Wednesday, May 19, 2010

These Are My Women: My SF&F Heroines

Warrior. Princess. Unapologetic. Goddess. Hell Raiser. Powerful. Complicated. Woman.

Before I could put a name to Feminism, or knew that I wanted to be a writer, I was identifying with certain characters. I touched on it earlier, in my post about real life educational influences on my writing - annoyed with the boys having all the fun, I sought out the Georgina Kirins and Nancy Drews in my early readings. It wasn't any great leap then that I searched for strong female role models when I turned to Science Fiction and Fantasy in my teens.

The other day, I read a neat blog post by Tansy Rayner Roberts called "My First Favourite Female Fantasy Heroes". Though I've always had a "mental list" of my favourite literary heroines, and spoken about them at length with friends, Tansy's post has influenced me to put down in words what these Women have meant to me.

Lessa, Dragonriders of Pern
Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders series was a heck of an introduction to Science Fiction, and Lessa was a great introduction to strong female characters. Sure, I've idealized Lessa over the years - I still cite her as "My First Feminist Hero" - and re-reading the stories now is a gentle reminder that the original book was written in 1969; there are still some problematic issues with a patriarchal, male-warrior society, characterization of women as the nurturer stereotype or needy wifty wife (Brekke, come on down). But beyond all this, Dragonriders was Lessa's story, and the repercussions of her leadership have driven the series, even if she is not directly involved in the story.

Getting into the intricacies of Lessa's character, she was an unapologetic and complicated sexual being, harnessed her political power beyond her partner's influence, and had a very different take on motherhood. Early in her life, Lessa had been abused, and this made her very wary of intimacy early in her relationship with F'lar. She eventually learned sensuousness and the power of sex via the mating rituals of the dragons, and the patience of F'lar. They went on to have a healthy sex life into middle age (beyond the time our society would say "ew, parents having sex" or seeing an older woman as a sexual being), and while their relationship was fraught with the daily political life of Pern, they came across as a normal couple dealing with the ups AND downs of a relationship and learning from those experiences.

Regarding her political power, Lessa originally played it coy, making it seem to the patriarchal society that her husband influenced her decisions as co-Weyrleader and rider of a biologically powerful gold female dragon (only golds were allowed to "clutch" eggs for the continuation of the dragon population). However, Lessa's impetuousness, intuition, problem solving and radical thinking paid off when she convinced old-timers to come forward in time and help the depleted ranks of Pern fight the biological threat of Thread. It made her a hero within her generation, but older generations found it hard to reconcile a woman with equal status as a leader.

While Lessa was a mother, her focus and needs were not centered around nurturing her child. She put her child into the "creche" system of the Weyr, freeing her up to continue riding her dragon and focus on her duties as leader. While Lessa displayed tenderness and encouragement towards her offspring, she was a career woman first. You could actually read her dedication towards leadership as nurturing an entire society, a mother to all, for the betterment of the planet as a whole rather than a focus on one child. This, combined with talking about the discomfit of pregnancy and being unable to ride her dragon/perform leadership duties during her pregnancy, showed a woman insinuating that pregnancy and motherhood was "a burden more suited to those inclined that way" - a pretty damn radical concept at the time!

Killashandra Ree, The Crystal Singer
Another McCaffrey creation, another career woman. Here is another female character who went through a multitude of self-discovery, while at the same time being incredibly focused and driven. Having focused her entire education on becoming an opera singer, Killashandra was thwarted by being "slightly less than perfect" and the power plays (which could be read as patriarchy) within her musical enclave.

Killashandra is a character that went on to make massive sacrifices for her choices and her career, but in the end she made the sacrifices as a means to maintain her independence. Her choices and sacrifices showed that life, especially as a woman, is not just Take One Thing or Another - there are nuances to finding a balance, sometimes that balance does not happen, and you have to find happiness within the path your life takes.

While the financial rewards for Crystal Singing - the career Killashandra took up after she abandoned her dreams to be a singer - were great, the physical price was extreme; she suffered from memory loss. While this could be played as the "everything that a heart could desire but love" trope, Killashandra's romantic interests were geared to her wishes. Yes, she had a long term relationship which her memory loss affected severely, but she made the choice to continue her career to the detriment of love. Eventually, it showed that Killashandra was happy in her career, because if she couldn't remember her love, what would she be missing? Killashandra was another passionate sexual being, and had no children.

Killashandra went on to have a variety of adventures, proving to herself that she was mentally strong enough to negotiate a variety of politics and physically able to fend for herself in a warrior-like fashion. She became a legend as a Crystal Singer - as something of a rallying cry for the rights of the workers - as well as contributing to medical advances in the conditions suffered by her ilk.

Sioned, Sunrunner SeriesI love Sioned so much, I can re-read Melanie Rawn's two Dragon Series happily over and over again. She is my top female heroine; so much so that my tattoo - a picture of Sioned's dragon Elisel from the Star Scroll cover art - is an intersection of my love for her, dragons and Michael Whelan's art.

I picture her as a tiny firebrand, green eyes and red hair blazing, with a big voice, and a beauty that's a shade off perfection. I prefer my women Real, and Sioned's power definitely comes from within.

Having lamented the woeful female to male ratio in many fantasy epics over the years, Rawn's world is refreshingly stuffed with many shades of woman: women rendered powerless using men for their own ends (Ianthe); Pol's wifty wife Meiglan who takes a lifetime to find her voice; nurturers and practical sidekicks (Camigwen, Hollis); ambiguous witches with good intent (Andrade); frustrated evil witches or hellions (Mireva, Chiana); cranky but loveable warrior-mother (Tobin); bad-turned-good-but-at-mercy-to-her-genetics leader (Pandsala); and a huge variety of female sub-characters that range from warriors, to nuanced leaders, to queens. It's just a pity there wasn't any room for any lesbian characters.

The original intent of Sioned's relationship with Prince Rohan was an arranged marriage to perpetuate royal and magical bloodlines. However, Sioned and Rohan defied everyone by falling in love, and defined their relationship by their own intentions - ruling a continent in a just and fair way, as equals. Despite having to play political games, they promoted peace, education, equal rights, broke down barriers surrounding inheritance, and encouraged relationships with formally outcast enemies.

Like Lessa, Sioned was young and originally coy in her intentions when it came to leadership and sex. While not inexperienced in sex - part of a Sunrunners education was a practicality surrounding sexual relations and contraceptive - she was originally shy of Rohan. Once their love and intentions blossomed, they were another couple who enjoyed mutual passion, and had a great sex life as they got older.

However, their sex life was tainted. Sioned was preyed on by Roelstra (former High Prince), and then raped by Ianthe's (Roesltra's evil daughter) minions. Sioned was not the only one to suffer - Rohan too was raped by Ianthe in an attempt to fall pregnant, so she could hold the biological power over the continent when she discovered that Sioned could not carry a child to term.

Therefore, Sioned and Rohan had a lot of psychological issues to work through, and those issues carried through in their sex- and political lives until the very end of their days. These were damaged people. They still found the strength to forgive, nurture, and help each other heal. They had a lot of patience (for each other, they did not suffer fools gladly) and recognized each other's need for space. It was a good representation of marriage, showing all the ugly bits, and how they worked through those ugly bits to be stronger together.

Sioned was also a character that broke the traditional mould of motherhood. She was not the biological mother of her child. The exposition when she rationalizes stealing Pol from Ianthe and nurturing him as "her own" is really stark, and a great discussion point about adoption and acceptance of step-children. She was a fierce proponent of her child - a mother dragon - but even their relationship is not without its grit. Sioned and Rohan spend decades concealing the truth of Pol's origins, and when he finally finds out, their relationship is damaged to the point where he finds it difficult to trust their political judgment and refuses their advice about who he should marry and how to raise his children. The familial relationship is still intact, but it is very much a study in conflicting personalities, as any real life family is.

As for her leadership prowess, Sioned's strength was again rooted in practicality, rationality, empathy and education; Rohan constantly admired that she was his perfect foil to his bookish ways. She leant her expertise - magic, knowledge of land/borders and human foibles - to war planning; she was a good study of people, which made her somewhat of an historian and go-to person at court; she was quirkily honest about using her charm, often openly telling elderly male leaders she had come to flirt some concession out of them, or digging deep to find the desire of a female leader; her relationships with her sister-in-law, female superiors and female friends all pass the Bechdel Test; and she was honest about her major character flaw - her anger.

It was exceedingly refreshing to have a woman own her anger and use it in positive ways, as well as see how cruel it was to her in moments of vulnerability. Example one: her cold, silent march into Castle Crag to "bring home" Pol, murder Ianthe, and put right the harm done to her family - a perfect example of moral relativism. Example two: she was unable to publicly mourn her husbands death, therefore she came across as cold and heartless to those who didn't understand her pain. Hell, Rohan's death and her reaction still has the power to make me bawl, even twenty years later.

Sioned is my homey. Gingers Unite.

Worthy Mentions:
Mara, The Empire Series, Janny Wurts/Raymond E. Feist - I would have written an extensive ode to Mara as well, but Tansy, who inspired this article, agrees with me on this woman. She pretty much says it all in her article. No need to repeat it. Mara brings the awesome.

Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, The Academy Series, Jack McDevitt - It was a long time between drinks before I found another SF&F heroine I could fully identify with. One written by a man no less, which goes to show you can write the Other, and get it right! Hutch had a lot going on: she was quite the MacGyver in tough situations; she had relationships, but was either unlucky in love (they, err, died), or the timing of her career wasn't right (she chose her job over a man many times); she expressed a desire for children, but did not feel at the mercy of her biological clock (or her mother); she loved her job, but only until career politics interfered; she had friendships and work related relationships with men that did not involve sexual attraction; and she faught alienz wit herr layzurz. Rawr.

Yeine, "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms", NK Jemisin - Oh, I KNOW I've been banging on about this book, but I am loving it SO HARD right now...and I haven't even finished it yet! Yeine is a fabulous character - an intersection of feminism, race and politics.

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