Guest Post: The Lone Woman, or Gender Imbalance in the Action-Adventure Genre

Today, I have a guest post from Rabia Gale, who is also one of my WANA buddies.  She’s done a lot of posts on how women are depicted in fantasy novels on her blog and has a novella out called Rainbird.  Here’s her bio:

Rabia Gale breaks fairy tales and fuses fantasy and science fiction. She loves to write about flawed heroes who never give up, transformation and redemption, and things from outer space. She grew up in Karachi, Pakistan and now lives in Northern Virginia. Check out her fantasy novella, Rainbird , or visit her online at

A few months ago, while watching an episode of Warehouse 13, something about the show began to bug me. It wasn’t until a scene with most of the characters on-screen that I realized what had set my story senses tingling.

There were too many women in the cast. Two female field agents, one female geek, one female psychic. Add the formidable Mrs. Frederic to the women’s side, and the two men were outnumbered.

Warehouse 12 did something right, for it exposed how I’m conditioned to expect far fewer women than men in my action-adventure. If the gender imbalance had gone the other way—as is often the case—I wouldn’t have been bothered at all.

I grew up in the 80s, so I’m no stranger to the Token Woman phenomenon in many of the cartoon shows I watched. From Cheetara in ThunderCats (no, I’m not counting the prepubescent Wily Kit) to the princess (what was her name again?) in Voltron (the planet version) to Arcee in Transformers: The Movie, these characters were mostly sidekicks and/or love interests. For young girls like me, desperate to find a character to identify with, they were often the only way to live vicariously in the worlds and adventures that captivated us.

As I grew older, female characters went from supporting characters to protagonists. However, the lone woman trope still persisted. It had morphed into the Special Snowflake Woman. She was the one female who dared to do a man’s job, usually by becoming a warrior or ruling the kingdom in her own name. This Special Snowflake Woman was different from ordinary women—often because she hated embroidery, dancing, or the vapid chatter of her female companions—and inducted into the company of men. Males were her teachers, friends, and companions.

What this trope did was  to set our heroines—and by extension the female reader—apart from other women. This trope—especially in fantasy—denigrates the majority of women, painting them as weak, stupid, and boring. It reinforces a male ideal of strength, and ignores the complexities of female relationships.

When we write so few women into our stories, we miss out on the opportunities for the tough, middle-aged female veterans to mentor young, starry-eyed swordswomen, for a queen and her daughter to argue over policy, for the tomboy to befriend and value the dainty girl who loves to embroider. We miss the opportunity to take a group of very different women and send them to pull off a heist, tramp through the wilderness, defend the village, or outwit the Dark Lady (*grin*).

You know, just like the men do.

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Lone Woman, or Gender Imbalance in the Action-Adventure Genre

  1. I particularly like the point you make, Rabia, about including older women in our stories. It’s easy enough to write about young, beautiful protagonists and forget about the mature, experienced woman (without delving into the archetypal ‘wise old crone’). I certainly try to address this in my own writing. 🙂


    1. As I move toward the more mature, experienced end of the continuum, I’m much more interested in older protagonist. Guess what? There is life after thirty (and forty, and fifty)–and it keeps getting better. I’m still ready for adventure in my life; why not my older characters?


  2. livrancourt

    I’m going to SAVE this post, because there are so many ideas here, and I want to work them into something. Something. I don’t know what, yet, but there’s a whole world out there that hasn’t had too much attention.


    1. I’m glad this got your Muse working, Liv! The more I think on this topic the more I wonder, Where are the band of sisters-type stories? Why should the naive yet feisty young princess not have a swordswoman as bodyguard and an older woman as mentor?

      I know that I have a crew-of-women starship story in me, once I stop being scared of writing science fiction. 😉


  3. “This trope—especially in fantasy—denigrates the majority of women, painting them as weak, stupid, and boring.” This really struck a chord with me. Like Liv, there’s a seed of something planted that I have to nurture a bit to understand what it’s trying to tell me. Great topic, Rabia!


    1. Thanks, Tami.

      I’m just tired of stories where the female protagonist/love interest stands out because “she’s not like other women” in the eyes of the jaded hero/love interest. As if being feminine/womanly were a _bad_ thing.

      Besides, I _like_ embroidery. Just as countless other women like sewing, knitting and crocheting. Bet many of those same women also study martial arts, fence, fix cars, do home repairs, camp, and shoot!


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  5. Amen, this. It always bothers me when I realize that I’ve written so many women I have to make sure the men don’t get lost. And then I remember the physics of my world, the social structures, the cultures and societies, and I realize to myself deliberately that no. It’s not too many. It’s where I chose to focus and the men are doing exactly what they should be doing. It helps that I know literally everybody’s big story of their life, even the minorest of minor characters. But yeah. I always run the Bechdel test backwards—and often fail it.


  6. Miquela

    Thanks for host the guest post, Linda.

    Very thought-provoking, Rabia. I have an idea for a “girly” MG protagonist that I want to write. I’m still letting things percolate because I’m not sure of some particulars, but one of the major things I want to write about is how it is OK to be “a girl.” No girl-who-is-cool-because-she’s-more-of-a-boy, no girl-who-is-cool-because-she-isn’t-interested-in-“girly”-things… I’m really tired of the message that being a girl is second rate.


  7. Pingback: Brave: not your average coming-of-age story | Rabia Gale

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