"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A tangent on femininity and archery

This was originally part of my review of Brave, but it got a little out of hand. Just a quibble I've been turning over in my mind recently. To be read as an addendum to that review if you like.

Can we stop with the girl archers extraordinaire now? It's been fun, because archery is awesome. However, I suspect some weird association between young women and archery that is based on the fact that archery is somehow a more delicate, and certainly a more distant, sport/weaponry than swords or hand-to-hand combat. (I'm not trying to belittle archery here, just saying it seems to project a different quality and a different set of virtues than other modes of fighting.) Quick, name three recent portrayals of archers. I can think of Katniss Everdeen, Princess Merida, and Legolas. So, two girls and an elf. Now, elves are not paragons of classical masculinity. The whole point of Legolas is that he's like a cat, never leaving a trace and never receiving a trace either - his blond hair remains perfect as he shoots down enemies from afar.

I think that the media is trying to keep girls, even when their tomboys, within the boundaries of elf-style fighting.
Thing is, one of the best things about heroes is that they get extraordinarily beaten down and scuffed up and yet still carry on, against all odds. They're super human. One kind of super humanity the kind where you're not human, you're an elf, and your elf-eyes see everything, and your aim is very, very good. Another kind is where you're a woman, and you have great skills like archery and horseback riding and bravery, but you still keep ending up in the hospital or you fall off your horse for no good reason or no one believes in or celebrates your prowess, or your hair always stays perfect no matter what scrapes you get into.

 Then there's another kind, which we can call the Aragorn-style hero, where your body is not kept safe or pure or distanced from the action. You go way past the point where most people would give up and lie there awaiting death, and you carry on steadfastly without even flinching. By the end of the day, your flesh is utterly mortified, but, here's the thing, your soul (to speak in shorthand) remains pure and valorous, and you are more of a paragon because of the physical reality you have endured. This kind of hero is, I believe, extraordinarily attractive to a lot of people. You find him in film noir and fantasy and probably a lot of action movies, although I don't really watch those. Yes, there's a separate issue to be discussed about representations of violence, but that doesn't change the fact that I would like to see, just once, a female Aragorn.

If you have thoughts on this, please share in the comments, because I'm very interested in continuing the discussion, and I'm still working out my own thoughts about this issue.


  1. Well! Another very recent portrayal of an archer is Hawkeye from the Avengers/Thor, and he's not an elf. But I definitely see your point about female archers... and even when women DO do hand-to-hand combat, it's true their hair tends to end up looking either fine or sexily mussed. In terms of Aragorn-like heroes, though, I think the characters (including a girl) in Cabin in the Woods actually come pretty close in that they keep getting stabbed and pushed around and generally "killed" except that they miraculously stay alive and continue running around getting attacked. Maybe that's just because horror-ish films don't work if the characters die too easily, but I do think they were heroes in a way. Not sure you'd want to see that movie, though. And I mean, Katniss Everdeen WAS a hero in the Aragorn way as well, in that she got completely beat up but kept her wits about her and just kept going despite everything. Yes, she had arrows, but she was also there in the midst of everything. So I thought that was a pretty good portrayal, especially as the one who had to be helped and taken care of was a boy, which was a nice swap of stereotypes.

    You know what I'd like to see, though? More female fencers/swordfighters. There are many archers, there are many hand-to-hand combat women, they also often use knives. But to me it seems at least that although there are occasional female fencers (the first thing that comes to mind is the main woman in the Mask of Zorro... but I'm sure there have been more recent ones), they are always VERY GOOD (on a side note, I'd also like to see more novice fighters to change things up a bit, but that's unlikely to happen) and yet still overcome but the even better sexy-man adversary. Unless they're fighting an ugly bad guy -- those times, the woman may win.

    I don't know, I actually do think there probably are a few good examples of women for pretty much anything I'd like to see, but I do wish there was more diversity more frequently.

    - Ilona

  2. Agreed on the wanting more diversity and more frequently. I probably won't see Cabin in the Woods, but I remember now from hearing about it that there was that kind of beat up but never beaten down quality.
    Anyway, thanks for commenting!