Friday, March 09, 2007

Amy Reads the Week (of March 9th, 2007)

Super-Spectacular Women’s History Month Edition #2!

I am a Comic Book Fan, Gentle Reader, a fact with which I’m sure you are quite familiar. But being a Comic Book Fan comes with a lot of fandom baggage. No, no, I don’t mean Fanboy Versus Fangirl in the ready-to-rumble internets throw-down of the century! Rather, I mean it usually comes with fandom of other media or genres, as well. That is to say, Fandom Baggage means that I like Comic Books, and Science Fiction, and some part Fantasy, and a little part Video Games, and the teeniest part RPG—although our Serenity game has never quite gotten off the ground, I’m sad to say.

Whenever I think of my fandoms, I often see them all as different ornaments on the same tree. I like fiction. It’s the largest part of what I read, both professionally and personally, and in particular, I like somewhat fantastical fiction. Not fantasy fiction, per se, though I don’t *mind* it. And not hardcore science fiction, per se, although again, I don’t *mind* it. But for This Humble Author, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wins out over Xena the Warrior Princess, and Ursula Le Guin wins out over JRR Tolkien, and Battlestar Galactica wins out over Star Trek: Any Of Them, and Starbuck (Captain Kara Thrace) wins out over Anita Blake, any damn day of the week.

A week or so ago, 100LittleDolls tagged me on a meme, Video Game Covers I Want to See. The purpose of this meme was to determine what game covers appealed, specifically, to women, and my next post will finally (finally!) respond to this tag.

I find this meme fascinating on various levels, but most importantly, for the objective of the question. Women, as much as men, play video games, although the stereotype seems to suggest differently. Certainly, many video game covers seem to appeal to those-who-are-attracted-to-women, but further, many of these covers seem to appeal to those who, in some fashion or another, are intrigued by the notion of Strong Women With Weapons.

Perhaps I’m used to this in the Comic Book Universe; several—if not most—women in comics either have weapons, or are weapons themselves. But outside of the comic book arena—that is to say, outside of the most fantastical of the fantastic—we see a continuation of this sort of image. Buffy was not only a weapon herself, but also utilized all sorts of weapons including This Humble Author’s Personal Favorite, from season 2, a rocket launcher. Xena quite famously had her sword (and what people had to say about that Sword, Freudian-wise!), Kara Thrace has her very large, very long, very-certainly-shaped jet. And isn’t that the kicker, Gentle Reader? With all of these images of women with weapons, whether they be swords, rocket launchers, or planes, we always get the Freudian backlash. That is, a woman has a very long, very-certainly-shaped weapon, and therefore that weapon, by process of elimination, must be a substitute phallus.

This suggests that women can never have power of their own. That women must always usurp masculine power, best represented by a suggestive masculine shape, in order to gain any power whatsoever. In line with the Hero/Heroine discussion I offered last week, this becomes yet another part of the Batman/Batwoman, Superman/Supergirl discussion. The woman cannot exist without the man; the woman gains her powers and weapons from the man; the woman’s weapons must retain a masculine ideal because her Sex Which Is Not One (gratitude, Irigaray) must *become* one, in order to have any power whatsoever.

In short, when I started to view video game covers in order to answer 100LittleDolls’ meme, I noticed a plethora of Women With Swords. Or, rather, I noticed that I, in particular, was attracted to games with Women With Swords on the covers.

Now, I know enough about myself to assume that this attraction has little—if nothing—to do with usurpation of masculine strength. I don’t view the sword as a gender transgression, or a female grasp for power of a male representation of masculinity. But I find sword usage to be Quite Fascinating, if for nothing else than it requires some skill. Now, I understand that my idea of swordplay skill is certainly colored by my lack-of-knowledge, and that sharpshooters would certainly disagree with my easy dismissal of skill-in-gun-fighting. But we, as a society, tend to dismiss gun-fighting as a particular skill as we look back, back, always back to What Came Before.

For us, it seems, the Sword is Romantic. It suggests a time pre-Crisis, weapons-Crisis, that is! A simpler time (that pre-public-sanitation simpler time we have romanticized), a kinder time (that pre-women’s rights kinder time we have romanticized), a better time (who is to say if it’s better or worse?). What the swords seems to represent is complicated, surely, but it also suggests a time before The Bomb. Before one button could be pushed to end Life As We Know It. The sword is up-close-and-personal. The sword is a hand-to-hand combat item. The sword requires that there be two people, both with weapons, fighting face-to-face. There is an intimacy there that we can rarely, if ever, match today.

But the Woman-With-Sword image that we see, so very often, is even more complicated than this. Certainly there is the stereotypical image discussed earlier, but there is more to it than that. There is Catherine Zeta-Jones fencing in Zorro. There is Rory Gilmore fencing with her classmates in Gilmore Girls. There is Buffy, fighting off Angel (one of those from that Sword-Era-Gone-By, even!) in hand-to-hand combat. In Sci Fi, and even in Plain Old Drama, there is, to put it mildly, a slight obsession with women with swords.

And I, too, succumb to it. I have my Wonder Woman action figures with full armor: chest plate and wings and lasso *and* sword. I have my Buffy obsession, my Elektra obsession, and, it seems, a slight inclination towards Women With Swords in video games.

When I ask myself why, I come up with several reasons, but none, I think, more suggestive than this: Women With Swords belie the stereotype of “Women’s Weapons,” a la Lucrezia Borgia. That is, Women With Swords belie the suggestion that Poison is a “woman’s weapon,” and, perhaps, should be women’s only weapon. Because it is passive, certainly, and because it requires no feats of strength. But above all, because it is *sneaky*. Because it contributes to the mythos regarding the manipulation, trickery, and beguiling nature of women.

Above all else, the Sword is Up Front and In Your Face—literally, as it were, Gentle Reader! The sword represents honesty, particularly in Christian legends. How many Knights swore their love and devotion by their swords? Saved a virgin’s chastity by placing the sword between them in the bed? A man can live “by his sword,” and he can die “by his sword.” In Rome, it was considered an honorable death to throw oneself on his sword.

So for women to live “by the sword” in fiction is to usurp some small part of this mythos, yes. But further, it demonstrates that it’s not all usurpation. Xena was a Warrior Princess, Buffy, the latest in a long line of Girl Slayers, Diana of Themyscira an honest-to-goodness Amazon. These women who lived “by the sword,” certainly, but further, were skilled and trained in weaponry, offer an alternative to the age-old tradition of “women’s weapons.” It’s not mere usurpation, or creating a female counterpart to a male part, but rather creating a mythos from the ground up.

So in celebration of these Women Warriors—that is, of these Women-Skilled-With-Weaponry--I offer you a list of my Seven Favorite Women With Swords—one for every day that I Read the Week, of course!

1) Buffy Summers (the Vampire Slayer) – What is not to love about Buffy? She’s smart, she’s talented, she’s witty, and the woman can wield a sword with the best of them. In particular, Buffy’s skill with a sword helps her defeat Angelus in BtVS, Season 2.
Recommended viewings: Becoming Parts I and II (for swords), Once More With Feeling

2) Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) – I’m certain that you don’t need to be reminded of This Humble Author’s adoration for Wonder Woman, Gentle Reader! But just in case you’ve forgotten, I offer you the Amazon Princess. When she wears her full armor, as best seen in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, she is downright beautiful and terrifying, all at the same time.
Recommended reading: Kingdom Come (for swords) by Waid and Ross, Eyes of the Gorgon and The Hiketeia, both by Greg Rucka

3) Elektra Natchios (Elektra) – From what I understand, the sai are considered to be defensive, rather than offensive weapons. No matter; Elektra does whatever she wants with them, whenever she wants. Her morality is ambiguous, and various writers script Elektra in various, and fascinating ways.
Recommended reading: Ultimate Daredevil and Elektra, Elektra: Introspect, both by Greg Rucka

4) Princess Adora (She-Ra, Princess of Power) – And to think, Gentle Reader, that I almost forgot the Princess of Power herself, She-Ra, until Mr. Reads gently reminded me of my absentmindedness. I adored She-Ra as a child, wanted to be her, and even dressed like her, one Halloween. Her sword, the Sword of Protection, enables her to transform from Adora to She-Ra.
Recommended viewings: why not go with Season One, available through amazon.com?

5) Nellodee (Queen Nell and Her Mouse Army) – Many people seem to have a love-him-or-hate-him attitude about Neal Stephenson. I side emphatically with the love-him camp. The Diamond Age, in particular, is one of This Humble Author’s favorite novels. Nell spends her entire youth learning through the instruction of her Primer, and her mother-figure, Miranda. When the time comes, she invents a sword that saves her life, and enables her to greet her Mouse Army. Trust me; you just have to read it.
Recommended reading: The Diamond Age: or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

6) Joan of Arc (Saint Joan) – I have a slight obsession with Joan of Arc, Gentle Reader. Or, rather, with images of Joan of Arc. In short, I collect art with Saint Joan on it, particularly those with her Sword Held High. It’s a tiny collection thus far, but it’s growing, I assure you. I’m not sure where it started, but I’m sure it has everything to do with Growing Up Catholic, and Liking Swords.
Recommended viewings: The Messenger

7) Athena (Goddess of War) – And in truth, my fandom of Wonder Woman, Athena, and Joan of Arc all seem caught up together, don’t they? Three women who Stand For Truth and Justice, three women who ride Armored Into Battle, Swords Held High. It seems only right, then, that images of these three women resemble each other.
Recommended reading: The Illiad and The Odyssey by Homer

10 comments:

Matthew E said...

I would never have thought of Nellodee.

The point about how the weapons tend toward the phallic... I notice you sort of set that point aside once you were done with it, and rightly so, I think. Weapons can get you in four ways, mathematically speaking: they can hit you with a point (spears, arrows, bullets, swords of the fencing type), an edge (axes, swords of the slashing type), a surface (hammers and blunt instruments of any kind) or a space (anything involving fire or heat or radiation or anything like that). We can set aside the 'space' weapons as largely irrelevant to our discussion. The thing is, though, the 'point' weapons can't help but be phallic, and the other ones tend to be, too, just because they need to be wielded. Makes for an unfortunate metaphor, but I really don't think there's any other way to do it. What would be some more female weapons? Wonder Woman's lasso, certainly, and what a stroke of genius it was for Marston to think it up. Garrotes. There's a polearm called a mancatcher (!) that's... it's hard to explain. It's sort of like spiked tongs on a long stick that snap shut around your opponent's waist.

Seven more, in no particular order:

Eowyn, Shield-Lady of the Rohirrim, from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Brienne, the Maid of Tarth, from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire

Nimnestl, the young king's personal bodyguard from Dan Crawford's trilogy consisting of Rouse a Sleeping Cat, The Sure Death of a Mouse, and A Wild Dog and Lone

Jiana of Bay Bay, hero of Dafydd ab Hugh's hard-to-get-into-yet-strangely-compelling novel Heroing

Adela de Otero, from Arturo Perez-Reverte's (non-fantasy) novel The Fencing Master

Chakaal, paragon of the Grooverse, from Sergio Aragones' comic book Groo the Wanderer

Gil Patterson, aka Gil-Shalos of the Guards, from Barbara Hambly's Darwath series (you are, I hope, familiar with Hambly? One of my all-time favourite writers)

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
I would never have thought of Nellodee.

She is an absolute favorite, and I think the making of the sword at the end--and the wielding of it--is one of the most powerful scenes of any novel.

The point about how the weapons tend toward the phallic... I notice you sort of set that point aside once you were done with it, and rightly so, I think.

I don't think there's any way around it, to be honest (and I'll respond more when I answer your "female weapons" question later). Even if weapons don't have to be phallic, they've been phallic for so long, there's no arguing with it.
That being said, I think that we don't have to see a woman's use of a phallic weapon as a usurpation of masculine power. That's the part, ultimately, that I quibble with.

Weapons can get you in four ways, mathematically speaking: they can hit you with a point (spears, arrows, bullets, swords of the fencing type), an edge (axes, swords of the slashing type), a surface (hammers and blunt instruments of any kind) or a space (anything involving fire or heat or radiation or anything like that). We can set aside the 'space' weapons as largely irrelevant to our discussion. The thing is, though, the 'point' weapons can't help but be phallic, and the other ones tend to be, too, just because they need to be wielded. Makes for an unfortunate metaphor, but I really don't think there's any other way to do it.

No, I think you're absolutely right. Besides the fact that weapons have been, by and large, wielded by men, there's also the issue of imagery which, as Papa Freud reminds us, over and over again, can never escape Daddy/Phallus/Patriarchy. The Name of the Father becomes The Sword of the Father, perhaps?

What would be some more female weapons? Wonder Woman's lasso, certainly, and what a stroke of genius it was for Marston to think it up.

Indeed! Particularly because it confines (women's pregnancy, up through the 19th century, was called her "confinement"), and demands truth (Athena both the goddess of Truth and War, as is Diana).

Garrotes. There's a polearm called a mancatcher (!) that's... it's hard to explain. It's sort of like spiked tongs on a long stick that snap shut around your opponent's waist.

Eek! Remind me never to find a mancatcher :)
Poison, classically, is a "woman's weapon," although I really, truly hate that stereotype. What of Charlotte Corday, running Marat through? There's a classic historical image! Of course, in the literature, it's said that she performs a man's duty because her brother won't. Oh Brother Indeed!
Where does poison fit in with your weapon list? Do you think it counts as space, or something that wounds? (because, well, it does both, no?)

Seven more, in no particular order:
Eowyn, Shield-Lady of the Rohirrim, from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings


I thought of her, but I really dislike Tolkien. I know, blasphemy...

Brienne, the Maid of Tarth, from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire
Nimnestl, the young king's personal bodyguard from Dan Crawford's trilogy consisting of Rouse a Sleeping Cat, The Sure Death of a Mouse, and A Wild Dog and Lone
Jiana of Bay Bay, hero of Dafydd ab Hugh's hard-to-get-into-yet-strangely-compelling novel Heroing
Adela de Otero, from Arturo Perez-Reverte's (non-fantasy) novel The Fencing Master
Chakaal, paragon of the Grooverse, from Sergio Aragones' comic book Groo the Wanderer
Gil Patterson, aka Gil-Shalos of the Guards, from Barbara Hambly's Darwath series (you are, I hope, familiar with Hambly? One of my all-time favourite writers)


I've not read any of these, even Hambly, I'm sorry to say. You are giving me way too much extra-curricular to read, Sir! I'll never get this dissertation done...
Tamora Pierce's YA fiction also presents several great Women With Swords. I've not read much--I found her through White Tiger rather than the other way around--but what I've read I've really enjoyed.
Ciao,
Amy

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
In a surprise, somewhat rare move, Mr. Reads has ventured onto my blog today, read your comment, and immediately chastised me. Apparently, he has purchased a Barbara Hambly book for me before (which I still haven't read, much to my chagrin), and has, in the few minutes since reading, put two of her books on hold for me at the library AND suggested that the next time I chat with you, I let you know these things. He has put Dragonsbane and Those Who Hunt the Night on hold. Any opinions?
Ciao,
Amy

Matthew E said...

According to the scheme I set up, I'm not sure poison would even be a weapon. You can't, after all, wield it. It's more of a trick than a weapon. If I had to fit it in there I'd say it's a 'surface' weapon.

I knew you didn't like Tolkien but I figured it was in spite of Eowyn, who after all is said and done laughs at the Nazgul Lord before finishing him off. To me that moves Eowyn to the front of the line.

Many of the others on my list are somewhat obscure--Nimnestl, Jiana and Adela de Otero certainly are. Brienne is roughly analogous to Eowyn in prominence. Chakaal is not unknown in comic book circles.

Hambly is worth your time. Her fantasy is rigorous: she's a historian, so she gets the historical-type details right, and when it comes to the fantasy side of things she sticks to the rules and refuses to pull any rabbits out of any hats without visibly putting them in first. I suspect she's exactly your type of thing.

Matthew E said...

Both are very good, but neither are among her best. Dragonsbane is better and one of the ones I would have recommended to you; it's kind of the inside-out feminist version of the traditional dragon-slaying quest. You'll like the heroine but I like the hero even better. It's got a sequel trilogy that I don't recommend unless you become a huge Hambly fan and want to read everything.

Those Who Hunt the Night is a Victorian-set vampire story, which in and of itself ought to endear it to you. It also has a sequel, Traveling With the Dead, which isn't a waste of time.

Chris said...

Wonderful post! You make some very valid points.

Just wanted to say how much I love Elektra. The series that Brian Michael Bendis did is one of my favorites. Great to find another comic/sci-fi/fantasy lover. My taste tends to be the same as yours. I'm not much of an "extreme" or text book sci-fi and fantasy lover...more of the urban fantasy kind of stuff like Neil Gaiman.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Chris,
Wonderful post! You make some very valid points.

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

Just wanted to say how much I love Elektra. The series that Brian Michael Bendis did is one of my favorites.

I adore her, particularly Rucka's run on her. But then, I love All Things Rucka, so that may influence me, just a tad ;)

Great to find another comic/sci-fi/fantasy lover. My taste tends to be the same as yours. I'm not much of an "extreme" or text book sci-fi and fantasy lover...more of the urban fantasy kind of stuff like Neil Gaiman.

Same here! And I see from your profile that you're from New Orleans. Me, too, born and bred!
Hope to see/hear more of you!
Ciao,
Amy

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
Sorry, these comments got lost in my gmail shuffle :)

According to the scheme I set up, I'm not sure poison would even be a weapon. You can't, after all, wield it. It's more of a trick than a weapon. If I had to fit it in there I'd say it's a 'surface' weapon.

I think that's about right. I started to think about things like grenades or bombs, and figured they didn't exactly work in the setup you created; the weapons you discussed had non-moving parts (for the most part). Bombs and, to that extent, poison, complicate the framework.

I knew you didn't like Tolkien but I figured it was in spite of Eowyn, who after all is said and done laughs at the Nazgul Lord before finishing him off. To me that moves Eowyn to the front of the line.

It is in spite of her. In fact, she's the only reason I tried to read him in the first place. I adore the movies, but the books feel really off to me.
Of course, the most recent time I tried to read them was after my move to a new city to start graduate school, before Mr. Reads was my Mr., and was still finishing his own work a few states away. My loneliness (sad, poor Amy Reads!) may have clouded my judgment.

Many of the others on my list are somewhat obscure--Nimnestl, Jiana and Adela de Otero certainly are. Brienne is roughly analogous to Eowyn in prominence. Chakaal is not unknown in comic book circles.
Hambly is worth your time. Her fantasy is rigorous: she's a historian, so she gets the historical-type details right, and when it comes to the fantasy side of things she sticks to the rules and refuses to pull any rabbits out of any hats without visibly putting them in first. I suspect she's exactly your type of thing.


I'm on it!

And you also said,
Both are very good, but neither are among her best. Dragonsbane is better and one of the ones I would have recommended to you; it's kind of the inside-out feminist version of the traditional dragon-slaying quest. You'll like the heroine but I like the hero even better. It's got a sequel trilogy that I don't recommend unless you become a huge Hambly fan and want to read everything.

Understood. Mr. Reads said that 20 years ago, Dragonsbane was his favorite book, and therefore he wants me to try it first. I figured I'd give him the benefit of the doubt, esp. for the memory of 11-year-old Mr. Reads ;)

Those Who Hunt the Night is a Victorian-set vampire story, which in and of itself ought to endear it to you. It also has a sequel, Traveling With the Dead, which isn't a waste of time.

Huzzah! Victorian-set stories are some of my favorites, although I'm not as interested in vampires as I was, say, 10-12 years ago. Duly noted on the sequel--thanks for that.
Ciao,
Amy

Scott said...

Part of female empowerment (or any empowerment, I suppose) is "usurping" the established power, but only in the beginning. The oppressed minority (or better half) must first prove themselves the equals of those in power, before they go on to reinvent the power structure. In fact, I believe that's exactly what Buffy did. She starts out the show with her abilities, but is forced to use them as she is instructed by her Watcher and, by extent, the outdated Watcher "system"--luckily Giles was willing to change and grow along with Buffy, which made them both more effective. But by the end of the show, she has taken ownership of her power and decided for herself how to use it (i.e., to share it with the Potentials).

It would be nice if women could empower themselves without tapping into "male power" (or power of the establishment), but power has to come from somewhere, doesn't it? And sometimes the only way to get power is to take it from those who would prevent you from having it (at least, in the beginning). So I think it's a natural part of Buffy's character arc of empowerment that she uses "male" weapons like stakes (Mr. Pointy) and the rocket launcher. But by the end of the show, she was given a weapon that wasn't made for men--it was made specifically for her (the scythe--still very pointy, though).

On some level, we are all prisoners of the system, whether it's high school or a patriarchal society. I think what makes Buffy even more special is that she didn't just free herself--she brought all her friends with her (along with hundreds of Potentials). I love the fact that Xander and Giles were able to share the journey on some level, because female empowerment isn't just about changing the women. It's about changing everybody, and I think everybody ends up stronger for it.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Scott,
Part of female empowerment (or any empowerment, I suppose) is "usurping" the established power, but only in the beginning. The oppressed minority (or better half) must first prove themselves the equals of those in power, before they go on to reinvent the power structure. In fact, I believe that's exactly what Buffy did. She starts out the show with her abilities, but is forced to use them as she is instructed by her Watcher and, by extent, the outdated Watcher "system"--luckily Giles was willing to change and grow along with Buffy, which made them both more effective. But by the end of the show, she has taken ownership of her power and decided for herself how to use it (i.e., to share it with the Potentials).

I absolutely agree that that's what is a major part of female empowerment; I quibble with *why*. And the why is, of course, that women have, traditionally, been excluded from power, and that men have, traditionally, controlled all power. What I'd like to see is more appropriation of female power. I quibble with the "no female without male" power that tends to happen.
Your point about Buffy, in particular, is quite well done because she literally usurps a masculine access to power, the created Slayer line, and distributes it to all potentials. What a wonderful way to end the show :)

It would be nice if women could empower themselves without tapping into "male power" (or power of the establishment), but power has to come from somewhere, doesn't it? And sometimes the only way to get power is to take it from those who would prevent you from having it (at least, in the beginning). So I think it's a natural part of Buffy's character arc of empowerment that she uses "male" weapons like stakes (Mr. Pointy) and the rocket launcher. But by the end of the show, she was given a weapon that wasn't made for men--it was made specifically for her (the scythe--still very pointy, though).

There are so few weapons that are feminine, but there are certainly powers out there that are specifically, or traditionally, feminine as well. The power of birth, for example, although I find it so intriguing that this was a masculine rather than feminine trope in literature (the birth/conception metaphor) for such a long time.
Again, I think what I quibble with is the idea that power always has to come from a masculine source. Of course I understand that's just the way it's been since, well, forever, but I'm ever the idealist, and I ask why, why, why :) I think that's why I'm such a big Wonder Woman fan; with the Amazons, and the goddess Athena, we see a real female hierarchy.

On some level, we are all prisoners of the system, whether it's high school or a patriarchal society.

No arguments here, Friend! We all end up trapped in some sort of cycle, even if that cycle is a pleasant one (family, for example, is a structural system).

I think what makes Buffy even more special is that she didn't just free herself--she brought all her friends with her (along with hundreds of Potentials). I love the fact that Xander and Giles were able to share the journey on some level, because female empowerment isn't just about changing the women. It's about changing everybody, and I think everybody ends up stronger for it.

Oh, good point re: Xander and Giles! One of my favorite scenes, and really, my favorite Defeat Of The Big Bad Ever in Buffy, is the end of Season 4 where they all join to form the Super-Slayer. Talk about taking your friends along and making all of them stronger for it!

Thanks for reading, and commenting, so very thoughtfully and smartly :) Please, don't stop reading and chatting with me!
Ciao,
Amy