The Girl Who…

As I was incoherently saying earlier today, there’s a dearth of strong female characters in, well, everywhere. It’s no secret that Hollywood writers still uniformly think that women are too ‘adorkable’* to chew gum and walk – see Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, Katherine Heigl, Zooey Deschanel, et al. I also can’t think of very many strong, smart, self-sufficient female heroines in literature either. Alice in Wonderland and Pippi Longstocking come to mind. Lucy Pevensie. Arya Stark. Lyra Belacqua. Hermione Granger. Matilda Wormwood. Somebody write in and remind me of a kick-butt heroine who isn’t a small child. The only instance I can instantly remember of a grown woman standing up for herself and being strong is Lady Eowyn from The Lord of The Rings. Nearly every female character in every book ever written is either a dirty slut or a miserable helpless victim. It may not be fair to fault writers who lived 150 years ago for insufficient feminism – they wrote about the times they lived in. The Sexual Revolution wasn’t that long ago. It’s no wonder we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Now, in what the entertainment industry will surely dismiss as a freak occurrence with no rational explanation, we have the massive popularity of a book and movie franchise that wouldn’t exist without its convention-shattering heroine. I’m talking about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, which introduced us to Lisbeth Salander, the first truly, fully modern fictional heroine. Larsson’s books are compelling enough mysteries, but there’s no shortage of those floating about. What there is shortage of, and what these books offer, is an original character, an amped-up version of today’s cool young woman. Lisbeth is a deeply, perhaps irrevocably troubled person, and that is part of her appeal. As Larsson bluntly states on the first page of his first book, a staggering percent of women find themselves on the receiving end of some kind of violent and degrading treatment. It’s a lucky woman indeed who makes it to old age without being abused in one way or another. Most of us can relate to being made to feel helpless and weak. However, the image of the stereotypical weepy, self pitying victim is in itself degrading. As if a woman who has been raped or otherwise assaulted should just curl up and die, or continue feeling helpless, worthless and violated for the rest of her life. What I think readers love about Lisbeth Salander is her absolute refusal, no matter the horrible things that have been done to her, to give in to the victim mentality. She’s been abused, but she’s no helpless victim. She fights back with every weapon at her disposal. She continues, against all odds, to be herself.

Her role as a righteous avenger is only part of her appeal, although it’s the most obvious one. But besides having a talent for annihilating those who oppress her, Lisbeth personifies what I think of as an ideal new woman in countless other ways. She breaks practically every convention of how women are portrayed, across the board. First off, she is not conventionally attractive, a cardinal sin for any woman, fictional or otherwise. She’s less than five feet tall, malnourished, heavily pierced and tattooed, badly dressed, and has a bad haircut. She has zero social skills, an almost worse sin, for after physical appearance a woman’s worth is measured in charm. A woman should be like a kitten society says; soft, cuddly and endlessly, brainlessly amusing. Lisbeth is not amusing. She’s sexually liberated. She fucks whoever she wants to, whenever she feels like it, with no emotional investment. As is her prerogative, but that’s still considered shocking. The fact that Larsson has written a heroine with the sexual morals of a man is in itself a great leap forward. Society is still trying to wrap its collective head around the idea that a woman can and should freely pursue her sexual desires, outside the love/marriage institution. The fact that Lisbeth continues to enjoy sex despite having been raped is another huge fuck-off to victim culture. She sees no reason to let one man’s depraved actions destroy her own capacity for pleasure. She’s not interested in love, either. She does fall in love at one point, but it doesn’t work out, she feels bad for a while, then she gets over it. As we all do. No hand wringing, no baby-come-back. Having a love interest is traditionally a defining feature of any fiction featuring females, with the possible exception of the Miss Marple stories. How can a woman live without being defined by the man who owns her heart? Very easily, it turns out. Finally, Lisbeth’s greatest strength is her brilliant mind. She’s not defined by her looks or her sexuality or who she’s in love with. If there’s anything to define her by, it’s being a genius. A thoroughly modern one, a wizard on the computer who ferrets out evildoers’ secrets to use against them in self-defense. She gets by on her own resourcefulness, never waiting around to be rescued. This might be the first time we’ve met a heroine who is so completely her own person.

Obviously the thanks for Larsson’s popularity rests entirely on Lisbeth’s shoulders. For as I might have mentioned before, he’s kind of a crappy writer in many ways. The three Millennium books have a lot of faults, which I’ll admit are par for the course in the thriller/mystery genre. Larsson’s prose is supremely clunky, his dialogue graceless. There are long bouts of boring and unimportant exposition. There’s his habit of cataloging every sandwich, cup of coffee and Ikea purchase. To be fair, though, the editing process was never properly completed, because the author died before publication. Also to his credit, Larsson had quite a depraved imagination, inventing an unusually compelling series of mysteries. The first book can stand alone, and has a somber wintry mood that is very different from the other two, which delve speedily into a convoluted and far-reaching conspiracy. The last two books move with immense speed, gathering clues and twists on nearly every page. Larsson was planning a series of ten books, and had supposedly nearly finished the fourth one at the time of his death. After unraveling the inner workings of Sweden’s Secret Police, I can only imagine what new evils he was planning to mine. As always, his subject is the abuse of power. It was writ on a small scale in the first novel, unfolding withing one awesomely dysfunctional family. In the final two, he tackled abuse of power on a government level, with the same righteous anger. The sense that Larsson isn’t just aiming to entertain, but is truly all steamed-up about inequity within society might also be a part of the series’ appeal.

Larsson was in the magazine business himself before he started writing fiction, and loved to uncover the dirty deeds of right-wing political organizations and the like. The hero and Lisbeth’s sometime parter, Mikael Blomqvist, is so obviously an idealized alter-ego of the author. He’s an impeccably moral journalist, an endlessly loyal friend, brave and brilliant and absurdly irresistible to women. His very incorruptibility is almost grating. He would be a rather dull protagonist if he didn’t have Lisbeth to spar with. Her near-anarchist ways make a good foil for his rather conventional thinking. He’s the classic good detective. All good all the time. Larsson’s world doesn’t have any room for shades of grey. It’s good guys and gals against pure evil. Lisbeth is the only really complex character in that regard. Everyone else is either or. Lisbeth likes to take morally suspect action, being capable of extreme violence and cruelty, but she’s more avenging angel than ethical conundrum. There’s never any doubt she’s doing the right thing, even when she’s being sadistic. (Acknowledging that a woman can be sadistic and violent, another trailblazing score for Larsson!) But, of course, a clear moral universe is what’s expected of crime fiction. The satisfaction of seeing bad guys get their due punishment is what makes the genre so addictive and pleasurable.

Speaking to anyone who might not get around to reading the actual books, there’s also movies available for you to watch. I have to disagree with the otherwise perceptive Joan Acocella’s assessment that the story lives better onscreen. For all their faults I think the books offer a more satisfying experience. However, the movies are also worth the time. Against all expectations I found the American adaptation far superior to the Swedish original. I don’t know who director Niels Arden Oplev is, but his adaptation is perfunctory and too genteel by half. The plot is overly simplified, losing too many relevant details. It’s a complicated story, but it didn’t need to be reduced to bullet points. I also thought the visual style was a little flat. The main weakness for the Swedish entry is the casting of Blomqvist, whose heroic characteristics the bloated and pockmarked features of Michael Nykvist reflect not at all. He looks more like a creepy rapist than the creepy rapist does. The American version has the benefits of a much more faithful and detailed adaptation job, the visual flair of David Fincher, director of perverse grunge classics Fight Club and Se7en. And  new-model 007 Daniel Craig is a much-improved Blomqvist – charismatic but rough around the edges. I thought that both actresses cast as Lisbeth Salander were excellent in their own ways, although Sweden’s Noomi Rapace might actually be a bit too beautiful for the role. Rapace plays Lisbeth as fierce and deeply angry. American Rooney Mara plays her more as wary and sad, looking at times like a drowned rat. I find Mara unrecognizable without black bangs, and that element of blandness is actually a strength when it comes to portraying a girl who is already iconic in readers’ imaginations. It allows her to create the character with no outside associations.

I find it delightful that people have embraced the Millennium books and made Lisbeth Salander a phenomenon. And I can’t help but bring up yet another wildly popular page to screen adventure that stars a young woman for whom self-sufficiency, intelligence, and physical strength rank far above cuteness and charm. I’m talking about The Hunger Games books. Although Suzanne Collins’s books are miles and genres away from Larsson’s they have similarities, in their heroines. Collins has created Katniss Everdeen, a girl who shares a lot with Lisbeth Salander. Like Lisbeth, she survives by her wits, cares deeply about doing what’s right, fights bravely against an inhumane and abusive power system, doesn’t need a man to take care of her, doesn’t give a damn what she looks like, doesn’t care about being nice, isn’t afraid to fight and kill if need be, and refuses to give up being herself. I think it’s no coincidence that both these young heroines have become household names, and are fiercely beloved and endlessly talked about. They are obviously filling a deep need for female role models that real women today can admire. Because the princess in the castle who dreams of getting married is so hopelessly obsolete it’s laughable, and so is the wily femme fatale who inevitably gets punished to being too up front about the feminine business of using her looks to manipulate men to her advantage. Because on both sides of the traditional virgin/whore schematic it’s the same thing going on; women using their only precious resource (their pussy, duh) to somehow finagle their way to a better station in life, whether by ensnaring Prince Charming in holy matrimony or turning tricks. That entrenched view of women is outmoded, outdated and no less disgusting for being perpetuated by singing critters in Disney movies. Well, today we have a generation of young girls (and boys) coming of age who’ve internalized the positives of first wave feminism, who’ve grown up with the expectation of equality, grown up expecting freedom and respect, and we want to see ourselves on the screen and in books.

*newspeak for ‘functionally retarded but still fuckable’

Two Bestsellers

(and their adaptations)

I’ve recently tackled, just to see what the fuss was about, two popular novels and their much buzzed film adaptations. Neither is destined to become a classic, but both have their strengths and both in their own way, speak to the Zeitgeist.

First, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a look into the lives of black housemaids in 1963 Jackson, MI. Stockett, who is white, has attracted a bit of how-dare-she controversy for writing from the maid’s perspective, but overall her work has met with acclaim. I don’t see any problem with a writer tackling whatever perspective she chooses, but make no mistake, this is a book for white people. Though Stockett has enormous sympathy for her characters and the book is often moving, there’s no real sense of danger. We rest assured that although the characters are supposed to be at great risk, nothing truly bad will happen. The Help is no Color Purple.

This is one of those rare cases when I say go ahead and skip straight to the movie. The film adaptation is, like the book, thoroughly middlebrow, competent and unstylish, but rendered unforgettable by the justly acclaimed cast. The movie wisely plays to the book’s strengths, focusing on the faces of great actors like Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain, all very deserving Oscar nominees (and in Spencer’s case, a winner.) It’s an actor’s movie. The women’s eyes tell the story far more movingly than Stockett’s pen. The characters, lovable or despicable, are the strength of the movie and they’re the strength of the book.

While the movie may be faulted for not having prettier camera angles, the book’s faults run deeper. The problem is, it’s not really about the civil rights era, as it purports to be. Though there are multiple rather obvious cultural signposts sprinkled throughout – MLK! Catcher in the Rye! – the struggle for equality is used mainly as wallpaper for the human story to play out in front of. And although it purports to be the maids’ story, Stockett doesn’t seem to trust that her intended middleclass, middlebrow (in other words, white) audience to follow along unless baited with the dating travails of an insecure white chick thrown in. Stockett wastes too many  chapters on the character of Skeeter Phelan and her boring boyfriend and hair problems. (In the movie, Emma Stone’s performance as Skeeter is excellent, and the boyfriend subplot is thankfully trimmed to a bare three scenes.) The assumption that the white masses won’t want to read about black people stuff unless there’s a saintly white character to invest in is insulting all around – I’m pretty sure that millions of people of all colors and creeds have enjoyed the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker without the token ‘Good German’ figure shoehorned into every story.

The other problem with The Help is what the actual main theme really is. It’s not about civil rights at all. It’s another entry in the whole “evil 50’s”. Though the action takes place in 1963, it’s clearly about how life in 1950’s American suburbs was a soul-destroying hell somewhere on the level of the Spanish Inquisition. As presented by popular movies like Revolutionary Road (in which just being alive in the fifties is seen as cause enough for suicide) and the inexplicable glamorization of Sylvia Plath (the fifties drove her to it!) the fifties and early sixties were an unimaginably torturous time of mindless conformity and wealthy women going insane inside their gilded cages. Until the Sixties came along and magically made everything all better, an event usually represented in movies by The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, or just one of their songs. Which is exactly how life is portrayed in The Help.  (Except that it’s a Bob Dylan song this time.) Those poor brainwashed, overgirdled white ladies and their misguided quest for a nice car and a wealthy husband, unable to be fulfill their intellectual potential or be their true selves underneath all that hairspray. Wah. Recycling that old rubbish about middle class conformity at the expense of the truly interesting and unexplored reality of the maids lives is a waste of ink and pages, but it serves a purpose. The heady mixture of racism, ignorance and downtrodden suburban womanhood allows us to get all steamed up about how awful our grandmothers’ cloistered little lives must have been, then congratulate ourselves for being so much more enlightened than that. As if racial discrimination wasn’t alive and well, if slightly less overt. As if mindless white housewives don’t still leave their homes and children in the hands of disenfranchised, underpaid maids and gardeners, now more likely to be Latino than African-American, but still underpaid and disenfranchised. As if conformity and ignorance were historical anomalies that have gone away never to blight our suburbs again. Somebody needs to write about the help without whitewashing, without distraction, without making anyone feel better about themselves.

—————–

My second target is The Hunger Games, the latest phenomenon to burst out of the YA ghetto and into popular consciousness. I’ll admit that I only read the first book in the trilogy (and I have to say I’m roundly sick of everything being a trilogy.) There’s probably stuff in the last two books that puts the first one in a wider context and adds new perspective. But I only read the first one, just in time to catch the movie. In this case, I’ll take the book.

If you’ve been living in a cave recently, it’s all about a dystopian future society called Panam, sprung up in the wake of what used to be America, where the Superbowl has been replaced by adolescents fighting to the dead gladiator-style on live TV. Which is a shrewd and not entirely farfetched takeoff on our current ‘reality’ obsessed entertainment culture. The series has caught on across demographics partly because it’s original, fast-paced and violent and largely on the appeal of the heroine. Suzanne Collins has created, in the figure of Katniss Everdeen, a heroine for girls and for boys – strong, smart, moral and fearless. The book is a survival guide as much as an adventure story. Through Katniss, we learn how to live by our wits; rigging traps, building fires, scavenging for edibles in the wilderness, hunting, fighting, hiding, healing. Surviving. The book is suffused with its heroine’s will to live, and her will to do right. It’s also probably no coincidence that, at a time when the poor (which is nearly everybody nowadays) are beginning to feel not just neglected and poorly-done-by, but actively oppressed and pissed off about it, everyone is reading a novel about a country in which common citizens are little better than livestock for a decadent elite to play blood sports. Surely more than a few readers relate to the anger of the innocent Tributes forced to kill each other for entertainment, to the despair of their families trapped helplessly in an unfair controlled society. If there’s one unbreaking theme here, it is as the title implies, hunger. Hardly a page goes by without mention of food. Katniss is always hungry. Her life is ruled by food, or rather its absence. There’s a harrowing backstory of near-starvation, in which a burnt loaf of bread becomes a life-changing totem. The most lovingly written, sensual scenes are eating scenes. Suzanne Collins has captured what it feels like to live a life of wanting.

The only fault I really have with The Hunger Games, which I think will keep it out of the pantheon of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, is lack of context.  Critics have said that what makes those books fantasy classics and The Hunger Games not, is that their worlds are desirable and Panam isn’t. True enough, I doubt anybody wishes Panam was real the way we wish Middle Earth was real, but that may not be the point. Those books continue to hold our imaginations because they have the heft of mythology. (Even the insipid Twilight series boasts a compelling mythology.) Their universes are painstakingly detailed, rich with history, seemingly bottomless. Collins’s Panam on the other hand, is roughly sketched. There’s barely any history to explain how and why this world got to be so fucked up. There’s mention of the collapse of a previous civilization (ours), a war, a brutally suppressed rebellion, but it’s only a few cursory lines. Without its own mythology, this world feels bare. The worlds of Tolkien and Rowling feel satisfyingly real because their wealth of detail suggest any number of other stories besides the ones the author has chosen to tell. There’s so much more that must have happened, we think, so many characters and events that must exist outside the written page. We’re left hungry for more, and we spend time imagining what those other stories might have been. The Hunger Games don’t have that effect, because we just don’t know enough about Panam to imagine anything outside what’s been written. This is a problem. I imagine that it may be somewhat rectified in the second and third installments. If it isn’t, though, I’m afraid this series won’t go on to fascinate future generations but will fall behind as strictly a product of its time.

As for the movie, it’s thriller made without an ounce of style or creativity, redeemed entirely by the charisma of star Jennifer Lawrence. Although there are a few lovely shots of decrepit Appalachia in the beginning, the visuals are thoroughly pedestrian. The adaptation, although faithful (Collins adapted it herself), has a dutiful sense of hitting all the key scenes without adding anything meaningful or fresh. The violence has, understandably, been toned down, and with it much of the suspense. As with The Help, the primary pleasure of this movie is in meeting the characters. There’s a good strong supporting cast, including Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and surprisingly non-embarrassing Lenny Kravitz, but really the single best thing, the one force holding the entire thing together is Lawrence and her expressive face, physical confidence and star-is-born charisma.