Sunday, March 25, 2012

There’s No Place Like Home – When Being Likeable Was Enough

Guest article by Selah Janel

Let’s face it: being a person is tough at any age. Some have it harder than others, true, but none of us are immune to heartache, tragedy, finding out you have to save the universe, having to rescue a sibling you wished away, being accidentally or suddenly transported to a magical world, or finding out you actually have magical powers. Part of what’s fun and disconcerting about urban fantasy or magic realism is that it could potentially happen to anyone. While it’s always been a theme to have a young hero or heroine at the center of stories like this, there’s been a definite increase in the fascination within the past ten years or so. So what I’m going to (try) to do is go down the timeline as much as I can and examine the strengths, weaknesses, and trends in some of the more notorious magical coming-of-age/urban fantasy plots.

Dorothy, Wendy, and Alice. We all know their stories whether it be from the original books or movie adaptations. They’ve been modernized, sexualized, horror-ized, turned into cartoons, comics, and anything else you could possibly imagine. All three tales are similar in that all three girls are living their lives and dealing with their own child-sized problems when BAM! They’re transported into a world that’s far different from their own. They go on adventures and defeat adversaries, but to a certain degree the real story is how their attitudes shift and their eventual desire and effort to go home. I’ll admit I go back and forth on these. I loved The Wizard of Oz as a kid (and I’ve read a lot of Oz books in the series) and Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates helped me appreciate Peter Pan (Until I finally read the book and decided that it was fantastic – up until that point I was only familiar with the cartoon and the musical which, while charming, don’t really embody the depth of the story). Alice…we’ll get to her in a moment.

These stories are well-deserved classics and still resonate with people. Everyone knows the pain of wanting to go home or to where you belong, everyone knows the bittersweet realization that it’s time to grow up, and everyone has felt overwhelmed and pulled apart by their surroundings, so in that respect the stories definitely hold up. Plus, they express different levels of magic and fantasy and danger in ways that are relatable for all ages. But we’re not here to talk about those things – we’re here to look at what makes these heroines tick.

Besides their locations and circumstances, all three are fairly similar: they’re likeable, innocent, and hard-headed about certain things the way any child would be. Don’t get me wrong; they’re sturdy archetypes and different incarnations have done a lot to flesh out how we view them, but at the end of the day the adventures they go on are more interesting than the girls, themselves. But the one thing they have going for them is that they’re likeable.

Dorothy is a little girl so, of course, she reacts to the potential loss of her dog by knee-jerking and doing what makes sense to her: running away from home to protect Toto. Even before running away she’s acting just how a kid would: getting in the way and daydreaming. During the course of her adventures she slowly wakes up and has to be somewhat self-sufficient (Though because of her age and I’d hazard a guess to include gender she also gets a huge help from others along the way, though the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man could also be personifications of the qualities she needs to complete her quest). She’s half-forced into facing off with the Wicked Witch of the West but she (somewhat accidentally – she’s a child and has to remain likeable) completes her task so that she can go home.

Even her entire quest is somewhat telling about her naiveté and age: she doesn’t realize that she really wants to be at home until she’s not there. She tends to become a little more self-sufficient in later books when she returns to Oz, but all in all still retains her child likeability. While I do think this kind of character thrives on the good girl role, it’s hard not to like her. I tend to get a little uncomfortable with ‘adult’ variations of Oz just because it is a story that’s so central to childhood and slowly growing up, it seems like a hell of a dichotomy (though I will admit that Bloodstained Oz is pretty amazing.) I find her less repetitive in the L. Frank Baum books, but the movie is and always will be a classic. I also really love that Dorothy is portrayed as a child who acts like a child and not like a little girl/teen/preteen who talks like she’s forty.

Wendy I have a love/hate relationship with. I genuinely like the book because to me it encompasses the sweetness and the potential danger that all really good fantasy and fairy tales should have. I’m not fond of Peter Pan the character. I’m just not. I think the concept is great and I get where all his motivations are coming from but his treatment of Wendy bugs the hell out of me. Granted, I think things are tempered and paced better in the book. I will even admit that she’s the real rebel of the story because she denies what he’s offering and agrees to take her natural place in her life by growing up. That’s huge and it didn’t make sense to me until I was older (like six months ago).

She tends to ape characteristics of adults and tries to act more grown up than she is. To be fair, this is totally a female trait. We’ve all at certain times tried to act older than our age and I don’t know a woman who’s being honest with herself who hasn’t tried to rush love or push it on the first available guy that just doesn’t see her that way. For me it’s not that the lost boys get to go off and have adventures or that Wendy stays around keeping house; it’s within her character and upbringing to want to do it and a lot of us have spent many long afternoons as kids playing house, me included.

Her forgiving nature does complement Peter’s little-boy arrogance, but having her continually be included only to be a mother/housekeeper/kidnap victim, person for Tinkerbell to harass (especially in the Disney version and the musical) is frustrating. Ultimately, she does get her way and makes her own decision, but if it took me decades to realize this, I kind of wonder if that was her real purpose or if I’m trying to put a strong-chick spin on it. And I fully realize at the time of writing that little girls strove to be good mothers and homemakers – and there’s still nothing wrong with that choice today. My main complaint tends to be that Peter wants her to come and baits the Darling children with stories about adventures, and then ends up ignoring and mistreating her at his whim.

I will admit that I can agree with the book version of the character and I love the Fox show’s variation. On the show, for every girly thing that she did or feminine stereotype that she was forced into, she also gets to go on her own adventures. She falls in with a group of mermaids and at one point when the lost boys are fascinated with The Three Musketeers and are pretending to be the characters, she disguises herself as a boy and totally kicks their butts with a sword. It’s fabulous. From what I remember it also had her hold her own against Peter’s bullheadedness much more, and had Peter being much more of an equal-opportunity harasser that forgot about everyone at certain points because he was so self-involved. It was much more in the style of the book and that version of Wendy I quite like.

And now we come to Alice. I was hesitant to bring this one up because in all honesty Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are stories that I actively dislike. The world-building is fascinating and I think it’s intriguing that different film or television versions can take the same story and use it to portray different themes, but if we’re talking the true-blue standard story then, well, honestly I can’t stand it. I never found the books enchanting and most of the film versions make me very uncomfortable. I grew up with the miniseries in the eighties that featured a million stars and a guy in a dragon suit playing the Jabberwocky. While the songs were catchy, there was always something about it that bothered me. The later miniseries also featured a lot of celebrities and was a great metaphor for overcoming stage fright, but it was still something that I’d never actively decide to sit down and watch. And try as I might, I’ve never been able to watch the Disney cartoon in one sitting. While I like that the story can be used as metaphor, the actual story doesn’t do much for me. To me, reading or watching a little girl get yanked around and harassed or bullied by people when she’s lost and confused just isn’t entertaining and can get borderline creepy. Obviously the majority loves this story and I’m not trying to stir anything up – anyone who’s mortally offended by this can send their hate mail to Sean, who's letting me take over his blog for this post.

Seriously, though, while Alice does have qualities of her counterparts (innocence and the little girl trying to be an adult syndrome), I could never get around the fact that she tends to be ganged up on to the point of being a victim. I often thought I was the only one who thought this way, but Ray Bradbury’s actually done a fabulous essay comparing Wonderland to Oz and why Dorothy had a much better deal (i.e. Oz was full of helpful people that exuded helpfulness and support whereas Wonderland had a dark and hostile cast to it).

That being said, I absolutely love the Tim Burton movie. Making Alice older plus giving her an independent streak was a work of genius. I like seeing her question the marriage she’s being forced into, and having enough wits about her to really notice an entire situation. Suddenly what’s been a “good” stock sort of female character has morphed into something well-rounded and interesting. Plus, dude, she gets to wear ARMOR! And fight the Jabberwocky! I think I may have stood on my seat and cheered at that bit (Thank God I have friends that can put up with me). That, plus seeing at least some part of Wonderland be supportive of her efforts and working with her was amazing and balanced out the dark and dangerous bits (To be fair I have nothing against dark fantasy; I just don’t like seeing little girls get ganged up on). Even better, when she returns home she has developed even more backbone and sets out to keep her father’s legacy going, herself, instead of taking the female-role position of marrying for business’ sake. For me, Burton captured the themes of Wonderland and gave the female lead a fighting chance, which I heartily appreciate.

While I think people tend to love these three stories more for the adventure and fantasy elements than the female leads, I do think they have their high points in that respect. The characters act like their age range, they’re likeable, and they get to have adventures that are believable for their ages and the way they were brought up. Plus, they work because they’re very easy for little girls to identify with. Unfortunately, they also end up getting pushed around to a certain extent (Wendy and Alice more so than Dorothy) and I don’t feel that’s a great thing. They obviously can be used to promote different themes and metaphors and they’re very likeable – I just wish there was more to them than being generally likeable and feminine. There’s definitely a reason they’ve stayed around so long, and I will agree that the good points of the overall stories outweigh the weaker aspects of the characters.

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