24 March 2013


On Kicking and Butts

Do you have your Secret Decoder Rings ready? I hope so, because this post opens with a Secret Message!

First you'll get a question and have to guess the answer. Then you'll get an answer and have to come up with the question--like on Jeopardy!

Q1: What do the names Ashley, Dana, Hilary, Leslie, Meredith, Schuyler, Shirley, Vivian, and Whitney have in common?

A1: They are were originally "boys' names" and are currently "girls' names"!

A2: Probably Taylor . . . and Madison. Although Madison means "son of Maud."

Q2: Which boys' names are likely to go the same way in the next ten years?

So, did you guess correctly??? =D

Now, I kind of like the edginess of giving a girl a boys' name. As a former frustrated tomboy, I even wanted one myself. And I imagine that a lot of well-meaning parents hoped this tiny bit of gender-bending would prove to be empowering to their daughters, whom they loved as much as their sons. Because it's men who have all the power, right?

Well, that was about as accurate as my own childhood belief that it's boys who have all the fun. =P

Yes, before the 1960s, men had a certain kind of power not widely available to women. And in the 1980s, boys definitely had a certain kind of fun that my family didn't think was also appropriate for girls. But what we're forgetting is that pre-feminist women had freedoms which weren't culturally acceptable for men . . . and that any male Child of the 80s caught playing with a "girls' toy" would have really freaked his parents out. It may not have been entirely fair, but contrary to the Marxist template, neither was it a clear case of one sex locking the other out of the Halls of Privilege and Happiness.

It was more likely a case of one sex thinking that the other sex was more privileged and happier, believing that the trappings of that privilege and happiness were also their source, and going after those trappings with the single-mindedness of a tank.

Do you like the word "trappings"? I've been using it ever since I read what The Last Psychiatrist had to say about women, makeup and the US senate . . .

I think the answer is supposed to be, "it's empowering to women", but you should wonder: when more women enter a field, it means less men did, and if the men stopped going there, where did they go? Why did they leave? I assume they aren't home with the kids, right?

I don't want to be cynical, but boy oh boy is it hard not to observe that at the very moment in our history when we have the most women in the Senate, Congress is perceived to be pathetic, bickering, easily manipulated and powerless, and I'll risk the blowback and say that those are all stereotypes of women. Easy, HuffPo, I know it's not causal, I am saying the reverse: that if some field keeps the trappings of power but loses actual power, women enter it in droves and men abandon it like the Roanoke Colony. Again we must ask the question: if power seeking men aren't running for Senate, where did they go? Meanwhile all the lobbyists and Wall Street bankers are men, isn't that odd? . . .

The emphasis is mine. =) 

You know, back in 1994, I was wondering something similar: "If Daniel-san isn't practicing karate anymore, what is he doing?" Of course, his irrelevance to the fourth Karate Kid movie did not mean that he was no longer a "karate kid" in his own right. While his mentor was gone, maybe he came of age (Finally!), opened his own dojo, reunited with Kumiko . . . But let's not lose sight of the forest for the trees. My point is that if karate had successfully been rebranded as a girls' martial art, "What are the boys doing?" would be a legitimate question.

In fact, it would be a legitimate question if only because the answer would be what the girls would try to do next. =P

Fast forward almost twenty years. Karate may not have become "girly," but the general idea of "kicking butt" has. I don't think a modern boy would like to be called "kick-butt" (or even "kick-ass"), any more than he'd be like to be called Hilary. We know that giving boys' names to girls becomes meaningless in a generation or two, but we still imagine that giving the trappings of boyhood to girls is great progress.

Yesterday, I had a blast going through the blogs on the Kick-Butt Characters Blog Hop, noting how many of the featured books were about girl main characters and how few were about boy main characters. Some of the girls even had boys' names! (None of the boys had girls' names. Shocking.) When I was about halfway through the list, another imbalance emerged: stories with fantastic settings totally outnumbered stories with realistic settings. It was as if the cultural consensus were that girls can be as tough--or even tougher--than boys, but only in worlds dramatically different from this one. (Yeah, you know, Karl Marx thought that changing the social order was all that was necessary, too. There's a fine line between world building and wish fulfillment.) 

There are a million questions we could ask at this point, but I have only one:

If boys are no longer the protagonists of Action-Adventure novels,
in which modern books can we find them?

Image Sources: a) Gone with the Wind press photo, b) The Karate Kid poster, c) The Next Karate Kid poster


Melanie Bettinelli said...

All this talk about tough girls and girls taking over boy's stories brings to mind this piece I've been mulling over: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters. I don't think I agree with the author's premise about the lack of stories or her conclusions about how narratives shape reality. It strikes me as the sort of glib reasoning only an academic can muster. But there's something in what she says that I can't quite dismiss either. Anyway, I was wondering what you'd think of it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Melanie! I've just finished reading the article and my impressions are very similar to yours. I don't think a woman hitchhiker is either invisible or a potential victim simply because that is how our narratives tend to portray women travelers. I wonder if she is projecting her own insecurities onto the entire canon of literature.

Something that really stood out for me was her anecdote about "Goldenberry." Just when it seemed she had set up a really interesting story, she suddenly declined to tell it because: "if I tried to write it, I would be asked to explain so many things that the story would never get off the ground. Why I was out there in the first place? Why was Goldenberry out there? What drove us to the road? Why couldn't we go back? What were we running from? This is what it means to have no narrative outside of victimization and violence: it means wasting time constructing your moral right to tell a story in the first place, it means watching it get choked in the crib . . ."

I can't see how the same questions would not be asked if the story were about two men. And frankly, the only one who choked the story in the crib was the author herself.

On another tangent, this makes me wonder about road narratives with girl protagonists in Young Adult and Middle Grade literature. I'll bet there are a lot more than are dreamt of in that piece!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

"And frankly, the only one who choked the story in the crib was the author herself."

Yes. It seems obvious to me that if you want there to be a narrative for women travelers that telling your own story and those of others would be the way to go about rectifying the situation. And I agree that you would have to explain all those background things for any protagonist not just a female one. That's just what a narrator owes the reader.

And yes, one reason I brought it up was because I thought you might have more idea than I do of narratives with girl protagonists. Which reminds me, I just read one I thought you might enjoy: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Have you read it?

Enbrethiliel said...


The book which leaped to mind immediately was The Wanderer by Sharon Creech, in which a thirteen-year-old girl joins a sailing crew. I don't know if feminist academics would accept her "road narrative" when she shares narration duty with a boy cousin and the grownups on the crew are uncles. =P (Personally, I'm more worried about stretching the definition of "road"--but Huckleberry Finn and the Mississippi River have already been mentioned, so I guess it's okay.)

It was followed, believe it or not, but The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making! I haven't read it yet, though it's definitely on my list!

There are also lots of books in which a brother-sister team have to travel the world together. The Nicholas Flamel and 39 Clues series are obvious examples. They probably don't count because the girl (again) has to share the role of protagonist with a boy--but I really think this is a marketing gimmick rather than a failure to let a female character carry an entire road narrative by herself.

There are also some faerie tales in which girls must go on long journeys. Off the top of my head, I can think of East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Snow Queen. So now that faerie tale retellings seem to be the "new vampires," I'm sure we have more road narratives to add to the list. But even before I finished typing that, my inner advocatus diaboli thought of a reason to disqualify them. LOL!

Which is why I've started to suspect that a supposed paucity of road narratives for women is due less to a real lack than to a very narrow idea of what a "correct" road narrative is. If you keep disqualifying stories (as the author of the article herself does), then you will end up with nothing. But perhaps that's what she really wants, because moaning that "God gave a loaf to every bird/ but just a crumb to [her]" is the very core of the author's identity. =P

Melanie Bettinelli said...

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland actually fits the incredibly narrow criteria of a female protagonist who goes on a journey merely to satisfy curiosity and with no initial quest, though she finds a quest on the way which starts out in a kind of arbitrary way and becomes more and more her own as the story progresses.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon and the Snow Queen would seem not to fit the narrowest criteria because those quests are motivated by the need to rescue. But then as you say many of the road narratives she cites with male protagonists fail to fit her narrowest criteria either. So many of them are motivated by something more than simple curiosity. That's one of the things that is most maddening about her article, that the boundaries keep shifting and that she's inconsistent allowing for a wider range of male road narratives than female. But this is the problem with eisegesis, when you come to every text with all your presumptions then you will never find what you are determined not to find.

Enbrethiliel said...


On a related note, there is a copy of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert in my home now that my mother is reading it, and I think it would count as a realistic, adult female road narrative driven by the protagonist's curiosity! At least I'd like to hear the argument against it if it didn't count. LOL!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I can't imagine it wouldn't count.

Sheila said...

A friend of mine is absolutely obsessed with butt-kicking heroines. She loves Buffy, Xena, and any other show where you can see women kick the butts of men.

She also was abused by her father. So I guess you can read into that what you want.

I think often girls are looking for a sense of power they're not getting elsewhere.

On the other hand, I see butt-kicking male heroes all over the place too, particularly in YA fantasy. Again, the reader is discontented with real life because things aren't clear-cut, they are finding themselves on the losing end of various kinds of victimization, and yet in the real world there's no butt to kick.

Meanwhile, men appear to love butt-kicking heroines too. Xena, Red Sonja, River Tam ... men go nuts for them and populate their fan clubs as much as women do. Why is that? I have my own answer, but I'm curious what you think.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that a lot of teenage rebellion is rooted in precisely what you're describing: discontentment with a life that is just too easy . . . or frustration with a life that was utterly unfair. We need there to be butts to kick--and not all of us are lucky enough to be to test ourselves against nature, to create something of artistic or scientific merit, or to have any other kind of experience that shows us that kicking butt is nothing but a (bad) metaphor. So we have stories in which it becomes literal.

The Last Psychiatrist has an interesting analysis of why girls are the new Action heroes. He traces the progression from regular guys (who could be played by, say, Clint Eastwood), to larger-than-life guys (Arnold Schwarzenegger), to super-hot women (Pamela Anderson), and finally to teenage girls (Jennifer Lawrence). According to him, a lot of men who grew up with Schwarzenegger and other 80s Action stars as their ideal finally had to admit, by the mid-90s, that they weren't going to be anything like their idols. So they gave up trying to be Action heroes . . . and started believing that an Action heroine would fall in love with them! =P Fast forward another ten years and you'll see they've given up on marrying an Action heroine . . . but have begun believing that they will father one. Because this type of guy can live out his dreams through his daughter in a way that he can't through his son. (Ever since I read that TLP post, I've paid very close attention to the father figures of kick-butt heroines. This is one cultural play we're all involved in and we're all enabling each other.)

The reason I like TLP's answer is that it expands on something I already thought before I read it. Now, believe it or not, I actually do like some heroines who can be described as "kick-butt," and believe that it's insulting to them to say that they are admirable to male readers/viewers merely because they're also "hot." A good character is a good character. But when I see the levels of adoration that both "fanboys" and "fangirls" can achieve in response to these characters, I have to agree that there's a deep psychological well to be sounded.

So what's your answer? =)

Sheila said...

Hm. That theory might be better than mine (though John says emphatically that it's wrong). My theory is that men secretly aren't (all) attracted to girly-girls who pretend to be weaker and dumber than they really are in order to attract them. Maybe some guys do like that kind of girl, but a lot of them don't at all. They might tolerate it because tough girls aren't common, or because tough girls won't put up with the kind of bad treatment a certain kind of man likes to dish out, or because culturally they've learned that they're supposed to like that kind of girl ... but deep down they're wishing for a girl who's not so ... well ... girly. Think of the kind of boy in the He-Man Woman-Haters Club (if you've seen Sandlot). They like girls -- but they're incredibly frustrated to find that girls are so girly, basically incompatible with all the things the boys are into. It's a male dream, to have a girl who wants to play World of Warcraft, or who likes to play pool, or can kick butt with the best of them. It's telling the men, "You can have it all. Adventure AND a girl. You don't have to go with the kind of girl who will make you give up adventures."

John added, when I was talking with him about this last night, that men dream of a girl who will actually forthrightly say what's on her mind. When women refuse to do this, there is no true equality, he says. Men are left initiating everything, while feeling that the women know what's really going on and are keeping them in the dark. A kick-butt heroine who calls the shots *openly* would be perfect.

And then we started talking about how it's sometimes the most sexist guys who go crazy for "chicks with guns." So who knows.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Chicks with guns," aye? Did I ever tell you about the time a friend of mine, who was then writing for a political Web site, encouraged me to contribute an article in which I complain about restrictive gun control laws and confess a wish to learn how to use a firearm? Another woman friend of his had recently written her own article about her first time at a firing range and had received about 200 e-mails from men who wanted to know if she was single--and my friend wanted to bet that my article (written to his specifications) would pull in twice as many. ROFL!!! I never did write it, though. =P It wasn't me.

I've mentioned TLP's theory to another man, who said that he had tracked the same trend in Action movies but thinks they have a darker root: the unchecked objectification of women, which then turned into the sexualisation of young girls. So if the next big Action blockbuster has a twelve-year-old heroine in an inappropriately tight costume, he won't be surprised. (I won't be surprised if the twelve year old's father turns out to be "weak" and she has to be trained by some middle-aged tough guy she's not related to.)

The main reason I'm sticking with TLP's theory is that I see real wisdom in his analyses of Action movies like The Matrix and Wanted. But discussing this is fun! What's John's theory? =D

By the way, have you noticed that one of the tabs/labels on this post is "Girls and Adventures"? That was inspired by a G.K. Chesterton quote about girls getting in the way of adventures. Boo, right? I started using it because my own belief is that girls can enhance adventures. And occasionally, I find a good book that shows me I'm right. =) On the other hand, I think the books with "kick-butt" heroines tend to go too far in the other direction, because the girls in them are often caricatures of what women writers think boys are like.