Sunday, January 15, 2012

Acts Like a Man: Female Leads in Fantasy

by Stella Atrium

I just finished the Tamir series by Lynn Flewelling, including The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Queen's Oracle.  The fantasy series addresses young girls as leaders and warriors, nurtured by hiding her true gender from mentors. The prince/princess has a mother who was murdered, along with female role models who appear to her as long dead relatives.  Living women in the series are cook, nanny, and two warriors also held back from advancement by gender.

The improbability of a 16-year-old girl leading an army into a decisive battle of civil war is glossed over by statements of medieval blood rights to the crown, a thin veneer at best. But, this is fantasy and caters to the age of the audience.

Laura CroftThe idea that a woman succeeds when she acts as a lone wolf feeds into characterization of a female protagonist who thinks like a man and acts like a man, exemplified by the Laura Croft character. She is trained for weapons and hand-to-hand combat.  She has analytical skills and adequate financial resources to put her ideas into action. She is equal to the men in a chase scene or a mono-a-mono contest.

Where are her sisters?  Where are her students or a mentor (besides Daddy) or women of equal strength and ambition? The men in The Tomb Raider stories all travel in groups. Why does she have no support system besides a computer geek who lives (apparently) in the lobby of her mansion?

Amazingly, the movie industry still debates whether the public will attend an action movie with a female lead, and this topic came up again with the Angelina Jolie movie Salt or Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart.

Another classic lone-woman-acts-like-a-man story is the Alien series with Sigourney WeaverSigourney Weaver. She has no kids or support group of women, but she has knowledge of weapons and electronics, and she solves problems the men also try to solve by using similar reasoning. The only true female in that series was the monster that was busy laying eggs where they might mature and expanding its species.

When I ask these questions about how female characters act, I'm often accused of looking at details that are peripheral to the story. The plot is about the actions of the hero to solve the problem presented in the inciting event and gain revenge on the bad guy. Nobody cares how his sister gets the laundry done.  One reviewer told me that nobody cares what the characters wear and I should stop describing wardrobe in detail.  I suppose that's why the men in these stories all dress alike and never get clean.

Indiana Jones' fedora in not an essential element of his character? Jones Junior's leather jacket (homage to The Wild One with a young Marlon Brando) was not a conscience choice?

The sidelines action is all the good stuff, forgotten or edited by the men and now available for us to exploit for unique point of view.

For example, in the movie Beckett, Peter O'Toole plays Henry Plantagenet and Richard Burton plays his chancellor (and archbishop) Beckett. There's a scene where Henry speaks to his wife Eleanor in harsh tones saying her bed was cold. She is depicted as bound by restrictive fashion and relegated to a sewing circle.

However, this wife of Henry is Eleanor of Aquitaine who was Henry's equal in matter of state, finance, property, and war. She was older than him, had more property than him, bore him 8 children, opened schools and hospitals, wrote law where women could own land, saw her kids married to the royal families throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, even in Russia, and was the mother of Richard the Lionhearted who she rescued from prison in Germany when she was 80 years old.  Why are there no movies about this peripheral material?

Eleanor is shown again in The Lion in Winter (played by Katherine Hepburn with Peter O'Toole still doing Henry) where she has spent 10 years in the Tower of London and is still his best sparring partner in matters of state, family, and finance.

Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter is a great example of how a strong woman character makes the male hero look better. When we place the female protagonist stage front-and-center, we may displace the male lead, but we strengthen him as well by providing dimension. If a female character is solving problems about how to manage the kids and live on a budget, the male character has contributed to those questions and must bring his (partial) answer to the theme.

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