Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Lack of Periods in Fantasy Novels

The very wonderful Cait of Paper Fury wrote a post asking How Realistic Should Books Be? It's a wonderful post, you should definitely check it out.

When reading her post and thinking about how I'd like books to be more realistic, and it occurred to me how few fantasies - YA or adult - mention teenage girls and women having their period. Or at least, that I've read. Mention of periods are needed in a lot more in all books, not just fantasy, but I can name more books outside of fantasy that include periods than I can fantasy novels.

Drown by Esther Dalseno The Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb

I can think of only two examples. The first is the is the most recent book I've read, Drown by Esther Dalseno, a retelling of The Little Mermaid. When the mermaid becomes human, she wakes up one morning to discover her sheet is covered in blood. Mermaids don't have periods, so she has no idea where this blood has come from. She searches her body for some wound, but finding none, she goes to a housekeeper with her sheets in panic and confusion.

The second is The Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb, the third book in The Liveship Traders Trilogy.
I will be revealing some spoilers in talking about why periods are mentioned in this book, so don't click below if you plan on reading the series and don't want it spoilt for you.



Otherwise, in the books I've read, there's no mention of periods, in any description. Female characters involved in quests, running from danger, in massive fights of the physical or magical kind, or making political or strategic military plans. Never once do they have to worry about doing such things with cramps, or getting their period suddenly without having tampons/sanitary towels and a spare pair of knickers on them, or needing to quickly find a toilet because they need to change whichever product they're using.

One would assume these women don't have periods. And perhaps they don't - in urban fantasy, some characters are paranormal creatures, and so for those characters, I'd let it slide. I could accept that vampires don't have periods. We could argue that completely made up worlds in high fantasy are made up, and therefore the characters aren't necessarily human as we know humans, but I think that's a bit of a cop out. If the characters' bodies act similarly to humans' in every other way, why not have their female characters have periods?

Some might argue we never see or hear of characters go to the toilet, so why do we need to see characters on their period? Because periods have more of an affect on women and their bodies than simply going to the loo. There are mood changes, there can be pain and discomfort - extreme pain and discomfort for some, and, just generally, it's something that's apart of our daily lives for around a week every month.

Also because there is still a stigma around periods. As a society, we don't really talk about periods. Not really. And when there's talk about keeping "female hygiene products" out of view so any men who are in the bathroom don't have to see them, there's a problem.

I'm not expecting books to go into great detail about periods, but it would be nice to have a mention of a woman having to fight an enemy while battling with cramps, or how she's having a less than great day on her quest because she happens to be suffering with PMS (Though don't be sexist! Don't have women be moody or grumpy BECAUSE she has PMS. We can be moody or grumpy without having PMS, and those assumptions that women are on their period because they're not being nice, quiet, docile little ladies are so, so offensive!), or just something. Some mention.

Because women do have periods. And I think books, especially fantasy, should reflect that.

What do you think? Have you read any fantasy novels that feature periods? Please give me your recommendations!

21 comments:

  1. I totally agree that there should be more periods in fiction! I think this has been a hot topic in the blog-sphere lately, and I really like that. I know in Throne of Glass there's a mention of Celaena having her period, but it seems to only last for like a day. Still, it was nice to have it there because it makes the world more realistic and the characters more relatable.

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    1. I've yet to read Throne of Glass, but it makes me so happy to hear that Celaena has a period! even if it's a small mention, that's better than nothing! Really, I only really want a mention, I don't need there to be paragraphs detailing everything. Just a mention that she has periods, and not ignoring the fact that most women do, pretending it's something that doesn't exist.

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  2. Sparked by Sheena Snow is another book that mentions periods and the protag gets cramps, though it's sci-fi.

    But yeah, I do kind of think of that sometimes. Like, how nice for them, they can go on all these adventures and never have to worry about pain or having to find a bathroom every few hours or having to carry around a bag so they have somewhere to put their tampons lol.

    But on the other hand, I feel like it might not always be necessary to include this. And if something isn't necessary, regardless of what it is, it probably shouldn't be mentioned in the book. Just like half the time in books it seems like characters never even eat because it's just not significant enough to the story to be mentioned.

    But it would make sense to mention sometimes or in some books. Afterall, it *is* realistic.

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    1. I probably should have said SFF rather than just fantasy; I don't read much sci-fi, but those I have read haven't mentioned periods either - that I remember anyway. But thatnks for telling me about Sparked! I'll look it up!

      A friend of mine had the same argument: if it's not necessary to the story, why include it? What I find funny is how you brought up characters eating, because in pretty much every book I read, food is mentioned one way or another, and several times throughout the book, which was my argument against periods not being necessary. So I find that interesting.

      Yeah, it would be! If a book can say, "they had a quick meal of X in the common room before heading up to their room" - just a quick mention - why can't they just mention a woman on her period? I'm not asking for paragraphs, just a mention.

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  3. Oh wow! I have never thought of that, but that's a good thought. Now I will probably read everything and noticing the NOT periods.

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    1. Haha! Thanks :) I think you'll be surprised how few mention them :(

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  4. Alanna by Tamora Pierce incl. a bit on the main character having her period (and other growing up related things), and Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Le, while not SFF, does too. I think that if it is relevant to the story, such as a character "coming of age" or something, or if it would really affect the way a character handled any given situation, then it's silly to ignore it! One of my favorite series, Jordan's Wheel of Time, makes almost no mention of menstruation -- maybe twice in 14 doorstopper books -- even though many of the main players are adult women (who are otherwise fairly well-thought-out characters).

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    1. Thanks for the recs, I'll look them up! I actually think I might have Alanna? I'll have to search my bookcases.

      Do you think the fact that periods are mentioned only twice is because Jordan is male? The two books I mentioned are written by women, and I think SFF tends to be satured with male authors, and perhaps that's why? Hmm. Something to think about.

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  5. Ooh, this is a great discussion. And I agree, periods should definitely get more attention, especially in young adult books, because I think that's the age group who have most difficulties getting used to their new, mature bodies.

    That said, I don't really remember many other bodily functions being mentioned? I mean, do (fantasy) writers talk about men going to take a dump very often? :) I know characters sweat a lot, especially during battle and such, but other things aren't mentioned as often.

    I can't remember specific examples - but you're absolutely right that periods don't often feature in (fantasy) literature. I've read a paranormal romance/thriller where the heroine got involved with a vampire where this issue came up (unsurprisingly!).

    And you're right, having women be grumpy just because their "hormones are acting up" is so sexist. I recently read a book (non-fiction) about gender stereotypes and such in Victorian fiction, and if you think about it, not much has changed! Women are still expected to hide what they do in the bathroom, and we're still seen as creatures ruled by their hormones, which have to be controlled by any means necessary. Ugh.

    Great discussion! :)

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    1. Thank you for such a fantastic comment! :)

      With regards to characters going to the loo, I'll reply with what I said to my friend who gave the same argument: when we have our periods, it's so much more than just going to the loo. It can affect our mood, it gives us cramps, there's having the necessities either in the house or in the correct bags (work bag and handbag for me), there's also planning the week - for example, I won't plan to spend a day shopping with friends, because it can hurt to simply be standing up, let alone walking for hours. Coming up to my period and during, these are the things I think about. And women in SFF don't have a single thought? That's not realistic. I don't think about using the loo, I doubt anyone does - we just go when we need to, and that's that. It doesn't need to be mentioned, not unless it's going to affect the character, like IBS might. Periods would, in some way, affect the character, and so I think they should be mentioned.

      Oh my gosh, I'm so sick of the assumptions that when women aren't "nice" it's because we're on out periods. It's so sexist, because it degrades us to just being a body with hormones, but also perpetuates the idea that otherwise, women are - or SHOULD be - nice and quiet and lovely, and it's just such crap. Ugh.

      Thank you for stopping by!

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  6. I loved this article. Much respect. It gave me a great deal of food for thought with regards to my own work and I hope I'm on the right track in including it.

    Like one of your other commenters, I also remember a great example of periods in Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. She has no idea what has happened to her when she gets her first one, and since she has disguised herself as a boy in order to train to become a knight, it's a big deal. SO much respect for the author for putting it in there. Not just that, but covering birth control too, which is another big issue in fantasy.

    I think 'period stuff' can certainly add a level of realism and perhaps even act as a great source of comfort for a young reader who may want to feel less alone or scared or even embarrassed.

    As you say, if we have space for feast scenes and food talk, then what about characters who have periods, or worry about bad breath (theirs or someone else's), or who have been questing through underground caverns so long, their hair is beyond greasy and itchy (that last one is something from my current book - hygiene is a big issue in life, so in fiction I don't see the point in leaving it out).

    Thanks again for this :)

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Lorna! I love how you're including things like itchy, greasy hair in y our book!

      I find the bad breath comment really interesting; I've never really thought about bad breath other than when I've had something with garlic in it, which isn't very often, but I have read about it in books, mostly YA contemporary/romance. But if you can include things like that, and food, why not everything else you mentioned? I think it's important to have at least a mention of them.

      Oh my god, I love the sound of Alanna! I really need to look that up! Birth control too? In fantasy? That's just amazing!

      Thanks again for commenting!

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  7. I wholeheartedly agree. Though I can also see it from the perspective of guys reading a novel. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think that guys should have a problem reading/hearing about periods because it is just another part of life, but because guys are a bit more...sensitive about that information, it could make them want to stop reading a book. In my novel (which is geared towards both genders), there is a mention of it, but it doesn't go into it hardly. I'm all for there being more talk of "taboo" topics in books, but I can also see how authors wouldn't want to alienate part of their target audience.

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    1. I really think that's part of the problem. I can understand authors maybe not wanting to put off male authors by including things like periods, but at the same time, we aren't going to get to the point where the guys who have a problem with periods don't bat an eyelid until someone says, "Hey, guess what? Women have periods. They're not gross, they're normal. And I'm not going to keep pretending they don't exist so you can feel more comfortable. Once a month, most women bleed from their vaginas, and we're not going to hide it. Get bloody used to it." I'd love that.

      But you're mentioning it in your book! That's all I ask, just at least one line to say the woman character has a period! So thank you, for including it! :)

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  8. This is really interesting! I guess I don't really expect to see periods mentioned in books that often - unless there's some specific reason to mention them. My period honestly doesn't affect me THAT much in everyday life (though the occasional PMS does hit me - but I kind of agree that mentioning that could be seen as kind of sexist, so it's a slippery slope there). But I certainly wouldn't MIND seeing more references to periods in books - it would be especially good in YA books!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. Right? They get a mention in YA contemporary/romance occasionally, but I think a woman's period would have more impact on her in a fantasy novel, when her life is in danger and she's constantly on the run, or when she's out in the middle of nowhere with no supplies. What then? There should be something, I think.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. This discussion is really thought-provoking. I definitely think periods are a natural part of life and it needs to be expressed more in books. It should not be covered up or brushed by against because it's nothing to be ashamed of, I think. Lovely discussion!

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  10. Very interesting discussion! I have to admit when I saw the title I thought you meant historical periods, as in, does it matter that historical fantasies draw on many historical periods without consistency. But that is another topic altogether XD

    Two that jump to mind are Throne of Glass (Sarah J Maas) and A Song of Ice and Fire (George RR Martin), but I can't think of many others. I guess in one way we, especially as female writers, can fall into the trap of portraying FMCs as we want ourselves to be, and perhaps in more traditional high fantasy the female characters are either very very regal, Galadriel types who would *never* have such complications as bodily functions, or the fighter, Eowyn types who are too cool and rad for such things. But with the rise of high fantasy we also have more diverse FMCs so maybe it'll change.

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    1. I think that's a really good point. Because who would want to go through everything that comes with periods if you could be fertile without them? But I do think it's unrealistic without even the tiniest of mentions. I'm hoping you're right and things will change! :)

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