Why Women Love Fantasy Literature

Game of Thrones reviewers dismissed the series as appealing only to men. Why they're wrong.



When HBO's adaptation of Game of Thrones debuted three weeks ago, it was met with a chorus of reviews by critics who admit they find fantasy tiresome or inexplicable. Reviewers have the right to their opinions and preferences, of course, but I was particularly perplexed by the insistence of the New York Times' Gina Bellafante that the show—and by extension, the fantasy genre in general—could only appeal to men. She wrote:

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin's, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to 'The Hobbit' first. 'Game of Thrones' is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population's other half.

Bellafante has been taken to task both on the matter of Game of Thrones by critics like io9's Annalee Newitz, and the Girl Geek section of the Internet for her general lack of exposure to women who can't imagine joining a book group where Lorrie Moore would ever be in contention for read of the month. But it's worth exploring something Bellafante appeared unable to even consider as a possibility: The reasons fantasy might be a uniquely appealing genre to women.

It's true that the early fairy tales that influenced fantasy giants like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis may not resonate with modern women, with their tales of maidens saved by their patience and virtue from forced marriages, accusations of monster births, and devilish mothers-in-law. And Tolkien and Lewis didn't exactly write inspiring female heroines.

But as fantasy matured as a 20th-century genre, authors began to use stories about magic and chivalry not as a way to reconcile women to waiting for better outcomes, but to imagine claiming kinds of power that were previously off-limits to them. Bravery and initiative shattered class barriers in early fantasy stories, turning poor boys and hobbits into knights of the realm and saviors of their worlds. It's only natural that fantastical settings should, at some point, apply those same meritocratic principles to gender. If it's true, as Margalit Fox wrote in the Times this weekend in an obituary of science-fiction author Joanna Russ, that "the science fiction writer has the privilege of remaking the world," fantasy writers often transfigure tropes from the past as a way to prepare readers for the future.
Take Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet, a fairly typical chronicle of a hero's journey from untrained novice to champion of the realm, with the twist that the hero is a woman. What makes Alanna so effective as a fantasy heroine is that it isn't just the people around her who need to reconcile themselves to the idea that a woman could be the most talented knight in their country—Alanna has to come to terms with strengths she possesses that make her uncomfortable. Pierce recognizes that liberating women isn't just about opening up societal roles to them, it's about getting women comfortable with exercising power.

If Pierce's stories are about allowing women to stand as candidates for positions previously reserved for men, Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest stories are about upsetting conventional understandings of how women's roles work. Her fencing, spell-casting, cherries-jubilee-cooking Cimorene hires herself out as a dragon's princess to stave off boredom and an unappealing marriage, only to find herself in a society where her female keeper can end up King of the Dragons; a dwarf who can spin straw into gold runs a boarding school for the children of heroines who don't really want to be parents; and a queen is the person best equipped to prepare her son for life as an adventurer in the Enchanted Forest. A crown and an advantageous marriage need not be a set of shackles, and a plight can be an opportunity.

And fantasy authors haven't even needed to create new worlds to play with gender roles. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon is a forceful intervention into the narrative of Morgan le Fey. King Arthur's famously witchy sister began as Arthur's healer in the 12th century, and becoming his enemy in the 13th, a status she's been unable to completely shake in the seven hundred years that have followed and that's been reinforced by no lesser authors that Mark Twain. In The Mists of Avalon, Bradley closes that loop, bringing Morgan to the fore as healer, politician, and ultimately, agent of theological reconciliation between British paganism and Christianity. The book is a reminder that there's something contradictory about a reading process that has us stretch our imaginations enough to accept the existence of magic, but leaves us sanguine about hoary old tropes like the innocent princess or the evil witch.

And Bellefante wonders why women might rush to embrace fantasy? It might be unrealistic to hope that we can dream our way out of social strictures, of bad marriages to barbarians, of the requirements of needlework, or a Saturday night out looking for Mr. Right. But sometimes, playing pretend can help us figure out what we want for real.