Thursday, July 19, 2012

Not a Warrior Princess

With all the "warrior princesses" lately -- Brave, The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, Game of Thrones, Laurell K. Hamilton's groundbreaking Anita Blake, and Joss Whedon's recent ringside recitative of Buffy v. the Black Widow (the final straw) -- I've returned to thinking about the death of Webster's duchess.

(Image above of Daenerys, "Mother of Dragons")

I understand her death as triumphant.  Of course, she is assassinated.  However, she famously dies still asserting her power in her identity (not, apparently, in Brecht and Auden's adaptation, oddly enough). There is a Stoic or Christ-like quality to her death, and even, before that, to her mortification.  The act of remarriage itself, though secret, was a triumph over her brothers' obsessive control.  I even see the flight to Loreto as triumphant, because it is a return to the Holy House of the Mother.

The death of a martyr or of a Stoic, and the death of the duchess, is not a passive, "anti-feminist," disempowering moment.  Since she dies in the hope of heaven, the duchess herself does not view her death as an ending, but a sort of launching pad.  (Bosola's view of death is a whole 'nother post.)  Her explicit commentary on her death -- she even goes on her knees -- actually suggests her defiance as she speaks the words for us, co-creating the event.

Image at right of St. Margaret with her dragon.

The Stoic accepts death as a common end and a welcome, decisive break with corruption (see, for example, Seneca's letter to Marcia on consolation).  Along with ideas of sainthood and martyrdom, this Stoic dignity inflects the duchess's virtuous and exemplary death.

Essentially, I see in the duchess's death a middle ground between concepts of female-coded passivity and male-coded aggression.  So often, today's warrior princesses as mentioned above seem to think they have to accept a pathological, male-coded drive to violence in order to be powerful -- replacing one extreme of sentimentalized victimhood with another of sentimentalized violence.

Image below from the amazing recent production at Strawdog in Chicago.

I am as dissatisfied with this reappropriation of patriarchal male-coded norms as with the "damsel in distress" who dies beautifully to spark some move in the hero's journey.

A via media of nonviolent resistance is closer to the path I see the duchess taking in Webster.  To me, it is more admirable.  Of course, her survival in Theobald and the postmodern fracturing of the narrative in Figgis change the conversation even further.

Another warrior princess (but not) is Bella in Breaking Dawn 2.  That movie won't be out till November, but in the book and the rest of the series, Bella constantly offers to sacrifice herself for those she loves and, in a showdown -- I suppose this is a spoiler -- uses a mental power to create a shield around herself and those she cares about.  She takes defensive, nonviolent, effective action to protect, not to attack in revenge.  I admire that.

The conversation among feminists attacks the Twilight book series up and down.  So odd to find myself at odds with the majority of a community I love.  The conversation goes as follows: her love interest is a stalker legitimized by the narrative, she binds up all her value in her boyfriend, she is constantly in weak, helpless victim mode, she is masochistic, she marries young, the narrative is heteronormative and derivative of patriarchal religions (the author's religion is frequently cited).  This conversation might change a little if a piece I had the honor of reading for the upcoming "Kick-Ass Moms" issue of Femspec makes it to print.

Without going into detail here, I will just say that nonviolent resistance is spectacularly morally advanced from the "warrior princess" mode.  I don't find these oh-so-convenient, oh-so-necessary fictional wars morally or intellectually justifiable.

The ideal is not Justine, and the ideal is not the opposite of Justine, and Juliette is not the opposite of Justine, and Hesperus is Phosphorus.  Juliette is the flood, the devastation.  Maybe this glorified female-coded violence in our culture is just such a transitional moment.  Angela Carter:

"Justine is the thesis, Juliette the antithesis.  Both are without hope and neither pays any heed to a future in which might lie the possibility of a synthesis of their modes of being, neither submissive nor aggressive, capable of both thought and feeling."

And, from her coda, Emma Goldman: "A true conception of the relation of the sexes will not admit of conqueror and conquered."

Rilke"And perhaps the sexes are more akin than people think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in one phenomenon: that man and woman, freed from all mistaken feelings and aversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings, in order to bear in common, simply, earnestly, and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them."

In Hamilton's Anita Blake series, the assassin Edward says, in Obsidian Butterfly, perhaps a nod to Octavio Paz and my favorite of the series, the lynchpin:

"The Greeks believed that once there were no male and female, that all souls were one.  Then the souls were torn apart, male and female.  The Greeks thought that when you found the other half of your soul, your soul mate, that it would be your perfect lover.  But I think if you find your other half, you would be too much alike to be lovers, but you would still be soul mates. . . . She [Anita] is like a piece of my soul."

(Probably an allusion to Aristophanes's treatment of love in the Symposium.)

I disagree with the premise of The Hunger Games and the other "warrior princess" texts that the journey of the hero must involve a moral need to fight in hideous and brutal conflict against dehumanized, contemptible enemies.  List of excuses: she is protecting her sister, she is caught up in an insane dictatorship and her hand is forced, she commits her final act of vigilante murder to protect society from repeating the same future, etc.

Really?  Why do we (especially we feminists!) write, and enjoy, such narratives with such strictures?  Will there ever be a time when we write ourselves a better future?  Webster's duchess had not such a death in his sources.

Cassandra Clare's series The Mortal Instruments (at right; coming to film in 2013) features brutal war between sympathetic heroes and (often literally) demonized enemies, too, but its central heroine, Clary Fray, is far more than a warrior princess. She has the gift of writing, a gift that comes alive in a profoundly beautiful and surprising metaphor:

Valentine whirled. Clary, lying half-conscious in the sand, her wrists and arms a screaming agony, stared defiantly back. For a moment their eyes met — and he looked at her, really looked at her, and she realized it was the first time her father had ever looked her in the face and seen her. The first and only time.
“Clarissa,” he said. “What have you done?”
Clary stretched out her hand, and with her finger she wrote in the sand at his feet. She didn’t draw runes.
She drew words: the words he had said to her the first time he’d seen what she could do, when she’d drawn the rune that had destroyed his ship.
Writing can be destructive, creative, transformative.

And of course there's always, always Lyra in His Dark Materials, with her unmistakable journey out of ignorance.

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