Monday, January 21, 2008

Water off a duck's back?

A few things revisited, combined with the constant jawing about Hillary and feminism, had me thinking about the origins of gender stereotypes. At a total loss for something to read on the treadmill, I got Piers Anthony's original Xanth novels, 3-in-1. I also did a little emergency babysitting and watched part of the movie the parents had thoughtfully set up for the kids, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Indy 1, in other words).

As it happens, I didn't encounter these when I was so very young. I didn't read Anthony until I was 12 or so and one of my friends was absolutely insane about his books. I didn't see Indiana Jones until the tail end of high school, when I also finally saw Star Wars in the theater in re-release. At that time, I remember being annoyed mostly by John Williams reusing his own scores, and I mildly enjoyed the Anthony, though not enough to read more than four or so of his novels. (There are many, many of them.)

This time around, however, I found them both unbelievably annoying. All of Anthony's women are either power-hungry or girlishly devoted to their men (or both), and never as magically or intellectually gifted. The books are loaded with what are supposed, I'm sure, to be funny pieces of stereotypical male thinking about women, on the level of: girls like pretty things, girls go to the bathroom really often, girls are warm and squishy. At best, the women support the men in their hour of need and enjoy the rewards as their sidekicks. Maybe his later novels have real primary female protagonists -- I don't really care to find out till the next time I'm absolutely desperate for gym reading.

As for Indy 1, every time a man brought out another dress for Marian to put on, I wanted to clap my hands over the eyes of the small girl next to me. I seem to recall that Marian is a paragon of feminist ideals compared to Kate Capshaw in Indy 2, which is sad considering that she's so constantly being dragged away screaming.

So how do little girls escape this bombardment? I can only tell you how I think I may have escaped, which is that for whatever reason I had absolutely no problem identifying with men. Like I said, I didn't watch Indy, but I did watch Robin Hood, and I can assure you that I didn't have any interest in Maid Marian. The women I looked up to were mostly athletes or thinkers, with the odd actress here or there. I preferred the Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew for a long time.

Funnily enough, my friend who liked Anthony actually wrote to him to complain about his sexism, particularly the character Chameleon, who changes with the menstrual cycle to be beautiful/dumb, plain/average, and hideous/brilliant. The hero does find her to be his ideal woman, but it is fairly hair-raising all the same. Piers Anthony actually wrote her back personally, saying that he had gotten two fan letters that day and they were both on the same thing. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I seem to recall that it was a denial or rebuttal. Which you'd expect, though I'd have a fair amount of respect for a man who said, "This is my ideal universe! Brainless nymphs galore!"

This doesn't mean that I think I escaped totally, of course. It's frightening to look back and see just how few books, films, etc. did offer strong heroines when I was young. I imagine little girls right now have it both easier with the availability of sheroes fiction and harder with, y'know, Britney. I'm starting to see the library as a kind of landmined field.

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