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!
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.
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. 🙂 )
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?