Are We There Yet?

The other night, I plucked from my shelf an old Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner. This one in fact:

004Hadn’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”?

          Guardians of the Galaxy International Character Movie Posters - Zoe Saldana as Gamora  Barbara_Hale-0327

Zoe Saldana (Gamora) and Barbara Hale (Della)

scarlett-johansson-black-widow

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.

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26 thoughts on “Are We There Yet?

  1. I suppose you could look as far back as Jane Austen for writing about strong females. First ever feminist, many think. Personally I find her books boring to read but accept that she was doing it for herself way back then.

      • I’ve never looked at it like that but I guess I do – writing about what one knows is so much easier therefore must come across as true. Imagination is one thing, but making the story believable is another!

  2. Talking of the books you read when you was young took me back to the books by Hitchcock-The Three Investigators series. Remember those?
    And thinking of strong literary female characters-I thought of Sabriel in the Garth Nix books that you introduced me to. Also Lisbeth Salander in the Millenium trilogy of books that were brought to film. She was very damaged by what had been done to her but refused to be a victim.

    • Sabriel is one of my favorite books, Andy. She’s a great example of a strong heroine who was true to herself.
      A friend of mine brings up The Three Investigators from time to time. 🙂 Lisbeth is another good example.

  3. I just saw Guardians this weekend. Didn’t really think much about the gender roles in there. I prefer quality over quantity. If you have 5 male characters who are caricatures or poorly written alongside 1 developed, complex female character then I think the woman wins.

    One female character that has developed a lot since the beginning is Moneypenny from the James Bond movies. She was into him and flirting in the early movies with there being some innuendo, but she was obviously not the strong person in the relationship. Then there came a point where James would compliment her, hit on her, and other innuendos that she would respond to with sarcasm and wit. So somewhere along the line, Moneypenny became an equal coworker instead of the eye-candy secretary.

  4. Thanks for bringing up this topic, L.Marie. As I was reading over my ms, I realized that in the climax scene, there are two males and two females and the males were doing all the fighting. The females weren’t passive or staring adoringly at the guys, but it gave me pause. On the other hand, the increased violence all around bugs me — the idea that to be equal the female must kill and fight like the men do. I’m glad Andy mentioned Sabriel — she’s an excellent example of a strong female character who doesn’t resort to strict male stereotypes for strength.

    • I see what you mean, Laura. I can’t help thinking of books or movies where a woman weighing about 105 pounds is shown punching out a 200-pound guy. We’re expected to believe that’s even possible.
      Sabriel is a great example of someone who had her own style of fighting and who never once backed away from a fight. She also knew when running away was the wisest course. 🙂

  5. Yes, I think I agree with laurasibson. Women don’t need to be like men to be strong. They have their own strength that is totally unique to them. Or something like that. When I start thinking things get dastardly.

  6. Secretaries are known as “administrative assistants” now? Interesting…

    I’m not really big on gender roles in fiction. What I mean is, if I read a book/watch a movie and all the characters are male, I don’t get bothered and wonder why none are female. Or if I read a book/watch a movie and all the characters are female, I don’t get bothered and wonder why none are male.

    For me, it’s just that if they’re male…they’re male. And if they’re female…they’re female. That’s it, nothing more or hidden…it just is what it is.

  7. In the past, most of my protagonists have been male, and in my last novel, my female protagonist was the only major female character in the story. Like you, I grew up with only brothers (and male cousins), but I also had no close friends who were girls. As a teenager, all of my close friends were boys, so it has always been easier for me to write from a boy’s perspective. I doubt I will ever write a novel that involves a close friendship between teenage girls because I simply don’t know what it’s like.

    • I know what you mean, Lyn. When I was a teen, I had some close female friends, but not many. One day, though, I might write a contemporary, urban story. I’m not sure when I’ll do that, however. 🙂

      • Ooooh, Linda — a contemporary urban story!!!!! On another note, you and Lyn reminded me why I always write chicks. I grew up with a sister and a mom (parents divorced when I was little) and we spent a lot of time with my widowed grandmother. My world was female. Now I’m in a male world (husband and two sons), but I’m still a bit baffled about boys. Sigh.

      • Though I lived in a house with a number of guys and have a lot of guy friends, I’m still baffled by them, which is why I have to rewrite my scenes! When my nephew reads a scene and goes, “Uh, you need more dialogue here” “You could do more with tension,” I know I didn’t do justice to my male protagonists.

  8. Good points you make, L. Marie, as do many of the comments. We do have more strong female characters now–many of them “kick-ass” heroines. And that’s good, but as laurasibson and others have noted, there are other ways to be strong too, and we need examples of those as well. I also think it’s important to include relationships besides romance–though I love romantic stories.

    • I agree. Some ways of being strong (like not giving in to peer pressure) aren’t showy, but are just as compelling. I like a good romance too. But friendship is a gift often overlooked. Friendship is a strong theme in Guardians of the Galaxy.

  9. A couple of reviewers have criticized my lack of female heroines in my own novel……..It didn’t matter that I made the whole story center around a female, apparently.

    But history tends to celebrate men. I’ve teased out a couple of women for future installments, and I hope to make them well-rounded, suitable heroines.

    • With historical fiction, a person needs to take the world as is, rather than what we wish it might have been. You have a strong heroine, so I don’t see why anyone would complain.

  10. This is such an interesting post Linda. I read a statistic recently about women in film in Hollywood, which was shocking yet not surprising: only 28% of speaking roles are spoken by women in film. And yet 50% of the cinema-going public in the world is female.

    Now I don’t know what you think of that, but I find it appalling that in the 21st century we’ve come so far and yet… we haven’t. We still live in a male-dominated world and to be honest that really gets to me sometimes!

    I know this doesn’t relate entirely to what you’re writing about, but I think it is important to have more female characters in books – that will mean (in theory at least) more female parts in film, more people talking about women in books and women will have a higher profile in our popular culture and media.

    Thanks for sharing such a thought provoking and interesting post with us. 🙂

    • Thanks, Elaine! I know what you mean though. In order for the next generation to be empowered, they need to see good roles parceled out equally. I’m trying to remember that as I write books. I’m glad to see that you have strong heroines in your books.

  11. Pingback: Where the (Super)Girls Are | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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