Thursday, 1 October 2009

in fantasy men fight and women surrender

In my review of Heroes Die, I commented on gender roles:

"I got a twitchy feeling of gender stereotyping from [the heroine’s] sweet, nurturing, protect-the-innocents nature versus [the hero’s] rampant destruction. This feeling increased when the heroine has to surrender to and channel a greater, external force in order to match the (male) antagonist, which is just weirdly sexualised."

Then I got to thinking about women in fantasy, and all the surrendering they seem to do.

Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time features a type of magic called the One Power, which is split into male and female halves. This sounds equitable. Except “touching [the female half] saidar is like an embrace, touching [the male half] saidin is like a war without mercy. (V: 66)” (Wheel of Time Concordance)
  1. the female half, saidar, is "gentle, but infinitely powerful; a force which will do what you wish it to, but requires patience and submission to guide its power. Surrender is necessary to gain it, and women universally speak of it as 'embracing' the Power." (Wheel of Time Wiki) ... “cannot be forced for women, they just lose hold of it. To control the Power, a woman must surrender to it. (II: 208)”
  2. the male half, saidin, is a “raging torrent of the Power which must be subdued and dominated” (Wheel of Time Wiki) ... “must be fought against and controlled. (IV: 152)”
I’m seeing a common theme here in both Heroes Die and the Wheel of Time. Men fight, women surrender.

It taps into a greater gender distinction that I see in a lot of fantasy. Men are warriors, women healers. Men are aggressive, women nurturing. Men are the heroes, women their damsels in distress. But more of that later.

Are there other examples of this fighting vs surrendering dichotomy in fantasy? Can you suggest authors and novels which subvert this idea?


  1. I've seen much of the same. Novels that subvert it - CJ Cherryh's The Paladin comes to mind. Semi-historical fantasy with no magic at all and a wounded, angry, kick-ass female protag (yes, you can see why I like it :-). It's definitely worth a read.

  2. Sounds awesome! I've never tried Cherryh - which is weird, because I've heard so much about her. (Perhaps that h on the end of her name annoys me too much.)

    Wounded, angry, kickass female protagonist makes me think of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, as well.

  3. Most YA fantasy novels I read are the exact opposite, which is probably why I'm not fond of adult fantasy that much. The heroines in YA fantasies are often the ones kicking butt (and there are a lot more heroines in YA fantasy than there are males). The males kick butt, too, but in YA novels that feature heroines, these heroines are not your damsel-in-distresses. They are taking charge and putting their feet down.

  4. Interesting comment, Amber. My observation is that a lot of YA paranormal romances focus on an older, more powerful hero taking over the clueless teenage heroine's life - like Edward and Bella from Twilight, or insert your Twilight ripoff here.

    I mean, in the fantasies I referenced above, at least the female characters can channel some power - even if it's presented as a masculine power that they have to surrender to in weirdly sexualised ways. What kind of power does Bella or other blank page heroines ever have?