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Does Family Enhance Female Heroes?

Was Mark Carver’s post on Speculative Faith yesterday right about a need to have more families with children in speculative fiction? In particular, would children benefit female heroes?
| Jun 13, 2019 | 55 comments |

The title of this post may get at least a few people upset, because it may smack of “patriarchy” to some, but my conclusion may not be quite what you’d expect. Note I changed what I planned to post today based on looking at what Mark Carver wrote yesterday (not for the first time). His post on Those Meddling Kids points out that families with children are often excluded from speculative fiction, some exceptions notwithstanding. And he’s right that while there are plenty of stories that feature child protagonists like Harry Potter and even Narnia (and teen protagonists in The Hunger Games etc.) and plenty of stories that feature adult protagonists who are married (though I’d say single protagonists are more common), a family of adults and children together is a relative rarity in speculative fiction, outliers like Lost in Space notwithstanding. No doubt there are loads of reasons this is true, but it occurs to me that separating kids from adults in fiction cheats characters from certain types of important interactions that may especially help female protagonists. Or at least some great speculative fiction stories have featured women bearing children and protecting them as major aspects of the story–and perhaps more stories should do so.

Why would the issue of having children be important especially to female characters? Well, in spite of living in an era in which more and more often the tiny, tiny minority of people who arguably could be either gender are treated as if they are role models for everyone, as if everyone could either be male or female according to inner desires and not according to biology (most people are clearly born either male or female, in spite of rare cases of congenital hermaphroditic conditions), women are different from men in that a woman with a healthy reproductive system can bear children, something no biological male can ever do. That’s a pretty significant difference and has profoundly affected the reasons why men have been warriors in many societies and women have not been–bearing and breastfeeding children takes a toll on a human body and raising kids takes decades of effort. So while most families in human history have worked a family business or farm in which dad, mom, and all the kids worked together most of the time, when a war came around, the men left and the women stayed behind. That system wasn’t deliberate oppression of women for the most part, it just was practical–somebody had to be at home and the one with the attached milk bottles was clearly the better choice if babies were in the house, as they usually were for men young enough to fight in combat. Even in societies in which women served as warriors (like the historic Sarmatians), women with children fought less often than women without children.

And most societies traditionally found stories of warriors more interesting that stories of ordinary life, including ordinary family life. We carry this notion of what makes an interesting story with us today, especially in speculative fiction. Hence the interest in women warriors in our genres on the part of people wanting to equalize the playing field between men and women. Because fighting in war has been a “male privilege” and we want to see women who fight! Such as in superhero stories, with more and more women in battle scenes!

From Avengers Endgame. Image Copyright, Marvel.

I happen to think warfare is a lot less fun in the real world that in fiction and am rather against the notion of pretending the use of force (even morally justified force) is something other than what it is. But I’m not against portraying women in combat in fiction, nor am I against women fighting in combat in the real world who able to perform physically at a high enough level, which does happen, but represents abilities only a minority of women are capable of. Nor am I against portraying alien species in which the relationship between male and female is different from our own so that the females may be the stronger gender (this works especially well with egg-laying species on Planet Earth), even though I’m opposed to the notion that gender in human beings does not almost always have an obvious biological basis.  I think implying women can be men or vice versa is a bad idea, yet I’m not opposed to portraying women who are in a situation which allows them to fight.

Though instead of a story in which women voluntarily are allowed to fight alongside men, I think stories in which women are required to fight because they need to are more compelling. This is where inclusion of children benefits speculative fiction stories. Because generally speaking, women will fight for the lives of their children with an urgency unlike any other form of warfare.

Speculative fiction has already done this at times. While Ripley is an interesting character in Alien, where she winds up fighting a monster to save her own life and the lives of her crew, she’s even more interesting in Aliens, in which she’s fighting for her surrogate daughter, Newt. In that story, you would not have been able to substitute a male character in her position and get the same urgency, the same resonance and power, especially given Ripley fights the alien mother queen (which had clear parallels to queen ants and queen bees). And other alien movies played around with the idea of Ripley as the mother to the alien and what that would mean–even though those movies were not as good, you could not have put a male character in that position.

Image copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

The Terminator films likewise cast Sarah Connor as an ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary because of fighting (and preparing to fight) for the life of her son, John Connor. The character’s role as a mother was an essential part of what made her a warrior and fighter. (Terminator 2 was notably one of the speculative fiction films in which a child and parent worked together, even though the film kept them separated a great deal of the time.)

I recently watched a film made for Netflix named I Am Mother, which featured a female-voiced artificial intelligence/robot raising a girl as her daughter in post-apocalyptic environment (I originally planned to post on this movie, by the way). It’s an interesting story in part because of what it does and does not say about motherhood. I won’t say a lot more about it here, but the three main characters in the tale are all women, which was totally natural in the context of the story world. (I do recommend this movie by the way–I found it thought-provoking.)

While this post must at this point surely seem to be making a straight line argument in favor of writing women heroes who have to fight to defend their children, I’m about to deviate a bit. The Road showed a post-apocalyptic world in which a father rather than a mother fought for his son. And I would say the story was more powerful for the inclusion of a child, much more, than if it had been the story of a single man trying to stay alive in a world where everything had gone wrong.

So maybe Mark was right in his focus and I started off on the wrong track. Maybe the inclusion of parents in stories who are desperately afraid for the lives of their children is the phenomenon I’m talking about. I’ve seen more stories with women written in this position than stories with men made that way, but male characters can and do resonate when fighting for the lives of their children, especially when the man has been shown to be vulnerable, as The Road did well. (How nice of me to recommend The Road in time for Father’s Day. 🙂 )

Father and son in The Road. Image Copyright: Dimension Films

As I write this, I realize a reason why so many of the minority of stories that feature children don’t do what I’m talking about. While The Incredibles was lots of fun, a story that features parents with their children is much more powerful if the children are in serious danger, as opposed to cartoon danger. And generally speaking, writers and film producers have been reluctant to create fiction dark enough to give readers (or a viewing audience) the sense of the character’s terror that their child is about to suffer a horrible death. The Road did it and so did Aliens–and I recommend we do the same.

We Christian authors should not only write more stories that feature children, but more stories in which the children are in mortal peril, real danger, provoking real parental terror. Because while Christian-authored stories can be light reading for the whole family, they can also show real rescue from a providential God in times of genuine, terrible fear over the vulnerabilities of children. By the way, Lelia Rose Foreman’s Pacifist War (part of her Shatterworld trilogy) manages to capture that fear–which is part of what makes it a such great story.

What are your thoughts on this topic, readers? Do you agree that Christian authors would do well to include more families in which parents have to fight to save their children’s lives? If you enjoy these kinds of stories, are there examples I failed to include?

Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.

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Brennan S. McPherson
Member

I predict that Autumn will insert a note about female ninjas and Naruto, and that Notleia will say something about patriarchy!

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Aw, darn, now I have to change my plans…. (Just kidding, I actually wasn’t going to talk about Naruto for once 😛 )

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Darn. One strike. I’d better say something inflammatory about patriarchy before Notleia proves me wrong, too. : ‘ (

Autumn Grayson
Guest

😛 I thought about tossing in a Fate Zero reference in my post that way you’d at least be sorta right, but my post was already long enough.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I thought Sarah Connor was pretty cool in the second Terminator movie, and had a pretty decent balance between caring for her child and being tough (and actually coming off as somewhat believably competent, which not every story with a strong female char actually does). Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film.

Motherhood and protecting one’s child can be a cool aspect for a female char, so long as it’s done in a way that’s reasonably realistic or at least makes sense for the char. If the woman’s life is only about the child, or the woman’s greatest emotional challenge in the story is not being able to have a child/losing a child, it’s less likely to work.

There are exceptions, but only if the author substantiates it and shows there’s more to the woman than her child. Arrival did a decent job of making the loss of a child important to the female main char without letting it overshadow the rest of the story/the woman’s character arc. The woman wasn’t just a mother, she was an accomplished linguist performing an important job for the army (figuring out how to communicate with the aliens that just landed on earth). The situation with her daughter was clearly very important to her, but was far from the only aspect to her life. The parts about her daughter were also very important to the philosophical question at the end of the film.

Even women that are obsessed with kids still have more to them. Like, my mom wanted kids really badly, but she was still had ambitions to be a teacher and whatnot. And back in kindergarten, I remember the teacher asking my classmates to share what they wanted to be when they grew up. One or two girls said that they wanted to be ‘a mom’. Obviously they meant a stay at home mom, specifically, which is totally fine. But, at the time it really surprised me. Like, I never really classified motherhood as a job or a dream, just something some people chose to be IN ADDITION to everything else. And most girls in the class still cited a specific career goal, like being a doctor or whatever. Soooo, if a woman’s primary/only regret seems to be that they can’t have kids or whatever, there’s a decent chance that the audience is going to feel at least slightly impatient with her, especially in a story that has war as a part of the plotline. Like, she could always adopt, and regardless there’s probably much bigger regrets to worry about.

Also, it would be interesting to see more female chars that struggle with motherhood. Like, instead of being natural soft nurturing people that already ‘just know’ how to handle their kids, let them struggle with relating to and teaching their children. In real life, women are going to struggle with that as much as men do. Even if men tend to be physically stronger and tend not to give off a nurturing vibe, that doesn’t mean all women are actually super nurturing either. There’s a lot of gray area in there, though. A lot of women might not be nurturing in the sense of being sweet people that are always ready to hug a sad child. BUT, they can be good parents from the standpoint of wanting to prepare their child for the world and be dedicated to their safety. Such a woman could get along with her child just fine, or have issues like ‘I love my kid but I have no clue how to get them to like me or listen to me so I just end up causing huge rifts in the relationship.’

Lelia Rose Foreman
Guest

Thanks for the shoutout. Yes, A Shattered World features entire families and is contrasted by a society that hates families.

Jill
Guest

Family is a huge drive for me in my fiction. Regardless of whether it was a failure or not, Anna and the Dragon was almost a “meta” family tale, in which the mother had to literally wake up the masculine nature or father to give her child direction. Oddly, in the book I’m currently finishing, the characters are cut off with no help from family. But the one I’m starting will have a huge family who will act almost like a quasi army. I know it’s probably rude to discuss my own books, but this subject is a driving force for my writing.

notleia
Guest
notleia

There’s at least two angles I wanna hit this from.
1. But does biology dictate fate? If it does, how? Most gender essentialists seem to think that gender is the most important component of personality, but I think that factors like risk thresholds (which seem to be genetic) matter more. What does that mean for infertile women? Do we get to be honorary men, then, or just mere failures?

2. I think y’all are missing on the impact culture has on gender roles.

In a textile history book, it was suggested that women did more textile work than, say, smithing because spinning/weaving is easily interrupted and picked up again, whereas smithing is dependent on literally striking while the iron is hot. The author had a few more criteria, but I think that one is probably the most important.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Just to add a few things, one time I read part of a book (Call It Courage, I think) where in the main char’s tribal society weapon making was considered womens’ work, while in Island of the Blue Dolphins, the main char was afraid to make weapons at first because it was so forbidden in her culture for women to do so, though there were times when they would help with actual fighting.

There’s probably some differences between gender in terms of behavior(and talking about the possibility isn’t bad), but people probably overstate it way too much. And personality type probably matters more than gender. I mentioned Myers Briggs types before, which is the easiest way to describe it because that is what people associate the letter combinations with, though what I was actually looking into was probably more along the lines of Jungian Depth Psychology/Analytical Psychology. And a more reliable way of determining personality type is based off interaction styles and temperaments, not the MBTI test.

Anyway, yeah, based on all that, men and women can actually be pretty similar from a cognitive standpoint. Like, my Dad and I are both INTJs and very clearly have the same underlying cognitive functions. The differences between us have more to do with age and nurture aspects like life experiences.

Rachel Nichols
Guest
Rachel Nichols

Necessity often matters more than gender. A lot of Christian writers/bloggers condemn single career women for not being the ONLY role suitable for godly women (according to them.) SAHMs.

Due to the extreme lack of Christian men in proportion to women (even in youth groups) single women can either A. Starve. B. Mooch. C. Work. I guess 2nd Thessalonians condones C.

You probably can tell my pet peeve is not the “Patriarchy” but single bashing.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Yeah. Though it’s hard to take someone seriously if they look down on a single woman for providing for her children by having a decent job. Now days those people can usually be ignored.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

I don’t know that many people who think gender biologically assigned and essential really think it dictates fate, or that it’s the most important component of personality. At least, I’ve not met anyone who said that. But I do feel my gender colors my viewpoint on everything. So, its impact seems more broad (like a blanket laid across all of my life) than deep. In that sense, it does affect everything in my life, because it’s one central part of my identity. That’s a pretty big deal, don’t you think?

Having a baby doesn’t make you a woman, just like having big muscles, drinking beer, growing a beard, or having sex with a woman doesn’t make you a man. That’s just the stupidity of culture assigning importance to things that aren’t essential. If you view gender as being biologically assigned, you automatically see the stupidity in those thoughts (so long as you take the time to actually THINK about it). It’s when you believe gender fluid and attached to our feelings and behavior that you more easily start blurring the line and letting culture dictate gender roles.

Cultural gender oppression works in the opposite direction, too. Pushing men to abandon things that seem “feminine,” like working in textiles or cutting hair. Otherwise, they’re expected to be gay.

That’s interesting on the textile industry. Makes sense…

notleia
Guest
notleia

Out of curiosity, how would you define the essentials of gender, then?

To me, more and more, the whole construct of gender outside of strict biology (which is irrelevant for everyday public life) is pretty much useless. Why would it be important to distinguish men from women at a glance?

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Someone that’s, say, pan might not care. But if someone(regardless of their gender) is only attracted to men, they might appreciate being able to tell if someone is a guy or not without having to ask.

notleia
Guest
notleia

My ace side is showing, because I don’t really consider scoping out a date to be all that important in everyday life. Besides, it doesn’t really eliminate any possibilities of rejection. That dude could be not into people of your gender, or just not that into you in particular.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I don’t consider scoping out a date important either, and of course it doesn’t eliminate rejection, but I think finding a date, knowing what pronoun to use without having to ask, etc are part of the reasons why people might appreciate being able to tell what someone is. It’s an extra clue to how to interact with the stranger in question.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Gender neutral pronouns for EVERYBODY!

‘Cept those dang ancient German forebears didn’t come up with any neutral third-person pronouns that stuck, so we might have to borrow some in the fine English tradition of stealing all the loose vocabulary.

The Swedes use “hen,” and Japanese use “aitsu” when they’re being informal (depending on the circumstances, it could be construed as rude, but heck, Americans are casual af, it’ll be fine).

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Since our only gender neutral pronoun things either sound awkward(‘they’ often sounds like it’s referring to multiple people) or sound offensive (in our culture people would hate to be referred to as ‘it’).

Finding something that actually sounds good and flows with English is the trick, though. That said, trying to implement that would invite a lot of pronoun Nazis to go a bit too crazy, which wouldn’t actually be a good thing. Especially since a lot of people might actually LIKE being referred to with gender specific pronouns.

That’s the thing about trying to completely neutralize some of these things, actually. Assigning neutral pronouns to everyone would step on a lot of people’s identities just as much, if not moreso, than our current system.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Being understood and known by people and referred to specifically is part of what makes friendship work. We enjoy being known and spoken to in a way that proves we are known. That’s why people care about what pronouns are used on them. It’s part of our identity. If you deny people what they see is their identity, or completely ignore it, they feel unloved. Hence, to care for someone is to get to know WHO they are. Part of that is gender. It matters, Notleia.

The only problem is that saying I’m a fruitfly instead of a person is considered a delusion. But saying I was born with a vagina when I have a penis isn’t? It’s mental illness. And yes, I know that some people talking about gender talk about it differently, have different definitions, whatever. They’re all wrong and I’m right and don’t tell me otherwise. 😉 Half joking, here, and I know you won’t agree and that’s fine. Anyways, I’m fine referring to people by gender neutral pronouns, as awkward and annoying as it is. I don’t want to anger people. But I think it’s pandering to mental illness to say gender is all in the mind.

notleia
Guest
notleia

No, it’s not all in the mind. A solid portion of it is social performance. 😛

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

lol

Jay DiNitto
Guest

The fact that you use the term “gender essentialist” seriously tells some of us your opinions already.

notleia
Guest
notleia

At this point most regulars here can guess the jist of my opinions on gender. But do you have a better word for the concept of gender essentialism? “Cis-scum” is a bit rude, after all.

Rachel Nichols
Guest
Rachel Nichols

Smithing requires more upper body strength too.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Yeah, but it doesn’t require more upper body strength than women can develop. Might be more difficult, but it’s certainly possible. It makes me wonder how many females have done smithing, historically…

notleia
Guest
notleia

Not if you’re using primarily cast or mold methods, like a lot of bronzework seems to do. For a simple knife, all you’d have to do after casting the basic shape would be grinding/sanding an edge on it. Knapping arrowheads is also more about skill than strength.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Grinding ain’t exactly light work. Cast/mold methods are still heavy-lifting. But I think plenty women could do it. A lot of it has to do with mindset, more than anything else. (Purpose to be aggressive about stuff, and you can get it done, even if you’re not physically very strong.)

Rachel Nichols
Guest
Rachel Nichols

Madeleine L’Engle does a good job of showing families fighting evil together. A Wrinkle in Time was about love–not personal empowerment. I love the book and refuse to see the movie after hearing Oprah say they changed everything I valued in the book.

I also love the novel Till We Have Faces. Orual is a REALLY UGLY girl no guy can ever desire. As a princess she ascends to the throne of Glome when her dad dies and the kingdom is ready to plunge into chaos. It’s all an act of self sacrifice though. Orual’s only desire is to have a family and this longing is never fulfilled.

Because Orual failed to do what “all godly women automatically do” a lot of fundamentalists would dislike Lewis’s book. Because of Orual’s maternal longings feminists would hate it.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Nah, I like most of Till We Have Faces. I have more reservations about Psyche of the Ridiculously Perfect Personality than about Orual.

Daniel Whyte IV
Member

Considering the point of this article is that children SHOULD be in danger in more speculative fiction and scifi films, I’m a bit surprised that no one mentioned BIRD BOX. Maybe most of you haven’t seen it. IDK. But Sandra Bullock plays a mom UTTERLY TERRIFIED of what would happen if her children (one her own, one from a fellow mother) take off their blindfolds and fall prey to the unseen monsters. I liked it.

Also considering other comments: the film was first recommended to me by a young newly-wed woman (a co-worker of mine) who told me that the only thing she’s wanted to be was a mom so she can raise her children the way her mother raised her. (Her dad died when she was 16.)

Victoria Randall
Guest

I am Mother was fascinating, especially considering the controlling/manipulative aspect of the robot/mother in her attempts to re-establish the human race.
I’ve written the Children in Hiding trilogy, which explores a mother striving to protect her unborn child, and in the second book, her toddler, from the government bureau of population management. It’s hard to write about such issues without sounding preachy, though I have striven for subtlety.