Are there imaginary worlds where sexism doesn’t exist?

I’m reading The Golden Compass and I absolutely love it. The main character is Lyra. She is fierce, smart, and brave. The villain is also female: Mrs. Coulter. She’s brilliant, beautiful, and wicked.

There are several indirect references to sexism in the book. When Lyra first meets Mrs. Coulter she is shocked that the woman is a scholar because female scholars are few and dowdy. Lyra notes many times that the male scholars get access to special rooms. Just like in the real world, right? We all know real life Oxford is sexist as hell. So what’s wrong with referencing that sexism in the story?

There are further parts of the story that make note of sexism. Only the male gyptians are allowed on the boat to recover the children. The female gyptians argue they should be included, not to battle, but because someone will need to be there to look after the children once they are rescued.

Of course Lyra, just a child, goes and battles and is the heroine of the story. But I’m wondering as I read, are there imaginary worlds where there is no sexism? I would love girls and boys to be exposed to this fantasy much more than they currently are. Before we can realize it, we’ve got to be able to imagine it. We get to that surprisingly little if at all.

Obviously, the challenge is that writers exist in real life sexist worlds so as Luce Irigaray wrote, even creating a “female imaginary” can be practically impossible to fantasize about. Though, honestly, it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. Remember, battles are symbolic and metaphorical as are magical powers.

Just put a female front and center. Have some other females helping her out, they don’t have to be human, just female. That’s a start. Maybe the Oz series would fit? It had Glinda but a lot of makes around Dorothy. Alice in Wonderland? Same thing, but I think that would fit, at least the movie version with the White Queen. Is she in the book? There is the Red Queen, though she’s evil. I like evil female characters but I like good ones as well.  The only thing that bums me out about Tim Burton’s Alice, which I loved, was that the story was bookended with a wedding scene. Like so many modern day feminist heroines, Alice’s independent act is that she refuses to marry who she is supposed to. But why mention marriage at all?

Update: Commenters and  I agree on these: Oz, Wonderland, and Miyazaki’s imagination

11 thoughts on “Are there imaginary worlds where sexism doesn’t exist?

  1. You should read Melanie Rawn’s stories. There is one series that she wrote where women were in power instead of men. They don’t lack sexism, but they do make you pay attention the whole time. I cannot remember the name of the series but it is not the Dragon Prince or Dragon Star. Both of those are well worth the read though.

  2. I hate to tell you that the second and third books in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (of which The Golden Compass is the first book) just cut down Lyra into a weak, dependent, “love interest” girl as we’re more used to seeing them in fiction.

  3. Ever seen the movie The Secret of NIMH? I LOVED that movie as a child, and I hope I still do although I haven’t seen it in close to 20 years. I love that we see the lead character overcoming obstacles through figuring stuff out, and in quite a few scenes we see her scared to the point of shaking or stuttering, but does what needs to be done and acts in the face of fear. I find that far more inspiring than fearless “brave” characters.

  4. Margot, another one that comes to mind is Star Trek. Not the original series so much (although Uhura was a pioneering character for science fiction) but definitely the Next Generation series. At least 2 regular and 3 or 4 semi regular characters every season were female; the ship’s doctor, the head of security (!) and the counselor. Women guest stars were science officers, ambassadors, and warriors. Women directed plays, taught school, piloted ships, led negotiations, and were heads of state. Women led dangerous missions and fought in battles. Best of all, in ALL the background scenes, you would see women interacting as equals with men: in the bar, on the bridge, in the labs.

    It’s not a perfect show; in the earlier episodes women still tended to wear the standard fanboy fantasy costumes, but as the show matured, the women’s uniforms became more modest: no more thigh high boots and plunging necklines. You really felt that this was an evolved civilization where women’s diverse talents and contributions were valued.

    And on the following show, Deep Space Nine, the captain was a woman!

  5. I’m so glad I found your blog! I have known there was something wrong with the media’s portrayal of women for as long as I remember. When I was little I always played Batman or Superman or just boys in general because the only thing I saw girls doing on TV was being rescued, then getting married off, then…
    And because of this I think I may have actually thought I was a boy at one point.

    As a beginner writer I would love to write an imaginary world without sexism! I’m trying to do it now.
    The appalling lack of female characters in movies and such is so aggressively brainwashed into us that I didn’t even notice it until I read it in your blog. It is so bad, that it wasn’t until I read your blog that I realised my first wannabe-feminist-and-spiritual-soapbox novel has a male main character and a mostly male cast 🙁

    Your blog has inspired me even more to write more and better females! For some reason my characters just ‘look’ and ‘feel’ male when they come into my head. Even the genderless ones. And now I am trying to figure out why.
    Do you think it might have something to do with how I have seen women portrayed in the media?

    • Hi nigelthedragon,

      Yes, I do think you see females as passive because of their portrayal in the media. It’s not just you of course. Harry Potter came to J. K. Rowling’s imagination as a male. Grown-ups always use male pronouns to describe stuffed animals. I think a big part of the reason women are obsessed with beauty is that the “beautiful” characters get to DO things. Stuff happens to them. I know that was why I loved “Charlie’s Angels” when I was a kid. I couldn’t have cared less about “jiggle TV” but I loved that it was all about girls who were friends and had adventures.

      I’m thrilled that Reel Girl has inspired you! That is why I blog. Keep writing!


  6. A personal favorite of my childhood is the series Sitio do Picapau Amarelo, by Monteiro Lobato, I’m not sure it’s been translated to english, but if you read portuguese or spanish, check it. We have a family living in a farm: the grandmother Dona Benta, the housemaid Nastácia, the kids Narizinho and Pedrinho, the live doll Emília and a live corn Visconde de Sabugosa. We follow these sometimes mischievous characters, as they put themselves in all sorts of weird problems or adventures. I really recommend it.
    1922 – Fábulas – Las Viejas Fabulas
    1927 – As aventuras de Hans Staden
    1930 – Peter Pan – Peter Pan, el Niño Que no Quiso Crecer
    1931 – Reinações de Narizinho – Travesuras de Naricita
    1932 – Viagem ao céu – Viaje al Cielo
    1933 – História do mundo para as crianças – Historia del Mundo para los Niños
    1933 – Caçadas de Pedrinho – Las Cacerías de Perucho
    1934 – Emília no país da gramática – El País de la Gramatica
    1935 – Aritmética da Emília – La Aritmética de Emilia
    1935 – Geografia de Dona Benta – Geografia para los Niños
    1935 – História das invenções – Historia de las Invenciones
    1936 – Dom Quixote das crianças – El Quijote de los Niños
    1936 – Memórias da Emília
    1937 – O poço do Visconde – El Pozo del Visconde
    1937 – Serões de Dona Benta – Las Lecciones de Doña Benita
    1937 – Histórias de Tia Nastácia – Cuentos de Tia Anastacia
    1939 – O Picapau Amarelo – El Benteveo Amarillo
    1939 – O Minotauro – El Minotauro
    1941 – A reforma da natureza – La Reforma de la Naturaleza
    1942 – A chave do tamanho – La Llave del Tamaño
    1944 – Os doze trabalhos de Hércules – Las Doce Hazañas de Hercules

  7. I know I keep banging the drum for Oz, but it’s such a wonderful series, and yes, I think it qualifies as a “no sexism” fantasy land. In the one book where rebellious girls get put down, they are conquered by ANOTHER all female army led by Glinda the good Witch and with the intention of installing Princess Ozma as ruler. “Bad girls” are punished not for wanting power, but for being selfish and irresponsible. “Good girls: Ozma, Dorothy and many others, are kind, generous and intelligent; they are also stubborn and stick to their guns.

    L. Frank Baum, the husband and son-in-law of noted feminists, who campaigned ardently for women’s suffrage, wrote in 1890: “We must do away with sex prejudice and render equal distinction and reward to brains and ability, no matter whether found in man or woman”. In describing his children’s books he said, “There is little excuse for giving namby-pamby books to girs” insisting on creating adventurous, independent female heroines who never married or had romances, but who went out and DID things. Most of the protagonists and villains in his stories are female, and almost none have boyfriends, husbands or consorts.

    There’s a strong undercurrent of pacifism in the Oz books, which probably contributed to their unpopularity during the 2 world wars. Dorothy and company usually defeat evil by trickery and magic; villains are rarely killed, instead they may be exiled, lose their powers, or somehow be humiliated into giving up their wicked ways. The male armies are generally depicted as vainglorious fools (Baum had attended military school and hated it) whereas the female armies are wise and exercise restraint.

    Baum was also anti “lookism”. Although Ozma is frequently described as “beautiful” she doesn’t seem particularly concerned about her looks: she goes out horseback riding or driving on her own, has a laboratory in her palace, “romps” with her girlfriends and generally seems to be wearing the same simple dress for all these activities. The loathesome princess Langwidere on the other hand, neglects her royal duties so as to spend all day lazily admiring her 28 different heads (she can change them at will). No one in Oz word wears spandex or mini skirts; practicality seems to be the overwhelming fashion requirement.

    I wonder if _The Wizard of Oz_ could get published today, without some editor changing Dorothy into a boy, or making the witch into a sexpot (this was actually considered for the 1939 film!)

  8. You might like Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books. I can come up with some more for you, for sure, but those are the ones that spring immediately to mind.

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