The Problem of the Childlike Empress

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


“Women and children first.” It’s a familiar phrase: the building is on fire, or the ship is sinking, or there’s some other crisis that necessitates rescue or evacuation, and so the men step aside to let the women and children get to safety first. The reasons for this are numerous, but I want to tease out a particular strand for further discussion, which is the sense that women and children are both under the protection of the men around them. Because in a sense — an old-fashioned, problematic sense — women are like children.

If you read much about Western history (I can’t speak as to other parts of the world, not on this topic), you’ll quickly see that this is not an exaggeration. Women, like children, were seen as not just physically weaker, but also mentally inferior, maybe even deficient in moral strength; they were therefore dependent upon men to take care of them and protect them from the dangers of the world. You would no more give them the full legal rights of an adult than you would give that to an eight-year-old. The only real difference between the two is that an eight-year-old, if male, would eventually grow up to be a man; girls and women had no such useful future.

We’ve jettisoned a lot of that logic, and good riddance. Unfortunately, the infantilization of women hasn’t gone away.

Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the fact that “girl” is a widespread synonym for “woman,” much more so than “boy” for man. Or the use of “chick” — a baby bird. Glance around the cultural landscape; evidence of the pattern isn’t hard to find. You can see it in the refusal to let women’s faces and bodies show any age, or worse yet in the creepy, creepy ads that show models in rompers or childlike poses (with about eight gallons of sexual suggestiveness poured into the image). You hear it in the language of laws, when they suggest that women can’t be trusted to make good decisions for themselves, and therefore need to be protected by men who do. You cringe over it when stories crop up about how one town wants to impose a curfew on their (female) mayor, and maybe even take away her keys, because she works late hours and clearly her councilmen need to put a stop to that.

You find it laid out with exceptional clearness, in the Childlike Empress of the Neverending Story.

She’s ageless — older than anyone in Fantastica/Fantasia (the name varies based on whether you know the book or the movie) — and yet she appears to be a beautiful ten-year-old girl. She’s the ruler of the land, but she doesn’t exert any actual political authority. Her strength and existence are dependent upon being given a series of new names by human children; the boy Bastian saves her by renaming her “Moon Child.” Atreyu may be considered a man, despite his youth, but the Childlike Empress will never be a woman, only ever a girl, who can act only through (mostly male) intermediaries.

And she has a lot of sisters elsewhere in fantasy. It’s gotten to the point where I flinch a little every time a tiny, delicate woman enters the narrative, because I know where this is going. If she has strength, it will be made clear that this is despite her size and implied immaturity, and odds are good she’ll still be the protected treasure of the Manly Hero. You can start a betting pool on how long it will be before she stamps her foot or exhibits some other behavior associated with a toddler in a tantrum. Men will shelter her, and explain things to her, and cover up for her mistakes; in the worst cases — like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is a carnival of disaster on a gender front as well as a racial one — her every action will be upstaged by those of a half-grown boy, thus establishing that a male of any age will always be more useful than a woman.

Don’t do this. Please. Just don’t. If you’re writing about a woman, keep an eye on your descriptions; ask yourself if the metaphorical language you’re using suggests childishness, innocence, immaturity. Are her behaviors those of a grown adult, or a petulant child? Do the people around her talk down to her, belittle her ideas, coddle her as if she were eight years old? Don’t tell me such women exist in reality; so do lots of other people who match offensive stereotypes. When we get to the point where the stereotype has lost its force — when the notion that women as a class can’t be trusted to guide their own lives has become completely laughable; when the media has stopped trying to sell Lolita as the ideal — then I won’t mind seeing the occasional child-woman in a story. But as long as it’s a recognizable pattern, then we need to stop reinforcing it, and start promoting alternatives. Physically, mentally, emotionally, give me women as adults.