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Mary Robinette Kowal – Off With Her Head? Why Fantasy Hates Good Queens

A few weeks ago we had a ball discussing the Top Ten Evil Queens of fantasy. But something occurred to me as I was doing my research: While I had no trouble finding evil queens, the only ones I could find that were depicted as being “good” were physically compromised in some way. (And I’m not talking about princesses here — I mean women in real seats of power.) The question this raises for me is, does power corrupt or are powerful women seen as dangerous in fantasy? Let’s take a look at the way good queens are hobbled to find out.

Small Queens
I’ve lumped two types together here: Child queens and little people. By the latter, I mean queens like Cherlindrea in Willow. Granted she’s the same size as the people she rules, but she’s also small enough to be physically dominated. That ability to control a queen physically might explain why lots of good queens are kids: Lucy and Susan in The Chronicles of Narnia are 8 and 12 in the first movie. By the second, when Susan is old enough to be considered a woman, she’s sent back to our world and no longer allowed to be a queen. At least Susan’s in good company: Many of the older good queens I could find were teens like Empress Savina in Dungeons and Dragons. After that, they all turned evil. Heck, even when you move over to space fantasy like Star Wars: Episode I, Padmé is only 14 when she’s in charge.

Ailing Queens
There is a way a queen can remain good as she comes into adulthood: She just needs to get sick. MirrorMask is an excellent example of this. There are two queens: One good, one evil. The evil queen is a vibrant, strong woman at the height of her power. She’s ambitious and seemingly capable of anything. The good queen? She’s in a coma. And this is a pattern you’ll see repeated in other movies. The Childlike Empress from The Neverending Story, who is already diminished by her very name, is also dying. She needs a boy from our world to save her. Typical male fantasy.

Married Queens
OK, so you really want to be a good queen. You want to survive your teenage years in good health and rule as a healthy adult. No problem. It’s just that you’ll have to get married. Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings rules with her husband. Guinevere rules with her husband. Even the mother in The Lion King rules with her husband — that is, until he’s deposed. Then what happens? She loses power to her brother-in-law. Sure, we’re talking about lions, but it’s so consistent with what happens with other queens that it’s hard to shake off. The fact is, marriage is another way a queen’s power is usurped — because when Guinevere is “ruling” with King Arthur, who’s really ruling? That’s what I thought. 

Having said all that, it might surprise you to learn that there’s one character I stumbled upon who’s actually a mature, healthy woman in power: Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. If you want a role model on how to be a good queen in fantasy, your one choice dresses like a doll and rules over little people. I don’t really have complaints about her wardrobe choice, because she also kicks some serious ass while wearing the world’s largest skirt. But you don’t have to be a queen to rule over little people — just ask your local kindergarten teacher.

So the question remains: Does power corrupt or are powerful women dangerous? Personally, I think it’s the latter. There are examples of good queens in real life, but somehow the only thing that stirs our imagination when it comes to women is either the gender’s capacity for evil or helplessness.

Tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.


Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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