Is Éowyn a Feminist hero? The Fantasy genre and its “Medieval” sexism

I am a bit of a Fantasy nerd. I only do one third of the nerd trifecta (Warhammer, World of Warcraft and Magic cards) by having a fairly substantial Warhammer High Elves army. Anything set in a Fantasy realm will do – I quite often become so fully absorbed when playing Skyrim that the sight of Draugr genuinely terrifies me. I have seen Lord of the Rings (extended edition, obviously) enough that I can quote large chunks. And Game of Thrones this year became one of my favourite TV shows. I just really like dragons, I guess.

But I have a fairly major problem with the Fantasy genre. It always uses a kind of warped Medieval period as it’s backdrop, and seems to always use this as an excuse for sexism.

“Oh its fine!” People will say, “Women were treated like that in Medieval times!”

In my opinion, however, this is NOT an excuse.

One of the main offenders is Warhammer. These are miniature models that one collects, paints and fights other people’s armies with. (Known as ‘Plastic Crack’ by my boyfriend in testament to the hobby’s extremely addictive nature.) Now, I prefer to imagine that my High Elves are so ‘high’, such a higher being, that they have done away with the concept of gender altogether; but actually, when looking at the models as a whole, it becomes clear that the number of female models is tiny. (In Warhammer 40K, the sci-fi set version of the hobby, there is a whole army of women, called the Sisters of Battle. But the point I am about to make stands for them, too). When there are female models, 90% of the time they are not clad in armour, as in their male counterparts (and surely all that makes sense for a war) but scantily-clad, often with large breasts on show.

Take these Witch Elves from the Dark Elf army:

Surely that level of clothing cannot be practical?!

Or maybe these Wardancers, part of the Wood Elf army…

Nope, they’re not very practically dressed either…

How about this Tomb Banshee of the Vampire Counts army. Surely a Banshee can’t be sexy?!

That waist is quite something… Looks like the makers of this model really were trying to objectify a Banshee. A BANSHEE, FOR GODDNESS SAKES.

The problem isn’t only with Warhammer. The women of Skyrim, a role-playing video game, also suffer from extreme-inappropriate-clothing-syndrome. This is an example of a man and woman from the Forsworn race. Granted, these people do believe in the less-is-more philosophy of clothing. But how does that little clothing on the female Forsworn make sense?! This is supposed to be armour!

Surely the makers of Warhammer and Skyrim cannot expect us to believe that in medieval times women were quite so exposed? No. This is evidence of the objectification of women persisting in the modern world and seeping into the fantasy worlds that the modern world has created.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many things that Skyrim gets right. In the handbook that comes with the game there is an N.B. at the beginning which states that whether you play as a male or female character doesn’t matter, as the way that you learn skills is not affected by gender. This is perhaps an obvious statement, (as it would be absurd, not to mention outrageous, if gender did make a difference) but one that I feel needs to be made in the context of the sexism of the Fantasy genre.

Game of Thrones has been a subject much discussed on our UEA Feminism Facebook group. There are immediate issues with Game of Thrones. In Season 1, Episode 1, we see a woman being sold by her brother to a man who, later in the episode, rapes her. It took a lot for me to overlook the treatment of women in Game of Thrones so that I could continue watching the story. Certainly, there are some strong female characters, such as Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, and Tyrion Lannister’s mistress, Shae. But still, I believe that the treatment of women in Game of Thrones is pretty shocking, and it, like all the other problems with the fantasy genre we have seen so far is excused and explained away by citing it as in keeping with the medieval treatment of women.

Daenerys Targaryen, the woman we see sold and raped in the first episode

Lord of the Rings is the final nerdy thing I will discuss, honestly. And it’s my favourite, as it includes Éowyn. Éowyn is a daughter of Rohan, niece of King Theoden, who, at the end of The Return of the King, does this:

She kills the Witch King, King of the Nagzûl, the servant of the dark Lord Sauron. Which is freaking BADASS.

Éowyn is surely the strongest female character Tolkien wrote. In a culture run by men, which values prowess with the sword, she recognised that she could never be considered equal to her male counterparts until she proved herself in battle. And my god, does she do that.  And she doesn’t do it half-naked, either.

There is a problem here, however. Éowyn must act as a man in order to become respected. All the everyday, more feminine aspects of her character (the way she cared for her uncle in The Two Towers, for example) are not enough for her to be respected by her people. Ideally, Éowyn would be respected for acting in her normal way, right?

Well of course. But the key word there is ‘ideally’. The Lord of the Rings is the product of a man who wrote it in the 1950s. The problematic aspect of Éowyn’s transformation into hero is surely symptomatic of these facts, rather than the fictional patriarchy of Rohan.

So, is Éowyn a Feminist hero? Decide for yourself. She is one of my personal heroes, at least.

The problematic aspects of the Fantasy genre cannot be explained away by using the middle-ages type era they are invariably set in as an excuse. The problem with there being few female characters in Warhammer armies, or that Forsworn women wear hardly any clothes, and that Éowyn’s nurturing side is not enough to gain her respect, are all indicative of a problem of today rather than medieval times. (Aside from anything else, fantasy worlds are clearly not set in the real medieval times. So why have real medieval views of women?!) The culture that invented these fantasy worlds is at fault, not the fantasy worlds themselves. It is testament to the fact that women still aren’t respected and treated equally to men. They are objectified daily, mistreated, raped, and these sad realities have permeated fantasy worlds.

Jocelyn Anderson-Wood

UEA Feminism Treasurer

Why every feminist should watch Parks And Recreation

Parks and Recreation is an American comedy series about to enter its fifth season and in my opinion, the most feminist sitcom on TV at the moment. Shot in a mockumentary style, it follows the adventures of the parks and recreation department of fictional town, Pawnee, Indiana. Funny, ambitious and clever, Parks and Recreation’s main character is a self-proclaimed feminist, Leslie Knope.

For one thing Parks and Rec is a brilliant show among the few feminist programmes even available. Leslie Knope never lets other people’s doubt or cynicism get in her way of making Pawnee a better place by practically running the department single handedly.  It effortlessly avoids common feminist stereotypes by subtly pointing out the everyday sexism within politics that women have to face. The women in the office are treated, by the show and its characters, with respect. Side character and misogynist Jean-Ralphio sexually harasses any female character with a pulse and as a result is constantly ridiculed and rejected by everyone. All his endeavours are unsuccessful as a direct result of his blatant sexism.

Parks and Rec is not afraid of actively advocating for feminism. In one particular episode, the lovable but stupid slacker Andy Dwyer; stubborn and cynical April Ludgate; and epitome of traditional masculinity Ron Swanson are awed when they attend a sample lecture for a women’s studies course at the local college. The lecturer states that “many societal institutions were established solely to oppress women” and that “some feminists have even condemned marriage as a glorified form of slavery” without mockery, a breath of fresh air in comparison to the straw feminist trope, in which feminist ideas are only mentioned for the purposes of either proving them wrong or ridiculing them.

Likewise, in the episode Hunting Trip Leslie valiantly takes the blame for her coworker who accidentally injures Ron Swanson by shooting him in the head with a hunting rifle. In the following investigation, Leslie uses a series of excuses typically forced upon badly stereotyped women, including my personal favourite, “I guess when my life is incomplete I want to shoot someone.”

Undoubtedly a main component of Parks and Rec is the strong female friendship between Leslie and Ann Perkins, a nurse who she meets in the first episode. The relationship between them is unusual because of the total lack of bitchiness and jealousy that usually characterises depictions of female friendship. Leslie and Ann are constantly supportive, kind and respectful towards each other. Similarly, in the romantic relationships that Leslie has during the series, she is treated as an equal by her partners and never overtly sexualised or inappropriately idolised. In addition, many of Leslie’s role models are also powerful women, including her mother and Hillary Clinton.

However, Parks and Rec is not perfect. Despite it being a running joke that Pawnee is the town with the fourth highest instance of obesity in America, only two of the named characters are even above average weight. Body positivity is an important part of modern feminism and by only portraying a small amount of overweight people in a specifically overweight town, it’s enforcing the idea that for a television show to be watchable the majority of its characters need to be slim and attractive.

Despite this issue and and a few others, Parks and Rec remains a great feminist show and one of the best of its genre. The cast of rounded, well-written female characters with interesting and developed storylines effortlessly showcase the feminism that drives the show without feeling forced.

Tilly Wood

Are You A Feminist?

In her book “How To Be A Woman”, Caitlin Moran poses a test to see if you are a feminist in the form of two easy questions:

“1. Do you have a vagina? and
2. Do you want to be in charge of it?”

Let’s set aside for the moment the, hopefully obvious, problems with this formulation.  Moran isn’t really suggesting that this is the definition of feminism. What she wants is for every sane woman to look at these questions and go: “Yes! I am a feminist! How have I only just realised?” For once this epiphany hits and you start wearing the label “feminist” with pride, you cannot understand the 58% of British Women who say they are not feminists. You want to tell them to relinquish their property and voting rights, climb back into their petticoats and corsets and start popping out kids once a year. Those are the chains that feminism has freed you from, ladies. Do not be so ungrateful.

Women have come such a long way. And that’s part of the problem. The battles we still have to win seem tiny compared to the battles we have already won, especially from the outside, from positions of privilege. The unoppressed are beginning to think that feminism is done with, it has won its battles, that if some women can reach the top, surely all of them can.

Women in the UK earn on average 15% less than men, and worldwide women own just 1% of the world’s wealth (despite representing 40% of the world’s labour).  Half of girls age 14-16, compared to a third of boys, are trying to lose weight. 17% of people said that a woman was partly, mostly or totally to blame for being raped if she was wearing revealing clothing, and 64% said the same if she were drinking to excess; only 3% of rapes lead to a conviction. Only 2 out of 9 Oscar Best Picture nominations passed the Bechdel test (contain 2 named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man). I could list all the other reasons we still need feminism really badly… actually, no, I can’t, there are just too many.

So we need to bring feminism back, however we can. Therefore I propose an amendment to Moran’s original test. In fact, I want to make it simpler. Just answer this question:
“Do you believe that women should be equal to men?”

Yes? Of course! You’re a feminist. Well done. No matter your gender, race or sexuality, if you have answered yes to this question, you are welcome to join the movement as I see it.

One of the problems I have with the feminist movement is how exclusive it is, and that this scares so many could-be feminists off. Across the internet, people are telling each other they can’t be feminist if they’re a housewife, if they’re Catholic, if they voted Conservative, if they’re male, if they’re straight… it’s no wonder that so many women would picture a feminist to be short-haired, bra-less, dungaree-clad. But my feminism is for all women, for all people. Come and join me. It’s not always fun, but it’s friendly and it’s right.

Actually, I have one little addendum to my test. Believe in gender equality… and think. I cannot undersell the importance of thinking to the feminist brain. Question everything, your choices, your likes, your dislikes, what your lecturer tells you, what’s on tv, what your friends talk about and what I’m writing in this blog. The patriarchy means that your brain is not your own, it’s been built by a thousand oppressive systems, and it’s only by thinking that you can claim your mind back. So if someone tells you that, for whatever reason, you can’t be a feminist, don’t just accept that. Argue your case and, if you lose the battle, accept that sometimes you have to change your mind. You can always change it back later if you get better information.

And when someone tells you, as I promise you they will, that feminism is dead, that what we need now is “gender equality” or “equalism” or whatever else, ask why society is trying to destroy a term that has taken women so far. Feminism is not over; not while there are still people climbing on chairs and shouting “I am a feminist”, as Caitlin Moran has demanded there be.

Hattie Grunewald, UEAFS President 2012-13

If you are interested in learning more about feminism, please come along to the UEA Feminist Society discussion group. Our first meeting of the year will be Thursday 27th September, 5-7pm, in Arts 2.03.

Once Upon a Never-After

Her voice rose softly to a gentle hum,
White tears streaming onto rouge lips:
“Someday my Prince will come.”

Seven men just aren’t enough for some,
And the mirror doesn’t lie;
Her voice rose softly to a gentle hum.

One bite of the apple and your body turns numb,
Poison runs through your veins. You cry:
“Someday my Prince will come.”

Why not lie on the bed for a hundred year sum?
It’s been done before, with positive results;
Her voice rose softly to a gentle hum.

Or grow your hair, or prick your thumb,
But a thick braid does not suit hair as black as ebony:
“Someday my Prince will come.”

So you settle for a mirror dumb,
That reflects horses in fields but with no riders.
Her voice rose softly to a gentle hum:
“Someday my Prince will come.”

Laura Westerman

a post from UEAFS member and UEA Communion and Student Rights officer Sam Clark on the ueastudentblog. Thanks Sam!

ueastudentblog

During your time at university, it’s pretty likely that you maybe, might, possibly, at some point engage in some sort of sexual activity. It’s important if you do, that the sex is safe and consensual. Consent is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but many people are unsure exactly what it means, or how to get consent. Here are some simple guidelines that will help you ensure that when you have sex, it’s consented to by everyone involved.

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