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16 July 2007 @ 09:24 am
Spirited versus strong  
Just finished Birdwing, by Rafe Martin, and found it another book in which, in the end, my main gripe was the treatment of the main female character. In an illuminating way, though--thinking about this has clarified some of my own thinking on the handling of female characters in general.

The book takes the story of the twelve swan brothers: turned to swans by their evil stepmother, turned human again by their brave sister, who knitted coats from brambles to turn them back again. Only she didn't have enough time to finish the final arm of the final coat, so her youngest brother, Ardwin, was left with one arm that was forever a swan's wing. The book begins where the fairy tale ends, and it follows Ardwin's journey as a boy with one wing. I love that as I starting place. I also love Ardwin's relationship with Rose, his sister who almost, but not quite, saved him. They both have issues around that, and they're handled believably and well. And I liked Ardwen's inner journey from hating his wing to accepting it.

But then there's the treatment of the obligatory love interest, Alene, the goose girl/princess who shows up late in the book. Alene herself is a fine character, skilled with a spear, preferring to be outdoors than inside acting the part of a proper lady with her stepsisters. When Alene is abducted, she and Ardwen together, with some magical help, defeat the kidnappers.

Well, I thought they did it together, anyway. That's how the fight scene read, certainly. But for the rest of the book, everyone else talks about how Ardwin rescued Alene, rather than about how they fought off their enemies together. Even though they did fight off their enemies together. It was as if, because Ardwin was the hero, he also had to be the rescuer, rather than a comrade in arms.

At first I thought maybe I was overreacting. Just as I thought maybe I was overreacting when Alene was called upon--in exchange for room and board--to teach an innkeeper's wife how to cook properly. There's no indication that Alene is the sort of person who would particularly like to cook; and she has resources enough to pay for her lodging without doing so, but she agrees to do so anyway, graciously, for no reason that fits with anything else about her.

But then we get to the moments when Ardwin is armored up and waiting for the inevitable final battle, during which he and his horse (Ardwin's swan wing lets him communicate with animals) have this conversation:
"Alene's mad at you, isn't she?"

Ardwin sighed. "She'll get over it. Fighting wolves is one thing, battles with men another. I couldn't have her come along. Not to this."

The woman who freed herself from her own bonds--with no concern for whether the dagger that cut the ropes injured her as well; the woman who got in the first blow while fighting off her attackers by Ardwin's side--she has no place in battle? Is Ardwin blind?

It is a blindness, apparently, shared by all the other men in the story. Ardwin is the hero. The hero needs to protect the woman he loves. The woman herself gets no say in the matter.

So here's what this made me realize, as a writer: there's a difference between creating a fiesty or spirited character, and creating a strong character.

Writers and readers and viewers don't always understand this. They mistake a bit of fiery attitude for strength. They think a woman is strong just because she doesn't scream or run. But being strong means playing a role in your own fate. Being strong means actually doing something, playing an active role in your story's events, working to influence their outcome. It means taking personal responsibility for some part of the what-happens-next.

It has nothing to do with whether a character is spirited or a screamer. All sorts of characters can be strong, if the author lets them.

This is the same failing that made the movie Ratatouille seem like it had a strong female character when it didn't--Colette, too, had plenty of attitude, but little ability to try to shape events (save by inspiring the heroes) once she'd fallen in love.

Ardwin would have been no less the hero, had he acknowledged that Alene had played a role in her fate, and was well-qualified to continue to do so. Seeing the two of them fighting side by side--as the equals the story wants us to believe they are--would have made for a more satisfying tale, while taking nothing at all away from Ardwin's journey.
(Anonymous) on July 17th, 2007 10:48 am (UTC)
Your review of Birdwing
Dear Janni --

How delighted I was to read this "being strong means actually doing something, playing an active role in your story's events, working to influence the outcome."

I couldn't agree more, and yet our view of what it means to be a feminine woman is so pervasive, it is, in large part responsible, for why Katie Couric has not been successful on CBS Evening News, and why a film like The Devil Wears Prada was entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying, and why -- I so loved Nancy Drew.

My best,

Whitney Johnson