Women of Speculative Fiction: Matilda

It seems pretty typical for children to go through a stage of being fascinated with the grotesque, the grisly and the macabre. (Some, of course, remain in that stage even as adults, which is why horror is a vibrant genre outside of children’s literature.) For young readers, however, there is a particular appeal in finding books that satisfy this fascination without being overwhelmingly horrifying or scary. Roald Dahl’s books provide an entire sub-genre of this sort of material. He creates worlds that are simultaneously fanciful and gruesome, where children face awful threats yet manage to emerge victorious.

When I went through my brief stage of enjoying grotesque things, my favorite Road Dahl books were The BFG and Matilda. It’s not too surprising to note that they both feature female protagonists. Sophie, the heroine who becomes acquainted with the Big Friendly Giant, is appealing enough – thoughtful, sensitive and resourceful, creating a plan to defeat the malicious giants who terrorize children. It was Matilda Wormwood, however, who really delighted me.

Young readers will find it fairly easy to identify with her. She loves books and the escape they provide. She reads through the entire children’s section of the library before kindergarten. She is excited about school and adores her supportive teacher, Miss Honey, but quickly becomes bored when the material isn’t enough to challenge her. She has no support at home, so she must take her own initiative and find helpful resources elsewhere. And for the people who belittle her, underestimate her, and bully her, she finds some truly delightful ways to retaliate.

As with many of Dahl’s stories, the villains are absurd caricatures – her father, a blustering, vain, deceitful used car salesman; her mother, neglectful, lazy and empty-headed; and most of all Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress who literally flings children around and tortures them with all sorts of appallingly cruel punishments. It’s unlikely a real life child would encounter adults quite so cartoonishly awful as this (let’s certainly hope not!) but they are effective exaggerations of what a child can feel when the grown-ups in their lives are unsupportive or even antagonistic. It’s very satisfying to watch a child get the better of them.

For Matilda is brilliant to the point of supernatural powers. Without an ordinary outlet for her intelligence, she discovers that her mental energies can be funneled into straight-up telekinesis. And she uses this power to defeat the evil Miss Trunchbull and give Miss Honey the justice she deserves. A kindergartener saving the day with a super-powered brain? There’s a pretty apt fantasy for gifted children to indulge in. It takes place amid a truly dreadful world of abusive parents and violent authority figures, yet it is those horrors that make Matilda’s victory all the more satisfying, and all the more reassuring for children trying to make sense of an ordinary world that sometimes seems just as terrifying.


Women of Speculative Fiction: Shu Lien and Jen

When I first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it presented a world that was entirely new to me. I had almost no familiarity with martial arts films or Chinese cinema (I still don’t have much, honestly), and I had to glean what understanding I could through context clues.

I absolutely loved it. I’d probably have fond memories of it in any case, since my husband and I saw it in the theater for one of our first dates, but it turned out to be an almost perfect date movie. Action-packed, breathtaking stunts and visuals, as well as a strong emotional core and powerful themes. Tragedy, humor, romance…and several very memorable female characters.

One of the strongest motifs of the film is that of duality, particularly the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. The two main female characters represent these extremes, and the cost of each. Shu Lien is a model of restraint and decorum, to the point that she has denied herself any chance at a life with the man she loves. As they grow old, they begin to regret that they adhered so strictly to the rules of propriety keeping them apart.

But nor is the opposite the ideal. Jen is rash, impulsive, acting on her emotions with very little thought. She has an impassioned romance with a desert thief, but her fraught emotions imperil any lasting happiness with him. The answer, it seems, must lie somewhere in the middle, seeking a balance between thoughtful restraint and emotional impulse.

Oh, and also? These women are incredible fighters. Just look at this, and this. Phenomenal.

In the world of the film, only men are permitted to train in the mystic, gravity-defying skills taught at Wudan Mountain. It’s not explicitly stated where Shu Lien learned to fight, but Jen learned secretly from the bitter woman Jade Fox. Even her apparently straightforward villainy seems a bit more sympathetic when she points out the hypocrisy of Wudan using women as whores but not allowing them to learn their teachings. Her relationship with Jen is like a distorted mirror of the girl’s growing friendship with Shu Lien. Jade Fox and Jen might be teacher and student, but they don’t trust each other at all, and betrayal is at the heart of their connection. Shu Lien, meanwhile, recognizes in Jen what she could have been, and feels a pressing need to guide her to something better. Thanks to Jen’s pride and volatile emotions, their relationship is incredibly rocky, but all the more compelling for it.

The film probably raises more questions than it answers. What role does Jen really play in all of this? Hero, villain…a soul in need of saving? What does the ending of the film mean? (I won’t get specific, for the sake of not spoiling it, but it’s pretty surreal.) Was Shu Lien right or wrong in her choices? Is there any hope for a woman’s happiness in a society that constricts her so much? But those questions are so much fun to explore, and the film is always worth a re-watch. It doesn’t matter if a movie is in a foreign language with a wholly unfamiliar landscape of culture and storytelling – if it has female characters like these, I will love it forever.