The Male Centric Genre of Epic Fantasy (Or is it?)

D’ya know what? I’ve had a think regarding this post over at Fantasy Literature. It talks about how male centric epic fantasy tends to be. Whilst I do agree, it would be a bit silly not to, it most definitely used to be, I also disagree to a point. In the post, Ruth gives a few examples of male centric works of epic fantasy, some are fairly spot on, some merely point towards male leads. My take on this is that just because a novel has a male lead, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is male centric, featuring “manly men and the women who are (contractually obligated) to love them.” From time to time, it can do, but it could also simply be the result of a coin toss to determine which gender the protagonist should be upon writing, or perhaps the male protagonist worked best for this particular story. There’s no point in writing in a female protagonist just for the sake of doing so when the idea is to write a good story. There are, after all, only two genders.

I am going to take the Farseer trilogy as an example, as Hobb was mentioned as using mainly male protagonists, and because despite the male protagonist, I wouldn’t say that this is a very good example of epic fantasy primarily portraying men as the powerful figureheads. Sure, there are a fair few powerful male figureheads, but Fitz isn’t a particularly masculine character. He doesn’t really spend a lot of his time in positions of power at all. Equally so, we meet 3 or 4 strong female characters in the novel who are very good examples of powerful females in a mostly male dominated world. This is a fantasy about human beings living in a fantasy world, not about different genders and how they are treated. Of course, females are mistreated in the Six Duchies, but this is merely showing what the world and human beings are like, not the male centric genre of epic fantasy. If anything, I think Hobb, in the Farseer trilogy ((as I haven’t actually read any of her other trilogies yet)), manages to introduce a very masculine world, with powerful female figureheads throughout the story, and equally weak-minded male characters to counteract them with a decent amount of subtlety.

Sanderson’s Mistborn, on the other hand, deals with the masculine and the feminine in a slightly different way. He uses a mostly male cast, with one male protagonist and one female protagonist. Sanderson himself is becoming more and more popular in the fantasy genre every day, and I believe that this is a very good example of epic fantasy not being completely male centric, but also not being too overly feminised either. Vin is a young girl living in a very male dominated world, in which women are fair game when it comes to raping and then killing them, as a result of her own mistreatment in this world as a female, she becomes untrusting of everybody around her. It could be argued that this novel, in fact, proves the male centric values of epic fantasy, but in fact, she goes on to become quite a strong female character. Although, she is not the typical “kick ass” female heroine, which we are seeing more and more of recently. I personally think this approach is much better. It’s not feminisation for the sake of it – it feels more human.

Terry Brooks is another author I read last year. However, in his Sword of Shannara, women seem to be pretty damn rare. When female characters are introduced, they are merely sex objects. I don’t usually like that phrase, but in this case, it’s true. There is not one strong female character in this novel. Of course, I have only read The Sword of Shannara and I am hoping that in his later novels, women are featured a little more, not because I think women need more representation (though mind you, in his novels they do), but because a series of stories featuring one gender in such a large scale feels extremely flat. This novel is the perfect example of epic fantasy being male centric, though it was published in the early 70s and back then, any novel could have been argued to have been very male centric, and women being the beaten down, weak and feeble, damsel in distress characters was largely the norm in those days.

Over time, fantasy is becoming less male dominated, and more about a fantastic story, which is exactly how it should be. Just because a story has a male protagonist, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feature some brilliant female characters. Personally, I want my epic fantasy to be realistic when it comes to gender. If the world is set in a medievalesque setting, then the hierarchy between men and women may well be an issue, which I feel Sanderson has covered perfectly. 40 years ago, fantasy was by and large a genre largely written by men for men, today that simply isn’t the case. Some of the best fantasy authors are women, and I just don’t feel that gender is as big of an issue when it comes to fiction in this day and age.

NB. The article itself wasn’t bad at all, I just had a thought that I felt like sharing as a blog post as it is slightly too long to be a comment. It has sparked off some brilliant debates and discussions in the comments. Also, I feel like I’m writing English Literature essays again. This is fantastic! Yes, I’m strange, I enjoy analysing fiction.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel that epic fantasy is still too male centric? Do you feel that it is going too far in the other direction? Or do you have another view?

4 thoughts on “The Male Centric Genre of Epic Fantasy (Or is it?)”

  1. Speaking of Hobb and her male protagonists, one thing that really stood out to me in the Soldier’s Son was that, although the universe the story takes place in is extremely sexist, the tone is very feminist. It’s like she’s saying “see, this world is sexist and it’s causing them all sorts of problems.” I didn’t really like the series, I need female characters to sustain my interest, but I did applaud her approach.

    I do agree with the original article (and after all “epic” is about power and domination – which are traditionally male theme), but I think she should have included something along the lines of “of course there are odd exceptions like Carey’s Kushiel series but…” Ignoring Carey when speaking of gender in epic fantasy is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

    Another, lesser known, series with good gender balance (and a couple of a really great feminine moments) is Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince/Dragon Star series.
    Ophelie recently posted…The Flipside of Sexual LiberationMy Profile

    1. Interesting. I haven’t read the Soldier Son trilogy, I think it was Naithin who told me how bad it is. Still, I do like to make my own opinions on things so I’ll probably get around to it someday but I still have Tawny Man and Liveship to read.

      I think the thing with this topic is that originally, epic fantasy was very ‘male centric’, but nowadays, I think it’s ‘male centric’ for a reason. Not to be sexist, but just because that’s the typical medievalesque fantasy world. It’s not exactly necessary to write a good fantasy, but even so.

  2. Oddly, one of the authors that immediately sprung to my mind when I read the title of this post was Tamora Pierce.
    I know it’s teenage fiction as a genre, but she has written series after series and a lot of them have powerful, emancipated women as queens, leaders, knights, spies etc etc.
    I think trudi canavan’s series (one of them) had a good story in it about a woman breaking through into a “man’s job”.
    Interesting post 🙂
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    1. Thanks and indeed! I think a lot of it can depend on the gender of the author as well, some authors might simply feel more comfortable writing from the perspective of their own gender, but there are, of course, always exceptions. Harry Potter, for example. Yeah okay, it’s hardly epic fantasy but I’ve already used Robin Hobb as an example 😛
      Maria V. Snyder uses a female heroine in her Poison Study series. Sometimes it seems a little far fetched when it comes down to leadership, but either way, I still found it a good read.
      And I’ve been meaning to read Trudi Canavan for a few years, hope I get around to reading her soon because I keep hearing she’s not too bad.

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