The Ongoing Trouble With “Powered” Women

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I never hit it off, since I bounced hard off world-building that included the ethos “Weak is women’s magic/ Wicked is women’s magic.” While the former precept bothered me, the latter angered me, because it matched so well with the way magical women had been portrayed in the stories I’d read and seen up to that point (that is, the late ’80s). L. Frank Baum’s Glinda the Good notwithstanding, the magical women I was familiar with always seemed to be manipulative, untrustworthy, and/or downright evil.

I grew up with the stories of King Arthur. I saw Excalibur multiple times. I read The Once and Future King and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series. I learned pretty quickly, though it only came to bother me as I grew older, that while magical men could serve as mentors for heroes, magical women invariably used their powers to deceive and ensnare men, even to the point of threatening their very lives. Only men could wield magic safely and wisely. While a few revisionist retellings such as Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon have popped up, plenty of recent retellings, including the BBC’s Merlin, adhere to the old prescription of “sorcerer good, sorceress bad” — which would explain why I bailed on Merlin around five episodes in.

Then we have the persistently popular The Chronicles of Narnia. I admit I enjoyed the most recent film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (a pity the sequels weren’t better) largely because I find “Queen Lucy the Valiant” an endearing heroine. Yet I’ve never been altogether happy with C.S. Lewis’s depiction of the Ultimate Evil as feminine. In Narnia, as in Arthur’s Camelot, what good magic there is comes from men, or at least male characters; female magic is entirely malevolent. This is why I’m not excited that Netflix is planning a fresh television adaptation of the series. I’ve seen it. I’m not sure I need to see it again.

These are old stories, true, but many storytellers can’t seem to get past the tendency to link female power with evil. I’d been planning to watch Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, having heard the show praised for its feminism, but after reading the following piece by Sonia Saraiya in Vanity Fair, I’m not sure I’ll bother. It may be as brilliant as a lot of people claim, but it’s not the kind of thing I need just now. I’ve read and seen my share of “power makes girls/women evil” stories already, stories that tell us that if you’re female you can be either good or powerful — but not both.

How many times must we see this false choice played out?

It’s true that Sabrina inhabits the same television space as Jessica Jones and Supergirl, both shows that depict powerful women using their gifts in heroic ways. This is a sign of progress, to be sure. Yet along with these shows, we also have The Gifted, set in the X-Men Universe. The heroes are the Mutant Underground, who hope to achieve some sort of peaceful coexistence with their human neighbors; while this group includes men and women, the men get the proverbial lion’s share of the attention and always seem to be out in front in leadership roles. However, the villainous gang of mutant separatists (villains by virtue of their comfort with the concept of collateral damage) is overwhelmingly female. It doesn’t help at all when we hear the telepathic Triplets of Evil say, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” a disquieting hint of straw feminism. Next year on the big screen, this same universe is serving up Dark Phoenix, the best-known girl-can’t-handle-her-powers story in recent memory. The trailer gives an idea of how this is likely to go. One woman is corrupted by her power. Another woman leads her down the dark path. Who will save the day (as always, in the X-Men franchise)? Men.

And so the ambivalent attitudes toward female power have continued into the present and will most likely persist into the future. Yet whenever I’m made aware of stories that present women’s power, particularly women’s magic, as inherently bad, I turn to antidotes to this attitude. By and large the most effective of these antidotes come not from Hollywood but from the world of print fiction, which has given us a delightful share of badass good witches. Here’s a Goodreads list devoted to such.

To prepare for this post, I asked my followers on Twitter to cite some of their favorite examples of heroic female magic in the fantasy genre. Some mentioned characters: Morwen from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles; Maskelle from Wheel of the Infinite; Sirronde from Diane Duane’s “Parting Gifts”; Jill Kismet, Dante Valentine, and Steelflower, all created by Lilith Saintcrow; the heroes of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword; Raederle from the Riddle-Master trilogy; Katsa from Graceling. Others mentioned book/series titles: Winter Tide, In the Vanisher’s Palace, Daughter of Mystery, The Queen of Blood, Iron Cast, Of Sorrow and Such. All these are excellent examples.

Yet I have my own personal favorites among fantasy’s magical women:

Agnieszka, from Novik’s Uprooted; Samarkar, from Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy; Senneth, from Shinn’s Twelve Houses (Mystic and Rider et. seq.); Sybel, from McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Ista, from Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; Eleanor, from Lackey’s Phoenix and Ashes, and Elena, from her Fairy Godmother, both Cinderella stories with a twist; Sunny, from Okorafor’s Akata Witch; Anyanwu, from Butler’s Wild Seed; Prunella, from Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

If you, like me, find yourself frustrated on occasion with stories that cling to outdated distrustful tropes regarding women’s power, check out some of the books cited here. They’re well worth it.



One thought on “The Ongoing Trouble With “Powered” Women

  1. I’m reading The Once and Future King for my King Arthur class right now and yes, it is so sexist. We haven’t gotten to Mists of Avalon yet, but what I’m seeing over and over again is the adaptions really flattening any moral ambiguity of the powerful women in Arthurian legend, especially if you’re going back to Le Morte D’Arthur. Morgan Le Fay almost never gets to be morally ambiguous (sure she tries to kill Arthur in Le Morte D’Arthur, but she also shows up to save him and take him to Avalon at the end) and instead is straight up evil, often in very misogynistic ways.

    And hot take, Merlin was a creepy stalker and Nimue was right to trap him under a rock.

    Liked by 1 person

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