Monday, March 18, 2013

The Female Trickster and "Strong" Heroines

"What ya got in your basket, little girl?" "Weapons." - Buffy, "Fear Itself"

One of our favorite topics here in The Dark Forest is the idea of "strong female characters." In The "Empowerment" of Snow White, I wrote about if giving the leading lady a sword makes her "strong." In "Passive and Dumb" Heroines, I defended the more conventional fairy tale princesses. Recently, two articles came to my attention discussing very different angles of this issue:

Maria Tatar wrote an interesting article in the New York Times about two types of female characters: the Sleeping Beauty and the Female Trickster: While I find the Lady Gaga paragraph a little out of place, the rest of the article explores manifestations of both archetypes in popular culture:
"We've come a long way from what Simone de Beauvoir once found in Anglo-European entertainments: “In song and story the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of a woman; he slays the dragons and giants; she is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep: she waits.” Have we kissed Sleeping Beauty goodbye at last, as feminists advised us to do not so long ago? Her younger and more energetic rival in today’s cultural productions has been working hard to depose her, but archetypes die hard and can find their way back to us in unexpected ways."
After listing many versions of the female trickster in pop culture from Buffy to Hanna to Lisbeth Salander to Katniss, she also makes a troubling observation:
"If male tricksters have traditionally been fixated on satisfying colossal appetites of all kinds, our new female tricksters—orphans, loners, and outsiders—are beleaguered and needy. At work, they become Cassandras, confident and shrewdly prescient women whose intuition and brashness cut through thickets of bureaucratic procedure. Yet, once work stops, they seem utterly lost. There is clearly something compensatory in the psychological fragility of these women warriors: their gains in intellect and muscle are diminished by moments of complete emotional collapse. Vulnerability continues to attract. Hence the intransigent presence of the sleeping princess, who remains central to many films and novels, despite the rising numbers of female avengers and investigators."
I wish I knew the heroinesTatar was thinking about when she said this. I do not think this "complete emotional collapse" occurs with all female tricksters. Hanna certainly never showed a loss of emotional control that was unwarranted. Certainly, there are some cases when this instance occurs, but there is a difference between voyeuristically delighting in a strong woman's vulnerability and creating compelling flawed characters. If a female trickster was a badass all the time, and never lost, and never wavered, she would be highly uninteresting. The same would be true of a male character. I do not think that moments of weakness of vulnerability diminish a character, but enhance it. The second article, published later, echos my feelings exactly.

The Hub's article,  "What We Talk About When We Talk About Strong Heroines in Young Adult Fiction," embraces all kinds of female strength:
"When we talk about strong heroines in young adult fiction, let’s celebrate the quiet(er) strength of realistic characters as well as the dramatic, death-defying strength of sci-fi, action/adventure, and fantasy heroines. Strength is more than physical prowess or fighting skills. There’s no universal way of being “strong,” and a character’s weaknesses are often what allows a reader to relate to him or her.
In my opinion, strong heroines are dynamic: they struggle, and through those struggles, they change. They are agents of action, rather than passive or reactive. Female characters can fall in love and still be strong. They can be bold or reserved. They can be feminine or they can be tomboys. There is no one way of being strong, just as there is no one way to be a girl. When we talk about what it means to be a strong heroine in young adult fiction, let’s make room for all the ways girls can exhibit their strength."
The article goes on to list many books that have female characters with other kinds of strength, not just the strength to fight and survive physically.

While I know this does not directly discuss fairy tales, it is an issue close to my heart, and an issue we encounter again and again as we see new fairy tale adaptations take the screen, and reread the originals. Is Cinderella not a strong female character for surviving years of physical and emotional abuse and then taking destiny into her own hands? Do movie executives think that the only strength needed to create a compelling heroine is to give her a sword? Don't get me wrong, I love me some chicks with swords, but we need to celebrate other strengths as well.

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