Is it good or bad that most fantasy still takes place in patriarchal societies? Not just fantasy, actually, but a fair amount of science fiction as well. In a world where we’ve tried hard to grow beyond our roots in male-dominated and led societies, we still dream about worlds of oppression.
Of course, in the real world, we haven’t made as much progress as one might hope. Some countries have equal protection laws in place, but many don’t. Even the ones that do have difficulty in implementation, and society and culture have a long way yet to go. To the extent that our fantasies mirror reality, it’s perfectly appropriate that imaginary characters face the same challenges that we do.
SFF (and to some extent all literature) plays several roles. It abstracts the essence of an issue from its messy details to provide a new way of looking at it, it poses new and interesting issues to stimulate our thinking, it offers successes we can only dream of in fact, and, of course, it provides a true escape from daily cares.
I read and write a fair amount of dark fiction, but I tend to enjoy most those stories that pose new problems or new solutions. I’m depressed by stories in which we face the same old problems as we do now. Yes, much fantasy is based on a standard medieval model. That doesn’t mean we have to slavishly copy stereotyped medieval roles of strong men and delicate women. I like to think it’s because I’m an optimist and idealist that I’m tired of reading these stories. Why not assume that men and women are equal? Why not make that the starting point? We can write perfectly good stories about female knights while acknowledging physiology. We can write space operas that don’t assume existing stereotypes have somehow endured for another millennium.
All writers unintentionally incorporate biases invisible to them. There’s a reason that stories perfectly suited to the 1930s seem dated now; people don’t act and react the same way anymore. But for every story written from a current viewpoint, there seem to be just as many that simply ape the style and context of those dated works.
I’m sure there’s an audience out there that thoroughly approves of ‘man defends woman’ stories – perhaps the same group that denies evolution and global warming. And there’s a good argument for representative fiction – stories that reflect readers’ everyday troubles, and give them hope for change. But it seems to me that SFF by nature includes a fair amount of aspirational fiction – here’s what we could achieve if we put our minds to it – and that models the society we want to be.
Not everything has to be flowers and butterflies, of course. SFF has plenty of room for work that challenges our preconceptions – The Gate to Women’s Country, for example, long ago surprised and intrigued me by making me realize that there are people who genuinely think men and women should live apart. Sheri Tepper has written many excellent books exploring views of gender relations, and pointing out that we have a lot of room to grow.
Not all books, though, need to make the same tired assumptions. Why not have steampunk in which women are equal? Why not lay out societies with better norms, that, instead of dwelling on flaws, encourage us to look at our own world in a different way, to see a female CEO and think “well, of course” instead of “wow, that’s great”?
Again, I’m not suggesting that our speculative fiction ignore problems we really have, and have yet to resolve. But where our stories are not about those problems, their effects, their solutions, let’s dream better, shall we?