Beyond the patriarchy: breaking free of entrenched gender constraints in the SFR genre
I read mostly SF/F, SFR, UF and PNR. If those acronyms don’t mean anything do you, that means what I read usually has some woo-woo (science fiction, fantasy) and some woo-hoo (romance). While I’ve encountered everything from squid aliens to sentient planets to mutants to unicorns in my reading, one 95% consistent factor amongst all the woo and hoo is: the patriarchy.
Male-dominated cultures are ingrained in today’s writers for obvious reasons—our entire planet is so steeped in patriarchy that anthropologists and historians can’t agree on whether there has EVER been a true matriarchy in our past. At least according to the Wikipedia article I read, heheh. It’s on the internet so it must be accurate.
Now I’m no cultural scholar, proven by the fact I just used Wikipedia as a source, but it’s true that the majority of SFRs feature a form of patriarchy as their social underpinning. Whether it’s because the male aliens are more powerful because ALPHA MALE RARRRR or because it’s a science fantasy set in a medieval world full of violence, rape, and penis jousting, it’s male emperors and male heads of state and male sky pirates and male rebel leaders and males males males males males. The rolling and the tolling of the males.
I do love that SFRs are full of “kick-ass” females, but you know what’s consistent about those leather-clad, tough, sharp-shooting ladies?
They’re outliers in their own society, so noted in their stories.
While we want our protagonists to be interesting and special, does every culture in SFR have to spring from a man’s loins? Why do the women in our beloved genre, outside of the heroine and any future heroine bait, fall so much further down the food chain than the men, hanging out in kitchens and schools and hospitals, landing jobs as assistants and underlings and maybe middle management if they’re lucky?
I know we need to please readers, and readers are also steeped in patriarchy whether they want to be or not, but I can’t help but wonder. Is a reconstituted here-and-now the best we can imagine in all the possible futures and worlds? SFR is SCIENCE FICTION. Anything can happen. Anything we want. Anything we can imagine. Plus romance, so life has hoo to go with the woo.
What if, as writers, we were to exercise our think-boxes and branch out of these ingrained cultural norms? Toss some matriarchal (or at the very least, more comprehensively egalitarian) societies onto our SFR pages?
Matriarchies could happen. They really could. Especially when we’re talking aliens and revolutions and people with technology and powers that aren’t constrained by twenty-first century cultural expectations.
And we will also agree to avoid, when and if we do this, creating a matriarchy solely for salacious purposes or to demonstrate that the wimminz aren’t so good at being in charge. We’ll resist the easy route of portraying a matriarchy as an effed up, gender-flipped version of patriarchy’s suckiest features and really delve into some fascinating reflections on gender relations. Not to mention the restructuring of corporations, governments, science and education when females have more social and political power than males.
Seriously. I want to read these books. How would we make war, how would we make peace, and how would we make love if a society were based on the power of the feminine and the wisdom of the mother?
Or at least based on something besides yet another patriarchy.
Author’s Note: No, I haven’t published a full-on matriarchal story yet, but many of my made-up cultures are based on egalitarian social structures.
Author’s Note: I guess I should write one, after talking such smack.
Author’s Note to Self: The title “Herland” is taken. Probably call it something else.
Author’s Note to Self: Also don’t title it “Fat, Happy Women in Space”—that joke is way old.
Some interesting quotes I found online that touch on this dearth of reading material:
From the Wiki article: “According to Adler, ‘a number of feminists note that few definitions of the word [matriarchy], despite its literal meaning, include any concept of power, and they suggest that centuries of oppression have made it impossible for women to conceive of themselves with such power’.”
Author’s Note: I can conceive of having such power. And other women, too. Can’t you? Let’s write about it.
From another article: “Imagined fictional matriarchal societies seem to always run into the same problems again and again. Gender roles are usually simply reversed and patriarchal control mechanisms (law, fear, violence) are assumed.” —Zo0tie
Author’s Note: In my matriarchal-based book which will not be called “Fat, Happy Women in Space”, the control mechanisms are going to be positive reinforcement, fear of large spiders, and hot flashes. An author’s gotta put a little of herself in each story, don’t you think?
From a review on Goodreads about Gail Dayton’s One Rose trilogy: “Dayton’s matriarchal society surprised me a few times as I’d forgotten how dominant it was. I found myself feeling outraged on behalf of the male characters, which interested me as they are treated no worse (and often better) that any woman in a standard patriarchal-focused fantasy.” —Reader Kerr
Here’s a list I pulled together of SF/F and SFR books that have some version of a matriarchy in them:
Catherine Asaro: The Last Hawk
Elizabeth Bear: Carnival
Anne Bishop: Black Jewels & Tir Alainn Trilogies
David Brinn: Glory Season
Joely Sue Burkhart: A Jane Austen Space Opera (series)
Suzy McKee Charnas: Holdfast Chronicles
Gail Dayton: One Rose Trilogy
Hailey Edwards: Araneae Nation series
Eric Flint: Mother of Demons
Jess Granger: Beyond the Rain, Beyond the Shadows
Nicola Griffith: Ammonite
Pippa Jay: Keir
Alaya Dawn Johnson: The Summer Prince
Dara Joy: Ritual of Proof
Sylvia Kelso: Riverworld series
Mercedes Lackey and Piers Anthony: If I Pay Thee Not in Gold
LE Modesitt: Saga of Recluse
Andre Norton: Witchworld books
Melanie Rawn: Exile’s Trilogy
Leigh Richards: Califa’s Daughters
Pamela Sargent: The Shore of Women
Sharon Shinn: Heart of Gold
Wen Spencer: A Brother’s Price
Sunny: The Monere books
Sheri S Tepper: Gate to Women’s Country
Here are more links and lists of matriarchies in fiction and the matriarchal trope: