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Feminism in Fantasy: A Brief Foray

My mentor once implied I read too much fantasy; I need to broaden my horizons.  Fair enough, and I try, but I simply cannot help but pick up books about other worlds and impossible realities.  They are simply more interesting and by definition escapist than stories set in this mundane world.  It would seem, from recent trends, that I am not alone.

Harry Potter.  Twilight.  The Hunger Games.  His Dark Materials.  A Song of Ice and Fire.

All five of these series have amassed wild popularity, being committed to film both on large screen and small, to excellent and middling effect.  All have sold millions of copies and drawn avid, sometimes rabid fans.  I have at least dipped my beak into each, and found questions and themes and food for thought the breadth of which I can never cover, but what has long stuck out at me are the depictions of female characters in my beloved (and not so much) books.

I am no feminist; I find the discipline loaded with verbosity and ineffectual whining, but that’s another issue.  However, as a 23-year-old girl, I am predisposed to better relate to young female characters.  It’s just a fact.  Each of these series was published within my lifetime, and notably all feature female protagonists.  Let us now examine these paragons of fantasy fiction feminism:

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Hermione Granger

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Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, 7 books, 1997-2007

If you don’t know the story by now, you must be living under a rock.  A boy learns he is a wizard and gets shipped off to wizarding school, where he learns magic as well as his destiny.  Harry Potter is the target of the evil Lord Voldemort’s murderous impulses, and must ultimately defeat him… in a nutshell.  He is helped along this hero’s journey by many people, chief among them his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

The Harry Potter series was written by Joanne “J.K.” Rowling, aged 30-42 when she wrote them.  Rowling is British, a divorced single mother living below the poverty line when she wrote the first novel.  Now, suffice it to say, she lives well above it.  The Harry Potter books are bildungsromans (coming of age novels) in the fantasy genre, with influences ranging from the Bible, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and C.S. Lewis.

Hermione Granger is a muggleborn witch, the equivalent of a low or “impure” birth.  She is sorted into Gryffindor House at Hogwarts School, distinguished for its members’ courage.  Hermione is best friends with Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, who together form what the writer John Granger (no relation) has aptly termed a mind-body-soul triptych.  Harry is the soul, Ron the body, and Hermione the mind of the group, personifying reason, logic, and cunning.  Hermione is a crucial element to the trio’s success in defeating Voldemort, providing problem-solving and research skills, to put it in resume parlance.  On many occasions her prodigious skills squeeze them out of a jam, be it brewing an incredibly complex potion in a bathroom at the age of 12 to conduct an investigation or thinking on her feet to vanquish a massive snake trying to devour Harry in the final book.  More subtly, Hermione also exemplifies courage of conviction and defiance: When a totalitarian regime from the government trickles into their school in the 5th book, Hermione concocts the idea to form a student group of rebels.  She also has a sensitive side, evincing the values of equality and understanding, be it with foreigners, so-thought “lesser” magical species, her own “mud-blood” breed of wizards, or the magic-less muggles.  Finally, Hermione is an independent girl.  In the first novel, Dumbledore announces that “it takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends,” which Hermione boldly does when necessary, for example defending that very professor when Harry has lost faith in him during the seventh book, or forming a sort of civil-rights group for enslaved elves despite the criticisms of Harry and Ron.

No great character is one-dimensional, though, or entirely good.  Hermione’s flaws are precisely the same as her strengths: her faith in reason and logic sometimes blind her to the strength of instinct, causing her need of her companions.  In the sixth book, Harry feels convinced that Draco Malfoy has turned to the dark side, without proof but spurred by his longtime distaste for the boy.  Hermione argues with Harry at every turn, citing the baselessness of his conclusion, but is eventually proven wrong all the same.  Similarly, in the final book, a children’s story tells of three magical objects that defend against death; Hermione sees this for only what it is – a fairytale – when the objects turn out to be true, and very pertinent to Harry’s quest.

As for romance – because there always is one in these young-adult series – Hermione winds up with Ron (despite countless misguided readers who thought she should be with Harry; alliteration is our foe).  Their romance bespeaks time and growth; the two are friends for seven years and only get together in the final chapters of the final book, under circumstances of high pressure.  The friendship-turned-romance is a specific one based on knowledge of the person and a strong emotional, intellectual, and shared-historical, rather than purely physical or chemical, bond.  Her and Ron’s relationship is at best a subplot to the overarching story.

All told, Hermione is a well-rounded and likeable character.  She is generally even-tempered, intelligent, and brave, though still prone to outbursts of anger, committing mistakes, and falling prey to fear.  Seeing her grow from a timid youth to a strong and principled woman creates a bond between character and reader, and all-told Hermione becomes known as a smart, ballsy girl as much a part of Harry Potter’s success as the boy wizard himself.

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Katniss Everdeen

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 3 books, 2008-2010.

This series is the new belle of the ball.  They’ve been out for a few years, but now everyone is catching on, spurred by this month’s new movie adaptation.  It is the story of a dystopian future America, divided into thirteen districts, kept morally downtrodden by a totalitarian government known as The Capital.  As punishment for an attempted rebellion in the story’s past, The Capital each year drafts one female and one male youth from each district to enter the titular Games, a fight to the death with the winner the last one alive.  All of this brutality is broadcast across the nation on TV for the citizens’ perverse pain and pleasure.

Suzanne Collins cut her teeth writing for children’s television (including Clarissa Explains it All, incidentally!)  A married American from Connecticut with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU, Collins was 46-48 while writing The Hunger Games.  She has stated that the story was influenced by the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which King Minos demanded tributes of seven youths and seven maidens as retribution for his son’s assassination and the hero Theseus joined their ranks to slay the monstrous Minotaur.  Collins has also noted the juxtaposition in changing channels between reality shows and war coverage for the voyeuristic elements of the story.

Katniss Everdeen is a resident of the impoverished District 12, a mining community.  Her father died years past in a mining accident, leaving her mother emotionally crippled and Katniss responsible for the caretaking of the family.  To this end, Katniss breaks the law to enter the forest and hunt to feed them.  Immediately, this description reveals three of Katniss’s major traits: self-sufficiency, loyalty, and rebelliousness.  When the day comes in the year of the first book for the tributes to be chosen, Primrose Everdeen’s name is called, and her big sister Katniss immediately volunteers in her place.  Once in the Games, Katniss acts wisely, exercising caution and ferocity as needed, and all the while displaying an ardent survival instinct.  She forges alliances twice; first, with a young girl named Rue who is inevitably killed, and whom Katniss then covers with flowers and sings for, a small but potent act of defiance against the Capitol’s cruel purpose.  The second alliance she forges with her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta, also her love interest.  As the Games progress, Peeta at times saves Katniss, but she saves him in turn.  After surviving to the final two, they again flout the Capitol’s intentions and move to each kill themselves, ruining the Game.  In the subsequent books, this event sparks an uprising with Katniss as its unwitting emblem; we see her suffer the psychological aftereffects of winning the Hunger Games, as well as playing again (All-Star season!), and struggle to find her place in the rebellion she unwittingly started.  Katniss is an exemplar of courage and overcoming, and eventually lives up to her station by ridding her country of not only the Capitol’s nefarious leader, but the corrupt leader of her very rebellion.  This shows conviction and a sense of justice and valor.

Katniss’s flaws are more evident than most; in such a broken world, how could she possibly be a hero in the fairytale sense?  The cracks in her armor are her stubbornness and strong will, which she must overcome to truly participate in the uprising, not as its inactive mascot but as a soldier; the adage about one learning to follow if they ever hope to lead is a long and hard one for Katniss to learn.  She struggles also with culpability and authority over her own deeds and to what degree she has been the Capitol’s puppet versus a free woman.  None of these are simple matters, and at series’ end she remains an imperfect and unresolved character.

And still there’s the romance.  As a YA novel, The Hunger Games contains a fairly typical love triangle, though a predictable one if you ask me.  Both relationships – with her confidant and friend Gale, and with her Games cohort and ally Peeta – lack impulsiveness, for that Katniss reserves for the Arena.  Both are characterized by familiarity and mutual understanding.  Katniss grapples with her feelings for both boys, in particular questioning her own emotions for Peeta as a construct of the Games versus a reality.  In the end, her choice is Peeta based on a shared history and similar values; Gale proved himself unlike Katniss in matters of war, where she, the veteran of the Games, found more compassion than she knew she possessed and he only ferocity.  While these subplots are intrinsic to the story, I would not say they constitute the main plot points; love flourishes even in horrible circumstances, but those circumstances are at the forefront.

When all’s said and done, Katniss is a tragic character.  She is pitiable for her psychological damage and the unthinkable trauma she has suffered.  In light of great trials, she exemplifies strength that shifts from endurance to wisdom, in a degree she never believed imaginable.  In all things, her agency and accountability are admirable, and above all her resilience.

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Lyra Belacqua

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His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, 3 books, 1995-2000.

His Dark Materials is an incredible series, at once utterly enthralling and so dense that I often found myself knowing things were going over my head and helpless to stop them.  It is probably the least popular work on this list, mainly because the film adaptation was a big stinking disappointment.  Silly CGI polar bears aside, though, this is a story of other worlds (plural!), the death of God (literally), spirituality (despite that killing-God thing), and growing up.

Philip Pullman is a British author, aged 47-54 at the time of writing.  He graduated Exeter College in Oxford with a third class BA, which to my understanding is not exactly great.  Pullman previously wrote children’s stories and fantasy-fiction while teaching part-time.  A notable religious rabble-rouser and malcontent, Pullman describes himself as agnostic.  He has claimed as major influences of the series William Blake and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Lyra Belacqua is yet another feisty, unruly young tomboy whose handlers fight a losing battle to tame her.  She begins the story an orphan fostered at Jordan College in a fictional world much like our own.  A volatile plot involving religion ensues, wherein the oppressive Magisterium (church) tries to quash the study of Dust, a particle that has something to do with Original Sin.  The Magisterium goes about this by conducting grisly experiments in severing children from their daemons – animal manifestations of their souls that accompany all humans here.  Lyra goes on an old-fashioned globetrotting journey to save a friend taken for the experiments, gets herself caught and saved again, and is irrevocably sucked into a huge and wicked world fraught with enemies and obstacles, all of which she evades with wit and raw nerve, and her alethiometer.  The alethiometer is Lyra’s unique strength: It is an ancient device that learned men spend decades of study to decipher, which Lyra’s pure heart allows her to read like a book.  What this gadget displays is nothing less than truth, which makes it an understandably covetable object.  The second book expands things with a second – but always slightly secondary – protagonist, Lyra’s cohort Will Parry, who has his own magical item (a knife that cuts the fabric between worlds), and the third book sets the stakes at no less than the fate of the world(s) and God and pretty much everyone and everything.  In the end Lyra has to travel through the land of the dead and back; she is no withering flower.  Throughout all this, Lyra is the archetypal girl on the run: clever, resourceful, and courageous.  It’s a coming of age story, but one in which a totalitarian church, aided by actual angels, is chasing after the heroine.

Lyra’s flaws are the traditional ones of youth: recklessness, impulsiveness, rebelliousness.  Also, like any literary orphan, she is slow to trust and quick to run.  The impressive personal journey she takes is not one of becoming brave or smart or independent, for Lyra is all that to start.  Instead, she must grow emotionally, coming to terms with her own history and family, figuring out how to tell good from evil, and developing loyalty, devotion, and a sense of surrender with her partner-in-crime Will (to be there for him, and more difficultly, to let him be there for her.)

It wouldn’t be a modern young adult novel without a romance, would it?  In this one, the relationship between Lyra and Will is no less than a re-imagining of Adam and Eve, tying into the whole overarching religious theme.  Removing that from the equation, we have two young characters (about 12) who fall into a very pure and sweet but powerful form of love through sharing extreme experiences.  There is also the fact that both are outsiders and have few, if any, other friends their age.  However, Lyra and Will’s romance develops organically and feels perhaps the most earned of any in this group.

Younger than Hermione Granger or Katniss Everdeen at each girl’s story’s end, Lyra is a portrait of purity: pure of both courage and heart.  Being the fulfillment of a prophecy and the only one able to read the alethiometer, she is “special,” but for all that a character with plenty of agency and capability.  She is a child grown up too fast, a girl plagued by fear who consistently overcomes it, doing at all times whatever must be done, propelled by loyalty and honor.  Lyra is the true Campbellian hero of the bunch.

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Arya Stark

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A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, 5 books (so far; to be 7), 1996-present.

Set in the fictional land of Westeros, the books follow three principle storylines.  One is the vying ambitions of myriad highborn families for the Iron Throne.  The second is the impending threat of “Others” from beyond the 700-foot ice Wall to the north, who, depending on which reference works for you, seem to be something like zombies, Inferi, or reanimated corpses.  The third storyline is of the exile princess on a continent across the sea who raises dragons, unseen in centuries, to venture back for that same Iron Throne that by rights is hers.  There are about a billion characters with at least as many motives, and it is never boring.

George R. R. Martin is an American writer, hailing from New Jersey’s own Bayonne, which I know from a fourth-grade project I did on that city has nothing more notable to claim.  Martin was raised working class in a housing project near the Bayonne docks.  He has a B.S. and M.S. in Journalism, both from Northwestern, and has been a screenwriter of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy.  Writing from the ages 43 to (currently) 62, this series has been influenced by the War of the Roses and, rather obviously, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Arya is only one of many incredible women in the Ice and Fire series; it’s really a smorgasbord of female empowerment.  But Arya suits this group best as a (more or less) average young girl with a much greater destiny, whose coming-of-age is intense and unique.  In the first book, her lord father is named Hand of the King and moves his daughters down to the capital city.  The typical tomboy discontented to become someone’s wife and mother, she takes up sword-fighting.  When the king dies and her father is unceremoniously executed as a traitor, Arya must go on the run.  She cuts her hair and pretends to be the orphan boy Arry on her way north.  Later, she is captured and held by enemy forces at Harrenhal, where she stages an uprising to try to escape, then disguises herself as a servant girl for Lord Bolton before killing a guard and escaping over the walls.  She is captured again by a man bent on bringing her to her family for a ransom, but he dies and Arya is again alone.  She sells her horse and buys her way onto a boat to cross the sea.  There, she becomes an initiate in a guild of assassins, learning far more than swordplay: here she develops cunning, subtlety, suppression of ego, and of course, deadliness.  Arya is a portrait of resourcefulness and a consummate survivor, not to mention a bona fide badass.

If anyone is going to have flaws, though, it’s one of Martin’s characters!  The most important thing to know about this series is there are no heroes, and there are no villains, only scores and scores of imperfect human beings.  Arya is headstrong and often acts before thinking.  She is endlessly vengeful, though that’s really just par for this world.

Romance isn’t a big part of Arya’s world.  Not only is she a little young for it, but it’s hard to make a relationship work when one person is constantly on the run from murderous henchmen.  That said, there is a still-hypothetical connection between her and fellow runaway Gendry, who just happens to be King Robert’s unknowing bastard.  The two share numerous life-or-death trials and a mutual respect based on their abilities to defend themselves and fight (not all their companions are so competent).  Gendry is at least the closest thing Arya has to a friend these days.

Arya is a victim of many horrors.  Presently, to the best of her knowledge, both of her parents and three of her siblings have been brutally murdered; she herself has been on the run since a young age, and has killed perhaps a dozen men herself; her home, family, and name have all been taken from her, and she is just a little girl after all.  However, Arya has always been a fighter, and is fierce at that.  She is also loyal, increasingly clever and prudent, and understands the crucial difference between fear and cowardice.

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Bella Swan

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Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, 4 books, 2005-8.

In all fairness, I must admit there is no love lost between me and this series.  I read the first one when they became popular to see what all the fuss was about, then the second one in good faith, assuming it could only get better, right?  Wrong.  In any event, this is no smear campaign.  The Twilight saga is the story of an average girl named Bella who meets and falls in love with a vampire named Edward.  Amidst a flurry of rival vampires out to suck Bella’s blood or just murder her, Edward and his vamp-family protect Bella along with their archenemies, the local werewolves.  Mostly it is the story of Bella and Edward’s love overcoming bloodsucking enemies and obstacles such as a beating heart.

Stephenie Meyer is the youngest of this group, writing her novels from ages 32-35.  Meyer is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and as such does not drink, smoke, or promote promiscuity.  Married at 21, she is now mother to three, and originally wrote Twilight for personal enjoyment with no intent to publish.  Her influences include romantic fare such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Romeo and Juliet, and Pride and Prejudice.

Bella Swan is, to my understanding, the very definition of ordinary: an everygirl for our generation.  Pale-skinned, brown hair and eyes, of middling height and weight.  She is clumsy, but otherwise very thinly fleshed-out, as of halfway through the series.    What stands out about her, besides her almost-painful normalcy, is the inordinate amount of attention she garners from the boys in her new school in Forks, Washington.  Since we know Twilight wasn’t written with the intent to publish, and that its author is a young wife and mother, it stands to reason that Bella Swan is the fantasy version we all have of ourselves – the one that isn’t in any quantifiable way remarkable but who all the boys want anyway.  Novelty aside, even the notoriously private (because he’s a vampire) Edward Cullen takes a shine to her.  The two rapidly fall in love, based more on supernatural elements than shared experience or getting to know one another: Edward is particularly enamored of the scent of her blood, as opposed to others’, and is intrigued by his inability to read her mind (as he can everyone else’s); for her part, Bella makes excruciatingly frequent references to Edward’s unearthly beauty and physical perfection.  Throughout the series, Bella and Edward’s relationship ebbs and flows: they fall in love in the first book; in the second, Edward abandons Bella in order to protect her; in the third, they reunite and have to face an army of “newborn” vampires hell-bent on revenge against the pair; and in the final installment, the two marry, Bella’s half-vampire baby nearly eats her alive from the inside out, the vampire powers-that-be want to kill this abominable child, Edward’s family convince them not to, and Bella becomes a vampire.  Happily ever (seriously, forever) after!

The flaws are a loaded issue for Meyer’s protagonist.  Bella Swan has often been decried as anti-feminist and downright awful, but bears objective consideration.  Compared to her contemporary characters, Bella is a far more passive character, lacking the physical merit of an Arya Stark or Katniss Everdeen or the cunning of a Hermione Granger.  However, Bella does display strong conviction in her preservation of the relationship with true love Edward.  Her character faults also include a weakness of spirit that I suspect fans would argue me on; but becoming near-catatonic when one’s boyfriend leaves (abandoning all care for family, friends, school, and any unmentioned personal interests) does not bespeak a strong soul.  Bella’s strengths are largely supernatural, as in her ability to block mind-reading, which paints her as a less-than-relatable character or role model.

And then there was the romance.  This is the series that made fantasy romance what it is, make no mistake.  A large portion of the story is given over to Bella’s complicated feelings and decision between her head-over-heels, star-crossed passion for Edward Cullen, and her more organic, friendship-based feelings for Jacob Black.  Whereas the other four series’ romances were categorically subplots, here the romance is the plot.  For this reason, we must judge Bella somewhat differently, viewing as her strengths not physical vigor or resourcefulness or cunning, but devotion and courage of conviction.

When everyone tells her not to get married at 18, not to carry a half-vampire baby to term, or not to turn herself into an undead vampire (even Edward’s not on her side for this one), Bella stands up for what she believes in.  She values and honors her emotions, where modern opinions might diminish them based on her age or their extremeness.  Bella is by no stretch of the imagination the fierce heroine that Katniss or Lyra or Arya are, but is in her own way an exemplar for young female readers of morality and, well, romance.

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These five girls are only a small sampling of women in fantastical, unreal worlds who exemplify those exceptional traits women in our own world strive to achieve: intelligence, courage, strength.  Each is paragon of a different virtue, Hermione for intellect, Katniss for fortitude, Lyra for honor, Arya for cunning, and Bella for conviction.  Before writing this essay, I had, in all honesty, four favorites and one not.  That is another female trait, the propensity to tear down other women.  Twilight may not be a great or even good book in my estimation, but it has connected with millions of readers, and so must have some merit.  Even those characters we don’t quite like can teach us.  While a young girl may read The Hunger Games and think “Katniss is so strong!  I want to be like her,” hopefully she can also read New Moon and think, “Bella is weak, and if that ever happens to me I won’t be that way.”

To conclude, it all goes back to a sentiment first expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien: That the best fantasy fiction doesn’t help us escape from reality, but escape into reality.

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2 comments on “Feminism in Fantasy: A Brief Foray

  1. I;ve only read two series, HP & HG. I do hope to check out the rest sooner or later.

  2. Have you checked out Eowyn from Lord of the Rings? She’s got a killer story (literally) and incredibly bravery. Also, nice hair (it helps…)

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