It wasn’t long ago that academic medievalist and author, Adam D. Jones, shut down an argument by tweeting that women played much more prominent roles in medieval society than most of us realize. Despite that contribution to history, though, our fiction would have us believe that they spent their time languishing in locked-up towers, waiting for princes or knights to finally get off their horses for the rescue. Only recently have authors begun cladding medieval heroines in armour and chain, and some of those authors are copping more than a bit of flak for it in the often-hostile Twittiverse.
Jones says they’re right, though… and that’s the first reason for authors to rewrite what we think we know about minorities.
Reason 1: We’re probably wrong about the past
History’s like that, isn’t it? It has a way of conforming to the worldviews of the historians, no matter what facts are actually recorded. With centuries’ worth of Eurocentric theses written primarily by men, it’s almost forgivable that we think the only strength in the era came from the sword-arms of knighted males. Medievalists.net has something to say about that, though, listing just a sample of ten prominent female warriors during medieval times. My favourite is Khawlah bint al-Azwar, who led an entirely female troop of Muslim warriors against the Byzantine army.
So if it wasn’t just Joan of Arc breaking gender stereotypes, then why aren’t we seeing more empowering stories? Maybe it’s because authors are scared. Too often, critics cast this paralytic incantation:
“Nothing like that happened then.”
Reason 2: Readers live in the present
Instead of searching for what we know did happen in any particular era, maybe we should be asking what could have happened. Readers live now, and readers personally know empowered, capable agents for change from any race, any age and any lifestyle. Those role models are alive now, so they had to be alive a few centuries ago, too. Evolution just doesn’t work that quickly.
While Defoe’s upbringing might have made him write Robinson Crusoe’s man Friday as a cannibalistic inferior waiting to be subjugated, the prose and poetry of E. Pauline Johnson might give a more realistic account of native cultures seeking agency among the colonials. Although 17th century literature might have excluded or condemned queer culture, Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue gives us a comical yet more reasonable flashback to how life must have been.
The point is that we’re writing now for people who are reading now. Let’s not be shackled by what anyone believed then.
Reason 3: We want a better future
This is an axiom—almost a mandate—for anyone who writes. Really, why write at all if we don’t want to change the way people think in the future?
Recently, I helped talk a student through a sticking-point on an assignment she was writing. She was looking at newscasts and Current Affairs shows that were exposing the abuses of the elderly in nursing homes. Her problem was that the assignment challenged her to criticize the reporters for unfairly marginalizing a minority group. How could she possibly do that? Weren’t they just trying to help those victims?
Of course, those journalists were trying to help, but some of that help was misguided. By portraying every octogenarian victim as being frail, helpless and compliant, the stories were not just indicting the abusers: they were subtly reinforcing the impression that the elderly are easy targets. Other abusers would have been watching and learning what they can get away with doing. To write for a better future, shouldn’t we be showcasing those in the elderly community who stand up for themselves? Shouldn’t we be shifting margins by celebrating minorities who seize agency?
And shouldn’t our fiction be doing that, too?
So, to the critics who want more realistic characters, let’s say this: there’s more than one version of realism. Let’s tell them the version that happened and nobody wrote down. Let’s say the version that should have happened… that would have happened if somebody had let it. Most importantly, let’s talk more about the version of reality that we want in our children’s and grandchildren’s lives.
That’s the version we invent with our writing.