I'll Be That Girl

Before I was derailed a bit (if you can call it that) by my contribution to the Round Table and others, I spent some time talking about archetypes, specifically the difference between two similar female archetypes: the healer and the warrior princess.

At the end of the post, I posed the question of why these archetypes recur so often, and why they're so powerful. Natalie, in the comments, said something very interesting:

When it comes to Heinlein, I can't help but feel like... his (dirty old man) status does taint the validity of his ideas. But here's the thing: he nevertheless makes me wish the world worked the way he proposes.

I think this captures a fundamental appeal of fictional storytelling, but right now, I'm a bit more interested (inspired a bit by Corvus's mention of a more in-depth discussion on gender in games) in the nature of strength as it relates to gender, which I think also keys into the appeal of these archetypes quite nicely.

Everybody in western culture is familiar with the pinnacle of male strength, the action hero. They're physically strong, they're agile, they're smart, they're witty, they're resourceful, and more than anything else they can go the distance. Maybe they don't believe it at the start, but every action hero must believe, before they defeat the final villian, that they can.

I'm reminded of the Lord of the Rings:

"I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness, but I know I can't turn back... I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me."

Must of that book is about whether or not Frodo is, in fact, willing to go the distance.

All of the tenets of the typical male hero, I believe, revolve around this issue. In the case of the action hero (which is most often analagous to the main character of a video game), all of the secondary traits (which are still part of the whole picture, mind you) serve to reinforce the action hero's ability to overcome the obstacle set before him. The idea of "It is within my power to overcome this obstacle, and I will do everything within my power to do so" is the message behind action heroes that resonates with the audience so well, and the more the action hero has to sacrifice, the more notable his journey is.

We see very few female action heroes, and almost as few female main characters in games. When we do, the female aspect usually feels utterly superfluous, and is added for the purpose of throwing sex-appeal into a film that's already going to attract a primarily male audience.

Why do we see so few decent female characters in these roles? The two most common reasons, which are both very true, are: the movies/games themselves primarily appeal to men, and the people making the movies/games themselves are primarily men.

And yet, there are more and more people, as evidenced by the resounding positive feedback that Corvus recieved, who are finding this unsatisfactory. The problem isn't the strength of the male characters, the problem is the dearth of strong female characters.

Paul Wells on Miyazaki (pulled from Andrew Osmond's Foundation article "Nausicaa and the Fantasy of Hayao Miyazaki", which can be found here):

"Miyazaki establishes authorial tendencies by refuting the tenets of films constructed on masculine terms... (His) complex heroines are consistently engaged in the pursuit of self-knowledge and a distinctive identity. His use of the feminine discourse subverts patriarchal agendas both in film making and story-telling.
"As Miyazaki suggests, 'We've reached a time when the male-oriented way of thinking is reaching a limit. The girl or woman has more flexibility. This is why a female point of view fits the current times.'"

While a little more academic than I would have put it, that really hits the nail on the head. There will always be a place for the action hero, but the hill of the digital world is getting big enough for both of those hombres, I think. So if action hero is the male ideal of strength, what's the female?


Natalie said...

I still think it has to do with endurance. Take a look at Miyazaki's characters, for instance: they endure for the sake of their beliefs.

Heinlein felt the epitome of female strength was the she-bear dying to protect her cubs, and he felt that way because he thought that was the epitome of love. It might be the man in me talking (it might have been the man in him talking), but I'm inclined to agree.

Breaking that down a little, a she-bear:

1. Prefers to use her strength to nurture and grow,
2. Uses force as a last resort and
3. In defense of the objects of her nurturing,
4. Uses all her faculties in defense of the objects of her nurturing.

That really isn't all that different from the action hero archetype. Action heroes also use force reluctantly and are called upon to use all their powers, often in defense of their loved ones.

That veneer often wears thin, of course. John Rambo is a good example: he's supposed to be reluctant to use force, but by the end of most of the Rambo movies you don't really buy that. And oftentimes the "loved ones" connection feels weak, too, or is stretched beyond the audience's ability to identify with (e.g., soldierly patriotism or esprit de corps is more of a stretch identification-wise than "you kidnapped my daughter"). But I'm inclined to think that's more a result of bad writing than the archetype itself. Harry Tasker from True Lies and Leonidas from 300 strike me as much better written examples.

They were also, if I remember correctly, pretty popular with their female audience. Which makes me wonder if the difference between a male hero and a female hero isn't so much the structure of their character as the details: who is a valid object for attachment? What does it take, given the character's psychological makeup, to push the character into using force? What is the definition of all the character's powers?

Anonymous said...

Why do you always write these strong women characters?
I think it's because of my mother.
Why do you write these strong women characters?
Because of my father.
Why do you always write these, how do you say it, strong women characters?
Well, because the stories give people strength.
Why do you create these strong women characters?
Because they're hot.
But these strong women characters--
Why are you even asking me this? How is it possible this is even a question? Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't? I believe what I'm doing should not be remarked upon. But seriously, this question is ridiculous and you've just got to stop. So, why do you write these strong women characters? Because equality is not a concept. It is not something we should be striving for. It is a necessity. Equality is like gravity--we need it to stand upon this earth as men and women. We need equality, kinda now.
So, why do you write these strong women characters?
Because you're still asking me that question.

--From Joss Whedon's speech at Equality Now, 2007 (it's on Youtube!)

I'll add my own 2¢ later...

Anonymous said...

Eric--do you really not see any inherent chauvinism in choosing an animal as the epitome of female strength and a human as the epitome of the male? Why couldn't you or Heinlein have said, the epitome of female strength is a woman dying to protect her children?

A bear acts on instinct. Her physical strength may be greater than an Action Hero's, but is her love greater than a Hero or a Heroine's, who also have the intelligence to understand the situation they are in, and make the conscious choice to sacrifice for the ones they love and believe in?

Natalie said...

I see nothing chauvinistic about it, no. In part that's because both Heinlein and I think the she-bear dying for her cubs is a superior figure to the human action hero, male or female. The reason for the animal metaphor, I think, is a) because arguably more people have experience with animals dying for their children than humans dying for theirs (if you've even ever sold a kitten away from its mother, that's probably closer than most people ever come in the human world) and b) because animal devotion seems to (or is certainly meant to) represent a level of no-need-to-think moral certainty that we think humans rarely achieve, even in the direst of circumstances. A bear acts on instinct, yes, but she has no doubt about her choice (the metaphor assumes she could, but does not, doubt).

The other reason I see nothing chauvinistic about it is because I would use an animal metaphor to describe the epitome of male strength too.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Parnell asked, "If the action hero is the male ideal of strength, what could be the female?" Natalie said, "It might just be the man in me talking, but it's a bear. Female bears aren't too different from male action heroes." Originally that rubbed me the wrong way, as I commented, but now I think I see that Natalie's first comment isn't meant to be a direct reply to H.T. Parnell's question, which is my mistake. I think "Who is a valid object for attachment?" is a very good additional question to keep in mind when defining an Action Heroine. When I'm done studying for my MA exam, I think I'll make a post on this topic on my own journal.

That said, Natalie's response to my question about the bear metaphor still makes me a little rueful, in that it highlights the fact that animals enduring peril (bears, cats) are more familiar role models in our culture than are strong women who can go the distance. We just "have more experience" with them, it seems. I agree that animals are superior to humans of both sexes in their devoted ways of loving and acting. But the woman H. T. Parnell is looking for, the female archetype who is smart, strong, agile, witty, resourceful, and able to make it through extreme trials--her absence in this culture is pretty sad.

Natalie said...

Oh, I certainly agree about that. The way I think of it, an animal metaphor makes a much better epitome for both males and females, if only because human epitomes are so ... human. And part of the point of the archetype is that no such person actually exists. The action hero is, in my mind, the first step below the actual male epitome, intended to make that epitome more accessible to human beings. The analogous process for an "action heroine" would be to first identify the female epitome, and then translating it into a human archetype you could put into literature. I don't really think we've even firmly nailed down the first step, let alone the second.

William said...

I strongly strongly agree with that sentiment. The next post will hopefully touch both on what the epitome is, and why we don't see it more often.

seven said...

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