Archive of ‘Female Characters’ category

#s 6-10: The Belgariad, by David Eddings (Rereads)

Pawn of ProphecyLast weekend, Rachel and I somehow ended up discussing epic fantasy. We both grew up on fantasy paperbacks, thanks to my dad’s fantastic collection.1 And we realized that, for all Tolkien is considered the granddaddy of epic fantasy, neither of was able to get into his stuff — too much elvish poetry, if memory serves, though I was pretty young when I attempted them — and so we’d both imprinted on David Eddings as the master of high fantasy. (I was sincerely bummed when he died last year.)

I remember the first time I read the Belgariad pretty vividly. It took me months to get through Pawn of Prophecy, the first book — but as soon as Ce’Nedra, the series’ obligatory spunky princess, showed up in the second book, I was hooked.2 I remember flying through them. I remember the chair I was sitting in when I finished the fourth book. I remember bringing the last book to school and reading it under my desk, because I couldn’t put it down. I immediately devoured the Mallorean, the five books following the Belgariad, and then the Elenium and Tamuli.3 I reread the series a few times — at least once more in middle school and once in high school — but hadn’t read it again since. And I was a little nervous, because rereading something I loved with a more critical mindset now that I’m an adult often leads to disappointment.

Queen of SorceryI wish I could say that didn’t happen, and the series is perfect. But goodness knows it isn’t. Two major things stood out to me now that didn’t when I was a tween. First, a major trope in fantasy and sci fi alike: all members of a race/species are exactly alike in terms of personality. The Belgariad has that in spades. All Drasnians are sneaky. All Chereks are drunks. And all Murgos are evil. Alllll of them. Which meant that the characters often talked cheerfully about wiping out the Murgos once and for all, and sure, in context it makes sense (because of the eeeeeevil), but as an adult I was like, “Whoa, really, genocide is the answer?” It was pretty jarring.

Magician's GambitBut even more so… (Sigh) the female characters. That was particularly disappointing because I remember loving them growing up. There are only two of particular importance, Polgara and Ce’Nedra; as a kid, I loved them both. A lot. In high school, I sort of realized that Polgara is actually extremely controlling and can be horrible for basically no reason. On the one hand, she’s treated with reverence by basically everyone else; on the other hand, there’s a lot of, “Well, Polgara, you know how she gets…” involved. And Ce’Nedra, who I adored… It makes me make this face: :-/ I love what the series does with her, that when she’s left behind so Garion can go off and have his big hero moments she realizes he’s not there to rally the army — literally — and takes it upon herself to do the things he isn’t there for. It’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, there’s a lot of time spent in the narrative on how she’s completely devious and constantly playing mindgames with Garion. And with both her and Polgara, there’s very much a feeling of, “Women: who can understand them? They’re all crazy, amiright? lollllll”

Castle of WizardryEven more distressing, the climax of the second book is Polgara facing down Salmissra, queen of the snake people. Salmissra is obsessed with appearing young and flawless, and the potions she takes to stay that way give her an insatiable sexual appetite. So she’s evil: those horrible things (female sexuality, oh no!) make her willing to ally herself with the villains, in return for said eternal youth and beauty. ‘Cause you know. Women who care about that are all shallow and evil. Again, :-/

Enchanter's EndgameBut with all that said, these books are compelling. I once again tore through them, unwilling to put them down.4 I love Garion; he’s a very, very archetypal destined hero, but he’s basically a sweet kid who wants to do the right thing, even when he’s terrified. And I love the major supporting characters, especially Silk, the sneaky thief (one of my favorite archetypes); Barak, the wry bruiser; and Durnik, who is clever and nice and basically the most awesome ever. One other thing I realized upon rereading is that not a lot actually happens in this series. The first book, in particular, is just pages and pages and pages of people walking to a place, getting sidetracked and having to go somewhere else, and then getting sidetracked and going somewhere else again. Which sounds pretty painfully dull, but these books are so enchanting that it’s enjoyable.

So in summary: as an adult, rereading these books, I had quibbles. I think if I’d read the for the first time just now, instead of having fond memories from discovering fantasy in middle school, I’d have even more — but I’d still have enjoyed them. As it is, I feel pretty confident that this won’t be the last time I reread them. And I kind of want to go pick up a bunch of other Eddings novels now. They’ve got flaws… but they’re pretty much delightful.

  1. I wish I had a picture of this thing. I don’t think my dad set out to have an enormous collection of sci fi and fantasy paperbacks, but loving to buy books is a family trait so through the decades his collection grew and grew. We had an unfinished wall of the house, growing up — the back part and the support beams. Turned out that there was enough room for two novels next to each other between beams. So they were stacked at least waist-high, the entire length of the wall. It was amazing.
  2. This is no shock. I don’t necessarily need a female character to identify with — and goodness knows I’m fond of Garion himself — but having one certainly helps. And I was way too young to identify with Polgara, the only other important female character — but a plucky redheaded princess who gets swept along with the adventures while trying to run away from her arranged marriage? SIGN ME UP.
  3. I actually like those better, because there’s no time spent on the clueless protagonist working things out — Sparhawk already knows what’s going on — and also because omg Talen!!1, who I still have a serious crush on. But I digress.
  4. They even kept me mostly off my computer for a few days. My sore wrists were grateful.

Horrible Thoughts

So I watched Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. And I really enjoyed it! Until the finale.

First, in full disclosure: I’m not a Whedon fangirl. I was at most pretty much indifferent to Buffy and Angel; I watched them on occasion, but never got the big deal. I could see a lot of effort being put into making Buffy a dynamic female lead, which I appreciate, but I also spent a lot of time going, “…Really?” because there were areas where the show seemed to me to fail. But I’m sure those criticisms have been tackled by others, who are far more familiar with the show than I am, so that’s not what this entry is about. Also: I’ve never seen Firefly/Serenity. I kind of meant to get around to it, but never really had much of an urge, so it hasn’t happened. However, I’ve also always appreciated that, while he doesn’t do a perfect job, Whedon at least seems to always try, when it comes to female characters. He knows the world needs good ones, he does his best to put them out there, and he never comes across as a grandstanding douche who just wants recognition for writing good women even when he doesn’t do a good job, Aaron Sorkin.

Wait, got sidetracked.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I’m pretty indifferent to Whedon, but positively-inclined. And so the end of Dr. Horrible pisses me off hugely, because it really seems like he didn’t even try, and embraced everything he’s always stood against. More, with spoilers, below the cut.

Hannah Montana, Part II

Hannah Montana, Part II

Hey, finally, the promised part two in my Hannah Montana series. (Part one, covering race issues in the show, is here.) This part is about the show’s issues with gender and sexuality. To illustrate my points I’ve picked out two episodes as the worst offenders to discuss. Though they represent the worst I’ve seen on the show, their messages are also pretty indicative of the show overall.

The first, “Me and Rico Down by the School Yard,” is the season two premier. It’s the first day of school, and Miley and her friends are starting high school. Miley starts getting creepy text messages that morning, from someone who claims to know her secret and have photographic proof of it. She eventually finds out that it’s Rico, who has been skipped up into ninth grade, and he threatens to send the picture on his phone to everyone in school, unless she does everything he says.

What does Rico want from Miley? For her to pretend to be his girlfriend. He addresses her only by demeaning nicknames, mostly, “Toots,” and “Dollface.” When Miley demands to know where the phone is, he tells her, “You’re free to pat me down.” At lunch that day, he informs her, “Go get Daddy a moist towelette — and make it hot, like my Latin blood.” And so on, and so forth.

Finally, Miley’s friends Lily and Oliver discover the phone is in Rico’s locker. They agree to steal it, while Miley stalls Rico. He tries to go to his locker, so she tries to convince him she really likes him to stop him. He suggests, “Perhaps you could prove your love with a kiss.” Miley’s friends save her from having to kiss him in the nick of time, only to realize the phone is fake and Rico had the real one all the time. He demands the kiss again — but this time Miley tells him no, because she doesn’t want to have this hanging over her forever. She’s ready to deal with her secret being exposed.

Plan A having failed, Rico goes for Plan B: he gives a very touching speech about how hard it is to be the youngest, smallest person in his class — and how he thought if he had a girlfriend like Miley he’d fit in better. She feels bad and agrees to give him a cheek kiss, but at last second he turns his head to “steal” a kiss on the lips, then cackles and runs off.

So let’s look at some of these elements in detail.

First off, the language Rico uses when talking to Miley. It’s very dismissive. “Toots,” and “dollface,” make it clear that Rico is male and speaking to someone female; they aren’t nicknames that are used in any other situations. “Toots” is something in particular used to put a woman in her place; at least for me, phrases like, “Listen here, toots,” are what springs to mind. It’s downright creepy to see them used by someone pre-pubescent, and they certainly sum up Rico’s disdain of Miley as anything but a sexual object.

So, by extension, it isn’t much of a surprise that what Rico wants Miley for is her implied sexuality. First off, he’s literally using her as an object; he makes it clear that having an attractive girlfriend will increase his social standing. Though he says he likes her “passion and brains,” he does it while making it clear that he only likes them because he finds them sexy — in fact, the full quote is, “Passion and brains. I repeat”¦rowwwr.” What’s important to him isn’t that she possesses either of those qualities independently, but that she possesses them in such a way that he is turned on. It is sexualizing and incredibly degrading.

So Miley finally stands up to him. Not to say, you know, “Sexual harassment is wrong, and I don’t have to take it,” but at least she acknowledges that there is no way for her to win in the situation, and she’s not going to bow to Rico’s incredibly upsetting whims. So Rico’s fall back tactic is one too often used in this culture — he makes her feel bad about standing up for herself, paints himself as the victim, and quite literally uses her pity to get what he wants.

Then — and I am sputtering with rage as I type this — he “steals” what he wants, going further than she is willing to. It’s easy to laugh it off as just a kiss and him being just a kid, but the thing is, in other contexts where a man “steals” something sexual from a woman because she isn’t willing to consent, that’s rape. So you’d think that Rico would get some kind of comeuppance for this scheme, let alone for sexually harassing and, essentially, raping Miley? You’d be wrong — the whole thing is played for laughs. He kisses her, cackles, and runs off. The last we see is Miley chasing him and slipping on a banana peel while he escapes.

Because, clearly, stopping at nothing to get what you want, with overtones of rape, well, that makes for some darned hilarious television! And it’s especially funny when it’s played for laughs to an intended audience of kids — because god knows we want them to grow up thinking that’s normal and not objectionable! Except, wait, no, that’s terrible on all levels and, frankly, I’m not sure I’d let my own kids watch the show, if I had any.

Turning away from that, let’s talk gender essentialism. My second episode goes like this: Miley’s best friend, Lily, is an adorable skater girl who makes some loud, wacky fashion choices. How much of a tomboy she is varies with the episode in question, but she’s always at least mildly sporty when compared to Miley. Then comes the episode “You Are So Sue-Able To Me,” in which there’s a school dance. Everyone has a date except for Lily — even the class nerd, gasp! — and Miley tells her wisely that if she doesn’t stop “being one of the guys” and start dressing, acting, and speaking more femininely, she’ll never get a date. But it isn’t phrased like that: the phrase they throw around casually is that Lily “isn’t a girl.” And because she isn’t a girl, no boys will like her, and Miley makes it pretty clear that if no boys like her, she’s a failure.

But no worries, of course, because Miley is a guru on all things girly, and when Lily sees the boy she likes flirting with another girl, Miley promises to take her “from skate chick to date chick.” It works; after merely letting down her hair and batting her eye lashes at him, the boy in question asks her out! But that’s not good enough, Miley says, because, “You’ve got him nibbling on the cheese, but you’ve got to snap the trap,” to make sure he doesn’t ever flirt with another girl. So they go for a total makeover.

When next we see Lily, she’s traded in her usual wacky outfits for a hot pink dress. Of course, this means that literally none of her male friends recognize her (“Hey, new girl, where did you come from — Hotsylvania?” Ew.) At least until she does something masculine — she punches one in the arm. Meanwhile, Miley counsels her to speak “lower and slower” and when the boy she likes freaks out upon seeing her, she promises, “It’s all for you.” She also pretends to be helpless and weak so the boys will carry her books for her.

Except, as it turns out, that’s not what the boy wanted at all! He stands her up for the dance, and in wacky hijinx fashion, they drag him onto a TV show where a fake judge settles teenage disputes, and dumps buckets of gross food on the guilty party. Miley takes over prosecuting the guy while Lily cries fakely, at least until the kid confesses that, “I asked out this cook skater girl and the next day she was all girly and frilly and weird!” He says Miley changed her into “something from a teen fashion magazine,” when she was already what he wanted; Miley answers, “He doesn’t know what he wants, he needs to be told what he wants — he’s a boy!” Of course, she’s the one who ends up doused in pizza sauce and anchovies, while the couple gazes happily into one another’s eyes.

So let’s break this down. “Sue-Able” lacks the downright disturbing qualities of “Me and Rico” but is not without its own problematic messages. First and loudest among them is that there are very definite roles that girls play, and that boys play, and that it’s nearly traitorous to cross gender lines. Miley even agrees with her arch-nemesis that Lily is an embarrassment because she’s not feminine enough; Lily is, for all intents and purposes, shamed and peer pressured until she agrees to conform to the standards of the girls around her.

It isn’t just that girls need to wear expensive clothes, spend time on their appearance, and act dainty. The episode is also none-too-kind to the boys involved, in that the boys are all, well”¦idiots. Idiots who can’t look past the physical, at that. Lily, wearing her bright pink dress, is still highly recognizable, but we’re to accept the boys are so entranced by a girl who dresses in a way that is traditionally feminine (and thus marks her as being interested in boys in a way Lily’s usual clothes don’t) that they don’t even recognize her without a physical reminder (being punched) to snap them back to reality. And Miley, whose gender-essentialist views inform the whole narrative, certainly doesn’t think they’re worth anything; her comments in the courtroom prove that. So basically: girls are pretty, boys are dumb, and those are your only two choices in life. If you fail to fit your gender role, you’re shunned by all your peers.

But what of the end? Of course, it’s an expected part of the narrative that Lily doesn’t end up being forced into the role Miley tries to shoehorn her into. That’s a good thing, as far as it goes. But the thing is, the moral isn’t that Lily was fine as she was — the moral was that Lily was fine as she was because the boy liked her that way. If he hadn’t stood her up, we’d understand that she was justified in changing herself to better perform femininity. But at the end, we’re reassured that Lily can be herself all she wants”…because the dude approves. That means she still wins at Miley’s gender game, and, of course, that her appearance and attractiveness remain much more important than her actual personality.

So, as I said, these two episodes are particularly bad offenders. They’re also only the extremes of the show’s stanard: Rico is always disturbing and the show consistently presents boys as being willing to resort to anything, even — honestly, especially — trickery to get what they want, be it a date or a kiss or what have you. (Miley’s brother, while never as blatantly horrible about it, is frequently shown lying to or manipulating girls he wants to go out with.) Miley’s self-image is very much tied up in being feminine and having boys like her.

Here’s a show anecdote to go out on, from the B-plot of a recent episode: Miley’s father comes home angry after a date. After much prying, Miley learns that he’s angry because his date, coming off a bad divorce, wanted to pay and was very clear about the fact that she is determined to maintain her independence. Miley is, of course, horrified — not at her father’s reaction, but at the woman for daring to spurn his old-fashioned, well-meaning ideas of how men and women relate. While Lily points out that her father can be a bit of a caveman when it comes to traditions, Miley is the POV character, and thus it’s Miley (and her father) we’re meant to sympathize with. Because in the world of Hannah Montana, breaking out of gender roles is just not acceptable.

Stay tuned for the (eventual) third (and probably final) part where I discuss Miley Cyrus as a real person and role model, and the music she and the character present.

Fast and Fangirly

Wow, so working full time actually, you know, takes up a lot of time. Who knew?

Anyway. On the subway today, I reread Bruce Coville’s The Dragonslayers, probably for the first time since I was twelve. And it’s just as awesome as I remember. It’s about a spunky redheaded princess named Willie (it’s short for Wilhelmina, but an appropriate name, as she’s “the most willful person in the kingdom”). Willie wears army boots under her frilly dresses, and is outraged at the notion that she should get married before she has a chance to go out and have an adventure. So when a dragon appears, she runs away to slay it on her own, and does so with the aid of an aged Knight named Elizar and a brave young squire, Brian. They all want to slay the dragon, though it’s Willie who eventually does so. It’s a cute story for kids, with a truly rockin’ heroine. It was one of my favorites for years.

Which got me thinking. Basically everything Coville wrote was one of my favorites at some point. Right back to one of the very first books I can remember reading. Because the thing was, unlike the rest of my family, I was slow to learn to read. I didn’t have the patience for it, and I have very clear memories of how frustrated I was in first grade, struggling to read a worksheet. And then sometime in second grade, someone handed me a copy of Space Brat, and I tore through it. It’s the first time I remember reading something easily or eagerly. It was also the first time I thought it might be interesting to try and write a story. And it was my first introduction to science fiction and fantasy. In other words, Bruce Coville had an almost absurdly large influence on me, and, not surprisingly, is still one of my very favorites today.

Now, as an adult, I also appreciate them on another level. As a kid, I didn’t realize how hard it can be to find dynamic female characters, and girls I can identify with. But Coville novels are chocked full of them. Willie, obviously, is a good example. But glancing at my bookshelf (yeah, I own a few and am slowly acquiring more — first the ones I had as a kid, and then, hopefully, the many I missed before rediscovering my love of them in college) I see quite a few with girls in the lead (all of whom are ripe with personality and quirks of their own) and even in the books which center around guys, there are usually a few girls in the background. (It’s also not just that he writes female characters well; his books also tend to place high values on honesty and fairness, and have also dealt with self-acceptance and occasionally sexuality.)

So here are my quick rundown of a handful of his books, which I feel are among the most excellent.

The AI Gang
I think I may be just about the only person who has ever heard of this trilogy, but even though I haven’t read it since middle school, I remember most of it vividly. Most vividly of all I remember the female characters. It’s about a group of kids whose genius parents have been gathered on a former military base on an island, to work on a top-secret project. The kids are geniuses themselves and quickly realize their parents are there to create genuine artificial intelligence, and decide to beat the adults at their own game. Meanwhile, a shadowy villain is trying to gain control of the AI for himself.

I think the group was six kids, though it may only have been five. Two of them were female, but, like I said, I remember those two really clearly. Rachel was one of the nicer of the group, and she and her twin brother had built their own robotic head and programmed it to tell bad jokes. She loved music. And she kind of dated one of the boys, which I thought was fantastic, because the boy was also one of my very first fictional crushes. And there was Wendy, who was exceptionally awesome. Like me, she was short, messy, and had an extreme fondness for oversized sweatshirts. Her specialty was miniature robotics, and she had turned all of her dolls into talking alarm clocks that valiantly tried (and usually failed) to get her up in the morning. Her full name, if I remember right (sadly, I haven’t been able to find copies of these books yet) was Wendalyn Wendal III. When asked how she could be the third, given that women usually change their names upon marriage, she answered, “I come from a long line of strong-minded women.” Wendy was smart, she was outspoken, she was unconcerned about her looks (again, dirty sweatshirts — and a tendency to regularly eat hamburgers the size of her head), she was stubborn, and she was all kinds of awesome. (She was also, you might guess, my favorite.)

The Nina Tanleven Ghost Series
An awkward title for another trilogy (The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, and The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed), but these are about the only ghost stories I’ve ever really enjoyed. I also think that this is Coville’s best series — especially The Ghost Wore Gray, where the ghost is a southern Civil War soldier, and as the book goes on you learn his story and how he ended up overcoming racism. And it brings you that message without being trite or after school special-y. And it makes me cry.

Anyway. The trilogy is about two girls, Nina (“Nine”) Tanleven and her best friend Chris. They meet at the beginning of the first book, having both been cast in a local musical, and quickly become best friends. They also develop the ability to see ghosts, and spend the three books finding tragic spirits, solving mysteries, and letting the ghosts finally sleep. I love both characters, and I love their relationship. I also love Nine’s relationship with her father — her mother walked out on the family, and she and her father are extremely close. Overall, it’s a series with rich characters and amazingly powerful back stories.

My Teacher…
I think these are the best known Coville books; they faded away for awhile, which is a shame, but are now being reprinted with kicky new covers, which is awesome. And though the first book is largely just a wacky story about a girl saving her sixth-grade class from what they think is an alien invasion, the series gets darker and much deeper as it goes on. The kids discover that the reason aliens are snooping around Earth is fear — they’re worried because humans are the first species to develop extremely destructive technology, and to be close to space travel, without having reached a planetary peace. No one knows why humans have such an urge to kill and harm one another, but the aliens are afraid that their sickness will spread if they stumble on to the secret of faster-than-light travel too soon. They’re so scared they’re considering blowing up the planet to avoid the potential dangers. The fourth book is the protagonists’ quest to find proof that humanity is inherently good, that it can become peaceful, and is worthy of survival and respect. In other words, really heavy stuff, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker human impulses: aside from finding beautiful things humans have created, the kids visit war zones, torture camps, and areas of poverty and starvation. I won’t spoil the end for you, but I will say that it’s fucking amazing, and to this day, I still mentally compare every science fiction novel I read to the conclusion of the My Teacher series. (And not that many measure up.)

The Magic Shop
The Magic Shop series reminds me of old fairy tales and fables in that just about every book has a lesson to it; a kid with an obvious flaw will stumble upon the mysterious Magic Shop (run by the even more mysterious Mr. Elives) and end up with some kind of magical object which sparks an adventure. Through the course of the adventure, the kid learns to cope with whatever his or her flaw is. They also often draw upon traditional tales and mythologies in their backstories. These books are all excellent and charming, but I’d have to say the best, hands down, is Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. I adore this book, partially because of the sarcastic talking toad, but mostly because it’s a book about a girl who is unattractive and has low self-esteem, and the story is notably not about how she gets beautiful — it’s about how she comes to value herself for her personality and not her looks. She’s offered the chance to be compellingly beautiful and extraordinarily powerful, and her struggle — her longing to finally feel worthwhile by becoming beautiful — is moving and compelling, and makes the ultimate payoff (that Jennifer is special and smart, and that’s more important) even better.

(In terms of issues that are near and dear to my heart, I’d also give a nod to The Skull of Truth, where a kid who’s a compulsive liar ends up in possession of a skull that forces people within its influence to tell the truth. This causes general havoc everywhere he brings it, but also an interesting scene at a family dinner when his uncle, after many years, comes out to the family. The kid’s reaction is well done; he’s confused and unsure of how to interact with his uncle, and eventually comes to the conclusion that, well, he loves his uncle, who really is the same as he always was, it’s just something to get used to.)

Okay, so, in conclusion… I don’t think I can think of a single other male author — and very few female ones, for that matter — who so consistently writes so many dynamic girls. For anyone out there who might be looking for good, positive books to pick up for a niece/cousin/daughter/young girl who would like to read about someone female, I’d definitely recommend any of the above. Or just about anything else he’s written.

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