First Girl Ever

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a girl who wanted to be a knight. (Or a wizard, or whatever.) But girls weren’t allowed to be knights, so she disguised herself as a boy (or strongarmed the king into letting her try, or whatever), and after many difficult challenges, she proved that Girls Can Do It, Too.

For better or for worse, this trope seems more generally characteristic of fantasy than of science fiction. I suspect that’s because the basic concept is politically progressive, and SF generally either takes that progress as a given (the future will be more egalitarian than the present), or isn’t interested in exploring it at all. But fantasy societies are often based on real-world history, so it’s the more common spec-fic home for stories of the First Girl Ever. My strongest touchstone for this archetype is Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series, wherein the protagonist does indeed disguise herself as a boy and become a knight before her true sex is revealed, but there are others we could name.

Unlike the female-characterization tropes I’ve criticized in past months, this one isn’t offensive. We very rightly celebrate as heroes women like Amelia Earhart, who really were the First Girls Ever in their fields. It’s a huge achievement, overcoming the myriad of obstacles that face a woman in a male-dominated field, and so if you want to write a tale of plucky heroism, there’s nothing wrong with taking this approach.

Except that it’s tired and overused. At least, that’s the attitude I find among my generation and younger: thanks to Title IX (in the U.S.) and other such measures, there are very few fields left where girls or women just aren’t allowed. We’re proud of the world’s Earharts and others, but the story doesn’t carry a revolutionary tinge anymore, because we take it for granted that sufficiently qualified women can do anything they want. So the story becomes a formula, and we cheer out of habit, but the energy has drained away, and it takes a remarkable author to make it fresh again.

What is fresh is the stuff that follows the First Girl Ever, the stuff that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. And this is where I reveal why Pierce is my touchstone, because she didn’t just write a FGE story; she went on from there, too. The first two books of the Alanna quartet are about the heroine disguising herself as a boy and winning her shield; the second two are about what happens after. Because her problems don’t end there. She’s the first Tortallan lady knight in centuries, but not everybody likes that idea, and so it takes legendary deeds on Alanna’s part — and the rise to power of a younger generation, the guys who grew up with her and acknowledge her worth — before she’s anything like accepted at home.

And Pierce still isn’t done. Her third Tortall series is about that rarely-seen, almost-mythical creature, the Second Girl Ever. Years after Alanna’s achievement, and years after the King passed a law permitting girls to train as knights, her achievement is finally repeated, this time in the open. And Keladry’s path is just as hard: Alanna’s a legend, and legends are allowed to be exceptional, but Kel’s success forces people to accept lady knights as an everyday reality. One is a fluke, but two is the start of a pattern.

I strongly suspect Keladry’s story rings true for every girl or woman who’s gone into a field that, while not exclusively male, is still heavily skewed that way. Maybe the prejudice and obstruction isn’t as overt for them as it is for Kel — real life is rarely so clear-cut as fiction — but then again, we still live in a world where a man can say, “Rule No. 1 in determining whether an activity is a sport: If the best female in the world can beat the best male in the world, it doesn’t qualify.” (I wish I were making that up, but apparently it’s a real comment in response to Kelly Kulick obliterating the men in bowling’s Tournament of Champions.) So sometimes it really is that bad, even after the ability of women to participate has been established.

The First Girl Ever is a simple story. What happens to her after, and what happens to the women who follow in her footsteps, isn’t. But we need more stories about those things, because otherwise the First Girl is like Alanna: an exception, a fluke, a special person who gets exempted from the rules of her sex. I’d love to see more authors move on to the later chapters, rather than giving us the beginning over and over again.

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  1. 1. LJCohen

    As a mom of 2 teen boys, I really appreciated this post. Both my boys are huge Tamora Pierce fans, and one of the (many) things that makes her a hero in my eyes, is that she writes wonderful heroines AND heros. She doesn’t shy away from gender issues and approaches them in a way that’s neither cliched nor preachy.

    I came of reading age in the early 70s and was lucky enough to stumble upon Madeline L’Engle’s books, which were my touchstones. Not only is Meg the hero of “A Wrinkle in Time,” but she has a real/full relationship with Calvin that doesn’t relegate her to side-kick status, girlfriend, or damsel in distress. And she has a competent scientist mother. Pretty mind blowing stuff to a girl growing up in the conservative NY suburbs, before title IX, when boys got shop and girls got home ec, and gender roles were pretty well set in stone.

    Thank you for this wonderful post! It got me on my soapbox–LOL.

  2. 2. Sam

    Another excellent post! :)

    “Windhaven” by George RR Martin and Lisa Tuttle is a great example of this idea of “what happens after First Ever…”, although the fact that the protagonist is female isn’t important in that story, it’s a class divide she has to overcome.

    The first story is her struggle to be accepted, and the second two are “what happens after”, including a wonderful story on the “second person ever” and the “first person ever’s” reaction to that event (and it sure isn’t tears of joy).

    Three short stories in one novel, well worth reading.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    The commenter, David Whitley from FanHouse, has his head up his backside. The definition of sport he’s fudging on is an old one used by folks to describe the difference between athleticism (all figure skaters are athletes) and sports (figure skating is not a sport). The definition states that sport is any competition in which the competitors know who wins without the help of outside judges. Bowling certainly qualifies under this definition.

  4. 4. Wolf Lahti

    “Fantasy societies are often based on real-world history…”
    Heh. Most fantasies are based on a shallow imagining of how a teenager with a 20-century Western-culture viewpoint would behave in a pseudo-medieval world that actually has almost nothing in common with the medieval era.

    Also, Amelia Earhart isn’t someone I would wave around as a female role model. Contemporary sources portray her as a notoriously bad navigator; the only reason she is famous at all is because she got lost.

  5. 5. Doug Hulick

    Not playing apologist here, but I know there are examples throughout history of women passing themselves off as men to be able to achieve something or participate in an otherwidse “forbidden” activity. In these instances, I think it might be possible that some authors have read or heard of these cases and drawn inspiration from them in some way, even if it is arguably derivative. Likewise, this trope is an easy way to examine geneder roles without having to necessarily do as much heavy lifting. (Although, as you point out Pierce’s work, an author can go beyond this initial phase to much meatier material).

    That being said, I think your post is far truer to the point. The FGE format is appealing because, as you say, it is easy. Easy to follow as a writer, easy to follow as a reader, and in some ways a very safe attempt at looking at gender roles and rebellion. Far more interesting is examing what comes after and how it impacts (or fails to impact) a society. This is where the mental muscles can really get some work, both in terms of the writing and the reading.

    Good food for thought. Thanks.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    LJCohen — When describing the Alanna books to people who haven’t read them, I usually say they probably won’t seem very mind-blowing now. But in 1983? I imagine it was a different story. (I don’t happen to recall what year it was I first encountered them; I think it was still in the 80′s.) Historical context matters a lot for these things. But the interesting part to me is the relationship between those books and the ones about Kel; I confess to some wary skepticism when I saw the Kel books coming out, because I expected a retread of Alanna, and it wouldn’t be so mind-blowing at the turn of the millennium. I was glad to see her tackling some new questions in a much more updated way.

    Sam — there are lots of ways to be First; class is a woefully underrepresented one. (Fantasy doesn’t do a good enough job of dealing with class in general, beyond a very shallow peasants-and-nobles approach.) “Windhaven” sounds quite interesting, based especially on your description of the later stories.

    SCButler — that’s an interesting way to distinguish a sport, re: the judges. I suppose another way to put it would be, is the scoring objective or subjective? Which is neither here nor there for this topic, but yes, you’re right: that guy has his head somewhere the sun don’t shine.

    Wolf — bad pseudo-medievalism is one of my pet peeves, but that’s an entire other blog post. :-) In general, though, most non-urban-fantasy takes place in a culture that looks at least semi-historical. As for Earhart . . . I don’t know enough about her to judge her aviation skills, but I wouldn’t say those disqualify her as a role model. She still accomplished a heck of a lot that no woman before her had done; she still showed qualities that weren’t supposed to be feminine (like “grit”) that are more admired today; she still inspired a lot of women to follow in her footsteps. She might not be as pop-culture famous today if there weren’t the mystery of her disappearance, but I doubt she’d be some forgotten bit of trivia, either.

    Doug — there are definitely historical precedents for a lot of these things, yes. I don’t necessarily consider operating from historical precedent to be “derivative.” It’s more, as you say, the manner in which it’s easy: you don’t have to do the heavy lifting, you don’t have to move outside a relatively safe zone. But it gets so much more interesting when an author goes further and takes more risks!

  7. 7. Elias McClellan

    Excellent topic, Ms Brennan. You provide a great ‘how-not to’ guide to writing a fully formed and thought out female character, rather than a caricature, an object, or worse, a male character with a feminine description.

    Under separate genre, same issues, I would suggest for consideration “Prime Suspects.” In the first series, Helen Mirren plays DCI Tennisen, FGE to lead off a murder investigation. The second series must’ve taken some courage for the writers to present the main character as flawed and not simply the victim of those bad old men. Tennisen becomes the one dealing with her own issues of prejudice as it pertains to race. While it wasn’t expertly done, it was something I hadn’t seen before. Your point, of time as frame of reference, is valid in this instance as well. Prime Suspects I & II were ‘90/92, I think.

    I also applaud your observation regarding a general deficiency in dealing with class differences and motivations within fantasy. Science fiction is equally deficient in dealing with race/cultural differences. Be interesting to see a bronze/silver/gold strata, (as opposed to simply patrician and plebian) with fully realized motivations and if there were prevailing, differing attitudes toward women and each other… wait, that’s just crazy-typing.

  8. 8. Jaws

    I suspect that the defining characteristic is more an “evaded Destiny’s inherited mandate” than anything else. That applies to race, gender, sexual orientation, class and financial resources, even formal education (Craig Ferguson the high-school dropout drunk v. or Conan O’Brien the Harvard grad — as to who is more intellectually inquisitive). For example, within the military officer corps in the US, there’s the class divide between military academy graduates (usually multiple generations!) and ROTC/OTS… because in 1990, it was rather shocking not just that Colin Powell was melaninically enhanced from an immigrant family, but that he became Chairman from an ROTC background (the last non-ringbanger Chairman/equivalent had been Bradley). On the other hand, we’ve now had almost 15% of the service chiefs and Chairman since who were not ringbangers… even though most officers (even most legally qualified officers) are not ringbangers.

    Remember, too, that we’re dealing with the relatively tolerant West here; just try telling one of these tales in a quasi-Persian setting!

  9. 9. Margaret Lion

    Like your post! And yes it is fun that Tamora Pierce keeps going with Tortall and the knights and how everyone is coping with the changes. ‘Tis good.

    Now it might be fun to write a story where the heroine would love to disguise herself as man to do what she wants, but alas, her breasts and hips are just too big. ;) (And yes, this would be my problem.)

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    @8, Jaws, isn’t the audience for our work a so-called enlightened, progressive western audience? Your anology begs the question of circumstance and how soon we see another CJC that is a minority and/or how soon we see a female CJC. One of the few aspects of Battlestar Galactica I liked was the gender conflict in the pilot episode and how Edward Olmos’ character covered his bias as a question of qualifications. I think the line was, “Your taking orders from a teacher?”

    Wonder if anyone asked the Joint Chiefs “Your taking order from a ‘melaninically enhanced immigrant’?” I bet the question was asked and in a more… colloquial manner. Quite frankly, I don’t want to live in that world. Think that’s the point of reading/writing other worlds and other stories.

    Back to our enlightened west. Another author, posted to another essay that in his native Germany, he could not garner open attention for his work. Seems that genre writing in general and scifi/fantasy specifically is regarded as below contempt contempt there. Challenging ideas are iffy here. It’s easy, Ms Brennan as pointed out, to point fingers at other cultures. I think the idea is to write better than what we’ve accepted as a norm.

  11. 11. hampshireflyer

    The post-First Girl Ever stories can probably tell us a lot more about the society, as well (and, as you say, put it under a lot more stress)… so a lot more story and a lot more freshness.

  12. 12. Mary

    The class issue is the 20th/21st-century Western-culture viewpoint in disguise. Most people have a very poor grasp on what class meant in most societies.

  13. 13. Marie Brennan

    Mary — or even in our own societies. But that has a lot to do with bad understandings of history in general, and my rant on the abysmal state of history education in the United States is a whole other rant. :-)

  14. 14. Sam

    I’d go further and say that generally fantasy does worse than a bad job of covering class issues, and actively promotes them.

    90% (figure-plucked out of the air!) of fantasy novels follow the Ugly Duckling approach to elitism: oh no, it’s terrible, you’re poor and downtrodden, look at you suffering, but don’t worry, at the end of the book it will all be ok, because it’ll turn out YOU WERE ONE OF THE ELITE ALL ALONG!

    That makes it all ok then, and let’s just forget about all the faceless masses who didn’t get a book written about them.

    It’s a similar thing to what you’re almost saying in your post: one person breaking in from outside is the exception to the rule, but the rule is still there.

    Things aren’t fixed until the rule is gone, and there’s nothing exceptional at all involved by equal treatment.

    The struggle to get from one to the other is something that isn’t just lacking in fiction, but in the general understanding by people of our own world too.

  15. 15. Sam

    Y’know, I should have reread the original post before I posted my last comment, for some reason I thought you’d stopped short of making the exact point you were actually making. D’oh.

  16. 16. Faye

    I fully agree on the points about the Kel books, and in my opinion that is why they’re exceptional. Though I love the Alanna books and they are probably some of the first fantasy First Girl Ever books, there are so many others these days that are tired, uninteresting, and cliche–and definitely agree on historical context, if I had read Alanna when it was published I’d probably have a different reaction to it. But I didn’t, and the Kel books mirrors the society I grew up in better than the Alanna books do, in the extent that most girls are LEGALLY allowed to participate in male-dominated fields, but many don’t because of the social pressures and covert bullying. That’s why I admire Kel–I think, in some ways, her path is more difficult: the bigotry is obscured, masked in a rhetoric that is legally acceptable but still socially debilitating.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Faye — exactly. And we need more exploration of that stage, more admittance of the fact that crossing the threshold doesn’t mean the journey is over. We want it to mean that, because the boundary is a nice clear goal to aim for, and what’s on the other side is a great deal messier. But we need to deal with it anyway.

  18. 18. Lee

    In the foreword to MZB’s “Sword and Sorceress XX”, she talks about how the stories that were submitted changed over the course of the years. For the first few years, there were a lot of FGE stories — but in later years, that trope was seen as stale and over-used; authors were much more willing to grant the strong woman and go on from there. Ditto the rape-and-revenge trope. So change does occur, just at different rates in different places.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Lee — Interesting! It makes sense that they got a lot of FGE stories, and then that there was a shift away from it. I suspect you could graph a lot of the trends in literary feminism by analyzing that series over the years . . . .

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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