When I was an undergraduate getting my degree in English Literary Studies, I ended up concentrating on feminist theories of literature. I read classics of the feminist canon, from The Feminine Mystique to This Sex Which Is Not One to the ever debatable Intercourse. I read a lot of books by dead white men and wrote essays on the relative empowerment of their female characters, scrutinized the function of desire and female sexuality in their stories.
These days, though, my concept of feminism has broadened from the primarily white, academic, existential feminism of my undergraduate studies into a practical and intersectional view. Feminism is not about theories or discussions of the female soul. It’s about breaking down the barriers and injustices faced every day in the real world, by real women, real people, as a result of the assumption that a white heterosexual cisgender man is the “default” human. This feminism is intersectional. This feminism is diverse. This feminism raises up those who have been pushed to the margins of mainstream society.
From trolls on up to the well-meaning but sheltered “Oh it can’t be that bad” people, a common derailing tactic in arguments about feminist issues is to claim that “this”, whatever it happens to be—sharing an article, or writing a book, for instance—is not the most effective way to combat any -ism you can imagine. So what if your book has more women than men? So what if some of those women are POC, and/or queer, and/or disabled, and/or neurodiverse? So what if they’re all written complexly and respectfully? You’re not really doing anything to make things better.
People who say that are wrong.
Activism, the kind that goes in the streets and into policymakers’ spaces and onto the news, is incredibly important. It’s crucial to fight for and secure legal and policy protections for the populations left behind by those who only think about middle and upper class white cishet men and women when they go to work. Those activists who make those protections happen, and their allies, deserve our praise and support.
But media representation is the other half of feminism’s battle. There’s a reason people in power only think of other people like them when they speak or make decisions, and it’s because the media they consume—the popular books, movies, and TV shows available to and marketed toward those with comfortable and more-than-comfortable incomes, for example—all focus on people like them. White people. Straight people. People who can inexplicably afford 1400 square foot, brightly lit studio apartments while they struggle to make it in New York or Los Angeles.
As a fantasy writer and reader, the fact that straight white men are still the most common characters, main and supporting, in many best-selling modern fantasy and science-fiction books is frustrating, because we don’t have “realism” to fall back on. Sure, some try to make that argument, but considering the evidence that pre-industrial Europe (the inspiration for many second-world fantasies) wasn’t as racially segregated as we think, and that our future will be even more diverse, you might say the argument doesn’t hold water. And that’s without even considering the fact that as fantasy and science-fiction writers we are literally making everything up. Everything about our worlds is created by us—we have so much choice and freedom to move beyond the biases of the real world. It’s really not that hard.
When I started writing my forthcoming fantasy novel, From Under the Mountain, I was fifteen years old. I made my main character a white red-headed princess. She stayed that way for a long time, until I got out of college, until I started reading more pieces on intersectional feminism, until I started listening to complaints from underrepresented people about the dearth of characters who looked like them doing anything at all, much less being the heroes of their stories. I finally asked myself—why was my main character white? The answer was easy; because I am. And the more important question was, did she have to be white?
That answer was also easy: no.
Writing feminism into your fiction means simply being aware of the circumstances and power dynamics between your characters, AND among your readers. It means doing research—yes, even when writing sci-fi and fantasy—to learn about the issues faced by the people you want to include, and paying attention to the problems with previous examples of representation, and avoiding those problems. It means reaching out, and listening to the responses. It means accepting criticism and learning from it.
It means writing characters from underrepresented background who are fully-rounded and who matter to the story, who aren’t there to fulfill tropes. It means writing characters with intersectional identities, female AND black AND queer AND/OR whatever, because readers like that exist and they want to see themselves in the books they read too. It means writing more than one character who is female, more than one who is POC, more than one who is gay, more than one who is disabled, because readers with those identities have varied backgrounds and personalities and goals.
Writing feminism into your fiction means writing narratives for those characters where they have strength, where they are dynamic, where they succeed and struggle and learn and grow. Where they are heroes.
Because this is how we begin to undo the positioning of affluent white straight men as the default, as the primary, in our society. By writing and promoting books that feature well-developed main and supporting characters from underrepresented backgrounds, we show that the human experience is more varied than Hollywood has ever shown us. We show that yes, you can empathize with someone who is not white and straight and male, or white and straight and female.
And if you can empathize with them in fiction, you can empathize with them in real life, and then intersectional feminist activism will make so much more sense.
Cait Spivey is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor. Her enduring love of fantasy started young, thanks to author
s like Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Diane Duane, Tamora Pierce, and many more. Now, she explores the rules and ramifications of magic in her own works—and as a panromantic asexual, she’s committed to queering her favorite genres.
In her spare time, she plans her next tattoo (there will always be a next tattoo) and falls further behind on her to-be-read list. Anything left over is devoted to her tireless quest to make America read more. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her darling husband Matt and adorable dog Jay.