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)

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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.

Where Are the Good Guys?

BaileySpur4XAngoraBlendFurFetlCowboyHatWhiteThe other day I received an email about a new book series involving a beloved character from a classic series. Sorry to be cryptic, but I don’t plan to reveal who that character is or what that series is. Suffice it to say, this character and others in the series have been reimagined as evil characters when formerly they were on the side of good. My first reaction was irritation. What gives, huh? Is it because villains are portrayed as having more fun these days?

As I groused over that email, I couldn’t help thinking about Thor: The Dark World. This is my own opinion here, rather than a well-reasoned critique of the movie (I enjoyed it by the way), but the standout character in it was Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). Really, he would be a standout character if he just stood there rearranging socks in a drawer. But in a movie with the name Thor in the title, shouldn’t Thor—the hero—be the standout character? Maybe he was for you (he is 6 feet 3 inches tall, heh heh), but he wasn’t for me in this movie, despite the romance and the tragic bits. My eyes were on Loki every time and also on Christopher Eccleston who played a dark elf named Malekith the Accursed.

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Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battling Malekith (Christopher Eccleston); Loki at right (Tom Hiddleston)

Now, I realize movie production companies and authors have the right to do whatever they want. And I have enjoyed some of the fruits of their labor. But here’s where my blood pressure rises: when good is portrayed as weak or even boring.

In a previous post, I mentioned a quote from Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios. This quote came from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly in an essay by Anthony Breznican:

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

But in some of the books or movies I’ve seen in recent years—Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) being one of them—the good characters seem weak and timid in the face of evil. (Looking at you, Glinda!) This kind of thing sets my teeth on edge.

Glinda

Glinda

Making heroes weak to make the antagonists seem stronger goes against what Bailey talked about in Entertainment Weekly. As he said, “The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be.” Keep that in mind while I bring up another quote. I could kick myself for not writing down the exact words or even where I found it, but the person quoted said something to the effect that villains are preferred, because we get tired of trying to identify with people who are good all the time. (I know. I’m running the risk of misquoting here. Bad, L. Marie. Bad!)

I’m guessing “we” refers to all of us. Well, I can speak for myself, thank you. And I’d like to address something I see as a fallacy: “people who are good all the time.” Know anyone who is “good” all the time? People are more complicated than that. Even pastors yell at their kids sometimes. If we can’t identify with people “who are good all the time,” shouldn’t heroes be complex?

Robert-Downey-Jr-Iron-Man-3I love Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr., because we see his foibles. The choices he makes are what define him as the hero. I love Natasha Romanov (Black Widow/Natalia “Natasha” Alianovna Romanova) as played by Scarlett Johansson. I love everyone on Avatar, especially Prince Zuko and Toph Beifong. They don’t always play nice. They make mistakes.
 
Scarlett-Johansson-as-Black-Widow-in-The-Avengers

Black Widow

Zuko

Zuko

Toph

Toph (I wanna be her when I grow up)

Love the X-Men, especially Wolverine (Hugh Jackman!) and Rogue. Also I squealed over Four in Divergent. (Sorry. That was gratuitous. I just wanted to mention Theo James.) I continue to be mesmerized by the characters on shows like Babylon 5 and Young Justice, thanks to Netflix.

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Wolverine (and not just because he has abs of steel)

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Gratuitous photo of Four (Theo James)

I’m happy to say that many of you are taking the time to make your characters complex (a shout-out to everyone I know from VCFA, as well as authors I’ve met through the blog like K. L. Schwengel, Charles Yallowitz, Kate Sparkes, ReGi McClain, Emily Witt, Stephanie Stamm, John Carnell, and Andra Watkins). There are others too like Phillip McCollum, Andy of City Jackdaw, and Jill Weatherholt who work hard at their craft. You give me hope, people. You also encourage me to get my act together and put forth the effort on my manuscript.

It takes work to make a hero complex, just as it takes work to make a villain complex. So why not make the effort to do so?

Maybe we need a better definition of good. Think about the characteristics that make a parent, a doctor, a fire fighter, or some other professional good at what he or she does. Many times that individual has to make some tough choices—i.e., disciplining a child; giving a patient a shot; and so on. When you really need a professional, you want someone tenacious and strong, not someone who cringes. But you also know that person isn’t perfect. Anyone who has a parent or is a parent knows this.

That’s what a good hero is—someone who isn’t perfect, but who tries to do the right thing. I can relate to that person. Can you?

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor from marvel-movies.wikia.com. Theo James as Four from pinterest.com. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from marvel.wikia.com. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark from wallpapersshop.net. Zuko and Toph from avatar.wikia. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine from x-men.wikia.com.