Thursday, August 25

Women beside the ordinary

Writing about an unusual woman myself (see this post about Jane), I am always looking for characters in books, movies, or TV series who are not adhering to the standard. It’s not always easy to find them, since there are a lot less ‘acceptable’ roles for a woman than there are for a man. Recently, I stumbled over three different articles which gave me quite some stuff to think about.

They are:

I’m not going to rehash everything which is in those articles, instead I will pick out points I found important for my own understanding of creating a female character.

Let’s start with the villainesses. I’ve always had a soft spot for villains and villainesses, because they’re usually more complicated and broken characters than the hero. Today, they need a reason for their deeds, which means they need a story which explains why they want to ruin the hero, rule the world, or destroy the kingdom.
Yet, I rarely thought about how much difference there was in the looks of the villainesses, compared to the heroines of the cartoons (and mostly Disney’s fairy-tale movies). All heroines are basically from the same mould: they are young, pretty, have a very delicate build (the big head and large eyes make them look young and cute, like a puppy or kitten). Their faces are dominated by big eyes which seem to ask ‘why me?’ the whole time. Apart from few examples (Mulan, Merida, Elsa + Anna), they rely on the prince to come to their aide. Yes, they have different overall looks in terms of hair colour (even though blond is very dominant, but that’s also true for the tales they’re based on) and sometimes skin colour/ethnicity (Mulan, Jasmin, Pocahontas, Tara), but overall they’re pretty much all the same, give and take a little here or there, depending on the time when they were created (from 1937 to 2014). There is at least one picture which does a dress swap on the princesses and it takes a while to realize that, even though the dresses are their signature clothing.
Compare them to the villainesses, from the evil stepmother in “Snow White” (before and after her change) to Gothel in “Tangled.” Those women are far more diverse in looks than their ‘good’ counterparts. Snow White’s evil stepmother is an attractive woman, but also an obviously adult one. Compared to the princess (who is merely 14), she is far more developed. She looks good, but in a cold, commanding way. She’s obviously a woman who knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it. She even sacrifices her beauty, which is her driving force before, to kill her stepdaughter. Or take Ursula from “The Little Mermaid.” She is definitely a lot of a woman, bold with her makeup, and comfortable in her body. Ursula was modelled on Devine, but that doesn’t mean she’s less of a woman herself. She’s allowed to be overweight and wear very obvious makeup, because she’s the villainess. Or Cruella DeVille from “101 Dalmatians,” who is the polar opposite of Ursula when it comes to body mass. Her bold, two-coloured haircut, her cigarette, her dangerous driving, all those say ‘I do what I want and take what I need for it.’ Or take a look at Maleficient’s extravagant headgear in “Sleeping Beauty.” She totally rocks those horns. Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove” has the most extravagant eyelashes.
The princesses usually don’t wear visible makeup and, apart from Elsa, they’re all adolescent. But that’s not the only difference. The main difference it their outlook at the world. They usually rely on others and they usually act for others. Belle goes to the Beast to save her father. Arielle is (at least in the original tale) ready to sacrifice her own life instead of killing her prince. Rapunzel would stay with Gothel, even after knowing how much the world has to offer, if she’s allowed to save Flynn (and, yes, he saves her in the end by cutting her hair, rendering her useless to Gothel). Both Aurora and her prince are essentially only pawns in the fight between the good and the evil godmothers. Even Mulan, who is a rather active princess, only becomes a man so her old father doesn’t have to serve in the war. And, yes, the will to care for others and sacrifice your own life, health, or happiness is a positive trait on the whole. But wouldn’t it also be nice to teach young girls that they’re allowed to have their own agenda? That they’re allowed to act for themselves instead of wishing on a star?
Even outside the fairy tales, the same pattern works for Disney. With Kim Possible there is actually a rather strong and fearless heroine. She’s no helpless princess, that is for sure, but she’s always on the run, saving others. Shego on the other hand often talks back to her nominal employer Drakken, takes time off when she feels like it, and proves she is a far more effective evil ruler than he could ever be. Even her background is fitting. Together with her four brothers, she gained her specific powers through a multi-coloured meteorite. While her brother still form ‘Team Go,’ a more or less efficient superhero team, Shego left them, because she was sick of their counterproductive actions and quarrelling. Instead, she sold her powers (apart from being an excellent fighter, she also can create rather destructive green fire) to the highest bidder and ended up in the employ of Kim’s arch-nemesis. One could argue that Shego actually is Kim’s real arch-nemesis.
Demona from the “Gargoyles” TV series at least kept the remainders of the clan together and relatively safe after their leader was turned to stone, even though she was the reason why that happened in the first place. Her original motif for hooking up with the Vikings was to drive the humans from the castle, because they didn’t respect the gargoyles enough for her taste.
One thing all villainesses in Disney’s movies or cartoons have in common is that they have their own agenda. They act because of something they want, be it the throne, a contract, a lot of puppies for a new coat, or just a bit of peace from their employer’s constant moaning about how a teenager ruins his plans (and their pay-check). They don’t sit around and wait for their wish to come through. They go ahead and do their best to make it come true.
And, yes, they are villainesses, so their goals usually aren’t very nice, neither are the means they use. But a heroine isn’t allowed her own agenda, even though a hero might be. Women (inside and outside of cartoons) are supposed to be caring and selfless - or they are villainesses who don’t survive until the end of the story. They are supposed to be neat, pretty, and unassuming, not bold or egoistical. A male character with ‘undesirable’ traits can come to his senses during the story and become a better person. There’s lots of examples for that. A woman with such traits will be branded ‘evil’ and sooner or later destroyed.
Everything beside the norm of being soft, caring, beautiful, meek (read: ‘feminine’) is branded as evil. Even a strong character like Kim or Mulan or Merida must do their deeds because they care for others. They are not allowed to have a really egoistical moment.

So much for the villainesses. Now on to some more specific characters.
With the release of “Suicide Squad,” Harley Quinn has taken the spotlight again. For all of you who are not into comics, a quick description of her basic story-arc (which has been done over and over again): Harley once was a psychologist who was supposed to cure the Joker from his madness (a losing fight from the beginning, but well…). She fell for her patient and turned into a villainess, naming herself Harley Quinn (which is not only a shortening of her original name, but, of course, also a pun on ‘Harlequin’). Harley was in an abusive relationship with the Joker for a long time before she broke away from him and found support in two other villainesses of the DC universe: Poison Ivy and Catwoman. Yes, Harley is dangerous and can be murderous. She probably has a similar body count to her former “Puddin’” (the Joker) and should be treated with caution. She is not exactly a role-model for girls … or is she? She has been abused and she realized it and fought to get away from that. She has worked on it and broken off with the abuser. Her relationship with the Joker surely is no great example, but her way out of it is. So from a certain point of view, she actually is a role model, despite her murderous side.

Black Widow from the Marvel Universe is not a villainess as a such, but she has roots in that area, since she was originally trained as a spy and assassin by the KGB. She is highly dangerous and should not be underestimated (as Tony Stark and his driver do in “Iron Man 2” and Loki does in “The Avengers”). Yet her training and her decision to work with SHIELD instead of the KGB also make her a more nuanced character. She’s not a plain hero, she has a lot of red in her ledger from her past, a lot of blood on her hands. She is capable of underhanded tactics and ready to use them. She is a survivor. She uses the stereotypes against those believing in them.
She has some aspects in common with Jane, my main character. Both have chosen to be sterile, in order to do their job (but Jane had a true choice and can have the process reversed, if so she desires), both are trained to kill, both are trained to use all of their abilities. For both, the end justifies the means.

What have I taken away from those three articles? That we need to change the way women are portrayed. That we need to bring in women with their own agenda who are not characterized as evil. That we need to have women who defy expectations or turn them against their enemies. That we need women who find strength when they need it, who break free from their past. That a little bit of a villainess may be a good thing to be. Not necessary in that throne-snatching, voice-stealing, and puppy-killing way, but in the acting, deciding, and challenging way.
A male hero can follow the principle that you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. Why shouldn’t a woman crack a few, too? A male hero can start of as egoistical and not very heroic. Why can’t a woman be like that?

I like to see Jane as a female version of characters like James Bond or those Noir detectives who go beyond the law to serve justice. She’s not a ‘white hat’ character and she shouldn’t be. She’s a trained killer and a ruthless agent. She’s capable of presenting the innocent, helpless girl, but she only does it when it’s necessary. The Niece (meek and soft-spoken) only works with The Uncle, she doesn’t make sense on her own, not for anyone who has ever met Jane before. She is too strong and too much aware of her own strengths and weaknesses to back down.

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