Guest post: Action Girl and Poetry Man
This is a guest post by a good friend, fellow literature undergrad and now serial blog commenter of mine, who used to argue with me about books weekly in the union bar and now argues with me about books slightly less often on the Internet. I am very happy to be giving him an e-venue. Ladies, gentlemen, and assorted delicious friends, I give you Seamus.
Owing to a job which allows me ample time on buses but almost none on the sofa, I have been unable to watch the TV series of A Game of Thrones, so in order to be a part of the excitement I’ve bought the book instead. While winding my way up a long hill in the number 22 today, I came upon an interesting passage which I want to talk about in this post.
From time to time, a literary theorist writes that the condition for a happy ending in a symbolic story is that traditional gender roles are affirmed. Yet in recent times, fiction appears to have not only negated, but actually reversed that tendency, bringing us a new gallery of heroes and heroines where the girls are boys and the boys are girls.
Here’s the passage.
It wasn’t fair. Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys. Arya took after their lord father. Her hair was a lusterless brown, and her face was long and solemn. Jeyne used to call her Arya Horseface, and neigh whenever she came near. It hurt that the one thing Arya could do better than her sister was ride a horse. Well, that and manage a household. Sansa had never had much of a head for figures. If she did marry Prince Joff, Arya hoped for his sake that he had a good steward.
Well, Arya is certainly the less feminine of the two sisters. Yet it is completely apparent to anyone who knows the pattern in these things that she, and not her sister, is going to be the heroine in this corner of the plot. This is partly because she is the underdog, the less-esteemed, the younger one, the one with something to prove. But for me, the main clue that I would soon be rooting for her was the precise crossing of the gender line that should make her an unheroic character according to the gender-confirmation theory.
So I started messing around with the passage to see if I could work out what makes it tick. Changing the two young women into young men was not enlightening. All that gave me was a passage set in a fantasy world where a strong boy with a head for sums would envy his brother’s thick auburn hair, singing voice and embroidery skills, and the popularity they brought him; a world, in other words, where men are feminine and women are masculine; where, as in Malorie Blackman’s black-oppressing-white novel Noughts and Crosses, north stands for south and south stands for north, but the pattern remains the same.
But something quite interesting happens when you take the passage and reverse not only the gender of the characters, but also their accomplishments:
It wasn’t fair. Samson had everything. Samson was two years older; maybe by the time Anthony had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Samson could ride and wrestle and fence. He had a good head for finance and management, and was capable with a bow and arrow. He looked the part, too. Samson had gotten their father’s broad shoulders, and his long, solemn face. Anthony took after their mother. His hair was auburn and curly, and his face soft and slender. John used to call him Pretty Antonia, and wolf-whistle whenever he came near. It hurt that the one thing Anthony could do better than his brother was to write poetry. Well, that and singing. Samson never could hold a tune. If he did marry Princess Jill, Anthony hoped for her sake that she didn’t expect him to sing with the choir.
Samson sounds like a fine specimen of a man, doesn’t he? And yet, as before, it’s quite clear that the younger sibling is going to be our hero. There are two roles open to Samson in this story: either turn villain, pitting his masculine strength against Anthony, whose civilised feminine refinement will vanquish him; or become subservient to his brother’s storyline, using his strength and martial skill heroically, but nevertheless doing so under the leadership of his gentle, poetry-writing little brother. Once again, the gender transgressor is the character of real interest.
So what are we looking at here? Well, girls acting like boys is nothing new, by any means. The Action Girl has been a popular fictional archetype pretty much forever, and has been the basis of many an awesome character, as well as more than a few rather dull stories where the writer appears to have grafted a pair of breasts onto a male action hero in order to sell the story as “feminist”. She used to settle down with the male lead and have children at the end; now, she sometimes rides into the sunset to continue having adventures. Still, I wouldn’t say the modern Action Girl kicks substantially more arse, overall, than her foremothers managed to kick prior to embracing motherhood.
But what of the Action Guy? The lone wolf who cares for no one and lives or dies by his might and will? John Wayne used to make a good living playing that role, but he died in 1979, and the Western as a major film genre died around the same time. Its latest revival came in the form of True Grit, whose protagonist is none other than one of the most brilliant Action Girls the screen has seen in recent years. Action Guy is not gone, of course: Bruce Willis hasn’t gone a year without work since 1986, and James Bond is still one of the world’s most popular characters. He did cry in Casino Royale, but I think that was less about Bond becoming feminised and more about the current trend of films to be darker and heavier than their past equivalents. (Even comedies are doing it. Watch the closing shot of Superbad and try to imagine John Belushi finishing one of his boozy knockabouts on such a poignant note.)
But alongside the Action Guy has grown another kind of male lead, one whose star has been rising ever since Jean-Luc Picard jumped, sipping Earl Grey and quoting Shakespeare, into a place in Star Trek fans’ hearts that the valiant, headstrong Jim Kirk could never quite fill. (And now you’re imagining Patrick Stewart trying to jump without spilling his tea.) Poetry Man will fight the forces of evil if he has to, but when he’s done, it’s not the sunset he heads for; it’s his vintage piano and his beloved dog. He’ll even team up with an Action Guy, as Jeff Goldblum’s scientist did with Will Smith’s fighter pilot in Independence Day. But they are two completely different people, as different as the guy who made Gran Torino is from the guy who starred in Dirty Harry. (Wait a second . . . )
Above all, it’s in the world of books that Poetry Man flourishes, perhaps naturally enough, since novels are mostly read, and exclusively written, by people who are fond of unmanly pursuits like literature. The archetype is particularly strong in children’s books at the moment. Harry Potter likes doing magic spells and kissing girls, and never vanquishes evil unless it tries to vanquish him first. Diary of a Wimpy Kid? The clue is in the title. And it’s been a long time since I read His Dark Materials, but if Will is half as manly as Lyra, then my name’s Piet van Hoorn. (Why have I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which came out in 2007? Long story.)
Meanwhile Stieg Larsson’s “grown-up Pippi Longstocking” Lisbeth Salander has conquered all before her in crime fiction, and on the rare occasions when a Terry Pratchett novel starts with a delicate, feminine heroine, it’s only so we can have the fun of watching her learn how to kick arse over the course of the plot.
Heroes of any gender must be good, honest and brave. But they cannot merely be good, honest and brave; they must also be extraordinary. They must be rebels, drawn in lines of contrast against the outside world. There are lots of ways to rebel: fight crime your own way, and don’t let no desk sergeant tell you how to do it; pilot your spaceship through an interstellar war, giving the use of your laser cannons to no man except on your own terms; marry two men and refuse to give a damn if the neighbours sing disapproving songs about it. But gender is big in political debate and in the public mind right now, and what’s on our mind goes into our stories, making Action Girl and Poetry Man the rulers of literature as it’s written in the era we live in.