Last week, Charles Yallowitz had an interesting discussion on tropes at his blog that got me to thinking about the subject of this post.
When I was in graduate school, I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. I was fascinated by the hero’s journey monomyth. Still am. Growing up, I loved stories like Star Wars, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Treasure Island, and comic books like Superman, Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc.
And yes, I am female—a female with two brothers, a dad, about a billion male cousins, and a number of male friends. And no, I’m not selling out myself or females in general because I love heroic adventures. I also love Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, etc. I wrote my critical thesis on the heroine’s journey in middle grade fiction, following the steps of the hero’s journey (the call to action, etc.).
Back when I was a kid—a time when everyone had a pet triceratops—I used to watch a show called The Avengers. This is not the Avengers you saw in Marvel movies. It is described by Wikipedia as “a British espionage television series.” It starred Patrick Macnee as John Steed, Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel (left photo), and when Diana left the show, Linda Thorson became Steed’s partner, Tara King. I loved Emma Peel and Tara King, because they knew karate and could beat a dude down. As a kid, I often felt helpless, especially living in a rough neighborhood where guys ignored the “don’t hit a girl” rule parents used to enforce back in the day, and would pick a fight with a girl. I got into two fights in middle school with boys, which is why my older brother taught me to box.
Even with that love of seeing powerful women on an old TV show, I can’t help noticing how the hero has undergone a metamorphosis in some stories these days. Either he takes a backseat or is rendered weak and ridiculous—the constant butt of a joke. But I can’t laugh at this. Before you say I’m anti-humor, there’s a difference between a character with humor who doesn’t take himself too seriously (Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel comics and movies), thus causing us to laugh with him, and someone who is deliberately written to look weaker and less intelligent than the female characters, which causes us to view him with contempt. I understand that some are glad to see this, believing this aspect to be “just desserts” due to the past. Maybe I’m old school, but I don’t like this. (And yes, I saw and laughed at the movie, Dumb and Dumber. But the characters, when compared to males and females, were considered silly. We laughed like we laughed at P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster.)
I’m reminded by many on social media and in other places how this is the time of women and how we need strong females in literature. While I agree with the need for strong females, if a female character can only be strong by making the male characters weak or stupid, how is she strong? That would be like calling yourself a weightlifter, but you only lift weights made out of marshmallows.
A while ago, I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the need for strong heroes who are the match to strong villains and wrote this post and this one on it. Often you see a weak, dull hero with an interesting, powerful villain or a powerful hero and a lackluster villain. The article talked about the need for strength on both sides. Well, there’s a need for strong females yes. And strong males also.
What I loved about the first Avengers movie (2012) was the fact that Black Widow’s strength as a character didn’t cancel out the strength of her male teammates. They enhanced each other.
Dune 2021 has a hero—Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet)—as well as strong women, like his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and others I will not name due to spoilers. Granted, this is an adaptation of a book written in the 60s. But it was a hit.
Anyway, this is something I’ve been thinking about and couldn’t rest until I had written this post. I know people have the right to write whatever they want. But I know what I like and what I don’t.
Diana Rigg photo from somewhere on Pinterest. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow poster from somewhere online. Book cover from Goodreads. Generic hero from pngarts.com. Photo of Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson found at vanityfaircom. Photo by Chiabella James. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Captain America from news.doddleme.com.