Campbell, Lori M., ed.: A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy.
Pulliam, June. Monstrous Bodies: Feminine Power in Young Adult Horror Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014. 198 pp. Paper. ISBN 978-0-7864-7543-8. $40.00.
"It's about power." This was the phrase used repeatedly by villains in the television series Buff'y the Vampire Slayer, the seminal young adult fantasy-horror cum heroine's bildungsroman of the 2000s. It's a simple thesis that, both in and out of the context of the show, underlies everything from the architecture of the patriarchy to the structures of young women's relationships with friends and family. Buffy doesn't appear in either Lori M. Campbell's edited collection A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy or June Pulliam's monograph Monstrous Bodies: Feminine Power in Young Adult Horror Fiction, but both books revolve around the same concept of young women subverting patriarchy in fantastical contexts.
Pulliam's book examines girls in YA horror, and how they are portrayed as the supernatural Other--either negatively or positively--within the context of subversion. Her analysis is centered around resistance to what she (via Foucault in Discipline and Punish) calls "correct training": the idea of individual mastery over body and mind such that the subject becomes amenable to control by the state--or in this case, by the patriarchy (143). The monograph is organized in three chapters with a brief introduction and conclusion; all three serve as case studies for different types of "monstrous body" including ghosts, werewolves, and witches. The first chapter, "'Subversive Spirits': Resistance and the Uncanny in the Young Adult Ghost Story," details how girls in fiction are Othered through their relationships. In each of the novels discussed (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Jade Green, Nina Kiriki Hoffman's Stir of Bones, Laura Whitcomb's duology A Certain Slant of Light and Under the Light, and Kathryn Resiss's Dreadful Sorry) the heroine is protected rather than menaced by spirits. Through supernatural aid--in the form of ghosts of girls murdered and sometimes raped--the haunted girls successfully resist domination and subjugation by abusive guardians and society. Pulliam's other two chapters, "Blood and Bitches: Sexual Politics and the Female Lyncanthrope in Young Adult Fiction" and '"An ye harm none, do as ye will': Magic, Gender and Agency in Young Adult Narratives of Witchcraft," both demonstrate that female protagonists in YA literature and film who are themselves supernatural will fail or succeed based on their ability to navigate or subvert patriarchy. In each case, their monstrous bodies conform to or deny conventional femininity; likewise, a key to their survival is in controlling their appetites for food and sex. While horror stories as metaphors for puberty and adolescence are far from unusual, Pulliam makes an excellent case for reading them as transparent or covert dialogues with feminism.
Perhaps at odds with current publishing trends, Pulliam avoids discussing vampires in Monstrous Bodies on the grounds that the girl protagonists in that genre of YA novel are neither vampires nor have supernatural abilities themselves. While I understand that argument, especially given the multitude of studies on The Twilight Saga that do not engage with the history of the vampire in genre fiction, I think that overlooking such a significant proportion of narratives for a study altogether is problematic. Considering supernatural power-as-desire as the flip side of supernatural-power-as-horror is, I think, a necessary component to understanding young adult heroines in genre. Removing that particular monster--which also has its own history of subversion sexual, feminist, and otherwise--from those under discussion seems to limit the possibilities for young adult heroines in horror fiction.
In contrast, Campbell's collection, A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy, discusses young women in fantasy by expanding the spectrum of possibility when it comes to defining "heroic." Divided into four sections of three to four chapters each, the topics addressed by the essays include analyses of various figures from pre-modern fantasy, heroic "over-achievers" and sidekicks, and villains. The various authors note the broad range of strategies available to women beyond what Pulliam seems to consider "necessary" subversion. Heroines in older texts such as Malory's Le Morte D'arthur and fairy and folk tales appear as minor figures in male texts, often using trickery and magic rather than feats of strength, while heroines in contemporary young adult and epic fantasy often strive for something more like self-actualization rather than heroism only for the sake of accolades. While several recent studies of heroic and mythic figures have made use of the Campbellian mythos as a sort of guideline for form and content, the various authors that Campbell has assembled consider numerous pathways to heroism.
There are several stand-out essays in this volume. Jack M. Downs in '"Radiant and terrible': Tolkien's Heroic Women as Correctives to the Romance and Epic Traditions" reads Eowyn and Luthien, two of the heroines from Tolkien's legendarium, as inversions of the characters of medieval romance who cause rather than prevent the fall of great kingdoms. Eowyn of course defeats the Witch-King because of her sex rather than despite it, and though Luthien is too often relegated to "tragic doomed lover" status because she chooses a mortal man over immortality, she nonetheless saves Beren and banishes Sauron from his physical body. (It is perhaps noteworthy that the elf Tauriel, added to The Hobbit films by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens on the basis that the film needed more women characters, was sadly able to achieve rather less than Tolkien's actual women characters.) Sarah Workman also contributes to the discussion of Tolkien's women characters in her essay, "Female Valor Without Renown: Memory, Mourning, and Loss at the Center of Middle-earth," arguing that Arwen, Galadriel, and Goldberry perform elegies and loss as heroic acts that center The Lord of the Rings as a novel in a way that the action of the male characters do not. While I'm less convinced of the efficacy of this argument in terms of female heroism, I will agree that the choice to utilize women's mourning as a postmodern structure to the book is an argument I have not seen before, and well worth taking note of in the field of Tolkien scholarship.
Other essays discuss heroism in a more conventional way. In "A New Kind of Hero: A Song of Ice and Fire's Brienne of Tarth," John H. Cameron analyzes how George R.R. Martin's fan-favorite character meets typical genre conventions of heroism before subverting them. In the grim world of Westeros where women characters are regularly used and abused, Brienne is one of the few genuinely good and heroic characters who also has something like a traditional quest narrative. Since Martin has yet to finish his saga, or HBO their adaptation, Cameron is forced to conclude rather awkwardly with essentially the state of the character as she is now: Brienne's fate currently remains in the balance and uncertain, and it is unclear whether she can--or will--remain heroic to the bitter end. Amanda M. Greenwell in "The Problem of Mrs. Coulter: Vetting the Female Villain-Hero in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials" and Sarah Margaret Kniesler in "The Unbreakable Vow: Maternal Impulses and Narcissa Malfoy's Transformation from Villain to Hero in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series" consider heroism in a quite different vein. Both Mrs. Coulter and Narcissa Malfoy are mothers who are initially depicted as villains, neither of whom has conventional transformations or makes grand gestures, and yet both inarguably contribute toward the success of the heroes in their disparate worlds. They are both characters who cannot be simplified, and their complexity perhaps demonstrates a realism and a decisive artistry on the part of Pullman and Rowling that is at odds with that of Tolkien or Martin.
Campbell concludes the volume with a loose sort of manifesto toward defining the contemporary fantastic female hero--that is, she defines everything she is not in order to inspire further thinking on the topic. She breaks this down into four observations:
1) "At first glance, she is not likely to succeed" (283).
2) "She is not overly burdened by gendered or other social expectations" (284) *
3) "She is not a superhero (But she can be a super hero)" (284).
4) "She is not going away" (285).
An exercise in definition through negation tends to be problematic as it raises more questions than it answers, but in this case, it is firmly viable as a suitable jumping-off point in stimulating more work. While I think there is a lot to be said for recognizing different types of heroism, my inner twelve-year-old reader, the one who was so frustrated at how easy it was for the Fellowship to run around adventuring while Eowyn moped for an eternity before appearing to smite the Witch-King, still wants more tales where the female heroes are indistinguishable from the male heroes. If there must be oppression, let it be something beyond gendered and sexual oppression. If there is derring-do, let the girls have a crack at it. If there is chain mail, let there be no boob armor.
That both Campbell's and Pulliam's books appeared together in such short order speaks, I think, to a need in both the scholarship and the genre for expanding how and who we consider heroines. I began this review with the quote "It's about power." Studies of how women characters are portrayed and treated in genre writing articulate our anxieties about how women are treated in the real world. As recent schisms in genre and fandom have demonstrated--I am thinking specifically of the threats and attacks made towards Anita Sarkeesian for calling attention to misogyny in video games, of RaceFail 2009, of the Science Fiction Writers of America's public meltdowns regarding scantily clad women on their trade journal and the casual sexism of columnists until there was a near universal overhaul of the organization and its publications--we are in the midst of a serious transition in how gender and sex are treated in genre. It only makes sense for the scholarship to follow suit.
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|Title Annotation:||Monstrous Bodies: Feminine Power in Young Adult Horror Fiction|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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