Female Mentors and Female Heroes

(SPOILERS for Ralph Breaks the Internet)


Disney’s new animated-sequel blockbuster Ralph Breaks the Internet may not be a perfect film, but it has one element that wins my heart completely: the bond of friendship that springs up between the spunky racer Vanellope von Schweetz and Shank, the key player in the wild, gritty RPG Slaughter Race. Originally Vanellope wanted to steal Shank’s car so she and Ralph can pay for a steering wheel to fix her own outdated arcade game, Sugar Rush. But as the two engage in a hair-raising chase, each racer realizes just how cool the other one is. Afterward, Shank offers herself as a mentor to Vanellope. My favorite scene in the movie isn’t the famous one in which Vanellope encounters all the Disney princesses, but the one that shows her sitting with Shank on the hood of Shank’s awesome car and confiding in her new mentor her hopes and fears about the future. It’s been a while — too long by half — since I’ve seen two female characters from a family film have a conversation quite like that.

I’m not the only one delighted by this relationship. A recent episode of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour focused on the movie, and while opinions on the movie itself may have been mixed, two of the panelists singled out Vanellope’s friendship with Shank as a refreshing but sadly rare example of a relationship between an older and younger female character that isn’t a rivalry.

That got me thinking. Just how rare is this kind of relationship? And why should it be rare?

Rivalries between old and younger female characters of fiction since ancient times, when Venus sought to destroy a girl who had been proclaimed more beautiful than herself, only to get stuck with her as a daughter-in-law instead. Venus isn’t the only older woman has it in for poor Psyche; her older sisters, too, are driven by envy when they attempt to sabotage her relationship with her mysterious but obviously wealthy and powerful husband. (In fact, they hope to get her killed.) We see this again with Beauty’s older sisters in Leprince de Beaumont, while Venus provides a prototype for Cinderella’s and Snow White’s cruel stepmothers. Women’s jealousy of each other is so baked into our folklore that we keep re-introducing it into new stories, and so we keep feeding the idea that relationships between women are innately hostile.

Yet what of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, and the multitude of helpful fairies that populate the contes de fee of France’s Ancien Regime? What of the mysterious but kindly crones like the Grimm brothers’ Mother Holle, who help persecuted girls on their way to fortune? These figures are part of our folklore as well, yet for some reason, writers of subsequent generations haven’t been quite as keen to reproduce them. Sometimes they’re written out of the stories altogether, and at other times they’re changed beyond recognition. For example, in my favorite screen adaptation of “Cinderella,” Ever After, the fairy godmother’s role is filled by Leonardo da Vinci, a sign of a general preference for male mentors even in female heroes’ stories.

Consider some of the most popular leads in SFF fiction: Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Lyra (His Dark Materials), Vin (Mistborn), Phedre (Kushiel’s Dart), Sonea (The Black Magician Trilogy), Yelena (Poison Study), Lucy (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Maerad (The Books of Pellinor), Thirrin (The Cry of the Icemark), Althea (The Liveship Traders), Seraphina (Seraphina and Shadow Scale). With these belong the female leads in some of my personal favorite books of the last few years: Isabelle des Zephyrs (An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors), Essun and Nassun (The Broken Earth Trilogy), Hanani (The Shadowed Sun), Agniezska (Uprooted), Daleina (The Queen of Blood), Winter Ihernglass (The Shadow Campaigns), Shai (The Emperor’s Soul). What do all these characters have in common? Male mentors — as if somehow it makes more narrative sense for men to guide them on their journey. In movies and television, the preference for male mentors is even clearer. Where would Buffy be without Giles? (Female mentors in Buffy the Vampire Slayer come in two kinds: evil and doomed.) Or Daisy Johnson without Agent Coulson? Or Alex Danvers without Jonn J’onzz? Or Rey without Han (The Force Awakens) or Luke (The Last Jedi)?

Interesting, when sympathetic female mentors do appear — say, Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, Polgara in The Belgariad, Moiraine in The Wheel of Time, Sybel in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, as well as characters from more recent books/series such as Spellslinger, Age of Assassins, and Monster Blood Tattoo and movies such as Doctor Strange — they’re mentoring male heroes. Women may be wise enough to serve as guides and helpers, yet still, more often than not, older woman + younger woman = rivalry.

So when a story comes along that defies that equation, I’m primed to embrace it unless it has unquestionably deal-breaking flaws. Here are some of my favorite stories to include female mentors who offer help to female heroes:

Wise Child (Monica Furlong). Juniper, a young wise woman, saves the child of the title from her abusive mother and nurtures her latent magical talent. Short, underrated, and lovely.

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett). The cynical, practical-to-a-fault witch Granny Weatherwax recognizes a kindred spirit in the no-nonsense youngster Tiffany Aching after the latter dispatches an evil river-sprite with a frying pan.

Feet of Clay (also Pratchett). To say too much about this installment in the “Night’s Watch” sub-series of Pratchett’s Discworld may constitute a Spoiler. I’ll just note that werewolf police offer Angua turns out to be the ideal person to show an eager young newcomer the ropes.

The Witches of Eileanan (Kate Forsyth). Aged, powerful witch Meghan of the Beasts is first shown mentoring apprentice witch Isabeau, but as the book and the series proceed, she ends up giving guidance to just about every confused young person she comes across, including Isabeau’s fierce twin sister Iseult.

The Tethered Mage (Melissa Caruso). Here, Lady Amalia COrnaro is mentored in the arts of politics and persuasion by her intimidating but loving mother, the Contessa. In the sequel, The Defiant Heir, the Contessa has far less page time, yet she remains a powerful presence in her daughter’s life.

Age of Myth and Age of Swords (Michael J. Sullivan). Injured Fhrey (elf) Arion loathes being indebted to the humans who are caring for her, but when she sees the magic brimming in the “wild girl” Suri, she realizes that everything the Fhrey have always thought about humans is wrong. By the second book, Arion is Suri’s friend and protector as well as teacher. Human leader Persephone also plays an important role in mentoring the girl, so Suri is twice blessed.



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