The problem of the Childlike Empress

“Women and children first.” It’s a familiar phrase: the building is on fire, or the ship is sinking, or there’s some other crisis that necessitates rescue or evacuation, and so the men step aside to let the women and children get to safety first. The reasons for this are numerous, but I want to tease out a particular strand for further discussion, which is the sense that women and children are both under the protection of the men around them. Because in a sense — an old-fashioned, problematic sense — women are like children.

If you read much about Western history (I can’t speak as to other parts of the world, not on this topic), you’ll quickly see that this is not an exaggeration. Women, like children, were seen as not just physically weaker, but also mentally inferior, maybe even deficient in moral strength; they were therefore dependent upon men to take care of them and protect them from the dangers of the world. You would no more give them the full legal rights of an adult than you would give that to an eight-year-old. The only real difference between the two is that an eight-year-old, if male, would eventually grow up to be a man; girls and women had no such useful future.

We’ve jettisoned a lot of that logic, and good riddance. Unfortunately, the infantilization of women hasn’t gone away.

Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the fact that “girl” is a widespread synonym for “woman,” much more so than “boy” for man. Or the use of “chick” — a baby bird. Glance around the cultural landscape; evidence of the pattern isn’t hard to find. You can see it in the refusal to let women’s faces and bodies show any age, or worse yet in the creepy, creepy ads that show models in rompers or childlike poses (with about eight gallons of sexual suggestiveness poured into the image). You hear it in the language of laws, when they suggest that women can’t be trusted to make good decisions for themselves, and therefore need to be protected by men who do. You cringe over it when stories crop up about how one town wants to impose a curfew on their (female) mayor, and maybe even take away her keys, because she works late hours and clearly her councilmen need to put a stop to that.

You find it laid out with exceptional clearness, in the Childlike Empress of the Neverending Story.

She’s ageless — older than anyone in Fantastica/Fantasia (the name varies based on whether you know the book or the movie) — and yet she appears to be a beautiful ten-year-old girl. She’s the ruler of the land, but she doesn’t exert any actual political authority. Her strength and existence are dependent upon being given a series of new names by human children; the boy Bastian saves her by renaming her “Moon Child.” Atreyu may be considered a man, despite his youth, but the Childlike Empress will never be a woman, only ever a girl, who can act only through (mostly male) intermediaries.

And she has a lot of sisters elsewhere in fantasy. It’s gotten to the point where I flinch a little every time a tiny, delicate woman enters the narrative, because I know where this is going. If she has strength, it will be made clear that this is despite her size and implied immaturity, and odds are good she’ll still be the protected treasure of the Manly Hero. You can start a betting pool on how long it will be before she stamps her foot or exhibits some other behavior associated with a toddler in a tantrum. Men will shelter her, and explain things to her, and cover up for her mistakes; in the worst cases — like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is a carnival of disaster on a gender front as well as a racial one — her every action will be upstaged by those of a half-grown boy, thus establishing that a male of any age will always be more useful than a woman.

Don’t do this. Please. Just don’t. If you’re writing about a woman, keep an eye on your descriptions; ask yourself if the metaphorical language you’re using suggests childishness, innocence, immaturity. Are her behaviors those of a grown adult, or a petulant child? Do the people around her talk down to her, belittle her ideas, coddle her as if she were eight years old? Don’t tell me such women exist in reality; so do lots of other people who match offensive stereotypes. When we get to the point where the stereotype has lost its force — when the notion that women as a class can’t be trusted to guide their own lives has become completely laughable; when the media has stopped trying to sell Lolita as the ideal — then I won’t mind seeing the occasional child-woman in a story. But as long as it’s a recognizable pattern, then we need to stop reinforcing it, and start promoting alternatives. Physically, mentally, emotionally, give me women as adults.

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  1. 1. Kari Sperring

    100% yes.
    One of the most infuriating things about the Myth of the Feminist Celts is that, in reality, women in mediaeval Ireland and Wales remained legally children throughout their lives, and this was enshrined in the earliest laws — it’s not an artefact of the importing of Christianity. They were never accepted as full participants in society. (Women in Anglo-Saxon England and viking Scandinavia were better off — they could own land and dispose of it, for instance.)

  2. 2. LJCohen

    I *hated* that about books when I was coming of age. That girls were either the victims or just irrelevant to the story. Probably why I just about worshiped Madeline L’Engle when I first read “A Wrinkle in Time” as a 12 year old girl.

    If there’s any common thread to the stories I have written, it’s that the men AND women (or boys and girls depending on if it’s YA or not) are more effective when they pool their strengths. I hope I have managed to pull this off, not in a preachy way, but in the way that simple presents a different dynamic than the one so prevalent in our society.

    Thank you for this post!

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Kari — I was just reading about Anglo-Saxon England, actually, and the evidence we have of women’s participation in legal matters. It’s a far sight better than many other societies of that time period.

    LJCohen — pooling strength, whether across gender boundaries or not, is a trope that always makes me happy. (Extra happy when it’s sworn enemies having to work together.) So I give that a thumbs up!

  4. 4. Sam

    “Adorable” and “precious” behaviour bugs the hell of out me in reality, so it’s no surprise it also bugs the hell out of me when I see it written.

    But the sad fact is that some authors seem incapable of seeing that there’s any other kind of possible behaviour beyond “winsome” for their female characters, because they personally seem to think it’s the only way a woman can be appealing, and they want Little Miss Princess in their story to be the perfect match for their boy-turned-man protagonist.

    Foot-stamping: absolutely, usually her tiny feet.

    I also fairly actively flinch whenever a red-headed female character turns up in a novel, sooner or later her feisty temper will emerge, I’m cringing in anticipation of the pain until it finally does happen.

  5. 5. Megan

    Great post. There was actually an editorial in Vogue that came out sometime when I was in college (like 5 years ago?) that was protesting a lot of the “babydoll” dresses and the infantilization of women in current fashion trends, and it really opened my eyes to the phenomenon. So infuriating.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Sam — sometimes I think it has a really pernicious undercurrent: not that winsomeness is the only behavior the authors can conceive of, but that it’s the only positive one. They can write other kinds of women doing other kinds of things, but when it comes to creating the ideal woman, the one worthy of the hero, she should be tiny and need his protection and expend her effort on being appealing to men. I doubt that’s what’s going on in all cases, but sometimes I think it might be, earning extra skeeve points for the story.

    (The red-headed character thing is a whole separate rant, but short form: yeah. Way to stereotype, guys.)

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Megan — sorry for skipping over you; I had to find and approve your comment. (First-time commenters get delayed briefly in the moderation queue; after this, you should be fine.)

    The babydoll dresses are a perfect example of the trend as it manifests in fashion; it even shows in the name. (Not just infants, but toys!) Them, and the rompers, and anything else that was designed for toddlers being put on grown women. It would be like sticking guys into sailor suits with shorts as the new “in” look for this year.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    As always, a thoughtful topic. Your examples are, to my mind, the problem of romanticising arcane ideas like chivalry and nobility. There is basis in a connection between the ideas/tropes you point out and early laws relegating women and children as chattle of a man. All men were raised to respect property. The concept of the honorable male protecting the helpless woman/child hides a root-truth that often the motivation sprung from the expectation of protecting the right of property.

    Faulkner exemplifies this in “As I Lay Dying.” There his dying woman recalls illiciting the promises that drives the story, the promise to return her to her home town on her death. The farmer replies, ‘die, but we ain’t done chapping yet.’ His expectation is for her is to produce children, farm hands, property. Delivery on the promise is just a way to find a new wife, new property.

    Faulkner further demonstrates the hipocracy of the southern gentleman and I paraphrase, ‘…that same gentleman that tips his hat to all ladies, would not stand that a colored woman might sit or quit the sidewalk that a colored woman might pass.’

    At the time of Faulkner’s work, the ‘colored’ woman or child is not his property or any other white man’s and therefore no protection is extended.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Elias — it also has some biological basis, that we can’t ignore. In time periods and places with high mortality, you’ve got to protect the lives of children and childbearers; fail to do that, and pretty soon your population’s replacement rate falls below its attrition rate, and your society starts shrinking. But then it all too often goes from that justifiable logic to the less-justifiable tendency to, as you say, treat women and children like chattel, and also to shelter them in ways that have nothing to do with physical survival.

    The racial aspect is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish; one topic I’ve been chewing on, but haven’t yet condensed into a post, is the nineteenth-century theory that mapped individual human development onto a hierarchy of races, such that darker people were assumed to be equivalent to children at various ages, and furthermore the mentally deficient were also equivalent to both children and non-whites. (Hence the use of the term “Mongoloid” for Down’s Syndrome and other disorders.) But it’s part of a giant tangle of racism and sexism and class-based prejudice and pseudo-scientific theory and other things that don’t pull apart for easy discussion.

  10. 10. Siobhan

    I agree with the main thrust of your argument. I just want to add, on a complete tangent, that the “women and children first” thing seems too be a late 19C myth. Most of the time women and children were left to die on sinking ships, thank you very much.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Siobhan — so much for chivalry. :-)

  12. 12. Caroline Hooton

    “It’s gotten to the point where I flinch a little every time a tiny, delicate woman enters the narrative, because I know where this is going. If she has strength, it will be made clear that this is despite her size and implied immaturity, and odds are good she’ll still be the protected treasure of the Manly Hero. ”

    Pretty much “yes” to everything you’ve said, but especially this – although I often find it irritating that if there is a tiny, delicate woman in the narrative, then 9 times out of 10 she’ll be described as beautiful or radiant or an equivalent. Not that “ugly” women get any better treatment. They’re usually shown as being bitter because men don’t fancy them.

  13. 13. Marie Brennan

    Caroline — look for the beauty thing in an upcoming post of mine. :-) (It’ll probably be a few months before I get to it, but get to it we will.)

  14. 14. Sam

    Marie – indeed, winsomeness being the only positive trait they can think of is the point I was trying to make – they want an “admirable female” character for the lead to fall for, so they need to give her “admirable qualities”, and the only one they can think of is cute/winsome/adorable pouting/etc.

    Actually, it’s even worse than that, it isn’t for the lead character to “fall for”, it’s for the lead character to earn as a reward. Any further characterization beyond them being a reward is entirely to make the reader feel that they’re a valuable reward, worthy of the hero.

    Elias @8: They weren’t being polite to women, they were being polite to “good women”, any woman who wasn’t “a lady” wasn’t worthy of any form of respect.

    Plenty of white women would be treated exactly the same for not being “decent folk” (ie married to the right person), so it’s not racist in that respect… of course the mere fact of being born black made it impossible for a black woman to be “decent folk” and that, however, obviously is racist.

  15. 15. Damien RS

    Interesting essay!

    Siobhan — whoah.

    Sam — “I also fairly actively flinch whenever a red-headed female character turns up in a novel, sooner or later her feisty temper will emerge”

    It’s Japanese so different, but Youko of the Twelve Kingdoms novels doesn’t have this. We meet her in insecure “good Japanese schoolgirl mode”, and her more mature mode seems to be a calm confidence. She gets angry but in situations normal people would get angry in. Doesn’t have intrinsic magic powers, the other fantasy redhead curse, either.

    12K also has a child empress of sorts; one of the 12 rulers, Kyou-ou, was picked by the gods at age 12, and has been biologically 12 for the past 90 years. She has a novel of her own, which no one’s fully translated. *cries* She doesn’t seem to fit any of the stereotypes above, though. Generally imperious with overtones of anger in what we’ve seen, seeming simplistic and cruel at first but arguably justified once she explains her reasoning. Probably really clever, too. Her childlike attributes seem to be being short, pre-pubescent, and tending to blowtorch bullshit.

  16. 16. Marie Brennan

    Sam — you’re right, it is a reward thing. Hence one of her chief characteristics being that her actions are all oriented toward pleasing the hero. (And you’re also right about “decent folk” being the operant category on the topic of old manners; race was one of several factors determining who qualified for decency.)

    Damien — 12K has long been on my list of things to read. I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about it.

  17. 17. Linds

    My nanowrimo novel last year has a character who starts out like that, and I read this and started to worry. But I thought about it, and in the course of the story, she comes into her own and takes command of a rebellion, and rather than the main character protecting her, she dies in the climax.

  18. 18. Marie Brennan

    Linds — In other words, that character grows and matures, rather than being a perpetual child. I see no problem with that.

  19. 19. Shveta Thakrar

    Thank you for this excellent, excellent post.

  20. 20. Andrea K Host

    On a related note, anyone else hate ‘gutsy’ and ‘feisty’ when used to describe women? Instead of, say, ‘brave’ or ‘determined’? It always makes me think of a kitten standing up for itself. So _feisty_!

  21. 21. Unforth

    “the nineteenth-century theory that mapped individual human development onto a hierarchy of races, such that darker people were assumed to be equivalent to children at various ages, and furthermore the mentally deficient were also equivalent to both children and non-whites.”

    first: writing this on a phone, so sorry in advance for ridiculous typos.

    Second: wasn’t originally going to comment, but the above comment has prompted me to do so. And since I’m already writing, I’ll probably write about some other stuff. Like Ce’Nedra, who didn’t end up discusse here. An Miaka, who I shudder to be reminded of as a result if the mention of this phenomena in recent Japanese imports. I have a two-and-a-half hour commute this morning, I have to do something. :)

    so: theories of race an intellect. About six months ago, I read “the Mismeasure of Man,” a really wonderful and fascinating book by Stephen J. Gould. The basic purpose of the book is to refute that there is any tility in attempting to quantify the intelligence of people. But, is unusual Gould argument style (I’m a fan, have read a lot of his works), he goes about this by explaining the history of the movement and explaining how ludicrous it is at every stage. I hadn’t known about intelligence testing (only a vague sense of envy as a child that my brother had been tested and I hadn’t been, so I’d never know if I was smarter than him… :) ) and I don’t always agree with Gould, but this book really opened my eyes, and made it clear to me how flawed from inception to execution this entire movement has been for the last 150 years. Why am I talking about this? He spends a good chunk of the book discussing the attempts to use intelligence tests to “prove” that some groups are inferior, and also discusses the 19th century attempts to align all of the “races” with stages f the lives of man. In many of these attempts, (if memory serves, it has been six months and the book isn’t in front of me) white women are also ranked, separate from white men – do first we get the races (from most to least infantile, in more or less period jargon: blacks, red Indians, Mongoloids, and white Europeans.) then, each race would be subdivided, from most to least infantile: girls, women, boys, men. Which is to say, that according to SCIENCE of many periods of history, a black girl was the most “infantile” creature in the human rce (this is of course aside from theories that denied that other “races” were human, of which there are many) and thus she was stupidest, least dveloped, most animal like, most licentious (cause this was obviously related) least trustworthy, etc. At the same time, science stated (with of course that patina of objectivity and experimental proof that makes such assertions so dangerous) that, though tere were occasionally exceptional women born, the ast majority of women were simple incapable of rising to the level of an average white European boy.

    It’s worth noting in passing that in te early 20th century, this system became even more complicated, as the US governmny attempted yo use the results of testing to keep undesirables from immigrating and thus found it necessary to use test to demonstrate that Jews, Italians, and other groups of whites were inferior to those superior Anglo-Saxon types. The way this was demonstrated generally involved snagging folks just off the boat in New York and giving them the iq test (which was heavily biased in several ways, Gould reproduces some of te original questions and I’d argue that everyone reading this would also get them wrong) and when theydid badly, arguing for quotas to limit this inferior stock from our shiney perfect shores. So yeah. Really interesting book. I think fairly relevant to this topic.

    Second topic. Ce’Nedra. Oh, how I hate Ce’Nedra. I will not rant here, but as a girl of 11, there were few figures in all of literature that I laothed more than her. Looking back, I think that she was eerything I wanted to be (wait for my cavaet before judging, please :) ). She was beautiful. She was a princess. She got to go on a huge adventure. The cute, brave, magic wielding farmboy-turned-hero loved her. Oh, and he’s a king. So she’ll be a queen. God, I hated my life. Why couldn’t I be her? (middle school was rough, lol….) why did I hate her? Not because icouldnt be her. I hated her, with a passion that means that even 16 years after the first time I read the Belgariad I still scowl when I see her name, because she had all of that, and all she did with it wad act like a spoiled, useless, incompetent, defenseless brat (I refrain from using the stronger wor as a curtosy). And in the Mallorean, which I’ve not rea in log enough that I can’t cite specifics) she was even worse. This was what she does when hande everything I ever wanted in life? Way to epic fail at being a role model.

    However, I find characters like Miaka, who is the protagabist in an amine and manga series called “Fushigi Yuugi” (mysterious play) to be much more problematic. I can almost forive Eddings (as an adult): fantasy wad young, stereotypes were still solidifying, he was telling a classic coming of age story…he’s a man…there not good excuses, but they are excuses. Yuu Watase, author of FY, has no such excuses. Miaka, while slightly more useul than Ce’Nedra, is a whiny, spoiled, defenseless pain in the butt who spends half the seriesshouting the name of her Beau (who generally shouts it back) and yet every male character in the series loves her. And this was written in the 90s. By a woman. And is emblematic of an entire subgenre of anime (Miaka, by the way, is a high priestess, hence qualifying her for this discussion). That something like his could still be written, and by a woman, seems to me the ultimate insidiousness – it sends a message to girls (the series is aimed at YA) that that is how they should want to be to get what they want. The fact that in the end Miaka is brave and noble in her own quirky way doesn’t change that she spends most of the series as a bumbling incompetant in continual need f rescuing.

    …I’m losing my train of thought, so I’ll stop. However, it really does bother me that this message is still so pervasive in fantasy. I could see maybe having a charater act like this (especially if she is a young) but it has to be contrasted with people (women) who act like sane, rational people.

    Also, in all this I did think of one short women who, despite occasionally lapses, and despite the obvious and extensively discussed biases of the author, I don’t feel is part of this stereotype: I will stand to defend Moiraine.

  22. 22. Marie Brennan

    Shveta — you’re welcome!

    Andrea — yeah, the words don’t have to carry that connotation, but thanks to the way they’ve been employed, they’ve kind of picked it up. “Feisty” in particular. Nobody ever seems to call a male character “feisty.”

    Unforth — that’s pretty much the whole intelligence thing in a nutshell, except for the mental-illness angle. A really appalling misapplication of science.

    You’re right that Moiraine is an exception, and a notable one, given the gender politics of the Wheel of Time. She may be tiny, but at no point (unless maybe in New Spring, which I haven’t read), is she depicted as being childlike in the slightest.

  23. 23. Margaret Lion

    Yup. I totally gotta back you up on this. Another reason that I get a little annoyed with the new Star Wars stuff is that Amidahla was so darn young.

  24. 24. heteromeles

    Gee, and when you were talking about tiny, delicate women, here I was thinking of Lessa of Pern, all five feet of her, and that big-as-a-plane dragon of hers. Thank you, Anne McCaffrey.

  25. 25. Marie Brennan

    heteromeles — yeah, Lessa’s another egregious example. The way F’lar treats her is frequently that of an adult to a child.

  26. 26. Mac

    Heh heh — I do have to take a moment to defend the babydoll dress, which far too many people demonized at the time: I remember one article in particular, written by a man, whose entire point was that men did not like the babydoll dress because “I like ass. I like to see ass.” To which I have to say, awesome, mission accomplished, I do not dress for your benefit, oh good Article-Writing Sir, and let me buy five more babydoll dresses right now, please, thank you, and furthermore, regard right now my middle finger. At this point I would dress in salwaar kameez if I could. =/ (Sorry about the tangential.)

  27. 27. Marie Brennan

    Salwar kameez are *comfy*. /end fashion digression :-)

  28. 28. heteromeles

    Scratch, scratch, scratch…Hunh?

    I actually hauled out my paperback copy of Dragonflight (first edition, 1968) and reread part of it. Who’s childlike? Lessa’s tiny, and her problem all through the book is that people keep treating her like property, until she forces them to respect her. Repeatedly.

    Actually, the cover on the first edition is fascinating. I’m terrible at the names of clothes, but the cover shows a blond model in a late 60′s style dress (high neckline, bare shoulders, bare legs, dress blowing in the wind and threatening to fly off) on the back of a rather dinky medieval-style gold dragon. Think vapid sex object, subtype 6.3. Compare that with the iconic Michael Whelan cover showing Lessa in full motorcycle leathers, on the back of properly-scaled Ramoth, fist raised in triumph as she looks back at all the males she’s outflying. It’s an interesting evolution of attitudes between those two covers.

    I mean, I agree with with the points presented here, but not every small woman is childlike.

  29. 29. Marie Brennan

    It’s been a while since I re-read Dragonflight, but when I did so (a few years ago), I know I was disappointed by the paternalistic way in which F’lar treats her, which I had completely overlooked while reading it as a kid. I’ll admit that I shouldn’t have said she’s “egregious” — she does do cool things, and (if memory serves, which it may not, since I haven’t re-read the later books) some of the “take her by the shoulders and shake her”-type behavior goes away over time — but I do know she didn’t come off as well once I was actually paying attention to the text, rather than engaging with the version of Lessa that I’d created in my head.

  30. 30. Megs - Scattered Bits

    Dear Unforth,

    I quibble with you. Not on the majority of your points, but on C’Nedra. Having grown up on the Belgariad and having a huge interest in culture, linguistics, etc., I simply disagree.

    C’Nedra was MEANT to be annoying. She was the product of the combination of her rank and culture (Tolnedran royalty were spoiled and practical and annoying just like her), and initially, her future husband wanted nothing to do with her. But she wasn’t just a stereotype. She was the product of spoiled Tolnedran nobility, a dryad heritage that gave her the red hair (though thankfully less of their nymphomaniac and homicidal tendencies) and only reinforced her proprietary attitudes toward men. C’Nedra did not think being rescued was part of her lot because men were supposed to protect their precious reward in her. No. She felt that they were supposed to SERVE her, and that included protection. Not a stereotype.

    All of Tolkien’s women were the products of their cultures and their own personalities. Polgara was anything but a weak-willed woman. She forced the woman seer at the end (can’t remember her name, been too LONG since I read that book) to grow up and face the physical world, but even that Seer wasn’t childish, except in that way. In other ways, she was mature. Then there was Lisette/Liselle? (it really has been too long since I read these books), Silk’s girlfriend, who was anything but childish, and I could go on.

    None of them were true stereotypes. They grew out of their backgrounds. C’Nedra came close to an archetype (spoiled royalty—either gender applies), but she wasn’t a weak woman-girl that tried in ANY way to please all the men in her life.

    As for your other points, I agree with them fully.

  31. 31. glenda larke

    It’s an interesting anomaly that the society that was the supposed basis of modern democracy – Athens – treated it’s women pretty much the same as, or even worse than, their slaves, whereas the military society of the same period – Sparta – treated its women with respect and equality.

    The latter owned property, were encouraged to be fit, to play sport, and were largely in charge of things as their menfolk were always absent. They did not have to marry, and made their own decisions about whom to marry. They did not marry before they were 18, and this at a time when Athenian girls were married off at 14 without any say in the matter…

    Alas, this early examples of gender equality did not last. Even more disconcertingly, certain parts of the world today have not even vaguely approached the Spartan ideals of 2,000 years ago on this topic!

  32. 32. glenda larke

    Please ignore the feral apostrophe. I swear, they are contagious.

  33. 33. Mary

    Bet the helot women had a somewhat different view of Sparta.

  34. 34. heteromeles

    Late posting here, but there are some interesting subtexts here that I wanted to point out.

    Not that I’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I’m aware of how the character of Uncle Tom went from being a rejection of the stereotypical view of blacks of the author’s time, to a perjorative for a servile black trying to pass as white.

    I won’t speak to the Belgariad and Ce’Nedra, but the point about Dragonflight is that you have a woman author that creates a noble female character who overcomes huge odds, deals with a paternalistic society that regards her as a brood mare, subverts the whole system, saves civilization at great risk…and what do we remember? Her lover was paternalistic and shook her (although he was starting to grow out of it, even by the end of the story). This in a story written in 1968, not 2008.

    It’s testimony to the power of both these images, and of our desire to read them into texts.

    In a perverse way, Marie’s right: this is a bad stereotype to get involved with a writer. Why? Because if your character flirts at all with these images, the stereotype’s going to get in the way of your characterization, and that may be all your readers take away from what you write.

  35. 35. Tessa

    Fascinating discussion, although perhaps it is a little sad how prominent such a theme still is in our supposedly enlightened politically correct world.

    I do have one question… what do you think of Mara of Daughter of the Empire fame? I’ve always liked her – a young woman stuck in a society that hinders her at every turn – but then, admitteldly, I havent read the book in a while and when I did read it, it wasn’t with my mind set on finding the socio-political ideas behind it, or sifting out the tragically common stereotypes.

    More generally:
    Are all female heroes / secondary heroes doomed to, in some way, reflect society’s pervading prejudice? Do they have to be, in order to appeal to the public at large (or at least the public of the time you’re publishing in)? Or is it a question of what we read into it?

    I’m not really versed in literature, or a very attentive reader, but is it not possible to find both those female characters that fulfill the stereotypes and those that fly in their face in most genres?

  36. 36. Sam

    Tessa @35: There’s a difference between characters that reflect society’s pervading prejudice, and those that pander to it.

    All characters, or anything else in a novel, will reflect the author’s society, but whether it “goes with the flow” or sets out to break those preconceptions is another matter entirely.

    That Mara, from the Daughter of the Empire books, is “a woman in a man’s world”, is a challenge that she overcomes, not one that she passively accepts and submits to.

    She earns her achievements by virtue of her own abilities, and I’m fairly certain she didn’t go around throwing temper tantrums to get the men in her life to give her what she wanted either, although it has been a few years since I read them. :)

  37. 37. Daniela

    Fascinating post and so very true.

    It fits in so well with the direction society is moving right now (Size 0, complete waxing, women starving themselves to death just to fit a specific image). And the constant attempts to undermine women and their reasoning and their arguments. It’s also inteersting to see that very often the ‘women are so emotional’ argument comes up in discussions, once again forcing women back into the real of childhood where they are supposedly ruled by emotions. Which also fits with the steretype of the tiny, emotional woman who needs a strong rational man.

    It also reminds me a bit of Claudia in Anne Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire”. She’s turned into a vampire as a child and later is a grown woman trapped in the body of a child, constantly depended on the male adult vampires around her. The moment she tries for some autonomy by picking a female guardian that she can control she gets killed.

    Of course you could also turn the whole “Women and children” first thing around and ‘reclaim’ ist so to speak, meaning that women and children are important for the survival of the tribe while men can be left behind to die. I sometimes use a similar argument in discussions about why men were the hunters (men were disposable and it didn’t matter if they died while hunting unlike women). The reactions of some of the more chauvinistic men to that is always rather entertaining.

  38. 38. Bowen Ellames

    I agree with some of the statements you’ve made; the point that, in many cases, women are portrayed as menial compared to their respective male counterparts is very true. Sadly, many writers still hold to traditional attitudes and values, cautious about change and innovation in their storytelling.

    Having said that, I think your slam on the character of The Childlike Empress, featured in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, may have softened your argument.

    As you’ve stated, the Empress is the ruler of Fantastica, but she doesn’t exert any actual authority. I’d argue that. I’d also argue that her strength and existence are not dependent upon the actions of her intermediaries, mostly men. She’s an autonomous, limitless being. What she symbolizes is her strength and justifies her existence.

    The Empress symbolizes the Ouroboros, the symbol of constant regeneration. This is represented by AURYN in the book. She’s given new names by human children that initiates a cycle, akin to the concept of Ouroboros, that begins anew as soon as it ends. She is the idea of primordial unity, existing in and persisting from the beginning.

    Regarding AURYN, its power flows from the Childlike Empress herself and can only be used with her permission and cannot be used against her. If she does not grant the use of it to someone, they are unable to influence AURYN. This demonstrates that she does exert actual authority. She commands story, which plays at the heart of Fantastica and the book. The engraving on the back of AURYN reads: “Do what you Wish”, which encourages the concept of limitlessness – of being able to claim a freedom to be whatever you wish to be or whatever feeling you are. She represents limitlessness, the sentry against the Nothing, representing and constituting our lack of imagination, our fears in the real world.

    She is a beautiful character, powerful in her majesty. If you didn’t understand that, you didn’t understand the story.

  39. 39. Madeline

    It always bothered me that Nancy Drew always ended needing to be saved by her boyfriend or father. How does Hunger Games measure up in your scale for writing female characters?

  40. 40. Marie Brennan

    Madeline — sorry for the belated reply. It’s been ages since I read Nancy Drew (and I read both the original yellow covers and the Case Files, which were a lot more modern), so I don’t know for sure if it’s true that she always needed saving, but I don’t remember it being that way. As for the Hunger Games, I haven’t yet read those, so I can’t really speak to that one.

  41. 41. readerwriter

    Princess Ozma in the Oz stories is very strong. She is almost identical to the Childlike Empress in many illustrations but is entirely self dependant.

  42. 42. Marie Brennan

    I’ve never read the Oz books myself, but my general impression of Ozma is fairly positive. It’s good to have her as a counter-example.

  43. 43. Andy Bruning

    I think the Empress is not only a dispensable girl in history …
    I think she is like the mother of all fantasia creatures. She represents fantasia life.
      it represents the link between the two worlds.
    She has no political powers, because fantasy has no rules. All beings are equal to each other. Fantasia represents the opposite of the Real World.
      She can not help herself, because Fantasia depends on the dreams of human beings.
      The fact that she was needing on a new name, is that human stopped to dream because of problems in the real world, like money and greed. So, the “nothing” consumes everything, letting all empty. The new name represents a rebirth, like a phoenix i think. All the things has a new name, not just she.
       I think she represents love, vast knowledge about both worlds and about human feelings.
      so I think she is a strong character, especially in the book.
    She also guides bastian in the second part of the book, when he loses himself on greed and selfish.
      I think, Being a strong character is not be like a hero or protagonist… Is to be solid and Equal to anyone.

    Sorry about my english =P
    Hope that you understand my point :)

  44. 44. nay may

    It’s seems to me that you have missed the point of the never ending story.
    The childlike empress has the appearance of a child because she is as accepting and non judgmental as a child is, caring not for appearance and respecting the nature of all things. Prejudices are learned, you are not born with them.
    She has the external appearance of her psychological state with the wisdom of someone who have lived a long time.
    No doubt she is female too as females are representative of the passive yin, as a opposed to the aggressive male yang.

  45. 45. adaba

    Your mistake is assuming that the author actually considered the childlike princess a woman/girl when he was obviously trying to convey something else: the concept of childlike innocence and imagination.

  46. 46. Ava

    Did you ever actually read the book by Michael Ende? Obviously not because your description is clearly from the MOVIE. So so so so so ignorant to what this character was about and that she is not weak at all. Total piece of garbage post. Read the book and then cite specific examples for a review, you will see how wrong you are and should be embarrassed of your depiction of a powerful character in one of the greatest works of fantasy fiction ever!

  47. 47. Emma

    I must have watched a different “The Neverending Story”, because I’m unaware as to a scene in which the Childlike Empress stamps her feet and throws a tantrum. She never relies on a male, per se, to save her; she does, however, need to bring in the imagination of a human being, whose hopes & dreams build the entire world. She is largely symbolic; her childlike appearance is to convey her innocence and purity. She is wise and old, but her appearance is young. She’s a duality.


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Author Information

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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