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Mary Robinette Kowal – The Evolution of Women in Fantasy Movies


Like with anything else, if you watch enough fantasy movies over a long enough period of time, you’ll start to notice certain trends emerging. Today we’re going to take a look at one of those trends: The evolution of women in fantasy from game pieces to players — or to use a chess metaphor, from pawns to queens. Since we’ll be looking at one of the most traditional female archetypes in all of fantasy — the romantic lead — I am deliberately restricting the movies we discuss to more traditional fantasy, or as they say in the biz, “high fantasy.”

We’ll begin by looking at 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. This classic bit of Greek mythology pits Jason (Todd Armstrong) as a game piece of the gods who travels with his manly band of Argonauts facing challenges. One such trial finds Jason and the Argonauts captured by King Aeëtes — that is, until the king’s daughter, Medea (Nancy Kovack), saves them. She’s fallen hopelessly in love with the noble youth, for no apparent reason other than his manly chin. She betrays her father and her country for him, and aside from that she has no role in the movie. Can we blame it completely on the source material? Sadly, no. The original had a much more active role for Medea, along with a fairly believable character arc. Heck, she’s one of the most powerful female figures in Greek mythology.

The next milestone happened in 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad . The movie opens with Sinbad (John Phillip Law) finding a magical tablet, which he decides to sling around his neck as an amulet (why not?). That night he dreams of a beautiful woman with an eye tattooed on her palm. He follows the vision until he finds Margiana (Caroline Munro), a beautiful slave girl. Right… slave girl. And her role in the rest of the movie is? To be very pretty; to scream; to be rescued. Even though we don’t have gods playing with the mortals, we still have game pieces.

Moving forwards another decade, we’ve got 1983’s Ladyhawke. Here, the hero Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and his true love Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) are victims of a curse that makes her a hawk by day and him a wolf by night, able to be together only for brief moments at sunrise and sunset. Both characters have a clear emotional arc and are carrying the same burden, but aside from one moment when Isabeau saves his life, the driver of the plot is Navarre. At the end of the movie, as Navarre goes to confront the Bishop who placed the curse on them, he leaves Isabeau with their confidant and tells him to kill her if he doesn’t return. Wha? Kill her? The lady, it seems, would be too heartbroken to live without the man. Surely there are other options. Still, this flick has the hero and the heroine sharing more of the story than any adventure fantasy of the previous two decades.

The nineties featured a host fantasy movies with strong female characters, none more classic than Beauty and the Beast. What’s interesting about Belle in this movie is her relationship with the three different men in her life — her father, Gaston, and the Beast. Gaston is easily the best catch in the village, but Belle rebuffs his advances. Her father is more like a child than an authority figure, and she tends to him with motherly affection. Even with Beast she maintains a cold and calculated distance, not allowing him the satisfaction of making her comfortable in his palace. She’s the one in charge, driving events throughout the story. No passive heroine here.

And that brings us to the 21st century. How do women fare these days? Let’s use 2007’s Stardust as our example. Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) is in love with the prettiest girl in the village, who plays him like a second-hand fiddle. So when she sees a meteor fall and sets it as the condition for marrying him, Tristan agrees without even thinking. When he finds the fallen star, it’s actually an immortal woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). He claims her as a trophy, but she’s having none of it. They travel back to Tristan’s village, predictably falling in love. What we see in this movie is a complete reversal of gender roles. It’s Tristan who’s at the mercy of other women, be they witches, townies, or fallen stars. Sure he gets the girl, but in this case it might be more appropriate to say the girl gets him.

What are your thoughts on heroines in traditional fantasy? Have they finally found equality?

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is also the art director at Shimmer Magazine and a professional puppeteer. Her column appears every Friday.

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