By Randall S. Frederick
It’s hard to think of anything changing more quickly in our society right now than our understanding of gender. There has been an explosion of young people identifying as gender non-conforming in some way or another, and many are coming out as transgender or nonbinary throughout their lives, from childhood to old age. This explosion of new levels of awareness, new understandings, and shifts in perspective, has brought an enormous amount of confusion and resistance, especially among aging populations who have begun to develop more rigid, fixed thinking. In 2014, Facebook gave users fifty-eight gender identities to choose from. In 2016, Tinder added thirty-seven gender options to user profiles. In 2019, Merriam-Webster named the personal pronoun “they” as Word of the Year. In response to these changes and the conversations in American society that were happening as a result, in July 2022 alone, lawmakers in twenty-one states introduced bills that focused on restricting gender-affirming care for transgender youth, such as hormone blockers, and twenty-nine states introduced bills banning transgender youth from sports. As we already know, the degree of support a young person receives when coming out – or not – can have profound consequences on their mental and emotional health. Many teens who lack support attempt suicide or other forms of self-harm.
Separately, I’ve been reading as much fantasy literature as I have been able to over the last two years. What I initially excused or laughed off as an attempt at humor – telling people I preferred magic to the grim scientific realities of pandemics and outbreaks – became a sobering and intentional escape. I wanted to escape this world, or at least the America I saw through laptop screens, shared videos, cable news networks, and the din of social media.
In fantasy novels, I found places to feel outrage and horror, shame and loss, with N.K. Jemisin and Margaret Atwood. I sailed away to Earthsea with Ursula Le Guin. I crossed a continent with Sapkowski’s The Witcher, burned and ached through Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, and cried at the final act of Grossman’s The Magicians. The worlds of these novels affected me. They helped me understand how my own world, the real one, could fall apart step by gradual step; they also helped me believe a better world was possible. But I kept noticing the ways in which the fantasy genre often sidestepped matters of gender. Political intrigue, racial injustices, class systems, and warfare were common, but many of the assumptions about gender, even sexuality, were left unchallenged, even unquestioned. It became quite frustrating, for instance, that so many of the novels assumed the absence of women in battle, in palaces, in heroism. When women appeared at all, they were conniving and expendable, as in the works of George R.R. Martin. Male genitalia was always hard and eager, whether enhanced by chemicals and enchantments like the Witcher Geralt or by the thrill of physical dominance like Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Women were sexually passive, desired but never desiring. In many lesser-known works, hypermasculine characters brag about the strength of their “sword” with no sexual partners on the page – a notable absence, given how much attention the authors give to “prodigious” girth and the penetration of their “blades.” At times, the writing would unintentionally veer into the comedic were it not for the frequency of rape and sexual violence. In the world of Gor, the fictional setting for the novels written by philosophy professor John Lange writing as John Norman, women are repeatedly raped. Each novel in the Gor series focuses on someone different and even takes the perspective of women, but after continued rapes intended to make women submit to violence, the revolving door of women will express understanding, even sympathy for their violater, before finally succumbing to desire and delighting in their rape, submission, and humiliation. A woman in the Gor novels finds and embraces authentic womanhood by delighting in violation and the loss of identity.
Notably, fantasy writers don’t create a gender binary for their characters so much as assume the binary. It’s difficult enough, I assume, for writers to juggle races and cultures in worldbuilding without navigating gender politics to say nothing of the social norms, dating and mating patterns, sexual compatibility, the biology of fantasy races and the development (or absence) of genitalia, or a need for assistance in private concerns.
It’s not just the authors, though. Publishers pay attention to fan bases and the ways that their anger often falls along the fault lines of gender, as they have with Star Wars, Episodes VII-IX, and Marvel Cinematic Universe. Assumptions are made in the development of these projects and, as we see in the Marvel movies, men are overwhelmingly heroic and desirable while women find heroism by sacrificing themselves (Black Widow), their friendships (Captain Marvel), or their families (Scarlet Witch). Women are dismissed (Ms. Marvel), damsels in distress (Petter Potts) or marginalized (Maria Hill).
In my literature classes, I point out the absences that come from assuming a gender binary. It feels so incomplete, so unimaginative, such a denial of something worth exploring and conversations worth having. Once this has been named, my classes often erupt in discussions. Everyone has something to say, some example to share, to fill in the absence and nuance our shared understanding of the piece we are reading.
Those discussions rarely stop with gender, veering to include – cautiously – matters of sex, or relationships and family members, of the tangential and interplay of expectations, gender performance and roles, negotiating consent, desire, and satisfaction. It’s safer not to talk about sex or sexuality with students who are still exploring sexual interests and romantic feelings, but their weekly journal entries read like rambling diaries in an effort to find themselves, to understand their feelings for friends, to reconcile and make connections with memory, to discover their identity and sometimes come to new levels of self-awareness if not come out.
Fantasy worlds like Middle-Earth, Narnia, Gor, Westeros, Hogwarts, and Earthsea allow them to tease out these ideas in a safe space, to question and explore. Still, there are conversations I choose not to entertain with my students. A professional boundary is required to keep the educational space safe, to keep it ethical, and for them to do the internal tasks to which literature calls us. Asking them to think through details like the genitalia and sexual behavior of elves, dwarves, and dragons is something I’m reluctant to explore with them, but it doesn’t stop me from raising questions for them to think about on their own. Was there a law or communal prohibition against same-gender sex in the woodland realms or under the mountains? Is this motivated by religion or something else? How do dragons procreate when reptiles and amphibians (at least in our world) have been known to change genders? Fantasy stories often depict the “vanishing” of elves, is this a result of asexuality or complications in pregnancy? And what about the bearded dwarf-wives that Tolkien write about? What’s the story there? What about orcs? Are orcs, with their historical depiction of violence and low intelligence in fantasy novels more prone to accept rape and sexual violence? What about their parenting styles? Do orcs co-parent? These questions often solicit laughter, but the ideas are far from ludicrous. They are familiar. They are reasonable. They are sociological, helping students – as readers and emerging writers – to understand the world they find themselves in, where challenges to convention and tradition are very much a part of their experiences. Raising ideas instead of engaging in a sustained discussion of their values and expectations about both gender and sexuality is an act of metacognition or getting them to think about thinking, to think critically about the unspoken rules of sex, gender, relationships, and their held values. Fantasy worlds allow them to do this with distance and perspective, a quality that the genre has held since it originated in campfire tales several millennia ago. What are we to make, for example, that King Arthur does not become an adult until he is given a sword, a phallic image of masculinity, by a perpetually (achem) “wet” woman, the Lady of the Lake? The delay of Odysseus by the witch Circe? The shifting gender of Loki in Nordic mythology? These are not new questions, but ones we continue to decide on and learn from each time they are asked. Each generation, it seems, engages in the pursuit to answer these questions for themselves and then collectively forgets the answers when a new generation is born.
Then again, perhaps we don’t know the social cohesion of orcs or accept the beards of the dwarf-wives or the mating habits of dragons because there’s really no good or unifying model for exploring orientations and sexualities, genders, and their expressions. There are so many nuances to magic alone that scholars like myself must speak of magical systems and theories. The distinction between “hard magic” and “soft magic” was popularized by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson in his lectures at Brigham Young University. The terminology of hard and soft originate from hard and soft sciences, which gives us hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Both terms are approximate ways of characterizing two ends of a spectrum. Hard magic systems follow specific rules, the magic is controlled and explained to the reader in the narrative by detailing the mechanics behind the way the magic ‘works’. In Sanderson’s Cosmere novels, for example, he spends a great deal of Mistborn: The Final Empire having to explain allomancy, a magical form of alchemy where consuming metal shavings empowers certain individuals. Hard magic is very useful in building settings that revolve around the magic system, as is the case in the Cosmere novels. Soft magic systems, by contrast, may not have clearly defined rules or limitations and provide limited, if any, exposition regarding their workings. Soft magic systems are used to create a sense of wonder for the reader.
In the real world, these systems are discussed and their merits debated; while there are labels and schools of thought about gender and sexuality, and specific and detailed discussions that might parallel hard magic, too often these discussions reflect soft magic. Such conversations keep discussions about gender and sexuality make spectrums and constellations of complexity into generalizations of wonder, lacking definition and substance. In fantasy writing, Sanderson writes, an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic. Weaknesses, limitations, and costs are more interesting than powers. The author should, then, expand on what is already a part of the magic system before something entirely new is added, as this may otherwise entirely change how the magic system fits into the fictional world. Likewise, we might paraphrase Sanderson’s “laws of magic” and bring awareness to gender and sexuality in fantasy settings.
To paraphrase, we might start by saying that an author’s ability to solve conflict with gender is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said gender. When it comes to matters of sex, recognizing weaknesses, limitations, and consequences are more interesting than raunch or explicitly graphic depictions. The author should, then, expand on what is already a part of the social and relational order of their world before something entirely new is added, as this may otherwise entirely change how matters of gender and sex fit into the fictional world.
Finally, Sanderson added a “zeroth law” to his hierarchy. “Always err on the side of what’s awesome.” It’s an important reminder that the role of the reader is more than that of an observer, but the ultimate determiner of what is “awesome.” If the audience is interested in moving beyond the binaries of male and female, straight and gay, then that would be really awesome.
In her 2014 acceptance of the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Ursula Le Guin put forward a challenge. “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society.” After going on to deliver a beautiful takedown of capitalism in general and the industry of publishing in particular, she concluded, “Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art , the art of words.”
Our understanding of both this world, reality, and the imagined are affected by something that is made up: gender. We make decisions on the basis of gender, from the things we buy and eat to how we raise our kids, to how we assign household responsibilities. We organize our lives around the binary. Clothes, bathrooms, and toys are gendered. Change, as Le Guin notes, often comes about through art and the words of writers. So the simplest conclusion to why writers only include two genders, male and female, in their stories is because those are the only genders our society tells us are valid. This message is so strong that we lack the imagination to address it in other worlds of possibility, even those of our own creation. In reality, gender is a social construct with real-world implications. It’s not that gender doesn’t matter in our world or in the realms of fantasy, or that writers can play with gender without consequences or substance to characters. As with reality, matters of gender, sexuality, and our understandings of them mean something. Despite the fact that the gender binary is essentially made up , despite the fact that gender, period, is essentially made up , our lives and experiences are shaped by our perceived and assigned genders.
My father, by way of example, was raised to believe that “real men” didn’t eat quiche. At the age of seventy-four, he still refuses this delightful brunch item. It’s not just quiche, though. When I turned four years old, I asked my parents for a Barbie doll because I thought they were pretty. He was outraged when my mother bought me one. A few years ago, when I asked him about it, he said he was afraid at the time that I would grow up gay. Pressed, he admitted he had always wondered after that whether I was a closeted homosexual. “The worst thing for a parent,” he said, “Is to have a gay child because the world is so mean, so awful. You love them, but love is not enough once they step outside the door.” The hard times that Le Guin spoke about are already upon us. We are a fear-stricken society.
It can be difficult to trouble the notion of gender, to resist and orchestrate change, because matters of gender and sexuality have such far-reaching impact on our lives. However, there are ways for us as writers and readers to recognize and create more space for diversity. There are ways to create meaningful change in the future of fantasy literature. Writers have a particular opportunity to put their best skills to use exploring and questioning where the constructed meets the real; this seems obvious for a genre that has historically done this, but it bears repeating. This is not an opportunity, but a responsibility if fantasy writers hope to continue in the footsteps of those who have preceded them. Fantasy, as a genre, needs the voices of nonbinary writers to tell these stories, to write authentically about nonbinary characters, and to make their storylines visible.