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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

The Long Arm of the Lore: Female Heroes In Pop-Culture


Editor’s Note: Writer Mike Carey is best known for his comic book work on titles like Lucifer, Hellblazer, and the Eisner and Hugo Award nominated The Unwritten. His wife Linda Carey, and their daughter Louise Carey, are also authors and all three have collaborated on a new book called The Steel Seraglio from ChiZine Publications. Because the story revolves around a strong female heroine (an army of ex-harem members to be exact), the Carey’s decided to write a guest post for us about that popular trend. Read ahead for their thoughts on how The Hunger Games factors in, what they prefer to see in their heroines, and for a sneak preview of The Steel Seraglio

There was a piece here on the Mary Sue recently about The Hunger Games movie, and how it defied expectations to out-gross a lot of male-centred actioners in a hugely successful opening weekend.  Jill’s conclusion, which is hard to argue with: something wrong with those expectations, then, wasn’t there?  All the conventional arguments about what you can and can’t do with a movie that has a female lead start to look less like industry wisdom and more like enshrined stereotyping.

The same was true of the books by Suzanne Collins on which the movie was based, which were credited with almost single-handedly lifting publisher Scholastic’s share price and taking their balance sheet back into the black.

So kick-ass heroines are cool again, which has to be a good thing, and a lot of commentators are noting, in addition, that Katniss’s heroism has more than one strand to it.  She’s a provider for her family (her skills with a bow are picked up in hunting, not in combat) and a ferocious protector of her younger sister (she gets into the games not through a desire to fight but to keep Primrose from going).  She’s not just a guy in drag, in other words: she’s a believable and fully rounded character, admirable in a whole lot of ways and easy to identify with.  She has a social context, and she makes sense.

Sad, then, to see critic Jeffrey Wells on Hollywood Elsewhere attributing the movie’s success to “reviews by certain female critics” who are “susceptible to the lore of this young-female-adult-propelled franchise”.  Umm… yeah.  A cabal of female critics has conspired to big up a bad movie because it’s got a girl in it.  Those bastards!  When will somebody finally take them down?

We’re not sure what “susceptible to the lore” really means, in this context.  If you’re susceptible to a story, it’s because the story works for you – which is what you came for, right?

We’ve  always been baffled by the idea that young boys – or grown men, for that matter – should find it hard to identify with a female protagonist.  Our imaginations don’t have genitals (although you could argue that they sort of have secondary sexual characteristics).  Is it impossible to enjoy a Denzel Washington movie if you’re white?  The Station Agent (starring Peter Dinklage) if you don’t have achondroplastic dwarfism?  A Bug’s Life if you’re not… okay, this is just silly, isn’t it?

And what about ensemble casts, stories with multiple protagonists?  When you watch Firefly, do you gravitate more towards Mal if you’re a white guy, more toward Zoe if you’re a black woman?  That’s certainly not our experience.  Part of the joy of that show, and of Buffy before it, was that it let you get into the heads and the hearts of all its characters.  You get to be all of them, to position yourself with all of them, and there’s no sense of strain in that, no bumps or jolts.

We prefer our heroines, just like our heroes, to be real people, not cardboard cut-outs – which, in the end, means that their gender isn’t going to be their determining trait.  It’s part of their identity, sure.  How could it not be?  But it doesn’t define them, any more than a score of other things define them.  It’s in the mix, that’s all, and it shouldn’t make a difference to how the reader responds to them.

As it happens, in the novel we’ve just co-written for Chizine Publications, The Steel Seraglio, there’s a huge preponderance of female protagonists.  The novel is about the women of a harem in an ancient Middle Eastern kingdom, who forge themselves into an army after they’re exiled from the city of their birth – and then come back to claim the city for themselves.  So it’s a story that’s partly about gender politics, and it has a number of women who make the same journey, together, from being possessions and playthings to being completely in control of their own lives and fates.  Except that many of them had their strengths and their stratagems already, even when they were in the harem: they were trapped in a situation, but they worked within it to give themselves and each other whatever freedoms they could find or make.

We’d be really depressed to think that by making that a central focus in the book, we’d made it impenetrable or repugnant to male readers.  But we don’t think that at all: everything in our experience as readers and viewers argues against it.  There’s a wonderful aphorism, quoted by Liz de Jager on her My Favourite Books blog, about the power of fiction: Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.

If we could only enjoy stories about people exactly like us, characters who function like Wii avatars for us, how cold and poor and pointless the whole enterprise would be – like a choose-your-own-adventure where all the important choices had been made for you before you started.

Linda, Louise and Mike Carey are three writers living in North London. Sometimes they write together, sometimes alone. Louise wrote The Diary of a London Schoolgirl for the website of the London Metropolitan Archive. She also co-wrote the graphic novel Confessions of a Blabbermouth with Mike. Linda, writing as A.J. Lake, authored the Darkest Age fantasy trilogy. She has also written for TV, most notably for the German fantasy animation series Meadowlands. Mike has written extensively in the comics field, where his credits include Lucifer, Hellblazer, X-Men and The Unwritten (nominated for both the Eisner and Hugo Awards). He is also the author of the Felix Castor novels, and of the X-Men Destiny console game for Activision. He is currently writing a movie screenplay, Silent War, for Slingshot Studios and Intrepid Pictures. They share their crowded house with two other writers/artists, a cat, and several stick insects.

Click here for a PDF excerpt from the Carey’s novel, The Steel Seraglio, and watch the trailer.

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  • Anonymous

    Misread the title as “Female Horses in Pop-Culture” and read the entire article wondering when it was going to mention horses. It’s a good article, don’t get me wrong, but it has exactly zero horse mentions. That being said, if you do ever write an article about female horses in pop-culture, I will definitely read it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Travis.K.Fischer Travis Kyle Fischer

    The only thing that confuses me is that there’s actually still a need for this article to exist.

    I know for a fact I’m not the only one that was raised on Disney movies in the 80s and 90s so the idea that it’s surprising to anybody that a movie with a female lead can appeal to both genders is just astounding to me. Where do these people come from?

    Hell, I’ve got three words for you. “Secret of NIMH.” A movie about a single mom on a quest to save her sick child. Also one of the greatest animated movies of all time.

    We are about thirty years too late to be bewildered at the idea that movies with females leads can be appealing to the general audience.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kitfoxtrot Christopher LaHaise

    Really, then.  There must be something completely wrong with me, because I enjoyed the movie (and I’ve enjoyed the Legend of Korra), and I’m a guy.  ;)  I actually like movies with a strong female protagonist, who isn’t defined by being female, but because she’s a strong character, with strong motivations.  Hell, how quickly people forget movies like Aliens, or even the Sarah Conner Chronicles (I’m very sad that series crashed and burned).

  • http://twitter.com/OudeisKanenas Oudeis Kanenas

    Yeah, I’ve never really gotten why the sex of a main character means ANYTHING 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kaarel-Jakobson/100000313100671 Kaarel Jakobson

    This article is right on the money, and yet it feels a little impotent to me. I should like to think that everybody who visits this site takes these things to be obviously true. The media moguls who shape our popular culture though, and critics like this idiot Jeffrey Wells – they’ll probably continue to wallow in their ignorance.

    (I love Mike Carey, by the way. One of my favorites in comic books.)

  • http://www.thenerdybird.com/ Jill Pantozzi

    On this site? Sure. Outside this site….

  • Adam Whitley

    secret of nimh rules in all the ways a film can rule

  • Anonymous

    Knew there was a reason Mike Carey was one of my favorites. Co-written with his wife and daughter? I’ll definitely read it. 

  • Anonymous

    I also love Secret of NIMH for being one of the very few animated films where the adult heroine doesn’t end up with a love interest, and that the film is not about her love life (or lack of).

  • http://twitter.com/ondinal_songs Kristina

    I agree that there shouldn’t be a “need” for this article to exist. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who believe stories are a one-or-the-other proposition. Movies withe female protagonists are girl movies, no matter the plot. I’ve read a lot of criticism of The Hunger Games that says it’s a girl movie dressed in the trappings of a boy movie. Nevermind the gory fights to the death, there’s a love triangle. And my anti-histamine just kicked in, so my brain is pretty much AWOL for a little while.

  • Anonymous

    “She’s a provider for her family (her skills with a bow are picked up in
    hunting, not in combat) and a ferocious protector of her younger sister
    (she gets into the games not through a desire to fight but to keep
    Primrose from going).  She’s not just a guy in drag, in other words”

    I may just be being obtuse, but I think that could be misread as implying that male characters aren’t providers for her family, or would get into the games not through a desire to fight but to protect their younger sibling.  The beauty of Katniss as a character is that she has human motivations which have nothing to do with her gender, and the few elements which are affected add flavour to the story.

    I came across an article which criticized Ripley as a feminist icon because, apparently, a woman being violent and kickass while protecting their child (surrogate or otherwise) is “socially acceptable,” because apparently women are allowed to kick ass when defending their family – as if men aren’t!  The problem is, it implies that putting a male character in Ripley’s place changes things, when it doesn’t in the slightest: think of all the films which are about a peaceful father/husband/sibling who is pushed into taking up arms when his family is threatened.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/VHQAP4KXIGKPLECF6KFXW6PUTE Flimbery

    First world problems.

    Nice way to promote their book though.

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    I thought along similar lines on reading that paragraph. It’s simply saying; men and women ARE vastly different and women are only driven to “normal” male actions through extenuating circumstances; given a “normal” life they would of course do “normal” feminine things. And vice vera.

    I hate the criticism of a certain type of character as being just “a man in drag” (and to go along with it “a male gaze creation”) for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is often levelled at some of the very few female fictional characters I have ever related to. So if a woman likes violent or dangerous recreational activities, beer and engine grease she’s not feminine enough to what, exist? Sod off.

    Yet it’s rare to see the criticism go the other way. Daniel Jackson of SG1 has all the traditional female trappings; shy, passive, he uses words instead of his fists, but no one has ever said “oh, he’s not a good male character, he’s just a woman in trousers.” What about JD of Scrubs? Yes, Cox takes the mick out of him mercilessly, but the audience sides with JD, Cox is shown to be wrong and the insecure one. No one complains “oh, JD is too feminine to be a good male role model.” The Mentalist? People have criticised Lisbon of being “a man in drag” but no one complains that Jane isn’t a good “masculine” character, with his love of tea and talking, his complete lack of physical prowess.

    None of the above shows are completely free of gender problems I know, that’s not my point before anyone jumps on it. My point is; why are male characters allowed by all sides of this debate, to be diverse while female characters, to be “good female characters” have to conform to one or another personality type?