Looking For Some Good Heroine
I feel like a drug addict these days, searching for some good heroines.
Seriously, if you look at film, books, comics â€“ heroines are scarce and even scarcer is a *good* heroine. I’m not looking for a Lara Croft who is a man with boobs. I’m not looking for girls who save the day with cute antics. I want a heroine who is a woman with her own skills, who is uncompromised by super powers or a need to appeal to men.
You see, what I really want is an Allura. I was a big Voltron fan at the age of 4 (and still am to some extent). Image Comics‘ publishing of a nostalgia comic based on the cartoon that aired in the U.S. (which is basically a rip of a Japanese show) only fuels the love I have for this badly animated, repetitive show. Despite all its flaws, it managed to have what I would consider one of my favorite role models as a main character.
Allura is a princess in a hard situation. She has lost her parents, her kingdom is in shambles, and suddenly this ragtag band of space explorers resurrects the fantastic Voltron. Not only does she rule the kingdom, she also takes a place as one of the pilots of Voltron, slowly learning (she isn’t a natural, thank goodness) a new role and responsibility. All she has going for her is book-learning and a knack for governing that she gets from her hero-worship of her father. She stays true to herself throughout the cartoon. She wants to be one of the boys, but she has her royal duties. She knows the risks in piloting a lion, but undertakes them to help her people. She balances her own frustrations and wants with what she has to do. And not to be too serious, goes swimming in a bikini innocently enough.
In short, she kicks ass. She kicks it without having to be a boy with boobs (like Lara or Trinity), she kicks it without having to be so silly it’s ludicrous she can do it (Charlie’s Angels, anybody?). She’s a heroine â€“ she saves the day and does it in a style to be admired and looked to for inspiration. In comparison, many heroines are merely girlish wet dreams. Don’t you ever wish you could be a cool, sleek killing machine the guys all lust for but no one can have? So independent you don’t need anyone, but with a haunted past? Or a fun girl with tons of friends who just wants a boyfriend who happens to have a double life as a spy and inexplicably has mastered many forms of fighting? Who doesnâ€™t, but more importantly, who isnâ€™t sick of seeing this stereotype? Those are awful characters outside daydreams â€“ fun characters, but merely fun. They don’t stand up well as role models or speak to any part of us but the part that wants to escape to the realm of kick-butt. They’re often Mary Sues in this wish-fulfilment sense.
I am loathe to see the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie in great part because of Miss Mina Murray. In the print comics she captivates me. The woman leader of a ragtag bunch of gentlemen who manages to hold them all together and tame the most savage of them, without doing much fighting that doesn’t involve smacking someone with her parasol. She has such inner strength and courage it daunts people, but in the movie she is reduced to a vampire who "kicks ass". I say "reduced" for a reason. I find it compromising that this woman who has this strength no one else can touch is made into just another one of the group. Just another man, except with a sexy outfit and boobs. It reminds me of the famous line from As Good As It Gets: "How do you write women so well?" Melvin Udall is asked.
"Easy." he says, "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."
That is exactly what it seems like went through many a writerâ€™s head when they write in their females. A group cast â€“ a leading man, a sidekick, a rebel, a clown â€“ is written and only after their creation is a character singled out to be the woman. Of all the stories Iâ€™ve seen in so many different media lately, Trinity from the Matrix stands out most strikingly as an example of this, whatever the writers may tell us about her genesis. What would change if Trinity were a man? Except for Neo being in a relationship atypical for Hollywood, nothing. That is her flaw as a character. Who she is, how she has experienced life has no bearing on her personality if she can be so easily interchanged with a man. Why make her a she, except for some romantic interest and eye candy? Even the Genesis story in the bible has a more noble purpose, though many feminists condemn it for causing so much inequality. These same feminists may have done some wrong in asking that women be interchangeable with men. I condemn them for the bland, masculine female characters that have taken over popular media.
At the same time, Allura would be someone these feminists would applaud. She is as good as any man and better at some things. But she is also worse. What makes her interesting is her acknowledgement of her faults and how she deals with them. She feels trapped by her gowns and princess duties in this female role, but she makes it her own, bucking traditions and doing what she feels is best. Sheâ€™s a complex character in the midst of this repetitive, hokey show. And yet in complex, layered stories we get repetitive, hokey ladies who are interchangeable with men. I donâ€™t know about you, but if Iâ€™m forced to go to the back alleys of storytelling for my heroine fix, then Iâ€™m going to have to make some bad comparison to the war on drugs.
Letâ€™s face it â€“ there are women who are tomboys or otherwise, but there is still a difference between men and women. Today we have less emphasis on it in raising children in United States (the culture Iâ€™m most familiar with), but itâ€™s still there â€“ a cultural difference in how women are perceived and perceive themselves as apart from men. One of the reasons tomboy characters are so fascinating is because they have to deal with the compromise they put themselves through in order to think of themselves as men. Where does this shame for being female come from? Why the need to sublimate or even disguise it? A tomboy is drastically different than the female character who is merely a man (except in build and who she is attracted to).
A good heroine should not just be a man plus or minus some things. And thatâ€™s darn hard to find on the streets these days.
Youch! Good column. I don’t know if I meet ALL your criteria, but my comic “Amazon Space Rangers” (http://amazons.keenspace.com) features three female leads who I like to think are more fleshed-out (ahem) than the kinds of stereotypes you complain about. Or maybe not. But hey, I’m trying. Feel free to chew me out about it!
Go pick up the “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” manga by Miyazaki (published in english by Viz). Besides being a masterpiece, the main character, Nausicaa, has all the qualities you’ve noted and then some.
Woo! Girl power, Megs! It’s funny that I think women are a lot easier to write than men, myself. Like, all the things that make a girl a girl is what makes them INTERESTING characters! Men with boobs would SUCK!
Very kind of you to write this article Megs, I feel this is something which can’t be talked about enough. Ironically, a great source of examples of great female characters (Although not strictly ‘heroic’) is in the writings of the Ancient and oh-so-anti-wimmin Greeks. Lysistrata is a great protagonist, although maybe she’s not what you’re thinking about. Still, we have Penelope, Athena and Helen from Homer’s “The Odyssey” that are far deeper and stronger than at first glance. I sadly can’t think of any better examples of women that not only survived by their own femine craftiness, but stand out in a heroic epic for doing so.
….Hooo boy am I ever a nerd.
As soon as I read your opening paragraphs, calling for a heroine “with her own skills, who is uncompromised by super powers or a need to appeal to men” I immediately thought of Mina from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So I gave a little internal cheer when you ended up mentioning her later on. ^__^
Excellent and very thought-provoking article! And it makes me wish we still had Voltron showing on TV.
Why didn’t I think of that? Brilliant! If they’re ALL girls, you can’t go wrong, and who doesn’t like girls, huh?
You and me both, Rab. I studied Greek and Latin for YEARS and I think it’s all those great old stories with such fantastic gals in them that makes me miss them more in current stories. And the greeks were writing at a time when women were basically confined to the household and not allowed to let men inside the house unless her husband was there. But the Greeks let the women play a part and be heroic or stupid in the stories.
Well…I made my heroine a super-heroine—but she is also Athena in modern dress, and very consciously adapted after her. (Nothing new in comics—Flash is a modern Mercury, Superman a modern Hercules, Aquaman a modern Neptune, etc.) Her only power is her craftiness…but done to the point where it becomes a legitimate super-power, as it is with Brainiac 5. And her other self has flaws going in the exact opposite direction—
Oh, well. She may not be your Voltron heroine, and you make many good points— but I like her, anyway.—Al
Yeah, and I think Euripides was probably the best example of “sneaky feminism” in the ancient Greek world. I actually wrote a reactionary paper using his “Medea” after reading one critic’s long bitchfest about how anti-feminist every single Greek playwrite was — totally ignoring Euripides, of course. Feh.
However, I find it notable that the two arguably “strongest” goddesses (Artemis and Athena) basically ARE men with breasts. Or, if not that, then essentially neuter. It seems that as virgin goddesses they have rejected their sexuality in favor of power — almost as if the ancient Greeks were unable to concieve of the possibility that one can be feminine and strong at the same time. A theme that seems pervasive even today, it seems . . .
As for myself, I admit that I tend to have problems writing “feminine” women even though I am in possession of the corresponding chromosomes. Part of this is because I’m just not that feminine myself — lacking the stereotypical interest in dating, looking nice, and interest in parenthood it may just be that trying to write such characters is shaky ground for me. However, I do sometimes wonder whether or not I’m just naturally asexual, or my contrary personality influenced me to take the opposite path of what was expected of me when I was younger. Go figure.
Then again, I don’t feel the need to have my girls physically kick ass to prove they’re strong — even if they can. Like your Mina Harker example, it is entirely possible to have a powerful heroine without resorting to guns, powers, and martial arts. I just wish more writers realized that.
I don’t have much problem with the “boys with boobs,” really. A little cathartic ass-kicking is good for the soul. I just wish there were more heroines in comics, period. Also villainesses. How often do you see a comic (book, strip, or webcomic) with a cast of characters that’s almost entirely female, with one token man who’s supposed to represent the full spectrum of all things “male”? Not too often, right? But the opposite situation is almost the default mode for comics.
My new mandate to cartoonists: make ALL the characters girls! Just do it! Any story becomes automatically more awesome when packed with babes!
Okay Christopher Hart, you’re not fooling anyone.
Wow, great article Megs! Really well written. It really does make me think about works I’ve done in the past. Waaah, and in my book Nausicaa is one of the greats in literature.
>Okay Christopher Hart, you’re not fooling anyone.
Heh heh… Actually, I’m Shaenon Garrity. I can’t get my login fuction to work. Listen to me anyway, and obey my dictates!
Females are very different from males… and not really.
As for good heroines, I like Thorn, from Bone.
perhaps if you would have said “heroine that i relate to” rather than the objective term “good” i would have found this article less insulting.
to say that females must compromise themselves to take on masculine qualities is upsetting to say the least, especially given the subjective nature of masculinity and femininity.
i can understand your desire for the inclusion in stories of a certain type of character, but your stab at tomboys was entirely uncalled for. to think that they lack wholistic strength because they do not specialize in any of the gender extremes is…well, its insulting as i said earlier.
on that note, men with boobs syndrome is annoying to an extent of its overuse. but to a larger extent, finding characters with any real depth is a tricky prospect.
PS (switch was the was the best character in the matrix)
Whooo! I totally agree- and I’ve read similar opinions before. This explains why I can’t stand reading Nausicaa. She’s such a goddamn hero. She has no faults. She’ll tame any wild beast and defeat armies- and she wears a cute short-skirted outfit while doing it. Everyone falls in love with her, but it’s all hero-worship: “Ooh! Save us from so and so evil rampaging insect.” There’s no hint of her earthiness, of a young girl maturing, growing into her body and earning her first blood. I can’t remember a scene in which she doubts herself, or reflects on how or why she does things. Nausicaa is a petrified fixture (like the popular image of Helen Keller), not a sensual, well-rounded form. What would change if she were a man? Perhaps the Reader’s perception of her would: I mean, cute world-saving heroines are so much easier to fall in love with and idealize than cute boys, isn’t it? (ie, would you rather cuddle up to Florence Nightingale or St. Francis of Assisi?). But I don’t think her personality would be intrinsically changed.
—-i also agree. I hate the whole movie revision of ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.’ James Robinson, or whoever’s responsible, should be hanged.
—-Allura rocks. I kept hoping she would gradually make Lotor come to his senses and open his eyes to the wonder of civil/ gender rights, then they’d settle to a contented (if eventful) life on Aries. I’m serious. Lotor’s hot.
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