…Fantasy is a genre that tends to destroy women — or if not destroy, then de-story.
–Wendy N. Wagner
I’ve been quite curious what Women Destroy Fantasy!, the October 2014 special issue of Lightspeed/Fantasy Magazine, would be all about. You don’t hear so much whiny dudebro noise about girl cooties in dragon lairs as you do in rocketships; fantasy seems to have far more female protagonists and memorable secondary characters in its canon than science fiction does; more people can at least name some female fantasy authors. Fantasy seems to be a genre that is at least less inhospitable to women than science fiction is.
Well, the opening quotation from the editorial pretty much sums it up. Women are often erased from the genre: the authors are not talked about; their work is marketed differently and, well, less; they’re stricken from certain genre categories. Female characters are fridged and used as gross object-fantasies. And that’s to say nothing about how many potential female readers may be alienated from the genre by frightful covers and the overwhelming numbers of books titled something like “The Half-King of the Dude-Sword,” as I was for so many years. The fight for women in fantasy is not just to exist, but to have agency at all.
The nonfiction section of Women Destroy Fantasy! concerns the genre category that women are most often stricken from — epic fantasy — and those that are most commonly associated with women — urban fantasy and fairy tale retellings. Kameron Hurley’s opening essay deals with the exclusion of female writers from the epic fantasy subgenre and how she encounters “…readers who make faces and say, ‘Oh, that’s not fantasy, really. Too much romance.’ Yet all the sex in dude books? Totally fantasy!” Yeah, ever tried to count the sex and romance scenes in A Song of Ice and Fire? Do that; I’ll be waiting. Forever. The truth is that fantasy features a ton of romance; the male gaze just renders it invisible.
What Hurley’s essay does in addition is set up the concept of framing and how from our earliest years we are trained to see people and roles as social constructs: “doctor” becomes “he”; “teacher” becomes “she.” There’s not much room in our lazy brains for not only doctor as “she,” but for people who do not fit so neatly into those categories of “he” and “she”; we have to work to overcome that. It can be read as a sequel of sorts to her Hugo-winning “We Have Always Fought,” and it sets up the lens through which the following essays can be read.
Next, a panel on urban fantasy discusses the epic fantasy “othering” problem in reverse: how books by male authors are coded so differently that they are often not labeled or spoken of as urban fantasy at all. Sofia Samatar’s essay “The Frog Sister” is about oral storytelling as the root of fantasy; she places Scheherazade and her sister Dinarzade of One Thousand and One Nights as mother-figures of sorts for the genre. She notes that
Fantasy, on the other hand, in the form of fairy tales, ballads, ghost stories, nursery rhymes, and the epic poetry of bards and griots — fantasy is far older, and universal… Fantasy and humanity were born on the same day.
It’s a powerful and emotionally resonant essay.
“The Princess and the Witch” by Kat Howard concerns liberal salon culture in France and how the fairy tale as a literary art form was born there. (Fairytale retellings are probably my favorite subgenre, and it’s always seemed to me that they, too, have been frequently left out of the conversation — likely because they’re so strongly associated with women, I think.) Howard points to the origin of fairy tales as subversion, and given that they are so often retold hundreds of years later, perhaps this subversion is why they are perennially popular.
The stories in Women Destroy Fantasy!, selected by editors Cat Rambo and Terri Windling, are charming, folksy, and unabashed in their femininity. There are shapeshifters, goddesses, and superheroes; maternity leave, gardening, and sisterhood. None of the stories individually shine quite so brightly as Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Lonely Sea in the Sky” from Women Destroy Science Fiction!, but this is a solid, if small, collection of hearth tales. (There are four originals and four reprints in this issue.)
T. Kingfisher (also known as Ursula Vernon) absolutely destroys one of the world’s most famous fairy tales in “The Dryad’s Shoe”; this story, permeated with a heartfelt love of horticulture, is conversant with Howard’s essay about the roles we take in these stories and their reversals:
…If you make us a princess, you will discover that we are witches. We can dance in glass slippers, true, but we can also wear out iron shoes walking to get what we want. We may well wear red, but we do so to show the wolves that they should be afraid to walk into the woods with us.
While I’m pretty biased, I found these two pieces in conversation to be the heart of the anthology.
Projects like Women Destroy Fantasy! demand participation and that we contribute to the conversation. Wagner’s closing essay includes recommendations from contributors for women-centric fantasy to read. So I’m going to add my piece here and destroy reviewing (if I was asked to create a destructo bookshelf, based on the subgenres discussed in the essays)…
Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 award-winning novel Who Fears Death is, despite its post-apocalyptic setting, the epic-est fantasy that ever epic-ed — and the main character’s “fellowship” grew out of a core group of childhood girlfriends. For urban fantasy that spins the wheels of genre, try Scale-Bright, a 2014 novella by Benjanun Sriduangkaew; it’s a story of Chinese demigods, of the different kinds of relationships between women, and finding the remarkable in not just the sublime, but also the ordinary. The finest modern fantasy novel I know of with strong roots in the oral tradition is Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, and the protagonist serves in traditionally feminine roles like cook and caretaker while also embarking on adventures with gods. Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Veronica Schanoes’ “Among the Thorns” turn the original fairy tales on their heads and are stories of women’s freedom. And, finally, “Written on the Hides of Foxes” by Alex Dally MacFarlane is, at its core, about giving women back their stories and the tools to tell them.
These stories, along with the ones in Women Destroy Fantasy!, have women kicking ass in all sorts of ways — physically, mentally, and spiritually — sometimes while wearing makeup, but never while wearing stiletto heels.