or where are the girls?
Many have credited Harry Potter for getting young people to read and in uniting generations through a shared interest. Potter clubs, websites, fan fic, etc. can be found everywhere. They are so popular as to warrant criticism from the Christian Right, who no doubt has read none of the books, for promoting witch craft and atheism. An argument that is often countered with the number of families, and communities, brought together in the reading of the book and the social arenas both the books and films have created.
I have read all of the Potter books. The first 4 were gifted to me by an avid fan with the promise of the rest to come. Long after her promise faded into the cold night, I have remained on the lists for midnight released books that spring up with each new edition. Like others, I had the copy of the last installment right on time. I mostly enjoy them and I care what happens to both minor and major characters alike.
My criticisms of the books have been basic enough: the female characters are clearly smarter and more powerful but receive little accolade or acknowledgment (except adolescent begrudging acknowledgment) & the films focus almost exclusively on the incompetent or sinister ones, the themes of slavery is handled in the most offensive manner with good and bad people alike championing it alongside the mostly ignorant and insipid enslaved themselves, & Harry Potter cheats – people are constantly giving him the answers on exam questions or challenges, equipping him with state of the art spells and gadgets, and yet he is rewarded at every turn while others who work hard are seen as know-it-alls and run-a-mucks. In reading these books, I have often wondered if I would want my children to be enthralled with stories were slaves drink themselves silly in the face of freedom, where smart girls are annoying and to be avoided, and where the hero cannot accomplish a maze without the help of all his teachers and many of his friends but only he is praised for the effort.
Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Anne Rice fans, I have been able to have conversations about these race and gender slippages that have been productive and interesting. They have even enhanced the reading.
Today, I went to see Stardust & discovered a whole new legacy: the erasure of strong female characters and heroines from children’s film. Of the 8 new fantasy films aimed at young adults: 8 had male protagonists, 6 had no women in the preview, 1 had a female villain but no other females, & 1 had two girls in the aid of the male protagonist but only after they almost died at the hands of creatures he warned them were coming. The previews all seemed to follow the same narrative: young boy, magical powers, an unsuspecting hero in a world populated with evil at every turn. It was Harry Potter without even Hermoine.
Stardust itself was a collossal disappointment from this perspective. The women in this film range from vain to insipid to self-absorbed and plotting. The one exception is the mother who is an enslaved princess who has managed to soak up only one magical charm in her entire enslavement and easily bows down to the boys when the action starts. Worse, its side story about the politics of the closet is completely undermined by an over the top performance and an unrealistic wrap up – for a good performance keep your eye on the first mate.
The film imagines itself as a less sarcastic Princess Bride but reads like a modernized Cinderella with witches instead of step-sisters. What it says about gender, male and female & some minor comments about those who move in between, and sexuality, gay and straight, is trite and demeaning. The jokes about rape – including the pirate-prince scene, are far from amusing and yet made often. Even our hero has no qualms with imprisoning a woman to get what he wants, though in his defense he actually grows into a decent human being by film’s end.
On the surface, Stardust was a likeable movie, with mostly wonderful performances from the actors, well used special effects overshadowed solely by the amazing landscapes, and an explainable overblown musical score. Some of its jokes were quite funny or at least entertaining. Just like on the surface, Harry Potter is an enthralling story full of twists, turns, pathos, and prowess. Like the children who beg to stay up to get their books at midnight, a young girl (8 ish) beside me cooed through Stardust in awe. She missed most of the rape references except to express unnamed fear and the sexuality stuff flew straight over her head, and since every other woman was a princess, and almost all were long blondes with blue-eyes, she didn’t seem to notice that like plastic barbies they had little to no brains.
I, on the other hand, saw a trend in which women were once again objects rather than subjects, where our goals in life were once again reduce to youth, beauty, and marriage, and where our intelligence was of little import and often sorely lacking. Though gay people are present they are caricatures and the old jokes about queerness remain salient. The modern day packaging of the same trite messages fooled me little more than the attempt to reclaim some of those drunken slaves in Harry Potter’s end.
We once asked more of children’s literature and we got it. Do book sales, big name actors, and the joy of some well shot scenery and well scripted dialogue, really make us so docile as to forget?
As the new onslaught of 2-d boy-heroes comes down the pike enjoy them, for they look enjoyable, but ask yourself at what price. I for one will be holding my breath until Madeleine L’Engle makes it to the big screen with complex plots, magical twists and turns, slavery is universally unacceptable, and thinking boys and girls fight the good fight as equals.