The success of the new Wonder Woman film, based on an iconic feminist character, only highlights how few strong women roles existed in fantasy literature of the past, although this is fast changing.
The release – and success – of the Wonder Woman film, one of the very few in which a female fantasy character plays a lead, has inevitably raised the question of why we do not have more such films. Focussing on the film part alone, though, may not help you find the answer, you must also look at the material on which films are based – or from which they are inspired.
If you wander over to the section in a bookstore where the books on fantasy, science fiction or weird fiction are housed, you will inevitably be confronted by cover art that objectifies characters, particularly women, caused not least by the fact that women make up very few of the illustrators.
More troubling than the art cover, though, has often been the content within the covers. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, is arguably one of the most influential fantasy books of all time, becoming even more so as the film adaptation of it went on to make more than $3 billion at the box office, and this is not even counting the prequel, The Hobbit. And yet the book has no real female character worth the name.
In the film adaptation the characters of Galadriel, Eowyn and Arwen are played up a little more than they are in the books, but even that hardly takes away from the fact that the story is about men doing things. Sometimes they do so with emotion, sometimes with gritted teeth, sometimes with laughter, but it is all men. So much so that the one “deed” that a woman does – Eowyn confronting and killing the Witch-king of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl – is unwomanly.
It is prophesised that no man would kill the Witch-king, and when she confronts him on the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he tells her so. But that is only because she is a woman disguised as a man. Her triumph over him is precisely her actions of not being a woman. Soon enough, she is weak, recovering from her wounds and finds comfort in the affection of Faramir – who “being a man whom pity deeply stirred, it seemed to him that her loveliness amid her grief would pierce his heart” – falls in love, and becomes a “normal” woman again.
In a sense Tolkien was aware of these issues, for it is Eowyn herself who voices them earlier, saying to Aragorn, “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.” Despite having documented this, Tolkien did nothing to address this issue. His successors continued to populate the orc and elf-filled domain that he created with characters that were – at best – objectified.
The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan, seemed to do better. Although enormously derivative – the nods to both Tolkien and Frank Herbert’s iconic Dune were less nod and more kowtow – they had substantial female characters, ranging from fighters to magicians to spies and queens. None of this stopped Jordan from portraying all of his female characters as a mix of seductresses, harridans or miffed aunt-type figures who are perpetually crossing their arms under their (never to be neglected) bosoms, or pulling their braids in irritation. The cover of the first book, with a dainty woman on a small pony, with a huge armoured guard on a large horse about three times her size, does allow us the chance to judge the books – there were 12 in the series – by the cover.
It would take a woman, of course, to reverse this trend, in a way. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is easily one of the most feminist texts in the fantasy world. Although ostensibly about the male character Ged, the eponymous A Wizard of Earthsea of the first of five novels, the books are a deep meditation on ownership and freedom, and within it, house characters of women who negotiate, manipulate and overcome male power.
Her effect would be wide-ranging, and she was one of the influences that Hayao Miyazaki cited in developing his Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds – the hugely successful Manga series that ran from 1982 to 1994. In a post-apocalyptic world, Nausicaa is the princess of a small locality eking out its existence by avoiding the great dangers of the mutated world. Nausicaa is anything but objectified. Other than Le Guin, another influence that Miyazaki cited was the 12th century Japanese story titled ‘Mushi Mezuru Himegimi‘ (The Lady Who Loved Insects), about an aristocratic woman who neglected her looks and clothes but was much more interested in fauna.
Both books were adapted into animation films. Nausicaa was released in 1984, and is considered one of the greatest animation films ever made in Japan. Miyazaki’s son, Goro, would go on to adapt the Earthsea series into animation film as well, which did well in Japan, but received very mixed reactions elsewhere.
Newer, male authors of fantasy hold out hope that this trend will only deepen. Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry series is probably the best mirror to The Lord of the Rings, but unlike Tolkien, Kay’s characters are rich with strong and complex women characters. It may also be why it contains one of the few retellings of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story where Guinevere is both understandable and, in her own way, utterly deserving of the love of two great men.
Then there is Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series set in a world, but specifically London, where ghosts and other spirits are returning as if a drain has been plugged in the afterlife. Although the anchor of the series is the character of Castor as an exorcist of sorts, each book is centred about issues of bondage, exploitation and trafficking, making it one of the most powerful feminist texts available in new weird fiction.
All of which goes to show how much the fantasy genre has evolved when it comes to the role of women in the last few decades. While this may explain why earlier movies had no such roles, given the popularity of the new characters and their success of the books that they have appeared, it does not explain why movie studios do not make more fantasy films with strong women roles, or structured around feminist ideas.