Some fantasy authors and fans like to fall back on a defense of “it’s historical realism” to explain why, for instance, there are no women in some fantasy stories or why the characters are racist or why the main culture has slavery in it. The idea that we need historical realism in fantasy at all is debateable. Which is why this claim makes such a good smoke screen.
Historical Realism in Fantasy: Three Scenarios
1) When going after a specific book, many of these claims about historical realism are bunk. There is nothing unrealistic about women pirates, black people in Middle Ages Europe, or people in Rome *not* being racist. (Classist, sexist, and nativist? Hell, yes! Rome was all of that. Racist, no.) When people say that a book with things that actually happened is unrealistic they are perpetuating the erasure of women, PoC, LGBT, and others throughout history.
2) For historical fantasy in general, historical realism can be a legitimate issue. Yeah, it was normal for most of history for women to have less rights than men and many cultures *believed* women were lesser and should rightly be under the control of men. And if your story is set in one of these cultures, well, it’s a thing your women characters are going to need to deal with.
3) Unfortunately, legit historical realism is also used to justify prejudice. And that’s where historical-based fantasy absolutely falls on its face.
So When Is “Historical Realism” in Fantasy Sexist?
One of the more clear-cut examples of this is The Demon’s Gate by Steven White. White’s introduction to the book basically says, “Yes there’s slavery and women are second class citizens, but it’s historical. If you don’t like it, read another book.”
Well, if the matter had ended with “there’s slavery and women are second class citizens” that would have been well and good. But it didn’t end there. Because here’s the plot line:
The slave owning son of a king/chieftain is sent to the heart of the empire to discover what is causing the high priestess to see visions of doom. With the aid of his loyal sidekick/slave, he discovers that the high ranking women of the empire are rebelling against their rightful place as subordinate to men and have been duped by a demon into believing that if they support the (male) demon’s return to power they will be free of men’s control. Except the demon is lying (of course) and the women’s quest for autonomy is going to bring about the end of the world. Of course our hero-slave owner manages to stop them, with the help of the one woman who recognizes that the “cult” of female independence is wrong and helps our hero-slave owner restore the status quo.
So, what’s wrong with this story?
Let’s start with the basic premise of the plot: “women trying to gain their independece need to be stopped before they bring about the end of the world.” That’s just… I mean, I think we’ve all heard variation on this idea before. From misogynists to racists to homophobes it’s pretty much the rallying cry of bigots everywhere. So having it as the basic premis of a fantasy novel that opens by chastising any reader who thinks it is sexist is… let’s go with ‘ironic.’
Of course, the women can’t even save themselves. They need a male demon to be the leader of their cult who seduces them into believing that they deserve to have a say in their own lives. So… even in seeking their independence, the women are following the lead of a male. Again echoing a trope right out of the classic bigots play list. That the people who are treated like second class citizens are not capable of organizing or leading themselves and that they would be perfectly happy as second class citizens if only “agitators” didn’t put “ideas” into their heads.
And just to round it out, the “good” women in the story are the ones, like the classic “good negro” or “real women” who recognize that having men in charge is right and proper and betray their fellow women in order to help the men win.
This story is not sexist because it is set in a bronze age society where women are second class citizens.
Tamora Pierce’s the Lioness quartet is set in a feudal society where women are second class citizens, but the story itself is anything but sexist. No, this story is sexist because the story itself—not the world it is set in, not the characters in the world, but the *story itself* is sexist.
And This Can Happen to Anyone
Don’t take this as “Steve White is a sexist shit trying to put women in their place.” This isn’t about bashing Steve White. This is a widespread problem caused by a lack of self- and cultural-awareness.
Our society is awash in racist, sexist, homophobic, classiest, etc ideas. And an author’s mind draws inspiration from everything around them. Sometimes things slip in that we aren’t even aware of.
Steve White wrote a sexist book because Steve White didn’t realize how insidious sexism can be. He wasn’t self aware enough to see the underlying sexist ideas he included in his bronze age story. This can happy to anyone who isn’t used to looking for sexist ideas in their stories (or in themselves).
Summing up: What’s the Difference Between Historical Realism in Fantasy and Sexism?
Having historical fantasy with cultures and characters that are sexist doesn’t make a story sexist. Having a story set in a world where everyone is equal and there are no sexism doesn’t mean the story can’t be sexist. A sexist novel is one where the story itself supports, reinforces, or is built on sexist ideals and premises. And when that happens, claims of ‘historical realism’ are nothing more than a distraction from the real issue.
And all of this applies just as much to racism, homophobia, classism, ableism and other forms of prejudice and bigortry
How self aware are you? Have you checked for unnoticed prejudice in your stories?