Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What's with All the Violence for Girl-Heroes in Fantasy Stories?

by Stella Atrium

So I was thinking about how female fantasy writers connect the girl-hero with violence. I was seeking a quote to start this blog entry, but I came up short.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent – Isaac Asimov

Violence is the last resort of the ignorant – L. Ron Hubbard

Both are a mis-reading of a post-war Roosevelt speech. I guess everybody borrows.

I like that we have chosen to empower women by giving the girl-hero choices and weapons and treasure and magic and the ability to talk to horses. These are exciting additions to her personal power, and I wish the stories had existed when I was young. (My comfort was A Wrinkle in Time where one of the travelers was a girl.)

I recently read a couple trilogies in fantasy where the girl-hero wields a sword, leads an army, and grown men twice her age follow her.  In history,  there was a queen named Matilda (we need a biopic here!!) who put Henry Plantagenet on the throne of England. But Matilda was a grown woman who took advantage in a fractured system where the heir apparent was weak, and the King of France had died leaving Eleanor (Henry’s wife) with a larger kingdom.  Matilda’s victories on the battlefield were few.

MatildaOther queens featured in history ride at the head of armies as inspiration (a young Catherine the Great, for example), but none of them were commoners. Rather, the queen had resources a man usually claims such as treasure and blood rights to squander on a bid for the throne. Mostly these examples from history acted through diplomacy and deceit when the monarchy was weak.

So where is the precedent for all the violence for girl-heroes in fantasy stories?

What girl kills without remorse?  What 14-year-old kills a man who outweighs her by 80 pounds? So sometimes the girl-hero has more magic than the opponent’s magic. Sometimes she was trained in the use of poison to level the contest.

But there’s still the kill stroke – the coup de gras.

Why are we turning girl-heroes, who are written to serve as liberating role models for our younger generation, into killing machines?  When did this trend start?

So the three possibilities for female roles in fantasy are still warrior, sweetheart/victim, or harlot – right? We have no better/different roles for women? Really? I can think of a few, but they depend on adding additional characters to the story; a pantheon of aunts, school mates, teachers, cousins, young sisters and BFFs. Listed are a few examples of character types:

Jealous sister like in the movie The Bodyguard

Buddies like in Thelma and Louise

Friend who turns on you like in Bridesmaids

Long suffering steadfast friend like in Bridesmaids (hence the popularity)

Narcissistic nemesis like in You Again

Overbearing boss like in Working Girl

Friends bonded to improve conditions like in Nine to Five

Friends bonded by community like in Steel Magnolias

BonesMentoring from an expert like in Bones on TV – Why do we never see this structure in fantasy stories? The girl-hero is always mentored by an older man who admits, much later, to sexual interest.  In real life, older women teach younger women. It seems that when a woman reaches age 40, she suddenly goes mute and the girls she mentored erase her name from history.

And another thing – I’m warmed up to it now!! A woman as the bad guy gets the short shrift. The male characters who serve as bad guys in fantasy stories are often deftly drawn with a back story for how they started down a dark road.  But the female bad guys are usually stuck in the “Mirror, mirror, on the wall” musky old motif.  What happened in her background that twisted her sense of doing good?

A bad guy who serves to drive the story thinks he is doing what’s best for the future, and he offers every justification for why he is right.  A female bad guy never gets that speechifying moment to justify her choices before somebody throws a bucket of water on her.

Come on, ladies…  We can do better than this.


Super Happy Jen said...

"Who would've thought that a good little girl like you could destroy all my beautiful wickedness?"

Stella Atrium said...

I like your observation here. Snow White's power was her purity and beauty, so she didn't need to be a killing machine.

Christine Tyler said...

This is the post I have been waiting for!!! OMG. I wish I had written this. YES. YESYESYES.

I liked Hunger Games, for instance, but you know what, I just tolerated Katniss, because I liked her story. Not only was she sickeningly and often weirdly violent, but she COULD NOT TAKE A HINT, and had trust issues to the point where it just got ridiculous and made for a lot of idiot complexities that could have been easily resolved. I kid you not, I still liked the book, because there was more to it than the things that bugged me.

I wish that women could be strong and powerful and good role models without being cold-hearted killers.

Christine Tyler said...

tweeting this...

Stella Atrium said...

I'm glad you identify with the complaint about girl heroes as cold-blooded killers. I'm trying to speak into the sci-fi writing culture and find/make heroes who are believeable. This effort is harder than it looks.

Christine, I love your enthusiasm!

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