October Musings: The Unexpected Feminism of “The Mummy” (1932)

I make no secret of my love for the horror movie classics released by Universal Studios in the 1930s, but by and large they’re the last place to go if you’re looking for active, interesting heroines, let alone any trace of feminism. (The horror classics produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, particularly 1946’s Bedlam, are far more satisfying in that regard.) Memorable characters abound in these films: Bela Lugosi’s despicable Count Dracula and Dwight Frye’s manic Renfield; Boris Karloff’s poignant Monster, Colin Clive’s haunted Frankenstein, Ernest Thesiger’s sinfully camp Dr. Pretorius, and O.P. Heggie’s gentle Hermit; Claude Rains’ invisible madman Jack Griffin; and Lon Chaney Jr.’s tragic werewolf Laurence Talbot. But none of them are women, unless you count the drive-you-crazy screechers played by Una O’Connor; she’s infuriating but not very forgettable. The female leads are, for the most part, dull damsels easily preyed upon by evil and very given to tears and screams — with one exception.

That exception is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the object of Imhotep’s (Boris Karloff) desire in 1932’s The Mummy.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: the movie itself isn’t for everyone. It’s a short film, only 73 minutes long, but it takes its time. Even fans of classic cinema, used to the acting styles and black-and-white cinematography that alienate quite a few post-Generation X viewers, sometimes complain of this movie’s slow pacing, with one YouTube critic complaining that too much of its run time consists of “men talking in drawing rooms.” I can’t say these criticisms are unfounded, though I’m fond of it. The most crucial element that carries it for me is Karloff’s Imhotep, a “monster” in a fascinating situation — executed for a crime motivated by love, reborn suddenly into a world he doesn’t understand, wanting nothing more than to be united with the woman he still adores. He’s almost a sympathetic figure, though his actions can’t be condoned. Karloff, one of my favorite actors, endows the role with a darkly charismatic presence, with his deep, resonant baritone voice and his mesmerizing eyes. Helen, the beautiful young reincarnation of his ancient beloved, is realistic drawn to him.

But the second element that draws me to the film is Helen herself, far more interesting than the pallid, weepy damsels we see in the other Universal horror classics. While ordinariness is a feature rather than a bug with the latter women — since they’re meant to represent the domestic normalcy threatened by the monsters — Helen has an exotic mystique of her own. We first see her sitting at a window and gazing out at the pyramids, a look of rapt fascination on her face. It is with the utmost reluctance that she turns away from what she calls “the real Egypt” and toward the dance to which Dr. Muller (every-mentor Edward van Sloan) has brought her. (I have no trouble empathizing with the introvert pulled out of a daydream and encouraged to socialize.) We lean in the next minute that she comes by her attraction to “the real Egypt” honestly, since her mother is an Egyptian with “a family tree a mile long.” This too sets her apart from the WASP ladies we see in the other films. Moreover, this first scene establishes her as someone indifferent to the prospect of romance, since her thoughts, as Muller says, are “far away from the dance and these nice English boys.” We’re led to expect that when it comes to love, she’s not going to be a pushover.

Since this is a horror movie from 1932, however, a love interest she must find, and the bland, callow Frank Whemple (David Manners) is not among the movie’s strengths. Why she would be attracted to so generic a man while all those “nice English boys” at the party did nothing for her is a mystery the movie never manages to explain. But in their opening conversation, she challenges him in ways that again make her unique among Universal’s horror heroines. Trying to impress her, he tells her how he and his team of archaeologists took apart the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, culminating in unwrapping the princess herself. Yet she reacts not with admiration but with disgust, turning her face away and saying, “How could you do that?” His reply — “Had to! Science, you know!” — is hardly convincing, for either Helen or the audience. She calls him out for cultural appropriation and men’s invasion of a woman’s space long before such things were commonly scrutinized.

Nonetheless, Frank manages to win Helen over, though we’re never shown how or why, and the movie presents him as the “good choice” she must make in order to save her soul from the looming threat of Imhotep, now calling himself Ardath Bey. As the love triangle intensifies, the interesting parts of Helen’s personality start to flatten out; after a fascinating scene in which Bey gives her a glimpse of her past as Anck-es-en-Amon and his own failed attempt to resurrect her after she died, Muller and Frank keep her confined to her house “for her own good” so she can’t respond to Bey’s hypnotic pull, reducing her to a state of protected passivity. But when their scheme fails and she gets away, the stage is set for a climax that first echoes, then subverts the pattern set by Dracula a year earlier.

In both Dracula and The Mummy, the hero and the mentor (played by the same actors) enter the villain’s lair to rescue the hypnotized heroine from his unholy clutches, but at this point the stories diverge. In Dracula, Mina (Helen Chandler) is in a trance, every ounce of her will drained away. In The Mummy, Helen has been drawn back to ancient Egypt, to her old identity as Anck-es-en-Amon, still in love with Imhotep. But her will remains, and when she learns he means to murder her mortal body and turn her into a living mummy like himself, she immediately resists, with all the dignity and determination of a Pharaoh’s daughter and priestess of the goddess Isis. The men burst in, but Imhotep holds them at bay with his death-dealing magic ring and wicked Karloffian glare. They become the imperiled, which gives Anck-es-en-Amon time to pull free from his grasp and raise a prayer that Isis might teach her the forgotten holy spells that can destroy her once-beloved, now enemy. The goddess obliges, the priestess chants, and Isis’ golden statue strikes the menace dead with a lightning bolt. Rather than being rescued, Anck-es-en-Amon becomes the rescuer, destroying Imhotep before he can harm the men. Female magic, the power of the goddess and her priestess, is presented as heroic, in a day and age when it was nearly always framed as evil.

Sadly but inevitably, Helen ends the movie in Frank’s arms; having her leave him to pursue her own career in Egyptology is simply too much to ask of a 1932 film. All the same, the elements of feminism are there, and Helen remains one of the very few horror movie heroines prior to the rise of the slasher film’s “final girls” to deal the monster his death-blow. This alone puts it miles in front of the abysmal 2017 remake, in which a modern-day damsel is reduced to the ultimate passive state while the female “straw feminist” mummy is overpowered by that most egoistic Alpha of all Alpha males, Tom Cruise. (The hope that this film might contain any trace of feminism was pretty much blown sky high the moment Cruise was cast.) So I’ll be sticking with the original, flaws and all.

Villainesses Revisited

“What about female villains?” an audience member asked the panelists leading a DragonCon discussion about female-character representation in SFF. “Do they hold us back?”

How I wished this question hadn’t come only ten minutes from the end of the discussion. There’s so much to say on the matter that it could easily have supported a panel of its own. I would have welcomed the chance to air my complicated feelings about villainesses, previously expressed on this very blog, and to be challenged in ways that would make me think. But the question by itself was enough to give me pause. Is my feeling that female villains might “hold us back” the root of my ambivalence, and is that really fair? How do I reconcile this ambivalence with the delight I’ve taken in crafting villainesses in my own work, such as the venomous Southern belle Liza Twigg in my radio play The Horseman of the Hollow?

Inspired by this question that didn’t get sufficient consideration, as well as the appearance of female villains in a number of books I’ve enjoyed over the past year, from Ifueko’s Raybearer to Clark’s A Master of Djinn to Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear to Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, I’ve decided the time has come for me to revisit my “villainess problem.”

First, where does the question come from? Why might we have the idea that female villains might “hold us back,” when no one to my knowledge has ever wondered if characters like Darth Vader or the Joker or Loki might hold men back? If the world and its popular culture were as they should be, we wouldn’t be asking this question of any gender; the idea that an individual’s behavior might reflect either well or badly on a whole gender or race the individual may be part of is inherently problematic. But sadly, we’re carrying the baggage of centuries of pop culture in which women’s challenges to gender roles have been framed as villainous. In most fiction from years past, as an essay from an old textbook of mine put it, “good women were never powerful, and powerful women were never good enough.” The evil woman either possessed or desired more power — political, magical, and/or intellectual — than was deemed natural for her gender, while the good woman, the passive object of the male hero’s adoration, was content with her subordinate position.

Moreover, the task of defeating and neutralizing female villainy nearly always — with a few exceptions — fell to men. Evil women challenged masculine preeminence, while good women stepped back and let men take care of the problem; this stepping back, this reliance on men to fix things, was depicted as part and parcel of their virtuous natures, the thing that made them “heroines.” An iconic example appears in Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty: while the damsel sleeps (“Sleeping Beauty, sleep on,” sings a choir), the male hero, with the help of three fairy sidekicks, slays the monstrous witch-dragon and breaks the dread spell with his kiss.

Too often, when villainesses meet their defeat at the hands of men, we see masculine power as a force for good and feminine power as untrustworthy at best, destructive at worst. In another Disney film, The Sword in the Stone, we meet two magic users, one male and another female. The male wizard is wise and good, the witch is spiteful and evil, and when they duel, he shows her who’s boss. It’s not Disney’s fault, since it’s merely drawing on centuries’ worth of Arthurian fiction that has framed its magicians this way; male magic might be evil on occasion, but female magic is always and inevitably so. With this history, some of us might be forgiven for thinking that female villains could “hold women back.”

But popular culture changes with the times, and recent years have seen a growing acceptance of women in heroic roles, women who can be both powerful and good. These days, villainesses are nearly as likely to be defeated by heroines as by male heroes. As female power, drive, and ambition are less often drawn as inherently suspect, the time may have come for the Villainess to rise in all her wicked glory. But it may still behoove us, as we look at villainesses, to question exactly what about them is being painted as evil — specifically, whether their villainy is gender-linked, and in what way.

Elise Ringo’s 2018 essay “Villainesses Required: Why the Dark Side Needs More Women” makes its stance clear in its title: “Sexism, as any systemic prejudice, is a clever animal, and it has coopted the notion of ‘good representation’ to take a strangely regressive shape, insisting that it is bad for women to show women who are bad.” Yet she also calls out as problematic the way female villainy is often presented even today: “When female villains do appear, they tend to be produced from limited molds: the femme fatale. . . the evil stepmother. . . the older woman desperately chasing youth and beauty. . . All of these types, no matter how much fun they are, share a common thread: villains who are women are villains as women.”

Ringo may have an affection for villains in general that I don’t share, but we have a common hope that in the future, female characters might get the chance to be evil in ways that transcend gender roles. Set free from gender essentialism, such villainesses might just become Darth Vader-level icons.

My husband and I have been making our way through the sixth and final season of Supergirl. After a shaky first half that saw Kara trapped in the Phantom Zone for way too many episodes, the show has regained its footing, and all its major female characters are getting their moments to shine. Since it has so many powerful, active women on Team Good, for the most part I’ve enjoyed its bad-news ladies, from Livewire to Lillian Luthor, but dastardly politician Councilwoman Jean Rankin may be my favorite of all of them. Motivated by a desire to clear the neighborhoods of those she sees as “useless,” demolishing low-income housing to make way for condominiums, Rankin is the embodiment of murderous greed and bigotry, qualities that know no gender. Her role might easily have been played by a man, without much alteration in the story. But here she is a woman, and terrifyingly evil.

But the Councilwoman isn’t the only villainess Kara and her friends must contend with. There’s also Nyxly, a female Imp Kara met in the Phantom Zone, who has now gotten herself transported into the “real” world and is determined to avenge herself on Kara because Kara stopped her from murdering her (Kara’s) father. Such an amoral, evil-for-evil’s-sake demon could be a lot of fun. But unfortunately the writers have chosen to give her a backstory to explain her rage: she was screwed over by her world’s “patriarchy.” That’s right — another villainess rendered evil by sexism, who, in her willingness to hurt innumerable people in order to get her revenge, is shown to be much more dangerous and destructive than the oppressive system she defies. She is a straw feminist, a villain as woman, as opposed to the Councilwoman, a villain who happens to be a woman.

I’d love to see the future belong to the villains who happen to be women, as opposed to the villains as women; the straw feminist, in particular, should be relegated to the past. As long as we continue to see so many of the latter kind, I suspect my feelings about villainesses in general may remain ambivalent.

Girls Deserve Better

My question of concern today: why are teenage girls the demographic that visual media most frequently fails to get right?

I’m not taking aim at print media. For all its regularly-called-out flaws, YA fiction offers girl readers a place in popular culture that caters to them. The genre gets a flood of criticism, some have suggested because media critics tend to sneer at any and all things girls love. But the best of Young Adult fiction — whether realistic, like The Hate U Give, The Poet X, or Love, Hate, and Other Filters, or fantastic, like Dread Nation/ Deathless Divide, Seraphina, and Raybearer — offers insight into matters that are on girls’ minds at that vulnerable time of life. Will I be loved? What’s special about me? Where is my power? How can I make a difference? How can I make my stand? Good YA lets girls know that they’re not alone, that someone hears them, and best of all, that someone sees them as worthy to be heard when the world around them often sends the message that they’re of little value. One reason the best YA fiction gets girls right, in all their complicated glory, is that much of it is written by authors who can remember what it was like to be a teenage girl.

Contrast that with something like the animated sitcom Family Guy, which sets up its teenage girl character, Meg Griffin, to be a punching bag for the rest of the cast, an object of general loathing. Sad as she is, the saddest thing about her is that creator Seth MacFarlane wrote her that way specifically because he couldn’t think of another way to write her, because he “didn’t understand teenage girls.” The plural reveals the problem: the idea that there is some universal template of teenage girlhood to be tapped into. In the minds of writers like MacFarlane, teenage girls are “Other,” and the “Other” — the “They” — are all essentially the same, whereas “We” (boys and men, in this case) are distinct individuals. (The idea that MacFarlane and his writing team to identify with an anthropomorphic male dog than a teenage female human will always move me to roll my eyes.)

The issue of the often lacking portrayal of teen girls in visual media came to my mind thanks to a recent CNN.com article in which journalist Sandra Gonzales asked, “Why are my shows filled with mean girls?” She notes that if shows like Gossip Girl, The White Lotus, and Never Have I Ever are to be believed, “all teen girls are social media bullies, faux-woke hypocrites and downright mean to other people.” While I don’t watch any of the shows she cites, one passage in particular resonated with me: “I thought that if my lineup was any indication, I was the only freak my age not in love triangle, getting into alcohol-fueled car wrecks, dealing with a clique of over-lip-glossed queen wannabees or navigating an unwanted pregnancy.”

These words echo how I felt when I was a teenage girl in the 1980s, looking everywhere on television for a fictional counterpart of myself, who would resemble me in even the smallest way, and finding none until the miniseries Anne of Green Gables turned up on PBS. The sameness of the girls I saw on TV disturbed and at times even demoralized me — all of them focused on popularity and boys, most of them conventionally pretty and the ones that weren’t driven half-mad with desire to be so, and almost none of them ambitious for anything beyond a date to the prom. Where were their interests? Where were their hobbies? Why weren’t they about something? Why did they seem to exist primarily in relation to others, instead of being the heroes of their own stories? Worst of all, was this what the world wanted me to be?

By 1987 I had graduated from high school and lost interest in teen characters and teen-centered stories, but what I noticed from my general looks into pop culture struck me as progress. Whatever else might be said about shows like Beverly Hills 90210, they gave teen characters a place to live beyond sitcoms and after-school specials. A few years later, a teenage girl fronted a critically acclaimed drama, My So-Called Life. While I didn’t become a Buffy fan until the third season — I had to catch up on the first two seasons in syndication — the end of the 1990s saw the appearance of the short-lived but smart and thoughtful drama Once and Again. I started watching for the adult characters, but I stayed for the teenagers, particularly the frustrating but wonderfully authentic Grace Manning, a character I’d want to slap in one episode and hug in the next. Unlike the TV teenage girls I remembered from my high school days, Grace had interests and even a spark of ambition. She would read in bed, like me! Finally, a regularly airing series helped my inner teen feel seen. She felt so again in an episode of Season 2 of Gilmore Girls, when young Rory declared she would rather spend her lunch hour reading a good book than, as she put it, “discuss the euthanasia of homecoming.” In later seasons Rory stopped being someone I enjoyed relating to, but by then, Veronica Mars existed.

Yet for Gonzales, teenaged in the aughts, something was missing. While Veronica was solving crimes and juggling love interests and spacey Joan Girardi of Arcadia was getting messages from God, Gonzales was wondering if the television landscape had any place for a “boring teen” like her. The shows may have changed, but the problem remained: too many real teenage girls didn’t see themselves on the small screen.

Do today’s teen girls feel represented by the sociopaths in lip gloss found in shows like The White Lotus or Gossip Girl? Why do television writers tend to fall back on the old familiar stereotypes, from the Queen of Mean to the Boy-Crazy Fashionista to the Quirky Loner who spends 95% of her time snarking about the Queens of Mean and the Boy-Crazy Fashionistas, when it comes to creating characters in this demographic?

It would be easy to say that the blame lies with creators who, like Seth MacFarlane, have never been teenage girls and perhaps have never even had a substantial conversation with one — easy, but not accurate. Of the shows Gonzales cites as having problematic portrayals of teen girls, only one of them, The White Lotus, is the brainchild of a sole male creator. This suggests the problem goes deeper. It’s not just about how alienated grown male writers feel from teenage girls. It’s about how those girls, and the women who used to be them, have been conditioned to think about themselves and each other. Poor representation is a snake that eats its own tail.

In any case, to the girls struggling through adolescence, figuring out who they want to be, I say, along with Gonzales, “You deserve better.”

As to what “better” might look like, perhaps it’s films like Lady Bird and Booksmart. Perhaps it’s animated shows like the reboots of Carmen Sandiego and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power or fantasy shows like Shadow and Bone. These I’ve seen, and I’ve been charmed by their heroines in all their confusion, resilience, curiosity, and determination.

I polled a group of friends to find out which shows they thought did a good job of portraying teen girls with a measure of empathy and understanding. Some shows they mentioned, which I don’t watch (at least not yet): PEN15, Sex Education, Titans, Motherland: Fort Salem, Stargirl, The Bureau of Magical Things, The Babysitters’ Club (Netflix reboot), Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts, Panic, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Fate: The Winx Saga, Atypical, Teenage Bounty Hunters, The Owl House, Dickinson, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Nancy Drew, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Wilds, Infinity Train, Derry Girls, Miraculous, Amphibia, Locke and Key, Legacies, We Are Lady Parts, Just Add Magic, Cobra Kai, Ginny and Georgia, Sweet Tooth, Cloak and Dagger, The Runaways, Invincible.

What are some recent shows you’ve seen that get teenage girls right?

We Need to Be Seen

Tessa Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear is a beautifully written book, an intriguing take on Shakespeare’s King Lear with lush, descriptive prose, complex characters, and complicated relationships. Gratton throws out the pure moral blacks and whites of the original and paints her cast in various shades of gray, showing us a Cordelia (Elia) who lacks self-esteem and the courage of her convictions, at least initially — of all the characters, she undergoes the most change — and a Goneril (Gaela) and Regan who have pretty darn good reasons to hate their father. Plus, the sisters’ late mother, scarcely mentioned by Shakespeare, becomes an important figure in this retelling. The book deserves more attention than it has heretofore gotten.

But one element trampolined on my last nerve.

Of all the characters, Gaela, the eldest sister, is the least capable of love, the most driven by hate, the one we’re meant to sympathize with the least. And she doesn’t want children. Regan is desperate for children, and Elia paints them into her picture of her future, but Gaela’s determination never to procreate moves her to undergo a magical equivalent of a tubal ligation. This might not be so bad, if the procedure weren’t described specifically as burning the womanhood out of her body. In seeking to avoid pregnancy, Gaela is turning her back on Womanhood itself, because real women, feminine women, have (or at least want) children.

This started me thinking: how often have I seen, in any form of fiction, a positive portrayal of a woman who says no to motherhood? A woman who knows she isn’t cut out for it and doesn’t end up changing her mind to please someone else?

Among the TV shows I watch, I can think of only one example: Maggie Sawyer, Alex Danvers’ erstwhile love interest on Supergirl. She stated outright that she wasn’t interested in having kids and wasn’t about to change her mind, and she wasn’t demonized for it. Unfortunately, this aspect of her character was used to set up a conflict with Alex that would facilitate Maggie’s (Floriana Lima) departure from the show. Alex, despite an initial effort, in the end couldn’t abandon her dreams of motherhood in order to stay with Maggie, and since Alex, not Maggie, is a regular main character, she gets most of the audience’s sympathy when they break up. Maggie, rather than providing sustained representation of a happily childfree woman, turns out to be a temporary blip on the show’s radar.

Among regular characters, main characters, who is there? Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of women who opt out of motherhood, but where their representation in fiction is concerned, we’re stuck in the mud. Creators of art and literature still blithely assume that being a mother is an inevitable part of being a woman — or at least a good woman, as rejecting motherhood continues to be a key component of female villainy. If you’re a fictional woman and you say you don’t want children, you will either “learn better” by the end of your story, be reviled as an ice queen, or, like Maggie Sawyer, get your heart broken and subsequently get kicked out of the story.

Others have noticed the problem and have started asking questions. In “Why Aren’t We Seeing More Child-free Women On-Screen?” Claire Harris opens with the example of the final shot in the movie Notting Hill, which shows Hugh Grant sitting on a park bench reading a book while a hugely pregnant Julia Roberts reclines beside him. “What is effectively communicated in a few seconds is embedded into women by popular culture from when they are little girls: motherhood is the completion of her journey.” She notes that while the demographic of childfree women is growing, “you wouldn’t know it from watching movies and TV,” and cites numerous examples of pregnancy plots thrown into the finales of popular series. “Motherhood is viewed as a moral imperative — which means that women who are voluntary child-free must be selfish, sad, or immature.”

Maxine Trump, in “Notes from a Childfree TV and Film Lover,” opens with its central questions: “If you don’t see us, do we not exist? Where have all the childfree heroes gone?” (I honestly can’t remember there having been any — or at least not many enough to count.) The recurrent pattern with women characters who express reluctance to have children, she states, is to show them rethinking their stance over the course of their narrative arcs and embracing motherhood at the end. “This is something childfree folks are presented with all the time: that we just aren’t in our right mind, and eventually we will come around and change it.” Now that I think about it, perhaps it was better that Maggie Sawyer left Supergirl when she did; otherwise, she might well have gone the same way as Bernadette and Penny in The Big Bang Theory, two women who had previously stated they didn’t want children but end up pregnant at the close of their stories.

Lindsay Pugh shoots from the hip with the title of her article: “Television’s Representation of Childfree Women Sucks.” She opens with one somewhat positive example of a vocally childfree woman who isn’t vilified, Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) on Grey’s Anatomy. Yet Christina is an exception, she notes, while the rule is to depict childfree women as falling into one or more of three archetypes: the “smug asshole” who sneers contemptuously at parents and parenting (e.g. Kim Cattrall’s Samantha in Sex and the City), the “unfit mother” (e.g. Jane Curtin’s Mary Albright in Third Rock from the Sun), and the “successful career woman who is so obsessed with work that she doesn’t have time for children” (e.g. Portia de Rossi’s Nelle Porter in Ally McBeal). “I want society to celebrate unorthodox choices,” she concludes. “Instead of embracing the hive mind, we would all be better off expanding the possibilities of what happiness might look like.” Agreed, Ms. Pugh. Heartily agreed.

Our popular culture needs to reconcile itself to the existence of childfree women. (I say women, because men are not judged for saying no to parenthood to the same extent that women are.) We’re not all child-haters. We don’t all sneer at parenthood. We aren’t all workaholics after big bucks and prestige. And despite what the apparent fear of us might indicate, we don’t threaten the fabric of society. There will always be many women who embrace motherhood of their own will and volition, without the emotional blackmail of movies, television, and books. Mothering and nonmothering women can coexist. It’s past time we started seeing that in fiction.

One of my favorite authors, Juliet Marillier — most of whose novels celebrate women in traditional roles as healers, lore-keepers, and mothers — is at work on a new series, Warrior Bards, the first two books of which are already out (The Harp of Kings and A Dance With Fate). The central heroine, unusually for Marillier, is a tall, muscular fighting woman who also plays a mean whistle. Toward the end of the second book, she tells her love interest that she doesn’t want children. No underlying trauma that makes her unfit, no putdown of motherhood in general — she simply makes it clear that path isn’t for her. I paused in my reading to pump my fist.

Please, Ms. Marillier, in the name of all that is holy, don’t make her change her mind.

A Friend’s Request

One thing all my friends know about me is how invested I am in seeing high-quality female representation in geek media, so from time to time they seek my opinion on the issue or ask my opinion on others’ statements about it. This past week, a friend of mine sent me a link that a friend of his had shared with him, that he thought I might find interesting or provoking — a YouTube video entitled “Everything Wrong with Woke Culture (and its impact on feminism.” The title alone, or really any instance when the term “woke” is used in a dismissive or even contemptuous way, was enough to put me on the defensive. But I watched it for my friend’s sake, and he asked my opinion, and so here it is.

I wish I could simply say, “It’s nonsense,” and move on, but I can’t. At times it feels as if the vlogger and I are on, maybe not exactly the same page, but at least within three pages of each other. She makes sure to let us know she thinks more female representation in movies and TV is a good thing, which I appreciate. The problem, she says, is the kind of representation we’re seeing, and again, I don’t entirely disagree. I’m no more fond of the humorless, one-dimensional, too-perfect “girl power” protagonist, the woman who wins every battle and never makes a mistake she needs to learn from, any more than this vlogger is. The too frequent insubstantiality of the “strong female character” has also been covered in Sophia McDougall’s famous provocatively titled essay “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” which laments the lack of complexity and fallibility that would make these characters as interesting and as indelible as, say, Sherlock Holmes. Both McDougall and the vlogger note the damage done when female characters are called upon to represent an entire gender, something almost never asked of male characters. And again, I agree.

Something else the vlogger and I can agree on: we both love 2017’s Wonder Woman. Some of the most inspiring scenes involve Diana undergoing rigorous training, so that her badassery feels believable and her eventual victory feels earned rather than handed to her on a platter as something she’s entitled to. Would I love to see more screen heroines needing to train hard, even if they are blessed with some supernatural abilities? Certainly. Would I love to see them lose bouts on occasion? Sure. Would I like to see them make mistakes and even (gasp) need help on occasion? Of course. All I ask is that they stick the landing. Few things frustrate me more than seeing a female character act tough and kick butt throughout a story only to be sidelined or rendered helpless when crunch time comes. The writers of such stories have it backwards. What we want is to see the heroines making mistakes, needing help, and working hard in the course of their journey, so that they can shine in all their badass glory at the climax.

On those assertions the vlogger and I can agree. Yet I have some crucial differences with her.

First, she states that “everyone” hates the new female characters that have risen to prominence in previously male-dominated franchises like Star Wars and Doctor Who. Uh, no. The haters have shouted so loudly and disseminated their opinions so widely that it might lead to the illusion their disdain is universal, but it isn’t. I still remember how good I felt after the first time I watched The Force Awakens, and I wasn’t the only one. Likewise, I find Jodie Whitaker’s performance as the Doctor quite charming. Too many of the episodes under showrunner Chris Chibnall’s tenure have suffered from lackluster writing, which the fans have rightly called out, but Whitaker persists in giving it her all, and quite a few fans like her. That use of “everyone” suggests a little too much that if I don’t agree, I’m not only alone in my opinion but categorically wrong.

Second, I can’t help noticing something about the strong women in movies and TV this vlogger actually likes: Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Rita from Edge of Tomorrow, Zoe Washburne from Firefly, and Eowyn from Lord of the Rings. These are all excellent characters, and I admire them — but of all of them, only Wonder Woman occupies the center of the narrative. The others are members of an ensemble (Zoe, Black Widow), or supporting players in a larger male-dominated story (Eowyn),or so-close-but-not-quite-the-protagonist (Rita). I would have loved to hear more about some honest-to-God female leads the vlogger likes…

But apparently they’re a few decades in the past. Third, the vlogger suggests that “woke feminists” are too inclined to ignore or disregard the strides made by characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Really? I’m old enough to remember when these iconic heroines made their debut, and I haven’t noticed future generations forgetting them. Sarah Connor had her own television series a few years back and returned to the big screen in 2019; she doesn’t seem to have slipped anyone’s mind. And Ripley — honestly, who doesn’t love Ripley? I’ve never heard anyone claim she’s anything less than awesome, and as far as I’ve been able to observe, creators of more recent SFF heroines are more than willing to acknowledge their debt to her.

We who lived through the 1980s haven’t forgotten Ripley or Sarah. But we also remember that they were rare. Aside from these two characters, Natty Gann on her journey, Sarah in Labyrinth, and Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone, I’m hard pressed to think of a single female character in the 1980s iconic films of geek culture who was the heroine of her own story. Even when 1980s geek-media heroines were somewhat active and interesting (e.g. Kira from The Dark Crystal, Valerian from Dragonslayer, Isabeau from Ladyhawke, and, of course, Leia from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), they were nearly always sidekicks and/or love interests in male-led stories. Ripley and Sarah were so sadly outnumbered by the Indiana Joneses, the Marty McFlys, the Conans, the Rick Deckards, the Alex Rogans, the Atreyus, the Bastians, etc. that girls might be forgiven for getting the message that women couldn’t really be heroes in sci-fi, fantasy, or adventure movies. Yet we went to see the Indys and the Martys anyway, identifying with the male heroes and relishing their adventures. Because, although it’s taken Hollywood a while to figure this out, women are geeks. We’re interested in geek culture. But maybe, just maybe, we’d like to see ourselves playing bigger parts in it.

The beginning of the 1990s gave us another iconic heroine of geek culture: Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. But despite this promising start, where the big screen was concerned the 1990s weren’t much better than the 1980s, the resurgence of the ripped, tough Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 and the appearance of Disney warrior Mulan notwithstanding. But change was afoot, and it was television that led the way, with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, an increased female presence in TV science fiction franchises like Star Trek, and dynamic women characters in new science fiction TV shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape. Hollywood creative types were finally starting to come around to the fact that female geeks exist, and that we might like to see ourselves saving the day, rather than simply helping or hindering or comforting the man who saves the day. Now, at last, the big screen seems to be catching up. Where in the past we could count ourselves lucky if we saw one female protagonist in a high-quality adventure, thriller, or SF movie in a given year, nowadays we might see three or four. The year 2016 stands out in my mind as especially good for geek heroines, giving us Zootopia, Finding Dory, Queen of Katwe, Moana, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and perhaps the best of all, Arrival — all heroine-centered, yet not a one afflicted with the stereotypical infallible, invincible paragon-of-perfection “strong female character” the vlogger sees as epidemic.

Where the vlogger sees a ruinous “woke feminism” that came out of nowhere in the 2010s, I see a steady progression from the 1980s, a gradual embrace of the Geek Woman. Can we still do better? Absolutely. We do need more flawed, complex heroines who make mistakes and learn from them, whose victories are inspiring precisely because they are hard earned. But I think we’re headed in that direction. A good direction. Just think of whip-smart, wild, obstreperous, imperfect Webby Vanderquack of the 2017 DuckTales reboot and smile at the thought of what might lie ahead.

Fictional Characters that Gave Me Joy in 2020

  1. January Scaller, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow)

The first-person narration that Harrow employs for much of her novel is a bit polarizing; I’ve heard some readers strongly dislike it. I, however, find it rich in intelligence and humor as it conveys January’s personality and inner life — her energy, her boundless curiosity, and at times her confusion and uncertainty. As I read it, I felt I was making a friend. She frustrated me and tried my patience sometimes, but then, good friends do that.

2. Circe, Circe (Madeline Miller)

To be honest, when I last read The Odyssey I had a feeling the sailors Circe turned into pigs when they landed on her isle must have had it coming; after all, half the trouble Odysseus and his crew get into results from their failure to respect the rules of hospitality. So it delights me to see the story told from Circe’s point of view, and to get to know her as, on the one hand, a badass witch who takes no guff, and on the other, a lonely, longing woman whose insecurities have their roots in an unloved childhood. Her story, particularly its conclusion, is a thing of beauty.

3. Setsuko, The Sword of Kaigen (M.L. Wang)

While protagonist Misaki (whom I also like) has garnered most of her attention, for me her sister-in-law and best friend Setsuko is the MVP of Wang’s breakout success. While Misaki makes her arduous journey, Setsuko is a supportive, optimistic presence, a woman who knows how to love and value herself despite the repressive gender roles of the society she lives in and, through example, helps Misaki learn the same. As Maya Angelou might put it, she is a woman, phenomenally. We should all have a Setsuko in our lives.

4. Jane and Katherine, Deathless Divide (Justina Ireland)

Side by side on the cover of the book, Jane and Katherine appear to be the prototypical “Tomboy and Girly-Girl,” yet their story reveals them to be beyond category. Jane is all uncompromising toughness and hard-edged humor, messy and often unreasonable, yet she’s driven by her strong moral code, and she’s far more capable of great love and loyalty than she likes to let on. Katherine is overtly more sympathetic, often wearing her kind and generous nature on her sleeve. Yet even though, as the cover makes clear, she’s very ladylike in her deportment, she’s every bit as kick-ass as Jane, every bit as active and defiant in the face of evil. The two friends share a spot on this list, because it’s together that they shine most brightly.

5. Tarasai, Raybearer (Jordan Ifueko)

If I had the chance to buy and gift one of the books I read this year to every single friend and follower I have, it would be this one; if it were within my power to make Jordan Ifueko as bit a YA fantasy superstar as Sarah J. Maas, Saaba Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, and Cassandra Clare, I’d do it in a minute. Her debut novel is rich in complexity of plot, character, and world, and its protagonist, Tarasai, is smart, powerful, curious, courageous, and decent. She isn’t without flaws, but when she makes mistakes, she owns them and tries to correct them. Unlike (IMO) too many YA fantasy heroines, she doesn’t deliberately act like a jerk to the people around her.

6. Csorwe, The Unspoken Name (A.K. Larkwood); Xiala, Black Sun (Rebecca Roanhorse); Shefali, The Tiger’s Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: monster heroines — women who are not quite human and at least a little bit scary — are my jam, and this year I got to know three splendid ones: the ogreish Csorwe, with her tusks and her defiance of “destiny” and her slow-burn romance; the merwoman Xiala, with her seagoing swagger and her sea-controlling powers and her slow-burn romance; and Shefali. with her. . . I can’t say too much because I want to recommend the book rather than spoil it, so I’ll settle for pointing out that she ends up being the scariest of all of them and her romance is the stuff of legends. I’m not the type of reader who insists that every book she reads absolutely must have a romantic plot or subplot, but it does make me smile that all these monstrous heroines, in their scary glory, are valued and loved.

7. Angela Abar, Watchmen (HBO)

When it comes to movie and TV characters, my reasons for loving a character may be a bit on the shallow side. In the case of the indomitable superhero protagonist of Watchmen, aside from Regina King’s stalwart, magnetic performance — I just love her crime-fighting outfit! The trousers and boots and long black coat ensemble is my favorite superheroine outfit ever, and perfect for the heroine this dark, gritty, and involving story requires.

8. Sylvia Tilley, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS)

Neuro-atypical heroes of any gender are regrettably rare, though when they do appear, they tend to be male. It’s refreshing to see this kind of character in female guise for a change, but that’s not the only reason that the awkward, over-eager Tilley is precious to me. She reminds me so much of myself as a teen: wanting friends, wanting to fit in yet not quite knowing how. Yet I can only wish I’d been half as brilliant, generous, and open-hearted as she is. She kicks butt and surprises people while doing it. Over the course of three seasons, she’s shown that underestimating her is a bad idea, and has won the respect and friendship of her colleagues.

9. The cast of Hamilton (Disney+)

Calling them “fictional” is a stretch, but I couldn’t leave them out. Watching the film of the Original Broadway Cast was simply too big a highlight of my 2020 for me not to acknowledge it. This one lives up to the hype.

10. Navani Kholin, Rhythm of War (Brandon Sanderson)

I’m still in the midst of the fourth doorstopper volume of the Stormlight Archive series, but my favorite thing about it so far has been seeing Navani, a supporting player in the previous books, step into the limelight as a co-protagonist. Navani is super-smart, endlessly curious, resourceful, and well past her prime — in short, a wonderful heroine for me to spend time with as I face mid-life.

The Christmas Movie Gender Gap

I have a confession to make: I have never watched A Christmas Story. Here’s another one: I don’t plan to.

I know plenty of women who love the film, but for me it’s always come across clearly as a story about guys, for guys. Maybe it’s that ridiculous, tasteless “leg lamp” that we’re apparently meant to find funny. Or maybe it’s the absence of girls from any substantial roles. Or maybe it’s because it features only two women of significance: the downtrodden killjoy mother and the shrewish killjoy teacher, both obstacles to protagonist Ralphie getting his heart’s desire, a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

But a few days ago I thought to myself, “Surely a holiday tradition so beloved can’t be that sexist, can it?” So I did some Googling, and I discovered the movie may be even worse than I’d imagined where its representation of female characters is concerned. It seems that hidden under the narrative of Ralphie’s quest for a BB gun Christmas present is another, darker story, of a woman so disregarded that she “hasn’t had a hot meal in fifteen years,” a woman who does her level best with the hand life has dealt her yet gets no respect whatsoever. That’s the story the movie doesn’t expect its viewers to notice, let alone think or care about.

Well, it’s just a movie, and no one is going to tie me to a chair and force me to watch it. No big deal, right? The trouble is that when I think over those modern (1980s and after) Christmas movies that have either become classics of stand poised to become so, I find that almost none of them focus on girls or women. The best-known holiday heroes, from Santa to Scrooge to Jack Skellington, are all male. Even the ones I love most — not only The Nightmare Before Christmas but also Trading Places, Arthur Christmas, and Klaus — center on male leads. (When Matt and I rewatched Arthur Christmas last year, I was shocked at the number of off-hand sexist remarks I’d apparently blocked from my memory; a dash of misogyny is hardly a welcome spice, particularly in a narrative where the offender is unlikely to learn any better.)

According to my Googling, the picture for female representation in quality Christmas movies isn’t completely bleak. Thrillist’s 50 Best Christmas Movies includes Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and Tangerine, featuring two trans women protagonists, both of which I still need to check out. Rotten Tomatoes’ list of 62 Best Christmas Movies of All Time tips its hat to both the 1994 and 2019 adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as well as other potential gems I haven’t seen yet, Happy Christmas and Anna and the Apocalypse, and the brand-new Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, which we recently watched and enjoyed. Yet even after looking over the list, I still can’t help feeling a bit disheartened.

First, there’s the issue of quantity. Of the fifty best Christmas movies mentioned by Thrillist, only six have female protagonists or co-protagonists, and of those, only three were made after 1980. Among Rotten Tomatoes’ sixty-two movies listed, only fourteen have girls or women as central characters. That leaves a substantial majority in which female characters serve as mothers, love interests, and/or Hero Support.

Second, most of the exceptions, the movies with female central characters, have romance as the main thrust of their plots. Apparently, in the movies, the only way a woman can truly get into the Christmas spirit is by finding love. In the “cheesy” holiday movies ground out by Hallmark and Lifetime’s assembly line, the woman usually surrenders to Christmas by abandoning her big city job (because evidently, cities don’t celebrate Christmas) and settling down to a quiet, small-town, domestic experience as Ralphie’s mom; 1940s classics like Remember the Night, Christmas in Connecticut, The Shop Around the Corner, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Miracle on 34th Street seem positively enlightened by comparison. (It helps that these films feature something rarely seen in the modern made-for-cable stuff: good writing and acting.) Yet even when they’re good, should romances be the only kind of female-led Christmas story we see? Carol and the new Happiest Season at least challenge heteronormity, but even so, it’s past time for the writers of holiday films to broaden their concepts of what female characters’ Christmas experiences might involve.

This narrow idea of What a Woman’s Christmas Is All About may be one cause, direct or unconscious, of my third point of dissatisfaction: a noticeable lack of young girls as protagonists of the best-loved and most highly acclaimed Christmas movies. 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street may stand the test of time — and despite only netting him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle is the real protagonist, with little Natalie Wood being off screen for most of the film’s second half — but among modern films there simply is no girl-centric equivalent, at least in terms of popularity, to A Christmas Story or Home Alone. Of those that do focus on girls, many just aren’t very good (e.g. Eloise at Christmastime, All I Want for Christmas, the ill-advised remakes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and, despite the talent involved, Mrs. Santa Claus), and others, despite their quality, fail to catch on (e.g. 1991’s The Story Lady, which centers on three generations of female characters with nary a romance in sight). While it may be that if the female protagonist of a Christmas movie is too young to fall in love, audiences aren’t interested, but more likely the problem can be put down to the old, infuriating “conventional wisdom” that while stories about boys are for everyone, stories about girls will only appeal to girls. I do have some hope that Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, which features a very resourceful and likable young heroine, might make some lasting impact. Fingers crossed.

There’s not much we can do about the existing body of Christmas films. Nor do I mean to suggest we should throw out all the guy-focused holiday favorites: “it’s not for me” does not and will never translate into “it shouldn’t be for anyone.” I only mean to point out a gap that talented writers might fill in the years to come. We need worthier female-centered holiday stories, and we need people willing to write them.

Here is an offering of mine.

Weighing In on the Impossibility of Lists

Part I

TIME Magazine has posted a list of the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time,” as determined by a panel of fantasy authors including N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Sabaa Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin, Cassandra Clare, and Marlon James. In the world of geek social media, this list — as might be expected for any list claiming to name the “best fantasy books of all time” — has drawn a good bit of criticism.

Some have accused the list of “recency bias,” of ignoring older titles by such authors as Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Gene Wolfe in favor of recent works that, they argue, simply haven’t been around long enough to be considered “best of all time.” Since one of the markers for consideration is influence, this argument makes sense. But if we’re going on quality alone, an excellent book should have a shot at inclusion regardless of when it was published. Recent books on a list like this serve a clear purpose: to demonstrate how the genre has evolved, as well as where it might be headed. My issue isn’t so much with the inclusion of recent books as with the choice of which recent books to include — but more on that later.

Others have looked askance at the decision to include multiple works by the same authors, while other important and deserving names have been pushed off the list altogether. This I agree with. I would never be so foolish as to suggest Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings shouldn’t be on a Best Fantasy of All Time list; on influence alone, if nothing else, its inclusion is indisputable. But why a spot for each book in the series, when Tolkien himself regarded it as a single narrative entity? It should be given a single spot, rather than three. Likewise, LeGuin’s Earthsea and Jemisin’s Broken Earth should be honored as series, not as individual books. This would leave room for at least a few other deserving titles.

Then we have the most common and inevitable complaint about lists of this kind: “Where are my favorites?” Some have protested the omission of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive; others decry the absence of Erikson’s Malazan; still others look in vain for an entry from Cook’s The Black Company; and so forth, and so on. Here, I admit, lies my own greatest personal dissatisfaction with the list. It may have “recency bias” in favor of works from a time when the genre’s authors and characters are not so overwhelmingly white and male, but where is Robin Hobb? Where are Kate Elliott, Barbara Hambly, Juliet Marillier, Martha Wells, Patricia McKillip, and Lois McMaster Bujold? Where are Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, one a Hugo winner and the other a highly regarded nominee? The superb Octavia Butler may be regarded as more of a science fiction writer than a fantasy writer, but if Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight belongs on this list, why not Kindred or Wild Seed? I can’t agree with those who sneer at the inclusion of YA titles on the list, but even in YA, what’s good (e.g. Ifueko’s Raybearer, Ireland’s Dread Nation/ Deathless Divide, Soria’s Iron Cast, Croggon’s The Books of Pellinor) seem to have been ignored in favor of what’s popular.

And therein lies a problem that can’t be escaped: the impossibility of gathering a panel of experts who would be familiar with everything in the genre they’re trying to determine the best of. It hasn’t escaped the attention of the list’s critics that works in translation are almost entirely absent from the list; moreover, particularly where the recent books are concerned, almost every work included is by an American author. Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens still stands out in my mind as one of the finest works of historical fantasy I’ve ever read, but it’s virtually unknown in this country. Moreover, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that none of the panelists are familiar with Juliet Marillier’s work. Thus “best” tends to mean “best known,” and I’m not sure what might be done to change that.

Yet while all such lists are flawed, most of them manage to get at least a few choices right. Here are just some of the works I was happy to see included:

The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) — While I’d normally resist a children’s fantasy book as heavily male-centric as this one, this one is just too darn delightful for me to hold that against it.

The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle) — This book contains some of the most stunning yet simple prose I’ve ever read.

Watership Down (Richard Adams) — I’ve written previously about this one.

The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter) — Here’s one of the most enjoyably feminist items on the entire list; these short stories helped cement my taste for fairy-tale retellings.

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman) — This is one of the few contemporary-set fantasies I genuinely enjoy.

Spindle’s End (Robin McKinley) — This lovely retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” one of my most disliked fairy tales, too often gets ignored in favor of Beauty, The Blue Sword, and The Hero and the Crown. It’s nice to see it recognized as it deserves.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor) — This one knocked me breathless when I first read it, and remains, along with Butler’s Kindred, one of the most disturbing-in-a-good-way books I’ve ever read.

Circe (Madeline Miller) — I fell in love with the writing and characterization of this one within the first twenty-five pages.

Empire of Sand (Tasha Suri) and Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) — As recent as they may be, these two works do something all too rare in the fantasy genre: they get the romance right.

Coming Next: Building My Own List.

It’s (Past) Time for Girls to Matter

My home state of Georgia has earned a measure of infamy for its various public school systems’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis as they proceed with Fall Semester. I can empathize with their dilemma, as their choices seem limited to one that sucks (to open up even though enforcing safe social distancing is all but impossible) and one that sucks less (to continue with virtual learning). But when school officials claim they can’t possibly enforce a mask mandate because the decision to wear or not to wear a mask constitutes a “personal choice” that should not be interfered with, I can only roll my eyes and groan. As has been pointed out frequently on social media, this constitutes rank hypocrisy, since school systems interfere with students’ fashion choices all the time, most often when those students happen to be girls. Evidently a girl in a miniskirt constitutes a greater danger to campus health than a maskless boy jostling and elbowing his way down a crowded corridor between classes.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always disliked skimpy clothing. When I was in my early teens, my mom had to fight to get me into a pair of shorts during the summers. I’ve mellowed quite a bit since then, but I still find concealing outfits nicer to look at than revealing ones. (I feel this way about men’s clothing as well as women’s; Speedos do nothing for me.) But, with apologies to Voltaire, even if I don’t like what you’re wearing, I will defend to the death your right to wear it, especially when I consider just whom most school dress codes are intended to support and protect. What girl would imagine the school has her best interests at heart when the principal orders her to go home and change out of a short skirt and into a pair of jeans? She’s more likely to feel humiliated than cared for. This kind of thing is done for the sake of the boys whose attention might wander if the girls in their classroom show their legs, shoulders, etc. The idea is that boys will lose all self-control if they’re forced to look at girls’ exposed skin — the same logic behind the burka.

What do girls learn from this? That boys and their interests come first. That boys will carry the future that the students are being prepared for. That boys matter more.

It’s the same message I got while growing up and watching movies where boys got to save the galaxy, travel through time, stop nuclear war, and challenge evil rulers, while the only battles girls got to fight had much lower stakes and were generally domestic-centered. It’s the message I got from family sitcoms where the funniest, most charismatic characters, the ones the audience adored, were always boys. Popular culture has made tremendous strides since then in the direction of inclusion, but as Jacqueline Carey points out, we still have a good distance to go.

But even if entertainment doesn’t drive home the point that boys count in ways that girls don’t, news of the real world can do the job. Recently, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal has come back into the news, as his alleged procurer, Ghislaine Maxwell, has been arrested. Not many crime stories sadden me quite as much as Epstein’s. How was he able to keep his “Lolita Express” in business, servicing powerful men of all backgrounds and political ideologies? That question preys on my mind every time I see a picture of Ghislaine Maxwell standing next to President Trump or ex-President Clinton, and the only answer I can find is that Epstein and Maxwell were able to keep their game running because not enough people thought the girls mattered enough to interfere with the men’s fun. Men’s money was chosen over girls’ well-being, until the list of victims was simply too long to be ignored.

The news repeats the same story ad nauseum, with only the names changing — from Harvey Weinstein to R. Kelly to Bill Cosby to Matt Lauer to Louis C.K. and on and on and on. And girls are watching this, learning from it. Just how many books by Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, movies like Moana and Wonder Woman, and TV shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is it going to take to counteract the poison of that oft-repeated story?

The daydreams we offer to girls have much power to do good, but fiction can’t carry all the weight. We have to start thinking about what we’re really saying to girls in the behavior we applaud, the behavior we excuse, and the policies we set — including school systems’ selective policing of what their students wear.

It’s past time to start telling girls that they count.

Book Report: Recent Reads

The True Queen

At the story’s outset, author Zen Cho introduces us to two sisters. There’s Sakti, tall, beautiful, replete with magic, and more than a bit temperamental and selfish. Then there’s Muna, smaller, less beautiful, and distinctly unmagical; she’s also the one who does the heavy lifting in the sisters’ close relationship. Sakti longs for experience, to escape the “tyranny” of their mentor, Mak Genggang; Muna, by contrast, is a patient homebody. A little familiarity with such earlier fantasy fiction as Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre should clue the reader in to which of the girls will prove to be the story’s hero, and sure enough, as they pass through the land of Faery on their way to England, where hopefully they’ll discover the secret to lifting the curse upon them, Sakti disappears, and Muna must carry on alone, not only to undo the curse but to save her sister.

Muna, who as previously mentioned lacks magic, must somehow present herself as a powerful sorceress to gain entry to England’s foremost — well, only — school for female magicians, run by Sorceress Royal Prunella Gentleman Wythe (the heroine of Cho’s previous novel, Sorcerer to the Crown). As she taps into a reserve of resourcefulness to keep up the charade and to search for answers, we readers come to realize two things: 1) we really only care about rescuing Sakti because Muna does, and 2) Sakti’s disappearance is actually the best thing that could have happened to Muna, as it gives her a chance to discover who she is, and what she can do, outside the shadow of her oh-so-special sister. Resourcefulness is perhaps my favorite trait in a hero, and Muna’s time in England and her return trip to Faery win me firmly to her side. Like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Muna has more about her than she or anyone else guesses. The truth about herself and her sister reveals she is far from the ordinary girl she always thought herself. While on the surface this resembles plenty of YA fantasy narratives that depict their heroines learning they have supernatural powers — Goodreads and other internet reviewers coined the term “special snowflake” to describe these girls long before the alt-right got hold of it — Cho handles the trope with skill, and Muna’s eventual discovery of her specialness feels earned.

The book includes a romantic subplot, as Muna and Prunella’s best friend and fellow instructress, Henrietta Stapleton, are drawn to each other. Here again we see Cho’s strength, as she deftly navigates away from the most annoying cliches. Finding love is part of Muna’s journey rather than the whole of it, and Henrietta is not simply a Satellite Love Interest to be left on the sidelines till the hero is ready to settle down. She has a character arc of her own, and she’s at Muna’s side on her return journey to Faery, playing a vital role in her adventures, including the rescue of an imprisoned dragon. In Henrietta, Muna finds someone who can give her the love and support she deserves, and that makes me smile.

Some might ask, is it necessary to read Sorcerer to the Crown in order to understand The True Queen? Not really. Muna’s journey can be followed without prior knowledge of Prunella’s struggles in the previous novel to win the right to practice magic, for herself and all women. But why would you want to skip it? I admit I enjoyed the sequel a little bit better than I did the first one. In Sorcerer, we have to read through fifty-odd pages before we meet Prunella, at which point I became fully engaged in the story; this one, which introduces its protagonist at the beginning, had me invested from the get-go. Also, since Muna is a more empathetic heroine than the brilliant, dauntless, but slightly chilly Prunella, the book as a whole has a bit more warmth to it. But Sorcerer is, nonetheless, a fine work, and the two novels together form a tribute to Cho’s talent and range as a writer. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us next.