One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was about the role of women in the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF) series. When I started reading the Dragon Riders of Pern series, the last thing I thought was that I’d be writing a similar post. But even after the first book, I realised the portrayal of women in these books was going to be problematic for me, and it only seemed fair to address it in the same way. It seems important to consider that unfair representation of women can take place in non-violent or non-threatening ways. It’s also worth noting that, if you won’t know the Pern books are written in around the 60s / 70s by a woman, Anne McCaffrey.
The main character in the first book, and a major player in the following two, is Lessa who becomes the Weyr woman – the woman who is linked to the queen dragon and therefore a very important figure. Great start! She is a very strong woman, but is characterised with all the stereotypical female wiles – she’s passionate, seen as vindictive and ruled by her emotions. Something which needs to be controlled by a man – step to the plate F’lar. Lessa has some key moments where she takes her destiny into her own hands and you want to applaud her – but as if to keep this in check she is then seen to realise the error of her ways and remembers that it is best to leave matters to the men.
Lessa is pretty much the only female character of note in the first book, but in the second book two other female characters come into play – Brekke and Kylara and so does one of my other major issues with the books. They subscribe to the age-old Madonna and Whore characters personified to perfection in these two women. Brekke is good, a healer and a virtuous woman. Kylara is the epitome of the loose woman – in fact when she does something bad she is referred to as ‘that woman’ and literally never heard from or referred to again. The characters are not allowed to be layered, the morals not allowed to be questioned. The frustration I feel when I think about all three of these main characters is so deep – it just seems to sum up the tropes thrown at female characters so often. Their role is written out before we even read the pages.
One of the other major problems I have with the role of women in these books is sex and how it is used within the story. There are a handful of incidents where women are forced to have sex – I would call it raped but the book manages to package it up to seem erotic or that the women really liked it. In the third book there is a female character who’s actual only purpose is the pleasure of the main character Jaxom. I would put money on this book not passing the Bechdal test. To me it just seems such a lost opportunity, such an easy road to take to dis-empower these women, to make them chattels. It is done in a more subtle way than ASOIF, dressed up as part of the world, but it is still problematic at its core.
One of the issues I raised when discussing ASOIF was that it is a fantasy world where the author can decide what they want that world to be. With McCaffrey this almost feels worse because, as a woman would she not wanted to have imagined a world where women were the equals of men? Making the decisions, pulling the punches and not just being on hand to provide some recreational sex and all the meals? I think my disapointment was even more accute because I had read in the authors biography that her first novel Restoree was intended as a “jab” at how women were usually portrayed in science fiction so I was expecting these books to continue that theme and portray women in a positive way.
Is this to do with the times these books were written? Being fair, female characters such as Lessa were probably few and far between at this point – strong, powerful and central to the story. Am I being too harsh here? I do wonder if the age I live in casts a more woeful look on the portrayal of women than the author deserves.
Both ASOIF and the Pern books have showed me, however that it is possible to enjoy something that does have problematic aspects. In both books there are story elements and characters that make me want to keep reading and to find out more. I was pretty harsh on ASOIF for its portrayal of women (even thought I love the books) but I would probably say I prefer it because the female characters are truly strong in their own rights. But I think, if I was able to go back in time and experience the Pern books in the 70s I would probably think the same thing. My 2015 assessment is probably unfair, I imagine these could have been nothing short of revolutionary at the time and it does feel important to remember this.
Women in fantasy continues to be an ongoing topic. Recently I’ve been hearing about books like Red Queen and Queen of the Tearling which have strong women at the heart. I’d be interested to know if anyone has read these and how the role of women continues to change in the genre.