalry/patriarchal order thing, is intended to be a critique of the Happy Fun Pseudomedieval Fairy-Tale-Land that characterizes so much other fantasy. It’s also meant to be fantasy that runs more like historical drama than fantasy, hence the plot being stolen from the War of the Roses instead of being an Unlikely Hero and the Quest for the Holy Macguffin kind of tale. It is also supposed to be upsetting and punch you repeatedly in the feelings.

    If you are, however, doing generally fun escapist fantasy, except you feel compelled to keep in everything sucking for the female characters, then it makes a story seem like one of the things the author is trying to escape from is the modern world not sucking enough for women. That is a problem.

    There is a place for fantasy stories specifically *about* resisting/overcoming patriarchy, like Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels or Kristen Cashore’s Graceling series. There is also a place for stories where a lack of gender bullshit is the default, thus making it seem normal and giving viewers a break from having to deal with or think about that particular brand of bullshit, such as the new Battlestar Galactica (I think scifi is a more natural home for that sort of thing than pseudo-medieval-style fantasy, but a good enough author can make it work).

    I give more of a side-eye to the people doing supposedly actual history and leaving out all the ladies, because while ladies have been a disempowered group for all of human history, we still existed in great numbers and were indeed doing things for all of history–it’s just that people were less inclined to pay attention or think what we were doing was important. So unless your story takes place mostly on a ship or in a men’s prison, leaving out the ladies is usually just about being lazy.

  • Calum Syers

    Interesting that the article opens with a picture of “Assassin’s Creed”. These games are pure fantasy, with a Native American (which, if they are striving for historical accuracy; this would be mentioned and noted far more often) climbing on buildings in a bright, white costume. He gets involved with more battles during the American revolution than anyone else, it seemed. If historical accuracy is their excuse, they better find a better one, ‘cos it doesn’t wash with me.

  • Bridget

    He’s right. It’s just lazy writing to make the women oppressed and the blacks the “exotic” bad guys (hello, Tolkien). Oh and let’s not forget about the gays. Can’t have them represented in fantasy fiction unless they’re repressed, abused, or representative of a stereotype (hello, Zevran).

  • Anonymous

    It’s not like women were just sitting around twiddling their thumbs during the revolution. I’m sure many women played key roles in the Revolution. Wives certainly listened to and advised their husbands. The thing is, at the time, women were generally treated as their husband’s servants, and servants generally aren’t included in the history books, no matter how important their role.

  • Amber Largo

    First of all, I don’t think there’s any shortage of existing literature that criticizes patriarchal structures within the bounds of a fantasy patriarchy. It’s not like writing a story that does that is NEW in any way. Also there are plenty of people who cry “But that’s the way it was!” and DON’T include any kind of textual criticism or even acknowledgement of it.
    Second, I think it’s quite possible to criticize the structures of patriarchy *without* including them – leading by example, as it were. I don’t have to hard-code racism into my novel to suggest that racism is bad, and one way to criticize sexual assault of female characters is *not to include it*.
    Third – are you really arguing that building a society not explicitly built on sexism is automatically utopian? Because… gender discrimination is the only problem the world has to offer, maybe? Poverty and racism and war, religious intolerance and discrimination based on sexual orientation, class, physical appearance, geographic origin, language, and culture would just disappear if people would just admit that men are not inherently superior?

  • Anonymous

    Actually, it does sound like fun.

  • Adrienne Reynolds

    Or you know they can look past the last TV show or their high school history books and realize that women have and always were actually doing stuff that might be worthy of a story or a character background but none of what they were doing got recorded or it got attributed to the guy closest to them.

    The idea that 50% of humanity didn’t do sh*t and it was “all dudes” for 98% of history means that you not only have no idea how things work in the real world ( where women are constantly doing things like being involved in wars, research, adventures, saving lives, saving farms, inventing things, running businesses, being widowed and orphaned and having to run all the things when the men are off dying at a 70% rate in WW1) you have to willfully ignore the fact that every single man in history needed a whole support network of people doing things so that he could do whatever the heck it was he got famous for – if there’s a sidekick like Alfred you could easily make a sidekick like Alfred female and not frikkin in love with the hero – just doing her own kick ass project management kind of job. Like M in the Brosnon Bond films.

    Historical/anthropological fail based on laziness.

    //rant off

  • Anonymous

    I agree wholly with this. There’s a reason why Arya is so much more popular than the more conventional hero Robb Stark: he’s supposed to be a hero, she isn’t. Her adversity is what makes her stronger.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the prevalence of sexism in medieval-inspired fantasy is a huge problem for the genre, and I’d really like to see it stop. Not sure how that’s going to be accomplished though, besides not buying the books that fit that mold.

    This is one of the things that I actually like about the Wheel of TIme series. There are many well developed female characters that exist in that universe who are neither victims nor stupid (a hallmark of a lot of fantasy), but then again Jordan has flipped genre conventions the bird by starting things off in a far more matriarchal society to begin with.

    As far as Game of Thrones is concerned though I’m not actually overwrought with the direction Martin has taken his universe in its treatment of women, mostly because I find that world as a whole to be completely unlikable. Nobody survives that world unscathed; women, men, children, dwarves, direwolves …you name it. I hate that world so much in fact that I cannot wait for winter to finally get here – seriously when is winter coming already – and bring an end to the whole damn thing.

  • Taste_is_Sweet

    I have nothing to respond to this other than, WORD. Thank you.

    Though the fact that I was pleasantly surprised that the author of this essay was a man probably says a lot about the status quo, too.

  • Calum Syers

    It does sound like fun, actually. Hell, I’d watch it.

  • Jenny Cabotage

    Dan said, “When it comes to fantasy universes, no matter their level of historical
    inspiration, sexism is—like everything—a choice. And it’s one that
    should be made a lot LESS OFTEN.” Capitals mine. Less often is an important point here.

    Not everybody likes the same thing. Not all authors/creators are going for the same message. As other commenters have said, some people make fantasies that are commentaries on misogyny and some people make escapist fantasies where the ladies kick butt all day all the time (my personal favorite). When I’m reading fantasy novels these days, if I decide I don’t like where this one is going, I can just put it aside and go find something that is more to my taste. I don’t hate the author of the first book for writing what he/she wrote.

    But this becomes more of a problem if there isn’t anything else out there that is more to my taste. Or if there are five books that I can read with strong female characters and there are thousands of books I can read full of patriarchal misogyny. Yes, we can choose what fantasies to enjoy and what ones to leave aside as not personally interesting to us, but only if there’s a choice to be had. In novels there’s more variety, but the gaming industry has a particular problem of not providing enough choice. And I think that’s why Dan said, c’mon guys, let’s make the misogyny choice less often, huh?

    There is also a distinct but related issue here. There is a big difference between “I’m writing/creating this because it’s my personal preference, if you personally don’t enjoy it you can walk away from it” and “I’m writing/creating this because that’s how it’s always been done and that’s how it always should be done and if you don’t like it YOU have a problem!” I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but it sounds like Alex Hutchinson was saying, “Dude it had to be that way, we had no choice!” And Dan is saying, yes, yes you do. You have a choice. I think the tone of this article would have been different if Alex had just taken responsibility for his choice and said, “We decided we wanted to do it this way because we liked it better.”

  • Joy P

    So, you can’t make comments about human nature/society without feeding into gender stereotypes? I understand that many novels do you that as a way to make the reader question them but that’s not what the author of this article is talking about. What he’s saying, and a lot of people critical of this type of storytelling including authors and fans alike, is that the vast majority of fantasy that uses historical trappings does this and the reason given when questioned is “well that’s the way it was back then” and going further to say that is not a good justification when its so pervasive. I loove ASOIAF, I’m going through my second reading of the series to date right now. I think GRRM is a fantastic author. I also think it doesn’t handle race or gender in the best ways and its a problem with fantasy in general. And honestly, we don’t know how ASOIAF will end yet and maybe I will be totally wrong on both counts. Maybe the laws in Dorne as far as the worth of women and the rights of succession will become the law of the land throughout Westeros. Maybe Arya will come back kicking asses and taking names and become the first Lord of Winterfell who also happens to be female and refuses to hand over that power to her husband when and IF she decides to marry and maybe Sansa actually starts thinking for herself! It could happen! What would be even better is if it happened a lot more across the board in fantasy books, games ect. It doesn’t have to be either or :)

  • SocialMediaNerd

    While sexism in history is undeniable, when I read a piece of fiction I primarily do it as an escape from the real world. So when I still see people struggling for acceptance and overcoming bigotry even in entirely fictional mediums, it gets very frustrating very fast. I’d really like it if there was ONE PART of my life where this challenge wasn’t something that had to be overcome; where acceptance has already happened and we could see the amazing things that people could accomplish free of oppression. I think there’s a lot we could learn from more series written that way.

    Otherwise, it just really reinforces that belief that sexism/racism/etc just “is the way it is” and there’s nothing we can do about it. Not even in the farthest stretches of imagination can we conceive of a world where people are treated as equals. And that’s sad.

  • Joy P

    Very good point. It would be interesting if they explored the possibilities of what women could do (and did) in that kind of limited role and what some did beyond it. There’s definitely a story there and it very well be an awesome one.

  • Kaarel Jakobson

    I agree with the sentiment expressed at the very end of this article – that depicting sexism in fantasy fiction is a choice – but disagree entirely with the conclusion drawn. I don’t think criticizing an author for sexism for making the choice to portray their fantasy world as sexist is warranted, at least necessarily. Likewise, if someone criticized an author for the “unrealism” of choosing otherwise and portraying a medieval society sans sexism, I would laugh in their face.

    When it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire, literally every single female character in the series has elements of struggling to find agency in a patriarchal world (although not to the level of them being entirely defined by it). That is something George R. R. Martin wanted to explore in his writing. If Westeros was equal, then these characters would not be as they are now and I dare say some of them would be unrecognizable. I think there’s room to consider context and respect an author’s choices regarding depictions of things that are gross and terrible.

  • Marian Librarian

    This article is so timely for me. I’m currently reading Game of Thrones and I’m having a great deal of time fully embracing it as I know so many other have because of the sexism. You can tell that George R. R. Martin meticulously researched to give the story depth and one quickly gets the impression that the sexism in the story was part of his vision of “realistic fantasy.” But, as this is a fantasy world, why insist that this culture evolved in this way?

  • Kate Holloway

    I totally DID NOT say you can’t make comments about human nature/society without feeding into gender stereotypes.

    Martin repeatedly questions and comments about gender stereotypes, through his characters and through their own criticisms of the world they live in. Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark do not fit the gender stereotypes of women in their own society or really, in ours. Sansa and Cersei, in certain ways, do, though Cersei monologues about hating the societal confines of her gender.

    The difference is that in order for Cersei, Arya, and Brienne to go through the character arcs that require them to subvert their stereotypes, while making their struggles meaningful to us, is for those stereotypes to exist both in our world and in theirs. Their struggles are reflections of our own struggles, which I would argue makes for more compelling and relateable narratives in a world with dragons and magic.

  • Joy P

    I have to agree that actually sounds pretty cool lol I also like how you’re assuming because there would be no wars there wouldn’t be conflict of any kind like political intrigue, non lethal combat ect

  • Sara Sakana

    You sound like a Sword of Truth fan who’s buttmad that Legend of the Seeker didn’t show every single female character being raped five or six times an episode.

  • Laszlo

    I don’t think it “feeds into stereotypes”, it shows them, and also shows they don’t really work, with characters like Arya, Sansa, Cersei or even Sam. And it actually does seem to be heading for the direction you say, unless of course the characters mentioned die.
    There are indeed stuff where “historical accuracy” really is just an excuse to not show females, in that case it is stupid, but I don’t think that applies to Game of Thrones.

  • Kaarel Jakobson

    Because the core theme of his series is to destroy any possible romanticism regarding medieval times and lifestyles. You can find interviews where he expresses his scorn for how knights have been depicted and treated as noble and chivalrous when their moral codes rarely prevented them from being just as murderous and willing to rape as any ordinary mercenary.

  • Anonymous

    But isn’t political intrigue also a bad thing? We probably shouldn’t be reading about that either.

  • Bryant Turnage

    I can’t speak to why Martin made that decision, but one reason he or another author might choose to do so is s/he felt it gave a more dramatic or interesting setting in which to explore ideas both historic and current about sexism and misogyny. A Song of Ice and Fire is one which explores brutality and violence, particularly against those who are powerless in perception or in fact, including women. The arc of the saga also shows women in various parts of the social order finding and using their own power within that structure, or outside of it.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic article! Truly, wonderful.

    To use a different example, “Lincoln” is a fantastic movie and a great view of one of our most significant presidents. But I came out of that movie wishing we had a lot more, varied, Civil War movies. I want to see a Civil War movie about two brothers, who each take different sides. I want to see a CW movie about the petticoated-and-bouffant-haired women who smuggled secrets to command. I want to see a movie about the women (for there are several) who disguised themselves as men and fought alongside their brothers with no one aware. I want to see a whole movie focused on what it was like to be a freed black man fighting on the side of the north.

    Aside from the brothers, none of those stories are mainstream narratives about the Civil War–but all are historically based. If we can’t have a movie about those things, it’s because writers and movie-makers aren’t digging hard enough. The same can be said for game producers.

  • Brenda/Lysana/either

    Thank you for those remarks about Wheel of Time. I’d wondered whether I dared risk it, and now I know I should pursue it as quickly as possible.

  • Brenda/Lysana/either

    Right. This is the “realism” that has Europe as far more lily-white than it was time after time after time unless villains need differentiation? Got it. Still avoiding Game of Thrones because I will not risk flashbacks thanks to the predilection Martin has for writing rape scenes involving thirteen-year-old girls. (And yes, I skip certain texts by Piers Anthony for similar reasons, thank you very little for writing socially acceptable kiddie porn, gentlemen.)

  • Anonymous

    I would also add, as a historian, that there are just oodles of earthshaking women throughout history who simply aren’t considered part of the “important” history. If you really examine most historical periods, it’s not at all uncommon to find women who challenge our perceptions of those eras as places wherein women were too repressed to accomplish anything. Their contributions are often less publicized, especially when their contributions are within an area such as consumer movements or social work, which despite their lasting effects on societies are not generally considered the most marketable or exciting parts of history.

  • Joseph Stilwell

    In my opinion, Asssassin’s Creed doesn’t ever get to use “this iz real history gaiz” because the whole point of the story is that HISTORY IS A LIE. In my mind, a female protagonist would be perfectly justified because she’d be erased from history anyway. Besides, Assassin’s Creed II has a huge supporting cast of women doing things they weren’t supposed to. (Of course they were all basically doing things that were pretty much male fantasies anyway, but the precedent was set)

  • Kate Holloway

    To your first point, there is a lot of literature and medieval literature that is just plain sexist, without acknowledging it. Game of Thrones is not that and instead turns the sexist tropes prevalent in medieval literature on their heads in order to make a statement about it. It’s one of the reasons that this type of sexism and the portrayal of a patriarchal society WORKS without being misogynistic.There are a number of different ways patriarchy manifests itself and not all of them are criticized in all literature depicting a patriarchal society. For example, Game of Thrones not only portrays gender binaries as harmful to women, but men (Samwell Tarly, for example) as well, which is not something that has been explored much in a lot of medieval literature.

    Your second point: leading by example is not going to point out how gender binaries or patriarchy is actually harmful. It will just be ignored or overlooked. A good example would be Battlestar Galactica. Yes, it was praised for the fact that the men and women were on equal footing, but that’s not what the story was necessarily about.

    Third: No, I’m not saying that it would be completely and automatically utopian, but to not depict patriarchy and sexism when you want to criticize it directly would not help the plot. Also, in that sentence, I widen it to any element an author would want to criticize. When writing a book, why would you include any short of really shitty aspect of our world? Because it builds realism and a way for the audience to relate to it. If you didn’t put any shitty aspect of our world into it, including all the ones you did mention, it’d probably be really utopian, or nearly impossible to relate to, since you’d have a world that is not our own with none of our own problems. Good literature is universal. Shitty literature is overly specific as to be unrelatable.

    What I am saying is that there are specific reasons to include a patriarchy with a society that degrades women as part of the universe if it is providing a critical lens to look at it that way. The author is saying that we need a reason to have a patriarchy and I gave one.

  • Anonymous

    I Am Mohawk; I am thrilled to hear Mohawk spoken in assasins creed III (AS3).

    Mohawks are matrilineal, and Matriarchal. Mohawks are defenders of the eastern door.
    Mohawks did not side with the Colonists. They sided with the British.
    During the French and Indian War, Mohawks sided with the French.
    Even with his home burnt and father killed, his mother would never have let him go, and he would have never disobeyed his mother on a matter like that.


  • Anonymous

    It would have made more sense if it was a Mohawk woman. Double erased.

  • Terence Ng

    THANK YOU. At any point while he’s suggesting that “it was just dudes”, did he consider that when discussing patriarchy and systemic sexism that this might be the reason for WHY it seems like “it was just dudes”? History’s written by the winners, not the subjugated or ignored.

  • Karie

    Good fantasy is not mere escapism, it’s art, and sexism didn’t just exist in the middle ages, it exists now. I tend to think art that addresses sexism is generally a good thing.

    Now, bad fantasy that has no intention of “addressing” sexism but simply adopts it as part of the scenery is another thing entirely, Methinks it isn’t even a simple oversight, but the expression of a male wish for the “good old days” of unquestioned patriarchy.

  • Anonymous

    Oddly enough, that’s something that occurred to me as I was considering the popularity of the Hunger Games- yes, it’s obviously a dystopia, but gender and race honestly seem to not matter. It was strange to realize I found a part of Panem culture refreshing.

  • Mirr

    Question. If there -is- a virulent patriarchal culture, but there is commentary on it by certain characters on how it is harmful, or if there is a growing number of people in a position of power pushing for more equality, is that something that could be worked with instead of dismissing it as “that’s just how things are”?

  • Kathryn

    “Westeros’ unbending gender roles”

    You mean the ones in which Brienne, Asha, Arya, Cersei, Ygritte & the Spearwives of the Free Folk, the Mormont women, the Sand Snakes and so on live by? There are *so* many women in that series who basically say “Fuck this” to what they’re expected to do. The society might shun the more visible ones (and even when Brienne faces it, it’s largely shown as being due to her image rather than being a woman fighter), but many are still embraced. And a common theme running through those books is not how Women Should Be Servile, it’s about these women realising their potential or managing to work the system to keep themselves in power. Cersei might appear to be a ‘traditional female’ on the surface, but it’s very clear in the books that she’s really, really not.

    You can depict sexism in fantasy without resorting to pages of rape and violence. Martin chose to go the graphic path, because his series will only work as a brutal, violent read. If it was PG-13, it just wouldn’t work at all. You can also depict sexism without being sexist – I would argue that George R.R. Martin himself does fit this category. He has sexist characters, but from what little I know, he himself is not sexist.

    The more worrying sexism is the stuff you don’t see unless you look for it. It’s the girls who fall for men because they’re men. Love at first sight and so on. So many fantasy or historical novels – written by all genders, it must be said – fall back on that. Not she loves him because of what he’s done, or she doesn’t love him regardless. None of that. The whole undercurrent of She Is Beholden To Him Because He Is A Man is prevalent in so many books. That, in my opinion, is where the bigger issue is.

  • MsLinconnue

    I think what’s irksome about that mentality is that there is popular history which is usually interpreted as predominantly male when women were more active than the standard history most people read, claim. During the American Revolution, for instance, women played an integral role, some even fought (though disguised as men) for the Rebels/Patriots, while others acted as spies on both sides.

    And don’t even get me started on the whitewashing. It drives me nuts. In particular, I’m looking at you, Titanic.

    It’s also pretty dangerous to apply contemporary standards of liberty, equality, and so on and so forth, to early modern periods. Part of my research is actually about how we’ve limited our (theatrical) canons because they are based on models of accessibility that never previously existed.

    It hurts my head when I see someone pull the “but it’s just the period” card without contemplating exactly how those who were marginalized used historical restrictions to remain active in society. Most people (i.e. those who create “popular” historical narratives) really don’t seem to understand exactly how complex older societies were, even for those who were mostly powerless, when it comes to how those societies functioned.

  • malkavian

    I don’t really like Arya after the first book or so for character-related reasons, but Dany is another great example. So much adversity, but she’s so awesome. Also, Tyrion is probably the most popular character in the book, and he’s a dwarf. Same with Bran and being crippled.

  • malkavian

    Have you not noticed that nearly everyone in the Dragon Age series is kind of messed up?

  • malkavian

    Because Westeros is a crapsack world?

  • Joy P

    At the end of your initial comment you wrote “The idea behind a lot of these “other worlds” is to make comments about
    human nature and society in general. An author can’t really do that if
    the elements he or she wants to criticize are not present. If they were,
    it would be more of a utopian fiction” and that was what I mainly took issue with and why I asked that question in my reply to you. Apparently that’s not what you meant so I am left confused as to why you chose to phrase it that way.

    Also, I agree with your interpretation of the story arcs of Arya, Brienne ect but I don’t think that was the only way to make them relateable. GRRM chose that way and it does work, that does not mean its the only way it could be done though and I think that’s the point of the article and what many people who criticize the way women are depicted in ASOIAF are saying. I think Arya and Brienne would be just as relateable if they weren’t subverting the stereotype in their world because they would still be subverting it in ours, my admiration for them would be no less than it is now. Both points are valid and there is room for in the genre for both kinds of stories. The issue is that one kind of story far outweighs the other and is often seen as more valid for really no good reason.

  • Nigel

    People are people and nobody is as you expect or want them to be.

    Discrimination is a bad thing, but that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing.

    What matters is how you portray it. Take for instance Eric Cartman, from South Park. An extreme example of nearly every kind of bigotry you can think of.

    Through all his bigotted endevors, there is always a single constant: he always gets what’s coming to him. Some episodes might make an exception, but by and large, Eric Cartman’s plans always blow up in his face.

    This is good portrayal of a bigotted person and a good message to the viewers. Mainly because it’s not patronising or breaking the 4th wall in order to get the point across that “this is what you get for being a bigot”. South Park succeeds in making the experience of Eric Cartman feel real. You can see that he means it, you can see that he’s serious about his bigotry and that he actually, truly believes what he says and does. And his failures come through equally confident people standing up to him, or his ideas being so unrealistic they can’t possibly work.

    If you’re going to add bigotted people to your story, make sure they fail at what they wish to accomplish, directly or indirectly. Maybe they look happy on the outside, but if you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll find their situation isn’t as good as they want you to think it is.

    Send that message out there: bigotry doesn’t pay. But don’t be patronizing about it. You’re not writing a PSA for 10 year olds. Be serious about it. Accept that these people exist and actually believe themselves. And portray them as such. Not as the objects of your discontent.

  • Kate Holloway

    I stand by that original statement. An author can make a much stronger statement about negative aspects of our world if he/she includes them in the world they’re writing about, no matter if it’s patriarchy, poverty, inequality, mass consumption etc. I was being very general there, on purpose, to say that without including anything negative about our world, you’d have a utopia.

    I think Arya and Brienne are more relateable and have a lot more going for them because they are acting against their own society’s rolls for them. It shows much more courage to act in a way that is not expected than it does to toe the line. This kind of defiance is admirable, and certainly more relateable. It creates more conflict for them, and does a good job of showing what women have to go through in war-torn areas.

    I think there is plenty of reason to include horrible aspects of our society in fiction, and that is to make the fiction stronger and draw attention to something that really sucks.

  • Joy P

    I can agree to disagree :) I don’t think its necessary to include horrible aspects of our society in order to confront them. I think GRRM does it well in ASOIAF, really well in fact! That doesn’t mean that it should be done that way all the time and there isn’t any other way to tell a story that draws attention to the things that suck.

  • Kate Holloway

    But the sexism is still present. If it was completely absent, how would they make the contrast?

    In the same vein, Martin doesn’t only show completely patriarchal societies; Dorne is much more equal, as are the Wildlings.

  • Anonymous

    If you can stretch disbelief to include elven maidens and dragons and magic powers, you can suspend your disbelief and put black people and women warriors in your damn narratives.

  • Joy P

    Dorne is very awesome and I believe I mentioned that in my initial reply to you. I’m hoping very much that we see and hear more of Dorne in the last two novels because honestly there wasn’t all that much. The Wildings are not on the same level of power as the Seven Kingdoms or even Dorne. In the books I speak of when the once the three societies join female oppression pretty much falls away, and even before that because of what the general populace begins to see and hear, it makes them question. There is none of that really in ASOIAF except in Dorne and everyone else pretty much think they’re crazy for allowing women the power that they do which is why they are pretty much marginalized as a kingdom and the Wildings are scorned and killed for being uncivilized curs, neither society (The Wildings and Dorne) makes the larger one (Westeros) question the rampant misogyny inherent in their own. Whereas in the other story I mentioned they do.

  • Anonymous

    I just want to point out that there’s a lot of great secondary world fantasy in YA that doesn’t fall into this trap, that makes the leap of presenting female warriors, assassins, and general badasses in lead roles WITHOUT making gender an issue.

  • Jay, King of Gay

    I agree. Look at BSG. Sexism doesn’t seem to exist in that universe. That seems to be a commentary on our own structure.

  • Jerilyn Nighy

    You’d think GOT is the only fantasy series in the history of ever despite it only being relatively recent, and being influenced by Memory Sorrow and Thorn (and once people grew tired of only reading Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind). Anyhow, before GOT came along and everyone declared it the only fantasy series that mattered other than LOTR, there was the female-friendly Valdemar, and Pern, and Witch World, Darkover, Cheysuli/Tiger and Del, etc. If you want a female perspective on patriarchal, worlds, there is The Deryni novels, some of the stuff by Tanith Lee, Jirel of Joiry, Earthsea, the Green Lion Trilogy, Tales of Alaric the Minstrel and The Book of Elementals. This is just off the top of my head.

  • Alana Boltz

    Amen! It really ticks me off that women of that era are just written off like that. And it’s really kind of stupid, honestly. I mean, the 18th century was sexist, but there were many, many interesting women during that time, and to act like they don’t exist is just insulting. After all, it was the era of Mary Wollstonecraft, for heaven’s sake!

  • Nikki Lincoln

    I feel Assassin’s Creed would have actually been the best game to go against historical norms – after all, a big part of the game is supposed to encourage players to accomplish missions under the radar. In the newer ones, this involves getting a better completion rate if you do certain missions without being detected. This really makes the idea of the characters gender being defined by history pretty null – if the character is doing the job correctly, no one should notice him or her, especially not something as gender. Plus, the first four games show that there can be female assassins although they aren’t the main character.

    They also addressed this in the Vita game (which I’ve been playing). They use the female aspect as a way for Eveline to sneak around in different guises. As an assassin, she is always notorious since a female in assassin clothing would get more attention but she can also dress as a lady and as a slave in order to infiltrate areas in a different way. The creators even make it clear that she’s in no way less capable because she is a woman and several of the men who help her out can’t do many of the things that she can.

  • Anonymous

    The question is something I’d considered a lot, and my take is generally this: if you’re going to portray a historical period that has unpleasant but unavoidable elements, then I think it’s insulting to leave them out or whitewash them entirely. Depicting, for example, women voting in 19th Century London is presenting an infantilised, safe view of history. At the same time, though, there’s absolutely no reason to be hamstrung by certain aspects of the historical record. Just because women or certain marginalised groups in history didn’t have the same rights as white men doesn’t mean they had no agency, or relevance, or importance: moreover, what does it matter to the STORY?

    The American Revolution’s a perfect example. No, they didn’t have whole regiments of female soldiers marching alongside redcoats and bluecoats, but that hardly means women sat around their homes and twiddled their thumbs while the Menfolk settled things: they went out and spied on the enemy like Ann Bates and “Miss Jenny,” or even manned the cannons like Margaret Corbin. Even on the battlefield you could see female nurses, cooks, supply runners and the like, not to mention women disguised as men like Margaret Thompson or Deborah Sampson (the first woman to officially serve in the US army and receive a pension). Even if you ignore exceptional women like that, the role of women in the American Revolution can’t be overstated. With all the spies running around, it’s difficult to think of a period in history *more* suited for a female Assassin short of World War II or the American Civil War.

    All throughout history, you get similar examples of women affecting the world even without serving in public office or commanding armies. There’s no reason Assassin’s Creed III couldn’t have had Nancy Ward, Molly Brant, Sally Franklin, Ann Bailey, Ann Wood Henry, Margaret Green Draper, Mercy Otis Warren and the infamous Agent 355 alongside Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin.

    When it comes to fantasy inspired by history, the only reason that holds any particular water with me is if the world is directly tied with our earth. Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age, for instance, are explicitly our world in the distant past, and so tied to history – yet even then, Tolkien and Howard found ways to present women in roles beyond that of servitude, be they warriors (Eowyn, Valeria) or leaders (Galadriel, Belit). Westeros is a case where a very specific era of history (the War of the Roses) is so overpowering that it can’t help but take many elements from that period of British history, including the lot of women, and again, he takes the effort to present exceptions to the rule.

    Generally, I think the prevalence of sexist depictions in historical fantasy is part of a related problem: the reliance of Stock Medieval Fantasy. Not only are we bringing in the patriarchal bias, but also the idea of superstition over science, feudalism over other forms of government, religious zealotry – and to add insult to injury, those elements are usually grotesque caricatures of the complex and nuanced reality. Hence how you can so many games with women in the 17th Century as glorified chattel, yet few seem to remember this was also the age of Grace O’Malley, Certified Badass.

  • Kaarel Jakobson

    I would recommend seeing Glory, which is about the first infantry regiment in the Union Army composed entirely of freed slaves.

  • Anonymous

    The way I see it – if I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief enough to believe in dragons, then I’m pretty sure it can extend to equal positions for female characters.

  • Sylvia Sybil

    As many people in the comments have already pointed out, what’s seen as “realistic” is often already skewed towards showing a more sexist, male-oriented version of history. Just because women in the past were banned from participating the same ways men did, doesn’t mean they didn’t find other ways to help out or just break the ban. “Realism” often means “the way I think history should have gone”, ignoring all of the ways women diverged from the role we depict them as having.

    If you’re creating a new world, then you don’t “have” to have sexism (or any other *ism) in it. Especially not if you have magic or nanotechnology, because 1) you’re already suspending disbelief and 2) if your fantasy story has someone acting sexist towards a female mage, you’d better have a damn good reason why she doesn’t just set him on fire.

    While I do enjoy stories where people criticize or overcome oppression, I think stories where that oppression is just never an issue are at least as important. We have show the world the way we want it to be before we can strive to get there. Plus, I have to deal with sexism all day, every day in my life. Giving me a break from that is worth something even if it doesn’t accomplish any grander goals.

  • Chanel Diaz

    In real life, in America, during the slave times and the civil rights movements, Women’s Rights were the last rights to even be considered. I still believe that is apparent today because NO ONE can make a good enough EXCUSE to still display sexism and discriminate women. Yet, people claim to be ‘Moralistic.’

    The fact that even in fiction, the idea of gender-equality, which doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect world, just Equal Opportunity, is still too Complicated for people, still says how women are STILL thought to not matter (Yet, stupid ‘nerd boys’ will screech, “sexism’s in the past,” when THESE Games were made in the PRESENT.). Yeah, people didn’t write history about women, allowed women to make history or be a part of history (If anyone says women were not good people because they didn’t help people, it’s ONLY BECAUSE THE MEN FORCED THEM NOT TO HELP PEOPLE! Look up Female Abolitionists, for example.), does that mean all women did was BIRTH BABIES and will ONLY BIRTH BABIES?

    They might as well reveal how they truly feel that women are worth nothing more than for their sex and for being objectified by them.

    And it’s easy for the game developers to defend patriarchal white supremacist society when they directly PRIVILEGE from it.

  • QuicksilverWitch

    I agree that sexism in sci fi/fantasy worlds is very common in the more main stream works we’re all familiar with–LoTR (Arwen basically has NO role in the books except arm candy; Galadriel and Eowyn are the ones with more chapter time, and even then it’s very little), Game of Thrones, as mentioned above, etc. BUT! I think there are many works that DO portray excellent female characters that are often forgotten due to the era they were published/written. For example, my dad collected many sci fi books in the 70s. I grew up with female role models such as Morgaine from the Morgaine Trilogy (No, not THAT Morgaine from the Arthur/Merlin legends), a bad ass immortal woman who seeks to close threatening world gates across the galaxy; Lessa of Pern from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, a woman who’s family was massacred and who was responsible for the revival of a dying race of dragons and the inclusion of women in her world’s political affairs ; Gwendolyn and Cordelia Gallowglass from Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series, where a world intentionally created to reflect the medieval period began to change due to the presence of powerful women; Polgara the Sorceress from the Belgariad and Malloreon series by David and Leigh Eddings (power writing couple!), the immortal woman responsible for guarding her many times great grand nephew and the last of a royal line that would eventually unite the world, who takes no shit from anyone; and last but not least, Nita and Dairine Callahan, and Kit Rodriguez from Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard series, which I discovered and got into on my own, where I feel both male and female characters are close to being equally represented, and the term “wizard” is used to encompass anyone across any race, species, or creed.

    While I do agree that there is sexism in some of the works described above, I also think we do not even begin to focus on the works that attempt to show equality between genders as well as attempt to override historical sexism by showing HOW it can be overridden. I think we need to bring more attention to works that fit our idea of gender equality in sci fi/fantasy and bring them into the limelight if we want to see more equality in the mainstream media.

  • Chanel Diaz

    He really should just admit he doesn’t care to learn about women and believe women are worthless outside of giving birth. I started hating history classes when I realized how basically IGNORED women were back then and TODAY!

  • Anonymous

    I love this article. I love how many huge comments there are. I’m glad you chose Game of Thrones and AC3 to discuss. I’m glad. This is a discussion we should be having.

  • Anonymous

    I also highly, highly, highly recommend Glory. It remains my favorite movie. (And yes, it is a bit problematic because the protagonist is white, but daymn. It’s a good movie.)

  • Anonymous

    “I don’t think criticizing an author for sexism for making the choice to portray their fantasy world as sexist is warranted”
    I’ll set aside that you’re suggesting that people don’t have the right to critique things (which is absurd) and focus on the angle at hand. Yes. We most definitely should point out small-minded thinking to authors. There are thousands of fantasy worlds being conceived at any given moment, and yet … most of them will be patriarchies. Why? Why, even in our wildest dreams where dragons and unicorns thrive, that women must still be oppressed? People of color still absent? If this scenario was less prevalent, yeah, we could chalk it up to a conscience creative decision, but honestly? It’s almost always not. It’s almost always “because that’s just the way it was back then!”

  • Anonymous

    Now, I’m European, so I know a lot more about the French Revolution than about the American one, but you had women taking part in the Revolution in any sides, from Olympe de Gouges to Mme. de Pompadour to the mobs of women who stormed palaces shouting for bread to Marie Antoinette to Charlotte Corday to the tricoteuses. The French Revolution was chock full of women, notoriously so, and any film of the period without women would be quite strange.

    On the other hand, I’ve just read the recent biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (the father of the novelist author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte-Cristo) by Tom Reiss, which goes at some length about the role of Black and Mulatto people in the Revolution: not just Dumas, but also the Chevalier de Saint-George, the Black Legion and the rest of the Américains of the period. There were also plenty of Black people in the French Revolution, too, and the discussion on slavery and abolitionism was important too in the decades before the Revolution.

    I am just unable to believe that there were no women or POC in the American Revolution. I just can’t.

  • Engler Pascal

    Not to mention that the games do not take in the past, but in a reconstructed and probably not entirely accurate VR-Simulation of said past.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s all read about strong female characters living happy lives in
    peaceful societies where everyone respects them, that sounds like fun.

    Why do you hate My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? I hear it’s got some fans, even some guys like the show /snark

  • thecynicalromantic

    ASoIaF takes place in a pre-industrial, feudal/chivalric, patriarchal absolute monarchy so that GRRM can specifically poop all over the ridiculous nostalgia for and romanticization of pre-industrial feudal/chivalric patriarchal absolute monarchies that dominates the fantasy tradition.

    There should totally be fewer books that engage in that ridiculous romanticism and more books that bypass that “system” altogether but I’m getting really sick and tired of people complaining that ONE popular fantasy author has decided to give the mindless, reactionary, morally bankrupt Tolkien-derivative tradition the direct and intentional kick in the teeth it so well deserves, because watching that happen isn’t fluffy and escapist for their personal tastes.

  • Joy P

    My sentiments exactly and put much more succinctly lol :)

  • Magic Xylophone

    I agree with most of what you said, but I have a couple questions:

    “2. Remove all non-shitty things that are not food”

    Like what?

    “There is also a place for stories where a lack of gender bullshit is the default”

    Can you think of a good medieval fantasy example?

  • Magic Xylophone

    “where women are constantly doing things like being involved in wars, research, adventures, saving lives, saving farms, inventing things, running businesses, being widowed and orphaned and having to run all the things when the men are off dying at a 70% rate in WW1″

    Well said. But how much of that fits in with the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed?

  • Magic Xylophone

    I think what Dan meant was that within the story, the gender roles are never seriously challenged. Sometimes Arya or Dany will wonder what up with that bullshit, and of course by their actions demonstrate women’s abilities, but there’s no Women’s Lib movement going on in Westeros.

  • Magic Xylophone

    Well, also she’s a POV character with way more page time (is that the book equivalent of screen time? I’m not sure).

  • Lucas Picador

    Ditto re: calling BS on the Assassin’s Creed dude. The entire premise of the series is that there’s a SECRET HISTORY that’s been suppressed by the Templars, and that part of that secret history is the cult of the Assassins, who defy the social conventions imposed by the Templars. So the big reveal in AC2 shows the PC, Ezio, that pretty much every other friendly character in the game — HALF OF WHOM ARE WOMEN — are in fact members of the Assassins with all of the same magical stabby-sneaky-tower-climby skills as Ezio. I.e., any one of those characters could have been the PC instead.

    And, as you say, even AC3 has an aboriginal PC, and the Vita title has a black female PC, both of which are consistent with the mythology and themes of the series as a whole. There’s absolutely no in-setting reason why the hero of AC3 couldn’t have been a woman. This is just about the lamest attempt I’ve seen to justify the “female game protagonists don’t sell” copout by trying to attribute it to something about the setting.

  • Magic Xylophone

    I object to your description of ASOIAF as kiddie porn, because the text makes it pretty clear how awful and damaging such situations can be. However, I fully support your decision to not read it because of those scenes. They were tough for me to get through, and I don’t even have any similar traumas to flash back to.

  • Lydia de Leeuw

    Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series is a good example of a fantasy world with a lot less sexist bullshit. Terre d’Ange, the heroine’s homeland, is pretty much equal opportunities for all genders. There IS sexism in the other countries the heroine travels too, but it’s always remarked upon as a Bad Thing and not the natural status quo.

  • Magic Xylophone

    Boy, you’d really hate The Handmaid’s Tale.

  • Magic Xylophone

    Thanks for the recommendations! No need to get so mad about GoT, though. It’s just currently very popular, hence its prominence as a cultural touchstone in media analysis.

  • Kate Holloway

    Except there is criticism of gender roles within the story. Arya and Brienne wonder what’s up with that bullshit, as do Asha, Dany, Cersei, Osha, Adrienne, Samwell Tarly, and, to some extent, Catelyn (when she can’t help Robb come up with war plans).

  • Alana Boltz

    I agree with what you are saying, though I am just curious- do you feel the same way about historical fantasies that are actually set in a real world time and place?

  • Alana Boltz

    I agree with what you are saying, though I am just curious- do you feel the same way about historical fantasies that are actually set in a real world time and place?

  • Anonymous

    I think it works really well for Game of Thrones because Westeros is intended to be a crappy place to live. That’s demonstrated by the attitude towards bastards, towards dwarfs, towards commoners, towards pretty much anyone who doesn’t fit in, and also towards women.

    A Song of Ice and Fire is a book about the underdogs, about the castoffs of society. By the fourth and fifth books, there are basically no able-bodied, regular looking male characters of legitimate noble birth left among the main cast. You can’t write a book about the oppressed without it involving oppression.

  • Anonymous

    Of course I do. I’m making a sim game set in traditional Sengoku-era Japan where you can make your character (male or female) become anything from a lowly merchant to a noble samurai. I was inspired while playing another game (Taiko Risshiden) where you could NOT play as a woman, only marry one. And that’s not to say there weren’t real life female samurai/merchants/whatever, either! There definitely were, and there’s no reason why a player can’t become one of these extraordinary people.

  • Heather Taff

    I might also recommend Melanie Rawn’s Exiles series. The fictional society there is a case of extreme sexism against men, with the women holding all the power and imposing random rules about appropriately modest attire and behavior and such on their husbands and brothers. Not surprisingly, it’s also a highly flawed system that the main characters fight against. Haven’t read them in years, but enjoyed them as a teenager. Unfortunately, Ms. Rawn never wrote the final book of the trilogy and it’s been so long I doubt she ever will….

  • Rob Preece

    I think the social background of a story ties with the message the author wants to make. Darkover, for example, had its sexist societies but also its female assassins because the role of women was important to Marion Zimmer Bradley. It’s probably wrong to write every society as if absolute equality were universal but it’s also wrong to create utopian fantasy worlds were sexism is part of that utopia. Still, an author has to have a reason to ignore the possibility of violence against women, patriarchial institutions, or other undesirable institutions of sexism.

  • Canisa

    Is Historical Accuracy a good defence of patriarchal societies in fantasy fiction?

    In short: No, not at all, not even one tiny little bit.

    Unless you’re writing an actual non-fictional historical account that is 100% based on fact, sexism is totally and utterly unacceptable. It’s not okay in AC3. It’s not okay in GoT. It’s not okay in CoD. It’s not okay in ME3. It’s. Not. Okay.

  • Mudz

    The more historically accurate fiction is, the better it is. (Unless it’s like a Terry Pratchett-esque thing.)
    Most women I meet are horrible sexists too, none of them seem interested in twirling swords and brawling, why the heck would medieval fantasies suck because they have your basic DIDs and women being (ohnoes) feminine, and all the rest? To be honest, reading a fiction in which the women were just the same as the men sounds largely featureless and unattractive. And in real life and the universe at large it kind of defeats the purpose of being a women in the first place, which is that you’re *not* a man, or like one. And that’s not a *bad* thing. (You self-sexist pigs. :P)

    And this was also the letdown for me with ‘John Carter’ is the bullshit PC. I don’t remember the book that well, but that ridiculous ‘gone native’ cliche with the Indians did not fit at all. I don’t remember John Carter giving a shit at all. And imagine Robinson Crusoe, but without the black slave happy servant. These things not only are more authentic than the obvious, hairless pandering constantly pressured upon mass-market aware authors today, but they’re just more interesting exactly *because* it represents something different from our social norms.

    Women have always been interesting characters in fiction. Men have always had trouble coming off as beautiful, forlorn, intelligent, sweet, self-sacrificing, physically weak yet tough, arresting, and impressive, all in the same person. Women, no problem. Totally sexist, right? (Come to think of it, you metro/andro fans might actually agree.)

    Women should definitely not be side-lined in fiction, since that just sucks for everyone. But not being given swords and shields and the ability to decapitate a hundred trolls while men gaze on with rapt admiration (A True Blue Mary Sue), doesn’t automatically make them unimportant.

    We have so many one-dimensional ‘strong women’ in fiction, that at least in the fiction that I read, a woman actually acting like that ‘archaic’ mother type, is what I find interesting (and was the unscorned heights of womanly importance). I remember loving the (probably semi-fictionalised) book of the Wright Brothers, and the Trolley Car Family, because they had great mother characters in them, and they played the most powerful role in these stories about family (and what’s more important than that?)
    I already know what men do and are known for. Men going to war and being violent, brutal, angry, or warlordy, isn’t big news. If a women does the same, it is interesting only because it’s non-intuitive, and if you treat it like it is normal or they’re just like men, then you eliminate anything interesting about this (although I know that’s sort of what you want).
    Women aren’t men, and if you write fiction trying to make women more man-like, then not only are you undervaluing women, and the role of women in any given society, but you lose out on exploring an entirely new context of the given reality for readers that is relevant to human interest.

    If every woman in (less-than-recent) history plays to this man-central stereotype of existence, then by saying that there’s nothing interesting about them at all is a disservice to basically the largest population of womankind that’s ever existed. Way to go chaps. You discriminate against women.

  • Alana Boltz

    I definitely see your point there. Actually, the reason that I asked is because I tend to write historical fantasy myself, and I feel like you can’t really gloss over the major social issues of the era in favor of the cool ones. (the American Civil War, in my case). However, I definitely would never use that as an excuse to ignore the contributions of non white males. To do so seems rather like a copout, and one that is unfair to the many fascinating people in real life who went against the norm, despite their social stigma.

  • K Shorten

    I’m going to tackle your point about including patriarchy in order to criticize it.

    You really, really don’t have to do that. I’ll will provide a counter example, the pretty well known fantasy series The Wheel of Time*, which in many cases, goes out of its way to REVERSE patriarchy, and show a society where, in many cases, women are more dominant than men (Aes Sedai, Sea folk, etc) , and even includes a city-state in which men are practically subjugated (Far Madding). In some ways this is a more effective criticism of sexism because men never experience institutional sexism in real life.

    It goes further to re-enforce sexism=bad thematically, as the character actions that are most effective and do the most good are when men & women work together, and the most harm happens when they oppose each other.

    So BAM – criticism of patriarchy without portraying patriarchy.

    *(I am not suggesting the wheel of time is perfect in its gender portrayals, or is never problematic. But you can’t deny it has NO issues with quantity of female characters )

  • K Shorten

    How do you make the contrast? With real life of course. I always, always notice when sexism is absent from a book I am reading, because it contrasts life so very strongly. In fact, when a character that would be typically typed as Sexist fails to behave that way, people notice. It isn’t new or groundbreaking to see say, a cowboy character leaving the women behind or underestimating a woman’s capabilities. That tells us nothing new about sexism.

  • LoveyDovey

    Is this for real? I don’t even know where to start. . .

  • LoveyDovey

    To tie that She Is Beholden To Him into GoT- Sansa did that, and it has not worked out well for her at all. I daresay George R.R. Martin may have specifically put that trope in to subvert it.

  • standgale

    The sexist environment of Game of Thrones annoys me much less than in other books like, say, Magician. In GoT I get annoyed about certain aspects of sexism but it is on behalf of the characters, against the society, rather than against the author. So although it is certainly a valid point that he chose to wrote a book that included this sexism rather than not, I think he uses it well – it is actually part of the story rather than the unthinking default. Men and women try and challenge various parts of the structure with it’s gender-restricted roles (and it generally goes badly for them) but it is actually part of their lives and stories.

    For me, I feel that the more problematic aspect in GoT is some of the racial dynamics – I think these are more the “unthinking default” and less a deliberate construct of the world. I get the feeling that some of the racist perceptions of “barbarians” is supposed to be effectively showing these societies from the other characters’ and societies’ perspectives, but I suspect a lot of is is laziness – the author suggests various common stereotypes and leaves us to fill in the details about the cultures ourselves based on these.

  • Mudz

    With words. That generally works.

  • Anonymous

    What, you surely don’t mean the Depraved Decadent Effeminate Orientals who keep armies of castrati and eat fried dog and honeyed locusts, the hordes of Klingon Mongol Huns or the Sexually Liberated Black People Whose Life Calling (for women only) is Prostitution?

    It’s not as if I hate the books, but srsly, George.

  • Tynam

    True… the only bits of that list you could possibly use for a video game are the wars, research, adventures, lifesaving, invention, and businesses.

    Nothing to work with, really.

  • Kathryn

    Possibly. But Sansa’s… behaviour, at least at the start, made sense. She was brought up with a specific purpose, blinded and so-on by stories. She believed she’d have the perfect everything. Her story is about the scales falling.

  • Outbrave Publishing

    Thank you!

    To me it’s not a matter of “should we PORTRAY this?” but of “should we VALIDATE this?”

    Women have been treated as lesser beings forever in most parts of the world. To ignore that would in fiction be akin to ignoring racism. That kind of storytelling just sterilizes history, which only hurts our perception of the past and, consequently, the present.

    But there have been some extraordinary women, just like there have been some extraordinary men. In addition, there were probably lots of women who struggled against the oppression of their sex and never made it into the history books. Even in medieval and ancient history there were cultures where women were equal.

    We should stop making the heroes misogynistic, unless it’s one of their flaws rather than a given as “that’s the way things were back then”. Things were that way, and it was awful. There is nothing admirable about that. There is nothing romantic about it (unless you’re a 50 Shades fan I guess). There is nothing enlightening about it.

    Assassin’s Creed III could have easily had a female lead, but that wouldn’t have provided a comfortable, uncomplicated narrative for those who grew up worshipping the male gods of the revolution. I can understand on one hand, as another commenter pointed out, that people engage in escapism for what it sounds like: escaping. They don’t want to be challenged, even in the most subtle of ways, because it halts the escape, or at least makes it too bumpy.

    As a writer, it’s tough. There are a lot of male writers out there who yearn for the “glory days” when men decapitated and raped and women were servile, but I can also attest to the innocent motives of creating certain characters in certain ways. Maybe a female character is subservient because she was raised that way and genuinely doesn’t know another way to exist.

    That said, here’s one of the writing question we should always remember: can it be justified by the text? Does her personally make sense based on what has happened to her, and does it make her a complete person who adds to a complete story?

  • april

    I really wish they were more Mongol, Gengis Khan left the conquered territory to his daughters to rule and there were plenty of female warriors.

  • standgale

    It’s conceivable that I may have been referring to those examples… ;)

    I love the books, but I wish he’d used a bit more imagination for the non-european inspired people (because even if nobody did consider these stereotypes racist, they’d still be boring). I think the Dothraki could have been similar to how they are, but if they were developed and well-rounded they would have been a fascinating fantasy culture.

    What I wish he’d done, actually, is presented the Dothraki as one-dimensional violent barbarians when we first meet them through the other characters, and then, chapter by chapter, start to show them differently as Daenarys gets to know them. i.e. showing her view of them change from simplistic observation through to the understanding she gets from becoming intergrated into their culture.
    Of course, one has to be careful not to go too far and end up with the noble savage, etc.

    Although, as it turns out, the “violent barbarians” turn out to be significantly less violent and barbaric than almost every other culture in the books.

    I have nothing against fried dog and honeyed locusts though – especially the honeyed locusts. Europeans don’t eat enough exciting bugs (disclaimer: I have never knowingly eaten any bugs, I just would, maybe, like to try some, sort of…:p)

  • standgale

    Yes; I feel that sexism in historical fantasy should be reduced, but can still be used, of course, where appropriate and where it is part of the story, and I think ASoIaF fulfils that requirement.

    It sort of becomes like the “women’s role in movies” issue – sure, it is fine to have all men in lead roles in a movie if that is valid for that specific movie, but it is easy for people to get confused between fighting the overall trend and fighting a specific movie.

  • standgale

    I know lots of women interested in “twirling swords”, and indeed many who do learn various different types of (non-injurous) sword-fighting, and I don’t know anyone of any gender interested in brawling, because no one I knows enjoys getting injured in pointless fights, but it’s probably just our different social circles.

    Admittedly, I am of no gender, so I don’t really understand your point about men and women being substantially and basically different.

  • Mudz

    Really? You don’t have a gender? I would genuinely be interested to know what that means. Do you mean psychologically or physically?

    Hahaha, men have a decided like for getting injured in fights (how could
    that be pointless? Scars, man. Chicks dig em), but no-one here is
    accusing us of brilliance. I’m sure if you think about it you could
    think of seventeen hundred and five movies and examples that demonstrate
    this. Same principle as sky-diving I guess, or playing rugby (football
    for Americans).

    I know some girls who learned self-defense as well, and would
    undoubtedly love to learn how to ninja kick the air to show off to their
    buddies. I even have an cranky old aunt who’s basically some sort of
    super ninja that threw my older cousin through a window. She’s a
    feminist dream. And even so, she had to work three times as hard as a
    man in order to achieve what she did, and it only works for her either
    when fortune or surprise is on her side, and she has to work really hard
    to maintain it. Even Bruce Lee admitted he could get owned by a big
    fella who even vaguely knew what he was doing, and when it comes to men
    and women, women are as a rule, smaller, gain strength slower, and
    apparently are just proportionately slower. Testoterone is actually
    important, and men have much more of it, as well as a psychological
    disposition to take advantage of it.

    You must have taken gym at school at some point, do you ever remember
    how much trouble the girls had holding on to the swing ropes?

    Regarding my friends learning combat as a sport (rather than expressing
    masculine desires for the physical violence), I believe that’s more for
    the self-narrative, and the fact that they have generally absorbed the
    feminist philosophy, like this is something that they *should* want to
    be into. Female warriors.

    The more important aspect is that even these girls are still virtually
    helpless (granted they’re very low-level trained) against a dude (even a
    pudgy little bastard that I know with about 0 aptitude for fighting),
    which just reinforces the incredulity I have towards realistic women
    warriors as a matter of course. That said, I do actually love the
    fantasy (I watched so much Xena as a kid, and who doesn’t love the
    feminist fictional poster girl Wonder Woman? Hot, amiright?), but I
    object to the destruction of genuine feminimity in order to propagate an
    antagonistic power struggle between men and women. We’re supposed to
    be complementary not competitive, man!

    When I say the girls aren’t interested in twirling swords (which applies
    in the sense that you’ve used to most of them anyway), I meant that in a
    genuine blood-reaping barbarians kind of way, like the savage princess
    of the hinterlands. Out of all the females I know, only my mother (bless
    her heart) knows how to take a life, and could believably do so. (And
    I’m talking about deer, here, and she was raised by the last of the
    ancient men who actually hunted for food. My grandad’s so awesome.)

    You highlighted a key aspect with the word ‘non-injurious’. If a man got
    superficially cut by a sword, even if he freaked out like a child (I’ll avoid the word ‘girl’ :P) at the time, from
    that day forward he would think he’s some kind of John McClane or James Bond. I totally
    want a sword scar. That’d be so badass. (I have a hand scar, but the
    story behind it is lame and doesn’t involve sword fights or attacked-by-ninjas.) I don’t
    think girls are quite as attracted to the notion.

    Women and men are substantially different for many reasons, not the
    least of which is that they biologically just are. There’s nothing more
    intrinsic to human nature than nature. Thousands of comedians have
    devoted themselves to the explication of this truth. Women like to chat,
    men like to watch the telly, women find their daily history
    fascinating, men don’t, men find cars and fiddling with technology
    fascinating, women don’t. Women make better mothers than men, and men
    make better fathers than women, men like to provide, and women like to
    be provided for (women don’t generally buy the big diamond ring for the
    husband, and that’s how everyone likes it). Etc, etc, etc. I’m sure
    there’s exceptions to every rule, but the point is these are still

    Even when one goes to extraordinary lengths to imprint oneself with a
    non-specific gender quality (sorry, this has a 50% chance fo applying to
    you), being biologically a man or woman will (barring genetic
    accidents) still leave its distinctions in your emotional character.
    Which is great, because how grey would life be if we propagated the
    ultimate in human conformity by eliminating gender differences in the
    entire earth. There’s goes 80% of the entertainment industry.

    Here’s something I came across the other day though if you’d like to
    read something that isn’t from me, about it. And a post from an ex-gay
    dude, that is relevant as well.

  • standgale

    “Really? You don’t have a gender? I would genuinely be interested to know
    what that means. Do you mean psychologically or physically?”

    Unfortunately, I don’t feel comfortable discussing this with you.

    However, if we define my gender based on your post, I am unambiguously male.

    Interestingly, I know a man with a genuine (although self-inflicted) sword scar, for which a rapid trip to the hospital was organised, and he was extremely stauch, although not at all of the opinion that the scar is awesome or useful for attracting chicks. Based on your post, he is half-male, half-female.

    Admittedly these examples are annecdotal, but so are yours.

  • Esa

    Let’s not forget how awesome kind of land made Robert Jordan in his Wheel of Time with women being the highest power – all of Aes Sedai, Queen of the Andor and making badass main heroines who won’t let any guy to rule them. Even Dragon Reborn has a really big problem with them.

  • Jeanne

    I’m curious about how many female creators feel pressured to adhere to “historical” patriarchy in order for their work to be seen as legitimate.

  • Denali White

    I also strongly disagree that ASOIAF never challenges the patriarchy it comments on.

    I think ASOIAF is extremely effective at challenging it, actually. It sets up a world where it is thoroughly awful to live as a woman, a world where women are severely oppressed in pretty much every possible way. And then it goes on to show us examples of women living in this world who not only survive, but who hold power and influence. These women possess a variety of skills and personalities, have many different goals, and are fully fleshed-out, varied characters. Every single one of these major female characters directly challenges the patriarchy of the world just by existing and thriving.

  • David Kimball

    Neither the dim view of women, nor the marginalization of women, that were equally present in the US in the 1780s and the US in the 1950s were present in the Middle Ages.

    The Church recognized exactly one fundamental difference between men and women: only men could be ordained as Catholic priests. To postulate further differences — to say, with Aristotle, that women were fundamentally irrational, or, with Muhammad, that they were more or less incapable of salvation — was heresy, which was serious business. (It was all the more serious because secular lords suspected that to tolerate heretics was to invite the wrath of God. The Inquisition was created to give heretics a chance to repent and thus save their lives — and, more importantly, their souls.)

    To despise women and celebrate men would have flown in the face of the court etiquette of the period, which emphasized honor and introduced courtly love. Admittedly, courtly love put women on a pedestal, and it can be hard to accomplish very much while on a pedestal — but this was a fairly spacious one, with plenty of room to govern a province, study theology, write books of medicine, or perhaps throw off the whole course of history by saving France from English conquest or turning the Lithuanians Christian.

    At the level of commoners, the distinctions between husband and wife were not particularly great; men would take their wives’ names if they married women with more property than they themselves had, and both sexes worked in the fields.

    The Italian patricians, inheriting Roman sexism, were more sexist and male-supremacist than the average in the period; but even so, a patrician who didn’t have his wife manage his business while he was away was courting poverty.

    For more on the relations of men and women in the period, read Frances and Joseph Gies’ _Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages_ or perhaps Will Durant’s _The Age of Faith_, or curl up by the fire with a good medieval chronicle. (The novel _Eifelheim_ is also worth reading.)

    For more of where the ’50s view on women came from, you may want to read _Albion’s Seed_, paying particular attention to the Scotch-Irish with their Migration Age views on women and their very high levels of economic inequality. Both a pre-chivalric view of women and a high GINI index have been characteristic of the United States from as early as the 17th century, and have become particularly salient in the past fifty or sixty years.

  • LysanLurraxol

    I don’t think Game of Thrones is particularly useful in a discussion on historical fantasy, given how little it resembles the actual Middle Ages. Martin’s world-buliding is incredibly sloppy, and he doesn’t seem to have understood how Medieval societies actually functioned. The result is mostly incoherent, manages to be significantly more misogynist than the Medieval period, and bares little resemblance to the period he’s supposedly drawing on.

  • Jenna M. Pitman

    There were actually A LOT of women pirates and there were a lot of women in the “Wild Wild West” since both were cases of places women – and people in general – could go to escape the social norms. Never mind that women tended to have greater roles in history in every society than we currently give them credit for.

  • Jenna M. Pitman

    Personally I think a good portion of the books themselves wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t challenging the cultural patriarchy of Westeros. I’m a L+R=J fan and I believe that Lyanna was a headstrong tomboy purposefully flaunting her assigned role. And if it hadn’t been for her running off NOTHING in the books would have happened.And when you look at the original histories of the Targaryns there was a lot of freedom women were given in that dynasty.

  • Mudz

    I guess that means psychological?

    My examples were generalisations, as well as anecdotal.

    In any case, ‘self-inflicted’. Sounds like the guy has already has psychological issues. The story behind his sword-scar sounds non-heroic. Also, the wound sounds like an actually debilitating wound. That’s makes a whole lot of difference. Being a dude doesn’t mean you like having your guts pulled out and draped on the furniture. Dudes are still human. Based on your post, your friend is 100% dude, he just did something he’s not proud of, and wounded himself badly doing it.

    The conditions for what I’m talking about are:

    A) Superficial. (Or, not a wound that fucks you up for life.)
    B) Good story (as in, makes you look good).

    And there are effete men, no doubt. But I’m talking about your run of the mill, non-cowardly, bloke.

    Stabbing yourself in the guts because you’re depressed, or because you were dumb, not every dude would brag about. (Although quite a few would, at least for the last one.)
    And tell me how staunch you think a girl would have been after stabbing herself with a sword.

    Even that has exceptions. Depending on the kind of guy.

    For example. I got my hand stuck in a rotary blade, which sliced up my hand, chopping fingers and the like. Which I found to be the perfect opportunity for:

    A) A holiday.

    B) A chance to show the girls (and the nurses) how tough I was.

    I was very popular with the (very good-looking) nurses, who were all very impressed; which made it all worth it. ;)
    Even if there were no ninjas invovled.

    And don’t mistake my anecdotes as absolutes. People do differ psychologically, but I’m pointing out generalisations that define men as a whole that differ from women. Women just don’t get the same sort of joy over rough and tumble the same as guys.

    And don’t knock anecdotes, dude. They’re observational. That makes ‘em science. :P

  • Kim Pittman

    I read Handmaid’s Tale after having seen the movie. The difference is, Atwood clearly make the whole book about how this is the “WORST.THING.EVER.” where Martin seems like, well yeah, that’s what you do with women folk.

  • 4tomic

    “the situation for women, with Westeros’ unbending gender roles,
    rampant prostitution, and ubiquitous culture of abuse and rape, is
    obviously much worse [than for men, who just get cut in half in petty wars].”

    Hmmm… to be honest, I’d put “being cut in half” pretty low on my choice of things I’d want.

    It’s hard to think of many male characters in his books that don’t end up stabbed/decapitated/delimbed/castrated/tortured/burnt alive/paralyzed… I’m not saying women have it all that much better (a decent number suffer absolutely awful fates), but still… there chances of being horribly killed/tortured do seem enough lower that I’d pick “female” as the sex to be if given the choice.

    GRRM’s fantasy is a commentary about the consequences of powers for struggle and war. It is partially a criticism of Narnia-esq writing that portrays war as an honorable battle between good and evil (and down plays the violence). GRRM did not write his book to make feminist commentary, but he definitely creates a very critical view of patriarchy. He also creates many very real & strong female characters, as you stated. They are also human characters with flaws, though Brienne comes off as fairly flawless in the show (in the book she is portrayed as naive about war, like all the other young knights).

    Ultimately, had GoT portrayed a sexism free world than it would not be a commentary about war but a commentary about sexism.

    Does the world need more sexism free fantasy? Well… what even is sexism free fantasy? Does just putting the protagonist into a “male” role count (e.g. hunger games, xena, assassin’s creed with a female character)? Some would argue that’s just further pushing male patriarchal roles as ideal/heroic… Would it be a utopia novel, where sexism doesn’t exist? Those tend to bore the audience as they don’t present conflict. The closest I can really think of to sexism free fantasy is perhaps a Hayao Miyazaki film…

    Whatever it is you want, it’s not the worlds job to write/develop it for you.

  • 4tomic

    GRRM creates both of these. Arya, Daenerys, Brienne, Dacey Mormont, Asha, and the eight sand snakes are all female warriors alive at the time the series starts. There are also numerous female warriors from the history of the world such as Nymeria (Arya’s personal favorite).

    There are also numerous darker complexion characters in the books (e.g. all those from Dorne), but only a few very dark characters. Those with very dark skin come mainly from the Summer Isles (a continent south of Westoros), which makes sense, since skin color is partially a product of latitude. Of the few we get to meet, there is a female captain of a trading ship and a male priest.

  • 4tomic

    I seriously doubt it is going to end perfectly for all our female characters with every injustice being corrected and Dorne laws becoming the norm. I would be less surprised (and less disappointed) if the others just marched down and killed everyone.

    Everything doesn’t have to end happy for it to be a good critique of our society.

  • Andrew Nome

    I’m having a bit of a problem with this article and the comments thread, but I’m glad it’s a discussion we’re having.

    As a writer, and as a person who runs tabletop games in settings of my own creation, I think it’s absolutely important to have characters be characters, and not set pieces – to have people of various backgrounds, including different races, sexes, and sexualities – and to have them react to situations as whole beings with personal and interpersonal motivations.

    I’m also a historian, so one of the things I do most often is look at a historical period, and go, “What if I changed that?” Even if it’s a fantastic element, I want to then think through the realistic changes that would happen. A good example is one I did for a Victorian-inspired roleplay setting, wherein a “fountain of youth” McGuffin was discovered. Once I involved that, I spun off the rest of the setting trying to keep that world consistent and logical.

    That means that the workers were oppressed, by the way. That means, actually, that there was even less upward mobility, as the rich had access to miraculous healing while the poor toiled under them, rarely getting the chance to move into social spots never vacated by death. As a strange plague ravaged the poor of the city in particular, Industrial England became even more of a crapsack world if you didn’t have connections. I actually had the man who discovered the McGuffin (one of my NPCs) observe that suffering, and wonder if it was in fact his fault, an unintended consequence of serving his crown.

    I feel that it’s a good setting. I like having written it, and many others like it, where I spin off of the timeline and see what changes I can make. I feel like, however, I’m being told that I’m a bad person for writing things that include those negative parts of society.

    I get that many of the people commenting here just want to see those issues addressed and discussed when we have a work which involves them, and I’m firmly in that camp. I do want to see more works like Anne McCaffrey and Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey’s stuff. I want to play a new assassin’s creed game as a female character – specifically I want to play a woman in Victorian London or Industrial Japan, because I think those would be fun settings and because I’m tired of playing the same brooding protagonist (I thought Ezio, the playboy, would be a fun break. He got broody in the end.). I would have loved for the main character of IV to be, instead of Edward Kenway, Amelia Kenway, pirate queen. That would have been AWESOME.

    Sorry. I got away from myself.

    My main issue with what I view to be a “Just get rid of the patriarchy” argument is that it’s not that simple. If I am to build a world with magic, I work on what that means for society – for me, that tends to mean a reduction of technological innovation, because you can just magic something to where it needs to be with little effort, and blah blah blah (I’ve put a lot of work into that thought, and I don’t want to get away from myself again). Likewise, if I’m making a world without any patriarchy… what made that happen? What inspired that change? How did that society develop? What’s different? What ARE expected gender roles – are there any? How do I deal with informing the audience about all of these fundamental differences in human experience from their own realities, without seeming like I’m simply sewing modern values onto a setting which did not produce them, or burying them in a Silmarillion’s worth of lore, background, and history? What if, after all that, I want to tell the story of a woman struggling against a patriarchal system?

    I feel, again, like I’m being told I’m a bad person for the way I wish to approach the issue. I’m not saying, either, that those aren’t questions worth unpacking and discussing, just that it’s not as simple is as being suggested – not with my writing style, at least.

    I do happen to agree far more with TOR’s commentary on this article (link here: ) than I do with this article itself. I want to include strong and weak characters of both genders, heroes and villains of any race, and settings that aren’t the rolling European countryside. I don’t, however, feel that the only way to do that is to remove patriarchal systems from my settings.

  • Andrew Nome

    And I didn’t check the date on this, which means I’m now a comment thread necromancer, trying to bring a discussion back from the dead.

  • Anonymous

    YEEEEEES the Kushiel books are the best. Although the Imriel books weren’t nearly as cool as the Phedre ones.

  • Joshua Loomis

    Steven Erikson in his Malazan Book of the Fallen quietly removes most sexism from his world and has a wide variety of female characters acting in every role from key leader positions to grunt soldiers. Men and women fight alongside each other and never see any reason to comment on it.

    There’s a lot of sexist fantasy out there, but there’s some that’s better than that.