I have never felt comfortable with the “but it’s historically accurate” defense when faced with blatant sexism in my favorite books, movies, TV shows, Anime, etc. However, I also never felt like I had a good response to the excuse. I have a very real, very physical reaction to seeing things that are hurtful toward women. They flow directly through me, upsetting my stomach, putting my nerves on edge, increasing my adrenaline, and triggering a well of emotions in full force. At that point I want to point my finger at them, and say “hey, you shouldn’t be doing that because I don’t like it!”
As difficult as it is, I have to calm myself down, spend some time mulling the problem over, and then find some way to speak out against what is upsetting me in a proactive way. The internet is the perfect platform for bringing about social change. There are a number of campaigns (ex. #NotBuyingIt) that have been very successful in calling out sexism in advertising and the media. We need a campaign to address “historically accurate fantasy”.
So where exactly does “historically accurate fantasy” go wrong? In two very specific ways.
First, history has been written primarily by men, and UNSURPRISINGLY they wrote about men. So when people throw around the term “historically accurate” what they are referring to is a specific, widely distributed history of men writing about themselves. The picture their written history paints is not “historically accurate” and there are many modern scholars trying to piece together what really happened with whatever they can find. Even more heartening, there is a very large effort to fund a National Women’s History museum in the United States. Women have played a very active role in the history of humankind and yet their achievements and contributions are often downplayed. Yes, our history is not all sunshine and roses, and violence against women has been, and is still, far too common, but women have achieved a lot in spite of that. We are not merely victims, whores, and wives. Don’t forget we make up half of the world too.
You might be asking yourself, but isn’t the fact that men wrote the history that has survived for us to see a sign that women didn’t play a big part in it? No, because women were often forbidden to write, were not taught how to write, their works went unpublished, and their actions looked over as insignificant, or even expected, and therefore not worth noting. Even today, when men and women do the same actions, the man’s actions will be seen as greater simply because he is a man. There is a lot of progress being made, but our culture hasn’t changed as much as our policies have.
Second, fantasy is fantasy. Fantasy does not by default require any accuracy whatsoever, and what is chosen to be accurate and non-accurate is very much a reflection of the author’s own choices. They are actively and intentionally choosing to create a world where women are second class citizens. Dragons, elves, dwarves, mermaids, etc. are all fantastical creatures that do not live in our modern world and yet are common staples in fantasy fiction. So why does “historically (in)accurate” sexism need to be included?
Books influence people at all stages in their life, helping them to grow and encouraging them to dream of doing things they would not have thought of otherwise. As a young adult I was heavily influenced by the Xena: the Warrior Princess television series and the book series Clan of the Cave Bear. I admired the heroines and wanted to be like them: strong, independent, successful women who worked hard to change their lives and had the support of those close to them. Women who were change-makers. Women who had agency and were not damsels in distress. It troubles me that young men (and women) may get a different message all-together from some of the other, popular fantasy novels out there.
Here are some well-written articles by other awesome people who have given this same topic some thought:
- “Is Historical Accuracy A Good Defense of Patriarchal Societies in Fantasy Fiction?“
- “But Alas, She is a Woman: How Dishonored Uses Gender Roles to Tell a Story” by Becky Chambers
- “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That” by Tansy Rayner Roberts
- “The Historically Accurate Excuse” by FeMANist