Rey, Amberle, and Wonder Woman — What’s our New Message?
By Valerie Estelle Frankel
I just saw the new show The Shannara Chronicles. And I couldn’t help thinking (aside from the anachronistically slangy teens) that it’s suffering from the same problem as Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
In an attempt to be credible in the twenty-first century, there are now two chosen ones, a boy and a girl (at least, that’s it for Shannara eps 1 and 2). On Star Wars, Rey is the Chosen One, but Finn certainly has an arc coming as he blends the Luke and Han personalities of naïve guy and reluctant hero.
However, in both series, the overpowered girl isn’t having any fun. Finn laughs with Poe, and the pair of them get the film’s silliest lines as Poe mocks Kylo Ren with “Who talks first?” or Finn insists “I’m in charge” to Captain Phasma until Han tells him to “bring it down.” It’s ultra-serious Rey who saves BB-8 and challenges Ren without contributing any of the quipping of the first film, in contrast to mouthy Leia. Aside from the rather unfunny “Chewie’s my boyfriend” joke, Maz isn’t particularly witty, just profound. Yoda, by comparison, was doing stand-up.
On Shannara, Will is the “normal character” with whom viewers can connect. He’s skeptical about the chosen one-destiny plot. He jokes with his dour new mentor Allanon in unseen forces. Elf princess Amberle, by contrast, is ultra serious. Her jobs appear to be 1) Join the violent boys club of “Chosen” that’s always excluded women 2) dump boyfriend who loves her because she has no feelings for him (or apparently, anyone) 3) accept destiny-mission without hesitation, leaving everything she’s known to accomplish this. No problem. When she holds him at swordpoint, naked (ah, fan service, though he gets naked in the tub earlier), she doesn’t even appear to care (only adding “Eyes up here”) while he, in a more flustered normal reaction begs her to get dressed.
Rey and Amberle are both a bit too powered. Amberle, on meeting the thief that successfully swindles Will, is completely in charge of the situation, seeing through the other girl in a minute, flinging the drugged wine back at her, and holding her at swordpoint. No one ever doubted she’d win the competition and become a “Chosen.” While Will, like Luke, is attacked on his first trips outside his sheltered home, needing others to bail him out and help him grow, Amberle can handle herself.
Despite all this, Will still feels he must “rescue the princess,” and bring her home to her people. Allanon even brings Will along to be the princess’s bodyguard, as if she needs it. Likewise, Finn charges in on two rescue missions to save Rey — their first meeting in the desert and then later on Starkiller Base. Sure, Rey subverts this by pointedly not needing him — take that, audience expectations! But there are other trope one can bring in besides the humble hero saving the threatened princess.
Sure, being powerful is good — far better than wimpy. However, fumbling Finn and realistic Will are easier for the audience to connect with than “Ms. Perfect all the time.” In fact, so far, neither of the young women is seen even making a mistake that teaches her anything, while their hero counterparts are all endearing mistakes at they stumble through the world.
Sophia McDougall notes in her article “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” that too often being “strong” is the only personality trait appearing in the butt-kicking warrior woman today.
The ones that fit in most neatly — are usually the most boring.He-Man, Superman (sorry), The Lone Ranger, Jack Ryan, perhaps. Forgotten square-jawed heroes of forgotten pulp novels and the Boy’s Own Paper. If Strong-Male-Character compatibility was the primary criterion of writing heroes, our fiction would be a lot poorer. But it’s within this claustrophobic little box that we expect our heroines to live out their lives.
Are our best-loved male heroes Strong Male Characters? Is, say, Sherlock Holmes strong? In one sense, yes, of course. He faces danger and death in order to pursue justice. On the other hand, his physical strength is often unreliable — strong enough to bend an iron poker when on form, he nevertheless frequently has to rely on Watson to clobber his assailants, at least once because he’s neglected himself into a condition where he can’t even try to fight back. His mental and emotional resources also fluctuate. An addict and a depressive, he claims even his crime-fighting is a form of self-medication. Viewed this way, his willingness to place himself in physical danger might not be “strength” at all — it might be another form of self-destructiveness. Or on the other hand, perhaps his vulnerabilities make him all the stronger, as he succeeds in surviving and flourishing in spite of threats located within as well without.
Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.
Too many “strong female characters” are one hundred percent humorless. Xena and Gabrielle laughed and teased. Buffy was downright hilarious. Zoe and Kaylee on Firefly made cracks all the time as a fun part of the team. Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl … well, it depends who’s writing. But some of the new ones like Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl are delightfully goofy and include their readers in the joke.
However, on film today, Black Widow is the humorless “straight man” and dour Wonder Woman from a far off land looks like she’ll join her. Katniss can tease a bit, but she’s generally dead serious, with a far funnier and more charming Peeta beside her. Divergent’s Tris is right to be nicknamed “Stiff.”
As a humor writer whose works are enjoyed by men, women, teens, and children, I can attest that women have senses of humor. But it seems a criteria that today’s “strong women” don’t. It’s great that series like Star Wars and Shannara have incorporated strong women specifically as their leads. But couldn’t they for once enjoy it?
Cited: Sophia McDougall. “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” New Statesman 20 Aug 2013.
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