Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

21 responses to “Heroic Romance

  • Ellen Efenricea

    I was also thinking about heroes and heroines the other day – how a female heroine gets the same name as a drug. Passive, for use, gets people high, fucks them up, causes them to do crazy shit in the name of their obsession/ addiction.
    I think we have to escape the gendered term altogether.

  • Musings Of Meandering Spirits

    Your wisdom never ceases to amaze me! I believe love in its agape form can cure all things and is the key that will make the changes we need in this world. Romantic love….huuummmm, NO! That love causes people (mostly women) to be stupid and sacrifice their self-love.

  • Bill Watson

    You haven’t seen much of Marvel’s efforts in this area then: Wonder Woman, etc….

    • Nimue Brown

      As I said, I’m aware that there’s some better modern stuff, but historically there’s mostly this sort of thing.

    • Meredith

      So I feel the need to point out a few things, as someone who has been an MCU fan for some years.

      Firstly, Wonder Woman is DC, and they still shoehorn a tragic romance into her story although her man tragically sacrifices himself and she is therefore pissed off and wins a big battle(nice reversal). Also, although the beginning of the film is set on Themyscira, which is all women (and they are awesome women), once Diana leaves Themyscira there are two other named women, one of whom is evil, and quite a lot of men.

      In the MCU (and mainly I’m going to be talking about the Avengers films rather than Deadpool or the X-men), there have been NO title woman led roles. The first one is going to be Captain Marvel. Wasp has to share with Ant Man.

      Throughout the whole FILM franchise there are (off the top of my head): Pepper Potts, Betty Ross, Jane Foster, Natasha Romanoff, Maria Hill, Peggy Carter, Sif, Wasp, Gamora, Nebula, Mantis, the baddie woman from Iron Man 3 whose name I can’t remember, and the weirdly sexualised baddie woman whose name I don’t think we get, Scarlet Witch, Valkyrie, Hela, Shuri, Nakia, Ramonda, all the Dora Milaje,Topaz, Michelle, Darcy Lewis, Frigga, Tilda Swinton.

      Pepper, Betty, Jane, Peggy, Gamora and Mantis are all presented as love interests for men to a lesser or greater extent, though some are awesome anyway and Peggy gets her own series and Pepper and Gamora are less wet than women are usually presented in a romantic place and get to be their own people a bit. HOWEVER primarily (with maybe Gamora and Mantis as exceptions) these are characters who are in the films to be love interests. Frigga is Thor and Loki’s mum. Darcy Lewis is Jane’s assistant. Maria Hill does not get nearly enough screentime. Natasha Romanoff is presented as sexy evil seductress quite often despite being on the good side, and also has a weird romantic thing with the Hulk. Sif vanishes inexplicably. Nebula is pretty cool, but also EVIL. Scarlet witch is EVIL and then redeemed after her brother dies and then becomes a love interest for Ultron. Valkyrie mainly appears on her own terms, as do Hela, Nakia, Ramonda, Shuri, and the Dora Milaje (Ramonda, Shuri, Nakia and the Dora Milaje all primarily relate in some way to T’challa, but are presented as being full people outside of those relations who get to do their own thing). Topaz is the Grandmaster’s bodyguard. Those last ones from Valkyrie are from a total of three films out of, oh, 16? 17? Also I think Clint Barton has a wife? But she is mainly Clint Barton’s wife…

      Men in the films – Iron Man/Tony stark with three films named after him, Rhodey (Iron Man’s best bud), Obadiah (villain of first Iron Man film), Raza(?)(also villain in first Iron Man), Yinsen, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Thunderbolt Ross, Weird English dude in hulk film (baddie), Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, Jasper Sitwell, Eric Swedish Man, Clint Barton, Thor, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun, Loki, Odin, Ivan Vanko, Happy Hogan, Steve Rogers, Red Skull, Bucky Barnes, General Phillips, The Howling Commandos (Gabe, Dum Dum, Morita, James, Jacques), Thanos, Thanos’ creepy second in command with the weird face, Aldrich Killian, Alexander Pierce, Ultron, Vision, Quicksilver, Arnim Zola, Baron whatsisface, Starlord/Peter Quill, Drax, Rocket, Groot, Ronan, The two Xandarian policemen, The Collector, The cyborg man, Peter Quill’s blue pirate dad, most of the ravagers, Peter Quill’s actual dad, Senator Stern, Justin Hammer, Peter Parker, Ned Leeds, the Vulture, Ian, Sam Wilson, The Grandmaster, Korg, Miek(probably?), Heimdall, T”challa, Killmonger, The shaman man (zuri?), N’jobu, Tçhaka, M’baku, Martin Freeman, Ulysses Klaue. As far as I can remember, the only one of these characters who is primarily a romantic interest for a woman is Ian. AND THOSE ARE JUST THE MAIN ONES THERE ARE SO MANY MAN BACKGROUND CHARACTERS WHO SOMETIMES GET TO BE ONSCREEN AS MUCH AS THE NAMED WOMAN PARTS!

      So overall, yes they have started taking some steps but looking at the overall history it’s not nearly enough. The MCU is primarily still telling stories about men, with central man characters who get to be heroic and women on the peripheries. I will not lie – some of those women get to be amazingly badarse and heroic, but they are hugely outnumbered and often overshadowed. Gender rep in the MCU is something I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while…

      • Bill Watson

        Good grief! I cite one example, and you come up with a cast of thousands…. Obviously I’m not up with the entire mythology comic world.

      • Nimue Brown

        well, you cited one example because you wanted to knock down my argument, and it turns out that your one example wasn’t a very fair assessment of what was going on. I don’t know, i think that’s pretty relevant.

      • Bill Watson

        I enjoy most of your “editorials” and comment only when I feel that my contribution is relevant, but It seems to me that you frequently take life and some subject matter too seriously. I certainly don’t intend to offend, but just to give an alternative perspective.

      • Nimue Brown

        that’s fine. I’m often told I take things too seriously. i think about everything a lot, its part of who and how I am. I take critical feedback seriously, especially when it suggests that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I think about that a lot.

      • Meredith

        I got a bit excited – I’m really into the MCU and I’ve been watching their gender rep for years. Some of their stuff IS really good in terms of heroic women, but I think it’s always important to put these things in a context and the MCU context is pretty wide. As I said, I was specifically discussing the films. If you go into their TV series’ things do change a bit (Jessica Jones has a lot of women, Peggy Carter is more balanced in terms of main characters but most of the background characters are men), though I am not so up-to-date on those. However I think it is important to keep sight of the fact that there are easily twice as many characters who are men as characters who are women across the Avengers film franchise, and that a significant portion of those women are love interests. There are also problems with things like recurring characters – there are characters who recur across several MCU films; less of them are women and the women are more likely to get dropped. Jane Foster, for example, did not appear in Thor: Ragnarok at all and appears to have been entirely dropped from the MCU despite being an important character in the Thor films up until this point. She is only in two films. Jasper Sitwell, who is a minor background SHIELD Agent, is in two films and appears in the Agents of SHIELD tv series. It would be interesting to compare the screentime of these characters…

        Anyway, as I said the MCU and gender rep is a specific area of interest for me so I tend to just throw all the information around. And I am not knocking Wonder Woman as a film – I really enjoyed it!

      • Bill Watson

        I did enjoy Agent Carter and it’s a pity we didn’t see more of her. One of my TV favourites, going back a few years, was ‘Dark Angel’. What about Cobey Smulders’ brief appearances as deputy chief of Shield?

      • Meredith

        PS I wasn’t actually trying to steamroll, just an area I have a lot of interest and I got keyboard happy.

      • Nimue Brown

        Thank you for sharing you understanding of what’s going on here. I really appreciate it.

      • Meredith

        Well, gender rep in the MCU is something I’ve been following with keen interest for some time now (although I actually stopped watching the films for a while cause I got fed up with the gender rep), so my inner(ish) nerd just went a bit wild…

  • greenwisewoman

    I had remembered Dorothy as rescuing Ogma of Oz but when I googled to check it turns out to be Glinda (the Good)…… she is female, although magical. In ‘Ogma of Oz’ the book, not the person, Dorothy does rescue the royal family of the neighbouring country to Oz from the Gnome King, though.
    Suddenly I realize why these books were so important to me as a child!

  • Meredith

    Very exciting to read these further thoughts you’ve had! Absolutely love it 🙂

  • Charlotte Cyprus

    I was watching The 100 on Netflix and am continually pleased by how badass all the women are without making it a matriarchal society. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but I reccomend giving it a try.

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