One of the bits I really enjoy about Inglourious Bastards and Django Unchained is that Tarantino really demonstrates that he knows when to set aside historical accuracy, when to keep it close , and when to throw it off of a building. Sure World War II didn’t quite end like that in the real world, but we can fantasize, right? Keep that in mind…
I’ve been reading T.H White’s The Once and Future King (spoiler warning). It is superb; I found the Sword and the Stone slightly tough to get through, but the rest has been absolutely brilliant. His Guinevere is interesting, and very relevant to my thoughts here. White sees Guinevere as an tempestuous child of privilege who grows into a brilliant woman who is confined by the role society sets on her, and she accepts for love of Arthur; her love of Lancelot is a form of relief from the burdens this duty: she lives vicariously through him. In White’s version of the tale everyone in Camelot knows that Lancelot and Guinevere are having an affair, even Arthur, and it is only when Mordred and company force the issue, using the law against Arthur, that it becomes a serious problem.
White’s version of the Arthurian Tale is quite faithful to Mallory, but focuses primarily on the characters of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. He does not deviate greatly from the traditional roles. Guinevere is given to Arthur as a bride at her Father’s behest. She has little choice but to follow that role, and when she considers breaking away from that role as a mature woman she chooses not to because she also loves Arthur and believes in his dream. Tradition binds her, but it is her choice to follow that tradition when she is at the height of her power. Very interesting, and nuanced.
Unlike the aristocratic alliances of the middle ages and Arthurian myth, modern notions of love and sexuality are based around consent. I often hear pundits decry that we are living in an age of immorality and permissiveness, where every form of “perversion” will gradually become acceptable. This is particularly grating in the gay marriage discussion, where I have been forced to listen to the argument that if we allow Gay Marriage, then it opens the door for bestiality and pedophilia! This is a nonsense argument that ignores the idea of consent which is at the heart of how we view sex and marriage. Gay Marriage is consistent within our laws because it involves a relationship between two consenting adults. This is not the case with bestiality or pedophilia. Interestingly as consent has become the basis of marriage, the legal age of marriage and sexual activity has actually gone up in comparison to non consent based system. You don’t see too many child-brides when consent is the primary factor.
In a Fantasy setting the laws are based around whatever the writer wants them to be. It seems wasteful to have a medieval attitude towards women, unless you are writing historical fantasy, or going the way of George R.R. Martin and using the ugliness of that system to fuel a medieval bonfire of the vanities. Cersei is White’s Guinevere in reverse, in many ways. The main difference is how she chooses to deal with the situation that is forced on her. It is an interesting comparison, but best left to a better thinker. If you need that tension, historical tradition certainly provides it. If you don’t, why bother?
If you make the rules in your setting, why separate the roles of the sexes at all? Your potential audience as a fantasy writer is full of both men and women. I guarantee a few of your female readers have dreamt of being Knights and a few of your male readers are far more interested in princely fashions than swords and armour. I see it all the time in gaming, and certainly in discussions about gender roles in books. Here are a few ways to approach changing gender roles differently in a medieval fantasy setting.
1) Role Reversal: I have to admit this is one of my favourites. Ever since encountering the matriarchal power structure of the Drow in D&D I’ve had a soft spot for fiction that puts women at the top of the power structure, including as the dominant warrior class.
2) Modern Gender Attitudes: It is bad to impose modern value judgments on historical situations. Fantasy is not history, however, so I see no reason that we cannot have the modern notions toward gender equality in medieval Fantasy setting. This approach allows for the widest variety of characters and greatest appeal to modern readers. It does lose out on the tension created by gender roles, but if you don’t want to explore those in depth, its not really much of a loss. This is the approach I use in Bloodlust, where the women are on even terms with the men.
3) Fully Re-created Gender Roles: For authors who want to get into the nuts and bolts of their Fantasy societies, we can really go crazy. I’m always minded of the Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S Tepper, one of my favorite books, in this case. As a Fantasy writer or game designer you can create whatever roles fit the story you want to tell. You can have men and women live in separate societies, coming together only for procreation. You can rigidly define medieval style traditional Gender Roles, but make your own. The Stormlight Archives is an interesting example of this with men taking up the Knightly Arts while women are Scholars and Scientists (although men can be priests…)
Of course, just because the society you create defines gender roles one way doesn’t mean that your characters should always follow them. Sometimes it pays to break the rule’s you’ve created. After all for every story about a Guinevere or Cleopatra choosing to work within the role that their tradition places on them there is a Joan of Arc or an Aria Stark who chooses to reject that tradition and follow her own path…
Post Scriptum (5/15/2013): I like the character of Princess Merida in the movie brave, even if I found the story less than epic and the conclusion questionable. The Disney makeover actually offended me. Merida’s mix of gawky teenage awkwardness, Celtic ferocity, and rebelliousness really interested me. I also thought she was beautiful already, and very well “branded” for the modern audience to be honest. And people wonder why I fear for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel. This is what huge corporations can do to your beloved characters without a second thought. Just wait for it.