Lone Princesses and Girly Books

I’ve had a tab open to this post by Jim C Hines on Girly Books and gender stereotyping all week, pretty sure that I wanted to say something about it, but not sure what.

I understand his bafflement at male readers being hesitant to pick up his new books, the ones with girls on the cover. I remember the almost physical blow I felt the first time an acquaintance told me to my face that he wasn’t going to read my books because he didn’t read anything with female protagonists. (ten years later I’m still going, seriously? Seriously?)

Looking at Hines’ covers, which are gorgeous, it occurs to me how unusual they are in the fantasy genre. Having a female character on the cover, even a female and no male character, is not that unusual – but three women, with no man in sight? I can’t think of another fantasy cover ever that has had such a composition.

Fantasy fiction is not short of female characters, even memorable and important female characters, but it’s hard to escape the fact that so many of the sourceworks, the deeply respected historical texts that helped to form people’s idea of fantasy fiction, tend to place female characters in a vacuum.

From fairy tales through the pulp stories and Tolkien to the epic fantasies of the 1980’s – whether women are crunchy protagonists and point-of-view characters or cardboard love-interests and prizes, what they most have in common is feminine isolation. The princess’s most important relationship is with her potential prince, and her value is often calculated on how well she gets along with male characters. Often this is well meaning – an awesome female character stands out very effectively when surrounded by blokes. Also her awesomeness is often created by an unflattering contrast with other women – she is special, they are drips.

(I do this too, I’m horrified to realise, most of my female relationships in novels are based on conflict, and the best friendships represented are male-female)

These traditions bleed through to modern storytelling, and I can think of so few examples of fantasy fiction which has an emphasis on family or friendship relationships or even teamwork between women. I have to admit, when I first heard about Hines’ Stepsister Scheme my first thoughts were very cynical, that the idea of fairy tale princesses ganging up together and kicking arse/fighting crime was a bit of an old cliche. But thinking about it again – no, it isn’t. It’s horribly original. There just aren’t that many fantasy stories out there that are predominantly about women – and women plural, not just one really great woman.

As an exercise, I wrote down the first ten titles of fantasy stories that I think of as being very female:

Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
‘Empire’ series, Raymond E Feist & Janny Wurtz
Alanna series, Tamora Pierce
Deerskin, Robin McKinley
Xena: Warrior Princess
Terry Pratchett’s Witches books
The Wizard of Oz, L Frank Baum
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Bradley
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

All of these are wonderful stories that I love, that have brilliant, interesting female characters in them. But Dorothy and Alice are mostly surrounded by male characters on their adventures, with only the occasional positive interaction with other girls/women. In both cases their most significant interactions with other female characters are with the villains of the story – the Wicked Witch of the West and the Red Queen. Alanna and Mara of the Empire books are both presented as lone, strong women in a sea of men. (Alanna becomes a mentor to girl magicians in book 3 and befriends a more feminine version of herself in book 4) Deerskin, based on one of a long line of fairy tales about lone princesses, is basically about a girls’ journey from out of the hands of an evil father and into the hands of a benevolent husband. Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle is alienated from and separated from her female relatives for most of the story. Even Mists of Avalon, the quintessential and revolutionary feminist historical fantasy novel, mostly codes its female characters: Morgaine and Gwenhyfar in particular, through their relationships with men.

That leaves me with three. Tender Morsels is based on one of the few fairy tales that has a living, well-realised mother and a good sister relationship! Margo’s novel has a tight focus on that female triumvirate, with every other relationship in the book less important. Xena was a great story of female friendship, not only in the developing relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, but also in the awesome supporting characters over the years. There were some good male characters in the show but so many great female roles: Amazons, queens, warriors and yes, the heroine even had a good relationship with her mother. Pratchett’s witches books are actually the only ones that I can think of that have, like Hines’ books, had covers depicting multiple female characters.

There must be more. There must. I will think more on this. Fantasy novels/stories that are about more than one woman and their interactions with each other? Let me know which ones you can think of!

EDIT: Since new people are coming to this post every day thanks to several links, I thought I’d note that there’s a follow up post here with a more extensive reading list of fantasy which features multiple female characters. Any comments with further suggestions are appreciated and will be included there.

6 replies on “Lone Princesses and Girly Books”

  1. Rowan says:

    I can add a series to your list. The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey features two women from widely different backgrounds who become blood sisters and work together in everything. It’s a great series, and typically only has Tarma and Kethry on the covers.

    Also, add the Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce. Kel is still mostly surrounded by men, but her relationship with her mother and maid are key elements of the books.

    I thought I would have an easier time coming up with more examples, but I think the Oathbound is the only series I can come up with multiple women at the core of it. That is strange. I already wanted to read The Stepsister Scheme, but now I REALLY want to read it.

  2. tansyrr says:

    Rowan: Oh thank you! I should have thought of Lackey, but I don’t think I read enough of her in my teens to really lock in the memories of her breadth of work. More recently I have enjoyed some of her fairy tale women books and I think they have multiple female characters, too.

    Also I had forgotten about Kel’s maid (who DOES have a real name though I can’t remember it either). I wonder what it says about me that when I remember my Tamora Pierce heroines, depsite having reread those books so many times, it is the male-female (not necessarily romantic) relationships I think of first?

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  4. Melander says:

    I know its not fantasy but sci-fi but there are some interesting women in Marianne de Pierres’ Sentients of Orion series….
    # There are fat women portrayed as sensual and attractive
    # There is a female mercenary with a crush on the main female protagonist
    # There are a group of women battling for survival against their male dominated violent society and a bunch of body fluid sucking aliens
    # There’s a pregnant heroine

    …..and I’m only halfway through the second book….

  5. tansyrr says:

    I feel so guilty I haven’t read the second book yet! At least I don’t have to wait between that and the third.

  6. Melander says:

    It took me 2/3 of the first book to get into the series (persevered by considering it as good for my writing) BUT now I’m completely hooked and so is Nick. I’m being hounded to finish the second one so he can read it….. Close to cutting it in half so I don’t have to rush…. Close…. it’s such a desecration to do that though….

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