From time to time, I get into a conversation with another woman, a librarian or a teacher or another writer or a dedicated reader who gets through more genre fiction in a month than I do in a year. So of course we talk about books – about what we’re reading now, or what titles most impressed (or disappointed) us in the past year; about the ending to The Hunger Games trilogy or whether the basic mystery in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was actually obvious all along; about our favorite under-appreciated authors and how much more they deserve notice than the current hot name in fiction. All those things.
And one thing that comes up more than occasionally is the poor representation of female SFF writers, or female protagonists, or strong female characters, in SFF fiction when we were growing up. This always takes me by surprise, because that was not my experience at all. I wonder what the defining decade might have been, where this changed? Or whether the difference might perhaps be regional? Either way, I look back on the books that shaped my taste as a reader, and who do I find back there? Patricia McKillip. Robin McKinley. CJ Cherryh. Lois McMaster Bujold. Barbara Hambly. Those are some of the authors who taught me to write by their example. There are guys in that list, too. Tolkien, I suppose, though I read that so early that I don’t remember ever having not read it. Guy Gavriel Kay. But there are more women than men. Not that I noticed that, or cared, when I was in high school.
As I recall, when we were kids, my brothers and I didn’t really notice authors unless we’d already fallen in love with their work, and certainly didn’t pay any attention to a writer’s gender. What kid does? You hear a certain amount these days about boys not wanting to read books with a girl protagonist, and looking back on it, I . . . can’t see that at all, in my family. True, mine was the kind of family where everyone helps with the dishes and everyone helps mow the grass. But it still takes me by surprise when I find out someone else’s experience was dramatically different, that their parents or teachers or peers cared about the gender of the protagonist or (even more so) the author. Seriously?
Mind you, I don’t argue that there is a general message out there that girls are not as good as boys, because somewhere or other I must have absorbed that message. I definitely remember going through a stage where I avoided pink as “girly,” and certainly I never even glanced at dolls. I liked being a “tomboy”. It might have made a difference that I had two brothers and no sisters; I expect things would have been different if I’d had a big sister who liked girly things. As it was, it took years for me to decide that avoiding pink was crazy. What did I care what other people thought? I believe I was in graduate school by that time, so as I say, it took years.
Now I have half a dozen shirts and blouses in different shades of pink, and different shades of pink earrings to go with them. I admit, it doesn’t hurt that pale pink is one color that doesn’t show pet hair all that badly – did I mention I have six Cavalier King Charles spaniels and a large, irascible cat? – but I would wear pink anyway. Because I like pink.
But when I was growing up, I never once was worried by the lack of strong female characters in SFF. Because look at them all! Maire in MacAvoy’s THE GREY HORSE, with “a punch on her like the kick of a horse.” Or Martha Macnamara in her TEA WITH THE BLACK DRAGON, one of the few older female protagonists in SFF, not physically intimidating but definitely strong as a character. Jenny Waynest in Hambly’s DRAGONSBANE, who is forced to choose between magic and love, and chooses magic.
I have no problem looking back at works that permanently influenced my taste in books and finding wonderful female characters that run the whole gamut, from girls and women who are strong in traditionally masculine ways (Harry in McKinley’s THE BLUE SWORD, Elli Quinn in Bujold’s Vorkosigan books) to girls and women who are far more feminine (Raederle in McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy, Lissar in McKinley’s DEERSKIN). And female protagonists who step way outside the normal parameters of human behavior because they’re not human, as in the outstanding Chanur series by CJ Cherryh – Cherryh clearly was thinking about lion behavior when she created the hani, which leads to a society with distinctly different sex roles than any human society.
I don’t think anyone falls in love with a story harder than a teenager; I think your reading during those years permanently shapes not only your literary taste, but also your view of the world and how people should act. I’m grateful for the wide variety of wonderful books I had available back then. And, though I hope all the titles I loved are still in libraries everywhere, the selection of modern YA (and adult SFF, for that matter) seems to offer just the same wide selection of excellent female characters. For example, Elisa in Rae Carson’s THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, or Beka Cooper in Tamara Pierce’s recent trilogy. Or Blue Sargent in THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater, now there’s a wonderful story. Despite the name, there is a female protagonist and a good handful of important female secondary characters, and every single one is beautifully drawn.
And I hope that every now and then someone picks up a copy of one of my books, either the YA or the adult fantasy, and finds in my stories strong, complex, relatable female (and male) protagonists. It certainly made me very happy when Kirkus included THE FLOATING ISLANDS in its best-of-the-year list for both best boy protagonist and best girl protagonist.
Rachel Neumeier started writing fiction to relax while she was in graduate school; her only prior publications appeared in journals such as the American Journal of Botany. When she placed her first Young Adult fantasy novel with Random House, she instantly stopped thinking of writing as a hobby and started thinking of it as a Real Profession. Her seventh book, BLACK DOG, just hit the shelves in February 2014. Rachel now lives in rural Missouri with a large garden, a small orchard, a large irascible cat, and a gradually increasing number of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.