My lack of posts here is partly related to real-life stresses and partly because of another project I was working on, but most of all because I wasn’t sure who to write about next. There are plenty more women of sci-fi and fantasy, of course, but which one could I ramble on about with delighted enthusiasm? And then I re-watched an old favorite movie with my family, and the answer was obvious – Jean from The Court Jester.
It’s always a bit of a gamble watching old films from an era when open, unapologetic sexism was a common feature of society and pop culture. It would seem a rather safe assumption that in a 1956 film that offers a riff on Robin Hood folklore, with a popular actor playing the hero, the women wouldn’t be given much to do other than swoon, need rescuing, and look beautiful. The Court Jester tears those assumptions apart.
Sure, there’s a bit of swooning and rescuing, and plenty of beautiful women. But their role is hardly limited to that. We have a very young (and already very talented) Angela Lansbury playing the usurping king’s daughter Gwendolyn, who has such delightful exchanges as this with her father:
“I am the king. If it pleases me, you will marry Griswold.”
“If it pleases you so much, you marry Griswold.”
She has a rather hyperactive sense of drama, too. Just check out the outfit she puts on when she’s threatening her handmaid with poison.
Black upon black, but don’t forget to wear the crown on top! Tee hee. The handmaid, Griselda, is a fun character as well, a witch with powers of hypnosis (leading to quite a few hilarious plot twists), her own personal agenda of survival, and a tendency to poison her enemies.
Then there’s Jean. This is what she’s wearing upon her first appearance, having just swung heroically into the scene by vine.
I wish I could have found a picture with a full view. It’s not a dress – she’s wearing men’s clothing. She’s addressed as “Captain” and no one questions for a moment that she is a competent, trained military leader in their rebellion.
Later, we see that the main character, Danny Kaye’s Hawkins, is uncomfortable around her not because of her stereotypically masculine role, but because he’s not a fighter himself, tasked instead with entertaining the rebels and caring for the infant who will one day be restored to his rightful throne. He has feelings for Jean, you see, and assumes that she would never be interested in a man who wasn’t a warrior. When they go into disguise to take the baby into hiding, there is a scene with a surprising amount of gender role subversion. Hawkins is tenderly singing the baby to sleep, and Jean is clearly moved by it. When he voices his concern – “I find it hard to believe that the Captain could ever be fond of a man who isn’t a fighter” she replies, “Sometimes tenderness and kindness also make a man, a very rare man.”
Then she goes on to describe how her father shaped her, teaching her to hate injustice, to know the use of weapons and combat. “In fact, I really think he wanted me to be a boy” she finishes just before they kiss. Afterwards Hawkins says breathlessly, “Too bad. You’d have made a wonderful girl.”
And this might be the point in a modern movie wherein the female love interest, having proven that she’s more than a helpless damsel in distress, is free to step back and let the male hero have his triumph while she does next to nothing. I’ve seen this trend play out in an alarming number of movies recently, and it’s very disappointing. Look up “Trinity Syndrome” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
This does not happen with Jean and Hawkins. Yes, Hawkins has an important heroic role to play, impersonating the Court Jester, but so does Jean, and there’s never any need for her to diminish her heroics just to bolster his. When she’s unwillingly taken to the palace with the “wenches” being rounded up around the countryside (the usurping king is disgustingly lecherous on top of his other faults) she seizes the opportunity to infiltrate his quarters, steal a secret key and send that and crucial information along to the rebellion. She displays remarkable skills of subterfuge and cunning along with her fighting prowess. There’s a marvelous ploy wherein she fights off the king’s advances after she’s gotten the key from him.
King: Would you grant the king a little kiss?
Jean: Oh, certainly, sire, and don’t worry. They say it isn’t catching.
King: Oh, you are a little… catching?
Jean: Just because it runs in the family doesn’t mean that everyone has it. Kiss me, sire!
King: Has it? Has what?
Jean: Don’t I please you, sire?
King: Oh, yes, yes, but, eh, these brothers and cousins and uncles…
Jean: And aunts. But let us not talk about their swollen, twisted, pain ridden bodies. Hold me, take me in your arms, tell me I am yours!
King: But this, this uh writhing on the floor…
Jean: In agony.
King: How – how does one catch this thing?
Jean: Oh, the touch of a hand, the brush of a lip, but let us not spoil this moment!
King: What is this dreadful thing called?
Jean: Breckenridge’s Scourge.
King: Who’s Breckenridge?
Jean: My father.
There is a bit of a love triangle thanks to Griselda’s hypnotic machinations, wherein Gwendolyn believes the Court Jester is in love with her, but Jean, though confused, doesn’t devolve into petty jealousy. She knows something weird is going on, and all of that can wait until they’ve addressed their first priorities of overthrowing the tyrant and saving England.
She does plenty in the final battle, taking out the guard to open the gate to the rebels and sending a fair share of enemies into the moat. At no point is she waiting helplessly to be rescued – more often, she’s looking for ways to rescue Hawkins. I’ve watched this film enough times to have memorized large portions of it, and yet I was struck afresh with how remarkable this character is. How do we not have more characters like Maid Jean nowadays? We really ought to. But at least we’ll always have The Court Jester.