Article: Female Sexuality in Fantasy Fiction by Lara Lee

* This post is clean for middle school, high school, and adult readers. I could not come up with a better title for the topic of dealing with healthy and unhealthy female heterosexual relationships, including the choice of having sex, in both Christian and secular fantasy fiction. The title was my best try.

I love fantasy fiction, and many of it has love stories in it as well. Currently, there is a heavy amount of fairytale retellings and romance in the fantasy genre today, especially by female writers. I don’t mind this, but what has caught my attention, though, is how many of these stories depict extremely unhealthy and even abusive relationships as being romantic.

Now, you may ask me why I am not including all love stories in literature in this post? Romance, historical fiction, modern fiction, and many other genres have these same kinds of relationships. This might be true, but I don’t read enough of those genre of books to include them fairly in this post. I can only discuss what I know. If you feel this post applies to other books you have read, then I am glad to help.

So, back to fantasy fiction… I have noticed a few different types of relationships in this genre that I would like to discuss and point out why they are unhealthy and even abusive. The reason I am doing this is because as women, we are often trying to create our own fairytale love stories in real life. If we have an unhealthy model, we will often seek a style of relationship that will end in disaster. I am especially concerned about the conversations and writings I have seen in middle school and high school girls who don’t have the life experience to see where these unhealthy ideals lead. I really wish for every woman to have the happily ever after they dream of.

I feel like I can give some insight to this issue after being married very happily to the same man for almost 20 years. We still adore each other and he still writes me love songs. Our relationship isn’t perfect nor is every couple like us, but I think I can speak the wisdom of experience into this issue. I do believe in happily ever afters, so that is my bias. I have met some women who are so jaded by life that they don’t believe such things are possible. These women will both write and read books differently than me. Unfortunately, I have seen this kind of jadedness in girls as young as middle school who have told me that they want children, but they don’t know if they will ever marry. This hurts my heart. The life partnership of a healthy marriage is a beautiful and amazing thing. I advocate marriage as a wonderful lifestyle. I do know women who are happy single career women, so I acknowledge that marriage is not the only path to happiness. The key, though, for happiness in marriage is that it is a healthy relationship. An unhealthy relationship is one of the most painful experiences a person can endure. The scars of a disfunctional love story can last a lifetime. So, in reading fantasy fiction and forming your ideal happily ever after, consider my advice.

So the first story type I have noticed is what I will nickname “the feminist plot” for short. This isn’t an inclusion of all feminist storylines, but an easy short hand in this discussion of one kind of story. Also, as a side note, I do consider myself a feminist in the first wave sort of way, so this is not an anti-feminist article.

So, in this feminist plot, a female character finds herself being either forced into a marriage or in an attempted rape. She runs away to protect herself, goes on an adventure, falls in love with a male character, and has sex, then they live happily ever after. This plot happens in some of Mercades Lackey books, the Winternight Trilogy, and many others. I do enjoy these books, but the love stories do frustrate me.

The problem with this story is that a woman’s choice is the ultimate goal, but she throws away that choice at no cost to a man who seems good at the moment. Forced marriage and rape are obviously bad, but it is bad because a woman’s sexuality is worth far more than to just be taken away from her. Yet, when a woman gives away her sexuality with no commitments from the man, she is selling herself cheap. In business, we know that when you give something away for free, people don’t value it. When you charge for that same thing, it suddenly is valuable to the buyer and cared for. This goes the same with a woman’s sexuality. I am not advocating a woman selling herself for money or gifts either. That is still too cheap. A man needs to demonstrate his value of a woman and her sexuality by making a commitment (marriage in our culture, but this is fantasy, so it can be called something else).

I know some women see marriage as an enslavement of women. They argue that if there is no plans for children, why marry? The idea is that sex is just two people pleasuring each other by mutual consent and should be free to come and go as they like. If we were just physical animals then this would be logical, but we are more than just physical beings. We are spiritual and emotional beings who give something more in a sexual encounter than just physical pleasure. We give love.

It is the rare person who will develop a physical relationship to someone we do not fall in love with on some level. Because a woman’s body does not need to be the play thing of any rascal out there, she will choose a man who is attractive on both a physical and emotional level. This attraction is the beginning of love, though not the full development of it. We desirve and desire to have a relationship that is faithful, healthy, and valuable. We want to be desirable, special, and important to the person we are with.

This need for value in our relationship is not limited to just women, but a man’s psychology perceives a heterosexual relationship slightly differently. I more often hear of men longing for a treasure they can pursue, win, and don’t have to share. They often want a woman they can just adore without reservations. Women often want to be the most attractive person a man has ever encountered and to be pursued with passion. These are very general stereotypes, but we do see these ideas in literature. Either way, both men and women naturally want their relationships to be valuable. In me perspective, one-night stands are a deviant way to fulfill a physical need, but the emotional toll of such things is dulling and dissatisfaction. These kinds of temporary encounters are not our natural ideal. Even those who sleep around desire a forever love. Fantasy fiction is about our ideals (except for dystopia, but that is the exception to the rule).

Even in the feminist plot, both the woman and man want to find a permanent person to love. It is implied at the end of the book that they stay together. Without a commitment, though, both people know they can’t assume this a forever type of love in that relationship. They must protect their hearts and emotions. We don’t dream of love stories with that kind of reserve to our emotions. We do long to pour out our passion without reservations. So, you may disagree with me, but I can’t stand to see women just give away their sexuality for nothing in return, and a man who just take her gift without exclusivity in his affections.

The next plot I want to discuss is the “Beauty and the Beast” plots. Again, this is an imperfect nickname. I like the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, and I will explain the difference between the fairytale and the retellings that are very popular right now. The basic premise is that a female character is forced into a relationship with a male character against her will. This can take the form of an abduction, a forced marriage, an imprisonment, or l have seen a forced apprenticeship. The plot then progresses in that the distant and resistant male character is actually very sweet. They fall in love, fight some kind of foe, and make their relationship permanent in some manner. This plot had some similarity to Stockholm syndrome, and I unfortunately see it a lot in Christian fantasy fiction. The reason this is more common in Christian fantasy fiction is that the woman is being “good” by submitting to the situation and “converting” the man oppressor/participant. In secular novels, the woman many not actually submit to a kidnapping situation, but still falls in love anyway. The problem is that this relationship is never an equal one.

To me, this is a romantic version of the authoritarian relationships many feminist have tried to escape. Why? Because the authoritarian marriage/relationship can foster an abusiveness that most other styles of relationships don’t hide as well (equals, best friends, even complimentary). Even if the relationship does not end up in domestic violence, the man always has final say in an unbalanced way that minimizes the contributions and abilities on the woman. He is after all the master/mentor/captor. He is in the position of control.

The difference, to me, between an authoritarian relationship and a complementary relationship is that an authoritarian relationship is ruled by the man as King of his family. What he says goes. What he wants is all that matters. A woman is then treated as a child and a lesser partner. In a complimentary relationship, a man is often called the head, but the woman is the neck who can turn the head and also the crown who brings beauty and glory to the head. The partners in this relationship have distinct but equal roles. The woman is not treated as a child, but an equal with equal say. Discussions are often discussed, with the man having a final vote if all things are weighed equal.

Women are often attracted to the Beauty and the Beast plot because it sound like an authoritarian relationship that turns into a complementary one. Some woman like being so desirable that they are taken by force or dominated. There is also an attractiveness to a strong competent man who can take care of a family well. When my husband and I are affectionate, I like it when he is sometimes aggressive, but there is a voluntary submission on my part. The key is choice.

In many of the stories using the Beauty and the Beast plot, the woman is never actually freed or given a real choice. The illusion is created because the man starts caring for the woman, considering her wants and needs, and valuing her as important to him. This still doesn’t give her freedom to walk away or chose to stay. She is still not an equal. She still has no choice. There maybe a proposal of marriage, but I had read almost none of these stories release the woman from the obligations of this situation without strings attached. Her situation is just explained away as being a necessity evil.

Many Christians will point to arranged marriages in the Bible or history, but this is still missing a big point. Arranged marriages were not always happy healthy ones, even in the Bible. Healthy relationships start with both people wanting what is best for their partner, even in an arranged marriage. A man who takes a woman against her will is not looking out for what is best for her. The happy arranged marriages I know of in real life (It is still done in India and other nations than the US), the woman has agreed to to marriage, is well informed about the family and groom, and even has a chance to meet the groom. Even though I do not know the groom is my example, but I understand that he too made the choice to be part of the arrangement and was concerned about his brides happiness with the arrangement. With these elements, they have as much chance for happiness as any healthy marriage.

I am not saying a complementary relationship is the only healthy one either. Some couples divide responsibilities in a relationship equally in nontraditional ways. Others are very loose about how they divide responsiblies and chores. I would dare to say, though, in all healthy relationships the responsibilities are divided in a way that feels fair to both parties and that their focus is on the happiness and well-being of the other rather than themselves.

The beast in Beauty and the Beast (the historical fairytale not the movies or retellings) never requires any sexual or relational commitment from Beauty. He does keep her captive and then tries to woo her because of his curse. In the fairytale, he proposes marriage, but she is allowed to yes or no. The key important climax is when he chooses to let her go when he falls in loves with her even though it would mean his death. Beauty’s love for the Beast is only realized when she is away and has the choice to leave or return. This is not a story about a forced marriage, but of the importance of a mutual choice and commitment from both parties. The importance of her choice is often replaced in retellings with an external evil force that they both most fight together. That’s a fine element, but if the relationship is not between equals, it will be unhealthy.

On this theme of equality, my final plot type is what I will call “the nag” plot. In this story type, the female character meets a sweet male character that she goes on an adventure with. The whole story she treats the man rudely, with contempt and scorn, and in a condescending, know-it-all way. Even so, the man falls passionately in love with her and they live happily ever after. I see this in both Christian and secular stories. I have also seen this from both male and female writers.

If the Beauty and the Beast plot is unhealthy because the man dominates, the Nag plot is unhealthy because of how the woman dominates. This is only one step below the dominatrix or the hen-pecked husband. If men are required to treat women with love and respect, why do we not require the same from from women towards men? There is no excuse for a lack of kindness and sensitivity from both parties in any healthy relationship.

In the 1980s, when women were trying to work their way up to the highest levels of the business and academic worlds, many women felt that they had to be aggressive and even angry to push their way up the corporate ladder. There was some truth to the fact that they were having to fight an entrenched sexism. This made the a very powerful woman an acceptable stereotype, but powerful was often confused with bitchiness. I feel like we have done well as a society in moving passed the anger and keeping the strong woman, somewhat. You can see this development in the various interpretations of Wonder Woman over time.

I am all for strong warrior women. I try to write strong women into all my books, but being strong is not the same as being a jerk. A verbally abusive woman is just as bad as a verbally abusive man. Because throughout history we have had a different image of femininity (as a stereotype), writers sometimes struggle with what a powerful woman should look like. Somehow the nag keeps popping up.

Recently, there was a very public court case in which a man sued his ex-wife for making up lies about him to destroy his career. Some women felt that if a woman lost a case like this, it would be the end of the “Me Too” movement. They were saying that a woman should be believed at all costs. Without regard to the outcome of the case or the people in it, this statement by these few feminists assumes that the woman must always be the victim of abuse and cannot be the abuser. This is absurd. If woman are equally as powerful as men, then they are just as able to abuse that power. The power of the “Me Too” movement depends on the honesty of that woman’s report. Liers destroy the credibility of actual victims of domestic violence and abuse.

So, going back to the Nag plot, a verbally abusive woman is not a strong woman. In true life, some men are attracted to such women just as some women are attracted to authoritarian men, but that still doesn’t make it healthy. If you read historical biographies, you can find many strong women going back all the way into ancient times. A woman’s strength looks different than a man’s strength just because the situation of her life and her realms of responsibility were different. Even so, both truly strong men and women share a powerful sense of virtue, grit, courage, perseverance, wisdom, and even skill. A strong woman is a woman who is persistent in trials to do what is right. She can deal with tragedy without falling apart. She can keep her head and think rationally in a crisis. She can even be physically strong and a talented fighter, but if she is a jerk, she needs to be called out on it. Her strength does not require that she overwhelmed people by her knowledge or pointing out their flaws and mistakes. She doesn’t need to tease other characters for their weakness or use a constant flow of biting sarcasm (though wit, humor, and playfulness even in sarcasm is welcome). A strong women builds people up rather than tears them down.

In a relationship, cruel words have staying power. Those words destroy the person you care about and breaks them down internally. A strong man is not a person in which cruel words just bounce off. If a man is confident enough to be unaffected by such words, he won’t stick around to keep hearing it. Only an insecure man will allow himself to be verbally abused, just like only an insecure woman will stay with a man who abuses her. These abused people don’t “need” abuse or are just loving pass the abuse to save the abuser (a form a enabling that rarely works). No, the abusive words often somehow seem true to the victim and warranted to the abused person. What the insecure person actually needs is the opposite of abusive, harsh words. They need a cheerleader who believes in them. A strong woman can help make a man greater than he is on his own, and in return, it makes her even more powerful. This also desirable is the reverse. An encouraging man can help a woman become her ideal self which them builds him up as well.

You maybe wondering if there are any fantasy fiction books that have a healthy love story at all. These three plot types encompasses a lot of books. First of all, many fantasy fiction books don’t have love stories at all such as the Drizzt Novels, The Hobbit, the Dark is Rising Series, the Chronicles of Narnia, and more. In these cases, my categories are irrelevant. Secondly, there are fantasy fiction novels with healthy love stories. Some of these novels even put their big toe into the plot types I describe without going so far as being unhealthy. “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson starts with an arranged marriage agreed to by the woman. On the day of the wedding, the groom/prince wakes up with this condition that gets him tossed into a forbidden city. The Bride is told he his dead, so they never actually meet until more than halfway through the book. When they do meet, they first don’t even know they are married to each other. They fall in love as very competent equals. Brandon Sanderson is hit and miss with his books when it comes to the love stories, though, but he isn’t the only writer who struggles to maintain healthy love stories when dealing with a variety of different characters with a variety of baggage in their past.

“The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander introduces a very sharp tongued female character. She is only a child in the first book and this sharpness is seen as a vice. As the series progresses and she gets older, she learns to be kinder and matures as her love interest does as well. In Lloyd Alexander’s “Westmark Series” the main female character is a jerk in the first two books. I never finished the third one so I don’t know if she changes at all. The lead male character, though, falls in love with her in the first book when she is still cruel to him.

I am sure there are many other books that I am not thinking of at the moment that have healthy love stories. Even so, I don’t discount a book as unreadable because I don’t agree with the love story. I have enjoyed many fantasy books that I am picking on as unhealthy. With all books, we need to be willing to wrestle with them and analyze them before we internalize their assumptions. I can even appreciate that some of these unhealthy love stories are true to life. The point of this article is to use as a model for ourselves only the healthy ones. That is hard when all the love stories assume the couples live happily ever after. I hope and wish that with all the fantasy fiction love stories that are coming out, more would have healthy relationships. I can only hope, though.