The Feminist Mad Max

I remember when I first learned there was going to be a new Mad Max movie. I was ecstatic. It was a teaser on a DVD and it was quite some time ago (I want to say a year, maybe even a year and a half?). It was a teaser in the true sense of the word: short, disconnected images flashing across the screen with little speech. It was hard to tell the plot then but with a movie like this the plot isn’t that important. Basically all I knew was that it had Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy as Max.

And now I’ve seen it. And yes, it IS as good as everyone’s saying. The action starts almost immediately and by action I mean the car chase. Because essentially the Mad Max movies are drawn out car chases- a simultaneous warning against and glorification of car culture taken to the extremes. By now, most everyone has probably seen this movie if they are going to so I don’t see a need to go through what it’s about. But if you’ve read anything about Fury Road, you know that this is a “feminist” movie. As far as I can make out, it’s considered a feminist movie because it has a main female character, Imperator Furiosa, who is not there to be a love interest, a damsel in distress, or a well shaped body for men to ogle at. She is a remarkable woman and leader who is better than the men at quite a few things- and the men even acknowledge this. She is, in fact, portrayed like a human being. I think we can all agree that Hollywood has problems with creating female characters and Mad Max: Fury Road is a step in the right direction.

furiosa

That being said, I have a problem with the idea that this is what feminism means now. Because Furiosa is being hailed as a hero because of how traditionally masculine her actions are. She fights, she shoots guns, she blows stuff up, she kills people. The only thing that really differentiates her from the other (male) characters is that she has a more delicate bone structure. And you can make the argument that there is no place for traditional femininity in a Mad Max movie (and I’ll probably agree with you on a lot of points), I’m tired of being told that the women I should admire are the ones that act like men. While part of me loves Imperator Furiosa, with her toughness and fight skills, just as large a part of me wants to see elegant ladies in beautiful dresses having tea parties, which is probably why I loved the recent Cinderella movie so much. So yes, let’s admire Furiosa and Fury Road for creating women that act like human beings but let’s also stop acting like the only admirable women are the ones that act like men.

Here’s a movie review of Fury Road that better expresses what I’m trying to say about Mad Max “Feminism”.

The Anti-Romantic List

Despite a longtime love for Disney princesses and Jane Austen, I’ve never been a fan of romantic stories. I know there are plenty of other people who share my indifference (or outright distaste) for overly sappy love stories so I’ve decided to compile a list of books where women are the main characters and the main plot line has nothing to do with a romantic relationship (and maybe a few movies/TV shows if I feel that they are outstanding examples). If you’ve read some or all of these examples you will know that some of these stories do have a romantic side plot- that’s fine for me, I’m really just looking for books where the main focus is elsewhere. Since I would like to continue adding to this list (for myself and for anyone else that is interested), I will also be creating a new page and updating it as I come across other examples. (Links to previous reviews if I’ve written them.)

Please send me suggestions for other books if you can think of any; there are certain areas/authors where my knowledge is woefully short!

THE LIST

1) The Queen of The Tearling by Erika Johansen. I have a feeling this will skew towards romance between two characters at some point in the trilogy, but in the first book at least there is very little.

2) The Old Kingdom books (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, Clariel) by Garth Nix. There’s a smidge of romance in Sabriel and Abhorsen but these books are all mainly about girls saving the world.

3) The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. One of my favorite books. Even better- a sequel, Stilletto, is coming out in just months!

4) Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. Even though this is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, the main story is about the love of Orual for her sister Psyche.

5) Chalice by Robin McKinley. This was the first book I read by Robin McKinley and I loved it enough to keep reading more of her work.

6) Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. Another of my favorites. There is a love interest, but it’s a side story. It could easily stand without it.

7) The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. This changes drastically in the second and third books, but Lyra is one heck of a (non-romantic) heroine in this book.

8) A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. I’m fudging a bit on this one, but 2 of the three orphans are female so I’m including it.

9) The A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Can we count this? It’s my list so I say yes. I love these books and I love the female characters in this series (mostly) but I would tremble to see what Martin would ever write as “romantic”.

10) The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi. Beautiful art, cool female characters.

11) Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell. I didn’t particularly like this book but it is a fantasy and the book deals mainly with the mystery behind the girls’ behavior.

12) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne Valente. Another book I didn’t particularly like but, again, a girl character is kicking butt.

13) Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler. Heavily inspired by the Grimms’ fairy tales, Lily goes on a journey to save her best friend, a kraken, who has been captured. This book was unsettling and I ultimately decided not to review it here once I finished it. It was good, but not something I would ever want to read again.

And to finish, some movies that really need no description:

14) Brave.

15) Pacific Rim. (Technically, Mako Mori is a co-main character I guess, but I love this movie and she’s not just there as a prize to be won.)

16) Hanna.

17) Alien.

So I notice that a lot of these books have young girls as the protagonist but hopefully, now that I’ve started this list, I (or you!) will start noticing/reading more books where the main female does something besides fall in love. And again, suggestions are always welcome!

Gender and Tolkien

Tauriel

Tolkien has a bad reputation for gender diversity but (and I say this as a female with strong feminist tendencies) I don’t care. I don’t think I’ve written a post before like I’m about to, but with the introduction of Tauriel in the recent Hobbit movie and my discovery of this article, I felt I should take advantage of my platform here.

But first, read this article: One Weird Old Trick to Undermine the Patriarchy. Go on, go read it. It’s short. I can wait.

Done? Good. Let’s continue.

First, let me just say that I have no issue with switching genders of main characters if your kid wants it. It’s a bit untraditional but if it works, then ok. Stories can and do change.

So now, can we just talk about that picture for a minute? Insert my hands thrown up and a long drawn out wail of “whhhhhhyyyyy” right here. We’re switching genders of the main character! So yes please, let’s take that frumpy middle-aged hobbit who loves nothing better than sitting comfortably and eating and change him into a cute young hobbittess with a spunky haircut, a figure to die for, and a look that clearly says she’s up for anything. We’re staying completely true to the story here!

And then there’s this: “Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry.” A PIECE OF JEWELRY?? Michelle Nijhuis is trying to make the point that gender isn’t an issue so she turns the quest to reclaim Erebor, the dwarven homeland, into some petty journey where girl Bilbo ends up with some pretty jewelry. If we’re trying to point out the gender of the main character doesn’t matter, maybe we should be avoiding blatantly feminine stereotypes? Just a thought. Not to mention that the Arkenstone isn’t even jewelry. (EDIT: Just realized Nijhuis might be referring to the One Ring here and not the Arkenstone- comment about female stereotypes still stands.)

I also find it interesting that Nijhuis adds “Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.” Except for us, that is. By writing the article, with the underlying idea that having a male hero is somehow detrimental to young female minds, WE are making an issue of gender. I find the idea incredibly patronizing that unless there is a female character, my enjoyment of the story will somehow be less.

I’ll be the first to tell you that women in our society, young, old, and in between, have serious image issues. But I don’t think that books with predominantly male characters are to blame.  Instead of teaching our children (boys and girls) that they can use their gifts to overcome adversity and find clever solutions to tricky problems, we’re hung up on trying to convince them that girls can be tough too! And go on adventures! Even though they’re girls! Maybe we should be more focused on the fact that the majority of Disney movies and young adult novels, while having female protagonists, almost always have the female ending up in a relationship (this relationship is generally a main plot line). This is why Brave was so refreshing, because there was no love story for our heroine- except with her mother. And maybe we should be more concerned about the fact that women are praised more for their youth and beauty than anything else, whatever they are trying to do (I direct your attention to the picture accompanying the article once more).

So am I upset that the writer of this article changed the sex of Bilbo? No. Do I resent the creation of Tauriel in the movie? Absolutely not. I’m a firm believer that women can be just as competent and entertaining characters as any man. Don’t believe me? Try reading The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. Or The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman. Or Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. (True, there’s a love story in that one, but I’ve never read a more realistic character than Ellie. And the love story line is secondary to the plot.) It’s when we insist on making a point of saying “oh, this is a man, why can’t it be a woman?” or “oh good, a woman, that’s better” that I start to fume.

So here’s my suggestion: Instead of villainizing Tolkien (or any author) for writing books with mostly male characters, or instead of trying to make poor one-for-one substitutions of men for women, let’s encourage girls to write their own stories. Stories where women can be more than token characters, there just to make a point about gender. Or…not. Because that’s the thing: if gender doesn’t matter, then gender doesn’t matter. A good character is a good character regardless of their anatomy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article!