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Tuesday, October 02, 2012


The damsel rears her pretty head again?

Have you noticed a certain trend in children's movies of the last few years?

The damsel in distress is a very old archetype, and it caters to a not-ignoble fantasy. The desire to impress a girl by doing something nice for her is the foundation of many a happy marriage, and if a dragon is trying to eat you, you would have to concede that being rescued is a nice gesture. Not necessarily reason enough to marry a guy, but still, you'd rather he did it than not. Yes, it's simplistic and tends towards the idea that women are passive and helpless prizes to be collected rather than dynamic human beings, and it can be an excuse to write a story in which women are as absent as possible without admitting their absence, but the biggest problem with the damsel in distress is not the idea itself, but the absence of other roles for women in children's fiction. In a culture where there's an ample sufficiency of other roles for women, the odd girl chained to a rock isn't going to do anyone any harm.

Of late, though, I've seen some children's movies that raise my eyebrows a little bit. Not all the way to my hairline, but, well...

Andromeda, Clash of the Titans. 
Actually a vast number of
events take place in that movie -
it has about three films' worth of
plot - but this is the climactic scene.
Getting the girl off the rock
fixes everything.
Here's the thing. A girl chained to a rock is obviously a damsel in distress, and if the hero wants her, he needs to go sort her out. It's clear and straightforward, and in a story for children that involves romance, it's also convenient. How do you get a girl to love you? Well, that's complicated, and if you're going to give a full answer then you're going to have to talk about sex at some point, and while I'm all for having The Talk as early as possible, not all parents are on side with that. Getting a girl by impressing her with your skills is simpler and cleaner - and it has an added, extremely attractive benefit: it provides in one stroke not only the romance, but also the structure of the story. Girl is on rock, get to rock, remove girl from rock: there's your beginning, middle and end right there. Generally speaking the story will require other elements as well, but for a basic coming-of-age story for boys, proving your manhood by getting a woman through some impressive feat is very much still with us.

Nowadays, though, it's generally accepted that this kind of thing isn't an adequate representation of women. Women, most people agree (at least in public), are just a competent as men, just as interested in pursuing their own lives. Women can do stuff; women have opinions. They may even do stuff well, and have opinions that do not match your own.

Enter Astrid.

There are other examples of this character - Colette from Ratatouille comes to mind as well - but Astrid, heroine of How To Train Your Dragon, is such a precise example that I'll stick to her for the sake of clarity.

The characters of How To Train Your Dragon live on an island regularly ravaged by dragons; its Viking inhabitants train, boys and girls, to take on this threat. Our hero is the gangly Hiccup, son of the burly chieftain and a deceased mother, who proves hopelessly bad at dragon-fighting. As time progresses, he finds himself caring for, befriending, and ultimately allying with, an injured dragon, learning the truth: dragons are actually friendly creatures, only ravaging the island because they're forced to by a bigger dragon, and it's that insight that eventually saves his culture and makes everything better.

It's a likeable story, and the animation of the cat-like dragons is truly delightful, and the script clearly means to show girls as strong and capable. Hiccup's main rival in dragon class - or rather, the top student while he struggles at the bottom - is Astrid, beautiful, tough, committed, and thoroughly impatient with his incompetence. Desperately in love with her beauty, Hiccup finally shows her his friend Toothless the dragon, which impresses her enough to make her his ally and loyal supporter.

Now, the details vary, but I feel like I've seen a lot of this story recently. And it's discomfiting. Here are the elements:

1. Rather than being helpless and passive, dependent on the hero's superior strength, the girl has superior competence in whatever skill set the story centres around. Her attitude towards him is not swooning gratitude or modest attraction, but bossy impatience: he's a goof and she says so. In effect, she embodies the disregard of the whole of society that our hero has to overcome.

... Which troubles me because embodying the disdain of society is really no more rounded than being a prize for physical courage. The idea seems to be that if a woman is curt with the hero, it's because she hasn't recognised his true worth, not because she simply doesn't like him; this may happen sometimes in our multitudinous world, but it's not one I want to see as a model for romantic relationships. If a human being has a full personality, that has to allow for the possibility of a personality clash. In these movies, though, lack of admiration for a man gets exaggerated into bossiness, lack of interest in him reduced to ignorance, and as the woman is seldom interested in anything other than the field in which the man will shortly prove his worth, that leaves very little real character.

2. Rather than slaying the dragon, the hero must, metaphorically speaking, slay her disrespect for him. Often his attraction to her is based on externals - her beauty, her competence in a field he values - rather than her personality as such, so overriding it loses him nothing. By proving himself to her, he gains ... not the respect of the whole of society, because her approval doesn't carry any significant weight in the larger story; generally he gains a helpmeet who will support him in the real quest, which almost always involves gaining the respect of other men.

... Which troubles me not just for the obvious reason of women being relegated to helpmeets, but because it turns a woman from a damsel who must be protected from an enemy into, structurally speaking, an enemy herself. Her dislike of the hero is something to be defeated - generally in a dramatic scene in which she is confronted with such a startling experience that her eyes are opened and she is forced to concede that she has been wrong all along. Now this is an uncomfortable fantasy from a female point of view: it's a fantasy in which the hero basically wins over the heroine by dominating her. Yes, by the terms of the story, dominating her by showing her something really cool - but really cool on his terms, in a way that erases all her former thoughts.

In real life, usually the thing standing between a young man and the unreachable woman he desires usually is that she isn't interested in him. Turning that lack of interest into a dragon to be slain is not really an advance for feminism; frankly I'd rather be rescued from a dragon than have my freedom of opinion characterised as a dragon and then defeated.

If you're an intelligent woman, you'll probably be familiar with this experience: you attend a party, some man gets into conversation with you, takes a fancy to you and notes that you're intelligent ... so he decides to impress you. And the way he plans to impress you is by showcasing his argumentative skills. (Of course, there are also men who just disagree with you or don't like you, but trust me, the other kind is around too.) He drags you into a debate that he won't let you leave, no matter how tired or exasperated you become, resolutely holding your attention in the hopes that now he's fanned his intellectual tail, you'll be struck with him. Wendy Cope's 'Men and Their Boring Arguments' sums it up:

Some men like to argue with women -
Don’t give them a chance to begin.
You won’t be allowed to change the subject
Until you have given in. 
A man with the bit between his teeth
Will keep you up half the night
And the only way to get some sleep
Is to say, ‘I expect you’re right.’

The men who do this seem to be trying, genuinely, to impress and court you, but the plain fact is that they think the best way of courting you is trying to defeat you. Possibly they do accept, in the normal run of things, that you are in fact allowed to disagree with them, but so determined are they to keep you talking to them until you become impressed that the message they actually send is, 'I like you so much I'm going to hassle you non-stop by picking a fight with everything you say.' It's pigtail-yanking at its most disguised, and it is not, in fact, attractive; it spoils the party because the guy won't have a pleasant conversation with you and won't allow you to have a pleasant conversation with anybody else.

Men want to attract women, and often they want to do this by impressing women. Nothing wrong with that if what the guy does is actually impressive. But there's a cultural creep towards 'impressing' women while taking the chivalry - the desire to do something the woman will genuinely benefit from - out of the picture. The slaying remains, but the only thing you're being rescued from is your lack of interest in the goof that wants you.

I'm all in favour of seeing better-written fictional women, especially in films for children; I have a son and I'd like him to have good stuff to watch rather than sexist nonsense. But I've become extremely cynical about the idea of the 'strong female character', because so often, her 'strength' is little more than another obstacle to overcome - and if that's all it is, frankly I'd rather get back up on the rock and wait for the guy to do something that a girl would actually appreciate.

It seems to me that a common factor between these two classes of story is the hard separation between the protagonist and everyone else. It doesn't matter whether The Girl is loving or disdainful, she's just part of the background against which the hero shows off. The hero is always right because he's the hero.

With that in mind, my solution to this sort of problem is to make background characters into real people, to the extent of having multiple-protagonist stories. I want villains who have actual, sensible reasons for doing what they're doing; I want sidekicks who have lives of their own, not just being someone for the hero to explain things to. Solve that, and any remnant sexism that turns women into rewards or obstacles should be relatively easy to isolate and break down.
On the other hand, economical and high-quality writing does allow for characters to be written briefly but soundly. As long as a character acts like a real person for the time they're on-stage - or as much like a real person as is consistent with the style and tone of the rest of the piece - then it doesn't particularly matter if their 'lives of their own' remain off-stage, I think.

Good actors can do a lot in film, of course (I'm thinking of the famous example of Cate Blanchett in The Talented Mr Ripley, whose character is very minor and exists mostly to create a crisis in the plot: the writing isn't bad but it's hardly the deepest character in the film, but Blanchett brings such subtlety and life to the part that she's every bit as memorable as the story's stars. In that case, it's not so much writing creating a layered character as it is writing being reasonable enough that a talented actor was able to do something great with it.

So I don't think we need multiple-protagonist stories all round to fix the problem. After all, most stories need to have some characters more prominent than others, but that's no excuse to write the walk-ons badly. I've seen plenty of cases where characters are definitely secondary but still well executed. There are certain structures that make it difficult to execute secondary characters well, I agree, and 'solitary hero wins girl while solving bigger problem' is one of them, but even there, it's possible to write stories where the girl won is a secondary character but a respectfully-handled one. The devil's in the details, I think.
I take your point, and I wasn't aiming to imply that I had a universal cure - simply that this is what works for me (as a role-player I'm already used to multiple-protagonist stories). What I think I'd like as a minimum is a quality of writing that suggests that every random person who turns up might have a story of his/her own to tell, it's just that the author hasn't put it in this particular book... otherwise they're just NPC spear-carriers.

Strangely enough, this is one of the things that the early Tom Clancy books do quite well (particularly Red Storm Rising). He's got a huge cast, but one feels that even J. Random Submariner has hopes and dreams beyond a simple wish not to die in the war.
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@Dave W - I only skimmed your comment before seeing that at the bottom you wrote 'feel free to use this plot skeleton any way you like': for this reason, I've deleted it unread. Thanks for the good intentions, but I don't want to get into situations where people send me ideas and then demand co-creator credit or payment if I later write something that strikes them as similar. I'm not assuming you would do that, but there's always the risk that somebody else might, and it's best to make a general rule so it doesn't become personal. Sorry, but safety first.
Hi, Kit. I'm sorry if that last line sent up a red flag for you - I meant it to specifically indicate that I *wasn't* looking to claim any sort of money or credit if you were to get inspired by what I said, or had already been thinking along the same lines. I was trying to release any such claim, not assert one.

I wasn't trying to send you an idea to use, particularly - I was just kicking around a thought starting with what you wrote, and happened into a "hey, someone could do something pretty neat playing off genre conventions while subverting the heck out of this treatment that bothers you." Then it occurred to me that you might be inhibited about doing something similar because of what I wrote, and I threw in that last line to try and explicitly say it wasn't a problem as far as I was concerned.
I completely agree, especially because so much of the time the romance is superfluous. I haven't see How to Train Your Dragon, but that was one of my major issues with Ratatouille. I would have much preferred it if he earned her respect and she helped him out because they were friends. The romance felt very shoehorned in and there just "because it was supposed to be."
It's just that the author hasn't put it in this particular book... otherwise they're just NPC spear-carriers.
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