Apparently some people are worked up that although the main character in the new Star Wars movie is a woman, most of the other characters are men. I do not have an opinion one way or the other on this (and haven't yet seen the movie) but the links led me back into some posts on the balance between diversity and plausibility in writing fiction, which is a topic that I am interested in.
The first piece is a rather long and rambling one by SF/F author Kameron Hurley dealing with the question of whether women historically were soldiers. (Her answer is pretty clearly given away by the title "We Have Always Fought".) She begins with an extended analogy in which she imagines a world in which all llamas portrayed in fiction are violent semi-reptiles, and people think that portraying a llama as a grazing mammal is unrealistic. She thinks something similar has been done with women, that women have always been clearly present in war settings but that they've been systematically excluded from fictional representations of war with the result that people thing war stories including women as fighters are unrealistic.
When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.
“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”
He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”
I spent two years in South Africa and another decade once I returned to the states finding out about all the women who fought. Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women. But when we say “revolutionary army” what do we think of? What image does it conjure? Does the force in your mind include three women and seven men? Six women and fourteen men?
Women not only made bombs and guns in WWII – they picked up guns and drove tanks and flew airplanes. The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it. And yes, Shaka Zulu employed female fighters as well. But when we say “Shaka Zulu’s fighters” what image do we conjure in our minds? Do we think of these women? Or are they the ones we don’t see? The ones who, if we included them in our stories, people would say weren’t “realistic”?
She in turn links to a piece by another SF/F author which deals with diversity in history more generally.
Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic.
But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?
Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible.
And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations.
How we take this has a lot to do with what, as a fiction writer or reader, we're trying to do. That something is historically uncommon does not mean that it never happened, as the examples presented above underline. Say, for example, someone wrote a novel about a woman who fought in the Tsarist army during WW1, became a non-commissioned officer, and successfully petitioned the Tsar to let her raise an all-woman infantry unit. Would it be correct for a critic to say, "That novel is inaccurate because women didn't fight in the Tsarist army"? No. Because that did happen. However, if you were writing a novel set in the Russian army in WW1, would you be leaving out the contribution of women if you didn't include women soldiers? No, not really. The number of women who fought in the Tsarist army was pretty small, a few thousand out of a total mobilized army size of twelve million. A Russian soldier could have gone through the whole war without ever seeing a woman soldier.
Hurley is not entirely wrong to say "The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it," but she's also only right within certain bounds. A few women successfully disguised themselves as men and fought in the Revolution and the Civil War, but in the modern armies of countries like the US and Britain the medical examinations and training regimes had developed to the point that a woman could no longer successfully pass for male and sign up as a soldier. When Dorothy Lawrence (a British reporter) wanted to go under cover as a soldier with the British army in WW1, she had to get serving male soldiers to smuggle her a spare uniform. Thus disguised she was able to move around the front line for ten days with the help of soldiers who knew she was really a woman, before she got sick and turned herself in to the military authorities. However, although there were women who served in designated female roles (transportation, medical, intelligence, etc.) under great hardship and danger, there were not women who successfully served in standard combat roles in the US or British army in WW1 or WW2. Other armies either officially allowed women to serve as combat soldiers (as did the Russian army in both world wars, though even in WW2 only 2-3% of Red Army personnel were women) or were loose enough in their training and recruiting that some women successfully served while disguised as men (this happened at least a couple times in the Serbian army, Polish Legion, and Austrian Army).
I'm not sure where Hurley gets her "Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women." statistic. It is true that in the 20th Century women were more often found as actual fighters in semi-irregular forces such as the various partisan/resistance organizations in WW2, the Irgun in British Palestine, etc. than they were in the regular armies of 20th Century nation states. This isn't necessarily because resistance and revolutionary movements were more progressive than organized armies, though in some cases it was. Communist movements mostly endorsed some form of women's equality. More key, however, even in societies we'd otherwise recognize as very traditional is the fact that revolutionary and resistance movements were always starved for recruits. They couldn't afford to be choosy in recruiting the way that a national army could. And in a guerrilla wars which often involved brutal reprisals against the civilian population, the rational that keeping women out of the army would keep them safe did not apply in may revolutionary and resistance movements. Revolutionary movements tended to be egalitarian in the same sense that a natural disaster is: they sprang from circumstances that affected everyone. However, as revolutionary armies formalized into armies, they often returned to the all-male norm. For example, while Polish revolutionary movements fighting against the Tsar included women, and women served in auxiliary roles in the Polish Legions and other semi-formalized military forces during the period of the Polish fight for independence in 1914-1921, the formal Polish Army which the fledgling state formed was all male. Similarly, in the early stages of the French Revolution, women at some points played key roles in the revolutionary mobs which fought against royal control. But in the formal armies of the French Republic and French Empire, women did not play any formal role in fighting.
How, then, does all this relate to portraying history and women in particular in fiction?
Fiction deals in particulars. You don't have to write a novel about the most likely kind of character. You could write a novel about a Chinese man who went to Roman Britain. It's a one in several million chance, but if it can plausibly happen you can write about it without being considered inaccurate. However, that it could happen doesn't mean that it was normal. Indeed, the very thing which is interesting about some of these situations is that it was so very unusual. The story of a women who dressed as a man and fought in the American Revolution would be interesting to read, but it was hardly a normal experience for a woman in the Revolutionary War. It would be inaccurate if you wrote a novel about the Revolutionary War in which woman-soldiers were all over the place. Similarly, it wouldn't be inaccurate to portray an Arab or Black character in Medieval Europe -- but if you wrote as if such characters were all over the place, you would not be writing in a way that was faithful to history. It's entirely legitimate both to write stories focused on unusual characters and to write stories about typical characters.
This is one of the things I find frustrating about both activism and reaction centering around the portrayal of history in fiction. It's interesting to tell both the stories of people in unusual situations, such an African man traveling through Medieval Europe or a woman fighting in the Tsarist army, and to tell the stories of people in more typical situations. So long as they remain true to the history of their times, authors who take either of these paths should not be attacked for their choice of topics.