Raise your hand if you remember the Frozen fever that gripped Hollywood - and pretty much the rest of the world too - in the fall of 2013. If you remember the glittering reviews and the innumerable times ‘shattered the glass ceiling’, ‘badass princesses’ or ‘Oscar worthy’ flashed before your eyes, till you were made certain that all of life was meaningless unless you booked first-day, deluxe seat tickets. If you remember how Disney Renaissance enthusiasts, across the globe, made sure you knew that Anna and Elsa were different, unlike the girly-girls you see in other princess movies. They are empowered, with their M-slit gowns and absence of a romantic wedding for an ending, jot that down. If you remember how you found yourself at the theatre, semi-guilt tripped into watching the movie, and finally realised that Jennifer Lee’s retelling of The Snow Queen to be, at most, a well-intentioned but weak tea nod as to what made a woman ‘badass’.
It’s funny, actually, because when one sits down to look back upon this legacy of retconning traditionally feminine roles as weak, so as to prop up tomboyish, often desensitised heroines, it’s not just the creators, critics and audience of present day showbiz media who are to blame. Even adored and revered works like those of C S Lewis and Rowling, yes, Rowling, have often sought to perpetuate this trope, often under a carefully arranged veneer of offering simple didactic messages in children’s literature.
So, let’s talk about these girly-girls. Not just the predecessor Disney princesses, no, but the so-called wimpy girls in the media, the featherbrained airheads, the wet blankets. The ones who can’t and won’t punch assassins, knife through captors or ride horses into sandstorms.
For as long as I can remember, it was a struggle for me to find feminine, unapologetically girly characters in literature and media, who were not dismissed as prissy, uppity damsels or useless, shivering waifs whose plethora of interests - sewing, fashion, painting, music, and so forth - were not dismissed as completely decorative and impractical in the general context of the storyline. Worse still, if I did manage to find a rare favourite, it was quite the feat to avoid the barrage of snide remarks from acquaintances, friends, and even more terrible - overenthusiastic vloggers and literary dissenters who were sure to hammer home the fact that Sansa Stark and Amy March are, in fact, horrible sinners doomed to burn in eternal hellfire for their crimes.
Sansa Stark, from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is a textbook example of the stern fact that a non-tomboyish, non-sexualised female lead can do nothing without being written off as a wimp. A young, naive lady of merely eleven, when the series begins, Sansa is held captive, forced to endure the slaughter of her family and shoulders through being a political pawn and a hostage with kindness, bravery and resilience. She has no dragons and no swords, she loves lemon cakes, ballads and handsome knights, and is therefore, by default, painted by the Game of Thrones fandom as a wet blanket airhead. She’s even seen as a veritable ableist demon for not feeling sexually attracted towards a man thrice her age (and he hails from the house that murdered her family, no less). She only manages to garner some sympathy after she is violated in the TV adaptation, a scene that doesn’t even exist in the books. It is hardly surprising that many male characters in the series, who do much worse, get away with their misdeeds way easily. Thrones’ treatment of non-warrior women is particularly repulsive. Sansa is made to mouth lines showing stoic gratitude towards her assaulters for teaching her strength, and another female character, who is often praised for being the snarky cool kid, demurely announces that she doesn’t plan to be useless during battle, namely ‘sit knitting by the fire’. Non-canonical lines, inserted because of the directors’ knowledge that they specifically pander to the audience’s needs and explicit scenes where women condemn softness and acts of ‘predictable’ ladyship, thereby metamorphosing into badasses, are aplenty.
It is alarming that such scenes, in books and films, are often revered and portrayed as a sort of phoenix-from-the-ashes-moment, worthy of wolf-whistles and printed merchandise. Even more alarming is how the notion of empowerment has grown so utterly distorted that nothing, save for panning people who do not go against the grain, can properly qualify as a wholesome depiction of strong women. Why, after all, is knitting by the fire, or working in the kitchen so problematic? Do soldiers magically grow their uniforms? Does food come to us without the contribution of those who make it? Demeaning the choice of a woman to do as she pleases or act as she wants, is but an elaborately twisted route, ultimately ending in degrading womanhood itself.
When C S Lewis published The Last Battle in 1956 the final instalment of his Narnia series, there was quite a bit of hue and outcry over his decision to close the gates of Narnia upon Susan Pevensie, the older, calmer, more beautiful and ladylike of the Pevensie sisters. After her family is killed in a car accident and the souls of her siblings find eternal refuge in Narnia, (a clear metaphor of an Eden-like realm) Susan is left alone, literally and figuratively locked out of heaven, her dismissal most summarily executed by Lewis in a couple of lines:
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
Why is this a problem? Because it’s not so much a question of what her fate was, as it is of why she deserved such a peremptory conclusion:
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipsticks and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up…”
Ah, yes, of course. Dresses and makeup, wanting to socialise and have peers; what could be more heinous a crime for an adolescent? Surely, a crime worthy of being unpardonable, in a book replete with Biblical imagery and repeated emphasis on the need to keep the innocence in children untainted, with a fervour that would make Blake proud. If you are shaking your head at this, slightly unconvinced, here’s a snippet from Lewis himself, where he makes it clear that our lipstick-wearing, nylon-loving lady is not enjoying the fruits of the Promised Land anytime soon:
“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end… in her own way…”
Even while he offers us a glimmer of hope, one can’t help but wince at the last lines. ‘Plenty of time for her to mend’ what, exactly? What is so indisputably repulsive about Susan craving extremely normal things, for a girl of her age? Why is there an immediate need to demonise a female character who chooses to beautify herself with makeup and pretty clothes?
Since then, Susan’s crisis has attracted plenty of sympathetic voices from the literary community: Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, J K Rowling - to name a few, with Gaiman even creating a sort of spinoff short story with a very Susan-esque protagonist, giving her a much-needed voice and agency. Still, the older Pevensie sister remains an outcast of Narnia, a scarring reminder of what happens to girls who dare to be…well, just be. The ugly implications of girlish existence in Lewis’ ramrod world of old laws and deep magic are proof enough.
Speaking of Rowling, an interesting and somewhat ironic fact is that while the Harry Potter series, on the forefront, seems chock-full of strong, three-dimensional female characters, there is something slightly problematic in the way she treats any character that teeters dangerously into girly-girl territory. Two classic examples are Cho Chang, Harry’s first girlfriend, who is constantly vilified for being ‘too emotional’ and too mopey over her dead boyfriend, and Fleur Delacour, who while she gets a much better conclusion, is still written off as the shallow dumb blonde, with a subpar performance in the Triwizard tournament where she’s the only female competitor. Cho is eventually cast aside for Ginny, whom Harry considers wonderful because she is ‘rarely weepy’. Constant misogynistic and slightly racist jabs are directed at Fleur by none other than Molly and Ginny Weasley, two of the most glorified and celebrated women in Harry’s life. Not even the minor characters escape judgement: the Patil twins and Lavender Brown, bubblier and more extroverted classmates of Hermione, are often reduced to nothing but cartoonish caricatures vying for Harry and Ron’s affections in the movies. Besides the evocation of unpleasant racial overtones, it’s something to think about, really. Where does mild, school cliché-centric humour end and perpetual bracketing-and-bashing of softness and generic girlishness begin?
My personal favourite though, is the much-hated Amy March from Little Women. Amy’s case is particularly interesting because Alcott never meant to malign her, no, it’s the audience, unable to look past their ‘JO x LAURIE ENDGAME’ stupor, who miss the whole point of Amy’s arc - the resourcefulness in her choice to work within the conventions of traditional femininity instead of rebelling against it, the raw honesty in her desire as an impoverished girl to enjoy pretty material pleasures, the flaws and petty mistakes she succumbs to, because she is not written to be liked, she is written to be real. Jo’s struggles are very earthy and very honest, and her staunch refusal to fit in and fulfil societal expectations is admirable, but Amy’s willingness to maintain a sort of harmony with her community and work towards self-fulfilment…how is that, in any way, less gratifying?
And for that matter, what do all these endless debates actually uncover? What does this hollow classification system of girls into badasses and girly-girls entail?
The answer is uncertain, but it’s surely not an easy one. One cannot simply go for a shallow deconstruction of the not-like-other-girls syndrome without looking into why this syndrome had to arise at all. And then one finds that the root of this bizarre phenomenon lies in square one: the trivialisation of tenderness in girls and women, leading many to think that female voices and characters might not be taken seriously unless they are stripped away of all that could possibly hint at compassion and clemency. While Katniss Everdeen, Merida and the warrior heroines of some of the later Young Adult franchises may have arrived at exactly the right moment to prevent oversaturation of the market by the same kind of feminine representation, the boomerang effect that arose out of this is girls, in the younger demographic, seeking validation by rejecting and loudly denouncing traits that could possibly mark them as girly. This denunciation shows an almost vitriolic hatred in harmless things, marked out as extremely feminine motifs: anything pink and/or coded as princessy being the commonest examples. It’s alarming, it’s potentially harmful that the psyche of girls is shaped by what they shouldn’t be as opposed to what they prefer to be, it leans towards the patriarchy having the last laugh at the end.
Most importantly, as hackneyed as this sounds, there is nothing more reproachable than the actions and behaviour of one woman being tainted so as to glorify another. Feminism and badassery don’t spring just from elaborate fight sequences or by being completely stone-cold or perpetually displeased and in a fighting stance. Yes, female characters so portrayed are valid, beautiful, even necessary. But they are not the beginning and end of all that’s marvellous and awe-inspiring about women. It’s definitely heartening to see a much more positive and varied portrayal of sharp and brilliant women in contemporary media, who don’t always depend on brawn or magic to achieve unanimous approval, take the famous Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) for example, a wonderful subversion of the dumb blonde stereotype.
So while we praise Arya for knifing through her tormentors, we cannot forget Sansa, who comforts children and women with songs during a battle; we can celebrate angry, rebellious spirits without coming for gentle, tranquil hearts. We can cherish both sides of the spectrum. We can appreciate that some rebellions happen quietly, in utter tranquillity, glossed with pink and flowers. We can, for once, not let the patriarchy win.
And maybe, just maybe at the end, Susan, the outcast of Narnia, no longer a powerful queen but just gloriously and heartbreakingly a human girl, will have the last laugh.
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