Role Models in Fiction

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 “web_kunoichi”—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.

heroBut 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.

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About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Python dev, librarian, engineer, feminist, maker, bird nerd
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11 Responses to Role Models in Fiction

  1. Yes you left some out, and I could probably name a half a dozen more. There are still more great ones about guys. In children’s lit class we learned that boys will read books only about boys while girls will read books about boys and girls. I think that is still the pervailing opinion even as The Hunger Games proves it wrong.

  2. Spekkio says:

    I find it incredibly sad that you felt like you had to be a dude to be interesting or worthwhile. And what’s sadder is that things aren’t much improved.

    I was nebbing at a big box store the other day, and the school supplies were out. There were two “Avengers” spiral-bound notebooks available, and the Black Widow was missing from BOTH. Apparently the same is true of kiddie T-shirts, too.

    Things are a little better, sure – but it’s not good enough. Take Arcee from the Transformers franchise. Her original incarnation in 1986 was PINK. She was the resident worrier (“We can’t activate the city defenses yet! Kup and Hot Rod are still out there!” – paraphrasing) and nurturer (“You can do it, Daniel!). And she never got a toy. Her Bay incarnation had almost zero dialogue and (presumably) died, and her toy SUCKED. In “Transformers: Animated” (2007) she was a school teacher-cum-spy (OK, a little better) with severe memory loss (sigh) and her nifty toy was only available at Toys ‘R’ Us (translation: we don’t expect this to sell well enough at general retailers). Finally we come to today’s materials – IDW comics (a crazy badass – but she has a plausible story for how she got that way) and the series “Transformers: Prime” (a badass scrapper with partner issues). The latter has a toy that’s pretty awesome, but for some odd reason she appears to be smiling…which smells like gender-biased design to me. But at least she’s blue instead of the more stereotypical hot pink.

    All that said, I worry that we are trying to have it both ways…we (geeks, generally speaking) insist that media doesn’t make people more violent, but simultaneously it does reinforce gender stereotypes. Hrm.

    • Thanks for your comment and the info about Transformers!

      Avengers makes me mad, yeah. Black Widow might be the only Avenger never to get her own movie—even Ant Man is apparently getting one, and he wasn’t even IN the movies! And when she’s the only woman (one of two, in the cartoon) AND kind of a bad guy (OK, now maybe I’m getting the movie and the cartoon series confused), it’s doubly frustrating.

      I’m glad to know “Transformers: Prime” is closer to getting it right. I think I’ve seen that character, when Dale was watching the series. (He was sick. I was busy doing stuff.) In the past, I have found the whole Transformers franchise particularly upsetting, because there is no logical reason they should all have masculine voice boxes. They should be 50/50, all with the same basic build.

      There are a lot of things geek culture tries to get right and fails at. (I hate link posts, but I kind of want to make one about meritocracy and inclusiveness, two things geeks think they do well that we definitely do not. Then again, a lot of my notes on this come from books, so…. hmm.)

  3. ERose says:

    I managed not to get the idea that only boys get to do cool things, in part because my parents were so good at encouraging me to do cool things in real life.

    I did, however, internalize a few related nasty narratives.

    In a lot of YA books one of the signs a heroine is worthy is in her getting a handsome man along with her victory over darkness. It’s not exactly in vogue for a heroine to have any idea of her own worth, in fact it’s kind of a selling point that she doesn’t, so she needs a man to be wise enough to see it for her. Also, there’s almost a sense that a book with a strong heroine *needs* a romance to show that even though she’s not quite acting the way girls are “supposed to,” it’s ok because she can still attract a man.

    It was many years before I accepted that it was ok to know and champion my own value. It was many years before I stopped looking around every time I found myself on an adventure to find the man who would be my signal I was doing things right.

    The message was different from this, but the point is the same – society does not do well at teaching girls they can choose the kind of woman they become. Even literature too often gives rules, not possibilities, and awfully limited rules at that.

  4. Nicole says:

    I had a lot of similar experiences, and particularly, a lot of difficulty connecting to other people about these things that I loved, because obviously I couldn’t love them if I was a girl, right? (No, really, ask me how many times people have tried to test my knowledge. It’s aggravating). I avoided lots of sci-fi and more ‘conventional’ fantasy for a long time, because why bother reading it if I was just going to be put through some horrific test I couldn’t ever pass if I ever expressed an opinion about them?

    That said, my favorite novels growing up were Tamora Pierce’s, particularly her Tortall-world series. All the protagonists are women, and they’re all pretty kick-ass. These aren’t the fanciest or best fantasy novels ever, but they’re good solid reading. And they provided some awesome female role models for me- female role models who fought against patriarchal institutions (and had magic!) as well as your more conventional bad guys.

    • The whole “fake geek girl” narrative is flawed–it sucks that women are quizzed to make sure we’re “geeky enough,” or whatever. Have you seen this video? LOVE IT!

      I left out Tamora Pierce, but I have read at least one of her books, and I do remember liking it. Good call!

  5. Pingback: Role Models in Fiction | standing alone in complexity

  6. Ed Williams says:

    Just wanted to drop by and say that this is a great article, and thank you for using our image and linking it back to the page! I will return the favor!

  7. Kris (@raptoradapter) says:

    If you haven’t already, please check out Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. I suspect you may be smitten with the character of Kate Bishop and want to add her to your list of female role models who can hold their own and whose self-worth is not reliant upon the influence of the men in her life. Although she is not the titular character in the book, she does get a chance to shine in her own solo miniseries (Hawkeye Annual). And wouldn’t you know it? Fraction proves that she can get on just fine in her own issue.

    Thanks for this fantastic read. It’s helping me to re-evaluate my own fictional role models where my interest in them may have been superficial in degree before. Gender-wise, they are split fairly equally down the middle, however, like you, I identified with male protagonists early on. “Was that just pop culture conditioning?” is a good question to ask myself.

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