Too Sexy For This Epic: Feminization and Epic Fantasy

A while back I discussed the supposed “feminization” of science fiction. My piece was essentially a rebuttal to an article that claimed that science fiction was, to the detriment of its inherent ‘maleness’, being unduly feminized. In short, I rejected this notion and pretty much every point that the other author made.  Recently, author N. K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) has been having an interesting discussion on her blog about the ‘maleness’ of epic fantasy and whether or not encroachments by more “feminine elements”, particularly elements that are explicitly sexual in nature, somehow disqualify such works as being part of that genre.

The heart of Jemisin’s discussion is the explicit sexuality present in her work, as well as in the work of many other SFF authors.  The negative reaction to explicit sex by an admittedly small portion of her readership began a discussion of the lack of “feminine” elements in what is traditionally marketed as “epic fantasy”.  While some epic fantasies employ sexuality, it is generally approached from the male point of view (or “the male gaze”).  Those that don’t, or those that employ other more “feminine” elements, tend to be classified as either just general “fantasy”, or “urban fantasy”, or even “romance”–even though by every other standard they fit the definition of epic fantasy.  Jemisin’s observation of this phenomenon has prompted a very interesting dialog on the rigidity of genre, the use of sex in fiction, and other related topics.  Now, I have not read Jemisin’s work so I can’t comment on them.  But I do read a fair amount of fantasy and feel that I can offer a few of my thoughts on the topic…

First of all, what marketing considers “epic fantasy” and what fans consider to be “epic fantasy” are two completely different things.  For example, Jemisin brings up the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey as a prime example of a “feminine” fantasy that is clearly epic in scope that is not marketed as such.  For example, while on Amazon it is listed as “fantasy–epic”, this categorization falls after it being listed primarily as “romance“.  In this case, I completely agree with Jemisin.  I thoroughly enjoyed the original Kushiel series (I haven’t read the more recent iterations, only the original three); Carey’s world-building is phenomenal as well as her characterizations.  Further, these novels are clearly epics in every literary sense–Phèdre is, in many ways, the classic “hero” who takes a world-spanning, world-changing journey.  Nevertheless, if someone where to ask me to name an “epic fantasy” series, I can’t say with complete confidence that the Kushiel books would spring to mind.  And, frankly, this could be an example of my being influenced by an inherent bias in regard to epic fantasy. 

Further, a point can certainly be made that the degree of sexuality in the work can cause a genre-shift.  I do believe that the high degree of sex in the Kushiel books are probably why Amazon lists them, erroneously, as “romance”.  To me, while sex in a romance is integral to the plot, the plot is actually about the relationship between the characters–and this relationship is, by definition, a romantic one.  The Carey books have a central romance (the relationship between Phèdre and Joscelin) but the book is really about themes that are so much more…well…epicFurther, sex in the Kushiel books is more than a romantic expression of love.  It is that, to be sure, but it is also religious expression, a weapon, an expression of power, etc.  Based on the romances that I have read, you can often take the sex out of the novel and still have a decent love story.  In Carey’s work, if you remove the sex you remove the story.  Granted, in the case of the “romances” I’ve read, that could have just been an example of bad writing rather than a definition of the genre, but that’s a topic for another blog.  Finally, while in many ways the sex is the story in the Kushiel series, I can’t classify it as erotica.  There are parts that are highly erotic.  There are also parts that are highly distrubing…and are meant to be so.  The sex isn’t for titillation, for the turn-on, or for “the prurient interest“.  Carey handles it in a mature and thoughtful manner, and also happens to be highly realistic in her depictions of the acts involved. 

Are there male writers providing epic fantasy with graphic depictions of sex?  To be honest, I’ve not read any that spring to mind.  George R. R. Martin‘s Song of Ice and Fire series is usually brought up as an example–and it is on my “to read” list.  But I can’t think of a single example where those men who do write sex have had their work miscategorized as romance or erotica.  It’ll be “gritty”, “realistic”, “adult”, but not a “romance”. 

So, in a nutshell, I think Jemison has a point…the sex is what turns the tide in defining the genre in this particular case.

So is it sexism that causes this?  Would we question The Wheel of Time‘s epic fantasy bona fides if, say, Robert Jordan had included graphic depictions of sex in those works?  I’m not sure we would.   While I don’t think most people would be so blatant as to claim that epic fantasy can’t be written by a woman (I would hope not, at any rate), I do think Jemisin has a point in that there is something–something that I can’t quite put my finger on–that doesn’t set right when we speak of epic fantasy and women.

We can’t lay the blame for this solely at the feet of pure sexism. Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with sexuality as a society–it’s hard-wired into our culture.  I don’t want to get into the sexist origins of our puritanical views–that’s chickens and eggs and beside my point.  The fact is that Americans, both men and women, tend to be deathly afraid of female nipples and will abide scenes of unspeakable violence and bloodshed so long as all the participants have their vitals covered.  So when we encounter explicit depictions of sex in our leisure reading, we frankly don’t know what to do with it; it changes the category of what we’re reading.  Is it now “smut”? Is it “trashy”? Should I read it with a brown paper wrapper? It confounds our ability to define it–if it’s sexy, it must be bad. And epic fantasy is good.  So it can’t be epic fantasy.  Right?

With epic fantasy there is also the shadow of Tolkien to consider.  Whether you’re a fan or not, modern epic fantasy owes its genesis to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Consciously or not, we hold them all up to the Professor’s mold to see if they fit.  And LOTR is a lot of things but sexy isn’t one of them.  That’s not to say that epic fantasy writers haven’t broken the mold from time to time–Glen Cook‘s The Black Company springs to mind.  But such works are singular in their difference.  Which brings us back to the issue of why a female author doesn’t spring to mind as a singular difference.  And around the bend we go again…

So my answer to the proposition of whether or not epic fantasy resists feminization…a qualified yes.  Qualified in that I don’t think the genre resists feminine elements–I think it’s strong enough to accept them just fine.  I think that readers and marketers resist including such works into the genre.  A fine point, but I think apt. 

I can’t change the world…but I can change my own way of thinking.  So in that spirit, I present you this proposition: there are mold-breaking feminine epic fantasies.  And they add much to an already-rich genre.  Go forth and enjoy a few of these and expand your horizons.  Break the mold.  And gird your loins for something challenging, something daring.  Something epic.

Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey

The Coldfire Trilogy by C. S. Friedman

Valdemar seriesespecially The Last Herald Mage and Vows and Honor by Mercedes Lackey

The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon

The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart

BTW: Feel free to add more to the comments…I know I’ve missed some…

About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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19 Responses to Too Sexy For This Epic: Feminization and Epic Fantasy

  1. Great article, and much clearer than my rambling! Mind if I Tweet this?

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Too Sexy For This Epic: Feminization and Epic Fantasy « Serial Distractions --

  3. Chris Howard says:

    How about Sharon Shinn’s series about the 12 Houses. Not a ton of graphic sex, but it’s definitely walking that Fantasy/Romance line.

    • Shedrick says:

      Ach…another one I need to read, apparently…

      I’ve never heard of Shinn’s works being lumped into the “romance” camp, but I’ve also not read any, so what do I know? Another one I’m curious about is the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It’s one that I get the impression walks that line as well.

      Of course, the fact that I have a bias in that I tend to think of fantasy books as being “deeper” than romance books is the topic for a whole other blog 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. fozmeadows says:

    Great post! I’d also recommend the works of Kate Elliott and Katharine Kerr.

  5. Pingback: Female Fantasies « shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows

  6. Pingback: Sex, Morality and Epic Fantasy | Cora Buhlert

  7. Estara says:

    here via Cora Buhlert:

    The Sun Sword saga by Michelle Sagara West, while not having much overt sex does really revolve on the acts of the women, to deal with the epic threat to the world, to deal revenge, to find their own space. There are strong male characters as protagonists, too, but even they usually are directed/ influenced by women ^^.

    The Sharing Knife quartet by Lois McMaster Bujold (or the Vorkosigan saga in the sf field, for that matter, where bad and joyful sex do show up and have consequences) articulate the power of love and sex to bridge the gaps between cultures, to complement a relationship and even as a threat to the evil of that particular world.

    I’ve taken to call this subset epic relationship fantasy.

    • Shedrick says:

      Bujold is an author I keep facepalming myself for having not read yet.

      The idea of a subset of “epic relationship fantasy” is interesting. It certainly describes the field. But it’s also interesting that “relationship fiction” is perceived to be an exclusively feminine pursuit. And, to some readers (too many for my tastes), therefore inherently bad for sci-fi/fantasy. But then round the bend we go…

      This discussion also brings to mind Barbara Hambly’s “Dragonsbane” series. She’s brilliant at drawing not only well rounded female characters, but male characters as well. Further, the relationship between the two main characters was so realistic. I think all authors, both male and female, should simply strive for 3-dimensional characterization for characters of both genders and let the rest take care of itself.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Estara says:

        Yes, the first Dragonsbane novel definitely had that taste. Or the Darwath series – has epic danger for the world concerned, but to me it revolves around the relationships of the two travellers from our world with the leaders of that fantasy world.

        LMB definitely deserves a dip into her novels ^^ – you could go with the losely connected Chalion books, the first one even has a male protagonist. And while reading more in that world is rewarding, it’s not as necessary as with the Vorkosigan Saga or Sharing Knife.

      • Estara says:

        Addendum: I actually think that David Eddings and Leigh Eddings also wrote epic relationship fantasy, at least in all the series I read by them – there was always danger to the world but the merry band of adventurers having to take care of that always were friends or relations. There were father and mother figures included, there was romantic love, there were child figured.

        Raymond Feist’s and Janny Wurts’ Tsurani-set trilogy about a woman inheriting a lordship on their world and having to deal with the consequences reads similar – but these books focus less on the epic background of the whole Riftwar saga, so I wouldn’t put them into epic fantasy, more fantasy of manners.

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