This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2016

We could be heroes

Epic fantasy and sci-fi are today’s bestsellers and blockbusters. But in a world that can imagine magic and dragons, why is diversity so hard to find?

Nicole Abi-Najem@NajemNorth

Illustration by Kat Verhoeven

I was maybe, what, eight years old? There I was, standing in my literal cave of a stinky basement—a carved-out hollow of dark, dank stone under my rickety old house—scrounging through books piled high into mountains of dust. I whipped out one book. The cover stood out: A woman with flowing ebony braids is striking an ultimate power pose atop a flying carpet. At her side sat a man with eyes agog in admiration. Aladdin and Jasmine, I wondered? No, far from it. It was so, so much better. Her name was Princess Cimorene, a protagonist girl with gumption, confidence, bravery; she was everything I wanted to be. And that was my introduction to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, an epic fantasy series and my all-time favourite set of books.

I remember it as the first time, in my burgeoning mind, that I never wanted a book to end. This book was different. There was magic and enchantment, sure, but the true fairytale aspect was Princess Cimorene herself. A girl with some ’tude, some spunk (oh, and, yeah, she fully, coolly befriends dragons). In the following years, however, I’d come to learn Princess Cimorene was a minority. As much as I fell in deeper and deeper love with the genre, I was not heart-eyed at all over the dearth of characters like me. I soon discovered it wasn’t enough for authors to plop a female character into the story (which was rarity enough)—I wanted complex female characters, vulnerable ones, strong ones, ones that felt real and diverse. It felt paramount to me that I, and other readers like me, could see themselves in these stories.

In his November 2012 Tedx talk, “The Mystery of Storytelling,” literary agent Julian Friedmann argues prehistoric caves were the earliest cinemas. Hunters would go in, look at the paintings, and imagine the fear they’d feel when they went out in the bushes. They rehearsed it. It’s the same reason we use literature, theatre, and cinema. “When we’re looking up at the screen,” he says during his talk, “we’re certainly not looking at you, we’re looking at ourselves, because only we are the storytellers.” They gazed up at the walls and, in place of dragons and wizards under the flickering torchlight, they saw beasts, and in them they saw themselves. But where do girls and women, people of colour, and those on the LGBTQ spectrum go when they want to look at themselves?

These days, more and more, fantasy and sci-fi are our pop culture cave drawings of choice. The genre has played an ever-larger role, gradually increasing in dominance since the Second World War, says Lisa Makman, a Columbia-educated Ph.D. and English lit lecturer at the University of Michigan. Just look at cultural staying power of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones’ cult following. We have superhero movies galore, what seem like an endless amount of post-apocalypse books and movies, and a surplus of monster-human and dystopian love triangles. The new Star Wars grossed nearly $120 million at the U.S. box office on its first day. That’s not to mention the hundreds of spin-offs, imitations, and other popular shows and books—we’re saturated. And, yet, in a series of worlds where there are, quite literally, no boundaries, why have so few authors and creators imagined a world of diversity?

Fantasy and sci-fi have nothing and yet everything to do with reality. The twin genres aren’t about escapism; they’re a search for meaning. In them, we see a mirror of the world reflected back— our own modern struggles dancing in the cave light. In many cases, when we read fantasy we’re hoping for a sort of redemption: from war, from nuclear weapons, from broken hearts, from a depleting ozone. There’s a reason dystopian fantasy is on the rise. One of the most influential fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien, coined the term eucatastrophe: “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” He argues that a eucatastrophic state privileges us with a glimpse of truth—one that liberates us from our limitations. That’s why we read fantasy: truth.

Fantasy is all about truth. Alison Gopnik is an American psychologist who, in a 2005 Slate article, argued in favour of the genre. Those enmeshed in the world of fantastical lore, she argued, are more secure in their physical and psychological environments than those with a lessened propensity for the magical. “Children may love fantasy not because they can’t appreciate the truth or because their lives are difficult,” she wrote in the article, “but for precisely the opposite reason.” Such stories are important because, rather than offering readers escape from their woeful environment, they let readers embrace a single-minded determination towards truth. In other words, fantasy lets us work out our shit—but how do you do that when you can’t see yourself in the narrative?

When I got sick in my early 20s, fantasy became excruciatingly important to me. Doctors had no idea what was happening. I felt lethargic and on the verge of falling asleep all the time. I lost my job as a salesperson at Indigo. I couldn’t leave my bed for over two months; even watching TV became too tiring. Even now, way after the fact, doctors still have no idea what happened—the best they can surmise is that I contracted a devastating virus. But what I do know is this strange time in my life let me a lot of time to think. I’d imagine what was happening in my body. I felt like I was living in a corpse, everything was failing, weakening, into nothing. That’s where the image of the snake came in.

In my feverish, weakened state, I kept imagining a glistening snake in my lower abdomen, a venomous serpent. It felt like a mythical battle going on inside my body. Later, I was sure the recurring image was an instinctual urge to fight for my life. I felt on the verge of death and so everything became primal. I would imagine the snake shedding its skin and in it I wished for my own rebirth. When our ancestors looked up at the churning grey sky, they saw anger. In the sun and abundance of crops, they saw benevolence. When we have no answers, we construct tales. Centuries ago, they made gods. For everything prolific and small, we weave stories where answers have yet to present themselves. That’s what I was doing in those months. Without paper or pen, I was writing a fantasy story in my mind, discovering my truth, working it all out.

An interminable hope impelled me toward these stories—I would get better. The mystery illness would abate. Escapism buffers us against reality, even as it continues to be plundered. Fantasy helped make me proactive; I visualized what I could not see. After I recovered, I kept writing stories, but they evolved. I incorporated dragons as main characters in my story, and they would coalesce with female characters. I made these characters wild, defiant, feminine, and strong— exactly the kinds of women I’d always wanted in the books that I read.

In all the various mainstays and tropes in fantasy
, women and dragons inhabit close quarters in our psyche—and this relationship has played out time and time again in literary and cultural scenes. Silken-haired Game of Thrones fan favourite Daenerys Targaryen is best known, for example, as the mother of dragons. After her husband dies, she cremates his body and burns herself along with three petrified dragon eggs in his remains. The eggs hatch, and she goes from being a child (who, it must be said, was “given” to said husband as a gift and political pawn), to a boss-ass bitch. It’s the quintessential rise of the phoenix.

Yet even Daenerys, often lauded as a model for awesome women characters, is problematic: she comes with some serious white savior issues, a whole lot of indecision, and much—too much—is made of the men who follow her out of devotion to her beauty and goodness. She’s as much of an example of how far we’ve come as she is of how far we have to go.

I often wonder where, as Game of Thrones continues, she’ll fit into Carl Jung’s theory of the dragon as the arch-enemy of the hero: “[The] mother dragon which threatens to overwhelm the birth of the God, which the Hero must defeat before becoming the Hero.” In Jung’s world, the father figure triumphs over the matriarch—a trend we often see in real life, but also in Sleeping Beauty’s puissant Maleficent. Though she’s recently received an Angelina Jolie remake, this spunky, spiky lady is best known as the evil dragon who battles the heroic prince. And loses.

Dragons are a classic villain, says Jordan Peterson, eminent psychologist and University of Toronto professor. He points to Medusa as a prime example. Even on her best hair days, this lady turned men into stone. She represents what Peterson says is man’s ultimate fear: a woman rejecting them. Taking a Darwinian approach, Peterson theorizes that when a woman rejects a man, he’s also rejected by nature—because, as gatekeepers to reproduction, women symbolize the power of nature, natch. When a (male) knight tames the dragon, he also tames the woman, ensuring survival through his offspring. It’s a fascinating theory, but one that reduces both women and men to their pure biological makeup. I suspect Peterson’s right—it’s a classic case of fantasy, but also one that needs to change.

Too often both women and dragons represent wild natural forces, either within us or outside us, but always ones that must be tamed and conquered. After watching a video clip in which mythologist Joseph Campbell describes the Western dragon as a symbol of the untamed wild, it struck me that in myth women, too, usually symbolize an uncontrolled element of nature. In her seminal book Women Who Run with Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes analyzes the roles of female characters in classic tales. “Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species,” she writes. “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinct nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt.” To Estes, the Wild Woman has been mismanaged just like the wild lands, relegated to poorest land in the psyche. I can’t help but agree.

It’s truly hard, if not seemingly impossible, to break away from archetypal figures.
Since the dawn of stories, through goddesses and sorceresses, powerful women have graced our imagination. And there are shining examples of diversity like my treasured Enchanted Forest Chronicles stories. At the same time, we’ve collectively kept women largely in narrow roles—and that’s not to mention both the stereotyping and scarcity of heroes who are people of colour or LGBTQ. Luckily, I’m not the only one who’s desperate for more diversity. While change seems slow, many authors are starting to defy standard narratives, and many of them are Canadian women.

I spoke to Vancouver-based author and teacher Linda DeMeulemeester about the inspiration behind her award-winning children’s fantasy series, Grim Hill, which follows two sisters who move to a new house and battle supernatural forces. DeMeulemeester was drawn to the power women have in Celtic mythology. While other mythologies portray women with power and supernatural abilities, DeMeulemeester stresses, that power often resides in their ability to weaken men. That’s not what she was after. Instead, legendary Celtic figures like Queen Maeb intrigued her—these mythological women who held wealth, power and influence of their own accord, not in relation to their sexiness. “Influence is the key,” says DeMeulemeester, “that they had power to make important decisions and contributions.”

Influence also means it’s not all about muscles. While it’s nice to see women with sheer physical strength, I’d also like to see more stories where women can depend on cleverness, wit, talent. Ontario-based children’s author Alison Baird agrees. As a young woman, Baird was in love with larger-than-life heroines. She recognizes now that these books, often women-authored, were likely written as a way to address the need for strong, brave, proactive female figures in fiction. But eventually, she became disillusioned with the trend. The heroines felt a little too strong, a little too unrealistic. “I could not, as a nonathletic bookworm,” says Baird, “relate to a woman who could wield a broadsword and handily defeat a male opponent on the field of battle.” The female protagonists in her many fantasy books rely less on physical strength and more on strength of character and cleverness.

This concern harkens back to an age-old question: Can women still have it all? My answer is: why the hell not? Fantasy gives us room to be optimistic: we strive towards admirable characters and learn from evil ones. Fantasy gave us one of TV’s greatest feminists, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a character that flips patriarchy the middle finger,shows that feminine doesn’t equate weakness, is never defined by a man, shares her power with other women, and on. (Though she’s also a pint-sized, white blonde.)

Yet, Buffy went off-air in 2003. More recently we have Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a complex superhero who helps us confront rape culture and sexual trauma. There’s also Rey from Star Wars, who, it should be noted, was criticized for being too awesome—some film buffs, views, and pop culture writers called her a Mary Sue, a term used to deride a woman character who’s good at everything. Apparently, to them, she was unrealistic. Let’s just pause a second to ponder this: In a world full of fantastical scenarios, it was the heroic woman that caused them to stir uncomfortably in their seats. And let’s not even get started on the noticeable lack of Rey toys in the Star Wars sets, despite her status as the main character.

Strong women characters who are in charge of their own fates isn’t a new trend, says Liz Johnston, manager of Toronto’s Mabel’s Fable Childrens Book Store. It’s often one book, though, that makes it mainstream and enlightens the populace, like the recent Hunger Games. (Although it’s worth debating whether protagonist Katniss’s ultimate reward of a husband and babies is a positive message or not.) Johnston says that the number of female protagonists in popular dystopian fiction has helped advance diversity. Once something becomes so widespread and popular, she says, it makes it easier for book publishers to pick it up. She’s noticed many publishers are now starting to move away from books targeted toward males, which is a welcome change.

While recently browsing the children’s section at Indigo, I noticed two categories: “LGBTQIA” and “We Need Diverse Books.” Admittedly, I didn’t know whether to feel happy or uneasy. While I want increased awareness, I also hope the day will come when such classifications won’t exist—that diversity will be just as much a part of fantasy and sci-fi books as plot, spaceships, and magic.

I think about Tolkien, whose work I like but also find uncomfortable. Traversing the plains of Middle Earth while reading Lord of the Rings as an adult, physical descriptions of some characters—the evil ones—snapped me out of my eucatastrophic state. I was transported back to my living room couch, shaking my head. As John Yatt wrote in the Guardian: “Perhaps I’d better come right out and say it. The Lord of the Rings is racist.” Tolkien’s evil characters have dark skin, slant-eyes, broad features, and dreadlocks. After I wrenched the spear of truth from my heart, I thought, “Damn, this Easterling—enemy of the free people, sallow and swarthy, dark hair and dark eyes—sounds just like my uncle.” So maybe, for now, I’m just happy to know children browsing the many colourful covers can find themselves.

Almost universally, white is seen as divine and a force of good, where as darkness is evil. When these features are projected on characters, I start to drift out of these worlds. I’m trying to see myself in the forces of good, but the good doesn’t look like me. My hair is thick, dark, and curly. My eyes are an almost black-brown, cupped in dark circles. I’ve never read a description in a book that refers to my features as angelic, and let’s face it, neither have most readers. Because angelic is an assumption; one of beauty, one of light features, one of worthiness.

Even in writing this article, I realized my sources were a pretty homogeneous group: they were all white. While I’m glad to have spoken to women—and those who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum—it was clear that it’s not just characters of colour who are absent, but writers, critics, booksellers. When Léonicka Valcius started Centennial’s book and magazine publishing program in 2011 she realized the same thing: “I walked into my class—of 60 to 70 people—and saw it was primarily white. There were a handful of people of colour, and a handful of men. That was another ‘huh’ moment.” Later, she came to the conclusion that CanLit “felt like very dead white guys writing about the Canadian experience that meant nothing to me.” That’s when Valcius started the #DiverseCanLit movement, a weekly Twitter discussion about all things diversity in Canada’s publishing world. Valcius says books are like time capsules, and when people look back to CanLit, they should have an opportunity to see how everyone—not just a select few—lived.

Certainly, I’m happy that J.M. Frey exists. Frey is a Guelph, Ont.-based science fiction and fantasy author, as well as a pop culture scholar and a self-described fanthropologist (a term used to describe employing anthropological techniques to study fans and fandom.) She is best known for her book Triptych: a sci-fi novel that follows three narrators as they recount major turning points in the life of a character named Gwen Pierson. Frey’s goal is to write intersectional, feminist novels, but she admits it’s hard to train herself out of writing the genre’s tropes.

She knows it’s frustrating for female readers and writers, especially those who identify as LGBTQ and/or as a person colour, to read or watch prolific fantasy tales. Echoing my earlier thoughts, she asks me: How can an author imagine all these incredible things, yet not imagine a diverse world? While she agrees fantasy is evolving, she also concurs that it’s doing so slowly. “For those of us who want better now, now, now,” she says, “it’s difficult to know we could have much more inclusive media, and more protagonists who are different.”

New Brunswick-based fantasy author KV Johansen adds that “the tendency still exists to use the heterosexual male as the default main character.” Lately, in an attempt to redress past favouritism toward male heroes, publishers are pushing for female protagonists—to the exclusion of men and boys. For Johansen, it’s not a perfect solution. Like me, she hopes we’ll soon outgrow this exclusionary categorization for the sake of equality. She’s not holding her breath, though, noting that there seems to be more reluctance in some segments of “fandom” to accept women, non-white, and non-straight heroes than there is to accept other inverted expectations and clichés—like “aged-and-creaky-archetypes and traditionally villainous creatures.” In other words, readers can get behind a good vampire, but not necessarily a complex, Black, gay, woman hero.

Later, though, when I speak to John Sellers, the children’s review editor for Publishers Weekly, he cautions against getting caught up in what’s meant for boys and what’s meant for girls, or certain categories. Sellers says publishers have an increased interest in diversity in children’s books, including a movement to stop “gender publishing” and start giving kids permission to read what they want to read. Books are packaged more neutrally and even so-called romance books are trending toward typographical covers. “Stories about people of colour, sexuality and identity,” he says, “have been more widely explored in recent years.”

While Sellers and others like him acknowledge the push towards diversification, publishers only make up one part of the equation. Opportunities must exist for readers to see themselves in stories, and for writers to create stories. It’s not enough for those books to be published; they have to be widely promoted, taught in schools, and made easily available. We should all be happy we have people like 11-yearold New Jersey girl Marley Dias, who launched the social action project and book drive #1000BlackGirlBooks after she became tired of reading about white boys and their dogs. She aptly called her assigned school books “monochromatic”.

Whenever we read a fantasy or sci-fi book or watch a movie, it’s our own self-discovery that’s the driving force of these many great quests. Vital to the exploits and the encounters is the identity that is revealed—and challenged—throughout. I’m hopeful that Sellers and others are right: that we’re seeing a change in the genre and using our great imaginations to craft a bigger world. Because everybody, not just beefy white dudes, deserve to open the doors to adventure, just like I did that day in my smelly basement.

NICOLE ABI-NAJEM is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson who loves short-term goals and long-form articles. She is interested in writing about all things women and as been published in Metro, the Huffington Post, and Vice’s Broadly.

Show Comments