First Girl Ever

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


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.