woman hero

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.

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.

Comments 6 Responses

  1. Skye

    Wow. Simply blown away by this post. Now you’ve made me think and I have to think about my MC who is a modern woman pushed into becoming at least somewhat heroic. How is it different for modern women? Can the same story be told for a normal (seemingly) woman in our world?

    Brava! I truly enjoyed reading this.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      thanks Skye :-). It’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while – or more like, it’s something that’s been slowly cohering in the back of my brain. It was quite a job getting the thoughts down in any logical way, but it’s something that I find it important to think about. I’m so glad it’s helped you think about your MC, too! There’s been a lot of talk around the place about likeable/unlikeable heroines, but the discussion of what makes a heroine strong is a good one, too.

  2. londonmabel

    And the other thing about historical bookish heroines is they don’t have mothers. They’re all raised by eccentric widowed intellectuals. Which I am heartily sick of. …Come to think of it, I can only think of one good Jane Austen mother, in Sense and Sensibility. In P&P she’s an idiot (which I always thought unfair given it’s her job to marry off FIVE daughters on no money!) In Persuasion the mother has died, though there’s an unhelpful surrogate. Emma’s mother is dead. I don’t remember the two, but they don’t take place at the heroine’s home. Were they all dying in childbirth?

    Have you seen the tv movie Lost in Austen? Elizabeth Bennett comes alive from P&P and forcibly trades places with our modern day heroine–whom Darcy at first finds repulsive because of her lack of femininity. It was a great twist, and realistic.

    I also liked both the reality tv shows Edwardian House and Regency House Party for their portrayal of how stifling or boring life is for many of the modern day women trying to live this way. In Edwardian House a doctor lives with her sister and sister’s husband, and is so stifled by being completely dependent on them that she has a break down.

    I think your post touches on the importance of why we need to rethink our Historical Romance tropes.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Even though I drew the parallel between bookish heroines and princesses, I totally didn’t connect the no-mothers thing! You’re so right. I think part of it must be a rejection of that “learned” femininity – that a mother is expected to teach her daughter and hand all the restrictions down to her. This was part of what’s so great about Brave – that it’s about what it takes to change that relationship. A difficult thing!

      I do notice as I’m writing that pretty much all my characters only have one parent. 🙂 Most of the time it’s not a conscious decision. A parent-child relationship is so complex, and has a huge impact on the character. It’s almost like adding a second parent to the mix becomes too complex.

      I did see Lost in Austen! I thoroughly enjoyed it. And yeah, I like how both that and the film version of P&P acknowledged that Mama Bennett’s fears and anxieties aren’t actually as ridiculous as they seem.

  3. Cheryl Nekvapil

    This exploration brought back this poem by David Campbell — and look, this website celebrates ‘mothers’, though it’s mostly men writing on the topic, as is Campbell. Not sure how much this territory ahs been expressed Annii, thanks for opening the door. I was just at the dentist, and the fellow opposite was reading a magazine with a lead article sub-texted, “the power of vulnerability”, I’d had to dash off mid-stream with reading your blog. Anyway, here’s the stark view of David Campbell:

    The cruel girls we loved
    Are over forty,
    Their subtle daughters
    Have stolen their beauty;

    And with a cool stare
    Of cool surprise,
    They mock their anxious mothers
    With their mother’s eyes.

    Obviously written at a time generally mothers were much younger than now!


    1. anna cowan Post author

      oooooooooh, what an excellent piece of poetry for exactly this topic! Kind of terrifying. Since writing this post it has really stuck with me – how the mother-daughter relationship is dealt with in fiction, and how it’s much more complex than just rewriting it as a positive thing. There will be more on this topic!

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