Who Gets to Escape?


I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

 J. R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” from The Tolkien Reader,  Ballantine Books, 1966.

Escapist storytelling has been with us even before Homer and his audience sat around the fire spinning tales. The human soul needs both serious works and books that are purely intended to entertain. But even nowadays, escapism apparently is allowed only to certain groups.

While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers— a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape. (This essay focuses primarily on American books because that is what we’re most familiar with.)

Serious literature focusing on social and individual problems is good and necessary. But it should not be the only type of reading that’s available.

 * * *

Rachel: I’m Jewish. It is almost impossible to find Jewish protagonists in my favorite escapist genres. I can literally name to you the titles of every book ever published by a major publisher in America, with a Jewish protagonist, in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and romance.  Those are all genres which are commonly considered escapist. In young adult, children’s, and adult mainstream fiction— all genres which are not inherently “escapist”— there are far more Jews, but, almost inevitably, they only inhabit novels on serious subjects like anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.

When the only fiction you can read about people like yourself is exclusively concerned with how hard it is to be an oppressed minority, it sends a number of subtly toxic messages: you don’t belong here; people like you are not allowed to have fun; if you want to escape, you can only do it by imagining yourself into a gentile  identity.Egyptian art


Sherwood: When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, it was very difficult to find stories whose kid heroes did not reinforce the majority status quo. I didn’t think about that. I just accepted that adventuring kids were pretty much like me. The first heroine not like me that I recollect loving passionately was Mara in Mara, Daughter of the Nile.  Now there was a heroine to root for! She didn’t look like me, but I wanted to be like her.

The only way to find stories about people who were not me was in travel books or historical novels, like Mara. But when it came to cool adventures and magic, everybody was literally, or at least implied, a WASP. People who didn’t fit that mold were either caricatures, or singled out to stand on the sidelines cheering. Sometimes both.

Now, there are wonderful choices to be found for young readers, which please the kid in me, but you know what I can’t find? Escapism for old women. When they show up in stories, they are figures of derision, helpless, boring, unsexed.

old woman

 * * *

 Now that both of us have discussed our individual identities, we’d like to talk about one we have in common. We are both women.

There have been many arguments about the tendency of women in fantasy novels to be portrayed solely as powerless victims, to be raped and sometimes murdered to motivate the hero or demonstrate to the reader that the world of the book is gritty and “real.” Those in favor of such portrayals argue that such portrayals are realistic— in medieval times, the average woman was powerless and often raped and murdered— and that realism is a literary virtue.

Leaving aside the dubious historicity of such arguments, it is only female characters whose portrayals must be “realistic” and must reflect the experiences of an average woman. The average man in a medieval setting would have been a powerless peasant  or craftsman who never left his village or had adventures.

But the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies— heroes of escapist imagination. They have special powers, secret royal heritage, astounding fighting skills, or magical talent. If they truly are ordinary in themselves, they are thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rise to the occasion.

Aragorn, Kvothe, and Jon Snow are not representative of the average straight white man. They are intended as fantasy figures. But in countries where straight white men hold the power, only their fantasy figures are common, respected, and hold iconic status.

These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.



Who Gets to Escape? — 54 Comments

  1. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.

    That is also a case for denying all sorts of minorities, too. People of color. People of alternate sexualities. Anyone who isn’t a heterosexual white male, come to think of it.

    I’d like to think that, with your example of Mara, that readers would have a wider imagination when it comes to this. Or movie goers, for that matter.

    • Hollywood is especially lax in this regard. They still can’t seem to get past the idea that people will only go see a movie if it has a white het male as the lead.

  2. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, actually. SFF is full of “male power fantasies.” Where are the female ones? They appear relatively rarely in original/published fiction, and when they appear in fanfiction, they are often derided as Mary Sues, as if that means they fail as characters. (Sometimes they do, in fairness. But let us not forget that Kvothe is the biggest Gary Stu who ever Gary Stued, and millions of Rothfuss’ fans still love him. Myself included).

    And, because I’m a writer, my next thought about female wish fulfillment characters is “I should write one.”

    I’ll let you know when I do 😉

    • Heh! True about Kvothe–and true about how Rothfuss makes us love him anyway!

      Yes, there’s been way too much “Mary Sue” finger pointing at equivalent female characters. I do think sometimes the writing is at fault (for both females and males, i.e. the narrative voice tells us that the character is smarter, faster, more beautiful than anyone, but doesn’t actually show us) but that’s a different kettle of arthropods.

      • I can’t read Rothfuss. I got 300 pages into the first book — having read it on the recommendation of a (male) friend who loved it — and gave up. I don’t know if I’d have felt the same way had the protagonist been female, but I suspect I would have. I think my main problem was the combination of the ways the character was stupid and the ways he was clever. Useful for the plot, but felt inconsistent to me.

        • There are some who felt that his actions weren’t really clever, but the narrative voice told us they were clever. It’s interesting how that voice excused everything for some readers, and didn’t convince others. (These latter being a very, very small minority, judging from his phenomenal sales.)

        • And I could see that the man was heading for disaster, that he was far too smart and powerful for his youthful experience. I stalled out about where you did. I think the third book is going to be tragedy, perhaps unmitigated tragedy.

        • Made two tries. The second got farther than the first, but not so far as you, I think. The author’s finger on the scales grew a little too much.

    • Well, Ariane Emory, no? Also Jirel of Joiry, first in a long line of modern women warrior heroines. But I do agree these characters are a minority.

  3. This seems to be something that’s gaining some currency of awareness these days. Hopefully the next step will be the genre blowing up with an awesome diversity of characters in the coming generation. (I’m doing my best, when I write a new book these days. Now I just need to get that crucial next step. 🙂 )

  4. As a girl I loved reading biographies of queens and empresses and I would have loved fantasy, too, had it existed.
    One thing that bothers me about women in fantasy is that usually–not always– they are some form of extreme and not real people. Same is true of male characters I guess.
    Sorry I didn’t like Kvothe. He makes me tired.

    • Fantasy existed, but it was Lord Dunsany and Sylvia Townsend Warner and Hope Mirilees until Tolkien became popular. And of course kids’ books, where there were usually a group of kids. Girls got to be more active in children’s fantasy, but everybody was white.

      Yeah . . . the extreme is part of heroic tales. Otherwise we get Real Life novels.

  5. I’ll grant that mature women as protagonists are thin on the ground in fantasy — though there’s Granny Weatherwax in Pratchett’s Discworld novels. And the Luidaeg, who’s a noteworthy secondary character in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye books, arguably should count. (Now that I think of it, the narrator’s grandmother in McGuire’s brand-new InCryptid novel, Half-Off Ragnarok, gets a couple of particularly good scenes as well.) One older, relatively obscure example worth looking up: Vera Chapman’s medieval Abbess of Shaston, featured in a collection of short stories entitled The Notorious Abbess.

    But over in mystery…if you have not read Dorothy Gilman, you really, really should. Her best known work is the series starring widowed grandmother Emily Pollifax as a singularly effective secret agent, which neatly balances suspense and humor, but there is also The Clairvoyant Countess and its sequel, Kaleidoscope, featuring as protagonist one Madame Karitska, a professional psychic advisor who is very good at helping people solve problems of various kinds (some criminal, some merely mysterious). Gilman passed away not too long ago, but she left behind a very sizeable and very solid body of work. And there are other, newer examples — one excellent series is that by Monica Ferris (a pen name for Mary Monica Pulver) featuring middle-aged Betsy Devonshire, whose sister has died and left her a needlecraft shop in small-town Minnesota.

    • It’s true that mysteries have done better by old women, ever since Agatha Christie. I wish I liked them better! But I don’t care for gross forensic details, get so bored with hunting clues and so forth (I don’t have a brain for puzzles), and I totally bar serial killer stories. I guess I’m hoping that there might be more about them in the genres I like to read.

      • You might still like Gilman in particular, I think. The Pollifax books are caper adventures as much as they are mysteries, such that the puzzle-solving is never more important than getting the right people properly through the relevant harrowing circumstances to the climax. And Gilman’s stories depend very little on forensic detail.

        Indeed, now that I think about it, Emily Pollifax is a heroine on precisely the same continuum as Elizabeth Peters’ Vicky Bliss and your own Kim Murray — for all three protagonists and in all of their adventures, it’s the experience and who you’re sharing it with that counts, rather than any procedural puzzle-solving. (And now that this has occurred to me, I can’t help but imagine someone writing fanfic in which Mrs. Pollifax finds herself in Dobrenica during one of her CIA assignments….)

        • I do have an omnibus edition of Mrs. Polifax. I really like the beginnings, but tend to bog down when it gets to clues and such. But I will try again!

          • FWIW, the Madame Karitska books might try your patience less; structurally, they divide the material into shorter chunks (indeed, I believe at least one of the two is a partial fixup of short stories originally published in the mystery-magazine digests). And there’s The Nun in the Closet, which is a straight-out caper adventure that was never marketed as mystery in the first place. [If memory serves, the lead nun in that one rides a motorcycle….]

  6. P. C. Hodgell’s Jame I think qualifies. Hodgell, I think, is a very underrated author; if she were he, he would be recognized as a great epic fantasist.

    As for old women, what about Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax? But I will admit she is exceptional, and vedi British.

    Part of the problem, I think, is that our prejudices make the heroines that are in the books less likely to be thought of. So these names don’t come quickly to mind. I expect the whole problem is largely a result of a publishing industry that, until recent decades, was dominated by white men, who after all like characters like themselves. Perhaps the democratization of publishing that newer technologies enable will make this less of a problem, provided anyone can actually still make money in publishing at all!

  7. This is looking at your question from a totally different angle, but: as for who gets to escape, in escapist literature, first of all, it has to be people who have a tradition of reading, and of reading for pleasure. I thought about that in Timor-Leste: I’d brought along one book for reading if I had a chance/inclination for reading. It was a China Miéville fantasy. I found it almost impossible to shift the number of gears possible to enter into the world–and I’m a reader. But even just holding the book in my hands… what is this? what am I doing? what is all this stuff in here, this not-real world? And as for actual Timorese? (Who have plenty of desire for some escapism now and then) I’d guess that the numbers who are escaping through literature is vanishingly small. They get their break from reality in other ways.

    So there’s that.

    But yeah! Kids–and adults–with a concept of escaping into literature totally deserve to see themselves in the books they read, and not just as the long-suffering protagonists of “problem novels.”

    • Yes, I guess this subject pretty much presupposes reading as escape. But as you say, there are many other ways of escape.

      Yes and amen to your last line.

  8. I loved “Mara, Daughter of the Nile,” too. I loved reading about people who were not like me. But now that I’m older, I still love that, but I also try to write stories about as wide variety of people as I can. But there lies a problem: how well can I write about people who are in fact very different?

  9. Not fantasy, but a book that allows very entertaining escape and one that I loved precisely because it has an older woman, is Elizabeth Moon’s science fiction novel Remnant Population.

    I wonder if the time for “mature” (in the sense of older, not explicit 🙂 ) fantasy might be here. Not only do we have many mysteries featuring women protagonists varying from middle-aged to downright old, but the romance genre has a subgenre devoted to romance among the older generation. So, it seems to me that it might be the turn for science fiction and fantasy to make the lea.

    Sherwood, one of the things I loved about your Nebula award nominee story, “Mom and Dad at the Home Front” was precisely the older pov.

  10. My next book, which I’m about to hop into, features as one of the characters a much older woman who unlike Granny is not celibate. And is a person of power. I hope to mirror the culture of the area it takes place in by having people of several races as major characters.

    But it will be a balancing trick, because the study of magic makes one a geek. And the major culture here means the isolation of studying magic will make you weird to the women of some groups if you’re a woman studying, and weird to the young men of that group if you’re a guy studying.

    Also, I have discovered that younger readers now feel like they need to assure people that my tough, no-nonsense, insanely curious young witch in Night Calls and Kindred Rites is not a Mary Sue. I was surprised to see that pop up, and am wondering if I have to slide her doing something evil in to clear up that little problem. I hope not–she’s not evil. But I suspect her hormones blooming will make her do a couple of things that she won’t be proud of in later years.

    It’s time to reread “On Fairy Stories”. Escape is not desertion!

  11. I have just finished a trilogy about (among other things) a tough Asian woman. If anyone tells me she is a Mary Sue, I will solve the issue the way I do so many. I will refer them to my daughter.

  12. Another reason we don’t see a lot of older women in our fantasy is the myth in publishing that writing is a young person’s game. I think this was started by the he-man writers of the 30s (e.g., Hemingway) who wanted to put writing on a par with bull fighting and war. I’ve known a few young people who were awesome writers from the get go, but most of us get better as we go along.

    Someone needs to start a discovery series of “best unknown writers over 60” or some such, and maybe we’d get more interesting older characters in our fiction.

  13. I find I’m getting a mite tired of the fact that when this subject comes up, the one or two named and nameable exceptions come up as if this suggests the problem is solved.

    Granny Weatherwax (And Nanny Ogg, who, though she doesn’t want to think of herself as a crone in one book really isn’t significantly younger, and is many things Granny isn’t – like sexually active) DOES NOT countermand 30,000 young male protagonists, or even the few hundred teenage girl protagonists showing up. Ista should not be the only middle aged woman people name. We should not be able to name the above 3 ladies, 10 protagonists of colour, then Vanyel and Richard St Vier and Bel Thorne for the GBLT community, and say we’re done with representing diversity. That’s not how it works.

    Similarly, if all the examples one cites are from fiction written in the 1970s and 80s, well, again, that’s not helping. We shouldn’t be needing to dig into the archives to find the fait accompli. We need books about old bats written now, thank you. Same goes for all of the above.

      • Yes. And, because Randolph above wasn’t (Quite) falling into that trap – even if it was his comment and your response that prompted my thought – I should clarify that it’s not the mentioning of the common and known exceptions that I take issue with (And I definitely don’t take issue with under-appreciated authors getting a nod for their work, in the case of less common examples).

        It’s the treating it as if every mention is proof there is no problem.

    • And this is why I mentioned a book in my initial comment that came out just this month. No, the problem is not solved. But at least it’s beginning to be addressed.

  14. This is an excellent point. Thank you for sharing. I think this is true for movies, too. It seems like people of color are most often featured in films about historical suffering. I’m not saying this to diminish the value of those films; they are incredibly important. But what about in other types of movies?

    Last year for my class about diversity in YA lit, I wanted to read a book about a Hmong character for my final project. And I could only find 3 different books, total. I don’t think any of them featured teens, only children, and I wasn’t able to access any of them in time to be able to do my project on them. It was disappointing, especially when I asked my roommate (who is Hmong) if she had ever read a book about a Hmong person, and she said she had only ever seen one. That one book was about a younger character and geared towards a younger audience. I hope that as the years pass my friend will begin to have many choices in books featuring Hmong characters.

  15. I only just got around to reading this post and wanted to add a current television character to the crone list: the mother of the main character in Grimm. She is also a Grimm, a slayer of monsters and an exceptionally skilled warrior. Not the cuddly maternal type as she gave up her son to protect him from her line of work, but there are flashes of fierce maternal love throughout her appearances. She is determined to make the world a better place, as she sees it. As I get older I appreciate seeing, and reading, about women my age and older. Too much media is aimed at a younger audience.