by Shaker Seraph, a shameless geek who's getting through the bad times in New York City by doing temp work, playing Dungeons & Dragons, watching lots of movies, and splitting rent with an amiable soon-to-be-ex.
The other day, Paul the Spud gave us the bad news about Coraline: Yet another movie/tv show/whatever where the female lead is built up to be tough, clever, and resourceful, but she still needs a guy – in this case, an extraneous, tacked-on-after-the-fact guy – to save her bacon.
So what else is new, right? A lot of people in the entertainment biz say that they want to create strong female characters, but they either don't really know what that means (Kirsten Dunst's MJ in the first Spider-Man movie, whose much-touted "strength" amounts to "She's Sassy!" Only not really. Dunst was a stronger character as Torrance in the first Bring It On), they don't want too many of them around (the Justice League cartoons, where Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl – a character in her mid-twenties, or the equivalent for a Thanagarian – are the only female members of the Original Seven – which I'll grant is a step up from the comics, where Hawkgirl's place is held by Plastic Man), or they feel some need to undermine the Strong Woman's strength.
Usually, this is done so some male character can have some character development at her expense, but sometimes it's purely for the sake of "humanizing" the heroine, "giving her some flaws," because of course people won't like a female character if she's too cool. Funny how, unlike Superman (the Boy Scout) or Batman (the Asshole), female characters' "flaws" always seem to make them less powerful and competent. Take a look at the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer if you don't believe me.
Mind you, all of this is going on while the creators are dislocating their arms patting themselves on the back for creating Strong Female Characters. Especially if those Strong Female Characters are in a kids' show, so those Characters can serve as a Role Model For Girls.
The example of this that really broke my heart was Kim Possible. [Spoiler warnings.] At first glance, it seemed to be all it promised to be: Kim was legitimately powerful and badass, and she wasn't the only one. The show was packed to the rafters with female badassery: Kim's obligatory female nemesis (and frequent fanfic lesbian partner) Shego, of course, but also Yori, Zita, Dr. Director, Kim's mother, Kim's grandmother – at one point, Kim's goofy sidekick Ron Stoppable asked, "Are all girls like this, or just the ones I know?"
But you didn't have to watch long before things started to seem a bit…off. First, Ron got His Day in the Spotlight with surprising frequency. Even during their regular missions, Ron seemed to be the one to push the self-destruct button on the Doomsday Device more often than not, albeit accidentally. Could it be that the show's creators, having created a strong, witty, resourceful female character, found her goofy male sidekick more interesting? Hmm…
Then we start to see Kim's flaws. A threat to the planet in the kitchen? Har-de-har. Same joke as every Action Girl from Movie-Eowyn to Akane of Ranma 1/2: Of course the tomboy doesn’t know how to cook! She's worked so hard at learning Man Skills, she's neglected her Woman Skills! Ha ha! Wev. I give it a roll of the eyes and let it go, because you have to admit, there are few rooms with more potential for comic disaster than the kitchen. Besides, do I want Kim to be like her mother, a world-class success at her day job (brain surgery, in Mom's case), then June Cleaver when she goes home at night? Of course not. Hey, wait a second, if it's not okay for Kim, then why – moving on!
Flaws. Workaholic who can't turn down a request for help? Standard hero problem. Clumsy and awkward around boys, especially her crush Josh Mankey? In the tradition of Clark Kent and Peter Parker – I can get behind that. Besides, she's sixteen. Doesn't always recognize or appreciate the talents of others? Well now. That shows hints of a genuine dark side. That could lead to some interesting plots – maybe combine it with the Workaholic Flaw and create a plot where she's tempted to subjugate the world for its own good. Maybe even a "Mirror, Mirror" episode…
Or it could lead to a whole bunch of episodes where other characters save the world and her ass, teaching her – repeatedly – that Other People Have Talents Too (and, not coincidentally, cutting her down to size).
Yep. Option B. It's enough to make you wonder why the title of the show is Kim Possible.
Still, it kept up this uncomfortable balance through three seasons, a finale, and a sequel season, until…
As a writer, I'm a big believer that the ending defines everything that came before it. Everything builds toward the ending, everything happens in service of it, so you really have no choice but to judge the events of a story in the light of the ending. So when the climax of the Series Finale involves Kim being knocked unconscious and captured by alien invaders as a result of Ron's clumsiness, the aliens discussing having her stuffed and mounted as a trophy, Ron being so enraged by this that his Mystic Monkey Power (a form of mystically-enhanced Kung Fun) flares to godlike levels, allowing him to kill both aliens and leave both Kim and Shego staring at him in awe and some small amount of fear, you can only reach one conclusion: The series Kim Possible is not about Kim at all, nor even about her and Ron growing into a mutual, equal partnership. It's the story of Ron Stoppable's Hero's Journey, as he strives to become worthy of a girlfriend as cool as Kim.
Which left me in a little bit of despair, I must admit. Is this the best kids have available to them? Are Strong Female Characters doomed to be underused, undermined, or just plain fake? What are they feeding the kids these days?
Then I discovered Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar is a fantasy cartoon on Nickelodeon – well, was. It ended last summer, but you can find it on DVD anywhere (unlike Kim Possible). [Spoiler warnings.] It takes place in a world much like our own, except…except it isn't much like our world at all, really. In fact, it's a truly brilliant achievement in fantasy world-building. The biggest difference is this: A huge portion of the population, perhaps as much as 25% (certainly no less than 10%) are elemental "benders." That is, they can control one of the four classic elements – earth, air, fire, and water. All other differences are extrapolated from that.
Arthur C. Clarke said that "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and that may well be true, but this show proves that sufficiently commonplace and dependable magic is indistinguishable from technology. Each form of bending is explicitly treated as a martial art (based on real-life ones, for verisimilitude), so the most common use we see is fighting, but it goes far beyond that: Earth Kingdom cities have no gates – why should they, when a guard can just open the wall? – and we see trains and mail-delivery systems made entirely of stone and powered by earthbending. The Water Tribes live at the North and South Poles, where the waterbenders control virtually the entire environment (yes, they can control ice and vapor, not to mention non-water liquids), building cities out of ice. The Fire Nation takes to hot-air balloons very quickly, and they never need to build actually cannons on their tanks – just a hatch for a soldier to throw fire through. The Air Nomads…
Are all dead.
For this is a world at war. One hundred years ago, the Fire Nation attacked the other peoples of the world, and wiped out the Air Nomads in a devastating first strike. That's exactly the sort of thing that the titular Avatar – the only bender in the world who can control all four elements – is supposed to prevent, but the last known Avatar vanished just when the world needed him most.
But now he's been found.
As you can probably tell, I love this series. It's a remarkable piece of fantasy and, especially by the standards of kids' shows, a remarkable piece of feminism. It's true that the titular character is a boy (in this incarnation – of the four previous Avatars we meet, two are men and two are women), but Avatar is an ensemble show, where each of the characters gets their own story and character development. The Avatar may be the most powerful among his group of companions and the lynchpin of the plot, but they're no more secondary or subservient to him than the Fellowship was to Frodo.
The women of Avatar display the fullness of variety and humanity that fictional women are so often denied: They're brave, funny, gross, wiseass, overbearing, smart overall with moments of extreme stupidity, vengeful, angry, as sexual as kids' TV will allow them to be (they actually get a fair bit past the radar) – the only thing they have in common is they are all extremely (in some cases terrifyingly) badass. Their power level ranges from "God-stomping" to "Badass Normal," and for once there's more of the former (not that the Normals can't more than hold their ground). What's more, they get to use that power in effective ways, rather than being reduced to really impressive damsels in distress so the boys can look heroic. Better yet, they're not mere tokens: Except for the first season, when the core cast totaled three, the ratio of men to women has been kept scrupulously equal.
Perhaps most important of all, it's made clear that while these characters are exceptional, they are not unique. Where another series would use male characters as their "generic person," filling every role with men unless they wanted to make some sort of point by using a woman, we see women "generically" filling in roles from front-line military to government clerk to Random Peasant Helping with the Defense of Her Town. Men take orders from these women as if there was nothing unusual about it. And yet, the series doesn't pretend that sexism doesn't exist.
The creators of Avatar did it right, and they did it, to the best of my knowledge, without all of the public self-congratulation of Joss Whedon or the creators of Kim Possible.
Over the next few days, I'll be reviewing the series in greater depth, season-by-season. Thanks to Liss for letting me post this, I hope you all enjoy.