Bothered by patriarchal fantasy worlds

I had high hopes for this book. It had garnered praise from authors I love, like Lauren Oliver, and even before its release was already being developed into a film by the likes of David Heyman and Emma Watson, whose work I loved on the Harry Potter films (my all-time favourite book series). And yet, since around the halfway point I’m struggling to keep reading. I like the protagonist, Kelsea; she’s an idealist who’s been thrust onto the throne of a morally corrupt society, and her desire to protect her people can cause her to come into conflict with her advisors. I also like the antagonist, the Queen of Mortmesne. For one thing, she’s a female antagonist who, thus far at least, has avoided playing into the Femme Fatale and Manipulative Bitch stereotypes that seem to define 90% of female antagonists. She doesn’t manipulate people so much as rule them through abject fear, and has a sizeable military at her command (she is a queen, after all). She’s also not entirely human; it’s not yet clear who or what she is, but she’s reigned for over a century and still looks young, and rarely gets ill, except for the occasional headache. I want to learn more about her background, who and what she was before this mysterious “transformation” that has been alluded to.

So why am I struggling to finish the book? I think it really all boils down to one thing: the world’s history. It’s set sometime in the future, 300 years after humans have left the earth due to some as-yet-unrevealed apocalypse. Those who settled in the Tear, the Americans and British (what about Canadians? :P), didn’t bring any technology – which suggests some kind of global warming-type disaster – and so have ended up with a society with mediaeval levels of technology (Sidenote: the one type of technology they were allowed to bring was medical, but the ship carrying American medical equipment and doctors sank. There’s no mention of what happened to all of Britain’s medical knowledge). The Europeans who founded New Europe, later to become Mortmesne, did bring some technology, putting them from the start at an advantage over the Tear, but one that (presumably) they didn’t exploit until later.

The Tear, however, is pretty much like any crapsack mediaeval fantasy world. The nobles take money from their serfs, rape is mentioned every couple of chapters, homosexuality is condemned, and the Church, whose members are exclusively male, has special rights. The misogyny bothers me on two levels. For one thing, I’m tired of fantasy worlds buying into the same notions of patriarchy we have in the real world. I understand why this happens. The standard mediaeval fantasy setting has it, and it’s one of the conventions of the genre, like vampires drink blood and werewolves turn at the full moon. However, these conventions can change; in The Dresden Files only some vampires drink blood, while others live off of human emotion, and likewise only one brand of werewolves turns at the full moon, with others turning at will. Moreover, vampire and werewolf conventions do not passively perpetuate problems within our own world.

This leads me onto the other reason why, I think, so many fantasy worlds are patriarchal. Quite simply, most people don’t think about gender enough to do otherwise. It’s one of the conventions of the genre, so authors do it without even realising they’re writing to a trope. It’s the same as how, in stories set in the real world, mothers are more likely than fathers to stay at home and men more likely than women to join the military. As our cultural norms feed into the stories we produce, so too do the cultural norms of the stories we consume feed into our views. To an extent you could even argue this is acceptable in stories set in the real world, because it is an accurate reflection of society, with the author bringing in real-life unconscious biases. For this reason, however, the more exaggerated patriarchy seen in mediaeval fantasy bothers me even more, because SF/F gives us the opportunity to envision societies that aren’t shaped by our views of gender. And it’s hard – trust me, I know it’s hard; all of my fantasy societies are very deliberately gender-equal, so every characterisation, every interaction, has to be considered within that context because otherwise my own personal biases will creep in. So I understand why authors who don’t care about this kind of thing like I do don’t necessarily bother with it, but it still irritates me because, even though the authors don’t intend it this way, they’re perpetuating society’s gender norms by not attempting to write a gender-equal society.

The Queen of the Tearling, however, bothers me more than most because of its world’s history. The author has established that these people are descended from modern Americans and Brits, but there’s absolutely no explanation for how we’ve backslid so much culturally. It makes the world’s history feel rather gimmicky, because there’s this really interesting premise – a world descended from our own but with far less sophisticated technology – that could have explored how current social norms might have evolved within that setting, and instead it seems like any other standard mediaeval fantasy world.

I have every intention of finishing this book, because I’m interested in the core story, and perhaps by the time I get to the end (I’m about two-thirds of the way through) there will be a satisfactory explanation for how the Tear went from modern American/British culture to a mediaeval-type setting, but for now I feel let down. The world’s history opened up so many opportunities for a different type of mediaeval fantasy, but seems to be playing into all the standard tropes.

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2 thoughts on “Bothered by patriarchal fantasy worlds

  1. An ongoing disruption of the electromagnetic conditions which currently (ouch. 😛 ) allow us to utilise electricity. Add in being unable to access coal or oil any more and bingo: the “middle ages” are back. But as for patriarchy? Harder to explain. Historically there seems certainly evidence of some society which were matriarchal or where there was a degree of gender equality, with division of power, control and responsibility.

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    1. Exactly, Ben! I mean, I can see the argument for a more patriarchal society developing due to poor technology and medical care, but like you said there have been some technologically primitive societies that were either matriarchal or relatively gender equal, so it’s by no means a default.

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