Heroes and Heroines
Length: 2038 words (5.8 double-spaced pages)
"Who the heck are you?" Victor Frankenstein cried. "What the heck are you?"
"I am the wretch created by your beloved Elizabeth," cried the vaguely female wretch. "Elizabeth has passed the limits of the human realm and in her feverish pursuit of the essential knowledge of the world she has spawned the being that you now see before you!"
"And what do you want from me, you frightening monstrosity whom my innocent and sheltered eyes should never have been made to look upon?"
The wretch snickered. "I am a monstrous version of Elizabeth, her child, brought forth by her own hand. She has forsaken me, cast me aside and thus made me miserable! Therefore I have vowed to destroy everything she loves, even sweet and mild Victor, just as she destroyed all happiness for me. Rrrrr!"
"Oh, help me! Help me!" Victor Frankenstein cried. "Oh! Oh!"
Now wait just one second. Very funny, but that's not how the story goes. For one thing, Victor Frankenstein does not squeal like a-girl?
Victor Frankenstein created the monster. Victor Frankenstein was the ambitious one who took his experiments too far. A monstrous version of Victor destroyed everything he loved. Elizabeth was sweet and mild. Elizabeth was the innocent who died because of Victor's work gone wrong. Frankenstein would have been a remarkable book if Elizabeth had taken on Victor's part, if Victor had taken on Elizabeth's part, and if the wretch had been female. Imagine Victor staying at home and being the best example of the sweetest nature anyone ever did see. Imagine Elizabeth storming acros the icy mountains after the wretch, and imagine the wretch demanding a husband to be a boon to her, sweet and supportive company when she became tired of the world.
Switching the gender roles in such a way would be comical because that's not the way it's done. When we read about, watch, or listen to our fictional heroes and heroines, we expect certain behaviors from them. We have a set of rules by which we define male and female characters, and characters that don't adhere to the general rules are anomalies and misfits.
Sometimes we may want a character to be a misfit. Most heroes, for example, are misfits in some way. Look at Batman. He might have some issues, but by golly, he really did something about them. A man or woman must deviate from some set of dictates in order to be remarkable. And yet, even people as unrealistic as superheroes don't break from one particular set of rules-the delineation between male roles and female roles. Why not? They fly, don't they?
The people who exhibit the qualities that we want to hear about or who experience the troubles that we wonder about seem to be men. Who wants to read all about Daisy in The Great Gatsby? Who wants to read all about Sonia in Crime and Punishment? Who thinks Cordelia in "King Lear" is really exciting? On the other hand, who thinks Gatsby deserves some attention? Raskolnikov? D'Artagnan? Oedipus? There are certainly exceptions, such as the gender defiers Mulan and Teiresias, but we generally want to hear about a hero, like Peter Pan, not a heroine, like Peter's counterpart, Wendy. A heroine gets caught up in womanish fancy (any girl in a fairy-tale), or she gets struck down by womanish weakness (any man's wife in a fairy-tale). A hero equals action-except for Hamlet. A hero is irrepressible, someone who has his share of faults but who struggles for something.
Hero, heroine, whatever-we read about them because we want to see somebody take hold of or question his or her life, whether it's his life or her life. In most cases, being a man or woman doesn't make that much of a difference. Or does it? Admittedly, switching around the genders of some characters wouldn't make much of a difference to their identities. Djali, the goat in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, would have done just as well as a boy goat. In Pride and Prejudice, Bingley could have been Jane, and Jane could have been Bingley.
Certainly, for many characters, gender isn't a big issue-it's not as if we tailor heroes to boys and heroines to girls. But if Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye were a girl, he wouldn't be quite the same, would he? And if D'Artagnan were a woman-well, sure, but he just wouldn't have the same dash. Elizabeth, for one, would have to remain a woman. If she were a man, the boldness of her personality would probably lose much of its charm. Apparently, the characters who are developed enough to be real people have some of their identity rooted in their gender. We don't rise up in arms about this because many of us feel that there are inherent differences between men and women in real life, too, and we are willing to see this difference reflected in our fiction. But the difference between heroes and heroines is a little more subtle than the difference between ordinary men and women.
My theory is that a hero is a man unless there's a reason for him to be a woman. Men in fiction tend to embody qualities that we like to see in a Person. This Person is courageous, intelligent, and either all-around likable or cool. These are people like Wolverine from the X-Men, Robin Hood, James Bond, and Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness. Heroes have some kind of male coolness that sets them apart from other characters, and this is why we like or admire them. Take Professor X for example, the founder and mentor of the X-Men group in the X-Men comics. Professor X is a male character whom all the X-Men rely on, and he is crucial to the success of the group, but really-he's kind of wishy washy, and he's so safe. Optimus Prime, the leader of the good guys in the cartoon series "Transformers," on the other hand, can become formidably angry. Team members who betray him have reason to fear destruction. Wolverine, even more on the other hand, ditches the other X-Men all the time, yet he manages to stay alive. He knows what he's doing. He's untouchable. That's the way heroes are, even the ancient ones.-Could Achilles or Odysseus possibly be a woman?
No. In fact, Achilles made a poor woman. When his mother, in an effort to keep him from war, put him in a dress and secreted him away, Odysseus still managed to ferret him out. Odysseus pretended to be peddling weapons, and Miss Achilles could not stay away from them. Achilles failed to catch on to and imitate feminine qualities-but good for him! You wanted a firebrand like Achilles to go to war, didn't you?
Women in fiction tend to embody qualities that we see in a Woman. They are sisters, mothers, girlfriends, wives, grandmothers, irritating secretaries. One popular heroine in Japan right now is Nausicaa, from the movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Nausicaa triumphs because of her sweet nature, which is so caring that her love transcends not only ethnic boundaries, but species boundaries. She just has this knack for making all of nature happy. Now, Nausicaa isn't a wimp, not by a longshot, but her strength lies in having a nurturing spirit and a capacity for suffering, rather than being an introspective Person who wants to do things herself (himself!). The girl characters that Holden Caulfield cares about are the same. They may not be heroines to us, but Holden thinks about them in such a way that they are idealizations inside his head. He thinks of his sister Phoebe as so nice and sweet, and his friend Jane as so vulnerable, and both of them as innocent.
All these are qualities generally attributed to ideal female characters, the female heroes, and not male ones. Aerith and Tifa, characters from the video game Final Fantasy VII, and also Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII, and even the militaristic Celes from Final Fantasy III are all disappointingly bouncy during some part of the games they appear in, and they seem to exist to be loved or unloved by the male heroes-Cloud, Squall, and Locke. These girls have strong followings of fans, though, just like the heroes do. Why? Because they're so adorable, because they suffer so much, because they're valiantly brave and they have heartaches over boys.
In The Three Musketeers, D'Artagnan and his three musketeer friends are trying to save the queen from a plot by the Cardinal to destroy her. The two wily and worthy opponents are Cardinal Richelieu and Clarice De Winter, Milady. While the ultimate arch nemesis is Richelieu, his underling Milady is a far more chilling opponent. Richelieu can be confronted like a man, but Milady is sneaky, and so devious that you tremble in fear of this sylph-like vision of loveliness. She can seduce even the most rigid of men into doing her evil work for her. That is what makes her so dangerous-all men are in danger of falling in love with her. In fact, what scares the reader most about her is not that she's going to kill D'Artagnan, but that D'Artagnan is going to fall all the way in love with her and expose himself to her. What makes her so strong of a character is not her actual character, it's her role as a dangerous woman.
Men are often saying how inexplicable women are, so it makes sense that most women characters seem to have a kind of mysteriousness about them that makes them women. There are several strong female characters, however, that are almost masculine in their behavior. Medea from Greek mythology, Catwoman from the Batman comics and movies, Faye Valentine from the anime "Cowboy Bebop," and Lina Inverse from the anime "Slayers" are all powerful female heroines who are straightforward and who refuse to be dependent on anybody. Medea's character is powerful, because she is willing to kill her brothers and sons for what she believes in. Faye's character is also very strong; Faye doesn't like to work in groups. But at the same time, Medea is Medea as we see her because Jason drove her slightly wacko by slighting her. Lina, as a cartoon character, is necessarily girlish at times. And any photograph of Catwoman or Faye Valentine shows us how important it is for both of them to be identified as attractive women.
Do heroes ever worry about being sexy? Did Indiana Jones say, "Does this fedora make my head look funny?" Did Robin Hood ever say, "How about this shade of green? Marian? How about this shade?" Did Wolverine ever say, "Jubilee, I feel like we aren't communicating to each other enough. Do you feel this way? Honestly. I need to hear how you feel." Could Aerith say the same thing and not have us label it as "girl talk," and when Professor X does say it, is it possible for us to think that he's the same brand of hero as Wolverine?
I love my heroes, complete with their flaws, even the terribly bad ones like Achilles. But I do notice that I like more guy heroes than girl ones. This isn't because heroines are wimps, not necessarily, it's because there has to be a reason for a hero to be a girl, and when a hero becomes a girl, we tend to give her a typical girl's qualities. Somehow, this makes her less heroic and more like a woman. We do see women as strong characters, such as Wendy, Faye, Aerith, and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl). But they aren't heroes, not like the men are. Peter, Wendy's counterpart, remains Peter to the end, despite Wendy's motherly influence. Spike, Faye's reluctant partner, never gets stuck in a tight situation. Sephiroth, Aerith's dark double, kills Aerith for his dreams. Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon's compatriot, leaves the team because he disagrees with Batman, not because he, like Barbara, becomes severely injured for life. Even Little John is cooler than Marian. And though we might add females to the Batman family, nobody would make Batman himself, who is a definitive male hero, a woman.