Saving Science Fiction From Strong Female Characters – Part 3
Let us start with a few questions:
Why cannot both men and women be free, and leaders, and strong?
Women cannot be kings for the same reason men cannot be queens. Women in leadership roles do not lead in the same fashion as men do. They still lead (as we have seen in leaders from Queen Boadicea to Queen Elizabeth or Margaret Thatcher) but the tone and approach is different.
Why cannot both sexes, or (to be more specific) as many members of either sex as wish and can, perform tasks requiring boldness of action and clarity of thought and physical courage?
Physical courage is something boys are good at and proud of and naturally included to do. Even those effete intellectual men such as myself who do not cook outdoors and bowhunt grizzly bears or know how to fix a car engine still nonetheless approach life through a metaphor of conflict, war, duels, and tournaments. The reason why I behave honorably in a philosophical discussion is that I think of it as a duel to the death.
The question perhaps assumes social units do not exist, and that the decision is individual rather than communal. Women who are bold rather than wise are playing to something they are generally not good at, don’t really enjoy it when they win using those tactics: maybe some women like being domineering, but all too often they are called bitchy rather than called strongwilled. For better or worse, it is simply more feminine to talk someone into volunteering to do something than to browbeat and overawe and scare them into doing it, which is the male technique.
Last time my boss yelled at me it scared the bejezus out of me, and the straightened up and flew right after that, but I did not take it personally, and would not take it personally, because there was honor involved but no emotion involved. Contrariwise, females bosses I have had took everything personally and dished out everything personally, and there was no honor involved. One of them fired me once without ever telling me what, if anything, I had done wrong. She did not want the confrontation, I assume, because the confrontation would have been (in her mind) personal. The other time a female boss fired me, she felt sorry for me, which make it worse. I would have greatly preferred the matter be handled in an impersonal and professional fashion. I did not want her to have concern for my feelings. Had we been in a social or domestic situation where feminine nature is queen, her sympathy would have been useful and welcome. My conclusion from those and other examples is that women, by and large, do not have a neutral emotional setting like men do. Perhaps societies less friendly and more hierarchical, like the British or the Japanese, can produce women who can be cool and neutral while retaining both her dignity and the dignity of her underlings. I don’t know.
As for clarity of thought, women are as clear thinking as men, but they are generally better at multitasking and juggling priorities rather than being obsessively single-minded.
Even if we stipulate that the sexes have a different statistical distribution of aptitudes for approaches, at what point should a general difference in emphasis be taken as justification for absolute prohibition in function, or (to get back to the subject of science fiction) for absolute disbelief of particular depictions?
An absolute prohibition? No one has even mentioned that as a possibility. Even in the most male dominated periods of history, we still had women saints like Joan of Arc or the Virgin Mary, queens like Semiramis, and military maidens like Camilla and Britomart and so on. The tradition of warrior women is as old as legends of Amazons. No one here is suggesting an absolute prohibition.
As to where the line between suspension of disbelief and absolute disbelief should fall, that question is a matter of personal judgement. I cannot speak for other men.
For myself, the line falls at physical combat. When Hawkeye is punching and kicking the Black Widow in the otherwise excellent AVENGERS movie, my suspenders of disbelief (as I call them) both snapped, and suddenly it looked like muscular 5’10” Jeremy Renner kicking the snot out of wispy 5’3″ Scarlett Johansson. It is like a fight between a thirteen year old boy and a thirty year old man (I am sure fights between adults and children can take place, but they are not even-steven fights and should not be portrayed as such).
If Supergirl is from Planet Krypton, fine, she can punch goons through solid brick walls, no problem. Ditto for Starfire of the Teen Titans. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer is possessed by all the strength of the ghosts of all the Slayers back to the First Slayer, fine, she has superduper strength and it is magic. Fine. That is all fine with me.
But when the heroine is Hit Girl or Batgirl or some leggy blonde selected for her cup size rather than fighting ability, all the portrayals of wispy little she-adventuresses able to tackle boatloads of thugs built like linebackers does is make it socially acceptable for boys to hit girls.
Such portrayals do not make the women good role models. If anything, they are misleading role models, because all those leather-clad vampire huntresses are built like Barbie dolls. Remember how feminists complain that such dolls give little girls an unrealistic body image? Well, the pursuit of strong female characters has captured the worst of both worlds. Now all the comic book images of superspies and superbabes and superheroines are both built like Barbie and have the fighting skill of Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan.
Read the first chapter of my book ORPHANS OF CHAOS. The scene where Amelia Windrose, who is tall for a girl, and athletic, and, who, before puberty, was able to outrun and outperform her brothers in track and field events, encounters a day when she find out that the boys now have muscles powered by testosterone, which she simply does not have and simply cannot match. Her younger brother can now out race and outwrestle her, and as she is pinned down under the strength of his hands, she realizes with a shock that she will not be able to train hard enough to beat him again, not now, not next year, not EVER. Her muscles will stay at the same level as that a thirteen year old boy from now until forever.
This scene was based on real life. Not one, but two girls of my close acquaintance both has this happened to them. They had been convinced, and everyone had told them, and all the movies and television shows had shown them, that girls could fight boys and be victorious. One girl was shocked when a male friend of hers, just horsing around, pinned her down with one hand. She had always thought she’d be able to fend off a male attacker. That day she found out she would not be fending off any male aggressor, or not without an equalizer. The other friend was equally shocked when the boy she was with was walking down the beach with her, and he picked her up (I do not know whether bride style or Tarzan style) and ran full speed down the beach with him. She realized with a shock that she could not have picked him up no matter what, not even in an emergency, not even if he was helping. These were not even linebackers built like Conan or men on the leading edge of physical strength for men: they were ordinary boys of ordinary strength.
I have once or twice seen a fight scene where a boy punches a girl and knocks her out immediately, but have never seen a scene where the boy beats the girl slowly into unconsciousness after a ten or twelve round match. It is never, ever portrayed that way. After a male and female exchange a series of blows, the woman is always sure to win because she is the underdog, and to have the man win at that point is not dramatic. I have never seen a scene where a woman fighting a man gets scared and starts crying and gives up, even though, without the madness of male hormones, that emotion of fear and surrender is much, much more common in women than in men. Look at the police statistics if you do not believe me (I used to cover the crime beat in my county. There was not a single murderess during the three years I had that job, although I met more the one murderer.)
So my point is that our disbelief should be suspended just so long and exactly so long as it it clear this is make-believe.
But the agenda of Political Correctness is trying to make this make-believe seem real.
Women will go insane and go into despair if asked to compete at a male task on male terms with male rules. Do not get me wrong, there are topflight female athletes who can outperform men who are below average. But topflight female athletes in nearly all fields perform about as well as topflight highschool boys, not as well as topflight college boys, who are at their statistical peak of physical performance.
Putting women in a situation where they are sure to fail but are not allowed to admit that they are overmatched and not allowed to quit is the best possible way to induce despair. How can the woman be sure, even if she does win over some male athlete at some male sport, that the standards were not lowered to accommodate her?
The other thing that was the turning point in my personal opinion on this matter (believe it or not, back in the days of darkness, I was an ardent egalitarian and fan of women’s lib just like everyone else) was another thing shocking to me, but which apparently fairly common. The most physically attractive woman I have ever met I met in college, during the premier of a film she was in: this was the starlette Virginia Madsen, and we were both 24 year old when we met. I waltzed a dance or two with her, and taking her out on the balcony, asked her what she admired in a man? What kind of man did she want in life? She answered that she wanted Tarzan, a man who would sweep her off her feet, picked her up, and (she nodded toward a tall tree in the distance) carry her off to that tree. In other words, she wanted physical strength, confidence, courage, directness, leadership. Manliness.
I had since heard the same thing from many other women, but usually in whispers, as if someone told them it was a shameful and weak thing to be feminine.
Someone told them that little boys should want to grow up and be Tarzan, who wrestles lions, but little girls should not grow up to want to be Jane, the one who civilizes the ape-man who wrestles lions. Instead little girls should want to grow up to wrestle lions. But I know of no little girl who picks up Barbie dolls and bend the feet to make a shape she can hold like a gun to shoot attacking the pirates and ninjas and dinosaurs. So the standard of trying to warp little girls to be jealous of little boys, and telling them that they can be better than little boys at the very things nature and upbringing conspire to make little boys better at. It is unnatural and unnecessary and its drives the women who grow up trying to live up to this warped standard bat-guano crazy.
It drives them to hate being wives and mothers. It makes even such unthinkable atrocities as killing your own child in the womb seem normal, even seem like a right that no one can deny.
And then the crowning irony is that when a woman writer (for the feminists care about the sex of the writer rather than the sex of the muses — who are female, for those of you keeping track, and can visit writers of either sex) manages to portray a female character who is strong and well rounded and the heroine of the plot, one of the main drivers on whose decisions and reactions the plot hangs — then the world calls that character a ‘Mary Sue’ and the character and her author are mocked.
This is something I neither understand or condone. As far as I can tell, all characters, male and female, with the possible exception of the stars of tragedies ending in a pool of blood are Mary Sues, that is, wish fulfillment characters. And even the tragic heroes would fulfill my wishes, if they die in the noble fashion, poetry on lip and firmness in eye, as a stoic should die.
So what is behind this mockery? Is it just a cruel backlash from the Patriarchy (by which I mean the government of cat-people 61 Ursae Majoris) trying to stifle the self-esteem of the feminists who want to read about feminine heroines?
I am sure there are readers with discriminating patrician tastes who want to read stories with well-rounded and realistic characters, drawn with warts and all, granting some memorable insight into the melancholy grandeur of the human condition. I also read such stories, but only when when I have run out of GALACTIC PATROL novels, or Barsoom books or JUSTICE LEAGUE comics. I have no problem with wish fulfillment characters like the Gray Lensman, who is good at everything; or John Carter, who can outfence and outfight everyone on two worlds and who comes back to life when killed; or Superman, who can outfight and outfly everyone and comes back to life when killed.
What people find annoying is not wish fulfillment characters. What they find annoying is wish fulfillment characters who fulfill unseemly wishes.
What is the wish in this picture, drawn, I assure you, in all serious and earnest good faith by a feminist who was being serious?
The wish is to do without Prince Charming. The wish is to be as good as a man at men’s work. This is from a Disney movie where all the main characters are female and everything that happens, happens because some female makes it happen. (The female are fairies, but so what? Women are magical in real life anyway, as far as I am concerned).
The Prince does little more than dance one waltz with the maiden fair and get his butt kicked by orcs and end up in chains while the evil fairy queen mocks him. Not only is he rescued by women, they are women no bigger than my pinky finger.
But his is the task to face the poisonous thorns and slay the dragon, who is filled with all the powers of Hell.
That anyone would see this, this small role occupying only a few minutes of screen time, as an insult to women, or as a threat, or as an imposition, is madness. So what is the wish being fulfilled in that picture above, where the Sleeping Beauty needs no rescue and needs a man only about as much as a fish needs a bicycle?
It is not a wish for female equality. This is one fairy tale where every female character is either royalty or is supernatural.
It is a wish for sexlessness. It is a wish to do away with everything feminine, and to be better at Prince Charming’s task than the Prince. Ultimately, it is a wish to do away with human nature itself.
But human nature cannot be done away with. Consider that epitome of liberated strong femalehood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who has spawned as many homages and imitations in her day as John Carter did in his. He created a genre of his own, called the Planetary Romance. She created a genre of her own, sometimes called Urban Fantasy, but which should really be called Monster Romance.
It should be called Monster Romance because the main story arc for Buffy was about her love life. First she was sweet on Angel, but that did not work out, then Riley, and then Spike. Despite that she was a kick-ass wire-fu superheroine with a smile full of quips and a hand full of stakes, the main point of the drama was, as in most stories of this kind, her love life.
And Anita Blake? And countless others? Where is the main conflict? Where is the reader’s interest? Where is the drama? It is all about Jean-Claude or Spike or whomever the semihuman male lead is. It is all about the romance.
Most if not all of these urban leather clad ninja-babes and modern swordswomen feed a need in the audience. The males, by and large, just like seeing cute girls dressed as catwoman. The females, by and large, like the romantic drama. There is no drama if the boy and the girl kiss on the first page and get married on the second. The drama exists if something prevents the marriage. These days, there are no real taboos to marrying whomever you would like, and the guy can even start out married to someone else, because divorce is no fault. Modernity allows no dramatic and realistic obstacle to romance.
The solution is to employ dramatic, unrealistic obstacles, such as by having your male lead be a nonhuman from the Night World. In urban fantasy, the vampire or the werewolf can fulfill this role neatly. Also, the half monster can be masculine in a fashion no soft modern man is likely to be: werewolves can be as badass as Conan, and vampires as seductive and dangerous as Lord Byron. (Who no doubt was a vampire, anyway). And since the heroine is the Chosen One, and destined to kill monsters like him, she is placed in a situation where she must overcome both his fallen nature, and the powers of hell, and her own best judgment, and defy the Council of the Illuminati, to win his heart and restore his soul.
Which is a perfectly satisfying book because this is exactly what finding and domesticating a man feels like or should feel like to a woman.
And, of course, in the modern age, where the despair of women is at a historical all time high, and the divorce rate is high and the suicide rate is high, romance feels like a back alley brawl with a supernatural monster. These books are a picture of the despair of women in the sexual free-for-all that exists in a postchristian, feminist world, a world where women are defended by no one but herself.
A leather-clad street fighter with a sword and a chainsaw, covered in blood, is what life feels like to the female readership, who need an image of strength and security to admire. No wonder such books are popular.
On to Part Four. More to Come.