It’s difficult for me to identify with Lara Croft, Elektra, Yu Shu-lien, or the myriad other superwomen gracing many books and movies today. They are enticing but unrealistic, unattainable. They are almost as bad, in their way, as the Catholic Mary. What mortal woman-of-faith can live up to such spotless virtue (as defined by men?)
Let’s take Lara Croft. Not only is she pure of heart, she is stronger, bolder, more courageous and wiser than any man, anywhere. To top things off, (ha ha) she has gigantic boobs. In the first Tomb Raider movie, Lara uses a familiar karate move (one outstretched leg and foot) to block a statue that comes to life and attacks her. As the statue is carved of solid rock, any normal human attempting this would find him or herself with a broken leg. Not Lara. She actually hurts the statue. Then she outruns a four-legged beast-like statue without even getting breathless. Later, faced with a choice between doing the “right” thing and doing what she longs to do, she weeps but does the right thing. Of course. There really are no surprises in the Tomb Raider movies. Lara does exactly what you would expect, all the time. Yawn.
In the second Tomb Raider movie, Lara makes a huge issue about how she “needs” Terry Sheridan. She cannot accomplish her mission without him, or so she claims. She secures his release from a high-security prison, then, the first time he offers his knowledge and advice, she refuses to listen. “We’re going to do it this way,” she states, and takes off on her motor scooter. So why was he even in this movie? She obviously did not need him so badly, after all. (She was “bold” while he was cautious. Poor, weak, man.)
Another movie that bothered me, although not so blatantly, was King Arthur. Here we have Guinevere, (Keira Knightley), a “warrior babe in face-paint,” to quote the Amazon.com editorial review. It’s like they tried to make her believable then at some point forgot their goal. The historical Guinevere might have actually been a warrior. Her fighting skills were not a problem for me, neither was her courage. Where I got lost? When she goes into battle in a tiny leather bikini, while her male compatriots are in full body armor. Really?
Now I love fantasy. I love Return of the King, Pan’s Labyrinth, V for Vendetta, Ever After, 300, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, all of which contain strong, intelligent, courageous women.
One of my all time favorite movie lines is, “I am no man,” coldly uttered by Eowyn just before she kills the Nazgul witch-king. This character is allowed to be a realistic woman, and also fight as a trained warrior, male or female, would fight. She is completely believable.
I love strong, intelligent, courageous female characters, and I know for a fact that mortal women, real and fictional, can be believable and strong, intelligent and courageous. They cannot be both believable and invincible. Besides the fact that such a concept is boring.
Ancient Great Britain offers up three women who have managed (just) to avoid disappearing completely from history:
Aife: Queen of Alba, said to be the most famous woman warrior of the Celtic heroic age.
Scathach: One of the greatest warriors and teacher of warriors. Some believe her legend proves there were women’s military academies among the Celts.
The renowned Boudica, a historical figure if ever there was one.
More can be read about these women in several books. One of my favorites is The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era, by Jessica Amanda Salmonson.
Current stories seem inclined to portray women as flawless, lacking even the perfectly normal “flaw” of not having as much physical strength as males. For Aridela, (in The Year-god’s Daughter and The Thinara King) I wanted to create a protagonist who is (or who becomes) strong, yes, but also real and believable. I wanted to show how she matures into her strength, rather than simply shoving her out there already formed, as if by magic.
Child of privilege, daughter to the Queen of Crete, she has never known want or suffering. She has never experienced betrayal, humiliation, subterfuge or fear. Ten years old at the book’s outset, Aridela is an indulged, sheltered princess. Adventurous, bold, educated, and charismatic, Aridela is inherently ready, yet profoundly unprepared, to take the throne of Crete. The people adore her, her mother dotes on her; she impresses even the hard-nosed royal counselors. Like many of Crete’s citizens, she reveres beauty and beautiful things. She doesn’t have a clue how shallow she is, because most around her are the same. But, like any ten year old in any time period, Aridela is emotionally immature. The reader might be excused for thinking this child will grow up to be a spoiled, unlikeable woman, emphasis on “spoiled.” Naturally, I wanted more for her.
When she meets and crushes on Menoetius, it’s easy to understand why. He’s a gorgeous, charming, seventeen-year-old foreigner with a delightful accent. What ten-year-old girl wouldn’t fall for a guy like that? But he goes home and Aridela grows up. Now she hankers after another youth—no surprise that the object of her affection is a dazzling, celebrated bull leaper. It’s when the warriors of the mainland converge upon Crete, determined to win the Games and become the next bull-king, that real challenges begin to chew away at her comfort zone. Chrysaleon, the arrogant prince of Mycenae, introduces Aridela to passion. Again, it’s easy to see what draws her: he’s good looking, the High King’s son and future ruler. It takes her awhile to realize the guard he’s brought with him is none other than her first love, Menoetius, but a drastically different Menoetius than the boy she knew. No longer beautiful, he is the first challenge Divine Athene sets in her path. How will she deal with this angry, wounded man? She has no experience with the kind of pain he’s suffered. Harpalycus, another mainland prince, introduces her to cruelty and shame. Harpalycus is Aridela’s first exposure to humiliation, to fear, to a sense of her own weakness. He and the other mainland competitors lay bare the encroaching danger of the world outside her safe island paradise.
Aridela, a coddled princess, faces challenges that will either destroy her or build her into a formidable leader. To be successful, she must incorporate through experience the necessary components needed by all rulers from antiquity to the present: humility, caution, empathy, and compassion. Immortal Athene throws her child into the blackest, deepest pit where life no longer holds value. From that place, Aridela will survive and recover, honed by adversity, or she will become what her oppressors want. Either way, she will be very different from the child who brazenly entered the ring and joyously danced with a wild bull.
I often wonder why is there this need to portray women in the current fashion: invincible, possessing superhuman strength, wise beyond logic, bold beyond reason, unassailable in mental purity. Perhaps because there is a sense that women want to break free of their past, where they have been so openly subjugated. I am only guessing. But if that is the case, is this attempt any more helpful than the previous notion (or expectation) that women were chaste, virtuous, pure, untouched, innocent, flighty, silly, and weak? “Creatures,” (as they have often been labeled, as in not quite human) who must be protected, guided, and controlled?
For myself, I feel that portraying women as “superwomen” is just another manipulation, the same as when we were expected to be pure, selfless, and featherbrained. Why can’t we just be humans, appreciated for the wonderful qualities most of us offer, that have from the beginning made this world a better place?
I want the women in my books to achieve great things under their own mind-power, as real women must do.
Rebecca Lochlann, December 17, 2012