The fiction we read as children, pre-adolescents, adolescents, and possibly even as adults has a lot to do with who we become. I can directly map the books I read (and a little bit of TV and movies) into the person I am, and as a geek feminist and a member of a profession that encourages kids to read, I want to talk about that. I realize today’s fiction is better than my formative fiction, but I’m not sure it’s good enough.
I suspect none of my readers—long-time, short-time, or for the first time following a link from a Twitter account named “parody_bit”—will have trouble believing I’ve been a geek all my life. Maybe not always a proud/deliberate geek, or even always “out” as a geek. But a geek, just the same. In my pre-teens and teens I read an awful lot of fantasy and a healthy dose of science fiction. Here’s a sample of the ones I remember best: Tolkein, Herbert, McCaffrey (to whom I once wrote a fan letter, and she responded!), Jordan, Card, and L’Engle. My first online handle (when I was 13) was the name of a [male] character from a Lackey novel. And while I didn’t read
comicsgraphic novels until graduate school, I watched the X-Men and Batman cartoons, well into my teens. I loved adventure stories—the more peril, the better! The escapism of what I’ll call “geek fiction” appealed to me—often the protagonist is just a normal guy, sometimes even a guy with a tough life, who wakes up one day and has A Quest or Powers or something that makes him special. Like all adolescents—all people—I wanted to be special. But unlike (I assume) most female adolescents, I desperately wanted to be male.
Like [it seems] many geek guys, I internalized an important lesson from the fiction I read: to be special, interesting, funny, and/or worth adventures of your own, you have to be a guy. Women aren’t story-drivers, unless they’re willing to pretty much become dudes (Eowyn from LOTR, Petra from Ender’s Game) or merciless nags (Nynaeve from Wheel of Time and to an extent Meg from A Wrinkle in Time — I didn’t get to the parts of Rowling‘s work where Hermione goes from nagging know-it-all to awesome lady until I had reached adulthood). Even then, their role is often secondary or tertiary, so what’s the point? Sometimes women are weird and scary (Dune, the elves in Tolkien), but more often they’re just boring (Egwene from WoT; every mother in geek fiction ever, except sometimes Molly Weasley), or dead before the story starts (how else to push the guy forward, amiright?). The heroes are male, the funny lovable characters are male, and the characters who get to be in charge are male. And let’s not even get into Card—I was not yet a critical enough reader to see the biases and lies in his writing for what they were (“too many years of evolution working against [females, for them to be good Battle School candidates]”).
There are a few counter-examples: Menolly from the Pern books is special enough to get her own sub-series, but she is special because she bucks her society’s rules, by being a female bard—another lesson: to be interesting, as a woman, you have to do things that make lots of people really mad at you. (Well, OK, maybe I learned something true.) Similarly, Sallah and Sorka in McCaffrey’s Dragonsdawn stuck with me as great characters (and, oh wow, I’ve only just realized why I used to re-read that book every year… hell…). I already mentioned Hermione, but despite how great she ends up, I hated her for a large part of the series. The female X-Men are pretty equal in power and stature, if not always screen time, with the guys, but my favorite thing in the whole series is the relationship between Xavier and Magneto, so… yeah. And I know: there are other counter-examples. Probably lots.
But it isn’t the counter-examples that stick in one’s head. (That article is AMAZING. If you’re into fantasy, including Game of Thrones, open it in another tab, and read it when you get the chance, please!) The exceptions weren’t the overarching narrative, and they were not what I internalized; they were “good, for female characters,” not “good characters [that made me feel good about being female].”
This might be part of why I fell in love with tabletop games. In graduate school. (Chris G. and Leigh T.: I will never fully forgive you for not inviting me to play D&D with you. I had no idea what I was missing.) In Shadowrun, your character’s stats aren’t related to their gender. A badass female street samurai is just as badass as a badass male street samurai. In Dungeons & Dragons (after 2nd edition), assuming you ignore the art in the books (where you find lizard people with breasts and many women making impractical armor choices), you’re playing in a society that’s gender-equal. Moreover, all the player characters are equally important. Gender’s a non-issue, unless the storyteller or players make it an issue.
At some point I reluctantly came to terms with the kind of person I would be allowed to be, as a woman. I can’t say quite when it happened. It took a lot longer for me to realize that narrative was flawed, and I had more options—and in some ways, while I’m there intellectually, I’m not yet there on a gut level. Because society’s not there on a gut level.
Happily, things are a little better for geek girls, now, as long as they avoid Twilight (a read-alike with the same kind of overblown teen romance, supernatural elements, and a better ingenue: The Archers of Avalon series, by Chelsea Fine). Obviously, there’s The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (though I was annoyed by how Katniss ended up) and the Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson (which hasn’t ended). A little older, though I didn’t get there until adulthood: the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. (Actually, I forget the end. Does the female character stay awesome?) For young adults who read above the YA level, there’s the Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn and the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series by Philippa Ballantine. The Y: the Last Man graphic novels are about a guy, but most of the characters are female, and many of them are badass. There are Buffy graphic novels, of course, with all of their spin-offs. Superhero comics are still pretty bad, but there are beams of light and hope. And on TV there’s Warehouse 13. I also just watched “The Heat,” which had good, funny women leads (one of whom was even overweight! and it was OK!). So there’s stuff out there, now, for adventure-loving girls.
I’m not a YA librarian, so I’m sure I’m leaving out some amazing examples. But I like that there are female characters with real personalities who get to have adventures, now. I hope today’s geek girls are finding these books—and, sure, some of the stuff I read, too, in moderation—and do not grow up buying into the narratives that I did.