Guest post by Conor Kostick, author of Epic and commissioning editor at Level Up Publishing.
The question of sexism in LitRPG is one that keeps coming up in Facebook threads, Reddit threads and reviews. The subject doesn’t really lend itself to discussion in those formats because the valid, insightful points get lost in heated exchanges and because it’s a complex issue. When I thought about my views on this topic, I realized that I couldn’t express what I wanted to say in a short comment, so with the encouragement of Paul Bellow, I write this blog post.
I suppose the starting point of the discussion has to be that sexism in LitRPG reflects that in wider society. The issue wouldn’t even arise if LitRPG wasn’t being written at a particular time in human history. And it’s pretty clear that in some parts of the world – notably Russia – there is a more obvious tradition of reflecting a sexist culture within LitRPG books. All literature has to grapple with this issue, but it does seem that some of the more popular titles in LitRPG are sexist and probably disproportionately so to other genres.
What is sexism?
Often when this discussion takes place in the LitRPG community online it gets sidetracked into questions about the rights and wrongs descriptions of sexual encounters and romance. But there’s nothing wrong – and often a lot right – about sex and romance in LitRPG. Sexism, however, as the Wikipedia definition puts it, is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. Sexism can affect anyone, but it primarily affects women and girls. It has been linked to stereotypes and gender roles, and may include the belief that one sex or gender is intrinsically superior to another.
So one important question is: are some leading LitRPG books prejudiced? Are they depicting stereotypes of women? And I think the evidence is that they are.
Aleron Kong’s The Land isn’t the worst (we’ll come to them), but it is one of the best known series. As the self-styled ‘father’ of the American LitRPG genre (by which term he vaingloriously hopes to hegemonise LitRPG) Aleron is representative of a strand of writers and readers. In a critique by Geek Dad, the issue of sexism in the Land is summarised, correctly in my view:
For stories that promote an ideal of racial equality, the enlightenment pretty much stops there, and gender equality (or respect, at least) is nowhere to be seen. Female characters mostly fall into three basic categories: Earth-mother types, bitches, and victims of abuse who need to be rescued. Half of the protagonist’s internalized bon mots are sexualized stereotypes (women are only mollified by shiny objects, for example), and there’s a running gag for multiple characters making derogatory references about ex-girlfriends and ex-wives. It’s puerile writing, and where much of it played for supposed laughs, it just comes across as misogynistic and needlessly rude. — Geek Dad.
The internal protagonist sideswipe at women Geek Dad refers to is this kind of thing (from Book 1):
Suddenly an argument with an ex-girlfriend came to mind where she criticized him for wasting money on video games, and he threw her expensive purse collection back at her. She had of course responded, ‘It’s an investment.’ His response that maybe math wasn’t her strong suit had not gone well.
There’s nothing particularly appalling in the quip and, indeed, there’s nothing necessarily sexist about creating a main character who has this thought. Lots of books, in LitRPG and beyond, create characters whose attitudes to women are far worse than this. What makes a book sexist, rather than a character, is when the sexist values of the character are reinforced by the behaviour, dialog and thoughts of the women who are portrayed in the book consistently conforming to misogynistic values. And this is especially clear in books where there are no females whose behaviour contradicts the stereotype.
The difficulty with Aleron’s works does not seem to arise from a conscious goal of delivering a particular message about women but rather an immature outlook. As Bob Kraken put it for LitRPG reviews:
I get the feeling that the trite gender roles appear more out of laziness, and a lifetime of reading typical fantasy, than anything. In this book, there are no viewpoint female characters, and the side characters are mostly predictable types: motherly and bossy/fierce; beautiful, fragile, and shy; dark and mysterious; cheerful big-boobed bar wenches. Richter’s memories of his real-world exes are reduced to boobs and purses.
Russian LitRPG, which deserves much more credit than Aleron for originating the genre, has stronger, clearer examples of sexist books, as is evident in the works of D. Rus (Alterworld) and Andrey Vasilyev (Fayroll). In the case of Alterworld, the sexist, not to mention pro-Russian, racist and homophobic values of the series grow stronger and stronger as it goes on. The main character in Book Five sums up his own values — and these ones that seem to be shared by D. Rus in the light of how he writes woman characters — as follows: ‘I wanted to emphasize the natural family model, the man being the head of the household. The warrior, protector, and provider. Our sons had already been scarred enough by watching their amoeba-like fathers cower before their dominant moms.’
In Fayroll, there are quite a lot of Aleron-style asides in the main character’s thoughts about women in the first two books that are relatively mild and not without humour. Yet there is something distasteful in the depiction of his first girlfriend and as the series goes on it darkens, until we come to a rape attempt in Book Three, following which the main character is disparaging towards the woman, pointing out that she was at fault for going to see the would-be rapist’s collection of paintings and that if she had dressed the way she had wanted to, it would have provided even more incentive to the rapist. The rapists gets his come-uppance, but the message of the book at this point is that the woman was a fool who brought the crisis upon herself.
As well as these popular LitRPG titles, there are dozens of less-well known ones that also suffer from sexism, such as J.A Cipriano’s, Soulstone Awakening. In Saffron Bryant’s review of the book, he notes that ‘most’ (a bit strong, but the observation is valid for several) LitRPG books have just a token female character.
I also found this one had a bit of a sexist overtone. I’ll admit it seems to be a common thread in this genre, like in the games, the female armour isn’t quite as practical as the male versions (as anyone who plays MMORPGs will know), and most of the books seem to have a host of male characters and one female – a classic trope in books and movies trying not to be sexist by having a ‘token’ female character. I can let it skate most of the time but it was worse in this book – the language and jokes and behavior just turned me off. Saffron Bryant
Why is sexism in LitRPG problematic?
There are two important and harmful consequences of sexism in LitRPG. One is the real life impact about what these books purport to teach about women (and rape). ‘ProserpinasEdge’ put this very well in a Reddit discussion.
It’s one thing to create a wish-fulfillment genre that gives readers a chance to live out power fantasies or escapist fantasies they could never enjoy in real life, but it becomes problematic when those fantasies reduce other people to mere objects (winnable or awarded prizes) in a main character’s life. That teaches terrible lessons about how people work in the real world, and helps to perpetuate unhealthy ideas about male entitlement and women’s place in men’s lives, etc. It also discourages men from seeing and understanding women complexly, as real people, which feeds back into all of the above. It’s just a bad, bad perspective all around.
The other damage sexist stereotypes do is to the overall quality of writing in the genre. Looking at reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it’s clear I’m not the only one to have experienced a real enthusiasm and passion for Alterworld and Fayroll, only to hit a barrier around Book Three of each series. And the issue is often that of poorly drawn women characters. In Fayroll, there are some intriguing and charismatic female guild leaders in the first book but as the books go on, even these women slide into weakness and foolishness, sometimes out of desire for the main character. And outside the game, the women characters become risible.
This is the main issue from the point of view of the reading experience. Once a character, for whatever reason, ceases to be believable, it’s hard to stay engaged with a story, hard to keep reading with that immersive, escapist spell we get with a book we love. And I really did love Fayroll and Alterworld. It’s crushingly disappointing that the authors broke the spell. Note that I’m not referring to the authors’ politics. I probably would disagree with them on Russian nationalism and certainly on the causes of rape. The issue here though is a literary one, not a political one. By portraying women in an absurd, not-true-to-life fashion (because, whether for deliberate or unconscious reasons, they force their female characters into behaviour that does not ring true), they write bad books.
Rudary Kipling had values about the British Empire and its colonies that were racist. Yet he wrote the most wonderful books with convincing Asian characters. For example, the Tibetan Lama in Kim is absolutely inspiring. This is because despite his political beliefs, when it came to Kipling’s novels, he allowed his characters autonomy from his own prejudices. They spoke and acted in ways that were true to a creative process that drew deeply on real people. Rus and Vasilyev have allowed their sexist values to determine the behaviour of their women characters and ruined their larger creations as a result.
Conor Kostick is a LitRPG author and commissioning editor at Level Up Publishing.