Sunday, May 12, 2013

Some of My Favorite Fantasy Ladies

So Tor.com had a big discussion about why breast plates with actual breasts will kill you, and because I am the sort of sucker who continues to read internet comments even when it's manifestly a terrible idea, I did that and it made me sad. I considered taking some time here to list and rebuke the arguments made (among them: "breasty breastplate is unrealistic? Hah! What about the inherent unrealism of women being able to fight in the first place?" and "I don't care if it's unrealistic or you find it demeaning, I like to look at breasts, you horrible prudish feminazi"), but instead I thought, hey, let's be positive.

So here are some ass-kicking fantasy ladies I always liked.

Eowyn (Lord of the Rings)

I understand why they changed this aspect of Eowyn for the movies, but for me the great thing about her wasn't that she was resilient and stubborn -because she wasn't- it was that she was ultimately tragic, like she walked in armor out of an opera. She doesn't ride out onto Pelennor fields dressed as a dude because she believes in her heart that middle earth has a fighting chance and she wants to part of it; she's trying to commit suicide by orc because she put her heart on a plate and handed it to the man she loved and he said, gosh, that's sweet, but I've got this girl who's had no lines of dialogue but she's super pretty. The reason Eowyn can stand up to the pervasive aura of gloom around the nazgul isn't secret vagina powers, it's not that she's inherently braver than her male Rohirim counterparts, it's that she's already so past caring that the complete eradication of hope in the shadow of its wings is not a measurable change. She's got that grim determination of the Aesir marching toward Ragnarok. Her strength comes from a dark place, but a place of character, and that's always made her so much more fun for me than a lot of heroes who picked up a magic sword and beat the dark lord because that's what fate demanded.

Red Sonja

I know, I know, Red Sonja is the gold standard of comic covers that scream "hey, young man, I notice you're not old enough to buy real porn." The only less protective armor than what she's got on is stripper pasties, and she's usually thrusting her backside out while she stands with her leg spread on either side of some suspiciously penis-shaped monster. But when I was in my young teens I devoured both her comics and the old D&D ones with the centaur in the party (which also had a lady at the head of the party, and a lady of color at that). I loved that they were fantasy, and I particularly loved that Red Sonja was a tough, competent fighter (who in my defense usually had a shirt on) who was in charge of her own mercenary team, who never had to be rescued, and who I can't remember once, at least in the old issues I owned, resorting to seduction or pretending to be helpless.

Aerin (The Hero and the Crown)

This was another book I picked up in my teens and just loved. Aerin is, once again, the hero of her own story, in a time and place where (everyone assumes) all the big dangerous dragons are long since dead (the cover gives you a clue otherwise). Aerin doesn't just go around whacking things with a sword, she works out flame resistant poultices and studies dragon history and ecology in order to master a skill most people put on par with taking terriers out to hunt rats. And then something bigger comes along and it's time for what is admittedly a straight up Campbellian hero's journey with all the genders flipped (also she climbs an infinite staircase instead of descending into the underworld). She's one of those great martyr heroes who does most of her work in such a way that people will never her give her the credit, but she has moments of huge suffering and triumph, invents a new riding style, and gets to pick between not one but two devoted gentlemen. Like I said, I loved this book when I was a girl.

Brienne of Tarth (Song of Ice and Fire)

You know the first thing I loved about Brienne of Tarth? She's freaking huge. She's not big for a lady; she's big for a knight. She's not pretty or clever, but she's loyal and tenacious. She's not magically the best fighter, but she's a good fighter, and a realistically good one. And more than that, she's a realistically good character. She's had to deal with being the size of commercial class refrigerator, and she has some baggage from that, but she doesn't let other people's disapproval be the thing that motivates her. She has loves and dreams, and she follows them wholeheartedly, and the result feels organic, real, and sympathetic.

(The HBO series is doing a spectacular job of putting talented actresses into roles that had struck me as somewhat one-sided in the books, and as a representative result Cersei went from being my least favorite character in print to one of my absolute favorites on the screen).

Korra (The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra)

Again, the star of her own show, and Korra has a character arc that lady characters almost never get: she starts out excessively physically competent (the series has a martial arts based magic), brash, and even kind of a bully, and throughout the series, rather than gradually overcoming her doubts and building up confidence, she spends her arc being forced to come to terms with her limitations and reach out to a more spiritual side. Korra's a very flawed character: she's an incredibly talented young woman who's been raised knowing she was special and given all sorts of special considerations, and her story is about growing up and learning that the world is infinitely more complicated than she imagined.

Actually, the entire Last Airbender franchise (cartoons, not movie) deserves a nod for fantastic and varied lady characters, both heroes and villains, whose interests may include romance but are not circumscribed by it, and whose personalities are as diverse and vibrant as the gentlemen in the series (special shout out to the ladies of the family Bei Fong).

And that's really the thing, isn't it? That the best female characters are characters in their own right, rather than just being "the chick" and only doing things that fit within a preconceived notion of what a female character does. Here's to the girls that aren't just love interests, fan service, or victory conditions, but interesting, dynamic people.

Yay for women in fantasy!

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