The Exceptions: Girl-Positive Geeky Movies of the 1980s

In my previous post I highlighted why I felt too much nostalgia for the films of the 1980s, particularly those that seem most beloved by the geek community, might be counterproductive, if we have any desire to move past our idea of the straight white male as the default for Hero. Yet among those films I can recall a few gems, movies that stand out as including female characters who are active, resourceful, and worth rooting for. They fall into three categories.

  1. She’s the hero of her own story.

Aliens (1986). Seven years after the excellent sci-fi/horror mash-up Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s smart, brave, take-charge Ellen Ripley returned to the screen in my favorite film of what would become a franchise. Despite some conservative elements (e.g. Ripley’s desire to live and be a part of the world again is revived through her maternal instincts), she is a fighter and a leader, and there is no doubt that she saves the day. As a bonus, she isn’t the only woman worth watching. Jenette Goldstein’s tough marine Vasquez is another hero worth taking notice of, despite, or even because of, her tragic end.

Labyrinth (1986). In Jim Henson’s fantasy-adventure that had to wait several years to get the attention it deserved, a girl makes a classic Hero’s Journey to save her kidnapped baby brother, picking up allies along the way through her courage and compassion. Jennifer Connelly’s performance is disappointingly vacant (you would find it hard to believe that she won an acting Oscar years later), but when we pay attention to the way her character, Sarah, is written, we can see she’s actually a spirited, imaginative daydreamer of the Jo March/Anne Shirley school — in other words, a female hero after my own heart.

Romancing the Stone (1984). Here’s another sibling-rescue story featuring a hero initially in over her head. Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder, a popular romance novelist, sets out to rescue her kidnapped sister and meets the sort of dashing loner (Michael Douglas) she writes about. We’re set up to expect this jungle-wise he-man will prove her savior at the climax. What a pleasant surprise when she turns out to be the rescuer! Plus, the hilarious scene in which a group of bandits holding Joan and her rogue at gunpoint turn into worshipful fanboys once they learn who she is almost makes the whole movie.

The Secret of NIMH (1982). Compared with nearly everyone around her, widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby is ordinary. Her late husband was a lab-engineered genius. His ailing son might have inherited his gifts. The rats whose aid she seeks to move her house out of harm’s way are also super-geniuses (and all, regrettably, male), and she trusts them to know what to do. She could easily have proven a mouse Bella Swan, the plaything of events, at the mercy of more capable characters. But no. She refuses to stand by and let others do the hard work. She insists on taking an active role, and in the end, her own courage prevails and saves her family. Though surrounded by extraordinary creatures, the ordinary mouse turns out the hero.

The Last Unicorn (1982). A faithful screen adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel (screenplay by Beagle himself), the movie staggers a bit in its second half, partly because the unicorn becomes much less interesting when she’s transformed into a woman. But the unicorn is the title character for a reason, and once she has her true form again, she rescues her fellow unicorns from captivity and puts an end to their monstrous captor — one of the few times a female character actually gets to slay the monster.

2. Girlfriends Who Matter

Dragonslayer (1981). Caitlin Clarke’s cross-dressing heroine Valerian is actually the one who sets the plot in motion, leading the expedition to find a magician who can slay a dragon who has terrorized her kingdom for years. She may begin the story disguised as a boy, but once she begins wearing girl’s clothes, she doesn’t lose her tough, plain-spoken, not-always-likable demeanor. It’s her uniqueness, along with her courage, that wins the heart of Peter MacNicol’s apprentice sorcerer Galen. Also noteworthy is the princess, the sort of conventionally beautiful maiden we (and Valerian) expect Galen to fall in love with. Once she discovers she’s been shielded from the dangers other girls have been facing, she chooses to sacrifice herself so that those others might live.

The Dark Crystal (1982). Male Gelfling Jen may be the Chosen One, destined to heal the Dark Crystal and bring an end to the power of the evil Skeksis, but the one who knows what’s going on is female Gelfling Kira, who, once she meets Jen, becomes his guide and saves him more than once. Her role at the climax may be a bit disappointing, but on the whole I can’t help liking her. She has wings!

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Calling her a “girlfriend” may be a bit of a stretch, but dedicated marine biologist Gillian is one of the more active one-shot female characters in the film franchise (who isn’t a villain, that is). She starts out unsure what to make of these strangers who have turned up in her world — the Enterprise crew, who have traveled through time seeking a pair of humpbacked whales that can save their universe — but once she figures out who they are and where they’ve come from, she becomes a useful ally, a difference-maker. Little wonder she finds a home in the “future.” (The bad news: Catherine Hicks’ performance is lackluster. The role deserved a stronger actress.)

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). The only movie bearing the creative hand-print of John Hughes (author of the screenplay) I can still watch and enjoy today is also the only one in which I actually like the girls involved. The protagonist is an aspiring artist (Eric Stoltz) in love with the popular girl (Lea Thompson) and loved by his tough-talking tomboy best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson), but what could have been a straightforward love triangle becomes more interesting as both girls are depicted as sympathetic and even unique. Masterson has personality to burn, and Thompson’s happy ending involves not getting a guy but finding the courage to be alone and figure out who she is.

3. Girls Can Be Geeks, Too

Real Genius (1985). Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), the female lead in this nerds-stick-it-to-the-Man comedy, is smart, funny, and flawed. She’s awkward in social situations and she talks too much when she gets excited, but her brainpower is unquestioned. She’s one of the very few 1980s heroines who is allowed a genuine passion for matters intellectual, a passion she shares with the guy who becomes her boyfriend. My only complaint about her is that she doesn’t have as much to do as I would like. Nonetheless, her presence, and the way her contributions are respected, makes this movie light-years more enduring than the somewhat similar Revenge of the Nerds (1984), which also features Meyrink but is an absolute nightmare where gender representation is concerned.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987). This is the odd movie out, in that it’s relatively free from the gloss of nostalgia that illuminates the movies listed here and in my previous post. It’s a quiet little film about adults, for adults, and it’s been largely forgotten. But it belongs here, as its heroine, played by Anne Bancroft, is a brainy middle-aged lady with a sharp wit and a love for out-of-print and antique books. This enthusiasm leads her into a love-affair-by-correspondence with Anthony Hopkins’ antique bookstore owner. Not only does their mutual interest seal their connection, but Bancroft has a circle of female friends who appreciate her passion. Not a traditional romance by any means — our two main characters never meet face to face — it deserves to be better known.

 

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Remembering the ’80s: My Not-so-Nostalgia Trip

In 1980, I turned eleven. In 1987, I graduated from high school. In 1988, I voted in my first presidential election. In 1990, I could order a cocktail with my birthday dinner. It’s safe to say I did much of my growing up in the ’80s. Yet do I miss the decade, with all its pop culture furniture? Do I find myself wishing today’s books, movies, and TV could be more like what we had in the ’80s? Do I want to go back and relive the decade?

Hell, no.

The only area of pop culture where I honestly prefer the 1980s is music. ’80s music, I’ll admit, has my heart, from Hall & Oates and Duran Duran to Luther Vandross and Al Jarreau. It’s said you never quite lose your love for the music you listened to when you were a teen, and I believe it. But the rest of ’80s pop culture, particularly the movies? Some I did and still do love, but in general, you can keep ’em.

This is not, I hasten to say, a dig at Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which my husband and I recently saw. Ernest Cline’s novel, along with Cline himself, is polarizing, but I really liked the movie and its female lead, Art3mis. The move from the page to the screen might have helped, since in the movie we don’t see Art3mis solely through Wade’s eyes, which gives her a chance to become more of a person than simply an object of desire or prize to be won; I have it on authority that Wade, too, is more likable in the movie. I may see it again before it leaves theaters, though Black Panther is still my favorite movie of 2018 so far.

Yet in general, all this nostalgia for the ’80s, and the attempts like Netflix’s Stranger Things to recreate that certain ’80s magic, only serve to remind me of how much I was missing back then, particularly where SFF and action-adventure movies were concerned. Then, far more than now, I was the Target Audience That Didn’t Exist, and while I may not have been able to articulate it at the time, I know I felt it.

Consider some of the movies that we geeks remember fondly, year by year. Most of these I have seen; an asterisk indicates those I’ve seen only partially.

1980: The Empire Strikes Back, Airplane!, The Blues Brothers*, The Shining, Caddyshack, Flash Gordon.

1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Time Bandits, Superman II, Stripes, An American Werewolf in London*, Clash of the Titans, Excalibur.

1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Tron, 48 Hours, Blade Runner, The Thing*. (Haven’t seen: First Blood, Conan the Barbarian.)

1983: Return of the Jedi, WarGames, A Christmas Story*, The Outsiders*. (Haven’t seen: National Lampoon’s Vacation.)

1984: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Splash, The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, Dune*, The Terminator*. (Haven’t seen: Beverly Hills Cop, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.)

1985: Back to the Future, The Goonies*, Clue, Cocoon, Fright Night, Ladyhawke, Legend*, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome*, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure*, The Breakfast Club. (Haven’t seen: Brazil. Could not be paid enough money to sit through: Weird Science.)

1986: Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II*, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Highlander*, Stand By Me. (Haven’t seen: Crocodile Dundee, Flight of the Navigator.)

1987: Fatal Attraction*, Dirty Dancing, Good Morning Vietnam, The Lost Boys*, The Princess Bride, Spaceballs. (Haven’t seen: Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables, Monster Squad.)

1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Naked Gun*, Big, Scrooged, Willow*. (Haven’t seen: Die Hard, Earth Girls are Easy.)

1989: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade*, Heathers*, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. (Haven’t seen: Back to the Future II, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Say Anything, Look Who’s Talking, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.)

That’s quite a few titles. Many I adored at the time. Some I could watch at the drop of a hat even today (Empire and Jedi, Airplane!, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, Good Morning Vietnam, E.T.) But how many of my year-by-year titles still hold up under my inescapably feminist perspective? The answer, sadly, is darned few. Not that the ’80s were a total loss for women: we did get Coal Miner’s Daughter, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, and Broadcast News, all good female-centered movies that were nominated for Academy Awards. But of the treasured ’80s geek culture movies I’ve listed, only three — Sixteen Candles, Dirty Dancing, and Heathers — have female leads, and how interesting or empowering are these characters? (Samantha of Sixteen Candles, in particular, is average and bland because she’s deliberately written that way, and she’s surrounded by some highly questionable messaging.)

The vast majority of them serve up the wish-fulfillment fantasies of boys everywhere, hence their enduring popularity. What boy, after all, wouldn’t dream of defeating a bully (the Back to the Future films, the Karate Kid films), besting both Nazis and Indian blood cultists and finding the Holy Grail (the first three Indiana Jones films), saving the galaxy (the Star Wars and Star Trek films, The Last Starfighter), befriending an alien and breaking him out of a government facility (E.T.), or humbling an evil prince and rescuing his true love (The Princess Bride)? If you’re a boy, you can do all this and more. Of course geek guys love ’80s movies. If I were a guy, so would I.

But what do girls get to do?

They can be damsels in need of rescue (Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark — and the last example is especially frustrating, since Karen Allen endows Marion Ravenwood with such toughness it’s easy to overlook that she never actually does anything). They can be villains who need to be thwarted (Excalibur, Blade Runner, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). They can be nonentity love interests (the Karate Kid films, the Back to the Future films, WarGames, The Last Starfighter, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). They can be tag-alongs who never get much chance to do anything important (E.T.). And, of course they can be sexual conquests. Princess Leia does get her chances to battle evil and comes close to getting her own development arc in the Star Wars films, and even in the cheesy Flash Gordon Dale Arden kicks more butt than her 1930s serial counterpart ever got to do (admittedly not a high bar to clear). But on the whole, female characters’ possibilities seem distressingly limited. Hero, in particular, doesn’t seem to be an option.

Things have changed a lot in our pop culture since then, and mostly for the better, as more filmmakers have started to acknowledge that 1) yes, female geeks exist, and 2) yes, we too have big dreams, a whole variety of them. Yet today’s Hollywood also struggles to find fresh ideas, and filmmakers keep returning to the well of the ’80s, with reboots and even sequels (Indiana Jones 5??). When these reboots and sequels try to engage with the dreams of the female audience, ’80s purists bridle. Most obviously, the female-led Ghostbusters remake was drowning in Internet hate before it was even released, with purists protesting that it “killed their childhood.” A remake of The Last Starfighter (a movie I liked a lot, largely because of Robert Preston’s performance as an inter-galactic con man) is now in the works. If the screenplay expands the girlfriend’s character beyond the passive, mopey, unambitious bore we met in the original, will keepers of the ’80s flame cry “foul”?

Of course, creators should acknowledge their debt to the past, and today’s cinema owes a great deal to the films of the 1980s. Among other things, the ’80s saw a huge revival of the energetic, optimistic adventure and science fiction/fantasy stories that had largely been in hibernation for most of the 1970s, and movies like Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Wonder Woman carry that spirit in the present and into the future. Yet when it comes to mining for source material, I can’t help thinking Hollywood would be better off letting the ’80s go. They happened, they were great in many ways, and we learned from them. Time to move on.

(If anyone notices important titles left off my year-by-year list, that’s on purpose. They’ll be covered in my next post: “The Exceptions — Girl-Positive Movies of the 1980s.”)

 

 

Hope Springs Eternal

 

In my previous post, I offered a list of things that make me “die a little inside” (or that lead me to think, in the words of Futurama‘s Professor Farnsworth, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore”), ranging from personal pet peeves to more seriously disturbing signs of the mean streak in our culture. The one thing they all have in common: in ways great or small, they compromise my hope that our world and the stories that help shape it are getting better as more and more voices are heard. I mentioned at the close of the post that we as a society are suffering from “growing pains.” For almost a century, many of our core definitions — of “right,” “wrong,” “normal,” “male,” “female,” “race,” “American,” and more — have been shifting, and people frightened by the changes have been pushing back against them. Historically, this is nothing new. Where will we be when all this changing stops? The question is pointless, for change never stops.

Hope finds its way. I can fend off the threat of pessimism as long as I know where to look. Since one of my biggest concerns is what stories are being told, how they’re being told, and who gets to do the telling, I look there first.

  1. In the SFF literary community, diverse voices are honored.

A couple of posts ago I pointed out the Academy Awards’ long history of honoring films both by and about white men. For contrast, we have only to look at the Nebula Awards, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Among the seven nominees for 2017’s Best Novel, only one (Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders) was written by a white man. Four (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, The Stone Sky, Six Wakes, and Autonomous) have female protagonists. Two (The Stone Sky, Jade City) were written by women of color. At least one (Amberlough) foregrounds queer characters and themes. And that’s not even taking into account the other categories.

A look into the nominees, as well as into the previous years’ winners, shines a light on why diversity, far from being a matter of “tokenism” or “over-sensitivity” or “PC blandness,” is so valuable. We’re seeing a broadening, a widening, of the kinds of stories writers want to write and readers want to read. A greater variety of characters, themes, and plots not only enhances understanding; it also makes for better entertainment, and gives readers broader choices. This is why the Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy is now, when a variety of approaches (from hard sci-fi to space opera, from urban to mythic/epic fantasy) is welcome, and straight white male characters aren’t the only ones who matter.

(Since drafting this blog, I’ve learned of the nominees for the Hugo Awards. Here, too, diverse voices are honored.)

2. Technology gives young readers a forum to share their passion.

We all know that the Internet can be a cesspool, a habitat for narrow-minded and mean-spirited trolls. Discussions of the Internet in general usually spotlight the bad side, yet while it’s important to know about the ‘Net’s dark corners, we should also give some attention to the good stuff happening online. In particular, I love YouTube — specifically, searching YouTube for videos made by young readers, the kind who just might become writers themselves one day. A couple of videos I’ve found and enjoyed recently:

(Regan doesn’t like featureless blank-slate female protagonists any more than I do.)

When I’m disappointed that students of mine declare they don’t like to read or can’t remember the last book they enjoyed, it does me good to know young women like this are out there, sharing thoughts on stories they love and inviting others to do the same.

3. As long as you keep finding out about books you’re eager to read, all is never lost.

Good stories can offer us an escape from the chaos in the world around us, and at the same time equip us to better handle that chaos. I never stop looking for books that just might do this for me. Here are some I bought recently, with birthday gift card money.

Book pic 1

Book pic 2

Book pic 3

Later in the year, we’ll see the release of Spinning Silver, the next stand-alone fantasy by Naomi Novik (whose Uprooted I adored), as well as the next two books in Michael J. Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire series (Age of War and Age of Legend) and a number of titles by authors I haven’t read before, that have peaked my interest. Cass Morris’s From Unseen Fire and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, in particular, have me hungering to get my hands on them. I have a lot of wonderful book journeys to look forward to.

4. The brighter side of human nature still shows itself in different places.

There’s a scene in Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch (see my Goodreads review here) in which the hero, Sunny, attends her first gathering for “Leopard People” (magically gifted). She goes with her friends to a wrestling match, and witnesses what she thought would be a friendly contest transform into a brutal bout to the death. Shocked and disgusted, she cries that she wants to go home. She’d met the fallen loser briefly and he’d shown her kindness, and she’s horrified that his death should be treated so casually. She’s no longer sure that she wants anything to do with the Leopard People or their world.

Yet in the midst of her shock, she notices the dead man’s stricken widow. Despite being told to stay in her seat, she sneaks down to the field to speak to the woman, to let her know she’d met her husband and would remember him and his kindness. She extends compassion to the woman, when no one else has thought to do so. When I read this moment I thought, “This is why Sunny — rather than her more experienced and confident friends — is the hero of this story.”

Kindness matters, in both fiction and real life. Whenever we see or read about someone seizing an opportunity to be kind, we should celebrate it. It’s what we humans are capable of.

 

The Many Small Deaths of the SJB

A List Post

“I die a little inside.” I’ve been saying that a lot lately, every time I see, hear, and see something that compromises my hopes for the future of the world around me. It is a kind of death, I think, when something chips away at hope and casts shadows over our vision of the road ahead. This year has already brought with it a heavy share of tragedy, and we have grieved together; we cry out that something needs to change, but we can’t agree on what. Yet more often than not, it’s the small things, the little symptoms of great diseases, that get to me the most.

It’s time I compiled a list of those things that move me to say or write, “I die a little inside…”

  1. When one of my students in my English classes tells me he/she hates reading.
  2. When Internet users go on record to say that animated movies are “kids’ movies” and therefore not worth seeing, and, in a similar vein, they claim science fiction and fantasy are “juvenile literature” and therefore not worth reading.
  3. When I read quotes from politicians whose idea of “debate” is name-calling and personal insult, and I’m reminded of the depths to which political debate in this country has sunk (even if the story does have a happy ending).
  4. When I remember all the close-ups of Vladimir Putin’s ice-cold, soul-dead face throughout the TV coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and I realize we’re no closer to seeing the last of him now than we were then.
  5. When new book or movie releases offer evidence of how many writers are unwilling to let go of the old-fashioned “Damsel in Distress” ,“Stuffed into the Fridge”, and “Disposable Woman” tropes.
  6. When books and movies that rely on these old-fashioned tropes get nearly unanimous raves from critics and consumers.
  7. When writers and fans defend the excessive and ubiquitous use of rape in epic fantasy as “realism.”
  8. When female-led movies get creamed by critics (less than 50% on Rotten Tomatoes) so that I’m no longer interested in seeing them in the theater, and I have to wait months for another woman-centered movie to be released.
  9. When I find myself wondering if poor female representation ceases to matter when the male protagonist is black, trans, or gay.
  10. When critics call out books and/or movies for poor female representation, and then get attacked for doing so, their complaints dismissed as “SJW” rantings.
  11. When guy nerd characters, particularly in movies and TV shows, act surprised, nay, shocked, any time a girl expresses an interest in SFF or comics.
  12. When writers seem to think that wish-fulfillment fantasies for boys involve saving the world or otherwise defeating evil, while wish-fulfillment fantasies for girls involved being rescued and adored by a supernatural hunk.
  13. When yet another of my favorite used bookstores closes its doors for good.
  14. When I’m reminded that Harvey Weinstein exists.
  15. When I learn that, apparently, some folks are still keen to excuse him, and/or claim his actions weren’t really so bad.
  16. When I catch myself reflecting on the fact that Sir Terry Pratchett is dead and there will never be any more new adventures for Sam Vimes or Granny Weatherwax.
  17. When I catch myself thinking that the sublimely plus-sized Lady Sybil Ramkin, heroine of Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, would almost certainly played by a svelte, petite actress in the upcoming TV series if it were made by an American company rather than (thankfully) the BBC.
  18. When I think of how few people seem to know who Patricia McKillip, Juliet Marillier, and Barbara Hambly are.
  19. In a similar vein, when lists of “25 Greatest Fantasy and/or Science Fiction Novels and/or Series” pop up online, and only one of the titles (if that) is written by a woman or focuses on a female lead.
  20. When I reflect that our culture, popular and otherwise, is having “growing pains,” but where and how are we growing, and can we handle the pain?

A more hopeful list will come soon.

Book Report: Recent Reads

Warning: Spoilers

Some while ago, a writer I follow on Twitter posted that she bridles every time female authors are criticized for writing male protagonists, with the usual accompanying accusations of “internalized misogyny.” On principle I wholly agree with her, since no author of any gender should feel pressure to restrict themselves to certain types of lead characters, as if there were only one kind of story they had a right to tell. Yet I admit I’ve found myself irked more than once by certain highly talented female authors’ (say, Carol Berg’s or Sarah Monette’s) clear preference for male leads — not because I believe they suffer from internalized misogyny, but because I love to read good epic/historical fantasy with female leads, and if women don’t write such books, who will?

The answer, at least in part: authors like Curtis Craddock and Django Wexler.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

Alchemy cover

She may have been born into the richest and most powerful of the “saint-blooded” families in her land, but Fate has dealt Isabelle des Zephyrs a particularly cruel hand. For one thing, she’s a woman with an active and expansive mind, searching for ways to exercise her faculties in a society in which women are denied access to higher education and are barely even allowed to think without being censured. For another, she lacks the magical power that would mark her as a member of her family, so her parents and brother regard her as useless and deny her any semblance of affection. Finally, she has a deformed hand, which ostensibly renders her unmarriageable. A recipe for misery all around.

Yet this princess refuses to feel sorry for herself. She doesn’t waste time pining for what she lacks and instead values what she has: her best friend and confidante, Marie; her mentor and father figure, the musketeer Jean-Claude, the novel’s co-protagonist; and the joy of learning, even despite the obstacles. If you’re among the readers who are tired of the equation of “strong female character” with “female character who can punch, shoot, stab, or otherwise fight,” Isabelle is the female hero for you. She consistently leads with her brain and thinks her way out of dangerous situations. When she’s sold into an arranged marriage that might be the death of her, she uses her wits and insight to navigate unfamiliar territory and, in the end, to broker a peace between feuding princes. She saves the day with mind and heart rather than with fists and sword.

Also pleasing is debut author Curtis Craddock’s avoidance of a trope that too often emerges when writers create a brilliant female hero — “Not Like Other Girls.” Isabelle is super-smart and she knows it, but she never puts herself above other women and is open to their friendship. One of her top priorities throughout most of the story is to find a cure for her friend, Marie, whom evil magic has robbed of her free will. She appreciates her ladies-in-waiting rather than mocking or avoiding them. She views her new sister-in-law as a potential friend, even though that sister-in-law has been conditioned to see her as a rival and treats her coldly. Isabelle may be extraordinary (and Craddock happily follows the “show, don’t tell” principle), but she’s never propped up at other female characters’ expense. Bechdel Test: Pass.

Isabelle may have drawn me to this book, but she’s not its only selling point. Her mentor Jean-Claude, the only person through much of the book who has her best interests at heart and whom she can truly trust, is another gem of a character, a close cousin of The Curse of Chalion‘s Lupe dy Cazaril, weary and a little dissipated but brave and fiercely loyal. Though we do see some slight glimmerings of romance for both Isabelle and Jean-Claude, each remains the most important person in the other’s life. It’s refreshing, as always, to see a story place its primary emphasis on a form of love other than romance.

I’ll let Isabelle speak for herself: “The most important things we have are dreams. . . Without them we cannot conjure new truths or better worlds. Where we get into trouble is when we tell ourselves dreams don’t matter, or we let other people tell us our dreams are silly or stupid.” (355)

The Infernal Battalion

Battalion cover

Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, which I have been praising to anyone who would listen for several years now, has reached its end. Every series most have an ending, and it was high time for the evil, soul-devouring Beast to be stopped for good, but I will miss adventuring with General Winter Ihernglass, Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire, and Queen Raesinia Orboan. At least I can take satisfaction in knowing they have made their world at least a little better and fairer than they found it.

I’ve posted previously about this series, highlighting Winter’s awesomeness as a soldier and commander (this female hero does fight), Raesinia’s efforts to reign wisely and well, and the “old-fashioned” Marcus’s growth in understanding and willingness to learn. All those facets of character feature significantly in this last volume, so I will endeavor not to repeat myself too much. But at the end of it all, the book puts the final proof on the series’ overall ethical thesis: when you must confront evil, use what you have. Each of our heroes faces a moment of crisis, a low point at which giving up becomes a great temptation because he/she feels tapped out, with nothing more to give. But each finds a way to keep fighting, to get the job done.

Even when capable female characters are featured, countless narratives follow a similar pattern: “women facilitate, and men achieve.” In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Hermione Granger saves Harry’s life on a semi-regular basis, but it’s Harry who must save the world from Lord Voldemort; likewise, in the Terminator films, Sarah Connor’s job is not to save humankind from sentient, lethal machines, but to raise her son so that he can be the savior. Happily, both Wexler and Craddock turn this pattern on its head. In The Infernal Battalion Marcus knows what he has to do: keep fighting as long as he can so that Winter can strike the final blow against the Beast. In Winter we see the proper exercise of supernatural power, while in Marcus we see the determined resilience of the (comparatively) ordinary man. In An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Jean-Claude protects Isabelle, but Isabelle saves a nation from civil war. Men are the capable and hard-working facilitators, and women the world-shaping achievers.

Before leaving The Infernal Battalion behind, I should also mention that Raesinia, too, gets her moment to shine, made all the more impressive by her fear of being, and her determination not to be, useless. She uses what she has and emerges as a Queen we can admire, something we could stand to see a bit more often in the fantasy genre. I’ll further say, without going into too much detail, for all three of Wexler’s heroes, love conquers all. The series has yet another thing we should see more often — romance plots that work.

I can’t wait to see what Craddock and Wexler give us next.

 

 

 

 

Okay, Hollywood, Now What?

Whatever quarrels we might have with the winners and losers, most of us would agree that the 2018 Oscars as a whole serve as a hopeful sign of the growing diversity in the entertainment industry. Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, the first time an African-American has ever been honored in that category. Best Director went to immigrant Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. Coco, a celebration of Mexican culture and the strength of the family, took Best Animated Feature (albeit without much serious competition). And while some have complained that The Shape of Water is a “safe” choice for Best Picture, in comparison with the more challenging Get Out, it still represents one of the few times that a movie with a female protagonist has taken the top prize. All in all, not a terrible night for movies that aren’t about, or created by, white guys.

Maybe Hollywood is at last broadening its views of what kinds of stories have value.

It’s been a lesson that has badly needed learning. In the wake of the Oscars, a chart floated around my Twitter feed, showing the results of a study of what percentage of dialogue went to men and to women in the Best Picture winners over the last four decades. In winner after winner, men were shown to do a vast majority of the speaking. The movies that came closest to striking a balance were American Beauty (not a feminist film by any stretch of the imagination) and The Silence of the Lambs. Clicking on the comments, I saw, to my lack of surprise, that many people didn’t see the point of the study. They took it as a suggestion that the winners didn’t deserve their awards or would have been better movies if the female characters had talked more. “Should The King’s Speech have been The Queen’s Speech?” That was the general gist. I happen to love The King’s Speech and was thrilled when it won Best Picture. I wouldn’t have changed a word of dialogue in that movie or in most of the other winners. But that is not the point.

The real point might best be seen in the Oscar race for the best film of 1995. Going into the ceremony there were two clear front-runners: Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. The latter had already picked up a Golden Globe for Best Picture — Drama, and most of the critics were behind it. But Braveheart was a story about a manly male hero and his manly heroic deeds, a splashy, sprawling epic. (I admit I once found it stirring, though my Mel Gibson cooties has made it impossible for me to watch it now, or for me to tolerate him in anything other than Chicken Run and Gallipoli.) Sense and Sensibility, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel, told a more intimate and woman-centered story. The Academy gave the top honor to Braveheart. But honestly, is it a better film than Sense and Sensibility, which boasts note-perfect performances across the board, a solid storyline, and a screenplay both witty and heartfelt (which did win Emma Thompson an Oscar)? Braveheart has a more epic scale and a better score. That’s all.

Braveheart‘s win illuminates the true point the study is making: that historically we have tended to honor and value stories about men far above stories about women, even when the latter are every bit as good or even superior. Men’s stories are seen as more important, and of course more universal. And more movies are made about men, which naturally increases their chances of being honored.

That’s why The Shape of Water‘s win does my heart good, safe choice though it might be. Dare I hope it may be a sign of good things to come — woman-centered movies given the creative energy, attention, and care so often lavished on the man-centered historical dramas, movies so good the Academy can’t afford to ignore them? (I do remember that the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, lauded by critics, might never have been made for all the notice the Academy paid to it.)

It starts, perhaps, with quantity. According to IMDb, thirty-three more movies are slated for release this March, and thirteen of those have female leads (including I Kill Giants, which I hope against hope does better with critics than A Wrinkle in Time has). IMDb lists twelve releases for the month of May, which ushers in the summer movie season. Seven of them have female leads. So far, so hopeful — until we reach June. Seventeen films are listed, but only one of them, Ocean’s 8, is clearly centered on female protagonists; marketing for The Incredibles 2 continues to sell it as a retelling of Mr. Mom with superpowers, and in Mr. Mom, who thinks about Teri Garr?

So what now, Hollywood? Keep the forward momentum going, or continue with business as usual?

I have a very specific wish list. If I see these, I will be convinced at last we are living in a time of progress.

  1. Another major, high-quality American animated release with a female protagonist, and at least one per year afterward. Moana was over a year ago. It’s time.
  2. Biopics focusing on Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Gertrude Stein, and Zitkala-Sa. Creative geniuses aren’t always white dudes, and it would be nice if the movies in general made that clearer.
  3. A movie adaptation of Linda Medley’s splendid graphic novel Castle Waiting.
  4. A new movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, with a woman of color in the lead. Bonus if she’s played by my newest girl-crush, Letitia Wright.

If Hollywood really cares about me as a target audience, we’ll see all of this within the next decade.

About Movie Posters

Confession time: I find Madeleine L’Engle’s inspirational nonfiction more engaging than her fiction. When I first tried to read A Wrinkle in Time, I bounced off what struck me as a rather dry, stiff writing style, and as with the also beloved The Golden Compass, I never managed to finish it. Nonetheless, I appreciate its importance within the canon of YA science fiction and its role in paving the way for smarter, more active female leads in the genre, and I totally get it when SFF writers and fans in succeeding generations point to Wrinkle‘s protagonist, Meg Murry, as an inspiration.

The movie version about to appear on the scene, however, looks inviting even for me. When reading a book you may like or dislike certain prose styles, but in a movie adaptation all you have is the story itself, and this story just might hit me where I live. (I may return to the book for another try.) In particular the young actress playing Meg, Storm Reid, makes the character seem like someone my inner twelve-year-old might follow anywhere. Movie posters like this one don’t hurt, either.

A Wrinkle in Time poster

(Courtesy of http://www.shockya.com)

The poster clearly situates Meg as the point of view character, and the geometric shapes hint at her predilection towards STEM. The coloring gives the whole an aura of wonder. The images alone excite my curiosity. Yet not everyone is quite so enamored of it. One woman whose comment came up in my Twitter feed praises the poster on the one hand, but then adds the question, “Don’t they want little boys to see this too?”

To which I respond with the question, “Do we really have to do this again?” Because when I look at the poster I can’t see anything that might drive little boys away, except that it makes it clear that a girl is the central character. It’s that same very old and very bitter story I’ve railed against in the past: boys won’t see or read stories about girls. Boys can’t identify with girl protagonists or see female characters as role models. Never mind those little boys who enjoyed the heck out of Wonder Woman or who come away from Black Panther loving Shuri or Okoye even more than the title character.

It’s just one woman’s comment, and I could easily ignore it but for the fact that it’s all of a piece with the litany of protests that have rung out over the internet ever since the Star Wars franchise followed up The Force Awakens with Rogue One (two female leads in a row! Horrors!) and went through the roof when it was announced that Jodie Whittaker would play the Thirteenth Doctor. Now that we’re seeing more female characters in important roles in movie genres other than romantic comedy and domestic drama, the rallying cry of the push-back is, “Will no one think of the men?” Or in this case, the boys?

What the pushers-back can’t see, apparently, is that plenty of people are thinking of the boys, particularly in the genre to which A Wrinkle in Time belongs, the family film. Since the 1980s — quick, name a memorable live-action family film from the ’80s that featured a girl as the central character, other than Jim Henson’s Labyrinth — family films have been overwhelmingly male–dominated. In the area of live action, while teen protagonists might occasionally be female (e.g. Clueless, the Freaky Friday remake, and of course the Hunger Games series), child protagonists are nearly always male, and the characteristics these boys exhibit, exploration and innovation and risk-taking, are coded as male, while female characters are called upon to represent stability (yawn). In animation, male leads get to be thieves and vagabonds and lion kings and lords of the jungle, not to mention toys, ants, cars, and rats; female leads, by contrast, are usually princesses and rarely anything other than human (which is a big part of why I took Zootopia to my heart). If parents of sons are looking for movies and TV shows that feature boys being awesome, they have plenty of options to choose from. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: every major American animated release in 2017 featured a male protagonist, and this year it’s more of the same. Boys aren’t hurting for male heroes. They just aren’t.

But on the matter of movie posters, let’s take a look at these:

Boss Baby poster

(Courtesy of Roger Ebert)

Despicable Me 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Coco poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Peter Rabbit poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Hotel Transylvania 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Has anyone looked at these posters and thought, “Don’t they want little girls to see this, too?”

I daresay not. As we all know, boys are the default. Girls are fine with seeing movies that center on boys, and they won’t even mind when the depiction of female characters gives off a whiff of misogyny, as we see in Mars Needs Moms, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Minions (although the first two on this list didn’t exactly set the box office on fire). Girls can happily identify with boys and look to male characters as role models, yet hoping that boys might do the same with girls and female characters is asking far too much. We all know that, right?

So when a movie like A Wrinkle in Time promises to give girls a character of their own gender worth admiring and identifying with — not a princess of an age to fall in love and marry but a real girl-child, and a socially awkward nerd at that — I can’t spend too much worry on the boys who might be driven away by “girl cooties.” It might just be that movies like this one, along with Black Panther, could help any number of little boys see that girl characters can be just as fun, and worth identifying with, as the boys, and in the long run, if the movies are good enough, the “boys’ stories are universal, girls’ stories are particular” notion might at last begin to die the death it deserves.

Things I Love about… Black Panther

WARNING: SPOILERS

“That movie was amazing,” I told my husband just after we’d finished seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It took me a minute or two — long enough for us to walk out to our car — to pinpoint just why the movie made me so giddy, but when I did, I proclaimed with an even bigger grin that this was the first live-action superhero movie I’d ever seen in which I didn’t have a single problem with the portrayals of women.

I knew Matt would appreciate this, since he’s had to listen to my frequent rants about the limited roles usually given to women in superhero films — either the powerless damsel love interest who exists to keep the hero “grounded” and to need rescuing at appropriate moments, or the femme fatale whom the hero must resist and then vanquish. I might have enjoyed any number of superhero movies, from 1978’s classic Superman (which ignited a crush on Christopher Reeve that lasted for years) to Thor: Ragnarok, but I’d always had at least one complaint about the women in the story. Even my beloved Peggy Carter was, sadly, a Smurfette. So after seeing Black Widow and Agents Maria Hill and Sharon Carter all kick butt at different points in the film (with Black Widow getting one of the best scenes — “Did I step on your moment?”), I let it be known that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was my favorite live-action superhero movie.

For quite a while it maintained that status. None of the subsequent films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached The Winter Soldier‘s level when it came to female characters, and I found some of them to be big fat “feminist fails,” particularly Thor: The Dark World (the one where the love interest falls into a coma and has to be carried around for half the movie) and Doctor Strange (the one where not one single female wizard is left alive at the end). It took Wonder Woman to compromise The Winter Soldier‘s standing as my favorite. At any rate, it remained my favorite Marvel live-action superhero movie.

Until this past Monday — when Black Panther pole-vaulted over it.

Many of the things I love about it have already been examined at length by others. (I especially love the take by Tor.com’s Liz Bourke.) But I offer my own observations nonetheless, and if they prove repetitive, I’ll just have to live with that.

T’Challa’s first adventure sets the tone. We first see T’Challa, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his right hand, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of the all-female Dora Milaje warriors, in the midst of a mission. They mean to “get Nakia out,” and we’re led to think “Nakia” must be someone in need of rescue; that’s what we’ve seen, after all, in countless superhero movies heretofore. T’Challa and Okoye banter as he prepares, and their dialogue establishes them as friends who value and trust each other. He says he’s going into the fray alone. She doesn’t argue but simply says, “Don’t freeze.” And he’s off.

Then we see Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) herself, in the back of a truck alongside of a throng of frightened young female captives. She might seem to blend in with this desperate group, but for something distinct in her eyes — a sharpness, an awareness. She’s waiting for her moment. When Black Panther arrives and goes into action, we think that moment has come, as she throws off her distressed-damsel disguise and reveals herself as a skilled fighter. Yet when the battle is over, Okoye having descended to save T’Challa with a couple of well-executed spear moves (because “you froze”), we learn that Nakia was actually on a rescue mission of her own and is far from happy that T’Challa compromised her. Crucial character attributes are established in this early sequence — T’Challa’s courage and sense of responsibility and lingering feelings for Nakia, Nakia’s idealism and wider-ranging views, and Okoye’s tough badassery combined with her sly, understated sense of humor. It made me want to follow them wherever they might go.

Erik Killmonger’s first appearance also gives us a clear idea of whom we’re dealing with. Killmonger has been touted as Marvel’s most interesting villain since Loki in the Thor films. I concur, and not only because Michael B. Jordan brings so much charisma to the table. He’s an angry young man who has every reason to be angry. He wants to seize T’Challa’s homeland of Wakanda and its “vibranium” (a comic book mineral also responsible for Captain America’s shield) and use them to fight against injustice. In the long run, he ends up being a catalyst for positive change, though not in the way he intended; he awakens an isolationist nation from its long sleep. Yet for all that, he’s still a villain, as we see clearly when, in his first scene, he poisons a British museum docent so he can steal an ancient Wakandan weapon and make his getaway. He may have some bitterness towards her for being one of the “colonizers,” but first and foremost she’s collateral damage — a concept which, as I’ve mentioned before, a true hero never accepts. Killmonger might make some valid points about justice, but we see at once that he’s the wrong person to administer it.

The story’s coolest character actually IS female! T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri — scientist, engineer, inventor, healer, and bringer of much sass — is already a hit with fans; plenty of them, including my husband, don’t hesitate to name her as a favorite. And why not? She gets all the best lines! Letitia Wright invests her with such humor and distinct individuality that she’s evaded the accusations of “Mary Sue” usually leveled at a female character who is awesome at so many things. Audiences just accept her as the badass she is and welcome each scene in which she appears.  Shuri also has Matt’s favorite line in the movie: “Oh, great.  Another white boy I have to fix!”  (By the way, if you want to know about the fate of that other “white boy,” sit through all the closing credits.)

Wakanda is a stunning example of a gender-egalitarian world. So many feminist stories are written and told in the mold of The Handmaid’s Tale, and show their female characters struggling mightily to defy, or at least survive, patriarchal oppression. These are important and valuable stories, when told well. But what a relief it is, at least on occasion, to enter a world like Wakanda, in which women do not have to prove themselves but rather are accepted as powerful and competent individuals. Here we see men and women working well together, valuing each other as friends, helping each other — something I’ve longed to see more of for years. It’s especially uplifting to see a group of women who are completely confident in their abilities, comfortable in their own skins. Self-doubt doesn’t plague them. Even when they’re grieving the apparent loss of T’Challa, they don’t flounder. Rather, they take it upon themselves to save the kingdom.

Also refreshing is the absence of the Ordinary-Girl Love Interest (TM) who keeps the superhero “grounded.” Though romance is kept to a bare minimum, it’s clear the object of T’Challa’s romantic interest is Nakia, Dora Milaje warrior and spy, anything but ordinary. Instead of “grounding” T’Challa, she opens his eyes to new possibilities. It’s her vision of Wakanda’s emergence from isolation, to serve as aid and guide to the world around them rather than murderous avenger, that ultimately wins the day.

It represents a forward path for Hollywood storytelling. What would movies look like if “white male” were not the default setting for heroes/protagonists? What would they look like if we were at last free of the notion that stories with white male leads are universal while stories with non-white and/or non-male leads are for niche audiences only? A lot like this one, probably. This is the future this feminist wants.

We’re not there yet. Matt and I saw seven trailers before Black Panther finally started to roll. Of those seven, only one featured a non-white male lead (Rampage, with Dwayne Johnson), and only one featured a female character who gets to share protagonist status with a white guy (Ant-Man and the Wasp). The rest (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Hurricane Heist) offer white male business as usual, with POC in secondary roles and women doing their duty as sidekicks, damsels, love interests, or fatal femmes. Fans who complain of an “SJW conspiracy” to take over Hollywood ought to know that three out of fifteen mainstream releases per month with leads that aren’t white men does not evidence of a conspiracy make.

If the entertainment industry were truly as inclusive as it should be, the racial and gender make-up of Black Panther‘s characters would not be worth remarking on. But it isn’t — and so it is. The movie is superb in terms of storytelling and groundbreaking in terms of representation. (Some have said that people who praise Black Panther for giving us a POC superhero lead are forgetting Blade, and maybe they have a point, but hey, from what I recall, Blade wasn’t backed up by a badass corps of Dora Milaje.) And audiences are loving it. I’m down for the ripple effects, even though it may take some while for us to see them.

In other words, Matt and I had a fantastic time at Black Panther.  My husband was not all that thrilled with the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, though (yes, he shows up in the film at a place you would not expect.  The filmmakers should have tried harder, according to Matt…)

 

Growing Up Feminist, Part 3

Just how troubling is it to come to the realization that you’re just not the person the world wants you to be, and you don’t want what the world wants from you?

Very — even when you have a strong support system through your family. You may know you’re loved, but at the same time you know that being true to yourself means being an outsider, and directly or indirectly you’ll be made to feel as though something is wrong with you.

Before I entered my tweens I, like most little girls, loved to play with dolls. I had many an apple-cheeked plastic baby to cuddle and caress. I gave each one a name from my list of favorites-of-the-moment, and I imagined personalities for them that went beyond babyhood. One of my favorite play-pretends was to rescue my babies after they’d gone missing. I always succeeded. It didn’t register with me then that these kinds of stories don’t always have happy endings.

Not only did I have the right toys, but I also read the right books, or at least the ones I knew about at the time. My picture books were full of mother bears, mother tigers, and mother rabbits doing motherly things like feeding and tucking-in and even scolding their (usually male) offspring. Moms didn’t have adventures They were anchored to the home to which the (almost always male) child adventurers had to return. All well and good, I suppose — except that these moms made up approximately 70% of all the female characters I saw.

As I noted in my previous post, the only female character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories is Kanga, Roo’s mother, and “mother” is the beginning and the end of her personality. The first of Kipling’s Mowgli stories, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” features a much cooler mother figure, Raksha, the wolf who adopts the human toddler and terrifies the ravenous tiger Shere Khan away from her den; sadly, after that first story she disappears, leaving Mowgli to be guided through his formative years by male mentors. Charlotte, the titular spider of Charlotte’s Web, fascinated my younger self far more than either of these, since she was active and clever and played a much larger role, but even she is essentially Mom, and when she has fulfilled that biological function, she perishes.

It’s little surprise, then, that I spent a large part of my childhood thinking that being Mom was just part of being a girl, that one went with the other. Nor did that idea come only from stories; I saw very few non-moms among the grown women I knew. I had no reason to question it, and I wasn’t conscious of any discomfort I might have felt at the prospect of becoming a mom myself. That was so far in the future. I could wait, and put off considering what being a mom would mean for me.

Then, when I was in my twenties, something small planted a seed — a leaf through an issue of People Magazine in the optometrist’s office. One of the articles profiled former tennis champ Chris Evert and her life as a mother. The article’s first line was her answer when the interviewer asked her what books she’d read lately: she had no time for reading at all, because, as she put it, she was too busy watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers with her kids.

The comment was meant to be light-hearted, but it struck right at my heart. No time for reading? For my favorite thing in the world? If being a mom left no time for reading, how could it leave time for writing? How would I stand such a life? True, I had seen my own mom reading aplenty when I was small, but my feelings about Evert’s little jest impacted me as much as the jest itself. If I was more horrified by the prospect of not being able to read than charmed by the description of Evert’s life as a mom, maybe I wasn’t as maternal as I was supposed to be. Maybe I didn’t have quite the right heart for motherhood. As the seed took root, I started to wonder — did this make me a bad person?

After all, I couldn’t recall reading or seeing a single story in which an admirable heroine decided she didn’t want children. All good girls and women wanted them, if the question came up at all; only shallow, materialistic shrews turned up their noses at motherhood. Nor did I see or read about many girls and women whose work meant to them what reading and writing meant to me, save Anne Shirley and Jo March (which may be why I’m passionately devoted to these characters to this day). Girls in stories, for the most part, had no concrete ambitions, no passions or callings. They were concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with their relationships with others, as if this was where their only real value lay. I know now I should have read the work of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, whose brave and purposeful heroines would have been a welcome alternative to uninspiring TV characters like Mallory Keaton. But I didn’t know about Pierce or McKinley at the time.

So it fell to my own mother to help me understand my feelings about having children, and to assure me I wasn’t defective or mean for not wanting to become a mother. If I changed my mind later, that would be okay, but if I never did, that would be okay, too. Yet again, my own family helped me by counteracting the messages of popular culture and arming me against them. In the intervening years they’ve stayed on my side. But not every girl or woman is so lucky, and the messages that made me wonder about myself back them have persisted, to pressure new generations. Remember the reason the late comedian Jerry Lewis cited for thinking female comedians weren’t funny?

Jurassic World, anyone?

The sad truth I’ve come to understand is that a lot of people are afraid of women like me. To them, a woman who opts out of motherhood spells the doom of the human race. If she can choose to remain child-free without facing condemnation from the world around her, pretty soon other women will do it, and then all women will do it, and we’ll have a population crisis on our hands. If we open the door to a choice, we can’t control how many people will walk through it. It’s the same fear that once drove the argument against women’s suffrage: if women have the vote, and have options other than depending on their husbands, they’ll soon defect from their domestic duties.

If this is true, then motherhood must really be the worst thing in the world, something no woman would choose if she had any alternative. But in fact, motherhood is a choice multitudes of women embrace with open eyes and hearts. I may be child-free, but I don’t expect other women to be like me. I’m grateful for the women who aren’t. In back of nearly every A student I teach is a mother or mother figure who has done her job well. And few things make me happier than going to Dragon Con and other conventions, seeing the nerdy moms and dads with their kids in full cosplay. Those youngsters might be my readers one day.  (My husband and I once saw a family cosplaying as the family from My Neighbor Totoro.  We both properly geeked out from having our hearts warmed.)

It seems to me that a woman makes a much better mother when she bears and raises children out of genuine desire rather than a sense of obligation. Through such women, the human race will survive and even thrive. Yet we need to understand, once again, that women are not all alike, we’re not all good at the same things, and one woman’s happiness may well be another woman’s Purgatory. Demonizing women who choose not to have children is just one more of our culture’s attempts to impose a sameness on women, to undermine that glorious variety that is all humanity’s gift.

This, then, is the heart of my feminism — to examine, question, and defy those expectations of sameness. To claim individuality and variety for all people, not just a privileged few.

Growing Up Feminist, Part 2

“It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility; they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;. . . it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more and learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” — Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Star Wars burst onto the scene when I was eight years old. I remember sitting in the theater mesmerized, gazing with awe at the galaxy far, far away, falling in love with R2-D2, and grieving the loss of Obi-Wan. My sister, two years older, also loved it, so naturally we wanted to stage our own Star Wars adventures in our backyard. The problem: which of us would be Princess Leia? Leia was so cool, with her blaster and her white dress and her weird hairstyle, so of course we both wanted to be her. In contests between siblings, the older generally wins, so I ended up having no idea who I would be, since I didn’t want to pretend to be a boy. Apart from Leia, there was no girl character into whose shoes I could happily imagine myself. I don’t recall exactly what I ended up doing, but in the version of Star Wars that ran in my head, R2 was always referred to by female pronouns. I mean, why not?

I understand now that I was searching for something that the stories I grew up with were rarely willing to give me. I wanted the most interesting character in the room to be female, so I imagined a female Water Rat, a female Eeyore, a female Bagheera, a female Fiver. I was happy with these alterations, but far less happy with the characters who were actually female. Either they were the only girl in the galaxy, like Princess Leia, or bland, unadventurous caregivers who spent most of their time on the sidelines, like Kanga in Winnie-the-Pooh, or absent from the story altogether. One striking exception appeared on HBO in the early 1980s: Fraggle Rock, whose two major female characters were funny, frenetic, quirky, and flawed. I would have been happy being either the wild, competitive Red or the dreamy, artistic Mokey, and at different points in my life I’ve identified with each of them. But by that time my sister and I had outgrown our backyard adventures.

It may have occurred to me then to wonder why there weren’t more Reds and Mokeys in my life, why there weren’t more female characters who were as active and engaging as their male counterparts. Mokey and Red were special because 1) there were two of them, which matters more than some are willing to admit; and 2) they had a uniqueness about them, an individuality that not many female characters in my favorite children’s books, movies, and television shows seemed to have. Since then, I’ve made a point of seeking out female characters with that wonderful spark of individual life.

My value of individuality forms the core of my feminism. Behind the concept of strict gender divisions, whether those who advocate them realize it or are willing to admit it, is the notion that women, simply because they are women, share the same set of basic traits that fit them for a range of possibilities far narrower than men’s. A society that demands adherence to these gender divisions only works if all women are nurturing caregivers, all women are content to be relational (daughter, wife, mother) rather than individual, all women are followers rather than leaders, and all women are “not quite as good” as men at any task or skill that lies outside their designated sphere. Men may be politicians, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, inventors, engineers, writers, artists, church leaders, law officers, and film and stage directors, but women must be women first and foremost, as if the gender itself were a calling or occupation. For centuries, in order to make this system work, girls growing up were taught not to think of themselves as too unique (as a character from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall puts it, “You see what it is for women to affect to be different to other people”) and to value themselves in purely relational terms. Yet always, some women have managed to break out of their narrow room, and now we’re starting to wonder just how much potential has gone unfulfilled, unrealized, over the long, long years.

The core of my feminism should be simple common sense. Not all women are alike. We don’t all share the same daydreams, hopes, and ambitions. We don’t all share the same interests, skills, or talents. Each of us has a passion of her own that springs from her uniqueness, and being of a certain gender should not hinder us — any of us — from following that passion. It astonishes me that even now, some folk still have so much trouble accepting this notion.

Yet while I may grind my teeth in frustrations at all the signs of how far we have yet to go, my heart leaps with joy at every sign of progress I see. After all, nowadays, girls who act out Star Wars in their backyards have a number of characters to choose from, girls who move in the thick of adventure and save lives and who are, quite often, the coolest in the room.

Next week: Part 3