You can’t be both good and strong

Mary Robinette Kowal’s column over at AMC this week takes a hard look at good queens in fantasy film. The gist of it is, you can’t be both good and powerful: if you’re good, you’re a child and/or tiny and/or sick and/or married to someone else who’s holding the reins. If you’re powerful, you’re evil.

(Before somebody else points it out: yes, I think she missteps a bit with Galadriel; sure, Celeborn’s around, but even if you’re looking solely at the movie, it’s pretty obvious that Galadriel’s much more central and important than her husband is. And if you know the books, he’s her appendage, not the other way around.)

I think the situation’s much better in novels, if only because the data set’s so much bigger. But still, I think the underlying structure that produces the result Kowal describes isn’t entirely gone: “women with power” is a concept our culture as a whole still isn’t quite comfortable with. (See: the response to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.) That idea’s scary, and scary =/= good.

An interesting column. I’ve been enjoying reading them each week, but this is the first one that’s really made me go “hmmmm.”

0 Responses to “You can’t be both good and strong”

  1. lindenfoxcub

    i think you’re right about Galadriel, I never thought she was an appendage. I can think of two others off the top of my head. Queen Sarafina Pekala, of Phillip Pullman’s “his dark materials”, the queen of the witches – and there are no male witches so she can’t be an appendage. And Queen Ysandre, from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel Trilogy. Ysandre’s young in the first book, and it’s only the actions of the main character that keep her in power, but in the second book she’s a bit more mature, and book three, she’s in her 30s with kids. She’s married, but to the king of another country, who has no part in ruling hers.

    Maybe genre readers have got tired of the evil queens and have higher standards than movie goers 😛

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, I can name lots of companions for Ysandre out of books. In films, though, not so much — though I hadn’t thought of Serafina Pekkala. (For what little time she actually shows up in the movie.)

  2. tchernabyelo

    But isn’t the general ethos of MOST fantasy films that power=evil? The good guys are the little individuals against the monolithc power structures. So while it’s possible to read sexism into this, I think it might be applicable to a lot of kings, as well (there are exceptions, but in general the “good” king – as with the “good” queen – gets surped and has to fight to regain the rightful blah blah blah… the whole thing is just as ridden with classism as it is with sexism, mutter grumble…)

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes and no. I don’t disagree about the common motif of the little guy against the Man, but I still think there’s a gender disparity when it comes to representing people in power. At least where film is concerned, I don’t see any female equivalent to the King Arthur model: the good and noble (and strong) king worthy of the protagonist’s service.

  3. strangerian

    There’s Eftgan, Queen of Darthen, in Diane Duane’s Door Into Sunset who is shown as queen, ruler and warleader in her own right, and she’s also an adult woman with a husband (possibly a consort, not a co-ruler) and five children. The series it’s part of deliberately shows a bisexual-norm society, which isn’t quite the fantasy-medieval stereotype to start with.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s a novel, though, right?

      • strangerian

        Well, yes, you’re right. Many of the major films in the genre are based on books, and I defaulted straight to the book versions, and thence to books alone. The trope of powerful woman=evil is common in fantasy novels as well, but it’s not quite so monolithic.

Comments are closed.