Friday, October 05, 2007

And yet more handbaskets

WaterBoy rightly points out that the Warrior Woman predates Star Wars by a long shot, citing the examples of both Joan of Arc and Howard's Red Sonja. Absolutely, the Nordic and Germanic myths feature plenty of sword-maidens, shield-maidens, valkyries and the like. The Greeks had their Amazons; the Chinese and Japanese their various folk tales of warrior girls. (Mulan, anyone?) During our own Civil War, just to cite one fairly recent example, there were several well-documented cases of women cutting off their hair, dressing in men's clothing, going off to join the Army, and not being outed as women until they were wounded in battle.

But right up until about thirty years ago, these sorts of women were generally treated as freaks, sports, and prodigies. The Maid of Orleans was on a mission from God, for gosh sakes. If a woman went to war in Europe and was any good at it, she'd better be fighting in either the French Resistance or the Spanish Civil War. If an American woman was any good with a gun, she was either an evil ball-busting film noir femme fatale or else Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley. Yes, a western might end with the heroine shooting the villain in the back just as he's about to drop an anvil on the temporarily stunned hero's head, but the heroine always did so reluctantly, with a look of horror at what she'd just done, and then immediately dropped the gun from her hand as if it was a venomous insect. By and large, women's weapons in fiction were domestic items that were generally non-lethal and bordered on the comic: frying pans, empty bottles, ham hocks, etc.

Some kind of cultural change took place in the 1970s; I just picked Star Wars as the crossover point. In 1976, in Logan's Run, Jenny Agutter portrayed a fine example of the old-style leading lady. She screamed; she ran; she jiggled; she needed to be rescued; when Michael York said, "Our clothes are wet. We'd better take them all off before we freeze," she promptly obliged.

A year later, in Star Wars, Lucas somehow managed to avoid having Princess Leia do the Hollywood Obvious thing.
SOLO (emerging from garbage compactor): "Our clothes are wet. We'd better take them all off."

LEIA: "Yes, of course." (begins to strip)

CHEWIE: "Grrronkhissschnorkurgle!" (translation: "Lucky you. My fur smells like I've been rolling in bantha poo!"

And three years after that, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion Ravenwood can drink, smoke, cuss, spit, and darn near fight as well as any man. Not only that, but she apparently was sexually active as a teen.
MARION: "I've learned to hate you in the last ten years."

INDY: "I never meant to hurt you."

MARION: "I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it."

INDY: "You knew what you were doing."

Understand, my problem is not with Star Wars or the character of Princess Leia. I merely cite this as a widely known evidentiary point. Some kind of sea-change was in progress out there in the larger culture, in the late 1970s to early 1980s, and this one data point merely reflects it.

My beef isn't with Lucas or Leia. It's with all the other yutzes who saw that movie and said, "Y'know, she would have been perfect if she'd just shouted, 'F@@@ YOU, A@@HOLE!' when she capped that first stormtrooper. And if she'd had a hot roll in the hay with someone or at least a topless scene. And maybe if, in the end, instead of being in the command center, she was actually flying one of those fighters. What the heck kind of name is Wedge, anyway?"

And then they set out to write stories and make movies that redefined the Strong Heroic Woman as being someone who was just like a Strong Heroic Man, only prettier, angrier, and even more self-centered.

To be continued...