Fantasy Women [REPOST from Shrub.com]

Note: This article was originally written on November 01, 2005 as a Shrub.com Article. In my process of switching all articles over to this blog, I will be reposting old entries. What follows is in its original form without any editing.

While in the midst of writing my Girls and Game Ads series, I found myself going off on a tangent on the depiction of women in the fantasy genre and how it helped lead to the rise of the “girl power” paradigm we find deeply enmeshed in current Western pop-culture. While the whole “chicks in chainmail” deal was already being challenged by fresh authors and ideas by the time I got into fantasy, it remains an important part of the genre’s history. It is this idea that I will be addressing in this article.

My first real introduction to the fantasy genre as a genre in its own right was Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea series. While the way she used her female characters never sat right with me, nevertheless I believe it to be significant that my initial contact with the genre was divorced from one of its staple stereotypes. It wasn’t until I got into Dragonlance that I was introduced into the idea of “chicks in chainmail”. There, however, it was the art that emphasised that rather than the authors; Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s portrayal of their female warriors was pretty close to being gender neutral and most definitely didn’t fetishize them into “babes in brass bra bikinis” (to steal from Esther Friesner). Other Dragonlance authors varied in their representation, but even though I eventually quit the series I never felt that they had betrayed me to the stereotype. Indeed, partly because I’m not so much into high fantasy and partly because I tend to unconsciously seek out female authors, I don’t have much in my extensive collection that fits this paradigm.

Nevertheless, simply being immersed in fantasy culture is enough to make one aware of this stereotype. Even if not for the D&D books I briefly owned, or the fantasy genre video games I played, I still would have been aware that the books I chose were still not the “norm” for the growing genre. One of my favourite series, in fact, is a collection of parody stories: Chicks in Chainmail, Did You Say Chicks?!, Chicks ‘N Chained Males, The Chick is in the Mail and the newest one, Turn the Other Chick. These stories helped me to see that the harmful stereotype goes deeper than just the flagship “warrior babe” (fully equipped with scanty armour that wouldn’t protect a fly, let alone a human being) and into every aspect of the traditional genre, from the sexualized warrior women to the meek healing sidekicks. Not long after this, I was shown two other great series (Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet and Patricia C. Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles) by my fantasy loving friends that, while not parodies per se, turned the stereotypes on their ears. Though already past the targeted age for Young Adult books, those series appealed to me on a highly personal level and continue to enthral me even now. Good writing, it seems, knows no age boundary.

While the expansion of the fantasy genre and, I would argue, the increasing inclusion of women’s voices, is beginning to erode the vice grip the “chicks in chainmail” paradigm has on the literary genre, it seems that instead of eradicating the stereotype all that is happening is that it is being transferred to other forms of the genre. Even today, you can still see it as a common theme with popular artists such as Luis Royo and the combined talents of Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (a tagline in their footer even proclaims: “Beautiful women and heroic men”). The video game industry uses the model for everything from E3’s “booth babes” to Blizzard’s Night Elves. Hollywood has even picked it up with characters like Buffy (her television counterpart being less of a parody than the original movie), Leeloo from Fifth Element, and a whole host of characters from film adaptations of comics and video games.

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