I was listening to a Geek and Sundry episode a couple days ago and the folks on it were talking about the lack of female heroes in fantasy books. A big part of the criticism was that female heroes, when they did appear, were pretty much required to be young virgins because any woman who is sexually active and especially one that has children simply isn't hero material. Heroic fantasy definitely has a standard story that involves a young man in his late teens without stable parents who goes out into the world, discovers his latent magical powers, defeats his evil nemesis, and gets the beautiful girl in the end. They talked mostly about how women are invisible in this standard tale and especially how women aren't able to do anything but be a mother once they have a child; their other roles or priorities are totally erased.
I agree that standard fantasy narrative places women in a secondary role but I think the idea that mothers aren't allowed to do anything interesting is less of a fact than *parents* aren't allowed to do anything interesting. Of course if you happen to be both a woman and a parent you get a double whammy. How often is the hero in a fantasy book a person that has young children to take care of? Basically never, of course, and I think that is at least in part because we place a very large moral priority on taking care of one's own children. People who abandon their children are bad, and heroes are supposed to be good, so it becomes very much more difficult to create a sympathetic hero who leads off with a very substantial bad act. Men do have a little more leeway here because it is more acceptable in the standard tale for a man to run off to fight evil while the woman is not granted the same freedom.
Despite the gloom and doom though there are exceptions. Paladin of Souls, which I wrote about before, is a fantasy story in which the heroes are middle aged folks whose child rearing days are long past and which does a great job of portraying how a hero who isn't eighteen years old would act. Another good example of fantasy stories against archetype is a series by Sarah Monette starting with Melusine which has a gay main character. These stories exist, though they are unfortunately drowned in the sea of 'young man finds magic gets girl'.
I will admit I have a soft spot for the classical story. I daydream about magical powers and saving the world and I am a fan of beautiful women so unsurprisingly the fantasy of 'young man finds magic gets girl' is going to find a receptive audience in me. I enjoyed the stories about Belgarion, Rand Al'Thor, Richard Cypher and Sparhawk back in the day but these days I really want something a little less bad. I guess this is why I like A Song of Ice and Fire so much; the classic hero characters have no particular ability to stay alive more than anyone else and it isn't at all clear who should be considered to be on Team Good anyway. It is a complicated, messy story with all kinds of people of varying shades of grey doing things that have crazy and interesting consequences. It feels a little more like a world full of characters than a predictable narrative taking an obvious course.