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Aesthetic – Strip it away

 

I like to write about things that are important to me.

I saw today’s prompt and I was excited. So excited that I’ve raced home in order to try and express my response in a slightly more logical, accurate and researched method than my usual ad-hoc ramblings.

Woman in fantasy writing, who are they and how are they represented? As a child I fell in love with Dragonlance. A mouldy paperback of the Dragon’s of Autumn Twilight by Margerat Weiss and Tracey Hickman was what sealed my love for Fantasy. I’d already explored Narnia (thoroughly), Hobbitton and the Hundred Acre wood and Harry Potter hadn’t arrived yet. So here was this book, for adults with all the things I loved about the computer games I immersed myself into: Daggerfall featuring most prominently.

However, as a young woman the main heroine of the saga is Lauralanthalassa. Now, not to discredit this character who grew into the Golden General, Dragon-Flying, Army-Leading incredible powerhouse – but for the entire first book of the initial series she is defined by her beauty. I love the writing of Laurana’s introduction, but it’s all aesthetic. She’d an elf, she achieves an untouchable ideal of beauty by her very race. Not only that, but Laurana is the epitome of womanhood, no trace of age is upon her. Even the mage who see’s decay, looks upon the elf-maiden and sees beauty for the first time.

Now I fell in love with Laurana – but I really wanted a sword. Before she becomes the general she needs to be rescued and protected – a lot. She’s a fairy-tale princess, although not necessarily passive. After all, she decides to follow her true-love instead of waiting for him to come back; and it is this decision that propels her into adventure.

But after I fell in love with Dragonlance, it felt like I spent years searching for a heroine that I could aspire to be. I could never reach the ideal beauty of Laurana and I really really wanted a sword. I wanted to be a knight if I’m honest, and I couldn’t find that story in any of the books I was reading.

I was seventeen when I picked up a copy of ‘First Test’ – By Tamora Pierce in the library. I read it, sat between the stacks whilst my parents did the weekly shop in the supermarket over the road. I still remember shivering with excitement, barely able to read as I was pulled into this amazing world and this story that I had wanted, so badly, for so long, to read. It was like when you watch Peter Pan, then spend all day jumping off the sofa trying to fly – hasn’t worked so far, but I might keep trying. I checked out the entire series and within a day had finished it off. I had to go back to the library over the weekend and took out as many of Pierce’s book as I could. Here were heroines who go to be girls, and be knights. To speak to animals and yet…they could still be girls.

Natalie Babbitt calls fantasy “the most wrenching, depth-provoking kind of fiction available to our children’.”[1]

My desperation was to find a strong, female role-model that I could identify with, and that’s what I want to write.  As study was conducted by Laura Solomon, who analysed 45 fantasy novels for children and young adults. This is one of the results:

Statistically in the books studied: “In Alternate World/History fantasy, beauty is a defining trait for 25% of females.”[2]

That’s it. For a quarter of heroine’s beauty is their defining trait. They don’t get to be brave, intelligent, they don’t have hobbies, talents or skills – they’re pretty.  What’s worse, is if you’re not pretty in the story then you fall at the other end of the spectrum and you’re a hag. In stories, how much emphasis is placed on appearance? It’s something hard to avoid when writing, because you want the reader to be able to visualise your protagonist. However it feels as though there is something deeply harmful in only allowing our young woman to be either an epitome of beauty, or a hag.

“Certainly most children will not describe themselves as ugly, making those at this end of the spectrum unlikely candidates for close reader relationships. Females noted mostly for or only for their appearance fall at the other end and, while some readers may relate to them (and many girls wish to be them), these types of depictions only strengthen society’s message that beauty is all-important.”[3]

I want my characters, male and female to be defined by more than their appearance. I want my readers to engage with role-models that offer ways to deal with a complex and changing world and to come away with a sense of hope; that no matter how crazy this place gets – it’ll be alright.

Here is a brilliant article about writing strong female protagonist and how we’re loosing them. When an inevitable aesthetic is stripped away, I want it to be clear to my reader that their heroine could never be replaced by a floor lamp.

I also agree that being a strong, female protagonist doesn’t mean that you can’t like pretty dresses and make-up. Readers, especially our young adult readers, should be able to engage with characters that they feel represent them or they can identify with, no matter what race, gender identity, sexuality or disability. There’s another amazing series of articles here if this is something you want to carry on reading about.

[1] AUTHOR Solomon, Laura

TITLE Images of Women in High Fantasy for Children and Adults:  Comparative Analysis.

PUB DATE1998-10-00

Solomon, Laura. “Images of Women in High Fantasy for Children and Adults: A Comparative Analysis.” (1998). – Page 6

[2] Ibid., Page 15

[3] Ibid., Page 16

My Response to the Daily Prompt: –Aesthetic

8 Comments »

  1. The Black Arrow: A Tale of Two Roses by Robert Louis Stevenson written in 1888, remains one of my favorite novels with a female heroine. I like to believe that Joan of Arc and Mulan were not the only young ladies who dressed as men to do what they had to in the male dominated middle ages. There could have been many more, we never heard about.

  2. For a strong female protagonist in a fantasy novel, I’d suggest The Deed of Paksennarion. It’s low fantasy, not much in the way of magic and such, but still very good. For more modern fantasy setting, the Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series. Modern gothic fantasy, ignore the covers they have absolutely nothing to do with those books.

    On a side note, it should be noted that taking the “strong, independent woman” thing can go too far, turning the character into a bitchy stereotype that can’t possibly be wrong. If you want a good example of that, Belgariad and Mallorean. Good series, but I don’t know anybody who actually likes Ce’Nedra or Polgara. Velvet was pretty good though, and another good example, though she’s a more supporting role, story-wise.

    • Hello! I used it a few years ago in my MA dissertation as well, it’s been very useful but I have been looking to see if there’s anything else around. I’m tempted to attempt an analysis myself and hopefully find things have changed. However, a study from my own book shelves would be of Robin Hobb, Tamora Pierce, Robin Mckinley and so would be fairly bias! Thank you for dropping by!

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