Caitlin Francis didn’t really have much of a choice when it came to liking fantasy fiction. Not only are her parents huge fans, but they owned a science fiction and fantasy bookshop while she was growing up in Perth.
“Fantasy has always been my go-to genre. I love the imagination behind the stories, and the detail that goes into creating these elaborate and complex worlds so that they become believable. Fantasy is generally so far removed from reality that it allows you to explore or imagine other possibilities. It is such a creative medium, anything can happen.
“I had read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series [on which the HBO show Game of Thrones is based] in high school and it had always been a favourite. It was different to the vast majority of fantasy novels out there — the characters were complex, and many of the women challenged preconceived ideas about beauty and femininity.”
Finding the feminist in fantasy
Caitlin decided to focus on the series of epic fantasy novels for her final honours thesis, exploring them under a feminist lens. She found that while traditionally there had been a lack of heroic female figures in the fantasy genre, Martin had demonstrated that it was in fact possible to have a female protagonist who performs heroic acts and is not helped by or because of her gender.
“Archetypal female characters were often divided into four types — the mother, the witch, the virgin or the seductress. So for a long time, female characters in fantasy were slotted into one of these roles and really just used to support the male protagonist.
“There are stories of warrior princesses, but again they tend to focus on their beauty rather than their deeds or strength, and in the end they always fall in love with a knight.
“Take Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings for example. Her beauty is one of her defining features, and although she is tough, after she kills the Witch King of Angmar she doesn’t continue as a warrior. Instead she marries Faramir and presumably settles down to married life.
“It seemed as though these female characters were tough when the circumstances required, but in general they were protected by men, or desired by men, and were rarely a pivotal character.”
Brienne of Tarth
Caitlin focused on Martin’s character Brienne of Tarth to demonstrate the changing female stereotype.
“One of Brienne’s defining differences is her appearance. She is described as extremely tall, and ungainly, with a flat chest and coarse features. Yet she is also a strong and talented fighter, who chooses to live her life as a knight and adhere to a knight’s ideals.
“Brienne is not bound by gender expectations. She doesn’t wear feminine clothes, isn’t in need of rescuing, and doesn’t use her sexuality to get her way or influence others. She isn’t a wife, or a lover, or a mother. Rather she represents an independent version of womanhood that doesn’t require male approval or support to succeed.”
While it may be a while before empowered women in fantasy become the norm, Caitlin said the genre was constantly evolving, and there had been a decided shift towards more realistic and contemporary portrayals of complex individuals.
“It’s a change that has been coming for a while now. There are many more strong females in the public sphere, and a lot of Young Adult fantasy is targeted towards girls, so writers are seeing the need to reflect this in their novels.
“It’s definitely a positive change. As someone who reads fantasy, and as a woman, I find it quite boring and insulting that the female characters are constantly defined by their beauty and their role as a potential lover or conquest.
“A character like Brienne is refreshing because it shows that yes, we can have female characters, and yes, they can do all the same things a boy can — and we can leave it at that. She can be good, and tough, and still get things done. It’s a positive message.”
Caitlin Francis completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at ACU.