About Kick-ass Women
Have you seen the teaser for Rogue One yet? No?! Well, sit back my friend and watch this:
Is that cool, or what? I just looove this line:
This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.
This teaser is firing on all channels for me – the Dirty Dozen meets Star Wars. I mean, sure, it means that we have another movie with a Death Star in it (3 out of 8, if you’re counting) and, sure, is it really plausible that the crime “aggravated assault” (which, as a friend has pointed out, has a bit of a fiddly legal definition) would show up in a Galaxy Far Far Away? Maybe not, but I don’t really care. It looks raucously awesome and I just can’t wait.
And yet, there are a contingent of creeps and jackholes out there who are whining and moaning things along the lines of “what, another female lead?” and then follow it with a load of idiotic MRA chauvinist garbage. Now, these nimrods are being appropriately shouted down by…well…just about everybody and I suppose I could spend this post ranting and raving about why they’re miserable slugs. Instead of talking about how bad they are, though, I’d like to spend some time talking about why I, a man, really love kick-ass female lead characters.
Let’s see, where to begin…oh yeah…
My Mother Kicks Ass
I could tell stories about how incredibly badass my mother is for a while (hell, I could tell stories about how badass all the women in my family are), but that would make this post a bit long and (checking watch) I’ve got about 700 more words before most of you lose interest. I will, however, give you this small taste:
Before I was born, my parents were driving in a van late at night with a friend. My father was asleep in the back seat and the friend was driving. The highway had the whole right lane closed, marked off with those big orange-and-white cans every thirty or forty feet. There wasn’t much room on the road – no shoulder to speak of, just a big ditch right off the side.
Suddenly, barrelling up the road and laying on its horn, is a runaway semitruck. He’s flashing his lights, he’s honking – basically screaming “Can’t stop! Look Out!”
The guy driving the van freezes – the truck is going to overtake them, and either run them off the road into a ditch or smash them flat. Leaping into action, my mother leans across the center console, grabs the wheel with one hand, and proceeds to pilot the car from the passenger seat into the lane marked off by traffic cans. Not only does she do this, but she slaloms in and out of the cans, allowing the semi to move over just enough to they aren’t crushed and yet not so far over into the work zone that they hit the abandoned road-repair equipment, piles of gravel, etc..
All from the passenger seat while the driver screams.
So, yeah, my mom is badass. Hell, mothers in general are badasses and all of us men should be at least tangentially aware of this fact. Having been raised by the terrestrial equivalent of Ellen Ripley, I kinda dig characters that channel that primal emotive force that is the “protective mother.” Can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t. It’s awesome!
And even beyond this relatively narrow role of “mother,” kick-ass female leads represent a fresh perspective on the tired old trope of the muscle-bound, grim male protagonist. We have, as a culture, been limiting ourselves for a very, very long time with this “boys only” nonsense. I mean, come on – don’t you get just a little bored of only seeing men defeat the bad guys, over and over again? And sure, the misogynists of the world are apt to yelp “but it isn’t realistic, a girl beating up men!”
First off, fuck you – my mom could kick your ass. So could probably hundreds of women. To quote Germaine Greer
here for a second:
Only a minute proportion of males will ever come within reach of an Olympic record, but the achievements of male record-holders empower all men. The implication that the weakest man must be stronger and faster than any woman whatsoever is obviously absurd.
In the context of fiction, there is simply no excuse for using the idea that “most” men are physically stronger than “most” women to deny women the spotlight. I mean, sure, that’s technically true, but most women are not Imperator Furiosa just like most men are not Mad Max.
Women can and do and have competed with men on all manner of fields and won. That is unequivocal truth. Women such as that deserve to have their stories told not because they are women, but because they represent and entire new set of experiences and ideas and stories that just haven’t been sufficiently explored.
Strength Isn’t All About Punching!
And furthermore, the idea that we should deny women the lead in adventure films because they aren’t able to bench press the same amount as the guys is really, really stupid. “Strength” does not always translate directly into being kick-ass and such is a very narrow and, again, boring view to ascribe to. Take Leia, for instance – sure, she knows her way around a blaster, fine – but I would argue her most heroic moments aren’t physical ones at all. The way she stares death in the face while captive on the Death Star and doesn’t bat an eyelash. The way she takes charge in Hoth and, with her guidance, saves the lives of hundreds of rebels. She’s there while the base is falling around her ears and has to literally be dragged away from her post by Han. That is courage and heroism equal to any character, male or female. It’s inspiring, its interesting, and it is unequivocally badass.
In short, I love kickass female leads! They inspire me, they remind me of the women I love, and they are every bit as exciting (if not more so) than the male leads we’re all used to. There aren’t enough of them out there, frankly, and I am very pleased that the Star Wars franchise is stepping up and introducing us to more of them.
I can’t wait.
By The Way…
The Oldest Trick is still on sale, but not for long! If you like kickass female characters, this book won’t disappoint – just wait until you meet Hool! And Tyvian’s mom! And Myreon Alafarr! Go get it now!
Willow Ufgood: Modern Father
I really do love the Ron Howard’s Willow. I mean, yeah, it’s not a perfect movie, but in the relatively spare canon of “decent fantasy films,” it rates rather high. It rates in my top five, at any rate.
What do I like about it? Now, see, that’s something I’ve spent years trying to put my finger on. I mean, obviously Mad Martigan is awesome and everybody played a ranger in AD&D because they wanted to be him (admit it – you know I’m right). General Kael is pretty badass, Nokmar castle is a wonderful piece of scenery, the soundtrack is glorious, the Nelwyns are charming. None of that, though, is really it. It took me until yesterday, when I was watching the movie with my 5-year-old daughter for the first time, that I figured it out:
Willow Ufgood is an excellent, excellent male role model.
I mean, Martigan gets all the press, sure, and is a pretty decent guy in the end, but Willow is the shining moral center of that film and, honestly, I do love him for it. Part of the reason it took me a long time to realize his importance to me is because Willow does not conform to the typical male tropes that I, and every other guy, was raised to believe in. He isn’t strong. He isn’t powerful. He isn’t brash or clever or hard or any of that macho, chest-thumping crap. You know what Willow is? A good person. A good, competent father. A regular guy who goes out and does what’s right because, dammit, it’s what’s right.
I think what hit me most strongly this time around was his role as father figure. Fathers, as we men are informed from a young age, are not involved in childcare. They are not supposed to be accustomed to domestic duties and are, we are told, pretty clueless and stupid about children, women, and everything else that isn’t drinking, fighting, screwing, and making money. Remember Three Men and a Baby? Remember all the “hilarity” surrounding them changing a diaper or giving her a bottle and so on? You know what that told me, as a boy: taking care of babies is not your place, man-child. See how foolish and stupid these men are? That could be you!
Willow is none of that, though. Willow knows how to change a diaper. He understands when Elora Danan feels sick, knows why she’s crying, and cares that she gets fed. He even gives very explicit instructions to Mad Martigan when handing her over. The best part? The movie doesn’t even treat this as a thing. It’s like, “well obviously this guy knows how to handle a baby – he’s got kids!”
It’s possible I’m giving the movie a bit too much credit, here. Perhaps, from my 21st century perspective, I fail to realize that the movie is holding up these qualities of Willow’s as things to be mocked, but I don’t think so. Elora Danan could have selected anybody as her guardian, but you know who she picks? Not Mad Martigan, not Airk, not even Fin Razel – she picks Willow, the good dad. The farmer and bad sorcerer. The good and honest man who leaves his home and family (who he misses desperately) to take care of and protect an innocent baby from forces waaay beyond his power to contest.
The movie is actually full of subversive gender stuff, too. While I’m not calling it a feminist masterpiece, it’s worth noting that all the most powerful characters in the film are women (Bavmorda, Sherlyndria, Fin Razel). The primary male protagonist (Willow) learns from and takes advice from women constantly and is correct in doing so. The film passes the Bechdel test, too (though, you know, that’s a really low bar, admittedly). Even Mad Martigan is portrayed as a decent person with the baby – he knows how to hold her, he shows affection towards her – and this is never seen as degrading to his masculinity or anything of the kind. In this film, everybody cares for the baby. It’s a thing that humans do. Weird that such would seem somehow revolutionary, right? And yet…
Now, when I watch this movie, I realize that this is part of the thing I appreciated about it all along, but didn’t actually vocalize. I mean, as a guy, you’re not supposed to admire the parenting skills of another man. You’re supposed to love Mad Martigan’s swordplay (and I do) and be impressed by General Kael’s skull mask (and I am). For all that, though, the real hero here is a man who is a competent, caring dad. In the end, all those swords and armies and magic acorns and powerful wands don’t really matter for much. The coup-de-grace is basically delivered because Willow could get a baby in an eldritch sacrificial garment to stop crying long enough for him to perform a disappearing pig trick.
That, fellow dads, takes a special kind of magic, does it not?
Tomorrow is release day for Blood and Iron, book 2 of the Saga of the Redeemed! Get it wherever fine e-books are sold!
Ladies in Loincloth Land
I’m going to revisit the old “chainmail bikini” thing for a moment – I’ve written about it before, and everything I’ve said there still stands, but I’m encountering some new territory regarding it while I’m writing a story, and I want to bounce a few ideas around.
On the one hand, the chain-mail bikini (or the female warrior wearing almost nothing) doesn’t make a lot of reasonable sense in any martial application. Likewise, the idea of a woman killing things in her underwear is also not inherently sexy – it’s kinda off-putting in terms of sexual attraction. Both of those things I cover in the linked post there. I want to take this discussion a bit further, though. For instance: what happens if everybody is wearing irresponsibly small amounts of clothing?
I’m thinking, specifically, about sword-and-sandal type stories. Here, we have shirtless barbarians, toga-wearing kings, and a complete lack of pants to be found on anybody at all. Nudity and partial nudity seem to be the order of the day, right? Even guys in ‘armor’ are basically just carrying shields and helmets and, if they’re really well equipped, the occasional matching sets of greaves and bracers. If they do wear a breastplate, it is more-or-less shaped like their actual chest anyway and, let’s face it, the subgenre rarely has anybody wearing breastplates.
So, say you put a female protagonist in this subgenre. A strong female protagonist – not some bimbo for Conan to save, but rather a female Conan (and no, not Red Sonja). Do you dress her in furs and keep her covered up? Do you have her bare to the waist and brazen about it, fully in control of her sexuality and dismissive of the audience’s cultural attitudes towards nudity? I mean, to be fair, the males in these stories wear every bit as little clothing as the women do, so presumably nudity as we understand it isn’t a problem in that world’s context.
But it is a problem in our world’s context. Women’s bodies and how they are portrayed so often shows them as objects of sexual desire, and the artwork associated with the Conan stories
and similar are designed to paint them in that same light. Is Red Sonja really memorable for her strength as a character, or is she rather popular for her scant clothing? Can the two be easily divorced in the mind of the audience? How does so-called ‘rape culture’ affect our ability to accept the idea of a woman wearing almost nothing as still an independent person with all the same power and potential as shirtless Conan over there?
I’m writing a story right now set in an ancient-world fantasy setting aboard a trireme. A woman has control over a crew of pirates and is forcing them to row deep into uncharted waters. It is hot. The men, naturally, are wearing little-to-nothing (loin cloths and that’s it). The woman, my kick-ass protagonist, would probably be wearing something similar – loin cloth, some kind of top, maybe a cape. That’s what makes sense for the setting, anyway. Hell, it would probably make sense for her to wear not much more than Red Sonja, but then I get into the trap of the audience focusing on her body more than her predicament, which is both counter-productive and objectifying. If I stick her in something else (a robe, a toga, etc.), I risk underscoring her identity as a woman of action – she wears what the men wear out of practicality. She does not fear them, nor is she shy or afraid of her image, so to put her in a piece of clothing untrue to her character for the purpose of assuaging prudish (or maybe prudent?) concerns about depictions of the female body seems to ring false.
So, I guess in the end I have a line to walk. This character is not meant to be a sexual object, she just happens to be dressing to fit the setting. I want to let the audience know this, and I want them to know I know, since what I’m ultimately trying to do is tip upside down all those old Boris Vallejo paintings and let the woman be not object, but rather subject, in a world where loincloths and chain-mail brassieres are the order of the day.
Wherein I Dissect Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
By all accounts, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a fine film. The characters are engaging, the music is enthralling, the animation is beautiful, and the story is a perennial classic – what’s not to like? There is, however, some material inherent in the film that raises some troubling questions about the appropriate roles of men and women in modern society and that is not immediately obvious at first glance. This should hardly be a surprise, of course, as Disney is rather famous for doing this sort of thing. Rather than ascribe sinister motives to Disney, however, I think it perhaps more apt to see how our own preconceptions of gender roles and social order are reflected within the film and how we are correspondingly blind to these same preconceptions. In brief: Belle and Beast’s relationship is not perhaps the most positive or realistic model to be held up before our children’s eyes as a demonstration of ‘true love’ and our belief in Belle as a modern, liberated feminist model is also, perhaps, somewhat misplaced.
Let us examine first what it is that we see in Belle that makes her seem such a strong female character. In the first place, she is inquisitive and not moved by popular opinion – she thinks for herself. She sees right through the arrogant Gaston, she ignores the townsfolk who find her odd, and she defends her father against critics even when it is socially unacceptable to do so. There can be little doubt that Belle is brave. She’s also ambitious and headstrong. In the clearest exclamation of her personal goals, she sings the following immediately after turning down Gaston’s marriage proposal:
I want adventure in the great, wide somewhere,
I want it more than I can bear.
And for once it might be grand,
To have someone understand,
I want so much more than they’ve got planned.
This is a girl who wants to escape, a girl who wants to do something with her life. She isn’t going to marry that ‘boorish, brainless’ Gaston and massage his feet before the fire like a good little woman – she’s going to go out there and experience things, see it all, learn and grow. This is inherently admirable in our current society and, even though the film is twenty years old, we believe and want these traits in our daughters and sisters and in ourselves (as case may be).
Consider, however, how the action of the film serves to co-opt Belle’s dreams even while we cheer along the way. Belle, in the end, does not get the adventure she bargained for at all. If we are to assume that ‘they’ plan for Belle to wind up settled down with a good, strong man in the state of holy matrimony (a reasonable assumption, given the society depicted), then the only thing they don’t anticipate is which man it is she settles down for. Yeah, she doesn’t marry that jerk Gaston and live in that village, but she does marry some other jerk and lives easy commuting distance from that self-same village. The primary difference is the level of wealth, ultimately; the Beast is rich and has a massive library and a staff to serve Belle’s every need, while I doubt Gaston can offer similar accommodations in his rustic hunting lodge. We, the viewing audience, are meant to interpret the ‘adventure’ of Belle’s life as being kidnapped by a bitter, selfish man and then spending all her waking hours ‘repairing’ his personality by, essentially, mothering him into decency. Then, with her man thus repaired, she can marry him and live in his giant house with all the books and fine meals. Belle’s tale, then, is not one of freedom from societal concerns and social equality as it is one of domestic self-determination; she gets to pick and shape the man to spend her life with, and nothing more.
It must also be understood that Belle’s relationship with the Beast is not a healthy one. Remember: the Beast kidnaps an old man for trespassing and seems perfectly content to let him freeze to death in his tower until his attractive daughter shows up. The deal then becomes ‘I let your father go, you live here as my prisoner.’ Let’s skirt around the fact that this is a criminal act in and of itself and get to Belle’s reaction to this: She gives her word, and thereby binds herself to a man who is brutish, who denies her food, and who even threatens her for almost touching his stuff to such a degree that she flees into the night in terror. He, of course, saves her from the wolves, which makes her forgive him for his earlier misdeeds and decide he is misunderstood. They then have a snowball fight and everything is okay. Later, the Beast releases her from an imprisonment he had no right to levy in the first place so that she can save her father. She then proceeds to defend the Beast’s reputation to the townspeople and, in the end, decides to stay with her captor. Now, besides the fact that what I’ve described involves a lot of the tell-tale signs of an abusive relationship/Stolkholm’s Syndrome, we can see that the film is operating under the assumption that a woman can and, indeed, should expect to ‘fix’ her man and readily make excuses for his anti-social behavior. People, though, aren’t like cars or houses – one should not have to ‘renovate’ them to make them safe partners and, furthermore, one can’t reasonably expect such renovation to hold.
Now, of course, the film portrays the change in Beast as genuine. There is no indication that Belle is in danger of a resurgence of his terrible former self, for he has finally ‘learned to love’. Furthermore, in Gaston we can see true selfish wickedness and we are never given any reason to suspect his personality might be otherwise. This, for some, stands as proof-positive that the concerns expressed above are just so much academic hand-wringing, but that more indicates our acceptance of the potential reality of such a story than it does the inaccuracy of the critique. What I mean is this: we believe this story as reasonable because we believe such stories are plausible and, indeed, ideal, even though reality shows us this isn’t true. We accept the fact that Gaston – the rustic, self-made, hardworking man – is the villain while the Beast – the spoiled, selfish, rich kid – is the hero without reservation or doubt simply because the story shows it to be so, without ever thinking about what the story is getting us to agree to in the first place. When stripped of the story’s ‘spin’ (or so to speak), we can see that Gaston is not, necessarily, the worse choice. He is portrayed as such by the writers, who have chosen Beast as the victor because that’s what the original story has laid out. This original, of course, was written in the 18th century and primarily serves as a moral guide for what kind of husband a woman should seek and, furthermore, the kind of rewards she will receive in exchange for obedience to said husband and father.
So it is that we blindly accept a story that is, essentially, not so far removed from the centuries-old original. In it there is the window-dressing of female liberation, but what is really shown is a changing understanding of how women ought to find themselves a husband to support them. Now, this doesn’t mean the movie is a bad one – as said above, it is a wonderful tale – but we should be careful to allow our daughters to view it as a kind of ideal; it is not. The Beast is not the kind of man that should be married after a mere weekend’s courtship (and neither is Gaston, for that matter), and to suggest to our children that such behavior is ideal or even normal is potentially destructive. Like all fairy tales, it needs to be understood within a kind of cultural context that children aren’t necessarily equipped to understand. That doesn’t mean they can’t view and enjoy such tales, but parents should take care to present other and more positive role models for girls by way of comparison.
Labyrinths of the Heart
So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about positive role models for girls. I can say with a fair degree of accuracy that this has come about thanks to my daughter, Madelyn, who is just about two years old now and completely awesome. This is a toddler who, from a shelf of at least forty movies or so, selected Back to the Future, insisted we watch it, and loves it – nuff said.
She also likes a wide variety of princess-y movies, Muppet-based properties, and Disney animated films, which we tend to watch slightly more often than I’d like. My wife and I try to shake it up by hiding certain over-watched films on the shelf and removing others as ‘suggestions’ to see if they’ll pass the Madelyn Watchability Test. This is how I came about watching Labyrinth two or three times over the past week. The good news is she likes it and the even better news is that it is an excellent film for a young girl to watch, and that I don’t mind her watching it from now until whenever. Indeed, I sincerely hope she still likes it by the time she’s in her preteen years, because I think it will be important for her.
Let’s face it: most female characters in fairy-tale stories are disappointing at best and downright offensive at worst. Even
the ones that seem positive really aren’t when subjected to mild amounts of critical scrutiny. Belle from Beauty and the Beast, for instance, might seem like a spunky, independent woman who lusts for adventure, but then consider this: she settles down with the first rich man she meets who (1) treats her like crap for the first few days she knows him, (2) holds both her and her father hostage, and (3) doesn’t offer her anything more exciting than a domestic life in a big castle as opposed to a small provincial house. If I were Belle’s father, I’d be pissed at my daughter’s poor judgement.
Belle, of course, is nothing compared with this generation’s worst offender for weak female masquerading as strong:
Twilight’s Bella Swan. Here’s a girl that falls for a guy who essentially stalks her, who orders her around, who is obviously bad for him (she is his food, for crying out loud!), and yet she marries him (while ridiculously young) and the stated and understood condition of that marriage is that she is no longer a member of the human race. Jesus H Christ! Were I Bella’s dad, I’d have a stake through that fucker’s heart before he knew what was happening. I’d even do it if it meant she’d never speak to me – better that than watch her become a monster for some moody asshole.
Now, getting back to Labyrinth. I realize that, as a 30-something year old man, my ethos for discussing what is good/not good for girls is somewhat weak, but I do have a pair of eyes, fairly sound judgement, and am no slouch at reading between the lines, and I think that the character of Sarah in Labyrinth is the polar opposite of what characters like Bella Swan represent. On a metaphorical level, Labyrinth is a basic coming-of-age story as a young teenage girl is forced to learn responsibility and selflessness to save her baby brother from the Goblin King (played by a simply spectacular David Bowie). There is more to this coming-of-age story, however, than simply Sarah learning how to think of others before herself. There’s a lot more, in fact – so much so that I would argue that this isn’t the point of the film at all.
Labyrinth is a film about a girl just about to enter the world of dating, boys, romance, and sexual awareness. Sarah’s journey is a quest to define her own needs and wants in a potential companion and, furthermore, to establish herself as a strong, independent, confident woman. Each of the characters she meets throughout her journey are male (with the exception of the hag/garbage woman, who potentially represents a woman who has sworn off companionship in favor of childish attachment to material objects, but I digress…), and each of these characters represents a different kind of suitor.
The first and most important of these suitors is Jareth, the Goblin King. As if David Bowie’s representation of this character didn’t make it clear enough, the dialogue between Sarah and Jareth cement the idea that they are mutually attracted to one another. Jareth routinely references Sarah’s beauty, he is holding a baby hostage (use your imagination there), he attempts to seduce her after giving her the poison peach, he sings to her, and, at the very end, he essentially begs her to stay with him in what can only be described as a dominant romantic relationship. The thing is, though, that Sarah knows he’s bad for her. She rebuffs him at every encounter, despite being consistently tempted. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, she seems to recognize the ‘prince’ within Jareth somehow but, unlike Belle, isn’t won over by pretty words and grand gestures. In the end, she essentially breaks his heart with the line ‘you have no power over me’, a line which she hadn’t grasped the significance of until that final moment.
As for the rest, we are left with a who’s-who of well-meaning but not altogether desirable boyfriends. Hoggle the dwarf is the on-again, off-again sort-of jerk who a girl dates because he’s there and he’s fun or friendly, but not because of any significant romantic attachment. Their relationship might continue in a positive direction if they become simply friends, but otherwise won’t end well for either of them. Ludo is the big, strong, sweet dummy who, while adorable and charming in his way, cannot challenge Sarah intellectually and forces her into the role of mother or caretaker, which she rightly rejects as a healthy model for a long-term relationship. Sir Didimus, the dog-knight, is the man who sets the woman up on an unrealistic pedestal, boxing her into the role of ‘Lady Sarah’ which, likewise, she recognizes as not right for her. Then there are the Goblins, who, in addition to being the main antagonists, we might also think of as the seething mass of assholes that any girl has to wade through to find the handful of halfway decent guys with which to pursue relationships.
None of the characters (aside from Jareth) are actually bad for Sarah. They are good people whom Sarah decides to maintain as friends at the conclusion of the film. None of them, though, are her ‘knight in shining armor’, nor are they able to secure her hand in marriage at the end for ‘saving’ her. She saves herself (and Toby) and, at the conclusion of the film, pointedly orders her companions to stay behind as she faces Jareth alone. At the end, Sarah is an independent woman who knows her own mind and is able to stand up for herself. This is a show of independence, bravery, and self-esteem that we don’t often see from the fairy tale/fantasy genre, as it isn’t coupled with overly aggressive or angry statements or actions by Sarah. She isn’t weak, but nor is she violent or shrewish; she is simply confident in herself.
This, I feel, is exactly what every father should hope his daughter will become – brave, kind, confident, and willing to say ‘no’ to trouble, no matter how stuffed their codpiece might be.