My favourite piece of dialogue from Avatar: the Last Airbender goes like this:
Sokka: I’m sorry. I treated you like a girl, when I should have treated you like a warrior.
Suki: I am a warrior. But I’m a girl, too.
The only female Avenger in the Avengers movie is the Black Widow – a tough assassin who can more than take care of herself. She’s deadly and clever. Her emotions are the sharpest weapon in her arsenal. In the movie we see her, twice, use her “feminine” weakness as a weapon against men who underrate and discount her for it. It allows her past barriers the more physically powerful superheroes couldn’t have crossed.
There’s the suggestion in the movie (and, I think, overt confirmation in the comics) that she lets her enemies rape her, because it brings them close enough to be killed. She lets people trespass on her – lets them all the way past her defences – and they die for it. Her martial arts skills are extraordinary, but her greatest threat lies in being a weak, defenceless woman.
In the movie, Loki, the master of getting inside other people’s heads, attacks her with the truth about her blood-drenched past. She allows him to think he’s gotten to her, and as he pushes the point venomously home, he inadvertently gives part of his plan away. All emotion drops away from the Widow and she calls through to the team to let them know what she’s found out.
The scene is excellent, because we’re viewing her as Loki does, so the moment when she drops the pretence comes as a shock and makes her seem entirely kick-ass. What I love more, though, is that later we see how her emotions were disturbed by everything Loki said. Her emotions aren’t just an act. She lets her enemies in close enough to actually hurt her, to get what she wants from them.
I like it because it’s great characterisation – but also because it means her “feminine” emotions aren’t just a weapon in her arsenal, they’re still an integral part of who she is. She is a kick-ass heroine – and she’s a woman.
Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises is another mix of “feminine” and kick-ass. The first time we see her she’s playing a downtrodden waitress to get access to Wayne Manor – a guise she throws off when Bruce catches her. Like the Widow, something falls from her and her whole physicality shifts into that of a confident, competent woman. She plays the victim, the seductress, the confidante. Any female face that will get her what she wants.
In this version of the character, Catwoman’s “feminine” qualities felt less cultivated than the Widow’s. Who she is as a woman and who she is as a fighter feed organically into each other. Her emotional relationship to the world hasn’t quite been warped into a weapon yet.
The only problem is: it puts her at risk of becoming Batman’s girlfriend.
Part of the problem, actually, is that she wasn’t Catwoman. The movie played her as a clever, tough woman making her way in the world and taking what she wants. Who occasionally dons slinky clothes while she’s working. In her article applauding Anne Hathaway’s performance Kessock writes: “Where in most of the previous iterations of their relationship there was a definitive difference between how Selina and Bruce interacted versus how Catwoman and Batman interacted, in The Dark Knight Rises the two meet and remain on an almost constant level of transparency throughout the film.”
There is no level between them, though, because Batman gets the armor of an alter-ego and a costume – but Catwoman doesn’t. She remains Selena, the woman, and vulnerable to him. She wears her hair out, not hidden inside the black caul that makes her impenetrable.
Cat put it like this: “Masculine” is a clearly defined space. Everything outside of it is “feminine”, and undefined. Catwoman inhabits that space. Her strength comes from being undefined. Batman will never be able to grasp her.
I find these two instances so interesting, because romance is concerned with strong women. Women we can look up to. Women who fight for their right to love and be powerful at the same time.
I mostly find myself writing the woman I would be if I had the guts. The kind of woman who shows affection by being bossy and high-handed. Who becomes vicious when the people she loves are threatened and whose strength other people know they can rely on.
I tend to write women who have in some way already triumphed over the things that stop women from acting out power. Women like the Black Widow and Catwoman who create their own path. Women who represent a goal, not a daily experience.
Feminist readings of the movie Brave have made me rethink the kinds of women I want to write.
The main article these thought are in reference to is ‘Just another princess movie’ – which is pretty long, and makes an obtuse point or two, but is mostly interesting reading. Loofbourow writes of the central mother-daughter relationship:
I wonder…whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named.
And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge.
…If fairytale princesses are motherless, warrior princesses are even more so. They’re motherless because it’s difficult—still, in 2012—to imagine a woman warrior who enjoys a relationship of mutual love and respect with her family generally and her mother specifically.
This idea struck me so hard because it pointed out a lack in my own expectations that I hadn’t even noticed. It is new and difficult to imagine a warrior woman within a loving family. The Widow’s family were slaughtered, and she had to be brainwashed and genetically altered, to become what she is. Catwoman, whatever version of her back story you take, has left a life so awful behind her that she wants to wipe her slate clean and start again, alone.
Women who can come through that much adversity are heroic, tough, strong. It makes sense. But is that kind of adversity necessary to a woman being kick-ass?
Loofbourow goes on to describe the moment in the film when the three hopeless suitors stand up to compete for Merida’s hand – and all our expectations tell us a fourth man will arrive, who is unsuitable yet perfect. She writes:
Then came the twist: Merida, bound (literally) by the accoutrements of official princesshood, broke out of her constraining dress and represented herself in the contest for her hand! On the grounds that she is a first-born, and therefore eligible to compete, she shames her suitors by beating them handily! The crowd goes wild.
That last part’s a lie — there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.
The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.
Things get awkward.
I love this reading. It’s a revelation. In the real world, which allows a certain space for women to inhabit, stepping outside that space is an uncomfortable act. It’s brave, it’s gutsy, it’s necessary. It’s rarely purely triumphant. As Marcotte writes:
In this grim world of male dominance, the fantasy of a single individual changing everything with a grand gesture of empowerment starts to look silly indeed. A lesser film would have made Merida’s plot to out-man the men at archery the end of the story, but this more realistic portrayal shows how individual action can make the situation worse. Only when the female characters start to work together—to take the collective action so beloved by progressive organizers—does actual change occur.
I’ve been thinking recently about those bluestocking heroines we love so much in historical romance – inquisitive, probably socially awkward, less consumed with what’s in fashion than what’s in the latest Edinburgh Review.
Our heroes come to love them for their minds, their independence and their courage of conviction. To the modern mind they stand out from the crowd as the girl to root for. But I’ve been thinking more about how difficult it would be to love someone who refuses to fit nicely into The Way Things Are. Even the most broadminded, smitten hero would be confronted when his beloved’s behaviour proved not to be an eccentricity but the truth of who she is, in all situations.
The series I have in mind to write next is going to take place some time in the second half of the nineteenth century. I’m still narrowing it down as I do my research – but one element I’m sure of is that I want my women to each have a relationship to the suffragette movement. And I want their greatest difficulty in coming to terms with their personal beliefs to be each other. As well as their greatest strength, eventually.
Describing just how subversive the central mother-daughter relationship in Brave is, Marcotte writes:
Even more interesting, the filmmakers take a critical look at the way women function under male dominance. Many patriarchal societies leave the stressful job of forcing girls to comply with degrading social norms to women, especially mothers. Unlike other movies such as Real Women Have Curves, where sexism-enforcing mothers are painted as villains, Merida’s mother, Elinor, pushes her daughter to perform femininity out of love. As with mothers throughout history who have done everything from put young girls on diets to hold them down to have their clitorises removed at puberty, they are acting not out of hatred but out of a love that leads them to protect their daughters from the price of rebellion.