It’s been over 30 years, but I can still remember my first action figure. Breaking open the package to reveal the molded plastic beneath, making sure not to drop the accesories. I can still recall the white outfit contrasted by the dark brown hair in the distinctive “cinnamon bun” do. Even before I found Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, I was playing with Princess Leia.
Now, I can’t remember for sure whether my parents got me Princess Leia because I asked them or whether it was the only figure left. It didn’t matter to me: I played with her all the same. For all the grief George Lucas gets, he managed to create, whether by accident or design, a fairly memorable heroine. Leia was brave, resourceful, and by far the best shot of all the Rebels.
It’s been repeated ad nauseum that while girls can relate to male lead characters, boys will reject female lead characters. This is often true (whether the success of The Hunger Games will translate into the movies remains to be seen), but how much of this is due to the atittidues of boys themselves, and how much of it is socialization? Boys and men are not encouraged to follow female heroes and role models. They go from relating to women as mothers to women as potential mates. The cliche is that boys consider girls “icky” before puberty, but that wasn’t my experience.
Looking back, I’m amazed at home many of my favourite novels from my childhood had female lead characters. I loved Harriet the Spy, writing everything she observed in her notebook. Then there was Claudia Kincaid in From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum Of Art. From an earlier generation came Beverly Cleary with the Beezus and Ramona books. Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown survived the taunts of Bugs Meany partly through the efforts of Sally Kimball, who was actually allowed to be a tough girl. I also enjoyed the story of Annabel Andrews, trapped in her mother’s body for a day in Freaky Friday, and her further adventures in the lesser-known sequel A Billion For Boris. Even Sheila Tubman, the obnoxious next-door neighbour from Judy Blume’s Fudge novels, got her own book in which she was a far more sympathetic character.While these girls could be as tough and resourceful as the male characters, they weren’t the stereotypical “Tomboys”; Sally Kimball could punch out the bullies while wearing a skirt.
My heroine worship didn’t end with puberty; it just got more complicated. My earliest pop culture crushes were on Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) from Remington Steele, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders Of The Lost Ark , and (via reruns; I’m not THAT old) Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) from Bewitched. All these women were stunning, but they were more than matches for the men. I was attracted to them, but part of me wanted to be like them.
Was this a product of being exposed (through family and their friends) to Second Wave feminism? It’s possible. Certainly the message that women can do anything men can do was out there. However, Gloria Steinem’s claims to the contrary, the idea that men can do anything women can do -including look up to women as role models- is nowhere near as accepted. Even more troubling, I cannot think of a single example from pop culture in which a female character mentors a male character. This is especially ironic considering that the word “mentor” comes from a manifestation of the goddess Athena in The Odyssey.
When I entered university in the early 90s, identity politics was in full swing and the female heroes in pop culture underwent some changes. I had a harder time relating to Thelma & Louise or Clarice Starling because in both cases not only were all the villains they faced male, but most of the men in these stories were either patronizing or openly hostile to women. Over the past two decades, we have seen many heroes that kicked butt as women against the patriarchy.Subsequently, I felt left out. It’s not that I resent these and other examples of “Girl Power,” but I realize that their message is not intedended for me.
Nonetheless, I’ve found new female heroes in, of all places, the real world. Among my personal pantheon of heroes are the activist Dorothy Day, film critic Pauline Kael, Patti Smith, the journalist Amy Goodman and the amazing Kate Bornstein. They speak to me as people more than anything, ones whose struggles I can relate to.
And, who knows? Maybe The Hunger Games will change things. Maybe kids of all genders will be able to look up to a strong character regardless of their gender identity. We’ll know things have gotten a little better when a boy asks his parents to buy him a Katniss action figure.