The short answer is: remember that objective truth and subjective truth are different. The reader will assume that your narrator (POV) character is factual and a resource they should believe unless they are proven to be unreliable. The POV character, especially in a fantasy narrative, is our connection to the world. They are our state of normal, they are the providers of knowledge and our insight. The audience has to trust them, at least in the beginning, in order to be grounded in both the narrative and the world. You have to show them that the main character’s opinion is false through the character’s actions and the opinions of other characters. His perceptions and reality’s perceptions are different, other characters both male and female have lives, goals, and desires outside of him. If he is the only POV and you’re writing in First Person or Third Person Limited, then you’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of you.
Contrary to popular belief, the sexist main character does not need to overcome his sexism, does not need to be redeemed, and no romance tropes need to be invoked. (I’d also avoid the rape tropes, frankly.) You do need to show he is wrong even if he doesn’t realize it. Sometimes, main characters are shitty people and not every narrative needs to be about them becoming better ones. (He can come to respect her without giving up his sexism, this shouldn’t be treated as a solution. Seeing one person as fine but the rest of their gender as the same isn’t a realization that “x group” are people just like them.)
He doesn’t need to be, nor become, a good person.
However, again, you do have to lay in the groundwork to make it clear that his perceptions and the reality don’t lineup.
You do that by giving the female character her own arc separate from the main character, where she does her own stuff, where we find out a little about her backstory and motivations (not for the benefit of the male character or because of any man), and recognize she has an interior life with goals and dreams of her own. He may be involved in her arc, but it isn’t about him.
However, in the same hand, she also is probably accepted by the vast majority of her compatriots and they trust her to have their backs in battle (or else she wouldn’t be participating, unless she never expects to see combat). There’s a lot of fine detail work you can get into with sexism depending on the female character’s social class and background. (She sounds a little like Brienne of Tarth.) So, her reasons for being present and perception of special treatment due to her social status could be present. (She’s got her father whipped, he’s a weak man who lets his daughter run amok, she’s wild and does what she wants, she’s a fool, etc.) If she’s someone of a lower class background or a mercenary, then
A variety of sexist opinions, however, are worth using that don’t automatically fall under the “for a girl” header and they don’t always relate particularly to only the woman in question. Aspersions will be cast on everyone who supports her.
Denying her femininity and womanhood due to her choice in occupation. “Ha! Her? She’s no woman.”
One of the guys. “Yeah, but Elsa, no one thinks about you like that.”
Referred to commonly with gendered slurs that are particularly sexist.
Turned to when a “woman’s” opinion is needed.
Constantly asked to “prove her worth”. Over. And over. And over again.
Referred to as being undesirable because she doesn’t fit convention, told she’ll never “get a man”, assumptions made that she must want children. (Whether she does or not isn’t the issue.) Even though it could be said in jest with no ill will meant. “One more sword blow like that Elsa and no one’ll want you!”
Jokes about her body type. Generally invasive personal questions. Jokes made on any male character who shows an interest in her.
She’ll be passed over for jobs she’s suited for, not because she’s no good but to avoid causing offense.
People from outside the company will routinely say that they don’t want to work with her, regardless of her skill level and, sometimes, even after she’s proven her worth.
For the men who support her, it’s just as hard. They will be ridiculed and insulted, aspersions will be cast on their “manliness” and their ability.
Friendly interest or saying anything complimentary is generally assumed to be sexual i.e. “You only said that ‘cause you want to get between her legs!”
“It’s your responsibility!”
“How can you let her…”
Her superiors will be accused of being incapable when it comes to “controlling” her. Her friends will suffer the same and will constantly be asked why they don’t “encourage” her to engage in a safer line of work. Some may even suggest them marrying her as a means to get her off the battlefield.
Remember, this female character doesn’t have to actually be better than all the boys in order to justify her existence. She doesn’t even need to be competent, though she probably is. She doesn’t need to justify her existence at all, other than she decided to do this
and now takes a lot of shit for for being unconventional.
The MC could even be right, she could only be good “for a girl” aka people he believes can’t fight at all because no one has taken the time yet to teach her how to properly fight or she hasn’t figured out how to make good usage of her body. The treatment of violence or skill in combat as “masculine only” is what’s sexist, not the fact that someone could actually be bad at it or unsuited. Ability in combat is a skill set. It is acquired through time, dedication, training, luck, with experience gained by surviving through armed conflict. It is not static, but ever changing. Someone can start out slow and finish strong by working hard, whereas someone with a lot of talent can start strong but finish poorly due to resting on that talent.
If you’re wondering, this is why “Female Empowerment Fantasies” are often just as sexist as the stories they’re railing against. This is why the “One Woman Who Can Hold Her Own” is a problem. Overcoming sexism in fiction is not about exceptions to the rule, it’s the realization that the rule itself is bogus.
As Ellie Sattler, a young and fit thirty something woman with a doctorate degree in paleobotany, from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park says when John Hammond, an old man with a bad leg suggest he should be making the long walk to the generators through a compound overrun with dinosaurs just because he’s a man:
“We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.”
The one who should be doing the thing is the one best suited because of their skills and not their gender. Sexism is the assumption that a man is better at combat or war by virtue of being a man, just like women will be better at housework or raising children because they’re women.
“Look, Jack, you either trust me to make the long shot or you hightail your ass back to camp. We don’t have time for debate. You may beat me daily with that sword, but I’m more accurate than you on your best week.”
Give them a voice. Recognize that they won’t be the best at everything. Show them fighting for what’s theirs and what they’ve worked for.
Due to everyone experiencing cultural and social mores, no group is immune to sexism and no person, regardless of background, is incapable of being sexist. Sexism and discrimination change based on societal expectations for certain groups, which is where it intersects with racism and other prejudices. The female character’s ethnicity and the cultural prejudices surrounding it will play a role in how she’s perceived, just as they would a male character. Europe has a long history of discrimination based on ethnic background. An easy joke to point to is “draw me like one of your French girls”, where French women and, more specifically, Parisian women are considered to be more sexually available, sexier, or free than women in other cultures.
“Yes, but she’s Romani…”
“Yes, but she’s a Moor…”
“Yes, but she’s Scots…”
You know how they are.
Most importantly, recognize that these values are cultural and they are constantly in flux. Though often depicted as “it’s always been this way”, expectations change based on changing values. The sexism you’ll be writing for a medieval world is not the same in detail as the sexism you’re experiencing on a regular basis (regardless of gender).
Your primary reading list is going to be:
Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce. All of it. The full quartet from start to finish. Pay specific attention to characters like Joren and the constant microagressions that Keladry suffers through.
When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman.
A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England’s King Henry
I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman:
Henry’s beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude
could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and
bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned. – from the Amazon description
When Christ and His Saint’s Slept is Historical Fiction, not fantasy but I prefer it when discussing medieval sexism over a series like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire”. The reason I like it is because it has a lot of female characters that are based on real women in history and Penman has an excellent track record for sourcing/citing her work. She’s also very honest about where and what she invents. (The short answer is almost nothing.) It’s a great look at what medieval sexism actually affected and what it didn’t.
Now, I’m going to go on a long discussion about sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny.
Start by not confusing sexism with chauvinism and misogyny. One of Tumblr’s issues is conflating the three together and, while all three can exist within the same individual regardless of sex/gender, they don’t represent the same actions or a unified set of beliefs. The vast majority of individuals, even in the middle ages, fall into the ranks of “casual sexism” rather than outright and blatant misogyny.
For example, “everyone knows” is casual sexism. Much like casual racism, it’s the most pervasive because the beliefs are commonly held. There is no active hatred there, is born more from ignorance or certain beliefs that have never been challenged rather than malice or an active desire to cause harm. “This is just the way the world is and has always been”. It’s passively damaging, but not actively abusive or automatically rapey.
Misogyny is the fire and brimstone speech a priest gives on a Sunday morning warning about how his mother visited him as a demon in a dream and attempted to lead him into temptation. This is not a quality of a single woman, but all of them. All women are evil, subhuman, and controlling them is necessary in order to save immortal souls from the fires of damnation.
The vast majority of people do not actually want to harm anyone, the same is true of the Middle Ages. There’s a lot of hatred to go around, but if you’re going to do “misogyny” then do it right. Don’t do it because it’s more “realistic”. Often, when it comes to realism a great deal of historical fantasy that invokes it gets it entirely wrong.
You have to write these characters as individuals with differing views on what is and isn’t acceptable. You need to start researching the rules of European warfare during the Middle Ages. If you’re starting from the perspective “because girl” then it’s going to be helpful to understand why some would consider it a downside beyond just “well, woman” and “women can’t”.
An example would be that battlefield rules regarding women differ, many mercenaries and warriors during the middle ages (even knights) made their money off of ransoming a captured noble back to their family. However, female nobles are not bound by any such agreement and, more than likely, will simply be let go unless there’s a specific reason to hold onto them and the only gains the soldiers can make is the valuables found on their person (no, not what’s between their legs).
Characters may view the female character as “cheating” due to cultural loopholes that bind them to a specific course of action. They feel they’re receiving “special” privileges or are bound because they feel they can’t respond like they normally would. (Note: this doesn’t mean they should behave this way.)
I suggest reading “When Christ and His Saints Slept” and others in the trilogy because the first thing you need to do is read good historical fiction about the period you want to introduce fantasy elements to. One of the biggest mistakes writer’s make is assuming “everyone” in a group feels a certain way. If you don’t understand the social and political aspects at play for the period you’re writing then you can’t actually write racism, sexism, and the other prejudices that are reflective of the period. You can write your own prejudices and the sexism from the world you live in, but not sexism that’s reflective of the times. Often, medieval “sexism/chauvinism/misogyny” end up being lumped in with Victorian values and, more specifically, Victorian gender roles.
Cultural values, sexism, and social issues change between cultures and throughout history. You’ve got to define whose values and social rules are being used to limit mobility, with the understanding it changes vastly depending on which social class the characters belong to. And, of course, it varies due to country and territory as much as it does by religion.
While they often went unrecognized, women were partners, businesswomen, handlers of family accounts, skilled politicians and dissemblers, artists, patrons, religious leaders in their communities, and more. Some were treated as little more than chattel, some were abused, just like today.
You’ve got to start building a varied setting with as many women participating as men. They may not be participating in the same way as your warrior character, but they do exist and they are important. You can have solid and supportive marriages united by politics as much as by love. You can have male characters who love and respect their wives, much as the women love and respect their husbands, but still adhere to the culturally defined mores about what men and women are capable of. Off hand sexism is going to be more prevalent than outright hatred.
You defeat prejudice by humanizing characters and by showing the audience that the narrating character is wrong through action in the story itself.
Remember that objective truth is different from personal truth if you’re writing in first person or third person limited. Third person omniscient lets you tell a story from multiple perspectives within several paragraphs and into everyone’s mind. Your reader is more likely to sympathize with the characters you ask them to and vilify the ones the narrative does or the ones that characters they like do. It’s a balancing act and one that may take several subsequent drafts to master.
1) Sexism is a Social Construct
Whose values are you writing?
One of the problems with Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy, especially when dealing with sexism, is the author’s importing of modern ideals and opinions into a period where the characters themselves would have no means of grasping it or isn’t relevant to them.
Sexism is a social construct. To understand it and it’s affects, we must understand the world the characters exist in. Their rules. Their laws. Their social values and mores. What is believed about women and about men, what is presented, and what the reality actually looks like.
We can go round and round about how men and women are different whether it’s psychological or physical or based on cultural conditioning with a side of societal expectations. People are complicated creatures, we’re affected by a lot of different aspects from our upbringing to our bodies. The hard boxes of “only this” hurt everyone, when we’re all trying to fit our square pegs into round holes or being pidgeonholed with our rough edges smoothed into what’s considered to be the norm. How those expectations are met though and the shapes they take rely on the culture in question.
2) People are varied individuals who express their prejudices in vastly different ways
It’s not just about hatred. Chauvinism. Paternalism. Backhanded compliments. Kindness. Even Chivalry. Most prejudice is well-meaning. While there are plenty of men out there today, and who existed during the Middle Ages, that see women as their personal property, there are just as many who will never raise their hand against them.
However, that doesn’t mean their actions or opinions aren’t damaging. Stopping and thinking about how sexism and chauvinism, not just misogyny affects an individual’s daily life is important. The reverse is also true, women just as easily support the same sexist system and their prejudices about “women’s work” can be just as harmful to their sons as their daughters. Women can hate men and other women, women can discriminate against men and other women. Women can beat men, women can be the architects of pain and misery.
A woman laughing at a man being abused by his wife is sexist because she buys into societal expectations about how men and women are supposed to behave. She applies those prejudices to the man for being “weak” or “unable to control his wife”, just as another man might. She blames the victim rather than the abuser because it’s easier to sympathize with someone who is like her and because she can’t imagine doing it herself.
Some people accept that system. Some people say no to it. Some of the people who say no aren’t always the ones we expect. Good and bad is based on the actions we take and on how we treat people.
At the end of the day, we’re all just people.
3) Not all men hold to or agree with the social rules and laws that bar some from taking or gaining power
People are individuals, I think that’s the most important thing to remember when working with a setting. I’m not saying you should frame the “good” characters as the not-sexists and the “bad” ones as misogynists. It’s not really true to human nature. It’s tempting to make “all men” in a story out to be chauvinists, sexists, and misogynists, and that’s just… not realistic. People are on a median and people don’t blindly follow social convention just because it’s social convention. There will be fathers who look out for and want to protect their daughters or find a way to provide them with happiness, who recognize their talents, and want them to succeed. There will be sons who want to protect their mothers and who see them as their formative parent. Cousins who love and respect their female ones. Men and women who conspire together. Men and women who fight together. Loving marriages. Marriages of convenience where the two happily pursue their own separate interests.
Women who do hold power because their masculine spouse or parent is either incapable. They have responsibilities. They aren’t just baby-making machines that spend their days stitching. The female side of the nobility are powerful in their own way.
There’s the perception of what female nobles did and what they actually did. Most of fantasy, sadly, revolves around the perception because much of what women are responsible for is forgotten by history.
Finally, it is worth saying that it is more difficult for someone who comes from a privileged class to recognize the extent to which injustice is happening. For someone who experiences discrimination and prejudice on a regular basis, it’s obvious. Experience has been the key teacher. Realizing your whole world, and the world you’ve built for yourself, is wrong isn’t easy.
4) There are those from all quarters who challenge these rules and those from both sexes who benefit from the way things are
Both individual men and women benefit from sexism in their own ways. We can get frustrated at “Not All Men” and “Not All Women”, while neither excuse behavior it’s important to remember that it is true. There will be women who have learned to make the system work for them, they’ve manipulated it and those around them to make their own position of power. Like anyone with power, they don’t want to give it up.
On the same hand, there will be those who want to help their families. Who have a strong sense of filial duty and do hold to the values that their cultures have taught them are right. They want to do what’s expected of them and work within the system to get the benefits.
What’s unrealistic is a portrayal that all women are victims and all men are abusers. Some people benefit from a system more than others, but just as many either work to change it or manipulate it to their benefit. You can have female characters who are fine with their arranged marriages, even when they’re marrying old men. You can have older male characters who take a young wife with no intention of abusing or even sleeping with them until they’re either ready or just because it’s culturally expected that they’ll remarry.
You have noble parents who take care of their bastards and who may even take care of their cheating wives, either out of love or to keep up appearances. You have nobles who’ll be fine with lovers on the side, both for men and women.
Complexity, really, is the name of the game. Establish the system, but then work to figure out how people navigate it, manipulate it, and break it. For as many victims (both male and female), there will be just as many victors. There will be those who live happy and content lives, it doesn’t make the system any less prejudiced but they do exist and it’s important to recognize that.
George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan both managed to beat this one (depending on how you look at it) by writing in multiple perspectives, allowing other characters to have an interior life and showing the multitude of prejudices different characters have. When done right, it’s very successful for creating a vast and varied world where we’re reminded that the objective reality differs from personal truth and that prejudices aren’t always right. They blind us to the real world in front of us and are part of human nature.