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This is my best reconstruction of the talk I gave at ALA on Sunday. I’m sure I’m forgetting bits, but this should give you the gist of things…

I was originally thinking about just doing a Q&A for this. I like the informal approach, and normally I’d probably be sitting on the edge of the stage chatting with you all. But as I was driving down to Chicago, I started thinking about various incidents that have come up recently, and I decided that if ALA was going to be kind enough to give me a platform and a microphone, maybe there was a better way for me to take advantage of that.

The past few months have been pretty intense in parts of the science fiction and fantasy community. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has been in the spotlight for a chain-mail bikini cover and a follow-up essay that dismissed complaints as the ravings of liberal fascist PC thought police. We have the former SFWA presidential candidate who accused a well-known black author of being an “ignorant half-savage.” Then last week, a well-known editor at one of the major SF/F publishing houses was outed for his history of sexual harassment.

The thing is, the blatant stuff is easy. It’s easy to focus on these instances of sexism and racism because they’re so obvious, and because they create a simple separation between us and them, between the heroes and the villains. But when we draw those lines, we tend to miss the larger picture.

These are systemic problems, not just individuals. They’re problems that show up in cover art, in award ballots, in which books get reviewed, in who shows up as the heroes in stories vs. the sidekicks, in token characters, and much more. In many cases, if not most, it’s an unconscious, unintentional problem.

So how do we respond to such a problem? Well, some of us choose to write long-winded rants online, or to contort ourselves into ridiculous cover poses. We can also speak up when we see these things happening, rather than turning away or accepting it because “it’s always been that way.” If you see someone who looks like they might be being harassed, say something. Offer them a casual escape from the conversation.

As a writer, I think one of our most powerful tools is our stories.

Take the story of the kick-butt heroine, a trope that’s become incredibly popular over the past decade or two. Now, I appreciate this trope — I’m a huge Buffy fan — and I’ve written this kind of character myself on multiple occasions. But there are ways in which it’s problematic. Sure, it’s incredibly satisfying to see the heroine physically whoop the harasser/abuser/etc. But when that’s the dominant story we’re sharing, aren’t we basically suggesting that it’s the women’s job to physically overpower and defeat their aggressors? As opposed to men learning to move beyond such behaviors, or to challenge such things when we see them?

The kick-but heroine is certainly one solution, but it’s one that puts responsibility on the victims, and by implication, puts the blame on those victims if for any reason they were unable to physically stop what’s essentially an ongoing culture of systemic sexism.

There are other stories and other characters we need to share. Stories that show men and women as equals. That show relationships built on respect. Stories that give us more than one token example per book of a strong female character. Stories that move away from narrowly defined roles.

And now is when I take a minute to talk about my own stuff. Lena Greenwood is my latest attempt to engage with the kick-butt heroine trope. She’s … well, without spoiling things, she’s also very problematic. In many ways, that was deliberate. But she’s not the only strong female in these books. You have Nidhi Shah, a psychiatrist with no magical abilities whatsoever. There’s Nicola Pallas, an autistic bard. Jeneta Aboderin is full of teenaged attitude, refusing to take crap from anyone. Not to mention the sarcastic bug-eating ex-librarian Deb DeGeorge. My hope is that each of these women has their own strengths and weaknesses, that they present different ways to be powerful.

I’m not saying kick-butt heroines are bad. Any time I talk about something like this, someone responds, “Why are you trying to censor us?” Just like with cover art — I’m not saying we should never have sexualized or semi-clad women (or men) on book covers. What I’m saying is that it would be awfully nice if we could broaden our portrayals.

I’ll wrap this up with a few recommendations of authors who, in my opinion, do this stuff well. Karen Lord is a fairly new author, but her first book blew me away, in part for Lord’s choice to step away from the well-trod tropes. Elizabeth Bear is another. Saladin Ahmed, who just won the Locus Award for his debut novel, presented us with an Arabic-based fantasy and an old, heavyset, somewhat grouchy man as the protagonist. Tobias Buckell. Nnedi Okorafor. Seanan McGuire. These are just a few of the authors working to move beyond the tropes.

And that’s my time. Thank you all for giving me the chance to talk about this with you.


Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 3rd, 2013 06:29 pm (UTC)
May I respectfully draw your attention to my recently completed Hadrumal Crisis trilogy (starting with Dangerous Waters) which has extremely powerful female wizards including one as a main point of view character *and* another who is a thoroughly not-powerful, always lived contentedly in the patriarchy she has been raised with, noblewoman who finds herself in a world of trouble when she's widowed with only daughters to inherit her husband's fiefdom.

Reactions by readers to this emphatically non-kick-butt heroine (and she is one) have been interesting to say the least!

Oh and the third main pov character is a thoroughly traditional male epic fantasy swordsman - whose life gets increasingly complicated as the limitations of that approach to problem-solving become apparent.
Jul. 3rd, 2013 06:31 pm (UTC)
Of course! I hope I didn't come off as implying that mine was an all-inclusive list, or that there weren't other authors out there writing amazing women.
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:38 pm (UTC)
oh, no, Jim, that's not how I read your list at all - but naturally, being British, one feels a certain reticence about ahem, holding one's own work up on display, possibly not quite the done thing and all that. :-)
Jul. 3rd, 2013 08:16 pm (UTC)
Glad you put the title name, not just the series name. Moving Dangerous Waters to my To Read list.

Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you kindly :-)
Jul. 4th, 2013 03:44 am (UTC)
You know, I have been meaning to read your books for ages but have had no idea where to start. This sounds awesome, so thank you! (Your description of the noblewoman heroine in particular reminds me of a character from Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover, Lady Rohana, who was also a non-kick-butt character who changed things drastically in her own way.)

If I may point something out, when I went to your website to find out if the trilogy is complete, on the Books page for Dangerous Waters, there are only links to the first and second book, with the only mention of the third being comments mentioning that it was forthcoming. It was only Googling to find out when the third was out that I realized it was actually already available.
Jul. 4th, 2013 09:03 am (UTC)
ooh, thanks indeed for that reminder - doing that has totally slipped below my To Do Event Horizon. Defiant Peaks came out when I was up to my ears with award judging and con-chairing so there was always something more urgent at the time...

And yes, I have a considerable regard for Lady Rohana :-)
Jul. 3rd, 2013 07:15 pm (UTC)
You touched diagonally on an interesting topic (that I know you didn't have time to explore here) that is yet another layer of complication in the prejudice and expectation of a person's "job to physically overpower" aggressors. I only recently became educated about ableism and the problems inherent in that mindset. So not only can the victim being blamed for being a target of sexual assault, the victim can also be blamed for being less than physically gifted.
Jul. 3rd, 2013 08:04 pm (UTC)
How was the talk received? Was there an opportunity for discussion?
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:33 pm (UTC)
I think it went over well, and we had about ten minutes or so for Q&A. Though I was having a really hard time hearing people that afternoon :-/
Jul. 3rd, 2013 08:27 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you talked about women who aren't basically men with boobs. So many warrior-type heroines on TV could be played by a man, it makes it hard to take it seriously in a novel, unless, like Tamora Peirce, it is clear that here is a woman who put some work into being strong.

Also, so many fairy tales make the heroine win by her wits, and so few modern tales do the same, it's sad. Does equal mean everyone values brawn over brains?

A heroine wins on her wits in variations on East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Ice by Sara Beth Durst, and Sun & Moon, Ice & Snow by Jessica Day George
Jul. 8th, 2013 04:20 pm (UTC)
Honest question-- What do people MEAN when they describe female characters as "men with boobs?" Because a lot of the characters that are so described remind me a lot of me, and I identify as female. Is it how society treats them, rather than innate character traits? I'm confused.
Jul. 9th, 2013 12:18 am (UTC)
Given that I don't run the universe (... yet...) I can only answer for myself.

If a woman is a well rounded character with likes and dislikes, friends and enemies, fine.

If a woman seems to be testosterone based, solve every problem with fists, 'why use a two-pound sword when you've got a perfectly good three-pound sword' (or higher caliber gun), no friends but the side-kick, no goal in life but 'kill the bad-guy' etc, that might indeed be a man-with-boobs situation.

Surely there's a middle ground between the chickest of chick-flicks and manly women.

Do you remember Sara Connor in the Terminator series - she started off as a cardboard housewife mama-bear protecting her child, and went on to become a toned, ripped t-shirt wearing mama-bear protecting her child. Under no circumstances did she ever have friends, book-club, a night in the bar, etc.
Jul. 10th, 2013 01:46 am (UTC)
Thank you. I guess I'm a little sensitive, because a LOT of that still does apply to me. Not so much the "not enough gun" bits, but I don't have many friends, I don't go to book clubs, I don't go to bars... :) I'm more of a hermit than a man, though. I agree that it's a crappy way of handling female characters, although it probably wouldn't be if, y'know, there were ANY OTHER KINDS out there.
Jul. 10th, 2013 05:09 pm (UTC)
me: no friends but the side-kick, no goal in life but 'kill the bad-guy' etc, that might indeed be a man-with-boobs situation ... become a toned, ripped t-shirt wearing mama-bear protecting her child. Under no circumstances did she ever have friends, book-club, a night in the bar

marsdejahthoris: a LOT of that still does apply to me

Surely there is someone in your life who's main goal is not to aid your heroics and supply straight-lines for your jokes? I'm not a toned mama bear, and I don't go to book-clubs or bars, but there is more to my life than /r/e/v/e/n/g/e/ one thing, and there is room for people in my life who don't help me hyper-focus.

Not so with action heroes, male or female.

Middle ground and well-rounded characters are not made-for-movies, I guess.
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:05 pm (UTC)
Did you do that just off the cuff, or did you prepare some notes ahead of time?

(Either way, it was well done.)
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:10 pm (UTC)
A bit of both, and thank you.
Jul. 3rd, 2013 11:42 pm (UTC)
Fabulous discussion, Jim, it sounds like. I'm very glad you did that topic. My own favorite kick-butt heroine in literature to this day remains Eowyn from Lord of the Rings - she was awesome in the book, and subtly so, and man was she awesome in the movie! But the key word is "subtly." People do not have to have the main character automatically be a rough-and-tumble, large-chested, sword-twirling femme fatale all the time, in the constant hope of this balancing out the decades of strong male protagonists. I don't think that's balancing it out at all, just making the issue a little worse in my opinion. Because, you're right; it pigeon-holes women in SF and fantasy.

Lol, as an aside, I should say this discussion reminded me that I myself have a terrible time writing strong female protagonists at all (I think my most successful so far has been a quiet lesbian bard from Kritter who went on quest for a woman she loved in a courtly love sort of way, and that was years ago)! It's an even more important skill for me to hone in the game-design world, though, which is, like SF and fantasy, rampant with ONE kind of female protagonist in much of its own writing.
Jul. 4th, 2013 04:31 am (UTC)
"(I think my most successful so far has been a quiet lesbian bard from Kritter who went on quest for a woman she loved in a courtly love sort of way, and that was years ago)"

I must ask if this is available for purchase anywhere, because it sounds awesome. :)
Jul. 4th, 2013 02:00 pm (UTC)
I second elialshadowpine's question. I would read the hell out of that.
Jul. 4th, 2013 06:14 am (UTC)
This is a great talk, and I don't want to diminish it, butI do want to just point out, for the edification of everyone reading, that there is a problem when it's necessary for these talks to be given by a man. Not because they don't understand it-- because I think Jim does, in spades-- bur because other men would be less willing to listen if a woman gave the same talk.
Jul. 4th, 2013 12:19 pm (UTC)
Well said, all around! All of the ladies you mentioned from the Magic Ex Libris series are awesome. (And I have a question about one of them that I'm sort of embarrassed to have to ask - may I do so in a private message?)

Jul. 4th, 2013 01:53 pm (UTC)
Sure - go for it. I'm curious what the question is, now...
Jul. 5th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC)
I think the answer is always "more great female characters of all types."
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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