“I just don’t understand why they treated [FEMALE CHARACTER] that way.”
“Well, that’s how things were back then.”
I’m sure everyone has heard this. I think I’ve even said it–or at least had it cross my mind. This was the response to that scene with Sansa in the previous season of Game of Thrones (you know the one). This is the response to critiques of fantasy literature and media that is overwhelmingly male-dominated, white-dominated, and rampant with women and POC as second class citizens.
I am going to try really, really hard not to get political in this post because I don’t mean to get on a platform about our society, I just want to talk about books.
“That’s how things were” is an excuse. And it is a terrible excuse.
There are two main reasons this is a terrible excuse.
1) Fantasy is Not History
Fantasy novels have often been set in Medieval England-like worlds/countries. They use similar technology, which allows magic to flourish. They often rely on similar societal arrangements with monarchs, knights, and peasants. The classes are neatly arranged or the races are neatly segregated.
This is not a bad thing. I repeat: This is not a bad thing.
But it’s not history. A fantasy author who draws heavily from Medieval times makes a conscious choice whether or not to have a society that treats all its people equally on the basis of class, sex, race, magical powers, species, etc. That’s part of worldbuilding. I have never actually heard an author use this excuse but I’m prepared to slap the first one that doesn’t follow up with something like “and I did it on purpose for reason X.”
Because I haven’t had a lot of time to read fiction lately, I’m going to fall back on my old favorite, Throne of Glass, which has a Medieval-like setting but doesn’t treat the sexes or the races differently. People from varying conquered lands have their own customs but generally, everyone is equal (although there is a class system in place because the conflict is generated by having a corrupted monarch).
Just keep in mind for the next season of Game of Thrones, when they get around to the next scene that might prompt a “Well, that’s just how it was,” that fantasy is not history.
And then share this blog post, because it contains sources for more reading.
2) History is Not Historically Authentic
This one is easy: History was written by men. This isn’t a bad thing, but it means that a lot of women’s/minority’s contributions were excluded, claimed by men, or went completely unnoticed across every domain of life. The women were there and doing important things. Those things just, for whatever reason, weren’t recorded.
When you use history to build your fantasy world, you have to be an anthropologist about it and understand how everyone in the society interacted and went about their life, not just the men who wrote most of it down. When I was first getting serious about SAAFire, I realized I that all of my “good guys” were female and all of my “bad guys” were male (I was a teenager, okay?). When I told my mentor that I was going to create a “good guy” who was actually a guy, he asked, “Why?”
My answer then was some sputtering thing about not being sexist but now, if asked again, I would say it’s because my story isn’t about a force of women triumphing over a force of men. It’s about a small team defeating a large enemy and both sides are a mix of races, sexes, and orientations.
To be fair, my mentor’s question came out of a lesson not to change your story for the sake of having the change. SAAFire is stronger for the inclusion of male characters on the good side and female characters on the bad side. Plus, it’s much easier to mix up dialogue with “he said” and “she said” instead of “she said” “she said” “she asked” or whatever.
In my humble, completely unbiased opinion, any novel not about class/race/gender warfare is made stronger and more interesting by a diverse cast. I’m distracted if one group holds an overwhelming majority for no reason. I also have no problem whatsoever with the subjugation or oppression of a fictional class/race/sex as long as that is meaningful to the story. Otherwise, I’m just going to be confused.
So, that scene from Game of Thrones? The one with Sansa and the one whose death I hope will be long, drawn-out, and utterly humiliating? I don’t have a problem with that scene–other than a visceral horrified reaction–because that is a world where women are oppressed on one side of the ocean (where they drive the story through their actions as oppressed characters) and, on the other, a queen rules alone and no one bats an eye.
P.S. If you want my breakdown of That Scene With Sansa, I’d say she was treated that way because she had no real power, no real allies, and no way to enforce consequences against the great Bastard. She happened to be a woman, but let’s not forget Theon/Reek, who suffered tremendously also at the hands of the Bastard because of his similar lack of power. It’s not because that’s how things were, it’s because that’s how things are in Westeros.