25
Mar
09

Fantasy and motherhood

Recently, I went back to an old series I’d loved as a kid and reread it from start to finish. It hadn’t aged well, or perhaps I’d aged in a different direction from the book.  That’s always a possibility with revisiting something from childhood, and I’d kind of expected it in this case, as I’d long grown away from this particular setting. However, it made for good comfort reading, and I mostly enjoyed going back through the long plot progression.

But there was one thing in particular that bothered me this time through, and I’m not sure why it caught my attention only now: Not only were all the female characters treated as if wife- and motherhood were the natural end state of being female, but once these characters became pregnant, most of their old personalities evaporated. It was as if they’d abdicated their roles to the potential roles of their offspring, sometimes dramatically. (The warrior queen who turned into the distracted, slightly deranged twerp was probably the most notable of these.)

I’m not yet sure if this is indicative of a larger trend — I’d meant to do more research before writing this post, but my internet connection went down (which is why this post is late) — but I’m going to go out and make a sweeping statement in hopes of being proven wrong: Fantasy has a very weird and problematic approach to pregnancy and motherhood. Some of it probably stems from fantasy’s roots in fairy tales, in which the mother was either replaced with a stepmother by later redactors or the mother’s death simply reflected high maternal mortality rates at the time. But I think more of it has to do with the fetishization of motherhood in western culture.

A pregnant character is rarely a character in her own right. She’s a plot device. At some point she’ll give birth during trying circumstances (and one of the main characters will have to help with the birth), or she’s carrying a Chosen One of some kind and will therefore probably not make it long past the Chosen One’s birth, or her pregnancy is the result of some horrible incident in the recent past which will then move the plot forward. If there’s an element of horror in the story, then it’s Demon Fetus time. In all of those cases, the woman is less important than the fact of her pregnancy.

I can only think of a few characters who don’t succumb to this — Catherine Harcourt from Naomi Novik’s Empire of Ivory, whose pregnancy is treated very matter-of-factly, is one that came to mind quickly. Magrat Garlick from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is somewhat of one, but her role as a new mother has an effect on the plot — partly because the Lancre witches have a maiden-mother-crone triad. (I tried to play with this idea a little in Spiral Hunt, since my main character fits none of the above categories. I don’t yet know how well I succeeded.) Catelyn Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly driven by her love of her children, but she comes across as a character in her own right.

Am I just missing a lot of characters who aren’t eclipsed by their roles as mothers? Is this something basic about plot — after all, pregnancy and motherhood are huge events and roles, so does it make sense that they’d be reflected that way in fiction?  And what about science fiction? (Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold comes to mind.) If fantasy is a conservative genre (an assertion that’s up for debate), does science fiction have a more liberal approach to motherhood?

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9 Responses to “Fantasy and motherhood”


  1. March 26, 2009 at 5:03 am

    I’d say that some of what you say is true in Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn (4th and final book in the Twilight series) — and some not. It is a romance, so the end of the series is the conclusion of the Edward/Bella romance as a dramatic throughline, but most of what you say about motherhood isn’t true of Bella’s situation.

    The book’s been out for a few months, so I’m going to take a risk and spoiler some of it without getting too into the details.

    1) Bella is the main character, which isn’t unusual in fantasy these days, but isn’t as common as it should be.
    2) Her role definitely doesn’t end with the delivery of the kid.
    3) The Chosen One thing is partly true, but partly not.
    4) Rather than being the thing that moves the plot forward, it helps break what had been a logjam, at least on the emotional level.

    Weirdly, though, I hadn’t thought of how differently it treated the motherhood archetypes until you brought them up above, but maybe that’s because I’ve always had difficulty writing anything even approaching traditional women’s roles, even for minor characters.

  2. 2 mlronald
    March 26, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I haven’t read the Twilight series — I’ve read some summaries, but that’s about it — so I’m not sure how accurate my impressions of it are. (Does the Demon Fetus thing still apply, given the circumstances of that particular birth?) Although this does bring up the question of whether romance has a different approach, simply because romance would seem to concentrate on a relationship, rather than children. (And then there’s YA novels, for that matter. I know in Nation there is a birth and a (different) woman with a child, but both of them are in the background as characters.)

    Hm. More data! Obviously what I need to do now is put all my work on hold so I can read nonstop for a month…

  3. March 26, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I remember an English class in college when we read some story in which a demon-child is born. In discussion section, a fellow student complained that the story was misogynist, because this terrible devil child came from a woman character. “Well,” I said in the only successful straight face I’ve ever managed in my life, “it’s traditional in many cultures for the woman to bear the child.”

  4. March 26, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    There’s this whole cultural assumption in genre fiction that once you’ve gotten married and/or had kids, your life is over.

    …as a married writer with kids, I say hell no. 🙂

    MCA Hogarth and I keep talking about creating a new subgenre: mompunk. 🙂 For people who go adventuring with their families! Because motherhood changed me, yes, but it didn’t make me less of a person in my own right, so I don’t see why it has to be that way for characters.

    I think it’s valid that there are fewer books written about the mothers of toddlers, because really, in those years, your identity *is* subsumed. But my daughter’s 14 now, and there are a lot of adventures I could take her on…

  5. March 26, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Good post! It seems like pregnant women are being treated as the equivalent of the “gun-on-the-mantle.” If it’s not used in the plot, then there’s a sense that the writer is being lazy or missed an opportunity. I think early genre stuff also treated race/gender/sexuality that way as well (which I suppose some people still do), so maybe it’s just a matter of breaking that barrier.

  6. 6 mlronald
    March 27, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Alex, I’d dare you to write some mpreg, if it weren’t for the fact that it’d probably show up at BRAWL…on second thought, do it.

    Shira, I so want to see mompunk. I can see why toddlerhood really takes over one’s life and would therefore be difficult from an adventuring point — I think Connie Willis has one short story involving a woman with a toddler and some aliens — but there really ought to be more about mothers with older kids. I’d certainly read it.

    (Geeky side tangent: my sister was the GM for our gaming group for a very long while, and she had a one-shot envisioned with the setup of “your father and I think it’s now time for you and your siblings to start adventuring”. She’s hipdeep in schoolwork right now and can’t run the game, but I’d love to play it sometime.)

    AMLau, that’s a good point. Given that pregnancy is a condition with a time limit, it does make sense for this to be sort of a Chekhov’s gun. (Unfortunately, now all I can think of is someone yelling “careful! she could go off at any moment!” which probably means that I haven’t had enough sleep.) I think one way to go about breaking that barrier would be to write with it in mind — which brings me back to wanting some mompunk.

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