"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The princess in modern fiction

This is the beginning of what will probably become a series of posts exploring the relationship of feminism to fiction. This is something I've been thinking about for some time--as both a feminist and a novelist, I wonder sometimes what my obligations are to reconcile the two.

Today, however, I'm thinking what I, as a fantasy lover, think of as the princess syndrome--the nature of the female lead in a action or adventure story, when she is there primarily to give ris eot a romantic subplot. This psot is hardly meant to be a complete survey of entertainment, And I'm probably guilty of far too many sweeiping generalizations. So I'd appreciate it if you'd mentally append the occasional "in my experience" or other qualifier.

As we all know, a woman's worth is usually defined in terms of her value to men--and this is painfully obvious in myths and legends, and a lot of fiction as well. The female character is not only always beautiful, but usually defined almsot solely by her beauty. Any other qualities she has-- a vast inheritance, for instance, or some magical power of blessing or prophecy--also exists primairly as a means to make her more desireable. Her actual role in the story completely lacks any agency. Her lfie is ruled b ymen who order her about, sell her, use her as a reward, kidnap her, send ehr away "for her own safety," and generally act as simply a piece in the chess game played by the men. When she falls into the hands of evil, she dutifully waits to be rescued.

It's a narrative with which we're all familiar, of course, and one that we have seemingly outgrown. But while most everyone claims to support women's equality, and the most blatant types of sexism have been repudiated, I'm not sure the underlying narrative has changed.

I'm going to pick on Arwen from the LotR movies here. Now, I'm not blaming the creator's of those films; they did what they could to give her a real part while staying true to the source material. But Arwen's plight is a perfect example of what irks me about comtemporary fantasy. And because the story has two versions, it shows the change in sensibilities which I am talking about.

Remember, female characters--particularly princesses--are defiend by thier desirability. As men's taste in women changes, so do the heroines who grace film and novel.

In the book, Arwen does... well, actually, I can't remember what she does, other than show up at the end and get married. I haven't read the books in a LONG time, but to my recollection, she wasn't a whole lot more interesting than any fairy-tale princess. She is passive and beautiful, and that is enough.

But women's equality has made some headway. Women are now supposed to be smart, sexy, confident, and highly skilled. Tame passivity is out, self-sufficiency is in. In the *movie* fellowship of the ring, Arwen carries a sword, gets to make some sarcastic remakrs, and does some trick riding to save Frodo from the ringwraiths. This is what modern tastes demand-- In order ot be a worthy match for Aragorn, she too *must* be a heroic individual.

Or does she? This is where entertainers run into trouble. The success of heroes like Buffy, Xena, and Elizabeth Swann showed them that the public wants smart, capable heroines. And yet these heroines are threatening: if they don't need to be rescued, what wil happen to traditional masculinity? How will we continue to re-tell the same male-dominated plots (featuring epic confrontations of two male warriors, for instance) if the *women* get the idea that the story is somehow about *them*?

Fictional females seem to be in a double bind that real women probably find familiar-- They should be smart, but not *too* smart. Or rather, capable yet subordinate, careful never to accidentally steal the limelight from their male counterparts.

Consider the rest of LotR: Arwen, who has been portrayed as a warrior capable of starring in action flick ehrself, does *not* accompany the fellowship on its mission. Her involvement in the rest of the story is limited to lending spirutal support to her man, since nurturing *is* the noblest of female achievements. She shows up again at the very end to propvide the conquering hero with a wife--and in the process of marrying him, quite *literally* gives up her own life and identity. From immortal elven princess to short-lived consort, all for the love of a man.

Strained plotting produces this kind of thing time and again. Consider Elizabeth Swann, from Pirates of the Caribbean. She is very intellignet, skilled, and assertive, but never quite manages to escape the "princess" role. Though she has no end of clever ploys, she still gets kidnapped, taken hostage, and fought over throughout two entire movies, and the rare few times she's left to her own devices--such as when she so cleverly commandeers the ship in the sequel--her only thought is to get back to her man as soon as possible, since there was evidnetly no room to give her any goals or motivations of her own.

The lesson here is not that women have value in themselves, but that a smart slave is more valuable than a stupid one, once convinced to accept serivtude. Todays princesses are no longer to wait passively ot be rescued; on the contrary, they must always attempt to save themselves.

But not, you know, hard enough to actually succeed.
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