CHICKS IN CHAINMAIL BRASSIERES:

Sexism in Fantasy Fiction

I love reading and writing Fantasy. I really do. But I am growing increasingly disgusted by the racism and sexism within it. I can no longer read books in which people of color and women are constantly oppressed and seen as lesser beings in a world based on fantasy.

Lately – as the father of seven daughters who are all avid readers of Fantasy – I have become particularly disgusted with the continuing sexism in Fantasy fiction and visual art.

Writers, you can create a world with any rules you choose. In your world, you don’t have to continue to perpetuate the sexist tropes so prevalent in Fantasy since its inception.

Are you that lacking in creativity that you cannot write something better? Are you that apathetic to the plight of our Sisters? Or have you convinced yourself you have to maintain some sexist status quo to sell?

Shame on you.

Certain tropes have been formed and propagated. Given the overwhelming number of Fantasy novels set in a sort of idealized, white, medieval Europe…given the grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles, stereotypes and sexist archetypes have arisen in Fantasy. Some examples are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To A Man She Doesn’t Love
  • The Lone And Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

Come now. That’s all you got?

Shame on you.

Regarding the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they are inherently bad. What I am saying is that as writers, we are not bound by these tropes and have chosen to portray worlds that involve societies in which sexism plays a part. We can choose otherwise.

Or we can choose to take our exploration of sexism further.

In most Fantasy, we are left with sexism as a background detail; a tool used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters, but never actually addressed.

You, dear writer, can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focus exclusively on those few exceptional women who have avoided it, forcing characters – and, by extension, the readers – to view sexism as more than an inevitable background detail.

Or, you can avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You can create an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic…if you are willing.

If not?

Shame on you.

As writers, we should not perpetuate sexism by training readers to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences.

Most Fantasy authors write sexist stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. The freedom to ignore the relevance of women is just another form of privilege; one more malignant than benign. And remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

Modern sexism has become cunning; sly; codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying “nigger” but might refer to killing “zombies”, or make a pointed reference to someone Black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing.

Intelligent writers are particularly adept at this.

I recently wrote a Fantasy novel in the Sword & Soul subgenre. This novel, Once Upon A Time in Afrika, attempts to turn these tropes on their heads. Read the novel and tell me if I succeeded.

In my research for the novel – and in my life as an African traditionalist, which requires an in-depth study of African history and sociology, I discovered some amazing facts about the women-warriors of Africa and the Diaspora that many of you may find useful in your writing:

The “Dahomey Amazons” 

The “Dahomey Amazons”, referred to as Mino, meaning “Our Mothers” in the Fon language, were an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey which lasted until the end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.

 For The Mino were recruited from among the ahosi the king’s wives – of which there were often hundreds.

The Mino trained with intense physical exercise, with an emphasis on discipline. Units were under female command.

Considered exceptional and brutal warriors by all unlucky enough to encounter them, those who fell into the hands of the Mino were often decapitated.

The Aje of Yorubaland

A story, that teaches the tenets of African wrestling, is as follows:

There was a boy named Omobe (“rascal”, “troublesome child”) that had great physical ability and was trained to be a wrestler. As he grew older his wrestling abilities grew stronger and before long he was considered the greatest wrestler in the world. At his birth the local priest/diviner warned his parents to not allow Omobe to climb palm trees. But one day while his parents were away he decided to climb a palm tree any way. From high up he could peer into the spirit world and he noticed that several divinities had gathered for a fantastic wrestling match!

Omobe immediately climbed down and made his way to the spirit world to test his own luck amongst a variety of spirits. He beat every opponent: Egungun (ancestors), Orisa (Forces of Nature) and all others lost at his hands. Finally he prepared to wrestle Olokun. While he summoned all of his physical strength, Olokun drew on her spiritual powers.

During the match Omobe attempted to throw Olokun to the ground, but instead Olokun ended up firmly attached to Omobe’s head. All attempts at removing Olokun from his head failed and Olokun declared Omobe’s head her permanent abode as a sign of Omobe’s arrogance and disrespect towards the other spirits.

When Omobe returned home the local priest/diviner advised him to appease Olokun or die. So for seven days Omobe made sacrifice. On the last day Omobe was initiated as the first Olokun priest. After Omobe’s initiation into the priesthood, Olokun loosened her grip on Omobe’s life.

Amongst African traditionalists, the palm tree represents the ancestors and the elders.  Omobe climbed a palm tree even though he was not supposed to, which means he learned the higher levels of wrestling technique – and gained the ase (power) of the wrestler – through crafty means and then abandoned his teachers (he climbed down from the tree) and used what he had learned to fight those who taught him. 

This act of arrogance and disrespect led him to fight against the Forces of Nature, themselves.  Finally, Olokun, the spirit of unfathomable wisdom and matron spirit of the descendants of Africans who were taken captive during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, defeated Omobe. This means, though Omobe had mastered the physical aspect of wrestling, his disrespect of – and disconnection from – the community and its spiritual support prevented him from learning the deeper wisdom found within the study and training of the martial arts.

It was not until Omobe devoted himself to the attaining of deep wisdom and respect for the African traditions as an Olokun priest, that he was able to save himself from an early death. 

This story teaches us that in order to learn the depths of wisdom found in the African martial arts, reverence of one’s ancestors, respect for one’s elders and adherence to tradition is paramount.

Furthermore, the “deep wisdom” Omobe had to learn in order to redeem himself and to save his life was the wisdom rooted in respect for, and understanding of, the “Aje” – referred to as Awon Iyawa, also meaning “Our Mothers” – which is primal, female power.

It was Olokun, a female Force of Nature, who defeated Omobe and threatened to take his life until Omobe became her priest.  Omobe was socialized by Olokun, which is in accord with Aje’s function as a biological, physical and spiritual force of creativity and social and political enforcement.

War, defense and anything associated with Ogun, the Warrior Spirit of the Yoruba, is also associated with Aje.

It is recognition of – and respect for – the power women and girls that gives the African warrior the authority to defend and to take life.

The Isadshi-Koseshi

Nupe Women-Warriors, called Isadshi-Koseshi, fought as fiercely as the men, opposing invasions of the Fulbe conquerers who raided the Nupe for cattles and slaves.

Ibo Women and the Aba Rebellion

The Aba rebellion in southeastern Nigeria grew out of a traditional female rite of the Ibo. People were outraged at the colonial government’s plan to tax women.

In protest, Ibo women bound their heads with ferns, painted their faces with ash, put on loincloths and carried sacred sticks with palm frond wreaths. Thousands marched on the District Office, dancing, singing protests, and demanding the cap of office of the colonial chief Okugo.

This protest spread into a vast regional insurrection. The Ibo women’s councils mobilized demonstrations in three provinces, turning out over 2,000,000 protesters.

The British District Officer at Bende wrote, “The trouble spread in the 2nd week of December to Aba, an important trading center on the railway. Here there converged some 10,000 women, scantily clothed, girdled with green leaves, carrying sticks. Singing angry songs against the chiefs and the court messengers, the women proceeded to attack and loot the European trading shops, stores, and Barclay’s Bank, and to break into the prison and release the prisoners.

Elsewhere women protestors burned down the hated British “Native Courts” and cut telegraph wires, throwing officials into panic. The colonials fired on the female protesters, killing more than fifty and wounding more. Marches continued sporadically into 1930. These mass actions became known as the Aba Rebellion of 1929, or The War of the Women. It was one of the most significant anti-colonial revolts in Africa of that day.

Black Women in Ohio

In the summer of 1848, ten African-Americans, fleeing their enslavement, made it across the Ohio River into Cincinnati. The slave catchers tracked them down, but the bounty they were after proved to be quite difficult to acquire:

Cincinnati’s North Star newspaper’s August 11, 1848 issue reported the event thusly: “The women began to gather from adjoining houses until the Amazons were about equal to the [slave-hunters] – the former with shovels, tongs, washboards and rolling pins; the latter with revolvers, sword-canes and bowie-knives. Finally the beseigers decamped, leaving the Amazons in possession of the field, amid the jeers and loud huzzahs of the crowd.

Let us all strive harder for awareness of – and sensitivity to – sexism in our writings and our readings. Let us be more critical of it, for to do – and say – nothing about sexism is to help propagate it. Are you helping to propagate oppression?

If so, shame on you.

As always, your comments are welcome and encouraged.

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link and Rite of Passage: Initiation. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika and contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. At present, Balogun is directing and fight choreographing the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk –a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the science fiction gangster saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika. He is also co-creator of the soon-to-be-released role-playing game, Ki-Khanga™: The Sword & Soul RPG. Balogun is Master Instructor of the Afrikan Martial Arts Institute and Technical Director of Martial Ministries of America, a non-profit organization that serves at-risk youth. He is also a traditional African priest, actor and conflict resolution specialist, who works and lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, his seven daughters and his son.

19 responses »

  1. Dr. Curiosity says:

    Great to see Dahomey’s Mino, there. That was my first thought when it came to real-life women warriors :-)

  2. The Disgruntled Haradrim says:

    excellent blog post.

  3. karen simpson says:

    Wow thank you for this information. I love it and will be inspired by it.

  4. Brother Balogun Ojetade, brilliant article! I too have, for years, noticed the subtle racism and sexism in SF/fantasy literature. Speaking just about American literature now, since we live in society where sexism and racism are institutions built into the fabric of this country why would it be otherwise?

    One of my facebook friends complained recently about having to read the writing of a “great America author” who used the word n***er liberally. These archetypes of the “magic negro,” the inferior minority, the minorities who need the white hero to come and save them, the woman punished for being sexual, the woman who must be tamed…ect. ect. return again in our literature and films. Right on my brother, for being astute and honest enough to recognize them and comabt them in your writing! I salute you :)

    • Balogun says:

      Well said, Sister Valjeanne! I concur. The institutions of sexism and racism are part and parcel of American society…probably the whole of Western society. I’m just doing my part to fight it and look forward to learning more so that I can be more effective in doing so.Thanks! :)

  5. […] the sexism tiger trap that ASOIAF falls into isn’t acceptable, in my case. Nor is any use of standard “female” fantasy plot. I know that young women of color (especially young black women) will face a lot more […]

  6. srtorris says:

    Thank you, Brother. Thank you so much for this.

  7. Excellent examination of sexism in the fantasy genre. As an African-American female who writes strong female characters of color, I welcome these examples of real life strong women to study. Keep the lessons coming!

  8. allytria says:

    After reading your weblog posts, I now want to read your books. I am an avid reader of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. Mostly I stick to Discworld as Terry Pratchett actually writes realistic women. He’s pretty fantastic. But, your books sound just as intriguing as Pratchett’s.

  9. allytria says:

    After reading several of your weblog posts, I am interested in reading your fiction. It is just hard finding fantasy where females and minorities are treated with respect. Some have come close like Ursula Le Guin and Terry Pratchett, others just outright make some of the worst females I’ve ever seen, like Gor by John Norman (bleah). So now I will be looking for your books on Amazon.

    • Balogun says:

      Thank you, so much, for your support! I always have done my best – and will continue to – to treat women with respect in my fiction writing and in life.

  10. […] shrugs its shoulders and screams “Who gives a crap?” as it openly embraces its racism and feminism. Jungle-residing cannibals, mysterious and treacherous “Orientals” and sexually insatiable […]

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