So, we're already off to a terrible start here.1
But the other problem that I've noticed is that there tends to be a decided lack of solid methodology. I mean, how does one go about finding works that do, in fact, get it right and depict women (and men) in a feminist way? Or, perhaps more importantly, how does one go about finding stages where the story goes wrong? I, admittedly, have this difficulty as well--it is only recently that, thinking about it, I began to construct a scheme for myself. It's very easy and tempting to just glance at a work and say, "wow, strong women! Nice! FEMINISM!" or "Wow, [name redacted] is just fawning all over her stalker vampire lover the whole book. SETS FEMINISM BACK A CENTURY!" This stuff tends to be pretty intuitive. But I'm not comfortable with that, because it's not really fair to creators to tell them, "well, trust me, if your work was feminist it would feel more feministyish." And besides, I hate not having a schematic way of analyzing things. It's just who I am.
My criteria break down like this:
1. Is the character someone I can admire or find compelling?
This works a bit better than you might think, because of the compelling rider. I don't necessarily have to like or even empathize with a villain, for example, to find them compelling. If a character fails this first test, that's a warning sign--especially when this is the main character.
Another phrasing for this question would be "Is the character three-dimensional, and is it a problem if they aren't?"
2. Is my feeling in line with the author's?
This gets into the murky area of authorial intent, something rather at odds with my love of the Death of the Author. This is more a useful tool for analyzing the gaps between an intended view and my actual perception.
3. Is the gap in the above due to stereotypical assumptions, or simply differences in things like personality and so on?
And, finally, and most importantly,
4. Can I justify my reading of the character, even in opposition to the actual intent of the author. Or, to put it more bluntly, can I work past the author's bad ideas to find a way of making the work still enjoyable to me?
This is kind of dense, sometimes weirdly phrased stuff, and I had to go back and figure out what the hell I meant by most of it just now (give me a break, I wrote the first half of this article like a month ago). So, let me try to break it down using three different characters. Introducing:
|Eowyn! From The Lord of the Rings!|
|Hermione Granger! From Harry Potter!|
|Lord Humongous! The Ayatollah of Rock and Ro--|
Uh, let's go with:
|I know it's cliche. I'm sorry. It just works too well.|
CATEGORY I: WELL ROUNDEDNESS:
Right from the start we're seeing some interesting things here. Hermione and Eowyn are both characters that I greatly admire for very different reasons--Hermione for her intellectual prowess and levelheadedness in the face of the kind of crazy things that were going on by the end of the Harry Potter series, and Eowyn for facing down the fucking Witch King of Angmar. Listen, this dude was a being so powerful that he locked up Gandalf for a while.
Bella, on the other hand... aaeeeeahhhh.
What's interesting about Eowyn here is that she isn't the kind of female character we normally get in fantasy and science fiction. She isn't an irrepressible badass. She's a human being with definite flaws--obsessiveness, a a tendency to be a bit over dramatic. This is why I phrased the question the way I did: there is nothing compelling in a two dimensional female character, no matter how many bad guys they kill over the course of a film. What makes Eowyn compelling is how she comes to heroism through despair, and ultimately chooses to attack death head on rather than succumb to it. What makes Hermione compelling is how she comes to balance her tendency to obsess over the intellectual side of things with real heroism and a bond with other human beings.
What makes Bella Swan less compelling is her fundamental lack of a characterization beyond "in love with Edward" and "doesn't like math."2
CATEGORY II: HOW THIS LINES UP WITH THE AUTHOR'S INTENTIONS
This tells us less about the work and more about the author, but it's important for the overall critique of these characters in the next two questions. In Eowyn's case, I have seen absolutely nothing that implies to me that she is supposed to be anything less than a compelling, fully realized female character. To some extent, she exists so that Tolkien can pull his "I am no man" trick on the audience, but the fact that he spends so much damn time on her and Faramir at the end indicates to me that he was fundamentally committed to turning her into a true character.
Of course, there's another possibility here, one that I've seen hinted at (although not explicitly stated) in other Feminist critiques: that Eowyn exists so that Tolkien can, at the end, set her up to be married to Faramir and retire from combat to a comfortable home. This is, as far as I can see, the only way you can effectively claim that Eowyn is not a feminist character. And it doesn't work. See, part of having a well rounded character is, of course, having flaws. And I see her mooning over Aragorn as a flaw. But more importantly for the sake of this critique, I think Tolkien does, too.
Similarly, Rowling seems committed to portraying Hermione as a rounded character that has a number of flaws--her temper, her obsession with studying, her awkwardness in some social situations--but it wouldn't make sense to view these flaws as anti-feminist, because both Rowling and I agree that they aren't necessarily good qualities in ANYBODY.
Bella, on the other hand, represents everything that Smeyers loves and everything that I can't stand. Especially the bit about hating math. I mean, come on, Smeyers, how much pandering are you really willing to do here? 3
CATEGORY IV: WHERE DOES THE GAP COME FROM?
If I perceive a character differently from the author, I want to know why. Hermione is easy here--there doesn't seem to be one, besides me feeling like she should be the main character rather than that ass Harry. Hermione Forever! But, I can see the logic behind keeping Harry as the main character, so I'm happy writing that off as me being kinda silly, more than anything else.
Bella is similarly straightforward, albeit in a different way. The difference does, in fact, come from a total difference in opinion on the role of women in society. I think they shouldn't be subservient to gender stereotypes. Smeyers does. Here, I think the problem lies with her.
Now, notice what I'm doing here. I'm critiquing my critique by figuring out why my perceptions don't line up with the author's. This helps me to evaluate whether I'm correct in criticizing the character, or whether I need to repeat the MST3K Mantra:
"If you're wondering how he eats or breaths
And other science facts (la la la)
Repeat to yourself 'It's just a show,
I should really just relax...'"
Especially with Eowyn. If I were to take the position of her critics for a moment, how would I answer the question of the gap in perception between me and Tolkien? Well, the first possible criticism is that she spends too much time mooning over Aragorn. Isn't that rather Bella of her? Well, this was answered by the second question--there isn't actually a gap here, because Tolkien doesn't approve of her gloomyness either. So, what's the second one? Well, the critique I've seen is that her sudden falling for Faramir at the end of the story undermines her strength as a character. Again, I don't think Tolkien sees it that way, so let's look at where the difference in perceptions comes from. I think what's going on here is that commentators are looking at her action in the abstract and reading it as representative of a message about, I don't know, women finding happiness in marriage, I suppose.
Tolkien, on the other hand, is giving Eowyn and Faramir their one chance at happiness--the only chance at happiness they have left.
See, it's not like Faramir is any happier at this point. He's just been almost burned alive by his father, and then functionally deposed by Aragorn. Eowyn has just witnessed the death of her father and killed a being that can destroy your will to live simply by standing next to you. What Tolkien has realized here is that Faramir and Eowyn are probably the only humans that can understand each other's trauma. Having them fall in love here isn't a cop-out, it's a story of two terribly scarred people finding solace in the person that can truly understand their pain. (Remember, Tolkien lived through two World Wars--he was surely aware of the results of war.)
In this case, I think the gap lies in the fact that the critics are looking for a message, whereas Tolkien is looking for a character arc. To avoid that would, for me, flatten Eowyn out into the kind of 2D badass gritty perfect female warrior of modern fantasy. Yes, she's vulnerable here. Yes, that means that she isn't as perfectly strong a character as we might, in some ways, want. But that's what makes her a deeply compelling character. 4
CATEGORY FINAL: CAN I MISREAD THE CHARACTER BACK TO LIFE?
Maybe you don't buy my reading of Eowyn, or my assertion that this is what Tolkien was going for. Alright. That's cool. But I'm willing to bet you can think of it the way I am. Even if you think it's a misreading, I bet you can misread Eowyn as a powerful, admirable, and compelling character.
And isn't that better than just writing her off entirely? Remember, Anything Can Be Salvaged, and if it can be salvaged... well, it probably should.
Hermione is already awesome. She doesn't need to be fixed.
Bella, on the other hand, is beyond my help. 5
THIS WAS A BAIT AND SWITCH
Alright, I admit it, really what I was most interested in here was explaining why I love Eowyn. What can I say? My whole family is basically in the Eowyn/Faramir fanclub. They are probably our collective favorite characters in The Lord of the Rings. (No, we were not happy about Faramir's movie appearance. At. All.) But I wanted to actually set up a way of looking at this character before I delved into why I think she's so great, because otherwise I'm just rambling rather than explaining my reasoning. And I think providing the counterexamples of Hermione and Bella helped to clarify just how my system works.
But ultimately I think the important thing is that we have systems--personal, if not universal--because otherwise we're just going off of how things feel intuitively, and there's not really an effective way of communicating that. There's value in those intuitions, of course, but ultimately what I'm interested in is a way of expressing the intuitions.
But what do you think? 6
As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.
1. It's worth noting here, of course, that this could just be a quirk of perception. Still, I keep seeing discussions framed in this way... I'm honestly not sure why.
2. What makes Lord Humongous compelling is his utter conviction of his own ultimate power--he is a being obsessed with obedience and defiance, a man with delusions of imperial power.
3. I think the creators of Road Warrior are very aware of Humongous's nature. This is part of why his character design involves the mask covering a burned face--he is a large, brutal ruler that seeks to hide his flaws. He is both odious and compelling, and the creators are quite aware of that.
4. Again, I think I'm right on the same mental track as the creators of Humongous. No commentary needed here.
5. My only criticism of Road Warrior's treatment of Lord Humongous is that there isn't more Lord Humongous. We just need more!
6. LIIIITTLE PUUUPPY?