Women of Speculative Fiction: Ella of Frell

Fairy tales are a very popular source for the plotlines of books, particularly young adult and children’s literature. And since fairy tales have female protagonists just as often as male, they can offer an opportunity to explore and re-define what it means to be a heroine. (I know a bit about this, as I’ve done Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Rapunzel myself.) I haven’t done an official count, but it seems like the tale of Cinderella is one of the most frequent inspirations. We just keep wanting to revisit the down-trodden girl who transforms and escapes her oppressors.

And always there is the question – why does Cinderella put up with such treatment before the prince rescues her? Is she weak? Too passive? Too forgiving in the face of unacceptable abuse? I’m not a fan of those sort of criticisms, because in real life, victims of abuse have a myriad of reasons why they don’t just walk out. They might not be able to financially support themselves in their current state. They may have been emotionally beaten down to the point that they don’t feel capable of leaving. They may fear their abusers will follow them and do worse than they’re already doing. All of those factors could apply to a hypothetical Cinderella. Victimhood isn’t the same as weakness.

Those would be pretty intense issues for a children’s book, however. And in Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, she takes an entirely different direction by creating a literal curse that forces her heroine to be obedient. Any direct command spoken to her, she must follow. She has no choice. Ironically, it wasn’t even meant to be a curse. The fairy who places the spell on her is a well-meaning idiot who thinks it will be a marvelous blessing. Obviously, it’s not.

So how does Ella deal with this? Naturally, she becomes the most willful, independent-minded girl she possibly can. If someone tells her to bring some sugar, she comes back with a tiny pinch of it. She over- or under-exaggerates every command, deliberately doing what they didn’t intend her to do, to the full extent that she’s able. Obnoxious? A bit. But it’s the only way she can feel like she has any control over her life.

When she learns that she might be able to find the fairy who cursed her, Ella decides to search for her and insist that the curse be lifted. This leads her into considerable danger, particularly when her obedience is demanded. Most people don’t know her secret, but they give unwitting commands nonetheless. She must rely upon her ingenuity and courage to escape from her various perils, even when her quest doesn’t go as expected. She also develops a romance with the kingdom’s prince, which takes quite a few interesting twists and turns before its resolution.

The main elements of the Cinderella story mostly show up toward the end of the book, when Ella’s new stepfamily learns of her curse and begin exploiting her, forcing into menial labor. It appears that going to the ball with help from her fairy godmother will be the only escape – but no, the prince can’t save her. No one can break the curse except Ella herself. And that struggles forms the climax of the book, an inner battle whose resolution is immensely satisfying.

In addition to its main character, Ella Enchanted has plenty of other entertaining features to recommend it. There are other appealing female characters like Ella’s mother, whose death is the starting point for Ella’s journey; Mandy, the apparently-ordinary cook who provides valuable support for Ella; Areida, her only friend at finishing school; and even Lucinda, the foolish fairy who eventually learns a hard lesson about seeing things from other people’s perspective. Then there’s the playful worldbuilding; the snippets of made-up languages and magical creatures and glimpses of various cultures. It’s fun to read, and very funny. If you’re not an adult who turns up your nose at children’s books, read it. And if you have children, give it to them too. Girls and boys alike will appreciate heroines like Ella.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Villains and Heroes in Willow

When I first saw the film Willow as a kid (my fifth-grade teacher showed it to our class for the end-of-the-year party) I completely fell in love with it. Before I became an completely obsessive Star Wars fanatic in junior high, Willow was my favorite movie. Turns out I’m a big fan of George Lucas generally. I always wanted to watch it for my birthday, and since this was in the dark ages before the Internet, we would have to scour video rental stores in search of a VHS copy.

I was baffled by people’s criticisms. It ripped off Lord of the Rings? That seems a bit of a stretch; Willow is hardly a copy of Frodo. It was just a re-telling of Star Wars in a conventional fantasy setting? Frankly, that sounds pretty awesome. But it’s not a lazy copy; it has its own original elements. As an adult, I’m capable of seeing that the movie isn’t perfect. But I still love it. And one of the reasons I love it nowadays is the female characters.

The most powerful characters in the story are women. The terrifying villain, Bavmorda. The fairy queen of the forest, Cherlindrea. The sorceress Fin Raziel. The climax has Bavmorda and Raziel facing off in a magical duel showcasing their tremendous powers. There are battles with swords and catapults and two-headed dragons, but this fight between two ancient women is by far the most important. (It’s also kind of hilarious.) Interestingly, as Raziel spends most of the film trapped in various animal’s bodies, telling Willow she is a beautiful enchantress, she has a bit of a shock when she finally gets her human form back and discovers she has aged much more than expected. But there are no cheap jokes about her being old or ugly; just a wistful “Has it really been so long?” before she picks up her resolve and moves on with her life. There is no shame in aging.

Bavmorda, meanwhile, is every bit as threatening as any male villain, with actress Jean Marsh’s delightfully evil performance. Her scariness isn’t dependent on her femininity or lack thereof; she’s just cruel and vicious and single-minded in her determination to have absolute control. She is also part of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship that brings in another important female character – Sorsha, played by Joanne Whalley. She is a formidable warrior, evidently grappling with the fact that she can never seem to gain her mother’s approval. In her struggle to obey Bavmorda’s commands, she is constantly met with sneering criticism and abuse.

Ultimately Sorsha will turn against her mother, a development which might seem disappointing if you assume it’s only because she falls in love with one of the good guys. I prefer to interpret that romance as one element of a larger change within her – rather than continuing to seek love and acceptance from an abusive mother who will never offer it, she finds something far better among good people fighting for a just cause. It’s never explicitly stated, true, but I’ll interpret it as I please. In any case, Sorsha’s role as a skilled fighter – with practical armor, even! – is always nice to see for a female character.

There are a few minor characters of interest, including the unnamed midwife whose courage and resourcefulness save the baby Elora Danan; Elora’s mother who has a few moments of brazen defiance against Bavmorda before being killed; Elora herself for just being so stinking adorable; Willow’s quietly resilient wife Kiaya.

Now, it’s true that the main character is male. But one of Willow’s greatest strengths which qualifies him for the quest is that he is a loving parent. As nurturing is an ability so often considered the sole domain of women, it’s refreshing to have it celebrated in a man. He’s not a fighter, and his magical powers are only just emerging, but he sure as heck knows how to change a diaper, feed a baby, care for her when she’s sick, and scold someone for driving a wagon too fast with Elora aboard. In addition, coming from the diminutive race of Nelwyns grants him the ability to surprise those who underestimate him and his people. A story that skewers the prejudice against a race far too often perceived as inferior? That’s a pretty worthy cause. And of course it’s nice to see Warwick Davis shine in the role. If you ever have the chance to hear his commentary on the original Willow DVD, it’s a real treat.

So, hooray for a variety of powerful females and a hero who loves babies. For that among many other reasons, Willow is still one of my favorites.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Dorothy and Alice

Within the fantasy genre, particularly in children’s literature, there is a frequently used trope of magical travel from our world to another. The characters who travel can serve as avatars for the readers, as everything they encounter is just as new to them as it is to us. It is the Everyman, someone who shares our wonder and perhaps our trepidation of this new fantastic world. And some of the most famous Everymen in classic children’s literature are two young girls.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are not, as far as I know, solely marketed as girl’s books. This is important in a culture wherein girls are encouraged – even required – to identity with characters of the other gender, while boys are seldom given the opportunity to do so, let alone expected to. They learn at a far too early age to shy away from anything that could be construed as having feminine labels. Perhaps Oz and Wonderland are old and venerable enough stories that they’ve managed to escape this supposed stigma. Perhaps, also, Alice and Dorothy are simple enough characters – mostly reactionary rather than proactive – making it easy for anyone to identify with them, male or female. Whatever the reason, girl and boy readers alike are introduced to the lands of Oz and Wonderland through the eyes of a girl.

The stories themselves are admittedly rather nonsensical, particularly Wonderland. If you’ve ever read Lewis Carroll’s (pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) chaotic romp through absurdity, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn it was derived from a story he made up on the spot to three girls (one named Alice) while on a river ride. It’s meandering, very light on plot, full of bizarre imagery and silly wordplay. In addition to Alice, many of the characters’ names and/or appearances are a winking reference to real people. There are many other theories about the symbolic meanings the author could have intended, but as far as stories go, it’s giddy nonsense.

Alice’s role is largely to respond to the chaos around her with curiosity, confusion or frustration. Things happen to her, by and large. She leaves Wonderland simply by waking up from a dream. Still, if any of us were suddenly dropped into a world apparently devoid of logic and sense, we’d probably behave much the same way. She’s an effective an avatar as any boy could have been. And the format worked. The book has never been out of print, and produced a similarly popular sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

The similarities between Carroll’s book and L. Frank Baum’s are not coincidental. Baum liked Wonderland‘s idea of a child protagonist that children readers could easily identity with. He, too, named his heroine after a real-life girl, in memory of his wife’s beloved niece Dorothy who died at only five months. He also approved of using lots of illustrations, as Carroll did, to help create a vision of the fantastic world. He did not, however, care for Wonderland’s gleeful incoherence, as he was setting out to write something more like a modern-day American fairytale. He mingled old features with new – there were witches and wizards, but also cornfields and references to Kansas and Omaha.

Dorothy’s tale is very simple, for all its fantastic trappings. She is swept away to Oz in a tornado, and she wants to get back home. Through all the ups and downs of her journey, her purpose remains clear. She encounters some marvelous things –  a living scarecrow and tinman, a talking lion – and terrifying horrors – a witch who wants to kill her – but she continues her quest undaunted, and finally succeeds. She’s arguably a stronger character than Alice, but neither one of them changes much over the course of their journey. Part of the reason for this could be that Baum didn’t want a story with a heavy-handed moral. It’s an adventure tale, not an allegory.

Or is it? Just as with Wonderland, theories about Oz‘s hidden meaning abound. It’s impossible to substantiate any of them, though it’s fun to speculate. Meanwhile, the famous film version of Oz creates a character arc for Dorothy wherein she must discover for herself that “there’s no place like home” – not to mention turning the whole adventure into a dream like Alice’s, which it is clearly not in the original book. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, somewhere between a sequel and a re-envisioning of the story, makes Alice’s a journey a much more straightforward quest tale, rather at odds with the directionless nonsense of the original. Even so, the interest in reinventing the story indicates something about the long-lasting nature of the original character’s appeal.

Baum went on to write thirteen sequels to Oz, most of them containing Dorothy to some degree or another. Eventually she moves to Oz with her aunt and uncle, eliminating the need to come up with more and more accidental ways for her to travel there. And she remains a relatively simple character. She is the prototypical child, not riddled with adolescent angst or the existential woes of adulthood. We recognize her immediately in her blue-checkered gingham dress and brown pigtails, just as we recognize Alice in her pinafore. We travel with them to strange new worlds; we empathize with their reason and determination in the face of absurdity and peril. And we see ourselves in them, because we we all used to be children.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Sigourney Weaver

I’ll be doing something a little different in this installment, exploring several roles portrayed by the same woman. This is because, thanks to a groundbreaking role in a seminal science fiction film, a number of Sigourney Weaver’s subsequent roles can be seen as a sort of meta-commentary on her pop cultural significance. And I’m always up for a bit of meta-commentary.

First of all, there was Alien. I admit I’ve never seen the film. I’ve heard enough about its details to know that it’s far too grisly for my squeamish tastes. It’s as much horror as science fiction. However, I don’t have to see the movie to know the significance of the character of Ellen Ripley. It’s interesting to note that in the original script, though all of the characters were male, the cast list stipulates that the crew is actually unisex. There is something powerful in the notion that Ripley was not written to be either male or female, but simply human. Yes, gender is an important defining characteristic, but it’s by far not the only one. And too often writers get so stuck on making someone distinctly female that they fail to give the character much beyond feminine markers – whether that means creating a flat love interest/damsel type, or going too far in the other direction with an ultra-tough, robotically emotionless woman. Ripley is neither of those. She’s not defined by being female, but by the perilousness of her situation and how she copes with it.

And audience members took note. Ripley’s character has continued to be one of the most prominent features in the Alien franchise, celebrated as a significant shift in gender roles. Weaver has reprised the role several times, earning quite a few award nominations for her portrayal. And it seems like she’s had fun playing with the reputation stemming from her most famous character.

There’s the supernatural comedy Ghostbusters, wherein she plays a woman who’s ostensibly in a damsel in distress role. But her pragmatism and level-headedness in the face of absurd horror provides a nice balance to the silliness of most of the male characters surrounding her (though, admittedly, there’s some ickiness inherent in her relationship with Venkman -take away his quirky charm and he’s pretty stalkery). Then, once Dana is taken over by a demon gatekeeper, Weaver gets to really let loose with over-the-top comedic spookiness in direct contrast to her character’s original personality. It’s funny already, but if you’re aware of Ripley, it’s somehow all the more entertaining.

And how about Galaxy Quest? This incredibly clever movie was an affectionate send-up not only of Star Trek, but of the fandom and pop culture surrounding the show. It has quite a few winking levels of meta-commentary, and that includes the casting of the characters. Alan Rickman as a washed-up Shakespearean actor, bitterly resisting the truth that his most beloved performance is as a catch-phrase-spouting alien on a cheesy sci-fi show? Yes, perfect. And who else but Sigourney Weaver could play Gwen, aka Tawny Madison, the token female whose sole task is to repeat what the computer says? It’s funny that the ficitious Galaxy Quest, supposedly airing in the 80’s, is less progressive in its portrayal of women than the real Star Trek from the 60’s. Tawny is no Uhura. Her blurb in TV Guide was apparently a discussion of her figure-flattering costume and nothing else. She’s a perky blonde, a definite departure for Weaver. But Gwen is ready to offer a biting commentary on her own character.

When a group of naive aliens recruit the actors to help them, believing the TV show was actually a series of historical documents and the characters are real, Gwen deals with the absurdity and danger of their situation by seizing hold of the one task she can actually do. “I have one job on this lousy ship; it’s stupid, but I’m gonna do it!” And as she and her fellow actor, the supposed “Commander,” are navigating a contrived series of obstacles in order to prevent the ship from self-destructing, she is full of scathing critiques for the writers who created such arbitrary obstacles. “Whoever wrote this episode should die!” she howls as they barely escape with their lives.

There are plenty more, including a voice role in an episode of Futurama, playing a ship’s computer undergoing madness in a parody of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey; the scientist Grace Augustine in Avatar; and, yet again, the voice of the ship’s computer in Pixar’s WALL-E. Her career, of course, has spanned more than science fiction films, but it’s enjoyable to see Ripley’s influence upon some of her other roles. It’s no surprise she’s earned the nickname of “the Sci-Fi Queen.”