Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Women of character: in this world and in galaxies far, far away

One of the great debates between my son and I is this: "Who is better, Princess Leia or Padme Amidala."  The clear winner in my book is Leia.  For my son, a 12 year old who saw the Prequels first, its Padme.  

My son faults Leia for many things that were simply unrealistic for the time period she was written in (like flying an X-Wing in Episode IV).  He does not understand (nor would I expect him to) the time period in which Princess Leia was written.  I remember watching Star Wars wanting to be Leia.  For a while, I insisted Princess Leia was my name and that my parents should address me as such.  Leia could match wits with scoundrels and imperial commanders, she could be tortured by the empire and still keep her side buns firmly in place and looking great, she could engage in a fire fight like the boys she traveled with, she could pilot a space vehicle, she would choose to stay behind as imperials storm their Hoth base just to make sure everyone is evacuated, she rode a speeder bike at top speeds through a forest she's never been through before, she helped lead the assault on Endor's moon, and she kept cool under pressure as would be expected of a princess and senator in times of personal stress.  Seriously, she kicks butt!  And for a girl growing up in the 80s where the typical female movie role was to look pretty and scream while they're being saved from some dashing man?.. Leia was the toughest chic on the block, and she was a princess.  None of that Disney princess stuff either.  She's what a princess should be.  

By all accounts, you would think I'd like Padme.  She's not afraid to make tough decisions, she is a strong leader, she can hold her own in a gun fight, and she lives to serve others.  Along with many of the traits shared with Leia as mentioned above, she's got some good stuff to her name.  So what's my problem?  Episode III.  In the end, Padme "loses the will to live," even after giving birth to two healthy babies, and dies asking Obi-Wan to save Anakin because "there is still good in him."  Wait, what?  Then why did you die???  You gave up, and then you're are you asking someone, holding your baby you're leaving behind, to fight your battle for you??  This is a serious issue with me.  Despite the fact that Natalie Portman did a poor job acting in Star Wars, I believed the character could have been redeemed.  But Mr. Lucas took the easy way out and killed her without any reasonable cause.  He spent the entire prequels to that point establishing Padme as a strong leader for the rebellion, and then she... just... dies... 

In Episode VI, Luke asks Leia, "do you remember your mother, your real mother."  Leia first of all should be asking, 'what the heck do you mean by real mother?'  Clearly, that line was forgotten about when Episode III was being filmed.  I thought for sure that Padme would continue the fight for a few years to try to save Anakin but that eventually the Emperor would kill her as she pleaded for Anakin to save her.  Parallel to Luke's battle in Episode VI?  Hmmm, perhaps... Could have really been a heavily emotional scene.  However, the character of Padme was never given a chance to fight for love.  She simply gave up.  Yet what did Leia do when her man was taken away?  She walked into Jabba's palace and turned on a thermonuclear detonator!!!  And that was only to stay in character as Boushh the bounty hunter!  She ended up choking Jabba to death, probably also for exploiting her physical traits instead of her mind (stupid bikini) as much as putting a bounty on her boyfriend's head.  Padme couldn't have done a little storming of an imperial base to try to rescue Anakin from his dark path?  One disagreement and its over for you?  My son can overlook this ridiculous ending to Padme's life, but as a mother, I have a real issue with it.  I like to see strong motherly characters on screen and in the pages of my books!

When I pick up a book, its partially for the storyline but mostly because of the characters.  I enjoy reading about women in historical times overcoming odds, developing into wiser people, and finding meaning in their lives.  One of my favorite books is "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."  There is not a happy ending to this tale of friendship, but there is a lesson that the main character learns.  It was heartfelt, it portrayed women surviving in a horribly abusive world (wait until you read about foot binding), and its about character growth.  Wow.  This book had the "it" female factor for me.  You may check out my review on my website: http://www.teasippinnerdymom.com/history-is-cool-history-book-reviews-fascinating-facts/history-book-reviews-fiction-non/snow-flower-the-secret-fan/

Another book I was excited to read was "Bitter Greens" about a female author, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who wrote the most commonly known Rapunzel story.  It wove back and forth through three different women's lives.  Unfortunately, the book seemed to spend more time on who was sleeping with who or who was raping who than about women using their inner strength and tenacity to create something beautiful in a harsh world.  I got so sick from all the sex scenes.  There was so little characterization.  As I wrote in my review, What motivates Charlotte-Rose? What inspires a story for her? Is it something she heard gossiped, is it while she's riding horses, is it remembering her life growing up? This is what I want to read. Bed fellows should take a back seat to this. The "Afterward" shares that Charlotte-Rose wrote a collection of fairy tales. Where did these other fairy tales arise from? There was little to no exploration of Charlotte-Rose's imagination other than a story briefly told at a salon in one chapter.

So many books about historical female characters weigh heavily on women being fondled or bed frolicking, and I seriously do not want to read it!  I want to read about women overcoming obstacles using their own personal skills (and we are not talking skills is bed) and wisdom.  One reviewer on Amazon.com commented that books with large amounts of sex or religious beliefs should be labeled as such.  I agree.  I hate it when I pick up a book and then get smacked over the head with steamy love scenes.  Huh... did I pick up a bodice ripper?  I thought this was supposed to be about Juliet's nurse???  

Wait a minute... how in the world did I get from Star Wars to here?  Simply put, its all about the portrayal of women from page to screen.  Growing up when I did, I've seen a LOT of growth for women as years have passed.  There's still a bridge to cross every now and then, but its so different from the 80s where women characters offered very little to the movie plot lines in action/adventure stories.  And those were the stories I wanted!  

Will the debate go on between me and my son?  Most likely.  He will always like Padme better than Leia.  He feels she did more in the story.  That's partially due to the time the movies were filmed and the expectations Mr. Lucas was writing under.  Leia actually set the bar high, so when he created the mother of Leia and Luke, she had to be very strong willed and assertive.  Unfortunately, the story for Padme ended without any character growth.  It ended in a sacrifice that did nothing to help those around her.  And she gets the worst mother of the year award.  That's not the example of a 'strong female character' I want my kids to get behind.

So when I read about female characters in books or watch them on screen, I want a story that shows off some courage, be it courage in taking a first step to a new school, allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of others, not giving up when all hope seems lost, or escaping a Death Star, whatever.  There are many examples of courage.  Choices are not made easily, life is hard, but through personal strength and wisdom, obstacles can be overcome and dreams can be achieved.  Did "Snow Flower" have a happy ending?  No.  I do not expect a happy ending all the time.  However, I do like something that shows growth.  Characters come out different by the end, and the journey is made sweeter when you reach that final step.  

Here's a few books other than above that I would recommend in which I feel get females right (click on the names to view my review on my website)

Gwendolyn's Sword