Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Holding Out For A Heroine

There has never been a shortage of heroes. No matter what tradition you delve into, no matter which culture you evaluate, there have always been that handful of brave men brimming with courage and spirit who strike forth into the hostile wilderness, stand up against incredible odds and refuse to bow, and set the world on a different course through sheer force of will. Heroes represent a vital foundation for a healthy society, as figures of respect who are worthy of emulation.

It's only relatively recently that there have been more than scattered acknowledgments that this only constitutes half of the equation. Certainly we have our Aeneases, our Laozis, our Robin Hoods, and our John Henrys. It's reflective of the state of society throughout the vast majority of recorded history. Nevertheless, when I look through the annals of heroism, it seems to me that for the most part it's an essentially uninterrupted sausagefest of forthright, steadfast, dynamic dudes.

This is something that's always irritated me.

Last weekend I went and saw DreamWorks' new CG film Monsters vs. Aliens, at least partially because the rest of my group of friends went and saw it on Saturday while I was at the convention and out of contact. Though the unquestionable highlight of the film was Stephen Colbert being a brave president, what struck me in retrospect was how it dealt with the protagonist, Susan "Ginormica" Murphy, a Big Damn Hero in more than one sense of the word. In this movie we're given a character who is supremely competent, capable, and courageous - an attitude buttressed by the one-scene side characters of Katie and Cuthbert ("this is the worst date ever") - and is also the only female character of any real consequence. From what it seems to me, this is not a common thing. Had Monsters vs. Aliens been made twenty or so years ago, I have trouble believing that the writers would have made this same choice.

That's aside from the effectively embryonic state of CG at the time, even.

Although I've not written about it before, I'm no stranger to jawing and grothing over this. To put it bluntly I'm damn tired of the hero taking all the fame and the respect and the glory, when it's far past time that heroines get their due. I've tried to follow this philosophy in my own writing. The protagonist of "The Platinum Desolation" is female. The protagonist of the first serious story I ever wrote, way back in 1997, was female. The character I wrote around for a stretch of years during my late high school and university years was female. For me it's a case that I don't want to write male heroes, because not only do I see it as overdone, even their victories are beginning to taste like cardboard.

It's different for heroines. I would argue that in a great many situations, a heroine's victory is sweeter and more satisfying than a hero's, if only because so many cultures and institutions throughout history have thrown up barriers against precisely that. Aside from a handful of outliers and extraordinaries, it seems it's only in the last forty years that the idea of a strong female character has gained mainstream acceptance. Prior to that, the work of saving the day was always Man's Work, with female characters shunted to the sidelines, killed by the villain to provide the hero with motivation, or captured in order to keep the "damsel in distress" trope alive and kicking.

Culturally, before the modern era - or, potentially, in a future era that has adopted old traditions, such as the CoDominium setting of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle - a heroine would have had to overcome adversities that would not be present for a hero. A young man could travel the land as a knight-errant, righting wrongs; the same was not true of women. For most of written history, their place was the home, and it is only comparatively recently that female characters have really started moving into the positions once denied them.

I remember when Star Trek: Voyager first hit the airwaves, way back in the nearly prehistoric era that those of us in the Business of History call "1995." Everyone who was connected with television or the Star Trek fandom and had column inches to fill was going on about how Captain Janeway was the first female captain in a Star Trek series, how the franchise was finally moving into the modern day, so on and so forth. Fourteen years later, a woman in charge isn't a "new thing" anymore.

The continued proliferation of heroines front-and-center in popular entertainment can, in my mind, only have positive effects. For one it acts as a much-needed broom of the system, sweeping out the cobwebs and dust of old concepts and outmoded beliefs regarding gender relations which have no place in this modern world.

More than that, heroines breathe new life into situations and setups which have grown listless from overuse. Men and women don't approach the world in exactly the same way, and a well-crafted heroine would not (and, really, should not) be a metaphorical man in metaphorical drag. The future deserves better.

I may be a guy, but that doesn't mean I have to spend my precious time reading or writing about other guys.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points. The only thing that comes to mind to comment on is that James Cameron created/worked with some damned good heroines back in the 1980s in the forms of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor.