Women fight back: Romancing the Stone

I grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s and ’60s. At that time violence against women was so ordinary that a gangbang (as in a group of men having sex with one woman) was just something guys did — not all of them, not by a long shot, but it wasn’t something to hide, even if the young woman had been raped, unless you happened to be that woman (because she must have been ‘asking for it’ — why else would she be alone with a bunch of guys?). A woman who ‘pulled a train’, willingly or not, was called a ‘hog’ — the same word bikers used for their Harleys, only the connotation was negative, not neutral. Date rape wasn’t even a blip on the radar — not that it didn’t happen, but there were no words for it. No one talked much about domestic violence, either; having an abusive husband was regarded as bad luck or a woman making a poor choice, even while women had very little choice — no legal rights over their own bodies if they got pregnant, since abortion was illegal, no battered women’s shelters, few job opportunities (teaching or nursing if you could afford that level of education; secretarial work; otherwise waitressing, housekeeping, retail, or factory work were about it [in urban areas, anyway]), and forget equal pay for equal work, or good, affordable childcare. Meanwhile, movies presented women as damsels in distress, to be rescued or not, if they were foolish enough to wander around at night alone, or unfortunate enough to be caught by a bad guy. Even after the rebirth of feminism in the late ’60s women continued to be portrayed as victims, and that portrayal was presented as ‘normal’, which was a form of violence in itself. If we learn from the stories we are told and the images we see (laying down neural pathways in the brain), then movies until then had taught women how to be terrorized and helpless in the face of danger, how to be hurt or killed without putting up a fight.250px-Romancing_the_stone

The first movie I saw that showed a woman fighting back and winning was Romancing the Stone, which came out in 1984.* I mean fighting back and winning physically; right now I’m not interested in the spiritual work of forgiveness, but the visceral thrill of revenge. Diane Thomas wrote the screenplay, about a romance writer in NYC named Joan Wilder (played by Kathleen Turner) who goes to Colombia to rescue her kidnapped sister, and encounters perilous adventures like the ones she’s been writing about in her wildly popular books.

Romantic comedy; but at the climactic scene no one is laughing. Joan Wilder is lying on her back on a wooden grating over a crocodile pit and the villainous Colonel Molo — with a lit cigar between his teeth and a bleeding stump where his hand used to be — is on top of her, holding her down and ready to commit murder. Even one-handed he has her pinned; she can’t reach the stick of wood that is the only weapon in sight. Joan is hoping that Jack (her hero, played by Michael Douglas) will save her, but he can’t get up the stone wall to where she is; he’ll never reach her in time. Below her the crocodile thrashes his tail — having had a taste of the bad guy (Molo’s hand), the crocodile wants more. (A lot like Captain Hook, which makes Joan the Peter Pan of this story.) As Molo snarls and leans toward Joan, the lit cigar getting closer to her eyes, she suddenly yanks the cigar out of his mouth, turns it around, and stabs the lit end into his face. He rears back screaming; she flips over sideways, grabs the stick of wood, and smacks his bloody stump hard. Howling, he turns, falls, and breaks through the wooden grating, down to where the crocodile waits.

This wasn’t the end of the movie, but it was definitely the high point. When I first saw the film nearly every woman in the audience was leaning forward and shouting encouragement to Joan, something like, “Hit him! Kill him! YES.”

It was one of those great movie moments. (Interesting that the studio thought the movie would bomb.) Asking around later, I found that every woman I knew had had that same response — total adrenaline rush, followed by laughter. Not embarrassed laughter, but delighted laughter. Because it was about fucking time.

*There have been other movies before that time to show women fighting back and winning. The movie version of Modesty Blaise came out in 1966, and there had been women TV characters, like Emma Peel, who could take down male opponents. But the Modesty movie was ‘an outrageous spoof’ and Mrs. Peel was spy-fi; they were fantastical. You couldn’t identify with them any more than a man could identify with 007 or Dr. Who. Also, I’m not a film buff, so while there may have been an earlier ‘ordinary’ woman who fought back and won, this will only be about what I noticed in my own ‘ordinary’ movie-watching.

Fantasy booklist: women warriors

Some women warriors.

51evljSGbFLJessica Amanda Salmonson‘s Tomoe Gozen trilogy tells the legendary history of a famous woman samurai from the 12th-13th century, in an alternate universe Japan called Naipon where all the fantastical and mythical creatures (like dragons and demons and ghosts) are real. Best read in order: *Tomoe Gozen, *The Golden Naginata, and Thousand Shrine Warrior.

Robin McKinley‘s early books are about young women who become warriors due to fate and necessity; the books also feature strong equine (The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword) and/or canine characters. Although *The Outlaws of Sherwood (a re-telling of the Robin Hood legend with a reluctant hero and some unruly, can’t-keep-em-down women) has neither horses nor dogs in main roles, it kicks ass.

McKinley’s Deerskin is based on a little-retold fairy tale about rape and incest, in which the ‘warrior’s’ struggle is to escape, survive, and speak out. (Some very good dog characters in this book.)

In Sunshine, the story of a baker turned vampire-killer and her vampire friend, McKinley moves away from YA and classic fantasy.

In Chalice, a very original fantasy world is built around the importance of humans staying in connection with the land, and the woman beekeeper who restores that connection in a besieged and damaged country. (A different kind of ‘warrior’, but since we’re on McKinley…)

UnknownJo Clayton’s Duel of Sorcery trilogy is about Serroi, woman warrior and magician, a ‘misborn of the windrunners’ who was abandoned by her people and raised by a powerful wizard named Ser Noris. Throughout her childhood the wizard used her  affection for him to harness her magic for his own ends. (The puppies she befriended were turned into demon-dogs, for instance.) The trilogy – Moongather, Moonscatter, and Changer’s Moon – follows Serroi’s escape from Ser Noris, her training and life as a warrior and a mage, to her final confrontation with the wizard. (Best read in order, hard to find but saw some on Amazon.)

Tamora Pierce‘s Tortall has many women warriors, including Keladry and Alanna; the ‘dog’ (cop) Beka Cooper (see earlier post); Aly, a master spy and revolutionary (who is more of a strategist, but can certainly fight) in Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen; Dane the wild mage who can transform into and speak with animals; and so on.

Fantasy booklist: utopias

Some utopias. 

511OorCJ6XLStarhawk’s *The Fifth Sacred Thing is about a not-so-far-in the future California where water is scarce and the earth, air, and ocean are poisoned. San Francisco is a Pagan utopia where everyone works together and no one starves; a place of Witches and magic, run by consensus, and defended by nine old women who dream strong (you got to love it). And people still don’t always get along. Meanwhile “Angel City” (LA), is run by the Stewards and Millenialists, who rant about ‘purity’, are racist, sexist, and homophobic, and own all the water, which is how they control the populace. The story opens when Bird, a musician who went South to shut down a nuclear power plant, ‘wakes up’ in prison with ten years of his life gone; and Madrone, a healer, chases the virus that is causing an epidemic to the spirit world, to fight it there, out of sheer desperation. The story follows these two characters, the parts they play in events leading up to LA’s attack on SF,  and their struggle to embody the fifth sacred thing. (Click on author’s name for info about the movie and Starhawk’s other books.)

51qsLKSnZyLDorothy Bryant‘s, *The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You, is a self-published science fiction classic about a utopian community somewhere in this world. The story is told from the point of view of a dissipated, famous thriller writer who finds himself miraculously transported to the island of Ata after a car accident and a murder. (Click on her name for bio and Bryant’s other books.)

Fantasy booklist: pity & terror

515Lw3Ukz2LWas it Kate Wilhelm who said that all ghost stories are about family? Both of the following books are beautifully written page-turners. Avoid if you’re prone to nightmares.

Was, by Geoff Ryman, is a  retelling of The Wizard of Oz and what really happened to that little girl who was dumped onto her relatives, and had to live on a hardscrabble farm in Kansas. The Wicked Witch of the West and Auntie Em are the same person.

Octavia Butler’s Kindred moves back and forth between 1976 California and early-nineteenth century Maryland as Dana, a black woman, is pulled back in time to save the life of one of her ancestors, a feckless white boy named Rufus. As the boy becomes a man he continues to be at risk, and Dana keeps being pulled back to the antebellum south to save him. A book that Butler called “grim fantasy”. Written without any bombast, it’s as chilling as those three violins in the Psycho soundtrack.

As usual, click on the author’s name for more information about the writer and his or her books.


Fantasy booklist: not on a map

Not on any map. Where many fantasy novels feature maps – of Middle Earth, or Earthsea, or simply The Kingdom – magical realism removes the reader from the mundane world without going into a specific otherworldly realm. Instead, the story plays out in one of those liminal spaces between here and there — between waking and dreaming, or proof and belief. Sometimes the author says straight out that the place is not on any map; sometimes (as in the case of Verity or Edgewood), the place-name is a clue.

51QjAAROLBLGloria Naylor‘s *Mama Day is set on the island of Willow Springs, off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, a place that does not belong to either state, but to itself. The book follows life on the island as Mama Day, healer and conjure woman, sees it; her granddaughter Cocoa’s life in New York City, in the alternating voices of Cocoa and George, the man who becomes her husband; and what happens when George and Cocoa come to visit, and two world-views meet.

Bailey’s Café takes place in NYC and/or limbo, with linked stories about Bailey and his wife, and how they came to run the cafe, and the regulars at Bailey’s cafe, those out-of-luck people who find the place because they need to.

John Crowley’s *Little, Big is one of those mindbenders of fantasy fiction, about Daily Alice Drinkwater, her family and community, and their home in Edgewood, which is not on any map (but feels like a small town in western Massachusetts). Told from the point of view of Smoky Barnable, the man who marries Daily Alice, about what happens to the family and to time and space in Edgewood and in ‘The City’ (NYC). Although Little, Big is about fairies, they are only seen out of the corner of the reader’s eye.

Alice Hoffman writes what I think of as New England or East Coast magical realism, although in *Turtle Moon she does the same magic-making for Florida. Verity is a small town filled with divorced single mothers from up north; when one of them gets murdered and two children — the dead woman’s year-old daughter, and Keith, “the meanest boy in town” — go missing at the same time, Keith’s mother and a haunted cop set out to find the children before the killer does. *The Probable Future is about three generations of women who each have a gift: the grandmother can tell when someone is lying; the daughter can dream other people’s dreams; and Stella, the grandchild, can see how people will die. The story opens with Stella turning 13 and coming into her ‘gift’, which takes her right into the path of a killer, and Stella’s flight from Boston to her grandmother’s house in small town New England. Both of these books feature murders, so contain aspects of a mystery or thriller, but catching a killer isn’t the point; staying (being) alive is the point. Hoffman’s The River King and The Blue Diary also are about murders but with more focus on the killers, their victims, and the people who knew them.

Click on author’s name for bios and their (many) books.

Fantasy booklist: Cinderellas

There are lots of fairy tale retellings in fantasy fiction; here are some Cinderellas. For websites and other books, click on author’s name.

519YRT1J5GLMercedes Lackey’s Cinderella story, Phoenix and Ashes, is part of her Elemental Masters series (about magicians of the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire). Here the wicked stepmother is an Earth mage gone to the bad, the ‘prince’ is a wounded WWI fighter pilot and an Air mage so haunted by the war he can’t use his magic, and Eleanor, the Cinderella, is an untaught Fire master kept in thrall by her own little finger, that her stepmother cut off and buried beneath the hearth. With no one alive to teach her except her dead mother’s herbalist friend (the godmother), and barely able to leave the house, Eleanor learns her art by traveling in visions through the Fool’s journey in the Tarot deck.

Two plain and unmagical Cinderellas:

Then there’s Anne McCaffery‘s books about a scapegoated young girl who is a brilliant musician, living on a faraway world (called Pern) that dragons keep safe: *Dragonsong and its sequel Dragonsinger. Menolley is good with animals (the wild fire lizards that are related to dragons), and a great distance runner; but she is skinny and plain (often gets mistaken for a boy, which she isn’t trying to do), and her social skills are stunted. This doesn’t keep her from having amazing adventures in her quest to find a place to make her music.

41VKA9QJ10LFor a completely different take on being bullied and going for what you want anyway, there’s Tamora Pierce’s *Protector of the Small quartet – First Test, Page, Squire, and Lady Knight — about Keladry, a girl who trains to be a knight in a land where women warriors are rare. One great thing about these is that, unlike Pierce’s other woman warrior, Alanna (who has her own quartet), Kel has no magical powers to fall back on, although, like Menolly, she is good with animals and gets their help. Kel achieves her knighthood through her own brains, determination, and sense of justice.

Which, while we’re at it, is why *The Huntress was such a wonderful comic. She was the B side of the Marvel Wonder Woman comics (written by Paul Levitz, Joe Staton, and Bob Layton) back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The Huntress is Batman’s daughter – lawyer Helena Wayne by day, a different kind of crime-fighter at night. No magic bracelets or invisible plane for her, The Huntress makes do by being smart as a whip, a tricky, strong fighter, and what repartee! (Not Cinderella, despite orphan status. Click on The Huntress link above for a great blog about the Helena Wayne version of the Huntress.)

Each author mentioned above is extremely prolific; each has written a series of books set in another world: Lackey’s world is Valdemar, McCaffery’s is the planet Pern, and Tamora Pierce’s is Tortall. (Lackey and Pierce also each have crime-buster heroines; Lackey’s is about an occult P.I., Pierce’s is about a young woman who works as a cop – a “dog” – in a tough part of a city in Tortall. (See Terrier, Bloodhound, etc.) If you click on the author’s name, you’ll go to her website and be able to browse.

Fantasy booklist: American Southwest authors

Some authors from the American southwest. For websites and other books, click on author’s name.

610Y-M8z8FLOn another note entirely, Barry Hughart’s *Bridge of Birds is about an ‘ancient China that never was’, a sage with ‘a slight flaw in his character’, his assistant, Number Ten Ox, and their quest to save the comatose children of Ox’s village and solve the mystery of the lost princess of birds. This is the first in a series of mysteries about the sage Li Kao, Number Ten Ox, and the occult mysteries they solve.

Evangeline Walton retold some of the lesser known stories from The Mabinogion (ancient Welsh): The Island of the Mighty; The Children of Llyr; *The Song of Rhiannon; and The Prince of Annwn. She wrote in the 1940s-50s but her books didn’t do well until they were reissued in the 1970s. She is a total word magician; her books are evocative, simply written, psychologically astute, bringing a mythical past alive. Just discovered: she wrote two books about Theseus, but didn’t even try to publish them during her lifetime, because that other magician of bringing the past to life, Mary Renault, had just published her Theseus books. (See earlier post.)

Nancy Farmer, *The House of the Scorpion, about a boy who lives in the American southwest, which has become a country called Opium, who is the clone of a 130 year old drug lord.

Also A Girl Named Disaster, about a young African orphan about to be married off to a middle-aged man with 3 other wives. She runs away instead, aided by her grandmother, as well as spirits, baboons, and a leopard, to find another kind of family.

She’s also got a new one out, adult fantasy/s.f. called A New Year’s Tale, about a near future where there’s no social security or Medicare, and the government is trying to get rid of its old people, which is making the ancestors (spirits) truly pissed off. I can’t wait to read this one.