Strong

It’s time for a rant.

We are living in a marvelous era of compelling female characters. Thanks to the outcries of a vocal audience of girls and women, along with a (slowly) increasing willingness to support female storytellers, we see princesses who don’t need rescuing, women warriors who save the day with maybe just a little help from their male sidekick and/or love interest, and so many more narratives for ladies that revolve around something other than romance.

That’s great. But I’m mightily peeved by the oversimplification that can arise from such stories. One of them is a meme that was making the rounds and causing me an irrational amount of anger. It pictured Robin Wright’s Amazon character from Wonder Woman and Carrie Fisher’s recent portrayal of Leia Organa, with a caption saying something like “So great to see my childhood princesses become generals.”

Now, obviously, I’m going to be over-sensitive about this, since I have opinions about Disney’s current batch of Star Wars films, oh boy do I ever. But stick with me; I’m going somewhere other than just another bash-fest about Disney Space Movie (though a little bashing is inevitable).

I realize that when it comes to memes, we’re not really looking for a complicated explication of character development. We’re looking for something pithy, easily understood and easily passed along. I get it. But SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET AND I HAVE TO FIX IT. Ahem.

First off, the comparison of the two pictures is misleading, since we’re talking about two completely different characters for Robin Wright. Princess Buttercup was part of a very memorable movie, but alas, not much more can be said for her. She has a few awesome moments, like jumping out of the ship to escape her kidnappers or shoving (she believes) her lover’s murderer down a steep hillside, but for the most part she is the object of desire between Westley and Humperdink, acted upon rather than doing the acting. So of course playing a fierce warrior in Wonder Woman is going to be a major upgrade.

Leia, however, was already awesome. She was fantastic long before she changed titles. And if you want my excessively biased opinion, she was way better as a princess. Because she upturned every single expectation of the damsel in distress. Yes, Luke and Han rescue her on the Death Star, but she’s not weeping helplessly in her cell. She had willingly embarked on what was basically a suicide mission, transporting the space station’s stolen plans while pursued by Darth Vader himself. She’d done everything she could to get those plans into the right hands before being captured, and she subsequently refused to betray the location of her fellow Rebels even under torture and threat of death. She doesn’t want to die, but she’s ready to face it.

Then, when she sees the possibility of escaping, she takes charge from the two lunkheads who didn’t plan a way out. She’s resourceful, inventive and daring; she has a snappy retort for every attempted insult or disparagement. From the moment she showed up on movie screens, Princess Leia was a revolution. And she didn’t have to change her title to do it.

To be frank, General Leia is just sad. All her supposed awesomeness is implied but never proven. It’s lazy writing, frankly, giving her a new title as a shorthand for character development. Instead, her role is a massive disappointment that turns all her triumphs in the original trilogy into tragedy. Most of her scenes are reactions to something yet another man has done to screw up her life, either her son or her lover (husband? the movie never tells us) or her brother. She’s someone that men have abandoned. That’s the primary thing that defines her, reacting to things that other people do. What a sad, sad, removal from the woman full of determination and hope at the end of the original trilogy. It breaks my heart to know that Carrie Fisher’s health issues required a somewhat subdued role and ultimately stole away her chance to finish the trilogy. It breaks my heart especially because the fiery, inspiring, trope-defying princess was replaced with…a general. That’s a demotion. Princess hire generals and tell them what to do!

I could pontificate on what I would have rather seen (JEDI MASTER LEIA, COME ON PEOPLE) but instead, I’ll explore why we all seem to accept it as a given that being a general is an upgrade in awesomeness. It’s a military rank. It implies fighting prowess as well as leadership. Well, those are all fine. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that only men can be generals. Heavens, no. What I do find troubling is that we’ve been fed the lie that traditionally masculine roles are the strongest and the most worth doing. And now that we’re seeking more stories about strong women, which is great, we’re leaning heavily toward giving women characters only those traditionally masculine roles. Which is not so great. Because there are so many different ways to be strong.

Something that I’ve always loved about Princess Leia is that for all her toughness, she’s also warm, caring and gentle. She comforts Luke upon the loss of Obi-Wan (even though, for heaven’s sake, she’s just lost a whole planet). She values her relationships and connections with others. You get the sense that even while she’s a highly competent fighter and leader in the Rebellion, she’d really rather be a diplomat. A peacekeeper. Like her mother.

And Padmé’s character was not universally well-received like her daughter was. There are plenty of reasons for that, and I can’t possibly explore all of them, but I suspect that part of it came from the audacity of giving Padmé softer roles. Like falling in love rather rashly. And spending most of the third film being pregnant. And dying from the sheer emotional weight of her entire universe imploding, how dare she. Even though there are plenty of instances showcasing her strength and courage (for example, passing along a heritage of hope to her children with her dying breath), they are too often overlooked because she doesn’t enter every situation with guns a-blazing and a steady supply of witty one-liners. Would people have been more excited if she was General Amidala? Maybe. But I, for one, am very glad she wasn’t.

I find her portrayal to be quite inspiring. Not that I’m looking to follow Padmé’s unfortunate trajectory, but I appreciate the notion there are different kinds of strength. And sometimes, strong as we are, we can be overwhelmed. That doesn’t make us weak. It just means we live in a hard world. It’s all right to cry. It’s all right to be soft. It’s all right if you’d rather be an diplomat than a warrior. Sometimes the situation calls for a sword (or lightsaber) and sometimes the situation calls for an impassioned speech. Or a helping hand. Or kind words, or a smile.

I understand that fighting prowess can serve as metaphor for other kinds of strength in storytelling, particularly in fantasy, but I fear that we’re taking it a little too literally. I fear that we tend to demean anyone who’s not particularly keen on violence. And me? I can play around with toy swords and sabers, but I’m about as physically imposing as a goldfish. I don’t have that kind of strength. I do strive, however, to cultivate a different kind of emotional endurance and resilience. And that’s a trait of all my favorite characters, female or otherwise.

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Fear

“People who are governed by fear are the most dangerous sort of all…Worse than anger…far worse than envy or bloodlust. In fact, you might say that every other dangerous emotion has its true roots in fear. Never underestimate a fearful man.”

This is from my novel Mimic. There is a definite irony in the context of who is speaking, and to whom (he’s manipulating her for his selfish purposes, enabled by her fear that he’ll reveal her secret), but I think it carries truth nonetheless. I’m also quite fond of Yoda’s iconic words from Episode I: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” Of course appropriate fear, perhaps better termed caution, is essential to protect one from unnecessarily endangering one’s self or others.  But in excess, it is debilitating, mind-clouding, even dangerous. I believe that the less I am governed by fear, the better my life will be.

So how’s this for irony: I spent a lot of my time feeling terrified.

I worry about my children. That’s perfectly normal for a mother, especially when one of the children has special needs. I worry about our house falling apart and how we’re going to pay for repairs. I worry about running out of money; also fairly typical for a family living off the single income of a school teacher. I would say one of the main things I discuss with my therapist is how to fight off the crushing anxiety that weighs on me. Well, at least I’m working on it.

But I’m functioning. I’m doing my best to confront adulthood even if I’d rather hide under the bed like a three-year-old. It’s another set of fears that’s on my mind right now. The fears that keep from me putting my work out there for other people to see.

The fear of rejection. The fear of ridicule. The fear of achieving only the infamy of public mockery — or the fear of not getting any notice at all. These fears are truly crippling. I long to be published; it’s the only career I could feel really passionate about, even if I never become more than a mid-list author. And yet I hesitate to send out more queries, fearing that I’ll ruin my chance with another set of agents. Fearing that one more round of form rejections will have me so depressed that I’ll just give up on it forever. (And yet if I’m not querying, haven’t I already as good as given up?)

Even with my sillier hobbies, I fear to put it out there. Fear that for every person who enjoys the goofy Star Wars video I made, there were be some nasty troll. That there will be more snide laughter than good-natured chuckling. I am constantly torn between wanting so much to share what I’ve created and cringing in terror at the very notion of it. I’m not sure if the Internet has made this mindset better or worse. I find it delightful that I can post fan fiction and gain a following of readers who happily provide immediate feedback. I’ve also tortured myself if I post something and don’t get any replies within the first half hour. I’m sure without the Internet, my neuroses would find some other way to manifest. But anyway.

I suppose it would be helpful for me to acknowledge what I’ve been able to do, in spite of my fears. I’ve sent out plenty of queries. I’ve gritted my teeth through the rejections and sent out more. I’ve gotten helpful suggestions from beta readers and hunkered down to do revisions, even though I loathe revisions and sometimes truly fear that I’ll just make my book worse by trying to fix it. I’ve put some of my creations out there, fannish or otherwise, and weathered the negative responses along with the positive. It helps that I haven’t really encountered any trolls yet. But when I do, I’ll just have to remind myself not to listen to their voices, any more than I should listen to the little troll inside my own head whose name is Fear. I’ll finish with another quote, from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”