The Reverse Jane Austen Principle

If you watch a movie or cartoon or pick up a comic that involves a group of main characters you’re likely to find a mix of people in that group. Some white guys, maybe a black guy or an Asian guy, a girl or two and possibly a pet or sidekick of some kind. The stories involving groups like this vary. They could be solving mysteries or saving their planet or just kicking bad-guy butt. Regardless, one thing is virtually for certain – the girls will all have romance somehow worked into their description or plot.

I call this the Reverse Jane Austen Principle. The name was the result of an attempt to explain this issue to someone asking me questions about comic books. In trying to explain it, I found that the simplest way to phrase what I was saying was this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the entertainment industry that a female character in possession of a name and a ringless left hand must be in want of a boyfriend (and the name is really optional).

The characters aren’t always (or even often) exclusively there to be someone’s romantic interest or to moon over boys, often they have very interesting characters beyond this and frequently they’re interesting, powerful characters in their own right. But that romance thing does seem to always be there, which is not always true for male characters who have equally interesting, powerful character descriptions.

This means that you get things like the Justice League cartoon from a few years back, which had seven main characters, each a powerful hero. Of the seven, there were two who were women. Hawkgirl fell in love with Green Lantern during the course of the show and had a very complicated relationship with him and Wonder Woman got pretty squarely paired up with Batman, although they never did anything about this romance and all indications showed more affection on her side than his anyway. Of the three men remaining, everyone already knows that Superman is already taken by the mostly off-screen Lois Lane, J’on J’onzz is still busy mourning his dead wife (and probably considered too alien for a romance anyway) and Flash is something of a chronic flirt who never has a date. Even when they opened up the League and had more than enough female characters they could have paired those guys up with, they clearly never felt the need to do so. But Hawkgirl had to pine for GL even after he started seeing someone else and Wonder Woman was paired with Batman even though it made no sense for either of their characters.

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle means that Hollywood can’t seem to tell stories about women characters at all without injecting that bit of romance. It’s like they can’t imagine romance not being a fundamental part of any woman’s life, even if it doesn’t have to be so to men. For example, there is a movie coming out soon about a very influential Hawaiian princess who lived near the end of the nineteenth century and fought the annexing of her kingdom by the United States government. It’s called Princess Kaiulani (her name should have an apostrophe in it, but apparently they decided to drop it for some reason). The movie creates a romance for her that never existed and sets it as a major focus of the piece. In fact, the tagline is “her heart was torn between love and the future of Hawaii”. Except that it wasn’t.

I can’t think of a good biopic about a man to compare this to, actually. There are tons of movies about politicians with no injected romance (off the top of my head are All the President’s Men, Nixon and Thirteen Days, but there are tons of them). So why does the girl need romance? Every movie about Queen Elizabeth I that I’ve ever seen focuses more on her supposed romances with her courtiers than it does on her as a political leader (granted her father has the same problem, but he sort of made that bed for himself and now he’s stuck with it). Queen Victoria is the same way. She had a very long reign and a lot happened while she was queen, but the movies about her all seem to focus on her romances (real or imagined).

Comics seem to be just as bad. Unless a girl has green or purple skin (and even then it’s not a guarantee), she’s bound to be wrapped up in some relationship plot within just a couple of issues of her introduction! There was a really entertaining short run comic a few years back called Teen Titans Year One. It told some stories about the original Titans getting together and doing missions, but it sort of set them now instead of when they actually were a newly formed team (Robin IMed Kid Flash about a mission, for example). The original Teen Titans consisted of four boys and a girl – Wonder Girl. The boys all had plots involving their mentors being possessed and struggling with their roles within the group and things like that. What was Wonder Girl’s plot? She had a crush on Speedy and they went on a date at one point. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved this comic. It told a great story in a funny, fresh way. But it totally adhered to the Reverse Jane Austen Principle, too.

There are occasionally exceptions to this principle, but they are extremely rare. Nerd girls can slip through relationship-free every once in a great while, but it’s very, very difficult. Usually they have to at least be pining for someone or aimlessly feeling worthless because they don’t have a guy. One notable nerd girl exception would be Velma from Scooby Doo (she is, however, only an exception if you ignore the movies or consider the characters in them different from the ones in the cartoons). Children can sometimes manage to evade this rule as well, but even they usually get trapped by it. River from Firefly got out of it because of the kid rule (even though she wasn’t actually that young, everyone but the bounty hunter treated her that way). It’s also possible to escape if you’re either the only character or if there are so many girls and so few guys that some girls have to not be paired up. Dora the Explorer, some of the minor characters from She-Ra and Flora from The Winx Club all sneak by this way.

But, sadly, exceptions are rare. For the most part, if a female character is included, she’s going to somehow be tangled in this principle. She might be in a relationship, like Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She might start out single but end up in a relationship, like Leia from Star Wars. She might be done with him, but can’t get disentangled, like Rachel from the recent Batman movies. She might be pining for someone specific, like Elisa from Gargoyles. She might be trying to avoid the whole thing and end up caught in a relationship anyway, like Megara in Hercules. She might be just pining for romance without anyone in particular in mind, like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. And she might be minding her own business and have it thrown at her anyway, like Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet! Regardless, it’s everywhere. Few female characters can escape it.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have amazing characters and fantastic stories that follow the Reverse Jane Austen Principle because you can. Many of the movies, shows and comics I’ve mentioned are great and totally worth watching or reading. That said, I’d really like to see this stop being such a rule. I’d like to see more movies that don’t feel the need to make sure every female character is somehow either connected to a guy or wants to be. Just because she’s not married, doesn’t mean she necessarily has to want to be (or even spend much time thinking about it, because seriously, if my planet was blowing up or something, I wouldn’t stop to bemoan my lack of boyfriend). If Legolas, Buzz Lightyear and Obi-Wan Kenobi don’t need love interests, why do most female characters created by the entertainment industry need one?

Book: The Last Dragon

The Last Dragon
C. A. Rainfield
illustrated by Charlie Hnatiuk
2009 (High Interest Publishing)

This is the first book in the Dragon Speaker series, a trilogy about a boy who can telepathically talk to birds and dragons. When this book starts, there is only one remaining dragon after an evil lord and his pet wizard have systematically destroyed all of the rest of the dragons and brought the kingdom under their tyrannical thumbs. Jacob, a farm boy living in a small town at the edge of the forest, can talk to birds. He is told by a crow that he must find the last dragon and save her and that the evil wizard had a stone with which he could control her. Jacob and his friend Orson set out to find this dragon, running into a girl, Lia, who wants to help them along the way.

I really wanted to like this book. The need for books written at a low reading level but with an older audience in mind is very much there, and this publisher specializes in this particular niche. I think that the books that have the best chance of working well for the readers who need these types of books, however, are going to have to be of excellent quality, particularly in story. These books are designed for readers who, for the most part, have struggled with reading and many have all but given up by the time they become teenagers. To get them to go that extra mile and read something it needs to really appeal to them, really be something special that grabs their attention. And I just didn’t feel like this lived up to that. In fact, I felt like it fell far short of it.

The story is eerily similar to that of Eragon (which, I realize, is already drawn from any number of other sources). The writing itself isn’t bad – it’s actually simple and flows the way I would expect an early chapter book to flow. The problem is really with the story. The characters are incredibly one-dimensional, the events largely unbelievable (even for a fantasy story) and while there are bloody battles, it’s hard to take the threats very seriously. The lord and his wizard are defeated with a flock of birds and a loaf of bread! It’s hard to take a wizard who can be defeated by a loaf of bread very seriously!

The artwork is odd. The faces are expressive (and generally the focus of the picture), but also strangely lumpy. In fact, everything is strangely lumpy. And while they do feel generically fantasy or medieval in style, none of the fantasy elements are shown in any of the pictures! Despite the large amount of the text focusing on the dragon and her egg, neither appears in any of the illustrations. The dragon herself does appear on the cover, which is done by a different artist. At several points in the story we see spells or magic happening, but none of those scenes are illustrated. It’s rather disappointing, actually. I’m not sure this book needed art at all, but I would have wished for better since they did feel the need to include it.

I was extremely disappointed in the poor quality of this book. I think that it’s so important that there be books written at this level with an older audience in mind, but I think that this one in particular either shows too little respect for its audience or its story (and I’m honestly not sure which). I applaud this publisher for focusing on this much-needed niche, but I would hope that they would have higher standards for their books. Teens deserve unique books written and illustrated well regardless of their reading level. I have not read any of their non-fantasy books, so those might be of better quality, but I have little interest in reading the rest of this series. I found it to be poor in quality and I would never recommend it.

- Publisher’s Description

- C. A. Rainfield’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

WOTC Comes Out with D&D for Kids!

I have trouble with the idea that gaming is “growing up”, but it does seem like it was easier to get into it as a kid in years past than it is now. Whether that’s because rules have gotten more complicated (arguably they’ve generally gotten less complicated, if you ask me) or because companies are a lot less shy now than they used to be about including adult themes or something altogether different, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, every year I seem to encounter more and more parents at gaming conventions asking how to introduce their kids to gaming and the kids who I meet who do play seem to have trouble finding others to play with.

A few years back Wizards of the Coast hosted a session at GenCon that basically centered around asking a group of people what they thought would be good products to facilitate kid gamers – both new ones and players who already liked the activity and just needed more to work with. They got a variety of answers ranging from requests for games aimed at younger players to more modules that could be run easily for younger kids to products that took stories and worlds kids already knew and liked and brought them to the gaming table. It was a fantastic session full of great ideas. My favorite was actually the request for games and products that kids who can’t read could use (even if they require some help or a GM who can read) – which could be either younger kids or kids with disabilities or even just kids who are slow to learn to read and need a way to play that isn’t adding that extra stressor.

Wizards of the Coast didn’t do much with those ideas for a while, but they clearly didn’t forget the idea of making games for kids. They’ve had a publishing imprint that focuses on fiction for kids and teenagers for a few years now and it’s chock full of great material that could be used for gaming hooks. They even have a set of guide-like books that draw from the monster manuals and draconomicon to provide what are essentially kid-friendly field guides to the various monsters from Dungeons and Dragons. It should be obvious how this is an easy way to draw kids into the world and potentially into gaming – if they find those monsters and stories about the heroes that fight them so fascinating, maybe they’d like to try it themselves!

They finally came out with an actual honest-to-goodness gaming product for kids based on Dungeons and Dragons and on one of the fiction books from the Mirrorstone imprint. It’s a full-fledged adventure with a simplified version of fourth edition rules that’s designed for kids six and up. And best of all? It’s free. You can go to their website and download the whole thing as a PDF and be playing within minutes if you want.

So now what? Well, one adventure is awesome, but hopefully they’ll make more than that! Now that they have their simplified rules system figured out, hopefully they’ll continue to come out with adventures using it aimed at kid players. It would make a fantastic monthly feature on the website. I wouldn’t even object if they decided to actually physically publish some (perhaps a book of short adventures or a “create your own adventure” kit) and actually charged money for it, as long as the cost was reasonable. Kid players want more content just as much as adult players do and not all GMs are good at creating their own. What’s the good of getting a group of kids excited and hooked after one great adventure and then having to tell them there isn’t any more? So here’s hoping WOTC realizes this is a great opportunity to grow new and future customers and that they put some manpower and effort into producing products to service those customers now!

DC Characters and Branding in “Young Justice”

DC is coming out with a new cartoon this fall. Since their cartoons are generally really good, I was pretty excited about this (Justice League Unlimited is one of my favorite cartoons ever and I really think Batman: the Animated Series is one of best cartoons ever made). This cartoon will be called Young Justice and is going to focus on teenage superheroes and the challenges they face to prove that they are good enough to join the adult heroes who protect the world on a daily basis (not to mention the challenges involved in just being teenage superheroes).

The cast of characters is largely drawn from the pages of Teen Titans, so we have Robin (because it wouldn’t be a kid/teen supergroup without Robin or Nightwing), Kid Flash, Superboy (because somebody has to be wearing a big red “S”), Miss Martian, Aqualad (who’s gotten an African-American make-over, presumably so the cast is more racially diverse – which still makes him token, which kinda sucks), and “Artemis”.

Seriously? Artemis? Ok, there are two MAJOR problems here. First of all, that means this is a made-up character instead of one of the many, many, many awesome female characters they already have that they could have used for this show. Second of all, what’s with the name? Not only is “Artemis” kind of a lame superhero name, but it’s already been used at least eight times in the DCU! Once by a pretty major character and a couple of times by various incarnations of the actual goddess, who exists and is a real entity in the continuity of both the DCU and the Animated DCU (or at least, one would assume she exists in the Animated DCU, since Ares, Hades and Hephaestus all do).

I really hate when companies decide to make up a new character like this, despite having lots of great existing options. It wouldn’t bother me if she wasn’t being thrown in with a group of characters who are not being invented for the show, but in fact, have years of history and personality in the comics. It also probably wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t feel like this was another indication that DC doesn’t remember or care about their female characters, especially the younger ones and especially when it comes to animated shows.

The perfect example of them stating this can be found if you check out some of the behind the scenes materials on the Justice League cartoon. They made a test short to help sell that concept and at that point planned to use teenage sidekicks. In the test short they use Robin, Impulse (one of the young “Flash” characters from the comics) and a girl they made up who is basically Cyborg as a girl. They made her up because they felt they needed a girl “for the sake of diversity” but “there aren’t really many young girl characters in the DC Universe”. Right. Every incarnation of Teen Titans has had a couple of girls, but “there aren’t many young girls”. There are just about as many girls, some of them young, in the Batman family as there are boys, but “there aren’t many young girls”.

Can you tell that I don’t think much of this excuse? And I can only assume the choice to make someone up instead of using one of their many great female characters stemmed from the same way of thinking. I read the blurb about the show and saw Artemis and my first thought was “why didn’t they use someone they already have?” Like, for example, Arrowette (who clearly inspired Artemis’s look)? Or Speedy (another archer, who has been a boy and a girl)? Or Wonder Girl? Or Troia? Or Batgirl? Or Spoiler? Or Supergirl? Or Raven? Or Starfire? Or Terra? Or Ravager (who could be awesome to use in a show like this)? Or Bumblebee (who’s already African-American, by the way)? Or Aquagirl? Or Jesse Quick? Or Misfit? Or the new versions of Hawk and Dove? I could go on. And I can see ways many of these characters would be particularly fantastic in a show like this.

But no. We get a made up character. And I’m not saying that I don’t like new characters being introduced. I even like some of the brilliant characters who have been created in the animated shows and made the jump to other mediums (Harley Quinn, who managed to cross into comics, a live action television show and numerous video games, is awesome and Renee Montoya, who has actually grown out of the role she was created in and inherited the mantle of The Question, are two amazing creations from Batman: The Animated Series). What I’m saying is that it feels like they remember and celebrate the great history and long line of stories they have behind some of their characters when they pull these groups together and forget others.

And then they complain that their female characters don’t have the same sort of following. The repeated refrain of “we just can’t seem to make Wonder Woman as popular as Batman and Superman and the only reason we can figure out is because she’s a girl” comes from the higher ups at DC pretty regularly. Well, perhaps that’s at least partially because you don’t give her the same backing and visibility! Notice how even in this group of superheroes that notably does not contain any of the “big three” there are clear representatives of both the Bat-Family and the Super-Family (Robin and Superboy), but no such representative from Wonder Woman’s “family”? No Wonder Girl or Troia or anything? And even if they tell us “oh, but Artemis is an Amazon!”, she has no visible way of showing us that and since we don’t know her, we wouldn’t connect her to Wonder Woman without knowing that. It just doesn’t work.

Basically, it all comes down to branding. They could be creating a show about teenage superheroes trying to prove to their mentors that they’re reading for the big-time with all new characters, but they didn’t because part of the draw of this show will be the recognizable characters – the brand. There are people who will watch it primarily to see characters they know and love – to watch Robin and Superboy, to see cartoon versions of Kid Flash and Miss Martian, to find out who this new Aquaboy is (and if there’s any explanation for what happened to the old one). People are already asking if this show is part of the official Animated DCU or, like Teen Titans and the two recent Batman shows, a separate “universe” by itself.

But Artemis, as a new character, isn’t part of that branding. I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want her to be, either. It’s a totally wasted opportunity. Pretty much any character who has been around for any real length of time has some kind of following, so why not draw on an already existing following as well as whatever new fans this show will bring in? Why not bring in the not-inconsequential number of Wonder Girl fans? Or the startlingly large number of Spoiler fans? Or how about the devoted and regularly disappointed Arrowette fans who always seem to be forgotten when the character isn’t included?

It seems to me like not only a bit of a slap in the face to all the fans of the many amazing female characters they could have picked from for this show, but also a startlingly poor marketing decision. When something so simple could mean more fans and more money with so little effort, why would you not do it (and isn’t it easier to use an existing character than to create a new one, especially when you can tweak details as needed since this is a new medium and you’ve already done it with everyone else and not lost hordes of fans over it)?

In Defense of Words: “Censor”

A recent School Library Journal article stated:

“Don’t expect to see Lauren Myracle’s new book Luv Ya Bunches (Abrams/Amulet, 2009) at Scholastic school book fairs this year. It’s been censored—at least for now—due to its language and homosexual content.”

This statement was thoroughly backed up:

“But Scholastic says the book, released on October 1, failed to meet its vetting process because it contains offensive language and same-sex parents of one of the main characters, Milla.”

“The company sent a letter to Myracle’s editor asking the author to omit certain words such as “geez,” “crap,” “sucks,” and “God” (as in, “oh my God”) and to alter its plotline to include a heterosexual couple.”

“Scholastic defended the move. “Authors are often given the opportunity to make changes in the books to meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs,” adds Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokeswoman, explaining that the title will, however, be available in the Scholastic Book Club catalog.”

Scholastic responded to this article quickly. Their response gave the impression that they were having a very visceral reaction to having been called out for censoring a book:

“School Library Journal inaccurately stated that we censored the book. We review thousands of books each year and only a limited number can be carried in our channels.” – Kyle Good commenting on the SLJ article and the same comment was repeated verbatim on the Scholastic blog with pictures of their Book Club catalogs featuring the book to reinforce the statement

“Scholastic does not censor books. We review thousands of titles each year for our book clubs and book fairs, and we are committed to a review process that considers all books equally regardless of their inclusion of LGBT characters and same sex parents. In an interview with School Library Journal, Scholastic stated that we are currently carrying Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle in our school book clubs. We also said we were still reviewing the book for possible inclusion in our book fairs. Having completed our review of Luv Ya Bunches, Scholastic Book Fairs will carry the title in our spring fairs for middle school. Scholastic is proud of our long history of providing books that will appeal to the wide range of interests and reading abilities of children in the many diverse cultures and communities we serve. Luv Ya Bunches is just one example.” – On the Scholastic blog later, after much outcry arose in response to the SLJ article

The controversy over the book has been covered all over the internet, so I’m not going to go into it. Besides, as much as I wholeheartedly agree that it’s a really important issue, I don’t think that the reasons the book were censored are the most interesting part of this whole thing. I think that Scholastc’s knee-jerk reaction to a word is the most interesting part.

Scholastic repeated and vociferously claimed that they do not censor books, that they did not censor this book. But they have not countered or refuted any of the specific claims of the article, despite being repeatedly asked and given the chance to do so. Given that, it’s hard not to assume that they are, in fact, true statements concerning what occurred. And if that is the case, than Scholastic needs to dig out their dictionary (they publish several, so they must have some laying around they could check).

The word “censor” has a few meanings, but two particularly apply to how it is being used in this context. Seeing as I don’t happen to have a Scholastic dictionary on hand, I’ll provide examples of definitions from multiple other sources. The first is it’s meaning as a transitive verb.

- “to examine and expurgate” (American Heritage)
- “to examine and act upon as a censor or to delete (a word or passage of text) in one’s capacity as a censor” (Dictionary.com)
- “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable or to suppress or delete as objectionable” (Merriam-Webster).

The second is one of the word’s meanings as a noun.

- “an authorized examiner of literature, plays or other material, who may prohibit what he considers morally or otherwise objectionable” (American Heritage)
- “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds” (Dictionary.com)
- “an official who examines materials (as publications or films) for objectionable matter” (Merriam-Webster).

So now that we’ve got a good definition, let’s look back at the evidence stating Scholastic was censoring Love Ya Bunches.

1. The publisher has a “review process”, which rejected Love Ya Bunches on the grounds that it had “offensive language and same-sex parents”. According to our definition, any “review process” that rejects a book on the basis of “offensive” content of any kind, whether it offends them or not, is censoring.

2. Scholastic says “authors are often given the opportunity to make changes in the books to meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs”, which implies that they want the author to “expurgate”, “suppress”, or “delete” whatever it is that the “review process” determined needed fixing. Again, that matches our definition of “censor”.

If a censor is someone who “examines” media “for objectionable matter” (such as offensive language and same-sex parents) “in order to suppress or delete” said objectionable material (like, for example, asking the author to change it or refusing to carry it in a certain venue), then it seems that Scholastic has no leg to stand on in their claims of not censoring. In fact, it sounds like Scholastic censors everything they carry, it’s just that not everything is found to have “objectionable material”.

Words matter, and as as publishers and proponents of education Scholastic should know that. In fact, they should be among the first to stand up and defend language and encourage proper usage and respect for words. You can’t pick and choose – if you’re going to be a champion of something, you have to defend it even when you don’t like it. That means that even when you come up against a word you don’t like, if you claim to care about language the way Scholastic tries to through it’s educational publications and programs, then you have to accept and even defend it anyway.

That’s not to say that review processes and boards don’t have their place, because they do. But don’t rail against it when someone accurately calls them on being censors. Being a censor doesn’t have to be a bad thing A mom censors a TV show when she decides her three-year-old shouldn’t watch The Sopranos and changes the channel, but that doesn’t make her wrong for having done so.

Words are important and it’s worth defending them, even the ones you don’t like.

Personal Agency and Women in Refrigerators


“But to malign writing for killing women when killing said women is a way of giving them the ultimate praise, of saying they’re the most important part of the life of a given character, hardly seems to be sexism to me. If anything, it is merely guilty of being an overdone plot device.” – Neal Bailey

Ok, so I’ve heard the argument that killing, raping, maiming, whatever a character as motivation for another character is actually a compliment to them because it shows how much they are loved before, but this goes a step beyond. The above quote is from a blog post. “Women in Refrigerators” is a phrase coined by Gail Simone and refers to the trend in comic books where female characters are killed or assaulted and seriously disabled somehow in order to provide a motivation for the male heroes in their lives.

I’m not going to argue that attacking the loved ones of a hero provides him or her a strong motivation, but I do have to wonder what villain in their right mind would possibly want to make a superhero that mad at them. I mean, seriously, do you really want a grieving husband or wife with superpowers coming after you? Really? That might deserve being thought through a little more before you actually attack his wife or her husband. But it’s motivation, and from the writer’s point of view, that’s the important point. I get that. And there can be times when it works. They may have had Joker shoot Barbara Gordon as incentive for Batman to hunt Joker, but she’s become a better character for it having happened. That event isn’t remembered as being about Batman, it’s remembered as being about Barbara.

And that’s the key point here. Women are people too and their motivations and hopes and dreams are their own. Yes, just as men are motivated by what happens to their wives, girlfriends and mothers, women are motivated by what happens to their husbands, boyfriends and fathers. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem to matter. Female heroes rarely have family members stuck in refrigerators. And when the men do, it’s often forgotten after a few issues (Ralph Dibny may have morned his wife until he joined her in death, but more often it feels like the writers have forgotten the incident even happened a few issues later).

If a woman is her own person, even if she’s just a background character we never got to know, it can never be the “ultimate praise” for her to be killed to show that she’s the most important part of someone else’s life. Yes, it is possible for someone’s death to be the most meaningful thing that ever happened to them, but that involves them owning their death. It’s not that the person has to exactly choose to die, but they are personally ascribing meaning to their own deaths when they die (think of saints, dying for their beliefs with God’s name on their lips). These women aren’t given the chance to do that and have no ownership over their fates. They are victims, period.

Think about the way that sentence is phrased. How she feels about him is irrelevant. It allows for a woman to be killed for a man who adores her and considers her the most important part of her life, thus making her death the “ultimate praise”, when she doesn’t even like him or know who he is. Obviously, this isn’t the typical case. But the meaning of someone’s life, even a fictional character’s life, can’t be what they mean to someone else. What do they feel? What do they want? They must have dreams, ambitions, wants of their own. They are people and even the most minor of characters should be assumed to be the center of their own story.

Again, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be attacked or provide motivation, but it does mean that we can’t treat their deaths as existing only for the hero who is left behind. Every character has the potential to act, not just be acted upon, and suggesting that the best a woman can hope for is to be loved best by someone else takes all of that away from her. Even if we never see her own life, never see her act individually, it should be assumed that she can and does do so. She must have other people in her life, other things she does (a job, hobbies, etc.). To do otherwise is to draw a paper cut-out, not a character, and that is a disservice to our hero.

I would say that this attitude is pretty disturbing, and when only female characters are seen this way, it is indeed sexist. But it doesn’t have to be. This would be just as bad were it applied to male characters being killed to prove that they’re the center of someone else’s world, too. And if it were only applied to male characters (as it appears to be only applied to female characters here, although I don’t think the author means it that way), it would be sexism that way. But sexism isn’t the problem here, it’s lack of allowing for human agency and understanding that no one can exist solely to be part of, even the center of, someone else’s world and be considered a fulfilled human being. Being loved is important, but you need to be a person and have some kind of agency too. Otherwise you’re a doll.

Little Women: Jo the Feminist Wife

Like most girls in America seem to do, I read Little Women when I was growing up. For whatever reason, it spoke to me just as it seems to speak to most women who read it (making it the enduring classic it has remained for nearly one hundred and fifty years), despite the fact that I didn’t think I liked it the first time I read it. It’s hard to say I didn’t like it when it stuck with me so fastly and I remember the characters so well and so fondly in ways that I remember few other fictional characters. And like most girls, it seems, Jo was my favorite (although this opinion is slightly less universal than the appeal of the book generally, since many women do find other characters more appealing). I started thinking about Jo March again recently because of the introduction written by Linda Medley that appears at the beginning of the book Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming.

Medley discusses Jo and her ultimate fate at the end of Little Women quite a bit in this introduction. She states that while Jo is set up as a feminist character, her marrying a “stodgy old dope” like Professor Bhaer is a particularly unfeminist thing to do. She even goes so far as to wonder if some of “modern feminist literature has sprouted from… deep-rooted adolescent disappointment in Jo’s fate”. She begins all this musing by quoting her mother as saying (in “a tone of bitter disgust”) “Jo should’ve married LAURIE. Not that – that OLD MAN!”, to which she replies “Right on.”

This got me thinking. Was marrying Professor Bhaer a particularly unfeminist thing for Jo to have done? Was it unfeminist at all? The more I thought about it, the less convinced I was. In fact, the statement “Jo should’ve married LAURIE” feels far more unfeminist to me. So I dug out my copy of Little Women (which is dated 1911, so I’m guessing it’s the later version that we’re still all reading today).

I really couldn’t find any evidence that Jo ever wanted to marry Laurie, nor is she upset at all when he marries someone else. So why is the opinion that she should have so common (because it really is)? Do we feel so strongly that she needs to be married to someone that we have to pick who we think is the most appropriate partner for her, even if she doesn’t agree? Jo and Laurie have a great friendship that stays strong right up through the end of the book. Laurie clearly fell for Jo, but Jo never expresses any romantic ideas or feelings about Laurie. She also states a couple of times that she doesn’t want to be or marry rich, which makes sense. She has ambitions of her own (she’s a feminist, remember?), and rich mens’ wives couldn’t really spend their times writing books and things when they should be maintaining a large household of servants and keeping up appearances.

Can you really see Jo in silk gowns with bustles every day attending balls and giving instructions to nannies? It doesn’t sound like her, but it’s what Laurie’s wife would do. Amy can paint as a rich man’s wife because painting can be excused as an “accomplishment” when necessary, but you can’t do that with writing. Not to mention the kinds of things Jo wrote (remember, her stories were full of scandal and melodrama)! So, in the absence of romantic love and faced with a lifestyle that doesn’t match what she wants for herself, there would be no sense in Jo’s marrying Laurie. I can only conclude that we, as modern readers, want her to do so because he is young and handsome and rich and those are the qualities we have deemed most desirable in a husband (particularly a fictional one).

Jo knows what she wants and needs much better than we do, though. She meets Professor Bhaer halfway through the second part of the book (which was originally published as a second, separate book). They don’t fall in love right away. They develop a friendship through sharing interests, having great conversations and just generally getting to know one another. This is clearly an adult friendship, whereas Laurie’s friendship with Jo is one of those “we’ve been friends since childhood” friendships. There’s a different quality to it. Friendships in adulthood usually grow because of common interests or activities, whereas childhood ones are often started because of proximity (you make friends with the kid next door even if you don’t really have much in common, because it’s convenient and you’re too young to travel to find someone who shares your interests). This doesn’t make one type better than the other, but it does make them different.

Not only do they develop an adult friendship, but Jo and Professor Bhaer both actually develop romantic attachments to each other. Jo pines for him when she is separated from him, even though she doesn’t believe (or even imagine) anything romantic will ever come of their relationship and clearly Professor Bhaer dreams of Jo. The professor’s proposal isn’t particularly romantic in a conventional sense, but the whole scene with them discovering that they love each other as they stand in the rain is marvelous. Clearly this is a happy match for both. Even better, it is a match that will make both happy – they understand each other and will be able to support each other in their dreams and their work. Not only will Jo be able to keep writing, but she will have a husband who understands, encourages and supports her along the way (a rare thing for the time period).

I think that in choosing to marry the man that she loves and who will understand and support her in her dreams, Jo is doing something very feminist. It is not unfeminist to get married, just to get married to someone for the sake of being married (because you’re supposed to be a wife). Jo makes her decision for all the right, feminist reasons and, in the end, everyone is happy. I think that the reaction women have today of being disappointed that Jo married the professor instead of Laurie has more to do with our romantic ideas about love and marriage than about feminism. We look at Jo and the choices we believe her to have had and our cultural teaching tells us that you choose the man who is young, handsome, rich and romantic, not the man who is older, maybe not so classically handsome and not rich at all. Ideas of who you are actually in love with or who might make you happy don’t really enter into it (it’s generally assumed you will fall in love with the former anyway). But they should, a feminist examination would say that you look at the person for who they are, not what they look like or how rich they are.

I honestly believe that Jo is a great feminist character and that choosing to marry Professor Bhaer is one of the most feminist decisions she makes in the whole book. Little Women is a realistic story. The characters are supposed to reflect life. I’m glad that one of the most important fictional icons for girls in this country since the mid-1800s has been one who made decisions based on what she wanted and needed and, in following her heart, managed to find love. She may not be perfect, but no one is in real life either, so perhaps her very imperfections are what make her such a great icon. And if you need more proof that she made the right choice of husband, Louisa May Alcott wrote two more awesome books about Jo and Professor Bhaer and their lives together: Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Both are well worth reading!

Book Clubs for Kids

This past week I wrote a two-part article for Examiner.com about how to start and run a book club for kids or teenagers. I think that it turned out quite well and I wanted to point it out to my Pixiepalace readers as well! The first part (about how to get started) is here while the second part (with activity ideas and more) is here. Let me know if you have more ideas or suggestions!

Book: Dreams of the Dead

Dreams of the Dead
Thomas Randall
2009 (Bloomsbury)

Kara and her father have just moved to Japan so that her father can teach at a private school in an idyllic little Japanese town. Although everything seems perfect at first, Kara soon discovers that a grizzly murder occurred on the school grounds the term before they arrived and no suspects were ever arrested in the case. The victim was one of the students and her sister, who quickly becomes Kara’s friend, suspects that she was murdered by fellow schoolmates. Suddenly, several students begin having terribly nightmares (Kara included) and one by one kids start dying in mysterious ways. Kara and her friends set out to solve the mystery before every last one of them ends up dead.

The mystery in this book is pretty good. There are plenty of interesting interlocking clues, an appealing supernatural element, and enough kept hidden to keep the reader guessing. The problem is that parts of it don’t work. The justification for Kara getting the nightmares and being one of the intended targets is so weak that even the characters have trouble justifying it. While I appreciate that including her in the list of potential victims is an effective way of getting the heroine involved right away, it was possibly the biggest plot hole in the book and seriously hurt the mystery’s credibility throughout the entire story.

It’s very clear that the author of this book loves Japan, or at least his idealized version of it. Everything about the setting is carefully chosen and arranged, lovingly described. It’s almost like the author is describing is own perfect little fantasy world for us where cute Japanese girls in short-skirted sailor fuku uniforms pulled right out of the cheesiest animes attend school in ancient temples set among lush, picturesque natural settings. All this while still having all the conveniences of the modern world! It’s too perfect and too much of a western fantasy version of Japan. And the main character shares this fascination and almost worship of this perfect image.

This setting wasn’t believable in the least and felt weirdly paired with the ghost story mystery. While I appreciate the desire to connect the folkloric elements of the mystery with the feel of historical Japan, it just didn’t work for me. I felt like it was an interesting story being told by someone more interested in the perfect anime world than in the actual country of Japan or the actual folkloric elements of the story. I kept wondering why they didn’t search the internet for information on the supernatural creature, but that might have broken the pastoral, anime spell, so I’m not terribly surprised that they didn’t, even if it would have been the logical thing for cell-phone carrying teenagers in Japan to do.

I also want to comment on the cover of this book. I read an advanced reader copy that I received from the publisher and it has the cover shown above. This cover makes absolutely no sense. It’s photographic, which is pretty much all Bloomsbury ever uses, and it’s a white girl, which again, fits with their MO (much has been written about this lately in regards to the cover of Liar, so I’m not going to spend time on Bloomsbury’s typical practices other than to say they exist). The problem is, I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be. This story takes place in Japan and only two characters in it are white – Kara and her father. Both of them are alive throughout the entire book and Kara not only never sleeps outside, but she’s not really a frilly type of girl (as the blond girl on the cover is dressed). There are several dead girls and sleep is an important theme, but all the dead girls are Japanese and, as I said, this blond girl in no way seems to have anything to do with Kara. I’m starting to wonder if Bloomsbury just pulls random stock art until they find something that matches the title and listed genre! The cover shown on the website is shown below in a thumbnail and at least matches the text, if not the genre or feel of the story. If I had to pick one of these two, I’d go with the one from the website, but I think they both suck.

This is an interesting book and a decent mystery, which is a genre that could always use more teen-specific titles. Still, it has a lot of problems and I’m not really sure that I could say that I recommend it. I wasn’t fond of this book at all. It’s the first in a series of three (either called The Waking or Gaijin Girl, I’m not sure which), although where the series is going exactly I have no idea. I’m certain there is an audience out there for this book (possibly somewhere among the manga-reading teens), but I really wouldn’t be comfortable recommending it. If you really like supernatural mysteries and have always wanted to live in an anime, this might be your book, but otherwise, I’d stay away.

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official The Waking Series Website

- Thomas Randall’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Power Fantasies

Power fantasies are a big deal these days. As much as videogames might come under attack from the media and activist groups, they also draw in new players from all around the world every year and many games are understood to be such fantasies. Tons of research has been done on power struggles in social interactions and communications (Deborah Tannen is the best writer I know of on this subject) and superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman are often seen as healthy male power fantasies. In short, we understand that men want to be strong and able to beat up bad guys and save the world. And if you think about it, the appeal is pretty easy to see. Why wouldn’t a guy want to be someone who’s able to be always in control, always able to protect the people he loves and unquestionably always on the side of right? So here’s the tricky question: what is a woman’s power fantasy?

The feminist answer would be “the same thing”, but the reality is always more complicated than that. Yes, women want those things too. That pretty much goes without saying. Except, sadly, it needs saying because many people don’t understand that a woman would want to protect her loved ones and be able to retain control of a situation and be always doing the right thing as well. So the question becomes, why do women want those things too? More than that, why do women need them?

Something that I forget a lot of times is that while women live lives always having to be somewhat on alert, always careful, men not only don’t have to do that, but they very often aren’t even aware that women do. Jennifer de Guzman wrote a brilliant post on her LiveJournal about this that really articulates it well:

As I wrote in my reply, I am kind of astounded that some men don’t see why physical empowerment would clearly be attractive for women. I think it’s intriguing to note that women often like the hot women who kick ass as much, if not more, than men do. Here’s what I think is behind that: As women, we are nearly constantly aware of physical threats. And those threats often are of being violated sexually. When I used to go to campus for night classes and people warned me to “be careful,” what they are saying was, essentially, “avoid getting raped.”

Now, what if, what if, as a woman, you could walk around, be sexually attractive and not have to feel threatened? What if all the rage you feel about women being victimized and brutalized could be channeled into pure, righteous ass-kicking? And, because you’re a woman, you could possibly do that ass-kicking without being seen as a testosterone Steven-Seagal-esque meathead. Ass-kicking fantasies for men are more about proving and retaining power, I think. For women, they’re about finding and asserting power when they’re not expected to have any.

That’s exactly it. That’s a really big reason why women, and even little girls, need power fantasies and superheroes of their own. But as brilliant as this post was, what made me really think about this was the reaction it elicited from Michael May over at Amazon Princess:

That makes so much sense I’m ashamed I never thought of it, at least not in those terms. I’ve been operating under the hypothesis that the attraction of Wonder Woman for women has a lot to do with confidence (and argued that that also makes her attractive to men – or at least to men like me), but Jennifer’s thoughts go deeper than that and explore at least one of the reasons why Wonder Woman can afford to be so confident. She’s gorgeous and she can damn well take care of herself.

So, yes, women do want and need superheroes. Little girls need superheroes. This isn’t to say that boys don’t need them, but why can’t we have both? If there can be three ongoing comics at the same time about Batman’s adventures in Gotham, surly there can be a little more room for real superheroines! There are so few comics highlighting superheroines (and at the rate Marvel’s going, fewer all the time) and the ones that do exist often feel like the neglected side projects that either got hastily put together while the writers focus on their real stories or are assigned to second-string artists and writers and never promoted in any way, giving them no chance to gain a real following. Even flagship characters get dropped and forgotten (how many times has Spider-Girl lost her book? when was the last time one of the DC editors even mentioned Wonder Woman’s book publicly?).

Women deserve more heroes. We deserve more games with heroes we can see ourselves in (and yes, if you read the above you’ll see that we do like them beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all have to be naked and have DD-cup breasts, beauty is more complicated than that). We deserve more comics with kick-ass heroines. We deserve heroines with real female friendships, since women do occasionally interact with each other. I’d love – *LOVE* – to read a comic that passed the Bechdel Test, but since Birds of Prey ended I haven’t found one. I’d love to see as many little girls running around pretending to be Batgirl, Spider-Girl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl as I see little boys running around pretending to be Spider-Man, Superman, the Hulk and Batman. Maybe if more guys saw that girls could be heroes, more women would actually be safer in real life too. You never know.

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