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.

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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.

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.