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SH 2010 notes: violent female protagonists

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While we were buying stories to be published in 2010, I noticed an interesting small trend: several stories featuring female protagonists who deal in violence.

Note that I said a small trend; I'm talking about three to five stories, depending on how you count, out of the 45+ stories we published in 2010. Somewhere around a third to half of our 2010 stories' protagonists were male, and most of the female protagonists were not particularly violent, so this wasn't a huge thing. But I nonetheless found the small pattern interesting. Especially because we didn't set out to publish stories with this attribute; it just happened.

Like most categories, this is a slippery one, so I'm going to start at the edges and work my way toward the center.

(This entry will contain, of necessity, some general spoilers for these stories, but more thematic than otherwise. I'm revealing a few things that are surprises in the stories, but only from the first half of each story.)

For example, does Elizabeth Carroll's “The Duke of Vertumn's Fingerling” count? The female protagonist is expected, among other things, to kill people. But she uses poison; and physical violence isn't, in my view, the core of the story.

And the protagonist of Lavie Tidhar's “The Night Train” is an action heroine and a bodyguard; she certainly engages in violence, and is good at it. On the other hand, to complicate the question of how well the story fits the category at hand: I don't feel like violence per se is at the center of what the story's about. Also, the protagonist is a kathoey, which as I understand it (not well) doesn't entirely match Western gender terms like “transwoman” (at least as the term is used in the US); if she were a Western transwoman, I would put her firmly in the “female protagonist” category, but my limited understanding is that this particular character's self-identification complicates her gender identity. Then again, she does refer to herself at one point as a woman. (I hope I can be forgiven for oversimplifying here. Discussing her gender could be a whole entry in itself, and that isn't my focus in this entry; I just felt like her gender is complicated enough that I shouldn't label her as female without a footnote.)

Continuing on toward the center of this micro-category, there's Eilis O'Neal's “Waiting,” in which the female lead (I'd say she's one of the two protagonists) is a soldier. (More specifically, a warrior who wields a sword extremely well. I wasn't entirely comfortable with using the term “swordsman” to refer to her in the story, but we couldn't come up with a better option—for example, I had to concede that saying she's the best “swordswoman” leaves open the question of whether there are men who are better with a sword, and “swordsperson” would've been wildly out of place in this story. And other phrases didn't quite seem to work either.) I've seen plenty of female warriors in various contexts before, but in this particular story violence is a lot of who she is and what she's about, which seems to me to be relatively rare.

Which brings me to the two stories that led me to notice the violent-women mini-theme in our fiction last year: “Blood, Blood,” by Abbey Mei Otis, and “Who in Mortal Chains,” by Claire Humphrey.

In each of those stories, physical violence is (in my view) one of the core things the story is about, and both have female first-person protagonists.

Blood, Blood” is also about a bunch of other things: body image, colonialism, mind/body duality, sex, and more. But I think the violence is what ties it all together. Physical pain is, usually, part of the package for people with physical bodies; I can imagine that for a character who doesn't like her body—who, indeed, doesn't want to be embodied—the kind of fighting that Damia and George do in the story could be grounding, whether for good or ill. (I am certainly not saying “if you don't like your body, go have a fistfight.” But I really like how the dynamic plays out in the story.)

Who in Mortal Chains” is, more than any of the others here, about violence. (That's not at all the only thing that it's about, but it's the main thing, at least in my reading of the story.) The protagonist is a kind of character I've rarely if ever seen before; on first read, I kept trying to figure out who she was, to fit her into the mold of being a new take on some recognizable person from folklore or mythology, but eventually came to understand that she's an original character, not a reworking of a traditional character. I found her wholly believable, and fascinating. And despite, or possibly because of, my real-world pacifism, I loved this story's treatment of violence and the ways that it works, both for the protagonist and for others. And I loved Gus's self-awareness about who she is and what she does.

And although I can imagine a story somewhat similar to this one with a male protagonist, I think Gus being female (and being the person she is, which includes being female although not femme) makes the story significantly better and more interesting than that hypothetical other story would've been.

I have no conclusion or general statement. I'm not going to try to link these stories together into a coherent framework; I think they all handle violence, and women, pretty differently, and their protagonists are very different people. And I wouldn't say that violent women are a particular interest of ours (I don't want anyone to come away from this entry thinking Oh, I should go write a story about a woman who goes on a shooting rampage and they'll buy it 'cause they love stories about violent women); the pattern, such as it is, was just a coincidence, and we chose these stories because they're good stories, not specifically because they contained violent women. And I feel I ought to add a reminder here that there are plenty of ways for female characters (and male characters, too) to be strong without being violent.

But it did strike me, on reading these stories, that I don't often see stories in which solidly portrayed women engage in solidly portrayed violence; and I felt it was particularly well done in these stories.

(Wrote most of this entry in March of 2011, but didn't finish and post it until now.)

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