Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Watson Report: On Heroines

by I.A Watson

Pulp is a very traditional storytelling form. It has deep roots, right back to the “penny dreadful” broadsheets, the popular middle ages ballads, and the bardic tales. It paints with broad strokes, intending to make the reader feel as well as think about its stories. Pulp can be a style, a genre, or a theme; but it’s always an experience.

There are some experiences which go deep to our human cores. Death, violence, and sex are about as fundamental as it gets in human experience, so naturally those things are prevalent in much fiction and almost always in pulp fiction. These are the things that get our hearts thumping – and keep readers turning the pages!

It’s been argued that there are really only three stories, and that they sum up every plot for every piece of fiction: A Man Goes on a Journey; A Man Learns a Lesson (or fails to); and Boy Meets Girl (or loses girl etc.). Fiction certainly devotes a substantial amount of time to telling stories of men and women relating romantically, not least because that’s something that attracts an audience and makes the reader care about and pull for the protagonists.

So many pulp stories include a female character who is a potential romance or sex interest. She might be a virginal good girl menaced by her wicked uncle, or a sinful bad girl seeking to manipulate our hero for her own devious ends, but she’s prevalent in all kinds of variations; not just a female character, a female character with a relationship or potential relationship with the protagonist.

That’s the sense in which I’m using the term heroine in this article. Sometimes heroine can simply mean the proper feminine of hero, the protagonist to whom the story happens; here I’m using the other definition, that of the female story lead with whom the hero must associate and who is often part of the hero’s heroic mission.

Prior to our modern liberated era there was a general assumption that most female characters would be less capable of dealing with threat than male characters. If there’s a plucky heroine, that’s considered remarkable. She’s exceptional, not the norm.

Reflecting societal attitudes, and perhaps a practical acknowledgement that when violence is involved women are at a physical disadvantage, the assumption has been that the female lead has eventually required some kind of help from the male lead. Let’s not shy away from the truth that many pulp stories, especially older ones, hold this to be true.

Pulp can be a very honest storytelling style though, because that hero-saves-heroine trope goes way back in our society. It’s probably engraved in our DNA. There is a very primal instinct in males to protect females from other males. It’s probably about ensuring that our seed fertilises the woman rather than any other, but it’s a very old urge. Protect the women and the children.

We’ve been telling stories about heroes who turn up to save the girl, often from death or a fate worse than death (impregnation by anyone other than the hero), for a very long time. How many fairy-tale princess and forest maidens are saved in the end by a handsome prince or burly woodsman or likely lad? How many of our ancient myths include a damsel in distress being rescued (hi, Andromeda, Deineira, Sita)? From the Princess of Sana’a (Arabian Nights) to Canace (Chaucer’s “A Knight’s Tale”), from St George and the Dragon to Van Helsing’s vampire hunters, the damsel in distress is hammered into our worldview as soon as we open a book.

Another very old assumption goes with that. When the hero rescues the heroine, she will fall in love with him. They’ll marry and live happily ever after; or at least they’ll have sex. Many older sources don’t even question that her hero is entitled to the virginity he’s just saved. To the hero the spoils. Only the brave deserve the fair.

We know, in our post-modern cynical diagnostic world, that the ability to kill ogres with a sword doesn’t necessarily make one a perfect boyfriend – although a very useful one for an ogre-prone princess, I suppose. We know that men, however heroic and blood-stained, do not automatically qualify for a thank-you bedroom session. But when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the realm of fiction our expectations subtly change; our perceptions and values are dragged again into a world where the hero and heroine do find themselves compatible and attracted, and where a happy ending or a tragic loss are the two most likely outcomes.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of stories that subvert these expectations. The most common is the one where the heroine turns out to be the villain after all. But these subversions only work because the expectation of how things should go is so ingrained into our reading experience.

Given that most pulp fiction was originally published to earn a living, its not surprising that it caters to the things that will most part a reader from his purchase money. Look at the covers of many old pulp magazines. A good percentage of them feature scantily-clad or naked women; that always sells. Of these, about half also feature the woman in bondage or immediate peril, requiring rescue or facing imminent destruction or ravishment. In about half of these the hero is also present, striving to save her.

Now go to the artistic depiction of heroines throughout history, back through the portraits of the Renaissance, the woodcuts of the Middle Ages, to the friezes and pottery of the Hellenistic period. See if the percentage of nudity, bondage, imminent peril and heroic rescuers is much different.

So what does this tell us? And what does it mean for modern writers and modern readers of pulp fiction?

Well, first off, it tells us that fundamental differences between men and women sometimes leak past our modern conceptions of equality meaning uniformity. Fortunately I think society is past the days when gender equality meant that women should be just like men, so its not too hard for us to recognise that the sexes are physically different and that they have historically played different social roles. But when we settle into the world of fiction and fantasy, the masks come off and we allow ourselves a more guilt-free experience of the contrasts.

Second, it means that we have to buy in to the romanticised, sexualised way that men and women relate in fiction. In the same way as we allow that a protagonist may be more heroic, a better fighter, a smarter thinker as part of our suspension of disbelief, we have to allow his heroine to be more beautiful, more charming, and more available than we would give credence in “real life.” That we consistently do make these allowances suggests how much we enjoy visiting worlds where heroes get the girl.

But because modern audiences tend to be more sophisticated and come to their reading with modern understandings of gender and morality, contemporary pulp writers have to be cleverer and subtler in how they apply the ancient tropes. Readers are still interested in boy-meets-girl, but they want another reason for why our protagonists hop into bed together at the end than “Oh thank you for saving me, my big strong hero!”

There are certain older assumptions and attitudes which writers can no longer get away with – thankfully. Depicting a member of a minority race as naturally less intelligent or moral than another might have been acceptable in 1920; now even stories set in that time that accurately depict discrimination of that era had better not try and suggest the view was justified. Likewise, the era when a hero could push a girl down on the bed, tear her clothes off, and ravish her until her protests end and she becomes an acquiescent passionate lover are past; now we call that rape.

But just because there are pitfalls, that’s no reason for pulp writers or readers to shy away from one of the fundamental pillars of the genre. Boys still meet girls every day. People who are in trouble should be helped. Adversity forms strong bonds of fellowship, and sometimes of romance. All of these make for potent, visceral stories.

Heroes, of whatever gender, have to be heroic. Heroes rescue people. Heroines (also of whatever gender) tend to get into trouble; the best of them get into trouble because they’re doing the right thing (c.f. snoopy reporter, princess defending her people, whore with a heart of gold). If the heroine has our sympathy, respect, or admiration then we’re even more engaged rooting for our hero to get to her.

Pulp has traditions. Heroines are part of it. Go save one today.


I.A Watson’s homepage.

Rescue Me” a short piece of humorous fiction by I.A. Watson on this topic.