Monday, June 3, 2013

The Watson Report: Behind Every Good Man -- Thoughts on Pulp Heroines

by I.A. Watson

There's a lot still to be written about that class of feisty pulp heroine who devotes her life to an impossible obsessed hero. Her loyalty and involvement lead to danger, kidnap, torture, and constant threat of death. She has to cope with a lover whose brooding character and endless mission preclude her ever being foremost in his concerns. Sometimes she even has to briefly assume his mystery-man mantle or adopt a complimentary masked persona to save him from destruction. There's just a wealth of character stuff to delve into there.

Nita van Sloan, Margo Lane, Carol Baldwin, Benita Juarez and the rest occupy a strange position in modern fiction. Feminists might criticise them for subordinating their outstanding talents to the needs of a dominant male. On the other hand, each of these women has aspects of competence, confidence, assertiveness and sexuality that are far ahead of the perceived norm for the eras in which they were first written. Yes, sometimes they are the helpless hostages; but other times they are dazzling partners in the war against crime. Often they are the only cast member capable of questioning the hero and making him reconsider his actions.

Birthed in a time when "Behind every good man is a good woman" and "Only the brave deserve the fair", these characters still have a story to be told about them; and bringing their relevance to a modern audience is surely one of the neglected duties of the new pulp era.

Even in these supposedly-liberated days there's a different vibe to writing principal female characters than male ones.

Perhaps its because the tough kick-ass female is still "against type".

The starting premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that a blonde cheerleading valley girl was not usually the sort of beat up predatory undead. I can't imagine how that show could have been even a little bit like it turned out with a male lead.

As for girlfriend-heroines (the Lois Lane archetype) there's a long tradition of them being as extraordinary in their way as the hero with whom they associate. There's an old maxim that "A hero is only as good as his rogues gallery". I think a codicil might be "A hero is only as good as his heroine". Tarzan without independent inspiring Jane Porter would be a diminished character. Likewise Flash Gordon without Dale Arden, Robin Hood without Maid Marion etc.

There are distinct sub-classes of Pulp Heroine companions. A few of the most prevalent are:

  1. The Rescued Damsel -- a great many old-school pulp romance interests start out as the victim, often in the hero's origin story. Thrown together with the hero under extraordinary circumstances that show her to be a remarkable women, this female alone has the insight into what makes the hero tick. Thereafter she helps keep his secret, assists with his mission, and probably joins his gang.
  2. The Commissioner's Daughter -- often pulp heroines have some status conferred by their father. He's not always a police commissioner. He might be a millionaire philanthropist, a brilliant scientist, a general, an eccentric explorer, even the monarch of another planet. In any case, the daughter is significant in plot terms because either (a) her father is an ongoing influence on the series - ally, adversary, nemesis, technical support, the hero's boss, or (b) murdered, providing the hero, the heroine, or both with a motivation for their subsequent exploits.
  3. The Tamed Bad Girl -- dangerous and deadly in her own right, probably a criminal, this subclass of heroine either turns from crime because of her relationship with the hero or else teams up with him against nastier enemies because of her affection. She may try to seduce the hero to join her on the dark side. She may try to destroy him only to relent at the last moment. She may turn her back on her villainous allies, even her arch-criminal father (see sublass #2) to save her man. She might end up vying with the virtuous Rescued Damsel described above, leaving the hero to make a choice - or avoid a choice - between naughty and nice.
  4. The Girl With the Cause -- this heroine has an agenda. She may be trying to save rare animals, or complete her father's archeological research, or run her free legal centre despite gangland threats. In any case, her passion for her mission will inevitably lead her into danger. requiring the hero's assistance. It might also end up as a source of conflict between the lovers. Spunky girl reporters, dedicated medics, charity workers, and even revolutionary princesses all fit in this class.
  5. The Thrill Seeker -- an adrenaline junkie hooked on action, she's with the hero because it's dangerous and so is he. She might not be the healthiest of personalities but she's dynamite on two long legs. She's often more trouble than all but the baddest Bad Girl because she actually enjoys taking the risks. Probably the most kidnap-able class of heroine except possibly for the Commissioner's Daughter. Also the class most likely to get spanked by the hero in stories written before 1955.
  6. The Angel -- she's the perfect Good Girl, more ideal than woman, and she's the hero's inspiration and motivation. The knight quests for her. The down-at-heel detective pounds the mean streets knowing he'll never be fit to touch her with his blood-stained hands. She might be supernatural - a literal angel, ghost, alien, or computer intelligence. She's less likely to go in with .38s blazing and more likely to cradle the hero's head as he lies in an alley bleeding to death. Sometimes she dies tragically to provoke the final showdown.

Perhaps the main diffference between the pre-WW2 pulps and today's world is the idea that women who were capable of matching or exceeding men were the exception rather than commonplace. Just as not every man in a 30s pulp novella was capable of beating up half a dozen longshoremen thugs - only our two-fisted hero, so not every woman had the moxie to hold a gun on the villainous ganglord and demand her man's release from his ropes. However, here in 2013 I think we've mostly got the idea that both men and women can equally excel - or be equally pathetic! 

A few odd cultural differences remain as well, of course. James Bond strapped naked to a table while the villain torments his genitals with electrodes is gritty drama. If the naked tortured captive is Natasha Romanoff it's heading towards porn. A male hero graphically beaten to a pulp and spitting teeth is hard-boiled. A female hero similarly beaten up is... uncomfortable reading. At least to my mind.

I'm happy that we're getting more female leads to our pulp stories these days. I still think we need to make sure that when we're polishing the older legends, the characters of yesteryear, that we make sure the excellent female cast members there get opportunities to shine.