Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Modern morality and fantasy females

Hmm. The title looks a bit lewder than I’d intended.

Ahem. Fantasy tends to be set in either the actual past or a world at least partly based upon the past at some point in human history. This has all sorts of advantages (you get to copy or be inspired by what actually existed and people already know much of that, allowing readers to feel more in tune with the world more quickly).

Women pose a bit of a problem, though. Not only do they tend to get killed giving birth, they’re less physically strong than men and were usually barred from holding high office or warrior status. There are numerous notable exceptions (the favourite captain of Xerxes during the Persian War was a woman) but generally that’s how things were.

The reason for this was not really because they aren’t as strong as chaps, true as that is, but because women were far less expendable. I wrote something a while ago about a matriarchal tyranny that kept power by controlling pregnancy, births and survival of male babies. But when I thought about it more, something struck me. In a medieval country with a low proportion of men, most of whom are castrated, the effects of an epidemic or war would be far more serious than an evenly split society. The problem is that the limiting factor on reproduction is the number of women of the right age. If an army of men is decimated, the survivors could take more wives and the next generation would be a shade less genetically diverse but just as numerous. If an army of women is decimated, the next generation would be substantially reduced.

To put it more concisely: men are more expendable in a world of low life expectancy.

There are two big ways around this in fantasy: ignoring it and putting female characters into other positions of importance.

Modern morality holds the sexes equal (roughly). The writer is the creator of the world his story’s told in, so there’s nothing to stop him having female warriors or rulers. He could create a new race or amend mankind so that the women are the stronger (or even go so far as to copy the seahorse and have the man give birth).

The other way is to give women a measure of power in different ways. Religion and magic offer two means for female characters to hold important positions, and sorcery could also be used to help improve life expectancy and infant mortality.

As a rule, I dislike modern morality being shunted into a world that’s meant to be realistic in a historical/fantasy way. I don’t think it’s valid to try and create a world that has some elements of a medieval or ancient civilisation but crowbar in 21st century morality elsewhere.


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