“Jane Navio was a chrome-assed bitch … but she was right.” Up Against It, M. J. Locke
I wish there were more Jane Navios in fantasy. Oh, you see them in science fiction and horror, but not in fantasy. There is an unwritten code that women in fantasy novels must not be older than thirty, or they’re all the grandmotherly types over sixty, but rarely are there any in the forty to fifty range. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but since the 1990s, female characters over forty seem to have faded into the background scenery, and very few are protagonists.
Part of this is our current culture. I see it every time I go online. So-and-so actress is aging well, but only because she appears as if she is ten or twenty years younger. Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench are the exceptions to this rule. Both of these ladies have played chrome-assed bitches in their films. They don’t waffle or give long, righteous speeches about women and what they need. They wade right into a situation and get the job done.
The genre community talks about writing worlds that are a clearer reflection of the world in which we live, yet no one talks about the need for older protagonists. People don’t cease to exist after thirty, nor do they turn into fountains of knowledge and wisdom. Old bearded men, who guide young men, or ancient wise women, who are kind and giving, simply don’t exist in abundance in the real world. It’s easy become lost in the wonder of youth, but wonder does not automatically stop after a certain age. Even at fifty, I am still discovering new aspects of self and the world around me.
Like everyone else, older people like to see themselves reflected in the fiction they read. When I posed the question on Twitter one day, people were quick to mention George R.R. Martin’s Catelyn and Cersei as good examples of mature women in current literature, and I can’t disagree. Of the two, I’d say that Cersei falls closer to chrome than Catelyn. They are the biggest reasons I’ve stuck with the series as long as I have.
There were chrome-assed bitches in the days before chrome.
The younger women in the series don’t interest me as much, because they are still at the point of their lives where they feel locked into their circumstances by virtue of their gender. By the time most women hit forty, they are just ready to kick ass.
There is something freeing about being forty. For a woman who has reached emotional maturity, she no longer cares what people think of her. There is no “leaning in.” Women over forty know how to navigate conventional prejudices and will subvert those biases with a word. A woman over forty will speak her mind.
Ah, but people will say, because there are those who say these things as if saying them over and over will somehow make them true: Ah! But fantasy is like history and in history, women only existed to be saved or raped or murdered.
I call bullshit. Women ruled not just kingdoms but their homes as well. There were chrome-assed bitches in the days before chrome.
Remember their names, these women who lived and fought and taught:
- Hatshepsut was a chromed-assed bitch who ruled first as regent, then as a pharaoh;
- Athaliah got her chrome as the queen of Judah, she ruled for seven bloody years;
- Artemisia I commanded five ships during the Battle of Salamis. She didn’t get that command by being demure;
- Gaohou seized power from her son to become China’s first woman ruler, which is not the first time such a woman has decided her son or husband is incompetent to rule (see Catherine the Great);
- Queen Sondok, ruled the Korean kingdom of Silla and led her country through a conflict with a neighboring kingdom;
- ‘A’ishah, Muhammad’s widow, rebelled against the caliph ‘Ali at the Battle of the Camel at Basra.
- The second Council of Nicaea was convened by the Byzantine ruler Irene;
- And let us all pay homage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who accompanied King Louis VII on the Second Crusade, and when their marriage collapsed, she wed Henry II, the future king of England.
The older the woman, the more dangerous she becomes. Chrome-assed bitches don’t need guns or swords, they have their brains.
The older the woman, the more dangerous she becomes. Older women didn’t need weapons to take the world down; they changed the course of history with a whisper. A word in the right ear brought down kings and queens, or maneuvered their kin into power. Chrome-assed bitches don’t need guns or swords, they have their brains.
Fantasy tends to be marketed toward the younger generation, and that’s okay, but often that very marketing pushes the older people away. We never stop loving fantasy or believing in wondrous tales. We do, however, like you, move away from literature that refuses to see us as we are.
Older women are not all sweet mentors, who are patient and gentle and good. Some of us are chrome-assed bitches who know how to get things done. I wanted to see stories about people like me, so I wrote two chrome-ass bitches of my own.
Art by: Kattevoer| Chase Stone | Matthew Stewart
These women don’t have time for lamentations. They are also intensely self-aware, which is something that comes with age.
Rachael is forty and Catarina forty-four. Both are chrome-assed bitches of the highest order. These women don’t have time for lamentations. They are also intensely self-aware, which is something that comes with age.
Lucian might think he is the prize between his sister and his lover, but Rachael and Catarina have other concerns. They know the bastion with him within their ranks has the greatest edge. All three adults have personal stakes in the game, but Rachael and Catarina are also seeing the big picture. They both want power and make no secret of it.
Rachael will drive the youth of the bastion into war. She will sacrifice the few to save the many, because she has been to Hell and knows what awaits them if they fail. While some readers might think that Catarina lost the game in Miserere, they too fail to see the big picture. For it is only through death that she can find eternal life and reign as the Queen of Hell.
Art by Renato Pastor
Older women are much more fun to write. They’ve reached an emotional maturity that is not about blame, but about responsibility. They do not perceive the world strictly in shades of good and evil. They view each problem as unique, and they measure the situation by its own merits. Emotional maturity is an insidious thing. It robs our sight of black and white and blurs issues into shades of gray, but chrome-assed bitches can see through the fog to get things done.
I dream of the day when I can locate mature female characters that aren’t ancient wizards or wise old seers and side props to speed little children to their destinies. I want to read about diplomats and intrigues, not another child who wars her way to power. Just like you, I want to read about people like me in the genre that I love.
Awesome, awesome, awesome!
I’ll have to write something about this, I think, as it’s something I feel really strongly about. This sort of thing has only gotten worse as marketing – aimed at younger people, who spend more – has seeped into western culture.
Love this, Teresa, and I sympathize from my standpoint as a guy who simply can’t understand the lure of reading about youth, youth, youth all the time. It makes my brain hurt. When I started writing No Return, a character was inspired by a woman I knew in her mid-30s, which to me was the youngest I could conceive of wanting to write about. Perspective is a beautiful thing. I don’t always want to read (or write) about people who are still at the game of “figuring shit out.” I typically want to read about women who’ve got their lives in full gear.
Awesome, Teresa! And if anything you didn’t list a fraction of the “Chrome ass bitches” of history. Wu Zetian, and Queen Zenobia come right to mind! :)
Absolutely fantastic, and I agree completely. Fantasy novels definitely need more aged protagonists. There are plenty filled with young children/adults coming of age. (And I like those stories, but I agree we need more of the other.) More representation of all ages is something I’m happy to read and support.
Thanks so much, guys. I know it sounds terrible, but I really have shifted my fantasy purchases over to buying books by my friends. Most of what I purchase for personal reading is horror novels, because the thriller and horror genre is geared more toward adults. I have written younger characters and I don’t enjoy the work as much as writing mature characters. There are so many layers to older characters.
And thanks, Paul! You’re right. There are so many more. I had a longer list, but I was afraid the post would morph into women in history. You know, the women who don’t exist. :-)
It’s funny – I barely even think about protagonists being my age (47). We’re obsessed with this twilight period that’s supposed to exist before “settling down” (like I said earlier, I think this has gotten worse in the last half century). In the movies you get guys my age, all playing guys ten years younger, because people over 40 are supposed to be raising kids and waiting out the clock, not having adventures. Of course, at least the men are still alive after 40, the women no longer exist. It always pleases me to read about people my age, who are a lot more interesting to me. It’s wonderful (and rare) to see work that is not only about people over 40, but reflects that fact. The characters like this I’m digging on a lot right now are the Underwoods in House of Cards: part of what makes them cool is that they’re smart, experienced, and able to take control of and work the world around them in a way that seems really appropriate to people that are a little older. And they have a (yes, weird, but) actual partnership.
I think the other thing is that not everyone over 40 has it together. That is another fallacy that people over 40 automatically settle down and never experience emotional growth or more adventures. Every day is an adventure, no matter what your age, and I certainly hope I have stopped growing more emotionally mature. I’ve got a long ways to go.
Agreed. I certainly feel that I’m still figuring things out, and life rarely takes the expected shape. Honestly, one of my struggles – at 47, trying to commit more to my own writing – is that on top of the other stuff *ahem* that I deal with, I occasionally get this “you’re too old, it’s too late” feeling, that I keep reminding (telling?) myself is cultural, not real: I actually feel like I’m more capable and self-aware than I’ve ever been. It sometimes becomes an exercise in not comparing myself to other (often younger) people. As Liz Lemon would say: blerg!
I think much of the apparent dismissal of older women (indeed, older people in general but more pronounced with women) is a function of society’s penchant for stuffing people in boxes– male/female, old/young, etc. In this age of soundbites, people are reduced to labels and all the presumptions, connotations, cliches, stereotypes accompanying them. It is easier to reduce women, especially older women. to such labels rather than see them as individuals.
Then there is the romantization of youth and the corollary denigration of old age. Metaphors strengthen the polarity, e.g. dawn and sunset of life. Youth is associated with beauty, vigor and all manner of possibilities. People forget that, for many older women, many possibilities of youth have become realized and they have started to venture beyond– to possibilities youth is largely incapable of even fathoming.
Also, most fantasy stories involve struggles. People prefer to believe that struggles end after youth, that latter years are for pleasure and reward, forgetting that all of life can be a struggle. Challenges spare no one and can come at any age, though perhaps of different varieties.
Thank you for this. Posts such as these make me more analytical about my reading choices. As with one’s diet, a balanced reading list is ideal. Self-awareness in every aspect of life is a worthy goal, at any age.
Check out Martha Wells’ work – the heroine of THE WHEEL OF THE INFINITE, Maskelle, is in her 40s-50s. Ravenna, a major character in THE ELEMENT OF FIRE, is in her fifties, if I remember right.
Thanks so much for this article, I agree 100%!
I’m sick of reading about young whipper-snappers trying to figure out their lives, I want to see me in books!
Even outside fantasy, any books about 40-plus women assume they’re married or divorced, and with children – what happens with single women who aren’t mothers but are out there just living life to the fullest?
I love these quotes:
“People don’t cease to exist after thirty, nor do they turn into fountains of knowledge and wisdom”
“The older the woman, the more dangerous she becomes. (…) Chrome-assed bitches don’t need guns or swords, they have their brains.”
[…] A Dribble of Ink: Women Made of Chrome by Teresa FrohockI want there have been extra Jane Navios in fantasy. Oh, you see them in science […]
In George R. R. Martin’s series, Olenna, the Queen of Thorns, is the older woman who helps destabilize the Lannister regime with her clever and ruthless plotting.
There are a number of older women in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, as well. Picker and Blend, two middle-aged women in the Malazan army are one of the few sane and relatively content couples in the books. Adjunct Tavore is certainly approaching middle age if not over the line, and she commands the army on its way to the climactic battle. And the (villainous?) Empress Laseen usually appears as a gaunt middle-aged woman in a worn shirt and trousers–but since she can alter her appearance magically, that may just be her “avatar”.
Some of the lack of middle-aged and older characters may derive from the young age of the authors. In our current culture, beyond a certain age you become effectively invisible to younger people, especially those of the opposite sex. Having ostentatious material wealth can counter that to some extent, but otherwise the eyes of the young tend to look right through you.
Huzzah, Teresa! Thank you for this. My debut novel features a 40-something chrome-assed heroine – who, interestingly enough, continues to be disdained by female readers under thirty as being old and un-relatable. I can only shake my head and mourn a little. They do not yet know what they do not know, nor do they see who they are yet to be.
[…] Women Made of Chrome by Teresa Frohock (Features on A Dribble of Ink) […]
Good points, all! And when plumbing history, let us not forget whole groups of women: Spartan women trained almost as intensively as their men, during the war years Samurai women protected the home (sometimes even the home-castle) while the men served their lords, and the truth about Amazons lies somewhere in the mists of time. Closer to home, during the American Revolution and the Civil War, women cross-dressed as men to go and fight or spy, while many more braved the campaigns and the battlefields to tend the wounded. During WWII, French women were an important part of the Resistance under German occupation. Examples multiply for every era.
[…] Guest post on Aidan Moher’s award-winning blog, A Dribble of Ink […]