On "Problematic" Elements in a Fantasy World
On Twitter this morning, I came across the following Tweet by Avery Edison, re-tweeted by well-known author Dan Wells, whose John Cleaver books I am a fan of.
@aedison 20 Feb 2013
I HAVE CREATED AN EPIC FANTASY WORLD WHERE DOGS CAN FLY AND GOLD CAN SPEAK and also women are subjugated sorry that's how it was then OKAY?
This isn't the first time I've seen that argument. A particularly vocal member of New Millennium Diverse Fantasy (a Facebook group I would join if it weren't for how aggravating some of its members are) insisted the manifold cruelties of A Song of Ice and Fire cannot be defended on the grounds of "realism" because this is a world where there are dragons (capable of nursing from lactating human women no less) and the Others.
The argument is superficially plausible, but emphasize "superficial." The pre-industrial societies most fantasy worlds are based on (including Martin's) for the most part sucked. For everybody (by modern standards even nobles were poor), but women in particular had it bad. A feudal economy and/or social structure is going to produce elements the Internet Social Justice crowd will call "problematic" by its very nature. Power corrupts and putting all the power in the hands of rich, strong young men is going to have bad consequences for women, the poor, etc. For all its vaunted power, the medieval Catholic Church tried and failed to restrain private war, violence against the Jews, forced marriage, etc., and this was an institution that supposedly had authority over said rich, strong young men's everlasting souls.
(If anything, this is a reason to call out fantasy worlds with princes, princesses, etc. for how they idealize a time that was very bad for almost everybody. George RR Martin's brutalities deconstruct these tropes--the handsome prince Joffrey Baratheon is a spoiled sadist, the pretty princess Sansa Stark is unbelievably naive and suffers for it, and rather than being a Perfectly Arranged Marriage, the union between King Robert Baratheon and Queen Cersei Lannister is unequal and abusive. And the violence the brutish Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch inflict on the Riverlands is based on a specific military tactic from medieval warfare.)
J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has been criticized by SF author David Brin due to how, despite its feudal-ish nature, the society is depicted as fairly benign. Perhaps the Stewards of Gondor keep a close eye on the nobles so they don't oppress the common people (in the vein of the Chinese emperors or certain Byzantine dynasties--and Tolkien himself compared Gondor to Byzantium, so that might actually work), but I don't remember this from the text. The Knights of Dol Amroth, in order to have the leisure time needed to become effective cavalry, almost certainly rely on the labor of a large number of peasants. Human nature being what it is, a more realistic portrayal of this type of society would see peasant unrest and complaints, especially in bad times. It's not like real history lacked for them in England or in France.
Now, this is not to say any story based on such a society HAS to be an atrocity pit. Even the pre-modern societies all of us can agree were cruel and restrictive (toward women and others) weren't nearly as restrictive as one might think. Misogynistic medieval Europe still produced personalities like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc. And in fact, fantasy elements can actually serve to undermine social injustice.
For example, the Wheel of Time series (which I admit I haven't read) depicts magic as something only women can use safely. Such women would have a much greater capacity to defend themselves against male violence, which would reduce the need for male protection and thus male control. Even oft-criticized Martin depicts the ruling Targaryen dynasty, whose members of either sex have a unique ability to bond with dragons and thus have an overpowering weapon in war, forbidding the conquered Westerosi nobles from claiming the right of First Night over peasant women.
So if you're going to base your fantasy world on a pre-industrial society, depict it with all its rough edges. If you're going to depict it being less unpleasant than it was, justify it. Although Avery Edison's flying dogs and talking gold wouldn't make faux medieval Europe a less misogynistic place, a woman with feminist inclinations and a fire-breathing dragon (and the ear of a man with similar assets) just might.