Saturday, May 5, 2012

Saving the Universe While Dating (Part 1)

A guest post by Selah Janel

I’ve been taking a look at girl power in urban fantasy for the past few columns and so far we’ve gone on a fairly straightforward journey from likeable girls to girls on the cusp of becoming a woman who take up the challenges laid before them. I was going to go straight down the timeline to the characters that are popular right at this moment – but then I realized that I’d be skipping out on an amazing author and some amazing (and important) female characters.

Madeline L’Engle is one of those authors a lot of readers either like or they don’t. Her books have become so important in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, but they also catch their share of controversy. She’s been hailed as the female Ray Bradbury and shunned because of some of her content. Secular groups feel they’re too religious and religious groups feel they undermine religion and make it secular. There’s a fair amount of science jargon and sometimes the story of the Murry and O’Keefe families get a little political.

I’ve been reading Ms. L’Engle’s work since I was eleven and none of these concerns has ever been an issue to me. I personally don’t feel like those elements cloud the story and at the end of the day she was always about the story. Most of her thoughts and opinions on faith and science were actually explored far more in-depth in her essays; she was always adamant that her fictional work combined things she was interested in but she was always focused on the core story. So if everyone could chill out about that aspect of her writing, we can get down to why I think she’s an incredibly important writer.

I have a few pet peeves about current genre franchises and the roles girls play. Like I said before, I’m not against love, but it seems like that’s mostly what female characters are there for. They could be kicking butt or going through some horrific situations, but it seems that a story hasn’t truly ‘made’ it until the main characters (especially if they’re women) become part of a couple. Would anyone really read about Bella without Edward? Does anyone remember how brilliant and comically annoying Hermione was before she was Ron’s girlfriend? Do we care that Ginny showed great magical potential or that she’s the one that turns Harry’s head? What issue hits readers’ hearts deepest: the fact that Katniss is facing a totalitarian government that plays cruel mind game or that the triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale is ever-changing and ever-engaging?

What bothers me is that it seems that in these modern times readers forget that a character can have both, and that love doesn’t have to overshadow who a character is as a person. In that regard, Ms. L’Engle owns everyone on this. Not only does she walk the fine line between romance and character, but she treats her female characters differently. How Meg approaches life and love is very different compared to the emotions of her daughter Poly (or Polly depending on the book and edition) regarding the same subjects.

When we’re first introduced to Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, there is no argument that she is neck-deep in her awkward phase. Where Bella has a lot of self-hatred but everyone around her overlooks it (thus making her emo yet approachable), Meg is, without a doubt, awkward. She has braces, has glasses, her body parts are in that horrible mid-development stage (Ladies, you know what I mean; we’ve all been there), she gets into fights, she’s insanely brilliant in some areas of school but when she doesn’t care she doesn’t make an effort. She longs to be beautiful like her mother. All of that is established immediately and no attempt is made to clean up her image. That is what she (and we readers) has to work with. Beyond that, she also is missing her father who is absentee/disappeared. She’s trying to look out for her weird and precocious little brother. And she ends up getting sucked into an adventure that has her facing down her fears and the darkness that is threatening to destroy the universe.

As she and her brother Charles Wallace are befriended by Mrs. What, Mrs. Who, and Mrs.Which, schoolmate Calvin O’Keefe gets taken along for the ride. He’s seen as popular and likeable, and though initially Meg doesn’t want much to do with him, he is willing to look past the bizarre surface of the Murry family from the very beginning. He sees Meg’s value and he’s there to encourage and push her through all their adventures, whether it’s saving the universe or saving Charles Wallace in A Wind in the Door. Their growing friendship and romance is subtle and not once does it overshadow what’s going on around them. It’s age-appropriate and it works.

As a person, Meg continues to grow through the series. She has to face mixed feelings about her father, brother, and herself in A Wrinkle in Time when it becomes evident that she has to face the threat on Camatoz alone. This is probably the only acceptable time of using the ‘Love is the answer’ plot device that I’ve read, because she has to go through every other option first and realize why they don’t work. We see her journey through fear, anger, hatred, irritation, intellect, and strength. We see her broken and humbled as she works through her desperation to save her family and her terror at going it alone. Because all of those feelings and incidents are believable, when love is finally the only option that is left it’s completely acceptable for that to be the only working option. It isn’t even that she’s turned from a hateful adolescent to an all-mighty loving woman; she’s simply able to focus on her love for her little brother.

In Wind in the Door she’s accepted Calvin, but when Charles gets mysteriously sick she’s once again pitted against infuriating odds to save him. She’s fighting her own shortcomings as much as she is any outside source, only this time she realizes that even deep love isn’t enough: she has to be willing to sacrifice herself. Again, this is never treated as easy and she handles these odds just like a normal teen girl would. Meg loses help and friends; she makes some royal mistakes and has to accept that.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet shifts focus and mostly follows Charles Wallace. Meg is now older, married to Calvin, and expecting their first child. But on the eve of potential nuclear warfare, she’s called upon to mentally link with her brother to help ground him as he faces his own challenges. This book is where her role begins to shift. She’s no longer an impulsive warrior or impetuous and reckless girl. She’s got her own interests to protect and has made the definite shift into motherhood, and willingly makes the effort to initiate a good relationship with her difficult mother-in-law. Another shift is that she’s finally grown out of the awkward phase and has achieved the physical beauty she sought for so long. While I’m mixed on this, I can sort of accept this transformation because by this point she’s been through a hell of a lot and found a partner that was always on her side, no matter what obstacles she repeatedly threw in Calvin’s path.

As an awkward tween and teen, myself, I was surrounded by images and stories of everything I was not. I grew up in the heyday of the BSC and Sweet Valley High, of stories of popular girls whose challenges could be solved in seventy pages or so with minimal effort. I was constantly feeling like I never measured up because I couldn’t get my life to jam into that mold. And then Meg fell into my lap. It was like I finally had a book to hang onto that gave me hope; I had an icon that was closer to my looks and my temperament. And she didn’t just get the guy or come up with some sort of club; she saved her family and the whole freakin’ universe and she didn’t have to change who she was at her core to do it!

Many Waters is the last book in this first series about the Murry/O’Keefe families, but it features Meg’s twin brothers more than the other characters. What I like about it, though, is that there’s a mammoth with my name. Okay, I like a few other things about it, specifically that in a few metaphors and sentences L’Engle gorgeously describes the angst of trying to choose who to love and the difference between love and lust. Yalith is sought after by both twins, but there’s no way they’ll ever be together. She’s also seen as a trophy by the Nephilim, and eventually is saved and protected by the Seraph who she shares a special bond with. She’s put in temptation’s way time and again and has to choose for herself what it is she really wants. She doesn’t need four books of “Will they get together/won’t they/oh my God this character’s so hot and conflicted!” This part of her story is actually fairly small, but achingly realistic and beautiful when she realizes that love doesn’t necessarily mean you end up with a person, and lust can be beautiful and deadly.

Growing up, I read this first series nine thousand times. I still see different things every time I read one of the titles, and Meg teaches me different things about myself each time I’m reunited with her story. But I like her because she’s plausible; she could actually exist. And she accomplishes so much, even though she’s imperfect. So if you do the implied math, this means no matter how imperfect a girl is, she can do anything she puts her mind too. She can find love, she can impact the world, and she can help out those that seem to be more important than her. This is a hugely profound message that girls these days don’t hear nearly often enough, and unfortunately efforts to capitalize on A Wrinkle in Time haven’t done the story any favors by making Meg more “likeable.” I suppose what I say to the Disney movie and anything else is this: humans (including women) aren’t always likeable, so why do you need to put a glossy coat on us? Why can’t we be the way we are, be seen that way, and still be seen as amazing?

Now there is another aspect to Meg’s story, as those who have read the next series she appears in are well-aware of. Next time we’ll continue this exploration by seeing who she becomes and what adventures her daughter gets into.

In the meantime, I’m looking for all those leading ladies in epic fantasy stories that are interesting and genre-defying! Have a suggestion or a comment? Drop me a line at…

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See the original post here.