Feb 21, 2015

Posted by in Journal | 8 Comments

The Victim Narrative and Heroic Women

Jim C. Hines is doing another round of representation in SF&F posts. He couldn’t include all the essays he was offered but I still wanted to share mine with you, dear readers.

I’ve never really wanted someone to save me. I wanted to be the one doing the saving. It took me until I was pretty long into my teenage years to understand that playing the victim was exactly what a lot of media wanted me to want.

I come from a long line of matriarchs. I don’t remember either of my grandfathers and my own father traveled a lot for work. My closest aunt got a documentary made out of her because she was 16 when she took over the family farm and at least at the time she was the youngest Finn to do that. Growing up the women around me just went ahead Did All the Things that needed doing and they were all heroic in their own small ways. My first fictional superhero was Prince Nezha from Chinese mythology who I thought was a girl until well into my twenties, mostly because he was born from a lotus flower, had long hair and wore dresses made out of flower petals. I was also maybe three or four when I first met him.

Nezha_Conquers_the_Dragon_King_Prince_Nezha_s_Triumph_Against_Dragon_King-422227382-large

When I first started reading, I instantly became an avid reader and quickly worked my way through the horse literature section of my local library. You know, the one where girls who like horses do all kinds of heroic and daring things alongside them. But I was naturally drawn toward the science fiction and fantasy section. The amazing worlds and possibilities drew me as surely as a honey badger is drawn to honey. This was also the first time I started to see useless female characters who always needed saving.

It didn’t take me long to learn the “I’m not like those other girls” rhetoric. But there was always a disconnect. Those “other girls” – the ones who surrounded me – they were my mother, who worked minor miracles to get my sister and I the chance we got; my grandmother who worked three jobs, raised a brood of 13 children and still found time to write poetry; my friends who were all amazing and heroic in their own ways. My group “of not like the other girls” grew ridiculously large before I finally understood that maybe there was something wrong with the narrative.

I think the walls started crumbling down in high-school. I was tearing through various epic fantasy series at a vicious pace. I started reading in English because my local libraries ran out of translated speculative fiction. At some point it all just became too much; the books were always filled with the same people. Belgarion started bleeding into Shea started bleeding into Tanis bled into Caramon bled into Drizzt bled into Ender. Eventually the abundance of manpain started pushing me away and I stopped being able to find myself in any of the novels I had loved so much. Instead I went looking for Cosette and Rose and Elizabeth and for years I thought I had just “grown up”. I still enjoyed my violence and adventure in movies but the only fantasy or science fiction books I could stomach were Terry Pratchett’s. Eventually I even managed to convince myself that I simply didn’t like to read fiction.

In the end the yearning for other world’s just became too much to bear. Cue Urban Fantasy and women who did All the Things. They had agency, and a fire within them. The fairies and the dragon mothers who despite appearances none the less seemed to more closely match the reality I lived in than the emerging stories of women who never talked to each other about anything other than men. Authors like J.K. Rowling, Susanna Clarke, Mary Robinette Kowal, Seanan McGuire, Cherie Priest and even George R.R. Martin and John Scalzi slowly coaxed me out of my hiding, reminding me why I used to love immersing myself into strange new worlds and other people’s minds.

These days I wonder, how many other women still think they just don’t like to read fiction because they simply couldn’t find themselves in the stories they used to love?

  1. PeterG says:

    I followed a link from Jim Hines. Good article.

  2. Libby Block says:

    I love your final question! I think I just realized why I quit reading fiction for so long.

  3. anglerfish07 says:

    Such a great read! 🙂 Thank you for writing this. Jim C Hines’web link brought me here. ^_^

  4. I wrote mine on a similar topic, and was also one of the extras not used. 🙂 The portrayal of women in SF/F has been quite the roller-coaster from a historical standpoint, one that has mirrored the fight for equality in our culture.
    (If you want to check out my article, it’s at: http://www.ravenoak.net/archives/3270)

  5. you don’t mention ursula leguin? she really inspired me. and she has a good essay on mothers writing fiction as well. I have taught a class on the Heroine’s Quest, and really relate to the idea that women need to see themselves as heroes

    • I read some of the Earthsea stories (basically the ones in my local library) as a teenager but I wound up giving her up with the rest of science fiction. She just wasn’t enough to keep on breaking my heart with it. After I had already started reading science fiction again, I started reading Le Guin again. But it was the younger generations of women who wrote women who reminded me just how much I used to love the genre.

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