A little while ago, I finished reading Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo. It’s a delightful book, with the rhythm of a told story, and drawing from a different vein of tradition than our modern doorstopper fantasies. It has the mood of a fairytale. And its heroine, Paama, is unusual among fantasies of all stripes. She is an adult, once-married, famous as a cook, and quietly unflappable.
Not that long ago, either, I wrote about Mass Effect and the normalisation of the Woman Hero. Commander Shepard’s an action hero, and action hero-ing seems to be the most popular style of career for SFF’s protagonists. There are other kinds of heroes, and other ways of being heroic, but they emerge more rarely. As Lois McMaster Bujold said in her GOH speech at Denvention in 2008, “[I]f romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.”¹ The fantasy of political agency lends itself well to men and women of action: less well to heroines or heroes of a quieter bent.
Young Adult fantasies aside, it’s striking that most of the examples I can bring to mind are women: Karen Lord’s Paama, Doctor Who’s Donna, Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu, Terry Pratchett’s famous pair of witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Where their involvement in world-changing events is concerned, their role is as catalyst as much as actor: they bring the quotidian into contact with the numinous. Sometimes, they make the numinous quotidian.
And there are a handful of women who, while directly — even intimately — involved in the development of politics, are never personally involved in the kinds of violence in which the action-hero thrives. Ista from Bujold’s Paladin of Souls is perhaps the best example of this. Forty years old, the mother of a ruler, once mad and still thought to be so, Paladin of Souls is her bildungsroman, her growth into her own power. Yet it is very much a forty-year-old woman’s story, one who has come to self-knowledge through endurance and who has had to live circumscribed. Her triumph is, itself, ultimately a triumph of endurance and self-knowledge: she outmatches her adversary not in strength or power, but in will and trust. It isn’t a story one can easily see told with a man in her role: the kinds of endurance which Ista calls upon are kinds of endurance which are mostly associated with women’s lives.
One may also mention in this connection Jacqueline Carey’s Phèdre, from her first Terre d’Ange trilogy. Although intimately connected to politics on several levels as courtesan, exile, and later, noblewoman, her role as a mover of events requires persuasion and endurance much more than violence. She is more a catalyst for violence than its instigator: the violence she initiates personally takes place after all options for persuasion have been exhausted.
If there is a commonality in stories of this kind, it is that women protagonists who are not action heroes can be expected to draw on patience and persuasion: their power lies in their ability to endure and to convince. The emphasis is less on over-mastering their adversaries (or adversity in general) than on outlasting them. And, if possible, outmanoeuvring them.
I can think of two examples from visual media to support this idea. Delenn, the Minbari ambassador on Babylon 5, is a builder of consensuses by preference. The early seasons of the show demonstrate both her patience and her persuasive abilities. While the events of Season Three place her in a position where her abilities as a leader are redirected to meet more martial goals, I think it is also a challenge to her endurance² — which she overcomes. The violence in which she is involved is rarely a personal or individual struggle: she directs and oversees as much as she engages personally.
The other example is President Roslin from Battlestar Galactica. While every character’s endurance is challenged by the nature of the threat which they face, Roslin’s will is further tested by her diagnosis of fatal illness. She does not have the power to compel by force (except inasmuch as those who follow her are willing to use force on her behalf), but must lead by persuasion, and endure the consequences when persuasion fails.
Gentle Reader, what do you think of this sort of story? Or perhaps I should say, this sort of character? Are endurance and persuasion traits that crop up in situations more intimately connected to women? If so, why?
I have some theories. But I’d rather hear what other people have to say before I go theorising all to hell and gone.
¹Jo Walton argues contra that rather than being the fantasy of political agency, SFF is the fantasy of changing the world. “Rather than your characters needing to have political agency to engage the reader, the world is a character and as such needs to change and your story will be engaged with that change - whatever is happening to the other characters.” It’s a good point, but the fantasies of political agency remain among the more popular of the genre’s offerings.
²Confirmation bias on my part, perhaps.
Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax minifigs by Captain Mog
Find Liz Bourke @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.