Monday, September 9, 2013

What is the Face of Women in Fantasy?

It seems to be a hot topic of late--what are the faces fantasy wears?
(pics removed)

Eowyn, Polgara, Hermione. The warrior-woman, the motherly, yet powerful, sorcerss, and the brainy, determined young witch. What do these heroines have in common? They are all female, yes. Not a shrinking violet in the bunch. Determined. Loyal. Able to take over the situation or step back as needed. DRESSED.

Eowyn, as depicted, comes out of the early 2000s. Hermione is 1990s, and Polgara is 1980s. These are the heroines of fantasy I have read, watched, loved. It never even once occured to me that for a good many outside of the genre, these are the faces of fantasy:
(pics removed--scantily clad warrior women, and leather-clad tough chick wielding weapon)
At least, I hope those who know, love and actively read fantasy know these ladies don't actually exist within the covers. I purposely did not choose real book covers; I don't want to put up another writer's work in a negative light. I choose alternate artwork that directly corresponds to cover art I've actually seen.

The cliche of the woman in black leather, usually with a weapon in her hand, looking over one tattooed shoulder is, well--so cliche that I thought it had kind of faded out. But no--in the last two weeks I've seen two new releases depicting the same pose, the same clothing, the same, same, same. Urban fantasy seems to have ONE cover with little variation. But urban fantasy is not epic/traditional fantasy. Neither is the warrior woman dressed in a maille the snow. Or the gentle, sensitive--and again, scantily clad--sorceress. I have not read them, even in the books they appear upon. So why are they representing the faces and forms of fantasy for so many?

I started thinking about this several weeks ago, when a friend read my book out of loyalty, perhaps a bit of curiosity. "I don't read fantasy," she said. But she read it. And she loved it. Genuinely. When we talked about it over lunch, she told me she had a completely different view of fantasy. She thought it was, well, more like those second "covers."

I've been looking, REALLY looking at the covers of the books I read. I don't find any leather-clad, weapon-bearing heroines. Neither do I find maille bikinis. What I find is the fantasy art I know and love--castles and landscapes, heroines in traveling clothes and cloaks, the occasional sword, horse, knight in armor, thief. In other words, a whole lot of different covers that evoke the story within. I imagine people who read fantasy as a matter of course know that the cliche is not representative of fantasy as a whole, whether urban or epic. But those outside of it are getting a really, really skewed vision of the genre.

There are so many reasons this might be so--demographics, movies, marketing, gaming. I have my theory why the face of fantasy is misrepresentative. You tell me yours.

~Terri-Lynne DeFino


David Hunter said...

The semi-naked female cover does exist (google 'John Norman covers' or 'Conan covers' for examples) but actually more common is the hideously inappropriately clad male:

In the main though fantasy covers tend not to feature too much nudity from either sex.

What people are really thinking of is the iconic artwork inspired by the of the likes of Frank Frazetta (quite often used as fantasy book covers and as fantasy magazine covers).

This artwork is what people think of. Google 'fantasy book covers' and you (perhaps sadly) don't find so many comely and scantily clad or naked women without a lot of scrolling. Google 'fantasy art' and you have to scroll a long way to stop finding scantily clad comely women.

It's probably fair to say that the video game industry is partly responsible too and possibly the roleplaying games of the 80s (the original Runequest cover was

David Hunter said...

Sorry about the links, it doesn't seem very link-friendly, Blogger.

Terri-Lynne said...

The Conan covers are iconic, definitely, and things of the past that get referenced quite a lot in fantasy art. You've got it spot on, Dave, and I completely agree--there is a huge difference between fantasy art and fantasy covers. I don't really see much of the scantily clad women anymore as much as I do the (overabundance of) leather-clad tough chicks bearing weapons and sporting tattoos of the Urban Fantasy genre.

It's those outside the genre who see fantasy as embodied by such things, and I think it is because they might not have read a fantasy novel, but they've seen fantasy art. And the novels they DO see in the bookstore often have that woman-in-black etc face out. It seems to be the only cover I ever see in Urban Fantasy these days.

(No, blogger is not link-friendly. But I cut and pasted them!)

Anonymous said...

These discussions usually invoke the Luis Royo art, which definitely gets your attention, but I find his imagery to be over-eroticized. Compared to even Frazetta and Vallejo, Royo just comes off as pervy. I mean, this is more like fetish artwork than even fantasy artwork. Don't get me wrong, his technique is crazy good, especially in making transparent fabric and body lines, etc. but some of it is nigh-on pornographic. Even Vargas would be all "Dios mio!"

David Hunter said...

Runequest Cover:

But actually why is this a big deal:

if this isn't:

Now of course this is what's more objectionable:

but most of that sort of cover tends to be from 70s editions -- and naked females were de rigeur to sell anything in the 70s -- even mountaineering equipment featured the 'Javelin' ladies. Sadly i couldn't find any but this is a relatively staid example from a yachting mag:

Why fantasy remains linked with the semi-naked female image in the public mind is probably more now to do with video games and the 'ghetto-ising' of fantasy in the 80s and early 90s that followed the 70s boom. I think possibly because it was an obvious target for anti-sexism because of the more lurid book covers (and content -- John Norman wrote some pretty questionable stuff in his books, especially the later ones, but the much-venerated Fritz Leiber indulged in graphic lesbian BDSM sessions in his too).

Anonymous said...

Correction, when I said Royo was nigh-on pr0no, I should have said "full-on". NSFW people. Careful where you Google, thar be dragons.


Terri-Lynne said...

It seems like a lot of this art is fairly old, and now in the honored anals of fan-art.

You know how the music the parents listened to suddenly comes back into vogue during a young person's teen years? Twenties? Could it be kind of the same phenomenon?

And again, I'll state that I didn't really consider the fantasy ART side of things as the face of fantasy, but it seems to be the way those outside the genre see it.

David Hunter said...

I'd add that Eowyn really comes from the 50s, not the last decade, as LotR was published then (you could argue earlier as she was written earlier but I think we have to go with publication date).

Heroines of Fantasy said...

David, yes, she is from the 50's, earlier if you're counting when she was actually written. I simply meant as she is depicted in the photo I used.

batgirl said...

You've seen this guy's video? (if I can post the link)

I'm reminded that Seanan McGuire said when she was asked if there was anything in particular she'd like to see on the cover of the first Toby Daye novel, she said "Clothes."

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Barbara--holy crap! I never saw that. Spot on exactly what I was getting at. So I'm NOT imagining it!