Princesses on Parade

It’s Disney Princess Week! A time to celebrate all of the virtuous, kind, patient- and of course beautiful Princesses in the Disney franchise. Like many women of a certain age I have a challenging relationship with the Disney Princesses. On one hand, I grew up watching the movies and running through my backyard singing. On the other hand, as an adult I find my feminist values at odds with the general message of the films. Of course the princesses’ characters and personalities have evolved alongside our cultural values- but the end result is always the same.

Let’s start at the beginning…

1937- Snow White: Killed by a woman who was jealous of her beauty- only to be rescued by a necrophiliac Prince whom she later married. Beauty and marriage were her salvation. Not to mention that she can cook and clean like a woman should- though in fairness the Prince didn’t know that (he didn’t know anything about her other than that she was hot). At least in the Grimm fairy tale, they accidentally dropped the coffin- knocking the logged piece of apple out of her throat and that’s how she woke up. (Which is hilarious.)

1950- Cinderella: Enslaved by her family and once again put in the kitchen, Cinderella’s salvation is her good looks. Not because she is a hard worker or kind/thoughtful- but because she is the most beautiful girl in the land. (With the most unique shoe size.)

1959- Sleeping Beauty: Here the situation is a little different, Aurora is betrothed at birth to Prince Phillip. Common practice. But crazily enough she meets him again- not knowing who she is or who he is- and they fall in love. Prince Phillip happens upon ‘Briar Rose’ singing her little song and decides to hang out and watch, laughing a little. Which surprisingly I don’t think is creepy. If I came upon someone singing their heart out and dancing, I’d watch too. But when he joined in, Rose ran away (smart girl). They plan to meet again, but never get the chance until he rescues her from the castle and awakes her with a kiss. If she wasn’t pretty-she’d be pretty screwed. She had nothing else going for her in terms of rescue.

1989- The Little Mermaid: What to say? Ariel drastically changes her body to please a man and gives up her best feature (her voice). So when they meet, they can’t even talk. She’s just pretty. “The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber. They think a woman who’s a gossip is a bore!”- Ursala the Sea Witch. Now, there were 30 years in between Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. Before, there was little to know character development for the princesses and they were all perfect. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is brave, intelligent, and disobedient. She wanted to find her own happiness… but it’s they way she goes about it and her lack-luster relationship with Prince Eric that I have a problem with.

1991- Beauty and the Beast: Belle is odd. She is a girl who… READS! She doesn’t fit in not only because she is beautiful but because she is intelligent and outspoken. This is a definite improvement from the past princesses. Even her relationship with the Beast is far beyond the romantic development we have thus far seen. In fact, the majority of the movie is spent showing them interact. Perhaps one of the best moments is when the Beast gives Belle his entire library because she isn’t “rather odd” to him. He encourages her interests and pursuits. I have heard people remark that she saves the Beasts life only by her beauty, but I do not think that’s entirely true. I am sure it factored into it, but that wasn’t the only characteristic that was developed.

1992- Aladdin: In the beginning, Jasmine is being forced into marriage because of an old law. She doesn’t want to and fights her father. She even runs away and tries to make it on her own. Although I love this movie, it is true that Aladdin is only interested because she is beautiful. However, he learns that Jasmine is firey, quick-tempered, and kicks ass. And perhaps this makes him love her more- who can say? But once again I make the point that now Disney Princesses have flaws as well was the ever-present virtue of beauty. And even though Jafar chains her up and makes her look like a tramp, she isn’t a victim.

1995- Pocahontas: The always forgotten princess. Pocahontas is unique. While she falls in love with John Smith in the first movie, she ends up marrying someone else in the sequel (within the bounds of history). Pocahontas is a princess but she doesn’t fit the typical mold. She is beautiful, but she doesn’t have flowing dresses and instead adventures in the wild. John Smith’s eyes are opened to the beauty of the world through Pocahontas- despite their language barrier.

2009- The Princess and the Frog: A BLACK PRINCESS! Finally. Not only is Tiana the first African American princess, she is also not interested in being a princess at all. Tiana’s a hard worker who’s dream is to own her own restaurant. When Tiana meets Prince Neveen- they don’t even like each other. Although she is pretty, she is tenacious. And it isn’t until their long journey as frogs, do they come to love each other for their attributes rather than their looks.

2010- Tangled: The latest addition to the princess club. Rapunzel is locked in a tower by a witch pretending to be her mother. Every year on her birthday, Rapunzel watches the floating lights that are released in honor of the missing princess. Rapunzel dreams of being free and allowed to leave the tower- but she fears it will kill her mother. So when some handsome stranger shows up in her home… she knocks him unconscious (several times) and forces him to take her to see the lights. Rapunzel is pretty, but she is also a little crazy. Flynn Rider is a vain criminal. Once again, they don’t even like each other at all- but fall in love along the way. In the end, Rapunzel is the missing princess and her crown is returned- therefore making her the breadwinner. And apparently she and Flynn didn’t get married right away, he asked for a couple years until she finally agreed. Such a breath of fresh air!

As an endnote, I would like to mention the ages of the princesses when they got married:

Snow White- 13/14/15? (unclear but she is 12/13 in the Grimm story)

Cinderella- 16

Aurora- 16

Ariel- 16

Belle- 16

Jasmine- 16 in film, not married till 2 movies later

Pocahontas- 19

Tiana- 19

Rapunzel- 18 in film, married 3 years later

Yup. Lots of child brides here.


More Reasons to Love Skyrim (As If Anyone Needed More)

At this point, everyone knows that Skyrim is an awesome game. This statement should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been on the internet recently. I decided that instead of bothering with a big, long post that restates all of the virtues the rest of the internet has already brought to light, and then adding my own woman-centric reasons for loving Skyrim, I’m just going to make a list. These are the most important reasons why Skyrim should be praised, in terms of its fair treatment of women.

(Disclaimer: This should not be considered a complete list of reasons to love Skyrim. There are many more, like all of the Elder Scrolls lore and dragonsomgomgomg.)

1. Women who use magic aren’t inherently evil.

A typical fantasy trope is the evil sorceress. It’s everywhere, and I’m sick to death of it, especially because evil sorceresses are usually anti-clothes-wearing, and it promotes the idea that magic = power, and, naturally, that women with power = evil. I face that presumption every day, so why would I want it in fantasy?

2. Women are a wide variety of classes.

Fighters, student mages, bandits, hired thugs, farmers, merchants, etc. Women do everything men do. They do it the same way and with the same amount of clothing on. Sometimes they’re leaders, and sometimes they’re not. Regardless of who and where they are, they never seem like tokens. They seem to belong to their surroundings in the same way that the male characters do.

3. Women have personalities.

Skyrim does a pretty good job with the characters, both men and women. Everyone has a personality, and I never feel like I’m encountering “the mean fighter who has to play tough to survive in a man’s world” or “the shrewish farmer’s wife.” The women aren’t either too dumb, or mean, or hot, or nurturing to be believable. Both the men and women of Skyrim seem like real people.

4. Women fighters actually seem to have the muscle mass to fight.

One big issue with video games and artwork of women fighters is that they never seem sturdy enough for their profession. The men are big hulking masses, and the women are much frailer. It always seems like people who design the women didn’t want to sacrifice potential hotness in favor of realistic muscle mass. These concerns didn’t seem to bother the creators of Skyrim, who seemed to think that fighters of both sexes should be physically strong.

5. Women’s bodies don’t all look the same.

Despite the fact that the women in Skyrim were built off the same hourglass figure women are always based off of, there is some diversity in their shapes in sizes. Some are thinner, some are bigger, some have larger breasts, some have breasts you don’t even notice. They aren’t all clones of each other, and their body type makes sense based on their class. Priestesses are thinner than warriors, etc. And every woman’s waist size isn’t 15.

6. Lydia

Poor Lydia. “Sworn to carry your burdens,” she has the thankless task of carrying your improbable hoard of stuff, and help defend you in battles. I could make an obvious, trite statement about women as burden-bearers of society, but I’m not going to. I don’t think that the creators of Skyrim wanted me to see Lydia as a “chick-bodyguard” or something, so I’m not going to look at her like that. She just happened to be the warrior hanging around whenever you were being made thane and needed to be granted a vassal. She is a warrior before she is a woman.

To conclude, women are people in Skyrim. I couldn’t be happier that a mainstream, highly-acclaimed game has created such a fair portrayal of women. It gives me hope.


Pierce and Gaiman: Writing Women as People

I was practically born with a book in my hand. Words, whether the creation of or the internalizing of, have been a constant of my life ever since I could read. This intense love of reading has shaped my character and worldview. From Ray Bradbury to Naomi Wolf, a wide variety of writers, geeky and not geeky, have had their hands in creating the person I am today. Today’s post is, in a way, a love letter to two of those writers, the two most dear to my heart. (It’s also partly to convince anyone who stumbles on this post and has never given either of them a try, to go to the library/bookstore/friend’s house and pick up a copy of one of their books.)

The first, chronologically, is Tamora Pierce. I discovered her Protector of the Small quartet when I was in middle school, at exactly the right time. The series follows Kel, the first girl to go through the process of becoming a knight, after the rule prohibiting women from becoming knights was abolished. (That was due to the brave efforts of Alanna, featured in the Song of the Lioness quartet, who disguised herself as a boy in order to become a knight.) Pierce’s fiction is always empowering to young girls, featuring strong, realistic characters of both genders, and destroying the well-known myth that swords are for boys. From the moment I picked up First Test, I was in love.

Pierce is a pioneer in young adult fantasy. The Song of the Lioness quartet was published in the ’80s, at time when library shelves weren’t exactly bursting with girl-friendly fantasy novels. This has changed to some degree, and certainly when I was in middle school, many of the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure young adult books were about girls and/or featured strongĀ  female characters. Being pretty divorced from young adult fiction right now, I’m not totally qualified to make this statement, but when I do browse the shelves, the post-Twilight young adult fiction world seems to be a pretty dismal one with paranormal romance overshadowing badass girls and women wielding swords and magic. Luckily, Pierce’s novels are still being discovered by generations of young girls in need of empowerment, not a boyfriend. (Although there is nothing wrong with having a boyfriend.)

Tamora Pierce handles it all: magic, battles, romance, even periods. And she does it in a way that made 11-year-old me damn proud to be a girl. In a previous post, I mentioned Pierce’s positive portrayal of “not white” people. While often her books take place in Tortall, a sort of typical European country, not all of her main characters are white. One of my favorite Pierce characters is Daja, the girl in the Circle of Magic who becomes a magic-wielding blacksmith. I don’t know of many other fantasy novels, young adult or adult, that feature a black girl at home both in the forge and amongst magicians.

Unfortunately, I no longer read Pierce’s work. I, being an adult and all, have moved on from young adult literature. (Although I will totally read the Numair series when it comes out. I’ve been waiting way too long.) There is nothing inherently wrong in being an adult who reads (some) young adult fiction, but it’s no longer for me. This is a shame because, frankly, there isn’t much in the adult fantasy world that can compare to Pierce. I’m always looking for something to fill the void in my heart and in my fantasy collection that, at age 12, was filled with badass women but is now filled with princess-babes and evil sorceresses.

One writer who helps ease the pain is Neil Gaiman. In a dismal sea of adult fantasy/sci fi/horror/comics populated with hot chicks and women with power who are inherently evil, there are Neil Gaiman’s works. Gaiman is a cross-genre magician, and has enjoyed increasing mainstream success in the last few years. I couldn’t be happier that Gaiman is getting mainstream attention (he was on Craig Ferguson’s show and will be on The Simpsons!). After all, in addition to being a wizard with words, structure, sheer imagination, his female characters are like actual characters. Real people. Even when men are the main characters of his work, he doesn’t skimp on characterization for the women, like so many male authors do. He even carries on the Alice tradition of the girl heroine in Coraline, which has been adapted into everything short of a TV series (well, a film and a graphic novel, anyway).

My first exposure was Neverwhere, lent to me, in high school, by my Tori Amos-loving older sister. Gaiman and Amos are long-time pals who are constantly mentioning each other in their work. It’s enough to be close friends with a fiercely unapologetic feminist, but Gaiman doesn’t stop there. His work is one of the only mainstream adult fantasy (for lack of an overarching genre) writers who I never have to worry about getting a female character sexual assaulted, marginalized, dismissed, or just unfairly characterized. Gaiman respects women, and his work obviously shows it.

In particular, his groundbreaking Sandman series is pretty remarkable for many reasons, but especially when its women are considered. I’m not sure that today DC (who owns Vertigo) would even want to publish it, given its strong female characters, lesbians who aren’t even hot (why bother being a lesbian if you’re dumpy looking?), total lack of sexual assault, and habit of not drawing women to look like pin-ups.

I’ve become discouraged by adult fantasy after too many novels that absolutely ignore women, or include women only as prostitutes, mothers, and destructive schemers. I left the Piercean world of fantasy and entered a much bleaker, much less welcoming world where women are hot or evil or vapid, but rarely the well-rounded real people of Pierce and Gaiman’s worlds. Thankfully, Pierce’s work has endured, and she continues to write the same girl-empowering books she always has. And Gaiman isn’t going anywhere, so I know that whenever I want a well-written, imaginative story (regardless of genre, or even age level) I’ve got a woman-friendly ally in him.

I will end this by urging all of you to pick up a book written by one of these authors, and swim in the refreshing oasis they each built out of what can be a dry literary desert. (And if you know of a woman-friendly, empowering author, whatever genre, that I should know about, please leave a comment!)


Once Upon a Time…

… there was a T.V. show by the creators of LOST about fairy tales come to life. Given the fact that it is by the creators of LOST, all the boys and girls who watched this program wondered if it too would rip out their souls and spit into the chasm left in their hearts.

The basic premise of ABC Family’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ is that the Evil Queen from Snow White cursed the fairy tale world as vengeance against losing her happily ever after. If the Evil Queen didn’t get a happy ending, no one would. Before the Evil Queen was able to cast her spell, Snow White and Prince Charming (or James) placed their only child in an enchanted wardrobe so that the curse would not affect her. The curse took the fairy tale world and placed it into a small town in Maine. No one in the town remembers who they were in the fairy tale world, time is stopped, and no one can leave. The main character of the story is Emma, Snow White’s daughter. We learn that Emma had a child when she was 18 whom she gave up for adoption. About 10 years later, the child finds Emma and tells her that she is the only one who can break the curse on the town- Henry was adopted by the Evil Queen who is the town’s mayor. He was given a book of fairy tales that explains what happened- and needs Emma’s help to make everyone remember who they are.

Before all of this Emma was a bail bonds investigator- meaning she tracked down people who paid their bail and ran off. When we first meet her, she is wining and dining a criminal to get him to admit to his crime before kicking his ass. Emma is a rather complex character. She was orphaned (since her parents were, you know, fairy tale characters), and bounced around from foster home to foster home until she aged out of the system. Once she aged out, she got pregnant. Emma wasn’t ready to take care of the baby- she didn’t know how to be a family and didn’t think she could ever give love she had never known. In the actual show Emma explains this is a much better, less flowery way. More like a ‘look, kid, life sucks but we deal with it’ badass way. After giving up Henry, Emma bounced around from town to town, state to state, before Henry caught up with her 10 years later in Boston. Although Emma agreed to help Henry, and it’s been 4 episodes now, she is still trying to hold him at a distance. Their dynamic is almost a big sis/little bro.

Although Emma is Snow White’s daughter, she is also a lot like the Evil Queen. The series is becoming a battle of wits between the two- and they are pretty much evenly matched when it comes to subversion and attacks. Perhaps my favorite counter by Emma was at the beginning of the season where she waltzed into the queen’s/mayor’s backyard with a chainsaw and cut down her prized apple tree. While the Queen’s tactics are subtle (like framing Emma, terrorizing citizens, or sleeping with the man we ALL know is going to fall in love with Emma!) Emma’s are blunt. The Queen can threaten Emma all she wants, but Emma is much stronger and resourceful than these other fairy tale princesses.

Snow White’s character also got a bit of an update. The way the show works is somewhere similar to LOST. We have the main plot in the New England town, then we have flashbacks (and flash-sideways?) of the fairy tale world. In one of the flashbacks, we see how Snow While spent her time when she was on the lamb. In the show, she isn’t holed up in the seven dwarves’ house cooking and cleaning. She is in the woods robbing people and selling the goods to trolls to survive. She ends up stealing from the Prince, who is escorting his fiancee through the woods. He goes after her… and the rest you can imagine. While I sometimes find this sort of thing tedious, I think that ‘Once Upon A Time’ did it well. Snow White had previously been established as a little harder around the edges than her Grimm counterpart, therefore making her a conditional bandit wasn’t too far out of the realm of possibility.

Thus far, ‘Once Upon A Time’ has not been a disappointment- I hate to mention LOST again, but these wounds they will not heal. I hope if you were on the fence about the show you will go to ABC Family’s website and watch it. It’s been a while since I’ve looked forward to watching T.V. (c’mon Psych- what what what are you doing?) and ‘Once Upon A Time’ has a pretty good blend of fantasy, action, drama, and romance. Especially for being on ABC Family.

A question: What does Rumpelstiltskin want with all those first-born babies?

-Bat Cat

Musings on Fantasy’s “Brown People”

Here at geekalitarian, the question about fantasy that most perplexes us is: why, when you can create absolutely anything you want to, would you simply reinforce the inequities in race and gender we see in real life? Especially in high fantasy, where many simply stick a few magical things in the Dark Ages and call it a fantasy world?

In grappling with this question, I have begun to write a story based in the world Bat Cat here and I created. The two countries present in the story are not white; they were not based on medieval European cultures. I’m having a hard time conveying this without saying things like, “half-circle headdress that looks like a sun — it’s like an Incan headdress, get it?” Apparently, I’m not doing the best job.

I presented this story to my fiction-writing workshop. No one seemed to realize none of these characters were supposed to be white, despite all the brown skin I mention. Someone suggested I not simply stick to old Eurocentric fantasy tropes (though not quite in those words), particularly in the way that characters talk. I find the idea of changing dialects to reflect different regions to be an interesting idea, but I don’t really know how to accomplish that without making up a language or using ethnic stereotypes. Part of that problem probably has to do with the fact that there aren’t really examples of that for me to follow. Rarely are “brown people” given a large enough speaking part in high fantasy to warrant the genuine creation of a dialect.

Most of my classmates admitted they don’t read much, or any, fantasy. So their assumption that, “it’s a fantasy world, obviously everyone is white, even when their skin is brown” can be forgiven to some degree. Fantasy is definitely painted as a white man’s genre in the mainstream consciousness. It’s a real challenge for fantasy writers to break these stereotypes, not only because it’s so easy to fall back into the old Eurocentric modes, but also because of the necessary cultural sensitivity. How do you describe a fictional people based loosely on a real-life culture without becoming stereotypical, yet while making sure everyone knows it isn’t just more and more whitey?

One way to avoid racism and caricature is by not making the generic “brown people” that appear in HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones. This isn’t, of course, the only place “brown people” like this exist, but it is the most relevant right now, in part because of the crossover popularity of both the TV show and book series. Amidst all the other things to be offended about while watching GOT, Bat Cat and I couldn’t get over the barbarian treatment the Dothraki people were given. Think of any stereotype of “brown fantasy people” (nomadic, libidinous, half-naked, violent, etc.) and you have the Dothraki. Some cite Tolkien himself as the father of fantasy’s “brown people.” Sure, they were evil, and on the periphery. And he introduced the amalgamation of Persian, Hun, and general African that defines “brown people” in fantasy to this day. But Tolkien helped to invent modern fantasy, in the early twentieth century. That doesn’t mean we have to continue his outmoded tropes into the twenty-first century.

A typical fantasy racial breakdown, as seen through Game of Thrones:

“Brown people” look like this:

They’re sorta dirty looking, live in tents and have mustered up enough technology to weave baskets.

White people look like this:

They ride horses, make real metal armor, and seem to be going somewhere important, rather than mucking around in the dirt.

One of the most striking things about HBO’s Dothrakis is that they stripped from them the palace and mosaics (hints of civilization) the book’s Dothraki have. When Bat Cat began to read the book, we were stunned at the (rather offensive) changes HBO’s series makes to the novel. Khal Drogo and The Dragon’s marriage consummation was consensual, for one. For some reason, HBO decided to take a decent (though far from equitable) portrayal of non-whites in fantasy and make it offensive. (This was probably the same board meeting where they realized there weren’t enough breasts or prostitutes, and people didn’t say the word “whore” nearly enough.) I would hardly consider HBO to be a progressive, egalitarian channel, but it would have been nice if they hadn’t downgraded the Dothraki people the way they did.

It’s difficult to think of a portrayal of “brown people” in fantasy that’s not of an uncivilized, “less-than” nation. Only Tamora Pierce’s worlds come to mind, where the non-whites weren’t all confined vaguely to one group of people. She actually bothered to create separate nations for different kinds of “brown people,” like she did for the white people. Pierce has even written books that focus mainly on non-white people! Crazy, I know! I can’t imagine what fantasy would be without racism and sexism! A little better, a little more welcoming? …No, of course not. Everyone knows only white guys read fantasy books.