More thoughts on gender and Epic Fantasy

One excuse I’ve heard for gender inequality in Epic Fantasy is just that was how Medieval Life was, and they’re portraying medieval life realistically. But this, of course, ignores the big blatant lie and cover up that is going on here- no Epic Fantasy (not even gritty ones with all the anti-heroes, and all the shit and muck and disease of real Medieval Life) has ever portrayed Medieval Life even close to being accurate.

For one simple fact- there is never a Catholic church in any epic fantasy, and the Catholic Church (and its concepts on guilt, womanhood, etc) were key to not only what made Medieval Life the way it was, but also gave a lot of the gender biasness that these fantasy’s seem so eager to uphold.  Secondary world epic fantasies either remove religion all together, or replace it with a simplified Zoroaster style psuedo-paganism, with one Big Good God and one Big bad god, and maybe a sad attempt at a pantheon, but usually not.  The big good god is always good and always fighting with the big bad, and the humans are all caught up in this, and forced to act.

One could argue that this resembles Christianity, but I think that’s just a loose, simplified representation.  Other than prophecies and healing spells, religious orders in Epic Fantasy don’t act like they do in the real world, they feel slapdash and more of a reason for large scale wars than an actual religion, or even a mock religion from our world. The structure, the clash of power with the government- none of that is really there. If it is there at all, because most of the time, it’s not.

Of course, it makes me wonder.  I mean, if you want to portray a Paganized Middle Ages, you would have to go with the religion of the Bretons, Jutes, Angles, Welsh, Celtic, etc. And if you look at a lot of what we can ascertain from pre-Romanic Britain (before they influenced the religion of the islands, and created a sort of mock-roman religion instead of the original spirit worship, which was closer to Japanese Kami than Roman deities)   we see that not only were a lot of women equal to men in stature, and not only did they fight in wars, but they were also leaders of war, generals in battle.

Take, for example, the story of Cú Chulainn, who was taught how to fight in battle by Scáthach of Scottland, a renowned warrioress in her own right. When you look at the battle in the Cattle Raid of Cooley,  there was Queen Madb of Connacht, who was a fierce battle queen.

So I ask this- why, why must we insist on portraying fantasy worlds in Epic Fantasy where the only realism we have is that of misogyny?  We ignore almost all aspects of that life, except maybe some plagues here or there, and the basic concept of feudalism without an actual understanding of it. I don’t mind the historical inaccuracy, because it’s fantasy. But at the same time- you have to question it. If it is fantasy, then why can’t we imagine a world with equality between the genders? There will still be conflict, I promise you. You can portray strong women in a work of epic fantasy, and still have the wars, still have the plotting and scheming, still have all those Epic Fantasy tropes, even if it is the new and gritty kind.

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7 thoughts on “More thoughts on gender and Epic Fantasy

  1. May I just say how much this whole “quasi-medieval” idea burns my ass? It’s used more often to damn than analyze epic fantasy. Look, it’s fantasy: if you use medieval Europe as a template you are under zero obligation to reproduce it in an exacting sense. The problem is a combination of habit and laziness, to the point where some writers just graft magic and demons and ghosts onto the template with no consideration of how those elements themselves might alter the social and cultural milieu. Grrrrr!!!

    • Oh no, I agree with you on that. I’m not criticizing the quasi-medievalness itself per se, but the reliant on authors/fans using this as an excuse to portray misogyny. If it’s fantasy, then let’s take that template and make something cool and interesting and new with it, and not just rehash some of the parts and pieces and just use “but it’s authentic!” as an excuse. It’s never been authentic- the Medieval Europe of most Epic Fantasy is a weird one. One where Asia and the Mediterranean civilizations did not exist, where Moors do not exist, and where the religion is an almost Greek paganism (but not actually it after all) if the religion exists at all. I can’t understand why people would call this template real in any sense of the word- it’s not. So I don’t think people can use that defense to keep misogyny as a part of epic fantasy.

  2. Indeed, “but it’s authentic!” is a shitty excuse for using a trope or characteristic.

    But I wonder if this is fairly popular for the same reasons that a lot of “hidden world” urban fantasy is: readers can use a pile of cultural assumptions to assist in contextualizing the story, and gain some of that “comfort” that gets talked about. They aren’t as startled by the fantasy, and can suspend disbelief in conjunction with maintaining a certain sort of mimetic echo: “this is a lot like medieval France [or, 21st-century Omaha]. . . with vampires!” It saves the author some work, and saves the reader having to strain their imagination. I think the results vary greatly and generally end up dampening creativity.

    • I think you’re right, especially since a lot of people have a general “ideal” medieval template in their head (which is nothing like the actual time). As can be seen with Renaissance/Medieval Faires, etc. More King Arthur and less Charles the II. In fact, now that I think of it- the Arthurian myths and Robin Hood (as seen through the eyes of movies, not books) are the keys to the template in most people’s minds.

      BTW, I just now discovered the Chronicles of the Deryni Trilogy, and I think I need to check it out, since it *does* attempt to be far more historically accurate in both politics and the rest (and not just in a OMG GRITTY HARDCORE EXTREME way)

  3. Pingback: Historically accurate misogyny, anti-genre bias at the BBC and another Doctor Who death | Cora Buhlert

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