Ursula Le Guin, teacher

A few days ago a friend told me that Ursula Le Guin died. There’ve been obits and eulogies, and repostings of her wonderful & incendiary award-acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in 2014. She accepted this Very Big Deal award in the name of all the other writers of science fiction and fantasy, those ‘writers of the imagination’ who had been passed over in the past 50 years in favor of ‘the so-called realists’. She skewered ‘the profiteers’, who included her own publishers; and finished by saying that authors write, not for profits, but for freedom. Her speech was just one instance of how she walked her talk; eulogies have listed others.

What I’d like to add is that Ursula also walked her talk as a teacher. She cared about teaching, she cared about writing, and she cared about freedom; and all three passions came through in her writing workshops, where she acted as a facilitator instead of as the ultimate authority to whom we must defer, despite attempts to lionize her. She had been my favorite author and role model for over a decade when I met her; she had a lot to live down to for me to see her as human. She did so within five minutes.

I had the good fortune to take two writing workshops with her in the late ’80s and early ‘90s. As an art school graduate and writing group participant I knew all about gut-wrenching critiques that make people want to bite (or wail, or hide, or bang their head against a wall). But as a facilitator Ursula created an environment for critiques full of humor and enlightenment for everyone in the circle, while those who had been in the hot seat left to go rework their stories, or finish them, or write new ones, with the focused high energy that comes from being heard. The safe and inspiring critique — which encouraged an openness to feedback as well as discernment about that feedback — was also egalitarian. Maybe that was why her workshops felt safe and inspiring, maybe that’s why we could learn – everyone’s voice counted.

In a circle of students critiquing a short story, Ursula took care to be only one voice. She was always interested in how different people heard a story, what worked for which people, since what often happened was the group would divide, but never with the same people on the same side, over what the writer (who was not allowed to speak) was saying, and whether or not it worked, and how it might work better. This made it clear that we were not writing for everyone (if only two people in the circle got it, you might realize that you needed to rewrite, or you might realize that those two were the people you were writing for), that writing was not a popularity contest, and that writing was not a way to get patted on the head by a prominent critic. (I was probably not the only one to regard Ursula that way, even though she refused the role.*)

She also was open to feedback/critique about her own work. I saw an example in the workshops, where she once gave us one of her own short short pieces to critique (and revised it in response), but readers can also see it in the way Earthsea changes in the books that follow the trilogy. In the later books she retells the history of magic and the role of gender, and ends with a story that completely alters the relationship of life and death in that land. You can also see her openness to feedback in the change in generic pronouns in a short story about the planet Winter, written in response to feminist readers telling her that the use of ‘he’ in her award-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, didn’t make them think in terms of androgyny, but of men. Ursula came at the problem from a different angle in her revisions for the audio version of the novel, which she read herself for books on tape. (And if anyone can find me one, please let me know.)

In short: She was an open, generous, warm hearted, no-bullshit woman. We were lucky to have had her.

*Ursula did assume the role of expert as a writing instructor – she passed on what she had learned about how to write (see Steering the Craft for a book version of her workshops).

Love Song, a play by John Kolvenbach, presented by KTO productions

love song

Left to right: Dara Lillis (Harry), Elizabeth Deutsch (Joan), Ryan Sanders (Beane), and Lauren Skelton (Molly), making a love song.

In storytelling the audience is part of the deal. Like the Zen koan about the musician who gave away his instrument when his best listener died, there’s no point in telling a story without a listener. The audience creates the story along with the storyteller, through their imagination and their response. (Lots of people have said this, so I won’t cite.) In a play, where the actors recreate the (author’s) story in front of their audience, a performance can zing with reciprocity. Which is what happened in the KTO production of Love Song, a play by John Kolvenbach, performed last month at InScape by actors Elizabeth Deutsch, Dara Lillis, Ryan Sanders, and Lauren Skelton.* I’m going to talk about what Love Song meant to me as part of the audience, as these actors and director Jenni Taggart presented it.

Love Song looks at different aspects of love in the relationships between four people: a troubled, lonely man named Beane (Ryan Sanders) and his protective, high-strung sister Joan (Elizabeth Deutsch); Joan and her laid-back husband Harry (Dara Lillis); and Beane and the mysterious Molly (Lauren Skelton), a young woman who breaks into Beane’s apartment. The play centers around Beane although he is the least engaged with the outside world. Initially he even disengages from the audience.

In what may be called scene 0, before the lights go down and the show formally begins, Beane comes onstage to sit at a table and read in his empty apartment; he is so good at ignoring the audience that the audience goes back to talking among themselves. (Beane doesn’t want to see us or to be seen and we comply.) In the beginning of the play he seems to have no relationship to anyone except his sister Joan, and through her to her husband Harry.

Joan is a responsible, take-charge kind of person, but not entirely at ease with this role she can never set aside (she drinks to relieve the stress). While she may be harsh with passive-aggressive interns at her workplace, she is fiercely protective of her reclusive, unhappy brother. Joan’s husband Harry doesn’t understand why Beane is so withdrawn; to clear up his own confusion he wants to give Beane a psychological test from a magazine. Joan argues against this – she is willing to be without answers for her brother’s behavior – but Beane wants to take the test.

Although Beane’s response to the test question made perfect sense to this part of the audience (A baby in a box? How does it breathe?), the scene of Beane sitting in his apartment with the wall moving in to crush him and a roaring sound the only thing he can hear convinces us that the man has problems. Even without using the cultural construct of ‘mental illness’ it is clear that Beane has gone totally inward, and that his inner world is not just barren but malevolent.

Then Beane meets Molly, a thief in the night. She steals his clothes, his cup, and his spoon, since he has little else, but she brings great gifts. She is a truth-teller and a sensualist, and what she gives Beane is a way into the world.

* Since Elizabeth is my neighbor and I saw the play twice, the actor/audience reciprocity became an ongoing conversation. I’d also like to thank Liv Browning and Alicia Woods, who were in the audience as well, for their insights.

Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part V


Lisbeth thinking, thinking…

Since Stieg Larsson died before he could write a fourth Salander book, and the upcoming “sequel” by another author seems shaky at best and mercenary at worst, I looked to the trilogy to see where Larsson and Lisbeth might go, and thought about the weight of the dragon tattoo.

Metaphorically the dragon tattoo has Lisbeth’s back; it protects her from her enemies. Literally the tattoo is a reminder that she has enemies so powerful that she needs a dragon’s power to defeat them. The tattoo is a constant warning, imprinted on her skin, to be wary, to watch out for those who can sneak up behind her, to be on the lookout for betrayal. 

Lisbeth seems to regard her own feelings for Blomkvist in this light, as a kind of self-betrayal, since she let down her guard long enough to imagine a romantic future with him. Blomkvist saves her life at the end of book 2, fights for her acquittal throughout book 3, and she avoids him. For some reason this makes for a more interesting story — maybe because Blomkvist works better as Lisbeth’s sidekick, her friendly neighborhood investigative reporter, than as a love interest.

At the very end of the third film Lisbeth is floating in her bathtub, mostly underwater and contemplative, having just brought down the last of her enemies without even implicating herself. The doorbell rings, she answers it dripping wet, thanks Blomkvist for all his help, and sends him on his way with the muttered “see you” that is a promise of renewed friendship. Her immersion in water looks like a cleansing and a rebirth, now that she is finally free. She no longer needs to fear her enemies and she feels only friendship for Blomkvist, which frees her of that other fear, as well. Where is she headed in a human sense?

Larsson left indications. In the books Lisbeth also stopped seeing her friend Miriam Wu, in this case out of guilt for putting Mimmi in harm’s way when Niedermann, looking for Lisbeth, nearly killed Mimmi. In the 2nd film Lisbeth sneaks into the hospital to see Mimmi before going after the men who hurt her friend. In the books Lisbeth is so upset by what she has unwittingly done that she stays away from Mimmi until months after her own trial and acquittal. At the end of book 3 Lisbeth is visiting Gibraltar when her crooked lawyer MacMillan asks her, greatly daring, what is upsetting her. Surprisingly, Lisbeth answers, telling him that Mimmi was hurt because of her, adding that she isn’t “in love” with Mimmi, but they are friends and the sex was good — as if to denigrate her feelings, whatever they are, since they don’t fit the conventions. But MacMillan argues that “friendship is the commonest form of love”, and Lisbeth flies to Paris to see Mimmi. In a funny, stilted, just-the-facts conversation, Lisbeth struggles to tell Mimmi what their friendship means to her, beginning with “I’m not in love with you, but…” Mimmi thinks Lisbeth is funny, and says the feeling is mutual.

In book 2 Lisbeth tries something similar with her old boss Armansky, showing up to say hello after a year away, but unlike Mimmi Armansky feels taken for granted at Lisbeth’s long silence and abrupt return; and Lisbeth gets distracted when Armansky says that her ex-guardian Holger Palmgren is still alive, recovering from his stroke. Armansky doesn’t know that Lisbeth has been watching over his business from afar (having hacked his computer), and prevented one of his employees from wrongdoing; and Lisbeth never enlightens him.


Lisbeth feeding Holger Palmgren

Holger Palmgren, more than anyone, understands how frightening it is for Lisbeth to care for someone, and gives her the space to show her affection however she can. He accepts her completely and has her whole-hearted trust in return. In the films we see Lisbeth feeding Palmgren, even joking with him, and so enlivened in the presence of the one person she doesn’t need armor with that she appears both older and younger than usual.

What we can glean from all this is that Lisbeth will continue to take those risks in the name of friendship, “the commonest form of love”, that may result in rejection or misunderstanding. This means enduring pain without recourse to vengeance, since rejection and misunderstandings come with the territory. As does empathy — if your friends are hurt, you hurt with them, and the cause of their pain may not be anyone’s fault, no psycho-killer to take down. Although the slow, awkward steps that can lead to closer connections with the people she cares about don’t add up to an idyll, the willingness to reach out, to let the dragon sleep, looks like Lisbeth’s path to redemption.

Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part IV


Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

To reiterate: at the end of the trilogy, Lisbeth has her freedom — she is rich, she has the legal rights of an adult, and all of her personal enemies are dead or in jail. Stieg Larsson had a fourth book planned in which Lisbeth went to Canada, with flashbacks to explain why she got the dragon tattoo that defines her. Larsson died soon after delivering the trilogy to his publisher so we don’t know what he intended, or how he (and Lisbeth) perceived that tattoo.*

To this reader (me), the tattoo is about protection – Lisbeth wants a dragon to watch her back, to protect her from enemies. But unlike Perseus, who used the gorgon’s head to slay his enemies, Lisbeth can’t set aside the dragon when it becomes burdensome – its watchfulness is part of her. And unlike Josey Wales and Patrick Jane, Lisbeth’s vengeance can’t be satisfied and justice achieved by killing the man who murdered her family; her quest is too large for that. It’s as large as a dragon or a rainbow, and just as hard to reach — Lisbeth has the audacity to believe that women have the right to be safe from abuse. Since no one else in her world seems to be doing anything to ensure this right Lisbeth takes the sword of justice into her own hands, killing or disempowering “men who hate women” when they cross her path.

While she is willing to die in the attempt to make women safer (as when she goes after her gangster father and half-brother, who have been trafficking in women), she would rather survive and live in freedom. More like Patrick Jane than Thelma and Louise, Lisbeth uses her formidable intellect, plans ahead, thinks on her feet, and controls her impulses to achieve her ends. But since her quest is endless (the world is full of misogyny and misogynists), there’s no redemption in sight for her.

As well as the problem of an endless quest for justice, Lisbeth herself has been turned to stone by abuse. Being brutalized has shaped her into someone who can exact retribution, who can be as implacable as that blindfolded goddess with the scales. But what does that do to her human side? Actor Noomi Rapace talked about how it felt to play Lisbeth when she had to “find her in me” and then “translate her into me”, which was like having the character “move in” to her own body.


Noomi Rapace as herself

Rapace said that her initial inspiration was Patricia Arquette in True Romance — one of Rapace’s long-time favorite films, she had watched the scene where Alabama kills the hit man at least a dozen times. After reading Larsson’s books Rapace wanted to play Lisbeth but worried that she looked too “soft”. She lost weight and learned kickboxing for the audition. When she got the part she had Lisbeth’s facial piercings done instead of faking them so her portrayal would feel more authentic. And then she descended into the character for the duration, filming the three movies back to back.

Rapace said she was glad the movies were filmed all at once (in about 18 months) because she couldn’t have managed being Lisbeth over a longer period of time. As Lisbeth, Rapace was suspicious, angry, and aggressive, and this state of mind or being bled into her interactions with friends and family. At the party for completing the films, while cast and crew drank champagne to celebrate, Rapace went off by herself and vomited. She said she wasn’t ill, she was casting Lisbeth off – literally throwing Lisbeth up and out of her body so that she could go back to being Noomi. Much as she admired the character, she was ready to end the symbiosis. The peace of mind that comes to righteous avengers only visited Rapace when she was able to stop being the girl with the dragon tattoo.

*Larsson died without a will, so the rights to his books went to his father and brother, who hired another author to write the sequel. (Due out next month, with no reviews allowed until then, and no advance copies. Seems a bit odd, to say the least. You have to buy it before you can decide if you’re interested?) Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s partner of 30 years, has said that the sequel is not about “continuing” the characters and story (as advertised), but about making money. She was also unhappy about the way the Swedish films were hustled into production to take advantage of the books’ popularity, but in later interviews said that Noomi Rapace “made” the films, and even that Rapace “managed the literary estate” on her own, defending the character of Lisbeth Salander by refusing to do or say anything in the film that did not match the character in the books.

Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part III


Lisbeth visits Mikael in (a pretty low security) jail.

Despite Lisbeth’s nearly total indifference to what others think of her, she is not impervious. When she falls in love with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) she is so afraid of being ridiculed for her feelings, especially after she realizes that he only sees her as a friend and occasional sex partner, that she takes off on a year-long trip. Even after he has saved her life and helped secure her freedom, she refuses to see or speak to him until her “foolish” feelings of romantic love are gone. Then can she be friends with him again. Which suggests that the ridicule Lisbeth fears comes from a harsh inner critic and is more about how she appears to herself than to Blomkvist; but this doesn’t seem to occur to her.

The last we see of Lisbeth, she is either shutting the door on Blomkvist but saying she will “see him later” (in the film), or allowing him to invite himself in for coffee (in the book). In both cases Blomkvist is relieved to have her friendship again, and Lisbeth is relieved that she only wants him as a friend.

Off the top of my head I can think of two righteous avengers who find something better on the other side of revenge – Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Simon Baker as Patrick Jane in TV’s The Mentalist. Once the scales are back in balance (the eye for an eye) and justice restored, the character (and the society they are part of) can begin to heal.


Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) and Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), working together.

Eastwood’s Josey Wales finds love and community in an idyllic Western landscape of mountains, forests, and rivers, living in harmony with the indigenous people and the land. Baker’s Patrick Jane finally hooks up with former boss Teresa Lisbon and plans to rebuild a house so ramshackle it has no keys – like a child’s treehouse – in another idyllic setting, while family and co-workers dance ecstatically at their wedding. In both stories there is a sense of innocence regained or discovered, even if only momentarily — innocence achieved.

In the Millenium trilogy the society is saved, a hidden canker revealed and cut out – but what Lisbeth Salander might do with her life is unclear. She has been saved from death and prison, her rights have been restored, and she has piles of money. So what now?

Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part II


Lisbeth taking out the bikers

As Judith Lorber noted, the discrepancy between Lisbeth Salander’s looks and her ability to defend herself is part of the story’s appeal. Although she’s been compared to Clint Eastwood’s avenger characters, Lisbeth Salander as played by Noomi Rapace appears to be a victim. Eastwood is a tall, broad-shouldered man whose body language and stone face can radiate threat; his enemies know to be wary, and only gloat when he is seriously outnumbered. But when two bikers find Salander alone at a cabin in the woods they can interpret her lack of expression to mean anything, even that she is too slow-witted to understand her danger. So they gloat all over her. The second biker continues to gloat even after she has laid out the first. Like the corrupt shrink who is trying to get her put away forever, they are so convinced that she can’t hurt them that they don’t believe it even when she does. These men perceive Salander as their natural prey – a woman barely five feet tall, weighing less than a hundred pounds soaking wet, and all alone.

But all alone is Salander’s natural state. She is not part of any group, except for an international community of ace hackers who usually connect online instead of in person. Like most good detective and thriller protagonists, Salander is a loner. In her case she is isolated by her own personality as well as the circumstances of her life – as if she has been turned to stone by forces outside her control.

It’s not that she doesn’t care about other people. There’s plenty of evidence of her feeling for those few she calls friends, like her old guardian Holger Palmgren, her friend and lover Miriam Wu, and her ex-boss Armansky. But Lisbeth is often misread (by Armansky, for instance), since she can’t show what she feels. In most cases, she doesn’t want to. Lisbeth has learned to rely on herself, and a poker face has enabled her survival. The way she stonewalls official interrogators when charged with the attempted murder of her father, by saying nothing and showing no emotion, not even making eye contact, means they can’t put words in her mouth or use her feelings against her. What helps her maintain a stone face for hours on end is its emotional equivalent – she doesn’t give a damn what the authorities think of her, only what they can do to her. She has no emotional connection to them, no stake in gaining their approval. (Many young women, in comments on blog sites,* admired this quality most – Lisbeth doesn’t need anyone’s approval.) She cannot be manipulated by fear of what others think.

*P.S. I re-found the site, which had been discontinued. It was at unputdownables.net, and the article that prefaced it, written by a young woman whose name I can’t find, was called “Why is the girl with the dragon tattoo so damn popular?” A good article, if anyone else can find it, let me know.

Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part I

MV5BMTc2Mjc0MDg3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjUzMDkxMw@@._V1_SX214_AL_In 2008 Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in English and Larsson posthumously became the second best-selling author in the world; a year later the Swedish film version of this first book in his Millenium trilogy was released. The subject of these thrillers about “the girl” named Lisbeth Salander is finally, as journalist Mikael Blomkvist says in the third book, “not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” To emphasize his point Larsson added statistics on male violence against women to his first book.*

The Millenium trilogy “phenomenon” has been discussed at length, in print and online, since the books first appeared. While David Walsh (at the World Socialist Web Site) saw the trilogy’s popularity as a sign of the degraded state of the left-wing point of view, with its simplified world of black and white, villains (who are always men) and heroes, and no shades of gray, fans of the trilogy claimed that the vivid, anarchic, and complex character of Lisbeth Salander was more the point. Sarah Seltzer (at the Christian Science Monitor) pointed to Salander’s uniqueness as a female protagonist who is “a genuine anti-hero”, adding that Salander is in no way male-defined, being neither “girlfriend, sidekick, or prey”.

Lisbeth is a Goth-punk computer nerd, a brilliant hacker with few social skills. She cares deeply for her few friends and seems to care very little for anyone else, but she fights against the abuse of women whenever she comes across it, in whatever ways she can. In book 2 she saves the life of a stranger whose husband is trying to kill her by killing him instead under cover of a hurricane; and in book 3 she helps catch Erika Berger’s stalker, even though Berger is something of a romantic rival, and Lisbeth herself is basically imprisoned in a hospital, with a cop outside the door. Throughout the trilogy Lisbeth takes personal responsibility for stopping the perpetrators of violence against women — she is furious at Harriet Vanger for simply escaping, and then allowing her brother to continue to abduct and kill women — and near the end of book 3, finding the dead women in the factory where her half-brother is hiding, Lisbeth thinks that she should have dealt with “this” (her male relatives’ trafficking business) sooner. She is a self-appointed justice system of one.

As an avenger Lisbeth is bloodthirsty without being particularly sadistic, confining her torture of the guardian who raped her to the eye for an eye variety, and tattooing a warning to other women on his torso. She is a vigilante who will use any means at her disposal to destroy those she has decided deserve it, hacking into their computers to ruin their reputation (as happens with the pedophile psychiatrist) or taking an ax to them (as she does to her gangster father). But filmgoers and readers tend to agree with Salander’s champions in the trilogy that her actions are just, even though they are outside the law; and that these men get what they deserve, even when that is death at Lisbeth’s hands. Judith Lorber (at Dissent) called Salander’s physical violence “the guilty secret of Larsson’s phenomenal success. We know it is fiction, so even if it isn’t properly feminist, we exult over Salander’s successful physical battles with men twice her size. It may be a vicarious purging of the constant threat of violence that women experience from men.”

Larsson himself was thinking in terms of misogyny: in Swedish, the first book was baldly called Man som hatar kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women. According to his longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson had a personal stake in his story in the form of a guilty conscience for not trying to stop a gang rape at a party when he was 15. Although another friend of Larsson’s said the story was apocryphal, it has served as a media backstory to the trilogy, in which Larsson made sure that Lisbeth Salander, a small, fragile-looking woman, who had been subjected to violence and sexual abuse from childhood on, got to fight back and win without anyone’s help.

*Thanks to Kelli Corrado for this observation.

Intermission rant: Saturday Night Live 25th anniversary

Since my thoughts on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two films in the trilogy are not yet worked out enough to post (Lisbeth Salander opened a can of worms and I’m still fishing), here’s a little intermission. Should be light-hearted, but I’m annoyed.

Last night watched the 25 year anniversary show of Saturday Night Live. Disappointing. I watched SNL religiously during its first years, but never afterwards, so I’m biased. But even accounting for tastes, and granting that humor is a subjective thing, why didn’t the women get equal time?


Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna

Most of the skits had men in them, but many of the skits had no women; the longest skits were men only; as emcees the men got to do at least a little stand-up comedy, while the women were used as announcers. Billy Crystal did a long, involved, unusually unfunny routine where he pointed out (some of) the celebrities in the star-studded audience; Tom Hanks did something similar, I’m not sure why; but when Lili Tomlin finally took the stage, she only got to co-announce the next act with Candice Bergen, and then do one little joke with Bergen that fell flat. Waste! Waste!

Maybe part of the problem was the script. And maybe it was an off night — a lot of the jokes just didn’t work. Even the musicians — Elvis Costello, the Beastie Boys, and Al Green — had a hard time working the audience, which never seemed to warm up, despite good intentions. Maybe because the celebrity audience couldn’t get past being part of the show — the lights were always ‘up’ and the camera panning to this one or that one, doing the ‘look who’s here!’ Only the Eurythmics managed the musical part, with Annie Lennox singing a medley of their hits, backed up by some amazing women vocalists and a tight band. The Eurythmics didn’t ask the audience to do anything but listen, and Lennox raised the temperature in the room (at last).

But overall women were not much in evidence, and neither were people of color; interestingly, three black men noted that SNL was mostly for white guys as part of the ‘joke’ script. There was one very funny (and very short) skit of Danitra Vance reading nursery rhymes. As for white women: Gilda Radner did get profiled in some skits of her own, as well as some extra blips (because she’s so funny she makes you cry? Or because she’s dead? As is Danitra Vance.). But as a Radner junkie I wanted MORE; meanwhile Jane Curtain and Laraine Newman were barely visible. Newman was the most self-effacing or overlooked of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players from the original SNL, but what about that skit where she’s a 200 pound TV cook, eating all the batter before she can put her ‘kuchen’ in the oven, or her role as the teenage Conehead daughter…and what about Jane Curtain’s deadpan news anchor persona ripping her shirt open, or her Midwestern Mom offering Bill Murray “a nice egg salad sandwich”? The show left me wondering: Why is it only men who get to be funny?

P.S. Completely off topic, but since I’m complaining — why was there only one leetle teensy blip of Father Guido Sarducci???? (He wears a skirt; does that make it okay to include him in the not-enough-women rant? No?) And why oh why did they leave out the scene of him chasing Richard Nixon across the street, followed by his cameraman (this as the SNL credits are rolling for the end of the show), waving a microphone at the ex-president and yelling, “Iffa you were any kind of an animal, what woulda you be?”

Thanks to Licia Sky for pointing out that people of color were also underrepresented on SNL.


Women fight back: Medusa, Thelma, Louise, and Salander

The image of Alabama’s fury in the movie True Romance made me think of another visual image, Carvaggio’s Medusa (see below). His painting of the beheaded Gorgon shows that her horror and pain are mixed with rage at what has happened to her. This Medusa is not a vacant-eyed trauma victim; even the snakes that have become her hair seem to writhe in anger as much as agony.


Medusa by Carvaggio

In Ovid’s version of the myth Medusa was not born a monster, but a human female. She was a good-looking teenager, and happened to be admiring her hair in some reflective surface in one of Athena’s temples when Poseidon sneaked up on her and raped her. Furious at the sacrilege and insult, Athena turned Medusa’s hair into snakes and the girl into a Gorgon whose look changed men to stone. (Talk about ‘Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.’) While Athena’s reaction hardly seems fair when Poseidon was the perp and got off scott-free, it’s about what could be expected from a goddess born out of Zeus’s forehead after Zeus ate her pregnant mother. Athena is supposed to be the goddess of wisdom and justice, but as the head trip of the father of the gods she was born to be a man’s woman, and a token goddess. But I digress.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists took the myth of Medusa as a metaphor for female rage, but also for female power and freedom. No coincidence that this was also when public discussion began about such taboo subjects as domestic violence and rape, including date rape and sexual abuse within the family. (The first modern-day battered women’s shelter opened in London in 1970; the first rape crisis center in the U.S. opened in San Francisco in 1971.*)

But depictions of female rage and power in mainstream movies, in a more-or-less ‘reality’-based context (not comic book, spoof, or spy-fi) lagged behind. The first one I remember was in Romancing the Stone in 1984 (see earlier post). Later there were other film depictions of women who fought back when threatened or hurt. The indie romantic comedy Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985, for instance, has Roberta (Susanna Arquette) whacking Susan’s (Madonna) and her own would-be attacker on the head with a wine bottle and knocking him out.

thelmaandlouiseAs a more comprehensive example, Thelma and Louise in 1991 was also one of the great female buddy movies. But while the plot of Thelma and Louise hinges on female rage at male violence against women, with Louise (Susan Sarandon) shooting a man who is about to rape Thelma (Geena Davis) in a parking lot, it can’t be said that Thelma and Louise fight back and win. Instead of seeking ‘justice’ in a system that, Athena-like, excuses a rapist, the women turn outlaw — Louise in one unguarded moment of fury, and Thelma after she’s been ‘freed’ sexually as well as financially by a ‘polite’ robber (Brad Pitt). Turning outlaw seems to be the only real choice Thelma and Louise have got, and they make it knowing at some level that it will cost their lives.

But in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace) is going for a different kind of justice. Lisbeth is willing to die fighting, but she’d rather make her own justice however she can and survive in freedom; and she plans accordingly.

Before I take on the trilogy about Lisbeth Salander: There have probably been many other women in movies who fought back and won. These posts are a somewhat random sample based on movies I happened to see, with characters I enjoyed (which is why I don’t cite La Femme Nikita) who overcame their opponents by more or less ordinary methods like being quick-witted and fast on their feet, instead of through any special training or superpowers (although Salander’s hacker skills verge on a superpower). Science fiction and maybe horror movies (about which I know zip) were likely way ahead in their portrayals of women who fight back against male violence and win, since science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries (genre fiction) were years ahead of mainstream and literary fiction in alternative scripts for and portrayals of women. For a recent recap of women ‘warriors’ in movies that span the genres, see Lesley Coffin’s “17 Most Badass Women in Movies, 2014”.

*Click on ‘myth of Medusa’ and scroll down to ‘Feminism’ for books and articles on Medusa imagery and women’s rage. For a history of the battered women’s movement, click on this link.

Women fight back: True Romance

The second movie I saw where the woman fights back and wins was much tougher to watch than Romancing the Stone. Although it’s been described as a dark romantic comedy, Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance wasn’t up there on the laugh-o-meter. The movie follows Clarence (Christian Slater), who is such an Elvis fan he talks to Elvis’s ghost (Val Kilmer) for guidance (okay, that was funny), and Clarence’s true romance with the call girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette). In a confrontation with Alabama’s pimp Clarence kills the guy, taking a suitcase of Alabama’s clothes that turns out to be a suitcase full of cocaine. To finance their happily-ever-after Clarence decides to sell the cocaine, which leads to trouble with the Mafia and the cops.

When mobster underboss Virgil (James Gandolfini) finds Alabama home alone he beats her up to find out where the cocaine is, but also to feed on her fear. He admits that seeing his victims’ terror is the only time he feels anything, so he holds off killing her even when she fights back (stabbing him in the foot with a corkscrew), because she refuses to be afraid of him. Covered in her own blood, with his gun in her face, she laughs and points at him; when he wants to know what’s funny she says, “You look ridiculous.” Because he’s not getting a response he understands, or the rush he craves, he makes the mistake of looking in the mirror. Then Alabama has the time (and the smarts) to kill him instead, throwing shampoo in his eyes, bashing him over the head with the heavy lid from the toilet tank, setting him on fire with hairspray and a cigarette lighter. She finally shoots him in the chest with a rifle, and then, in frustration that she can’t kill him more, lifts the rifle over her head and howls. Clarence returns to find her straddling a dead killer, bashing him over and over again with the rifle.

In Romancing the Stone, once Joan Wilder has acted like one of her fictional heroines and dispatched the killer she doesn’t seem to know what to do. I haven’t seen the film in awhile, but as I remember she has a moment when she nearly wrings her hands, trying to return to the damsel-in-distress romantic script to keep Jack around, or maybe in a knee-jerk attempt to get back on solid storytelling ground.

In True Romance Alabama isn’t wondering how to behave after she kills the bad guy. She isn’t ‘thinking’ at all, but expressing fury at being threatened and hurt by a brutal man, who has killed other people and enjoyed it. Maybe her fury is even at the kind of world where this happens.