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