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Guest post: Action Girl and Poetry Man

May 16, 2011

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2011 11:56 am

    Lots to get the teeth into here . . .

    I am still sorry I couldn’t come up with a really good citation for the theoretical position you’re disagreeing with, but broadly speaking – Derek Brewer’s Symbolic Stories contends that fairytales and stories built on a fairytale chassis are essentially about growing up, with ‘growing up’ represented by love, marriage and babies. Heroes and heroines sticking to expected gender roles tends to be part and parcel of the general heteronormative baggage. (Though there are early counterexamples: Jeannie rescues her beloved Tam Lin from the Queen of the Fairies, rather than vice versa, and is unfazed when the Queen turns him into a snake, a bear, a lion and finally a red-hot coal.)

    The thing about writers taking a bog-standard male archetype and clumsily making the character female, with usually craptastic results, is an interesting one. On the one hand, depth-free action heroes are rubbish whatever sex they are; but the double standard pokes its head out in the way people, especially critics, react to the rubbish. There was a game out a couple of years ago, WET, whose heroine, Rubi, is the You Wronged Me I Shall Have Revenge archetype with a side order of midriff. She’s shallow and amoral and just all-round awful, and it is amazing how often these traits were put down to her being a woman. Whereas it’s a lot rarer (though not unknown) for shallow, amoral, awful male action heroes to have their awfulness treated as a consequence of being male. [/tangent]

    The line about Patrick Stewart jumping without spilling his tea reminds me of a scene in the martial arts movie Hero. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know which one I mean. If not, it’s well worth a look – interesting storyline(s), but chiefly remarkable for its ridiculously gorgeous visuals.

    I am interested as to how other lines of division intersect with that of gender. The one that springs to mind is age – as you touch on during the post, historically Action Girls got their arse-kicking in before settling down to motherhood, and their general tendency towards youth is right there in the trope name: Action Girl. Poetry Man, by contrast, evokes the image of an older guy – solidly middle-aged if not yet into Aged Mentor territory. Poetry Man, is I think, the man Wimpy Boy grows into – the non-action-ness is always there, the confidence comes later.

    Also, Harry Potter may not be an Action Guy but keeps trying to be one; he seems to have gotten it into his head that frontline combat is where it’s at. His persistent I Must Do This Alone attempts to leave his friends behind rather than accept their help also seem to show that this is the idea of heroism he thinks he should be living up to. One of the major themes of the series, I thought, was showing that individual Action-Guyism (as represented by magical single combat) is an unproductive strategy and leads to death.

    Who’s the twice-married bod you mention in the last paragraph? All I can think of is Moll Flanders, and in her case the number was more like five . . .

  2. Seamus aka Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    May 16, 2011 10:31 pm

    Not “twice-married” but “double-married”; I was thinking of the Western bigamy musical “Paint Your Wagon”, though as the plot wears on in that one it stops being such a good example. Never mind.

    You have a good point about Wimpy Boy growing into Poetry Man. What does Action Girl grow into, in that case? Action Woman? Old Mother Brawny? Ms Miyagi?

    Yeah, I’ve seen Hero, and it’s great.

    Well, perhaps Harry Potter wants to be an Action Guy. Still, orphan status notwithstanding, he’s no Batman.

    One final thing: I mispluralised a verb in the paragraph beginning “But what of the Action Guy?” I wrote “Action Guy are not gone”, when I meant (I think) “Action Guy is not gone”. Would you mind correcting it?

  3. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    May 17, 2011 1:23 pm

    Another angle to add to a lot of these Poetry Men is the class angle – Jean-Luc Picard is the obvious example of the middle class hero, and I can’t think of many others than Jeff Goldblum’s character that aren’t. Sipping Earl Grey, quoting Shakespeare and playing the piano are all seen as very middle class occupations, and so the characters that do them are always middle class – what do working class heroes do? They don’t seem to be allowed to be anything other than gruff and stupid, winning the day through brawn, stoicism and dumb luck. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day) is the only exception I can think of and I love the character to bits, as a major Hollywood character I can relate to much better than most.

    You say heroes have to be good, honest and brave, but having recently read (and loved) the Locke Lamora books and re-read the Moist von Lipwig Discworld books, I don’t even think they need to be honest or even especially good. The Lovable Rogue is a well-known hero trope, all they need to be is brave, daring and be good enough to satisfy our consciences. Both Locke and Moist prey on the rich and cruel, which satifies us that they are good people even if what they are doing is wrong, and that’s enough for us to root for them. Both also have a problem with killing under all but the most extreme circumstances, which may say as much about our morals as theirs. I’ve sometimes toyed with making some truly nasty heroes, to see how far I can push them before people reject them as heroes – I think you two are both familiar with my NaNo characters Renard and Catharine, right?

    Finally, the thing that annoys me most about Rubi from WET isn’t that she is shallow, amoral and generally awful, but that these traits are considered acceptable for male characters and not female ones. Rubi was panned as a character for having the same traits as most ridiculous macho male video game characters, but instead of saying ‘these traits are bad, we should stop making characters with them’, they blame that she is woman.

    I wish more people in the gaming community, developers and players alike, would watch the Extra Credits videos on The Escapist and listen to what they have to say, I think the community as a whole would be much better off.

  4. May 17, 2011 3:54 pm

    Seamus: What does Action Girl grow into, in that case?

    Therein lies the rub, as Cpt. Picard might say. The number of stories in any medium which feature a middle-aged woman as their central and heroic character is very small. At the other end of the age spectrum you have the crone archetype, represented by any number of wise old grandmothers, seers, and witches, but they’re rarely main characters (except in the hands of Sir Terry Pratchett.) Precious little is springing to mind when I try and think of grown-up Action Girls. Marion Ravenwood, I suppose, in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? But part of the dynamic of that film was that she and Indy were re-creating their younger days, so. There’s Team Moms like Helen Parr/Elastigirl of The Incredibles, but that’s an ensemble movie without a main character per se. Captain Janeway? Rare example of a middle-aged leading lady in a mainstream show, but hardly Action Woman. Same goes for President Roslin in Battlestar Galactica. Perhaps Sarah-Jane Smith?


    Re heroes and their goodness, honesty, bravery: I think you put your finger on it with “good enough”, and I don’t think that’s incompatible with Seamus’ thesis at all. Not least because the primary function of a story hero has to be to hold the audience’s attention, to be engrossing and gripping, and perfectly good characters are generally . . . not. There’s a reason why Lancelot gets a lot more face time in most Arthuriana than Galahad does, and it’s because Galahad is boring. No bad feeling, no angst, no uncertainty, no indecision, no flaws. “Good enough” is a lot better in storytelling terms – such characters are, as you say, human enough to be interesting but not actually bad people.

    The intersection of class with the Action Girl/Poetry Man gender question is something I hadn’t considered, and thankyou for bringing it up.

    Jack Zipes’ Don’t Bet on the Prince is another excellent book about the theory of fairytale; he’s a Marxist critic, and does a good job of pointing out the extent to which fairytales which on the surface destabilise class hierarchies (e.g. love across class boundaries a la Cinderella) are often actually reinforcing them – perhaps the most common message is the one that says if you’re a peasant, especially a peasant girl, marrying up the hierarchy is the greatest thing you can aspire to. Which may well have been true in many societies telling these stories, but is hardly a radical position. There’s also the plethora of stories where the peasant boy who surprises everyone with his mad heroing skills turns out to be of noble blood after all: the entire subgenre of medieval romance called the Bel Inconnu (“Fair Unknown”) does it – Gareth, Guinglain, Perceval, whatever La Cote Male Tayle’s real name is – and of modern days we’ve got Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter representing the exact same story.

    Loveable Rogues do often seem to be presented as working-class – Han Solo is perpetually broke and really only owns his ship; Locke Lamora’s a street urchin; I can’t remember where Moist von Lipwig comes from but he certainly made his living at street level. If I can combine your observations, it seems like where clever middle- or upper-class characters are presented as channelling their cleverness into sophistication and wide knowledge, clever lower-class characters tend to be shown funnelling it into sneakiness and criminality. (To borrow an example from D&D, the wizard needs high INT for book-learning and arcane knowledge; the rogue may well be just as clever, but turns the points into actual practical skills – and wizards are stereotyped as stuffy, snobby and aristocratic (see also: elves), while rogues are shown as city-bred, street smart rather than book smart, and poor.)

    Serenity lampshades the divide hilariously when Mal starts quoting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – he’s so completely the working-class hero (ex-soldier; criminal; sneaky bugger; not good with posh society, as seen in “Shindig”; foul-mouthed; etc.) that his brief switch into speech-giving, Coleridge-quoting Poetry Man mode catches everyone on the back foot.

  5. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    May 18, 2011 10:29 am

    Yeah, the Wizard and Rogue comparisons are pretty much what I was thinking, but there always seems to be this emphasis on clever working class people being criminals – perhaps a reinforcement that crime doesn’t pay? After all, if they were smart and worked hard without resorting to crime then they would become respectable middle-class people, the classic and flawed idea of how social mobility works. Nobody wants to believe that this isn’t how it works, and it shows as you rarely see intelligent working class people in literature or in any media. The only times you see this is when they get the right lucky breaks, and even then the world goes out of its way to show that they deserve it, not like all those other filthy undeserving poor people.

    Again, Pratchett seems to the beacon of light in this murky subject with his plethora of good, smart characters from every background you can think of. The Watch are especially good in the class background respect – Vimes hasn’t forgotten his working class roots (unlike so many other heroes*), Fred and Nobby talk about their families all the time, and the Discworld book Night Watch was a fantastic epic of the Ankh-Morpork working-class community uniting to battle injustice. It’s little wonder he was the best selling UK author of the 1990s, he writes for everyone instead of patronising and alienating large parts of his potential audience, and so everyone loves his books.

    *How many protaganists talk about their families at all, and of those, how many had working class backgrounds? Not many, I reckon, as in these stories working class backgrounds are either something to be ashamed of or were an obstacle to overcome on the road to a better (i.e. middle-class) life.

  6. miss_ada permalink
    May 30, 2011 4:47 pm

    delurking for an example of Action Woman/Mum:
    Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde ! She’s mid-to-end thirties and pregnant (!) in the original series and over 50 in the sequels [just re-reading them all again to work up to the latest one, yeah, I’m late to the game ;)]

  7. May 30, 2011 11:03 pm

    @miss_ada: Good catch, I’d completely forgotten Thursday Next. (I have yet to get past Something Rotten – still trying to be in a bookshop on one of the same days I remember that I haven’t read 5 and 6 yet.) And she’s unusual in that she was never an Action *Girl*, at least not on-page – I mean, we hear plenty about her military career, but unless I’m seriously misremembering Young Thursday never actually makes an appearance.

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