Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Glaring Omission in My Last Post?

So, I could omit that there was an omission in my last post so glaring that it would make the... uh... glare of a spot light focused on my glabrous pate seem dim by comparison. I could do that, or I could write another post about the omitted subject and no one would be the wiser.

In my last post, I addressed the inclusion of gay themes in a particular video game, but I didn't address the role of female gamers and attempts to cater to their tastes. Well, as the modern "gaming" culture is an outgrowth of the "Speculative Fiction" culture, I'm gonna geek out and give a synopsis of the role of female authors in said culture.

"Pulp" fiction was largely written by men, and men were the target audience. Most of the "weird" fiction dealt with straight, white male fantasies. Such hypermasculine, oversexed fictional characters as John Carter, Warlord of Mars, Conan of Cimmeria, and Big Bad Bald Bastard play to patriarchal models of relations between the sexes- the men are powerful and competent, the "good" women are adoring and submissive. Powerful women exist, but they tend to be evil- this particular cover (the illustration done by a woman, by the way) being a prime example of the "damsel in distress/wicked seductress" dichotomy at work.

The pulps weren't completely given over to male domination- C.L. Moore (it's telling that she used her initials to obscure her gender in order to get her foot in the door, an unfortunate expedient that continues to this day) wrote a series of "Weird Tales" about the female ruler of a fief in Dark Ages France. These tales (collected in a recently released book), with their themes of existential threats and subtle horrors, are a refreshing break from the usual "hack and slash, blood and thunder" pulp fantasy. As an aside, the "Jirel of Joiry" tales would make a great companion to Clark Ashton Smith's "Weird Medieval France" Averoigne story-cycle.

Another female author with an ambiguous name who achieved great success as both fiction-and-screenwriter was Leigh Brackett. Her fiction ranged from Chandleresque detective fiction to space opera- as did her screenwriting, she worked on the scripts for film noir masteriece The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner... the bit in the Wiki entry about Howard Hawks' request to get Brackett on board is hilarious) and obscure space opera The Empire Strikes Back.

Andre Norton, who published her first novel in the 30's, was another author who adopted a "gender neutral" pseudonym in order to slip under the radar of male prejudices and become a one woman industry. Norton's 1963 novel Witch World follows the "modern man travels to exotic otherworld" tradition in fantastic fiction and subverts it slightly- while her modern male protagonist is clearly a competent "man of action", he respects the authority of the matriarchal society in which he finds himself. The subsequent books in the series deal with a multigenerational "history" of this society.

Also published in 1963, Margaret St. Clair's Sign of the Labrys (which I, sadly, have never read) bore this blurb on the back cover... a blurb which embarasses me, 47 years after it was written, even though I didn't write it, and wasn't even born when it was:

Yeah, that was a promotional blurb written in 1963... you can't blame C.L. Moore and Andre Norton for employing pseudonyms to avoid this sort of condescending jackassdery, and you can't blame Alice Bradley Sheldon for subsequently writing under the pseudonym "James Tiptree, Jr."- when you want to write about brightness falling from the air you don't want some callus-knuckled bonehead prattling on about "moon-pulls and earth-tides".

Marion Zimmer Bradley, who published since the 1950's, seems to have been spared embarassing treatment from condescending male publishers and marketing flacks. Her masterpiece, The Mists of Avalon, explored Arthurian legend from a feminist and neo-pagan perspective, and is an essential addition to the Matter of Britain canon.

The other root of "Gamer" culture, besides Speculative Fiction, is (oddly enough) gaming, specifically simulation games originally used as a military training exercise. In the early 70's two Midwestern guys named Jeff and Gary developed a Medieval warfare simulation involving miniature figures, Gary later added "fantasy" elements to it, and a guy named Dave adopted the system for "single-figure" play, in which each figure represented an individual, rather than a unit. This led to a craze in which individuals rolled oddly shaped dice and learned a recondite jargon, and "role-playing" simulation games of all sorts (including some truly unusual ones) were developed. While stupid, fundamentalist types were horrified and advocated book burning (they always do), smart, creative people adapted this type of gameplay for computers. The rise of roleplaying games also led to a boom in fantasy and science fiction literature and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history- like it or not, if you're a member of Western society, you're living in Gary's world.

The role-playing game (RPG) hobby, like the wargaming hobby before it, was largely indulged in by an overwhelmingly male fan base. As the whiny, grammatically-challenged brat mentioned in the Metaglactic Llamas post put it:

Its ridiculous that I even have to use a term like Straight Male Gamer, when in the past I would only have to say fans

From the outset, attempts were made to get women interested in the hobby (some of them pretty damn ham-fisted **WARNING:PDF** by today's standards). Interestingly, even though the hobby was thought to appeal to an overwhelmingly male base, the first major work of "gaming fiction" was Quag Keep, written by the venerable Andre Norton after tossing some polyhedrals with Gary and crew.

The computer RPG industry is now a multi-million dollar business, but the customer base is still perceived to be largely male. As our whiny brat put it:

The straight male demographic is a huge demographic. I’d put the number that over 80% of RPG fans are males. They all like different things, this is a group numbering millions. Now you also have another group, the homosexual group, I’d say generously, that this group represents 5%.

Of course, what he fails to notice is that an industry grows by expanding its customer base... if 80% of the customers are male, efforts to appeal to female gamers are needed to expand the industry. A publicly-traded company which based its business model on ignoring over 50% of the potential customer base would quickly have problems with the shareholders. Of course the situation of the female gamer has become better as the industry has expanded, but it's far from perfect. Even as the "roles" for female characters in the games have expanded and improved, the imagery is still largely informed by the desires of heterosexual males- leading to such ridiculous tropes as the low-cut suit of armor. For contrast, here are the portraits I linked to in my last post from Battle for Wesnoth (honestly, I'm not involved with the project, I just enjoy the game)- not only are the women depicted in the portraits fully clothed, some of them are middle-aged. SCANDALOUS!!!

There is a place in "gamer" culture for women (especially now, when J.K. Rowling strides the fantastic landscape like a 900 Foot Jesus), and as women become more involved with the industry, the presentation of women in games will improve. Also, as the "gaming" population gets older (and, hopefully, more mature) and elderly persons join the "gamer" ranks, the depiction of older characters will improve.

Personally, I am holding out for a shooter game in which the player takes on the role of Baba Yaga, fighting Nazi occultists and their undead minions- think about the cool power-ups that game could feature, like a chicken footed hut sitting in for the mecha of science-fiction gaming...

Postscript: In my list of oversexed male characters in the genre, I could definitely mention Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek. I like to think that, while the series featured him wooing sexy green alien ladies, that, had the special effects been better, the series would have featured him banging all sorts of aliens, even the natives of a bug planet:

Spock: Captain, your attempts to copulate with that eight-foot insectoid were highly illogical.
Kirk: Spock... I... have a... need!
Spock: Captain, you do not even know the function of the orifice into which you inserted your uritogenital appendage.

Damn, reduced to writing fanfic...

Second Postscript: Another fantastic female author of speculative fiction who chose to write under an ambiguous name is C.J. Cherryh. Her "Morgaine" novels (check out the awful cover illustration in the jpeg) are a science-fiction series masquerading as a fantasy epic. Her main character, a dedicated woman who is forced to perform ruthless acts to prevent a universe-spanning catastrophe, is an unforgettable creation, and the books explore the role of realpolitik, devotion to a cause, and personal loyalty in a way that most "doorstop" post-Tolkien dreck could never even approach.

Final Postscript: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the whimsical fantastic art of Bethany Spencer... how about a series of video games based on her work? Pissed-Off Pixies, anyone?


OBS said...

You also left out Ursula. She lives in Oregon now, so I have to defend her.

Dr.KennethNoisewater said...

Have you read "The Mists of Avalon?" It's my favorite book. Wanna talk fangirling? When TNT came out with the "The Mists of Avalon" cast list for their miniseries, I felt like I'd been stabbed in the heart. It was horrible, horrible, horrible. I wanted to retire to my fainting couch FOREVERS!!!!

Dr.KennethNoisewater said...

the homosexual group, I’d say generously, that this group represents 5%.

Yes, darling. But still...they persist in existing and also being human beings! Imagine that!

Smut Clyde said...

Who's the Naomi Mitchison fanboy?
That would be me.

TruculentandUnreliable said...

but I didn't address the role of female gamers and attempts to cater to their tastes


I luuuuv The Mists of Avalon.


Margaret Atwood
Barbara Hambly
Anne McCaffrey

and if we're counting YA:
Susan Cooper (LUUUUUV)
Suzanne Collins

Plus a SHITLOAD of "urban fantasy/faerie tale" writers that I haven't read any of because they look *terrible*.

In fact, I'd argue that fantasy is a female-dominated field these days, especially in YA.

Dr.KennethNoisewater said...

*heart**heart**heart*Margaret Atwood*heart**heart**heart*

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

You also left out Ursula.

Wow, that is a vexing lacuna of the most egregious sort- I will now voluntarily exile myself to the farthest shore to expiate my guilt...

Have you read "The Mists of Avalon?" It's my favorite book. Wanna talk fangirling? When TNT came out with the "The Mists of Avalon" cast list for their miniseries, I felt like I'd been stabbed in the heart.

Yeah, you would have made a great Gwenhyfar, and T&U a hell of a Morgaine.

In fact, I'd argue that fantasy is a female-dominated field these days, especially in YA.

Because of inroads by women into the genre, I pretty much concentrated on the pre-80s authors. I loathe the Twilight Industrial Complex, and I haven't read any Rowling, but the field is pretty much dominated by those two.

That being said, I also have to give a shout-out to Evangeline Walton, whose take on the "Mabinogion" is gorgeous, and should appeal to any "Mists of Avalon" readers. I also dug Julian May's work. Katherine Kurtz was also active since the 70s. Finally, Diana Wynn Jones is criminally underappreciated, and her "Tough Guide to Fantasyland" is a brilliant excoriation of derivative sub-Tolkien dreck.

Dr.KennethNoisewater said...

Yeah, you would have made a great Gwenhyfar

Wow, um. I hope not. Morgaine was totally strong and cool and did all sorts of adventurous things and lived life with passion...Meanwhile, Gwenhyfar was some religion-obsessed, weepy and pathetic.

Perhaps you just mean because one of us is brunette and one of is blonde. I certainly hope so.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Perhaps you just mean because one of us is brunette and one of is blonde. I certainly hope so.

Bingo! You should check out Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion- if you've read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, you'll love them. If you haven't read them (you WILL love Eilonwy, with the red-gold hair), you can read them to get a quick "primer" on the Welsh legends, then read the amazing Ms. Walton's gorgeous book.

Dr.KennethNoisewater said...


Thanks for the book recommendations!

Whale Chowder said...

Huh. Andre Norton was my entree into SciFi 'way back in the '60s when I were a wee lad. Glad to see others remember and appreciate her.

you would have made a great Gwenhyfar

Hey, who you calling a heifer?

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Glad to see others remember and appreciate her.

She won't be ignored on my watch! Apologies to Ursula...

Marc McKenzie said...

A great post! In regards to female SF/Fantasy writers, I would add Kaoru Kurimoto, a prolific Japanese writer of both SF and fantasy. Her most well-known series was THE GUIN SAGA, which ran for nearly 130 volumes written between 1979 and 2009, the year of her death.

Yep, you read it right--130 volumes. And she wrote many other novels as well.

Granted, her work was primarily for a Japanese audience; only the first five volumes of THE GUIN SAGA have been translated into English and other languages. However, she was influenced by American pulp-SF and writers like Fritz Lieber, Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Burroughs.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on her: