Monday, November 07, 2005

Fantasy Women

I'm not particularly fond of writing about beautiful women.

Let me explain.

I went to a panel on Sunday about images of women in fantasy art, and the panelists pointed out the current trend on fantasy covers of of portraying women as strong and muscular, though still half-clothed and with breasts as big as their heads. This being fantasy marketing, both men and women portrayed on covers are, in general, going to be traditionally "beautiful." And beauty in this culture, alas, constitutes a very narrow type.

I wandered the art show at WFC and saw what passed for strong-chick art. I half-heartedly looked through the prints to see if maybe the male artist had protrayed a "real" warrior-woman type. You know, clothed, with practical breasts, practical armor, and a look on her face that said something other than "Come fuck me, or hey, I'll fuck you!" I wanted the, "I'll kick your ass, buddy. I've seen more of the world than you could possibly imagine," look. And I didn't get it. That sort of look is too intimidating, I guess.

And looking at these images, I thought, you know, these aren't the sorts of women I write about. Even the desert women I write about wear more clothes than these women, and of course, have smaller breasts and shorter legs, and they tend to be tan-to-black, not pearl white. In fact, my favorite characters aren't beautiful at all. Not just Lilihin the plain-faced scullery maid in one of my books, but my favorite character in Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is a girl described as "horse-faced."

I'm always very careful with my use of beauty in my fiction. Beauty, that too-pretty beauty, is by its very nature rare. That's what keeps everybody trying to be like that type. If what we collectively decided was "beautiful" was something everyone already was, our diet and cosmetics industries would crash. So now we've got beauty clones, everybody going cocaine-thin and blond and getting boob jobs.

And I'm not terribly keen on clones.

I enjoy stories where running into beauty is rare, and it's something my protagonist hasn't got. I love traditionally unbeautiful protagonists because it means they have to work harder than everyone else. The one beautiful boy in my last book uses those looks to forward his position. The beautiful woman in book two does the same, with a far more dark-hearted intention. Characters without beauty need to have more and better strengths - physical and mental - than those with beauty. It's been marked often in real life that "traditionally beautiful" women are more likely to get a position than, say, a fat or obese or "ugly" woman, though the beautiful one may get stuck there if she doesn't play her cards right.

So while listening to the audience talk about the allure of fantasy, about how they wanted to pretend - just for a moment - that they were small, dainty, beautiful women (with large breasts), I was thinking about why I would write a fantasy book that didn't have beautiful women characters. At heart, I think I just do believe that beautiful characters are less interesting. You can do fantastic things with it, as Chuck Palahniuk did in Invisible Monsters, but I'm more interested in how women (especially) make it when they're considered unbeautiful by the cultures they're in (and, neccessarily, each of those culture have a different view of what that is, of course). I heard yet another lament about an author who wrote a black female protagonist and ended up with a blond caucasion women with a crew cut on the cover of her book. The blond was considered the more "saleable" beauty. But that's not what the book was about.

And that's when you get to the sticky problem of book content vs. book cover marketing. There's still this idea in the publishing industry that a busty woman will sell a book more quickly than a sleek, tasteful, intelligent cover (which says a lot about the associations being put on the overly-sexualized female body. What lies inside must be fluff, unintelligent, not serious). People will argue that sex sells, but if that's so, why aren't there more naked men on covers, like in the romance genre? I still nearly fall out of my chair during that scene in Fight Club when Brad Pitt answers the knock at his bedroom door in the buff. He's like a Greek statue come to life. If sex sells, why don't boys sell it?

One artist on the panel pointed out that her female nude pictures will sell equally to men and women, but when she paints a male nude, she's just cut the audience for that portrait in half. Men, especially straight men, are far more unlikely to buy a portrait of a nude man, even if they find it arresting. There's just too much of a stigma against men viewing other men. Naked men are scary to other men, or scary in their non-scariness, in their vulnerableness. I wonder if naked men are taken more seriously than naked women, or if the real problem is that they aren't...

Though I, personally, enjoy the current trend where we're moving away from dainty female heroines and celebrating an image that at least appears to be more substantial, the images are still often undermined by bad armor and their lack of clothes. Instead of the virgin, we're getting the whore.

But I don't think it has to be that way. We don't have to have an either/or. There are dainty little women in real life who feel put off and pressured to be big, strong women, and big strong women who feel they have to small and fem in order to be "real women." I don't know why fantasy images can't be as diverse as women in real life.

Little Jane Eyre is as formidable a heroine as, say, Tamora Peirce's Alanna (also a not overly beautiful heroine, despite the cheesy violet eyes) or Aud or pretty much any heroine Octavia Butler writes. The trouble with illustrators marketing fantasy women to the widest group of readers possible is that what we end up with is a big-breasted blond aryan every damn time. There's nothing wrong with these big-busted blond aryan women, but I'm not sure that this is really the image everybody wants in their heroine.

You can argue about the marketing of fashion magazines: marketed to women, all with beautiful airbrushed women on the covers. But women's magazines sell us fantasy more than fantasy fiction does. They sell us cosmetics, clothes, and plastic surgery. It's their business to give us fantasy women.

And I don't know that fantasy fiction is selling us fantasy in the same way. I think it markets adventure in places that don't and can't exist. And most of us don't really believe we're going to wake up tomorrow with magic powers.

But lots of adolescents (and many older women and some men) wake up thinking we'll look like a fashion model, if we're just disciplined enough, if we just work hard enough, if we just eat less, exercise until we throw up, stay calm, give up all else. And for most of us (98%), that's not true.

I think we want to read about people who we admire in some way, who are like us, who we believe we can be. And for fantasy to sell the same image about what constitutes a beautiful and desirable person in the same way a fashion magazine does feels really false and unhappy to me. There's more than a pretty face that one can emulate to be a fucking heroic person. In fact, the face has very little to do with it. Beautiful, unmarried, unblemished faces speak to me of blank slates; they're faces that haven't seen very much of the world, very little pain, very little sorrow. It's age and wisdom and the features slightly off kilter from our beauty-norm that make me look twice.

Hell, I'm biased, sure. I want better fantasy art.

And yet what's been done with the Dove ads and the new Nike ads does, I believe, illustrate that there's a market out there for something that sells shit, sure, but does so in what I hope is a slightly less damaging way, something that tells you to celebrate yourself instead of hating yourself.

On the one hand, we have the fantasy women with wings and unicorn horns and tails, stuff we'll never be and will use as inspiration for Halloween costumes. On the other hand, why can't I find my hard-core fantasy women, the ones with the shining eyes, the battle ax dripping blood, the sensible clothes, and the cool "yea, I'm strong, fuck off" expression on her face? Somebody I can look at and say "Yea, I want to be that strong. I want to have that kind of heroic character. I want to save the world."

If we're really dealing with fantasy images, images of everything and everyone that could ever exist, sprung from millions of imaginations worldwide, why do so many of those images look alike?

10 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Rajan said...

I was surprised at some of those paintings you mention in the Art Show. Granted, some of them were fairly old, but I don't know if that makes it better or worse. It seemed that for a place that is associated with Wiscon, the so-called feminist con, that images like that would be out of place.

I think that at a time the idea was fantasy was primarily for nerdy, sexually repressed men (or boys) who these images were targeted toward, but it seems that these days women are often at the forefront of the fantasy audience. Women write many of the books in the field - I just can't believe these images still persist.

As to the topic of beautiful characters, I've never really thought of it that explicitly. I wouldn't say that I always write beautiful characters, but I have, and I wonder what the motivation is behind these. I tend to have images of characters in my head at first but I never really examined the origins of those images. I have to say, though, that one of the most satisfying writing experiences I have had was writing about a character who was short, stubby, and balding.

Ah, I'm being too wordy again. I blame my lingering cold... 

Posted by Rajan

Jeremy said...

The same thing bugs me in portrait photography. So many pictures of beautiful people. My favorite photographers are people like Diane Arbus, who took pictures of real people. I'd hang a print of an interesting face before I'd hang a print of a beautiful one any day. Beautiful faces don't tell stories like the faces in photos or art by people like Arbus. 

Posted by JeremyT

Kameron Hurley said...

And the thing is, I don't mind that the chicks n' chainmail type chicks are there - I'd just like more variety. I want *real* women warrior pictures to spend my hard-earned dollars on. Give me something to buy! But then, what have I spent the last five years studying? "Real" warrior women participating in wars and revolutions all over the world. I'm going to grit my teeth at the sight of busty, half-clothed figures with perfect skin every time, if they're marketing them as warriors.

Raj - you're totally right that those were old paintings, too. I'd forgotten that. Those women in particular, I think, were 80s covers. I should have checked out if they were sold and how much they went for... Just curious.

And interesting faces always get me every time. National Geographic is amazing at capturing those faces, whether they're trekking through China or Nebraska. They do a fantastic job. 

Posted by Kameron Hurley

AFM said...

Right On! 

Posted by marsha

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts here. But I think the trend on cover art is consistently regressive because it's mainly the province of the marketing dept. They think they know what sells best, and mostly by now this is a self fulfilling prophecy. They know that ever bolder T&A has sold reliably in the past, and that so few ever deviate from this 'plan' to notice much or to change the prevailing 'wisdom'.

But a lot of this is tied up in that whole retrograde sex role rap that we are all too familiar with and something that's been commented upon here previously. And yeah, if you're writing as a sort of wish fulfillment so that you can finally become that beautiful princess you always wanted to be Frank, then you're probably not going to be doing a very good convincing job of it.

It's tough stuff to get noticed in that split second 'decision moment' of purchase mode grab from the shelf. Most of the time it may take 10 years or more before they can actually recognize you reliably as an author they like to read and search for you by name. For probably a good portion of the audience it's an impulse buy to get lost in an interesting world for an afternoon while the kids work out on the games & computer. Or something interesting looking they bought to read on the train or the plane. The cover art is meant of course to be reliably comforting in a way that screams 'sex and adventure!' that will titillate and amuse the kids and dirty old men in us all. When it works as well as most adverts do, it's working on almost a subconscious level.

So kids in the end we've got one question left for you. Are you man/woman enough to screw with my id, my conception of what sex role relations are supposed to look like in your special world/creation? And if you'll so bravely go where no one else would dare to (or so few have been willing to venture), why not *find* a decent damn artist who can do justice to your conceptions of your reality and ask him/her for a commission of their work? I know that may take years to develop and find, but in the end, it might be the only place you can find your reality fairly depicted on your books. Just a thought.
Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'  

Posted by VJ

Jennifer said...

I guess I go the opposite way- I'm so afraid to be yelled at for Mary Sue-ing if I so much as have a heroine that doesn't have poo-brown eyes and hair and if she's anything but plain as dirt.

Have you ever read Talyn by Holly Lisle? The heroine's a decidedly average, full-bodied chick.  

Posted by Jennifer

Kameron Hurley said...

It does occur to me that I'd really like to have a "fat" chick as a heroine at some point. I have a small, plain female protagonist for the fantasy saga, and the big butch protagonists for several other projects, but I have not, as yet, had a really heavy protagonist....


I've only recently been concerned with being accused of Mary-Sue-ing, as with this next book, as my heroine boxes and drinks whiskey. But I mean, really, at what point do you just have to go - I'm writing what interests me - and fuck all to everybody else?

But anyway, I've had too much whiskey tonight to write coherently. Time for bed.


Posted by Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley said...

It occurs to me that these "word verification" things are keeping lots of drunken commenting from being done.

Lord knows I can barely make them out.

How terribly sad...

kat said...

At the moment, I'm writing a multi-strand fantasy novel with multiple protagonists. The main 'heroine' is never physically described, and there is a fat female anti-hero/companion character. However, I worry that her fatness, while not meant to be portrayed as a negative or unbeautiful trait, will play in to the way people perceive her. For example, she is meant to be very appetitious (sexually and economically) and I wonder if people will view this as being somehow due to her fatness. A lot of the time it seems that when a writer doesn't describe characters physically people almost assume them to be beautiful, as if that's the default. And, as you've mentioned, cover-art often differs markedly from the writer's descriptions. I think this sort of thing is particularly egregious in children's or young adult fiction, where many authors are careful not to make their characters too unattainably beautiful/handsome, but then the cover-art does it anyway to make the book sell better. 

Posted by kat

betsyl said...

kameron: write a fat protagonist WHERE THE BOOK IS NOT ABOUT HER BEING FAT. i will buy a million copies and then give them to everyone i know. a million, i tell you. 

Posted by betsy