The other night, I plucked from my shelf an old Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner. This one in fact:
Hadn’t read it in years. I bought it ages ago, when I was a teen and frequented used bookstores in Chicago, where you could trade books and get others for 25 cents. (Yes, 25 cents, contrary to the 15-cent sticker on the book.)
Anyhoo, if you’re not familiar with Perry, he’s a defense attorney (Gardner also practiced law) with a faithful secretary, Della Street, who gazes adoringly at him from time to time. There was a television show (1957—1966) based on the characters, which starred Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. (Click here for more on that.) But that’s probably way more than you care to know on that subject. I read several Perry Mason books when I was a teen because I was into mysteries, and they were cheap to buy.
But as I read the first few pages of the above book the other day, my twenty-first century sensibilities kicked in as Della dutifully handed Perry his mail, called him Chief, and basked in his wonderfulness. When he asked her a question that she answered with an opinion contrary to his opinion, he quipped, “I should have known better than to argue with a woman,” which usually comes across as condescending. Basically Della does whatever Perry tells her to do. In all fairness, he is her boss, and her actions fit the social mores of the times (back when secretaries were known as secretaries rather than administrative assistants).
I’m not trying to get on a soapbox here. After all, I own this book. Revisiting literature of the past to analyze the gender roles is a mini-hobby of mine. Having seen Guardians of the Galaxy (a film directed by James Gunn) twice now, I can’t help noticing how different a character like Gamora, a trained assassin (played by Zoe Saldana) is from Della Street (played on the show by Barbara Hale). Gamora didn’t spend a ton of time gazing adoringly at anyone. Note the job description trained assassin. She had her own plans, some of which involved giving or taking a beating. (This is also why I loved Black Widow in Marvel movies like The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Iron Man 2.) Women have come a long way, huh? But have we really “arrived”?
Zoe Saldana (Gamora) and Barbara Hale (Della)
Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow)
Though I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, I can count on one hand the number of women in positions of strength in it. This is an observation, rather than a criticism. After all, this movie is based on the Marvel comics series. Also, one of the scriptwriters is a woman—Nicole Perlman.
Here’s another reason why I can’t criticize: I’m writing a book with three main characters, two of which are male. One reason for this is the fact that I grew up with two brothers and no sisters. So I’m used to this sort of triad. But really, that’s no excuse. I have to ask myself: If I like seeing strong females in books and movies, am I doing my part to ensure that kids and teens reading my books will find strong females?
Only I can answer that, of course. But it’s something to think about. As someone who grew up reading comic books and who longed to see strong female superheroes with story arcs involving more than being the love interest of the hero, I need to be more proactive about providing said heroines.
On a side note, Scarlett Johansson’s movie, Lucy, opened the same weekend as Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson’s Hercules movie and beat it at the box office. It was trounced at the box office, however, by Guardians of the Galaxy. I haven’t seen Lucy, though I probably will at some point.
Gardner, Erle Stanley. Perry Mason: The Case of the Perjured Parrot. New York: Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, 1947. 2.
Zoe Saldana as Gamora poster from theblotsays.com. Barbara Hale as Della Street photo from freerepublic.com. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from newsmanone.wordpress.com.