Figures Should Not Stay Hidden

“Maybe, if someone bothered to show [girls] that they could have dreams, they might be able to dream them. Mightn’t they?” — Mercedes Lackey, Phoenix and Ashes (272)

A friend of mine, reacting to the recent spate of Facebook posts related to politics, asked us to post the issues that counted as most important to us. Reproductive rights? Affordable health care? Climate change and the need for greater knowledge and understanding about the environment? Our justice system? All vital issues, but after I gave the matter thought, I realized I had only one honest answer, one that should rest well outside the government’s purview and that plenty of people might dismiss as frivolous compared with the issues above: “Gender representation in stories, be they wholly fictional or based on real people/events.” It’s the issue to which I return again and again on my blog, and will keep returning, as this post bears witness. And of course I must confront the inevitable follow-up question: why does it matter?

Why does it matter that so many epic fantasy sagas continue to follow the Smurfette Principle (one female character surrounded by a multitude of males), or else leave female characters out of the picture altogether?

Why does it matter that some works of speculative fiction, particularly movies and television, continue to divide their female characters into two camps: victim and villain? Why does it matter that a fair number of spec fic creators apparently love, love, love writing about female villains but can’t seem to wrap their minds around the notion of a female hero?

Why does it matter that representations of friendships between women continue to be comparatively rare, while bromances abound? Why does it matter that we almost never see male and female characters interacting as friends — allies united in a common purpose, with a bond sealed by mutual respect?

Why does it matter that while badass women may occasionally be shown saving the male hero, we still hardly ever see them saving the day/world (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “Trinity Syndrome”)?

Why does it matter?

It’s been said before, but it’s always worth repeating and remembering: because stories are the birthplaces of daydreams. Stories shape how we perceive ourselves and others, and influence our sense of possibility. As old as I am, I feel a greater sense of faith in myself and my capabilities when I see women in heroic roles on page and screen (and in a variety of such roles, not solely the Action Girl); I do believe my thrill at seeing and reading about female heroes doing their thing has only grown stronger over time. But do only female readers/viewers benefit? Surely it helps us all, men and women, to see that the power and resourcefulness to be saviors and problem-solvers is not confined to one gender or the other.

All this should be obvious by now, right? Yet we still see disheartening evidence that some folks just don’t get it. For those who bluster about the supporting nature of Max’s role in Mad Max: Fury Road, those who claim that an all-female Ghostbusters remake is an all-out assault upon their childhoods, and those for whom two female protagonists in the Star Wars franchise are two too many, my desire to see more heroic women on page and screen makes me an SJW (that’s “Social Justice Warrior,” for those not up on Internet insults) who wants to suck all the fun out of speculative fiction and emasculate men in the process. Yet is saying I want more and better roles for women automatically the same as saying that men should no longer get to be heroes, or that male heroes have lost all value? Surely not. I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent with the male heroes that dominated my childhood reading, from Hazel and Bigwig to Gandalf and Bilbo. I can still look up to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the Doctor, Captains Kirk and Picard and Sisko, and such big-screen heroes from classic cinema as Jefferson Smith, George Bailey, and Atticus Finch. Does the inclusion of more female heroes in this mix really threaten to dim their luster? Isn’t there room in the vast pool of Story for heroic men and women?

Representation becomes even more vital when race as well as gender is a factor. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had the pleasure of seeing the Oscar-nominated, SAG Award-winning drama Hidden Figures, featuring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as gifted African-American women working as “calculators” for NASA in its early days. If we can point to an all-around triumph in terms of representation in current cinema, here it is. It hits almost all my buttons. Female friendship? Respect and friendship developing between men and women? Women being no-holds-barred awesome at their jobs? Check, check, and check. That these are black women being awesome — Henson winning over skeptics with sheer persistence and the power of her remarkable mind; Monae forging a path as an engineer (“I have no choice but to be the first”); Spencer training herself and her fellow calculators to program the new IBM machines when the “experts” can’t figure them out — only makes the triumph more heady, particularly since these three actresses are so immensely likable in their roles that only the most irredeemably bigoted audiences could fail to root for them to succeed.

This story needed to be told. The question that lingers in my mind is why it took Hollywood so long to tell it.

Who decides which stories, and whose stories, are worth telling? Author Jason Porath raises the question in his book Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. Porath tells the stories or some of history’s overlooked women in storybook style, with illustrations in the Disney mode, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot to be learned here, about multitudes of women of all races who, if Hollywood could get over its “girl cooties,” would have their stories told on film. (Hidden Figures is a box-office success, so it’s well past time to retire that worn-out “movies about women don’t make money unless they’re romantic comedies” excuse.)

Where’s the movie about Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse who worked alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and wrote a successful autobiography detailing her experiences? Where’s the movie about “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, who went through a succession of jobs before finding her calling as a postal carrier in the Old West, an “utterly terrifying job” (36)?

Moving from history to fiction, we will soon see a third screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, with its male messiah and its coterie of untrustworthy shadow-dwelling women. Yet so far, no one has thought to make even one screen version of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Wild Seed or Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, shocking, often disturbing novels with brilliantly complex black female heroes who confront the nature of violence and evil, both within and without, and take their stands for good. I don’t say that Dune shouldn’t be remade; maybe they’ll get it right this time. But why not make some room for these other, no less remarkable stories, in which female power is presented in a more sympathetic light?

Why does it matter?

Because too many people think it doesn’t.

This is my issue.

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