Yesterday I started reading “God’s War,” Kameron Hurley’s celebrated breakout novel, and it is glorious. Hurley’s characters are believable and charismatic; her world, visceral and raw and richly imagined.
Nyx, a disillusioned government assassin fighting to stay alive on a resource-strapped planet, is one of the best female protagonists I’ve read in a long time. She hides her insecurities about her lost faith in God behind a veneer of callous cynicism, and she cuts off the heads of deserting soldiers like nobody’s business.
“On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on—
There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.
Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war—but at what price?
The world is about to find out.”
Oh yeah, she’s badass. How badass, you ask? Think Zoe from “Firefly” crossed with Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard. Yes. That badass—and with the same irreverent disregard for society’s expectations of her.
I will almost definitely be reviewing this book once I’m done reading it, but that’s not what this post is really about. You see, there’s a question bouncing around my head—a question that started formulating when I began reading “God’s War” and realized its lead character is a sexually independent and morally complex young woman.
For readers of speculative fiction, finding a book with a compelling female lead can feel like tracking down an endangered species in the wild. In this case, however, I felt confident that “God’s War” would be a good return on my investment, since I’d read Hurley’s post challenging fantasy and sci-fi narratives that portray women as significant only in terms of their relationships to Men Who Do Great Things, rather than as people who do great things in their own right.
If you clicky the link, you’ll find her article accompanied by striking portraits of warrior women in fantasy and sci-fi. One is a mounted knight in plate armor; another, a steely-eyed space marine. One looks to be a steampunk cyborg, wielding a rifle for a right arm.
Not one of them has blond hair.
All right, one of them has lightish hair that could be called dirty blond, but dirty blond is pretty much light brown anyway.
Hurley’s bel dame, Nyx, is also dark-haired—at least, the image of her on the cover is, and given the desert culture of her world, it makes sense.
The female lead of the fantasy novel I’m writing has black hair, too.
So here’s the big question, ladies and jellyspoons:
Why aren’t there more blond heroines in fantasy/sci-fi literature?
For my purposes, the word “heroine” means a) the female main character or secondary character of a novel, b) a character that the reader identifies with and aspires to be, and c) a character who takes action, initiates confrontation, or in some way alters the course of the story. Heroes’ token love interests need not apply.
There are heaping piles of brunettes—Lessa from “The Dragonriders of Pern,” Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games,” Hermione Granger from “Harry Potter,” Morgaine from “The Mists of Avalon,” Jane Roland from the “Temeraire” series, Lady Katsa from “Graceling,” Princess Cimorene from the “Enchanted Forest Chronicles,” Elphaba from “Wicked,” Sabriel from “Sabriel,” Seraphina from “Seraphina”…. The list goes on and on.
There’s even a fair helping of redheads—Alanna of Trebond from Tamora Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness” quartet, Catelyn Stark from “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Mara Jade from the “Star Wars” expanded universe, and Princess Eilonwy from “The Chronicles of Prydain.”
The only true blondes I can think of are Daenerys Targaryen and Brienne of Tarth from “A Song of Ice and Fire.” And Éowyn, I suppose, if you ignore the last hundred pages of “The Return of the King” and her unfortunate transformation from crossdressing, Witchking-slaying shieldmaiden to Faramir’s “tamed” lady-wife.
Stumped, I went to two of my friends, both avid readers of fantasy, and asked them to name any blond heroines they could think of.
“I’m actually having trouble thinking of any at all,” said Friend A. “All of Tamora Pierce’s characters have brown or red hair. The main female in the Percy Jackson series is blond, but while she’s a main character, she’s not the lead.”
“There must be almost none because I can’t think of any,” Friend B agreed. “I think it’s because people try to make compelling, realistic heroines, and blondes get all the glory, at least in TV, which dominates our world.”
That might be part of it, or maybe it has something to do with the fact that natural blondes make up only 2 percent of Earth’s population, so we aim to create a sense of realism by writing heroines with brown or black hair. But if so, then why are redhead heroines so popular? Natural red hair is even rarer than natural blond hair.
I started thinking about non-heroine blond characters in fantasy, gender notwithstanding. The Lannisters. The Malfoys. Rita Skeeter. Darken Rahl from “The Sword of Truth.” Kylara from “The Dragonriders of Pern.” Galinda from “Wicked.” All the evil vampires in “Twilight.” (Yeah, I don’t know their names, and I don’t care to learn them.)
Apparently, not only are blond-haired heroines an endangered species in speculative fiction, but they’ve actually been made into a literary trope. Just check out this page at TV Tropes, called “Blondes Are Evil,” and its male counterpart, “Blond Guys Are Evil.” For one reason or another, blond hair is a characteristic more commonly associated with the villainess than the heroine.
Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Daenerys and Brienne certainly aren’t made less heroic by their blond hair, and Brienne in particular proves that you can be a woman with blond hair without becoming the golden-haired beauty or the damsel in distress or any of the other stereotypes sometimes attributed to blondes in literature.
I can’t help but think that these stereotypes are what drive modern fantasy and science fiction authors, particularly those looking to write a strong female lead, to avoid blond-haired heroines. After some soul searching, I have to confess that it may have been a factor in my decision to give my female character black hair instead of blond, though more likely I chose black hair because my novel draws much of its cultural inspiration from ancient China. Even so, the fact that I never once contemplated giving her blond hair made me question whether those of us who would challenge traditional views of women in fantasy are simultaneously reaffirming cliched assumptions about blondes.
Even if we aren’t deliberately sidelining blondes in our stories, however, I think writers of fantasy and science fiction should examine their motivations here. Speculative fiction writers are lucky in that we can play around with physical traits however we like. Anything is fair game, from green hair and purple skin to extra appendages and pointy ears. Given the diversity inherent in fantasy and science fiction, it seems shameful to relegate blondes to unflattering roles as love interests and villains.
Can you think of any blond heroines in fantasy or sci-fi literature that I haven’t mentioned? Please let me know in the comments! I would love to learn that I am wrong about this, and that there is actually a treasure trove of blond female leads out there waiting to be discovered!