Women of Speculative Fiction: Madeleine L’Engle

The story of Madeleine L’Engle’s writing career might provide some encouragement to those aspiring authors in their 20s and 30s who wonder if they should just give up. She was a bright child, writing her first story at age five, but she struggled in school regardless, and her first two decades of adulthood brought no publishing success. By her 40th birthday, she had determined to abandon writing. Four years later her first novel (her resolution didn’t stick, obviously) was published. A Wrinkle in Time went on to win a Newbery Medal; it continues to hold a special place among fantasy/sci-fi children’s books quite a few decades later. She wrote dozens more, and her career spanned decades before she died in in 2007.

What is so special about A Wrinkle in Time? A large part of its appeal surely comes from Meg Murry, a protagonist who any intelligent but awkward girl could relate to. L’Engle was doubtless drawing on her own experiences as a young social misfit. How many of us have yearned to be understood and appreciated as Meg does, not in spite of our peculiarities and nerdiness but because of them? And it is Meg’s very uniqueness that allows her to be the hero of the story, saving her father and brother and bringing them safely home. She does have help from others – the dreamy Calvin O’Keefe (a rather obvious wish fulfillment, but hey, it works) – and the mysterious, otherworldly Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit.

The story is extravagantly bizarre, there’s no question of that – nor any doubt of why it was rejected thirty times before finding a publisher. There are arcane discussions of tesseracts, of traveling vast distances across dimensions. There are unicorns and many-tentacled creatures, a sinister planet whose citizens are compelled to live in utter conformity, and a giant pulsing evil brain. It’s weird, and it’s wonderful.

It is also religious, with frank acknowledgement of good and evil. L’Engle was an Episcopalian with a fervent belief in universal salvation. Her books have subsequently been disliked and/or outright banned both by some Christians and some non-religious critics, disapproving of her particular religious agenda. It’s not so specific or overt in her first novel as in later books (A Swiftly Tiling Planet, for instance, carries a troubling implication of genetic pre-determinism, and Many Waters depicts the Biblical story of Noah’s flood with some very peculiar, ofttimes unsettling interpretations), which is perhaps one of the reasons why A Wrinkle in Time continues to be the most popular.

When I was a young reader, however, it was nothing short of miraculous to find a book that celebrated a girl who was smart, shy but determined; who loved her nerdy family intensely; who was able to play a crucial role in the fight against evil in the universe. Meg was the kind of person I hoped I was, who I wanted to be as a child. And L’Engle’s imaginative, sensitive, prolific writing is something I’d be happy to emulate as an adult.


Women of Speculative Fiction: Peggy Carter

Being the girlfriend of a superhero is not always the greatest position for a woman. She is frequently cast in the role of a damsel needing to be rescued, or worse, a victim who exists primarily so she can die and motivate the hero. Yikes. Fortunately, with more nuanced portrayals, this does not need to be the case. She can be a fully-fleshed character in her own right, with purposes beyond supporting and inspiring the protagonist. In rare cases, she even gets to take on the protagonist role herself.

So it is with the film/TV version of Peggy Carter, one-time love interest of Captain America. It’s interesting to examine how her character was afforded the opportunity to be more than a damsel in distress. Her origins in the comic books hint at some promising possibilities, as someone with fighter training who was involved with the French resistance. Still, since most of Captain America’s story occurs after his revival, decades after World War II, Peggy is mostly a distant, under-developed figure of his past.

In the 2011 Captain America film her character, portrayed by Hayley Atwell, was reinvented as a British member of the SSR (the fictitious Strategic Scientific Reserve), a tough and highly capable part of the team responsible for Steve Roger’s transformation into a super-soldier. Yes, she is clearly his designated potential girlfriend, but she has plenty to do on her own. There were a few exceptions that made me roll my eyes a little, most of all the contrived moment when another random woman yanks Steve into a kiss and Peggy becomes disproportionately furious with him, even though they’re not really a couple yet. Overall, however, I was pleased with her portrayal. She was my favorite of all the women introduced as love interests in the Marvel cinematic universe.

With Steve reawakening seventy years after WWII, it looked like Peggy wouldn’t have much chance to be a part of the story anymore. She’s made a few cameos, aged to match the passage of time. What else could be done? Well, with a few hints here and there about her work in the SSR and eventual founding of S.H.I.E.L.D., it became pretty clear that those post-WWII years had the potential for plenty of fascinating storylines, and they could focus on Peggy rather than any male heroes, super or otherwise. Atwell starred in a short titled “Agent Carter” hinting at that potential, and the powers that be recognized that potential well enough to order a TV series.

Agent Carter had eight episodes in its first season and ten in its second; a third season hasn’t yet been confirmed. But what it’s already done is considerable. Peggy has no superpowers, but she is perfectly compelling on her own – a formidable fighter, highly resourceful, able to think fast on her feet, and doggedly determined to do her best in the face of 1940s sexism.

Romance does play a part, though it’s not the primary focus. In the first season Peggy, believing Steve to be dead, must grieve him and move on with her life. Once this is done, she’s given not one but two romantic interests in the second season. But there’s so much more for her to deal with. Finding her place in a male-dominated sphere, gaining the trust of her colleagues, forging friendships while having to keep her identity as a spy secret, forging alliances, solving mysteries, and uncovering conspiracies.

Thought Peggy is the strong center of the show, a number of elements bolster the show’s entertainment value. The comic book elements are strong, with Howard Stark providing a number of over-the-top inventions with pseudo-sciencey names like “nitramene.” There are secret agents and scary explosions and good old-fashioned fisticuffs. It’s set in a version of the 1940s with all the fashion, music and aesthetic of that era. (Unfortunately there hasn’t been much to address the racism of the time, and even when one of Peggy’s possible love interests is a black man, there’s barely a passing acknowledgement that their relationship would be almost universally considered taboo.)

Thankfully, Agent Carter does not fall prey to the all-too-common trope of denigrating “ordinary” women to show how amazing and different and “not like them” the heroine is. Her friend Angie from season one is an aspiring actress working as a waitress, and she doesn’t need any tremendous skills to be a support, a confidante and a likable character in her own right. And both seasons contain female villains who adroitly use the fact that they are women to accomplish their aims rather than being impaired by it. Both of them are quite terrifying.

Also nice is the partnership between Peggy and Stark’s butler Jarvis, a platonic relationship that is all too rare between men and women in movies or television. Jarvis is wildly devoted to his wife (a great character in her own right) and there’s never an inkling of romance between him and Peggy. They have a fantastic dynamic entirely devoid of romantic tension. It’s funny, endearing and arguably one of the best parts of the show.

Let’s hope for more seasons, and more shows giving well-developed female characters the kind of focus they deserve. They’ve certainly earned it.


Women of Speculative Fiction: Padmé Amidala

I’ve never been shy about expressing my love for the Star Wars saga, and that includes all six movies. (It does not include a certain film from 2015 which we will not be discussing here). Among the many things I appreciate about the prequels is an obvious effort at greater diversity, both in gender and in race. It’s in keeping with spirit of the originals. After all, if you can have a galaxy populated with every imaginable alien species, wouldn’t it be plausible for women and non-whites to be equally prevalent as well?

Of course, being a prequel story, there were some necessary looks for certain characters. Obi-Wan would need to look like a young Alec Guinness, Luke and Leia’s relatives would need to bear a convincing resemblance to them, and so forth. But when their look isn’t constrained by the future storyline, there is far more variety. There are Panaka and Typho, both of the captains leading Naboo’s security; there is Mace Windu, a powerful member of the Jedi Council; Kitster, Anakin’s boyhood friend on Tatooine; Bail Organa and his wife Breha, Leia’s eventual adoptive parents; and Jamillia and Apailana, two queens of Naboo other than Amidala. We even discover that the face beneath every stormtrooper helmet belongs to Jango Fett, their father-by-cloning, portrayed by Maori actor Temuera Morrison.

And then there’s the women. Let’s face it – Princess Leia’s awesomeness notwithstanding, the original trilogy set a pretty low bar in terms of female representation. It would have been easy to do better than that, but the prequels go well above and beyond. Queens, courtiers, handmaidens (do not underestimate the awesomeness of highly skilled bodyguards disguised as unassuming maids – I could write an entire post just about them), slaves, farmers, assassins, pilots, senators, socialites, Jedi…Women are not only present, they are essential.

Thematically, it makes sense. These films explore, among other things, the nature of life, symbiosis, and dual natures. Mothers are of vital importance. We are provided with the fascinating contrast of Anakin, the boy without a father, and Boba, the boy without a mother. As a child, Anakin is kind and caring, steeped in the principles of selflessness that his mother Shmi (portrayed by Pernilla August) has taught him. Young Boba is already rather sullen and hard, delighting in violence. They are both robbed of their only parent and start down dark paths, but Boba’s is a simple revenge quest, while Anakin’s path is far more tortuous and far less inevitable, requiring enormous temptation to finally lure him from the way of goodness that his mother taught him. This is not to imply the false, simplistic dichotomy that mothers raise good children and fathers raise bad ones! It is more that Shmi was given the peculiar gift of Anakin through whatever mystic will of the Force designated her as the mother of the Chosen One, while Jango chose to use unnatural, fundamentally selfish means to have a son he wouldn’t have to share with another parent; literally a copy of himself.

In the original trilogy, it’s all about fathers and sons. We have just one brief mention of a mother from Leia in Return of the Jedi. But that little mention was expanded into a tale where two of the most important people in Anakin’s life are women; his mother and his wife. Of course the absence of a father is also part of what drives him, perpetually seeking father figures in Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and, tragically, the evil Palpatine. But his relationship with his mother is crucial. And so with his wife (portrayed by Natalie Portman), Padmé Amidala.

Again, I will make no secret of the fact that Padmé is very high on my list of favorite characters. I would guess that at least 50% of the Star Wars fanfic I’ve written is from her point of view, probably more. Strap yourselves in. This is one of my favorite topics, and I’m not going to skimp on it.

I find it sad that people’s dislike of the prequels leaves Padmé under-appreciated, or at least has them dismissing her as Vader’s victim, weak and uninteresting. Quite the contrary with me. I’ve been fascinated with her identity long before she had a name or a face, ever since that cryptic, “Very beautiful…and kind…but sad,” that Leia spoke in Episode VI. Who could she be? Did she love Vader? What happened to their relationship? How did she die?

And I applaud Lucas for creating a compelling character in her own right. The only thing she had to be, for continuity’s sake, was the mother of Luke and Leia. He could have focused on Anakin and kept her a side character love interest, or worse. Instead, her journey provides the driving force behind most of Episode I and Episode II, and her diminishment and death in Episode III highlights the heartbreaking tragedy of the prequels.

Episode I is all about Queen Amidala’s quest to break the Trade Federation’s hold on her planet. Qui-Gon Jinn could perhaps be seen as the point of view character, but it is certainly her story as much as his. As a political idealist and freedom fighter, Padmé reminds us of Leia. But she’s not merely a reflection of her. This is a different time, not a period of civil war but the beginning of unease and corruption encroaching upon a peaceful, prosperous Republic. Padmé is more genteel, both in her elaborate costumes and her manner. As Queen Amidala she is formal and formidable, a fourteen-year-old who rules an entire planet. Some of her backstory from deleted scenes states that she started her political career after time spent aiding refugees. I can easily imagine young Padmé like the many teenaged social justice warriors who popular the Internet nowadays, speaking passionately against injustice with probably not a great deal of tact or maturity. In the Skywalkers’ home she seems ready to go on a rant against slavery before Shmi gently cuts her off and reminds her that impassioned ideals aren’t quite enough to save the universe.

Let’s talk about about her dual identity. I doubt most audience members are ever fooled by the “two” characters of Padmé and Amidala, but that’s not really the point. The point is to draw out the theme of duality. There are two sides to everything, and the ideal is find balance between the two. Amidala is powerful; Padmé is compassionate. Neither can function without the other. In the moment of truth when they are pleading with the Gungan leader to help them take back their planet, Padmé Amidala must reveal her guise and reclaim both sides of herself. Only then is she able to prevail, just as the Naboo and Gungan peoples only achieve victory by working together as one. Lack of balance leads to chaos, pain and even selfish parasitism, which is the way of the Dark Side.

Padmé’s not quite as much a spitfire as Leia, but when she wants to speak her mind, she doesn’t hesitate. She spends much of their time on Tatooine fuming at Qui-Gon for taking such risks in his plans to get their ship repaired. As Amidala, addressing a complacent Senate, she snaps, “I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee!” When words aren’t enough to save Naboo, she moves into action, acknowledging the value of the Gungans, facilitating an alliance with them, and formulating a sophisticated battle plan with multiple diversions and contingencies to capture the Federation’s Viceroy. Like her daughter, when she has a weapon in hand she rarely misses.

Her romance with Anakin in Episode II is framed by continued emphasis on her considerable skills and influence. She is now a representative for Naboo in the vast Senate of the Republic, such an outspoken voice that she has become the target of assassins. We discover toward the end of the film that it is actually the Federation Viceroy who wants her dead. He is still enraged, ten years later, at how handily she robbed him of his victory. Padmé doesn’t need a bodyguard because she is weak or helpless; she needs one because she refuses to take the safe path in her political career.

But as Padmé and Anakin’s romance plays out during their time in hiding, we can see that her idealistic fervor has come with a price – she has rarely allowed herself any personal indulgences. She, like Anakin in his monastic Jedi training, is starved for simple pleasures like admiring the beauty of a shining lake, having a picnic in a meadow, sharing a kiss. The “forbidden” aspect of their courtship is intriguing because the forces that would keep them apart are not external or fully out of their control. Unlike the prototypical star-crossed couple of Romeo and Juliet and their families’ feud (whose tale, I believe, is only romantic if you think idiotic, teenage impetuousness is the height of romance), Padmé and Anakin could choose to undo the circumstances that forbid their romance. Theoretically, she could retire from the political sphere; he could peaceably resign from the Jedi Order. But neither one of them consider it, because those roles of service and duty are deeply important to them, a fundamental part of their characters. Once again, we see dual natures, this time brought into a conflict that will eventually lead to a tragic fracture.

From the moment Padmé confesses her love to Anakin until her death, there will be an uneasy struggle to keep the two parts of her life in balance with each other. She is clearly happy with him in the time prior to his fall, but only at the expense of keeping their marriage a secret and risking both their careers. (I do wish they hadn’t cut the scenes portraying her involvement in a movement against Palpatine’s growing powers, though her political fervor still comes through well enough.) Her pregnancy only complicates things further. Then Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side proves too great a fracture to repair.

I can certainly understand complaints that the nature of her death weakens her character. The medical droids claim she “lost the will to live,” a frustratingly vague statement that could mean anything from the melodramatic wasting away of old-timey, fragile heroines to a selfish abandonment of her children. None of that is consistent with her character. I expect she was fighting against death with all her might. It’s not weakness to be devastated by tremendous emotional anguish – from losing her beloved Republic to realizing Palpatine had never been her friend to finally enduring the misplaced rage of her husband. People have actually had their hearts give out under immense pains just like that.

We knew Padmé would have to die at some point. There is a certain poetry in the simultaneity of its portrayal; the death of Anakin/birth of Vader intercut with the birth of the twins/the death of Padmé. It’s also tremendously compelling that his fall to the Dark Side circled entirely around a desperation to keep her from dying, a conundrum straight out of a Greek drama. He foresaw her death, tried to prevent it, and by so doing set up the very circumstances that would bring about her death.  Anakin is horribly misguided and succumbs to his lust for power and control, but his initial motivator, like all tragic flaws, came from a pure source. Flawed though it may have been, his relationship with Padmé was born of love. Luke and Leia’s origin is one of love. And love will save him in the end.

It might seem unfortunate that Padmé’s role in the prequels is ultimately that of a victim. But the truth is, before the prequels, the mysterious mother was already a victim. Nameless and faceless, long gone. Now we know who she was. Padmé’s voice is not silenced. With her final breath she asserts that there is still good in Anakin, and it’s passed along like a spiritual birthright to her son. Luke is not just his father’s son. (Nor is Leia only her mother’s daughter…it seems she inherited her father’s rash temper…) Whether he consciously remembers her or not, Luke carries the truth of her words within him, until he is finally able to reach out to Anakin and bring him back to the light. I believe it wasn’t just his son’s face that Anakin wanted to see with his own eyes, right before he died. It was Padmé too. She lives on in her children and in her legacy of strength and love.