So, you’ve succeeded in writing a badass female warrior. She doesn’t need to be saved, and she can hold her own in combat. In fact, she’s out there in the front lines doing massive amounts of damage. And at her back? An army of straight, cisgender guys.
This is what I refer to as the Legion of Sweaty Dudes problem. The author makes a Strong Female Character™ but forgets to integrate the rest of the cast. It’s especially prominent in high fantasy and military fantasy where there are a lot of battles and thus a lot of cannon fodder, since the writers tend to gender the cannon fodder as male. This means that even though we see the woman kicking ass, there are more than enough he/him pronouns flying around to enforce the idea that everyone else is male.
The first reason why this is a problem goes back to some of the points I made about female characters who are Not Like Other Girls. In this case, the writer doesn’t necessarily have to say that the woman is an exception. She’s treated like one. In a world where capable, adventurous women were the norm there would be more than one woman on the front line. Showing one woman in front of an army of men implies that heroism is a privilege reserved for men.
The second reason has to do with representation. The lone woman gives the appearance of representation but actually, the women are a minority in the cast. The women that do appear tend to be “camp followers”—read sex workers and laundry women. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a sex worker (provided that it’s voluntary) or a laundry woman, but there is a problem with the implication that the most acceptable roles of women are in the service of men. The all-female base of sex workers also hammers home the point that everyone in the army is assumed to be a straight man. (I’ve been holding out for the lone woman to head back to her tent with a camp follower after a long day of kicking ass, but alas. Most fantasy worlds are bleak places devoid of lesbians.)
So women are erased, and queer men are erased. I would also say that trans people are erased, but they receive so little representation both in and out of military settings that their erasure is a much bigger problem in and of itself.
The Legion of Sweaty Dudes also enforces a sort of toxic masculinity which implies that the only acceptable role of men is in battle. The military becomes a place for men, and violence a symbol of masculinity. Men are not given the option to take non-combat roles. Akin to Not Like Other Girls, the Legion of Sweaty Dudes forces people into rigid gender boxes and builds up boundaries rather than breaking them down.
But wait. This isn’t historical!
No, it’s not. While there are many, many instances of historical female military leaders, gender integrated military units are not present throughout most of our history. But this is not a blog about historical fiction or non-fiction historical narratives. This is a blog about fantasy and alternate history, two genres that don’t give a single fig about what actually happened. Is magic historical? Monsters?
The things that make fantasy fantasy are not historical. History isn’t important. Fantasy is, by definition, unconstrained by the bounds of reality. Yes, some writers will inevitably draw off of history and there will be some worlds that reflect this. But for the most part, it’s deeply insulting to claim that readers can suspend their disbelief to accept elves, dwarves, and dragons, but not a legion of well-trained women who can hold their own in battle.
If you need proof that inclusion can be done without breaking the story, look no further than the Dungeons and Dragons player handbook. It uses gender inclusive language and, as an added bonus for those who claim that everyone in fantasy must be white, features illustrations of POCs. D&D is about as high fantasy as high fantasy gets. If they can do it, there are no excuses. The decision to leave out minorities is not a staple of a believable story. It is a choice.
The only thing that portraying all male armies does is keep women and non-binary people out of fantasy. It’s part of what makes nerd culture so problematic and what keeps casual sexism alive. By alienating gender and sexual minorities, fantasy is cemented as an exclusive boy’s club. It creates a refuge for the unimaginative to perpetuate tired stereotypes and revel in old fashioned gender roles rather than exploring something new.
If you could imagine any world that you wanted to, why on earth must the patriarchy be a part of it?