Idealistic vs Realistic High Fantasy:
It seems to me that there are two approaches to high fantasy (fantasy that takes place in a world other than our own, e.g. Middle Earth/Westeros and not Hogwarts/City of Bones). You can make an idealistic fantasy world, where everything is enchanting and “as it should be,” though perhaps there is an evil force threatening to change that. Or you can make a realistic fantasy world, which includes the plague, religious cults, witch burnings, adultery, infant mortality, gore, common abuses of power, incest, suicide, bestiality, slavery, main character deaths, rape, genetic disorders, curse words, and even just plain luck of the draw.
All of these elements existed in the middle ages but are often left out for being too dark, distracting, or unpleasant. The epitome of realistic fantasy is Game of Thrones, which has fantasy elements like dragons and magic but is otherwise practically historical fiction. I’ve learned far more about feudalism and warfare from Game of Thrones than any history class, and it’s clear that Martin’s done his share of research on War of Roses era England. Even the technology and vocabulary are spot-on.
But what happens when a story is in between idealistic and realistic? I most often see this when an author/creator wants to include some sort of struggle or character arc that’s derived from one of those unpleasant elements. Interestingly, the second most common one I see is slavery: the main character (or a major character) is in bondage and needs to free both himself and the other slaves.
You also sometimes see physical or mental conditions and disorders on occasion (e.g. blind characters), though once again these are often their “idealistic” counterparts. Having blind characters “that can see better than the seeing” is a common idyll, whereas being deaf or other conditions are not. There can be plenty of stories about someone overcoming blindness or the lack of a limb, but I’ve yet to seen one dealing with epilepsy or other disorders. This goes for non-disorder conditions, as well, such as autism or dwarfism (dwarfism as a genetic anomaly of humans, and not as a separate race altogether, that is).
Including some ugly aspects and omitting others can be powerful, but aren’t (and probably shouldn’t) be included without cause. Stories that include slavery almost always include a character or plot about solving the slavery problem. And yeah — the story would be pretty distracting if that wasn’t addressed. You can’t have a love story take place on a plantation in the early 1800s and expect me to not constantly be thinking about slavery: it’s just not going to work. That’s not to say that you can’t base a love story in an early 1800s plantation without alienating your audience. There are plenty of stories that need to include ugly parts, like how PTSD and remarks about the horrors of war are always addressed in WWII movies, but not necessarily solved. Authors can easily have prejudices and portray them as bad things without solving them and still have a story that doesn’t feel artificial (ex. arranged marriages and rape).
But the reason you don’t see unaddressed uglinesses like these very often is that they just feel wrong. It would feel wrong to include religious prejudice (ex. Jewish ghettos) in Avatar: the Last Airbender as just a background tidbit without including any of the other ugly elements of low-tech societies. It would be uncomfortable and even disturbing to have a random case of incest in Name of the Wind that the characters just brush off as normal. This is what we call “casual” uglinesses: a disturbing element that is accepted as normal and isn’t a major part of the story.
But there is one ugliness that is consistently included in nearly every high fantasy series (yes, even modern ones) that aren’t addressed at all.
Sexism in High Fantasy:
My friends and I play Dungeons and Dragons, and we all normally play characters of our own gender. I barely remember what the situation was, but a situation once arose during a D&D session where my character wanted to do something, and another player said that the NPC wouldn’t allow it because I was a woman and the middle ages were sexist.
I was completely taken aback. We weren’t including plague, infant mortality, or suicide in our campaign — in fact, there wasn’t even any gore, sex, or curse words unless the players specified it. The DM was PG at its finest. We were obviously including medieval elements that made things fun, like swords and tyrant kings, but omitting things that would make it less fun, like weight limits and bestiality. So why would sexism be built in to the world?
The answer was that sexism wasn’t built into the world, because the world was made by the DM and he said “no.” But the player who expected sexism to be included simply stated that, “This is the middle ages. It’s relalistic.”
I can excuse Lord of the Rings for having traditional gender roles, as it was written long before Title IX and the civil rights movement. I also feel fine watching Avatar the Last Airbender when it includes sexism plotlines because , well, they’re plotlines — and not background details you’re just supposed to accept. But I was recently reading a book called The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, which seems to be an entirely idealistic fantasy series except for, you guessed it, sexism.
I say “seems” because I actually got bored and quit reading, but the writing itself was phenomenal. It was one of those books that you just enjoyed reading, even if nothing ever happened. Except for the sexism. I ignored it the first time, but by the second and third times, I felt like I was being doused with cold water in the middle of a warm bath. Imagine watching a Disney movie where three separate people committed adultery in the background, never to mention it or address it for the rest of the movie. That’s what it felt like, plus an added punch in the gut for being personal.
I see this thing more and more. Most “realistic” aspects are left out of high fantasy, except for blatant sexism. Sometimes the sexism isn’t casual. It’s addressed or made a point of (though not necessarily the main plot, like in Wonder Woman), but often it’s just left there to be soaked up. Which strikes me as odd: why include traditional gender roles if it adds nothing to the story? Why alienate a good portion of your audience if you’re not even going to do anything with it?
I have three theories as to why this might be, only one of which isn’t incredibly depressing.
Possibility 1: The authors don’t notice
This is one of the depressing ones. It’s possible that Rothfuss didn’t even know or notice that sexual stereotypes and gender roles could be depressing or distracting to someone. If this theory is correct, then it would most likely mean that male writers and editors overlook these aspects while female writers and editors don’t. That, or they notice but don’t care, because high fantasy books are aimed primarily at male audiences who won’t notice or care. This one is depressing for obvious reasons: it implies that men in general don’t mind sexism nearly as much as they mind mild racism, curse words, or the acknowledgement that fictional characters need to use the restroom from time to time.
I want to note here that I don’t look for sexism in these things. I don’t want to get angry, I don’t like it when books are ruined for me, I hate the politics involved in storytelling the vast majority of the time. I don’t want to be political and I don’t want to disagree with anyone. When I say I felt sick to my stomach when reading the sexism in The Name of the Wind, I mean it. It happened naturally and automatically, and I wish it hadn’t.
Possibility 2: The authors/editors automatically enforce PG convention
I often hear people harp about how TV censors will include Disney villains getting their necks snapped or being impaled with the bow of a ship but would never dream of including the word “shit” or the idea that sex exists. It’s possible that authors of idealistic high fantasy just want to make their material family-friendly and so comply with standard convention. Just watch any recent kids’ movie. You’ll see plenty of casual death but no casual racism. You also won’t see any gay couples or mentions of sex (beyond innuendos), but unaddressed sexism is considered perfectly suited for children.
Obviously, we don’t instinctively choose the “least awful” elements to include in kids’ stories: the death of a parent is typically considered worse than a curse word, yet one is typically included and one isn’t. Dwarfism is at worst an inconvenience for those who have it, yet as a genetic condition it’s excluded from everything I’ve seen except in Westeros. Maybe including dwarves (which yes, I see on a weekly basis in real life) doesn’t add much to the story, but neither does casual sexism.
This would also put things on a sliding scale, instead of making authors choose between idealistic and realistic: fantasy (at least in the USA) could include a wide variety of topics depending on the audience. Suicide could be in a PG-13 book, sexism can be left out of the G books, and the R rated books can all be written by George R.R. Martin (gods willing that he live long enough to finish the series).
I really, desperately want this to be the reason for the casual sexism pervasive throughout high fantasy, because it shifts the burden of blame onto the FCC and not onto anyone I know. It would also make the problem incredibly easy to solve: just change the regulations, and then authors will include or exclude whatever is now within the guidelines. Sex-positive? Sure! Gay couples? Sure, more realistic (with the added bonus of queer-baiting)! Casual sexism? No-no.
Possibility 3: Gender roles are part of idealistic chivalry
I call this a “depression sandwich”: I put the mild theory in the middle and put the two depressing theories on either end. And, unfortunately, I’ve also gone in order of what I view to be most likely.
Sexism could often included in idealistic fantasy for the same reason why kingdoms are included but not democracies: because it is considered idealistic. Young men relentlessly chasing after uninteresting women in a game of keep-away, saving damsels in distress, having a beautiful woman do the cooking while the men curl up by the fire after a hard day’s work, the eldest born son, the beautiful lady rewarding the strong knight with a kiss, the tears shed by women while the men stay strong… These are all staples of our hero’s journey.
Yes, in real life, kingdoms actually kind of suck and democracies are great. Inherited power and landed aristocracy is actually horrible. Yes, in real life, girls reading these stories would actually like to pick up a sword for a change. Nymphs do not like being pursued by satyrs or left to cook while the men talk. In real life, the idea that men aren’t allowed to cry or that women will instantly fall in love with anyone who saves them are extremely unhealthy. But it’s all included in idealistic fantasy stories because it is idealistic.
This is why I find this theory (unfortunately) more plausible. Our D&D campaign was PG in canon and rated R whenever we wanted to do something hilariously horrible without consequences, but at least one player just assumed that sexism, which was not hilariously horrible and was not specified in canon, should be there. It’s the same reason why the blind are included but the deaf are excluded. Kids won’t be scared for life by seeing a deaf person, and if I had to pick one I would most definitely prefer to be deaf. So if blindness is neither less disgusting nor less awful than deafness, it must be included because badass blind characters are traditionally considered poetic, whereas deaf characters are not.
Casual sexism is included because chivalry is fun. If it was just “realistic,” then there’s no reason to omit cancer, rape, or fetishes. If it was just “complying with FCC regulations,” then we would see deaf and dwarf characters a lot more often, as well as fart jokes and settings that aren’t medieval Germanic — because those are well within the PG confines, even if they aren’t idyllic. And if it was just “not that bad,” then curse words and mild homophobia would also be included (and would still be edited out because, as we’ve established, “casual” means it doesn’t contribute to the plot or characters).
The division isn’t between the pretty and the ugly, it’s the idealistic and the reality. It’s between how we want the world to be and what the world actually was in the middle ages. And, apparently, it’s between those who want to keep that old ideal alive and those who want to create a new one.