Women in Fiction

The central characters in my two story arcs are all women. I simply find women more fascinating. If I give a sword or staff to a man, I pretty much know what he’s going to do. I can’t say the same of a woman. I have no idea what Aura Lockhaven or Iryndelle are going to do until they do it.

There is a reason for this. Strong men, and weak women, still dominate the American culture and consciousness, and by extension, our historic timeline of fiction. I can put my hand on any number of books in five hundred years of English fiction, from Le Morte d’Arthur to the Dresden Files, and find strong men. During that same timeline, most of the women were princesses, damsels in distress, or love interests for the man. At best, they were mouthy comic relief. At worst, the evil sorceress.

This wasn’t always the case. I work in the Northern European tradition, which stretches from today back to the Icelandic Sagas and the Mabinogion. In literature of the distant pagan past, women protagonists were common. This is even true of Greek mythology. While mortal women were often princesses or damsels in distress (Andromeda was both), the goddesses were not. Not even the mighty Zeus told Hera what to do! Even in society, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men. Some societies were matriarchal. Some kings descended through their mothers. We discovered recently that half the Viking raiding and trading parties were women. The Greeks did not consider a public debate concluded until they heard the opinion of at least one woman, as the debate would be imbalanced.

So, what happened?

Rome.

When I say Rome, I mean the Empire, not the Church. The Church served as a convenient carrier for Imperial attitudes. When Caesar Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion of Rome, he did not Christianize the Roman Empire. He imperialized Christianity. He turned a small band of lofty-minded people into a powerful cudgel in the hands of the Emperor (namely, himself). One can’t blame the man. He ruled an empire trying to split in half, with a bunch of provinces in rebellion, and those damnable Germans pounding on his gates. A national religion seemed a good tool to hold it together.

Constantine’s Church quickly became infected with the attitudes of the Empire. Imperial priests (although I am no longer a Christian, I am not going to insult Christianity by calling those men Christian priests, because they bore little resemblance to Christ) were quite successful in cherry-picking the Bible for scripture to support Imperial attitudes. After all, St. Paul was a Roman, as he so often said, and the Romans were nothing if not authority and obedience fetishists.

One of the easiest existing Roman attitudes the priests found to support was the one toward women. Unlike Greece, Gaul, or any of “those barbarians to the north,” Rome never saw women as equal. Women were property. They existed for only two reasons: as wives to provide men with heirs, and as mistresses to provide men with pleasure. This attitude quickly spread throughout the Church through a gross, and probably deliberate, misreading of St. Paul. They could do nothing with St. Paul’s admonitions against sexual pleasure, so the mistresses were removed from the scene (officially, if not in practice). However, by bending St. Paul’s words a little, they undergirded the attitude that women were breeding stock. Breeding stock only behaved in certain ways, and those ways did not include ruling a country, carrying a sword, or even having an opinion.

The Roman Empire has been defunct all these centuries. The Western half fell in 480 AD, while the East survived in the form of the Byzantine Empire until 1453. Yet, Christianity survived. The faith remains infected by Roman Imperialism to this day, in all branches save perhaps the Mainline Protestants (Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Lutheran, and Disciples of Christ), but their liberal theologies and attitudes date to only the end of World War Two. We don’t have to discuss the far-reaching influence, for better or worse, of Christianity upon history, culture, or literature.

Thus was born the still existing concept of women in fiction as helpless princess, damsel in distress, or love interest for the hero. Those who thought outside this tiny box of confinement, such as Lady MacBeth or Iseult, met with nasty ends. That isn’t a Christian attitude. It’s an Imperial Roman one.

Fortunately, this is changing.

I pin the origins of the woman as capable fictional protagonist on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). Scarlett O’Hara appeared at the right time in American history. By 1936, American women had the right to vote for sixteen years, and were beginning to realize that life existed outside the kitchen. Scarlett exploded into the national consciousness when Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, and the movie adaptation appeared in 1939. Despite fawning over Ashley Wilkes, Scarlett actually detested the aristocratic gentility he stood for, and by implication, the dutiful Melanie. She was quite capable of using her mind to maneuver, and sometimes manipulate, people and situations to her advantage. Rhett Butler, himself a master of social chess, was the only one who knew how to deal with her. He saw her as an equal. Scarlett was not unique; she had precedent in the books of Jane Austen. But Pride and Prejudice belongs to Great Britain, not the United States, and did not take hold in this country with the power of Gone with the Wind.

Then came Wonder Woman. She appeared in 1941, on the eve of World War Two and on the heels of Scarlett O’Hara. Even more so that Scarlett, Wonder Woman was no mere love interest. She was a princess, but this one kicked ass! She had the strength of Superman and the brains of Batman. She told bad guys to sit down and shut up, and if they didn’t listen, she pummeled them until they did. Wonder Woman inspired an entire generation of girls, the daughters of the women who earned the right to vote, that they could do more than just look pretty. One of those girls was my own mother, who may have been the most socially defiant woman I’ve ever known. My poor mother is a true case of having owned Wonder Woman #1, until her mother cleaned house one day … but I digress. Diana Prince quickly rose to the top of the comic book pyramid, a position she still holds as one of DC’s “Trinity,” along with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. You have to be durn good to stand shoulder to shoulder with those two guys.

Since then, women characters who are protagonists in their own right have emerged. Red Sonja. Modesty Blaise. Xena. Lieutenant Uhura. Princess Leia. Buffy Summers. Zoe Washburn. Sookie Stackhouse. Rachel Morgan. Arya Stark. Occasionally, a Bond Girl does more than just have sex with James, as when both Tatiana Romanova and Domino Derval saved his life by killing the villain (From Russia with Love, and Thunderball). I’m sure there are others, but those are the genres in which I work and that I read.

I want to add the names Aura Lockhaven and the Sarethian Seven to that list, because the list is still too short. With the exceptions of Scarlett O’Hara and Wonder Woman, each and every woman character I named was created during my lifetime, and I am only 52 years old.*

Scarlett O’Hara, Red Sonja, Rachel Morgan, Aura Lockhaven, and Iryndelle are a return to the women prior to the Roman Empire, in both life and in literature. They are archetypes, in that they more closely resemble the historic figures of Boadicea and Queen Elizabeth I, or the goddesses Cerridwen or Athena. They bare no resemblance to more common cultural and fictional characters such as Mary Jane Watson (Spider-Man), Daphne (Scooby Doo), Pamela Barnes (Dallas), or any of the “exist only to be raped” women in potboiler novels (such as those of John Jakes), or the vast number of airheads that populate sitcoms or daytime dramas. Aura and Iryndelle are no damsels in distress. If they get in trouble, they get themselves out. Aura is prone to seduction, but that is a weakness, not her role. Half the time, she does the seducing, making the man the love interest. While Iryndelle may be a princess, she refuses the crown and takes up a sword instead. Both kick ass and leave the name taking to the gods.

Joss Whedon said it perfectly. When asked why he wrote about strong female characters, he answered, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

Yeah. As long as that question is still being asked, as long as I’m still surprised by what Aura and Iryndelle do, I am going to continue to put women in the fore and center of my stories. I owe that to Scarlett O’Hara, Diana Prince, and Red Sonja. I owe that to Hera, Boadicea, and Queen Elisabeth I. I owe that to Dolores Hartshorn Boutwell.

* Tatiana Romanova, the Bond Girl in From Russia with Love, was created in 1957, so yes, she’s older than me. However, it’s in the 1963 movie version (I predate it by a few months) that she shoots Rosa Klebb. Tatiana does not in the book. Thunderball was published in 1961, but again, I’m basing Domino Derval’s action upon the 1965 movie, as the movie is how the story entered the American psyche. Red Sonja was created in 1971 by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. However, she was based upon the character Red Sonya (and is still credited as being), created by Robert E. Howard in 1934. So, I could say that Red Sonja is the oldest character in my list, although that may be hedging.

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