In a historic decision of the US Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade was overruled on Friday 24th June 2022 by the new precedent of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation. Dobbs was the Mississippi state health officer who was sued by the state’s only abortion clinic to challenge the constitutionality of a law which banned abortion after 15 weeks. Prior to Friday, the enforcement of this law had been halted by lower court injunctions which prevented states from banning abortion before foetal viability at around 24 weeks, based on the 14th Amendment granting the right to privacy. Roe v Wade never legalised abortion across the board, it only prevented states from enforcing laws which banned abortion prior to 24 weeks, and was thus interpreted as a constitutional right to abortion until that period.
As was to be expected, delegating law-making around abortion back to the states was interpreted with the greatest hysteria and hyperbole imaginable. Despite the explicit constitutionality of delegating the greatest possible powers to the state level, it should be of no surprise that the same people who ascribe more power to feeling than to the first amendment had no consideration at all for the rights of states to form their own laws on sensitive issues.
Instead of rejoicing at the approximately 300,000 female lives saved as a result of a so-called ban on abortion (which this is not), feminists were quick to scream that this violates their bodily autonomy and is the result of male overrepresentations in positions of power. This is despite the fact that the judge who made this possible was Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic mother of seven and one of three women who are currently serving on the Supreme Court of the United States.
They simultaneously claim that the decision to have an abortion is that of the woman concerned, and that no man (including the father) should have any say, while maintaining that parental responsibilities should be split evenly between both parents (and in many cases other parties such as nannies, nurseries, and the state through the education system). Furthermore, not only should parental responsibilities be split evenly, but the woman concerned has a permanent claim on the financial resources of the man.
This claim begs the obvious question of how it is in any way feminist to allow men to abscond from their parental responsibilities by allowing abortion, in which both mother and child are gravely affected, but the father can walk away scot-free? Given that a study which interviewed women who considered abortion and decided against it found that in five out of six cases, they did not regret their choice, it seems likely that in many cases the women concerned face significant pressure to end the pregnancy.
Looking in the abstract, this raises questions about who the culture of no-consequences sex really benefits. Despite increasingly reliable contraception, rates of abortion are increasing, which demonstrates that there will always be greater ‘risk’ of sex for women. Additionally, a culture which praises hedonistic sexual lifestyles inherently delegitimises the mature, committed lifestyle which most women want, leading to women adopting more and more masculine ways of being. Given how early feminists stressed the equal value of women, this delegitimisation of femininity seems a far cry from their initial intentions.
However, despite the inevitable reaction of hysteria, there may yet be a positive outcome for those on the opposite side of the fence. The calls for a sex strike will not just reduce the hedonistic sexual behaviour of much of the population and all its negative consequences (including unwanted pregnancy), but in doing so may encourage them to develop a more nuanced outlook on sexual behaviour and morality than ‘put whatever you want into whatever you want as long as there is consent’.
Spending less time on Tinder may also have economic benefits, as well as tanking the share price and punishing the individuals who have endorsed and profited from a company which aims to take all moral value out of sexual behaviour. In the longer term, the sex strike among liberal women may force on-the-fence men into the arms of more conservative women, thus leading to the creation of a far more conservative next generation. And yet it makes sense that those so committed to the principle that killing babies is acceptable would allow their entire ideology to die out just for the sake of proving said point.
To sum up, there is no feminist case for abortion. In this way as with so many others, ‘equality’ has been a trojan horse with which to tarnish traditional, feminine, childbearing women in order to create more wage workers. This ultimately benefits those at the top of the capitalist system (men), while making the women concerned insecure and miserable. In encouraging women to deny their reproductive capacity, abortion not only kills children but also kills part of the women concerned. The way to be a good woman is not to bend to the will of a modern man.
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Predictions for 2023 (Magazine Excerpt)By Sarah Stook — 4 months ago
The 2022 midterms should have been a bloodbath. It should have been a huge sweep for the Republicans, relegating the Democrats to the depths of minority rule. Instead, the Republicans managed to win the House only respectably, whilst the Dems kept the house. It’s widely believed that better candidates could have kept the house.
Good candidates do exist. Ron DeSantis managed to make gains in Florida. Glenn Youngkin flipped Virginia. Brian Kemp safely won re-election in Georgia. Unfortunately, there were also many poor candidates. A competent Republican could have beaten John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. Somebody else could have beaten Katie Hobbs.
The same is true for Presidential elections. The Republicans have only won one election in the 21st century outright, with both the Electoral College and popular vote – George W. Bush in 2004. 2000 and 2016 both saw Electoral College wins but popular vote losses. Whilst external events came into play, it’s not a great look.
That being said, it almost seems that the Republicans like losing. They’re not making any real attempt at winning. Whilst they might choose decent candidates, there’s a high chance they won’t.
This is an excerpt from “Provenance”. To continue reading, visit The Mallard’s Shopify.
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Royal Mistresses P.1By Sarah Stook — 5 months ago
Not every monarch has been an upstanding spouse. Many of the men ruling our kingdom have had a bit on the side whilst remaining married. Some had quick flings whilst others had longstanding partnerships.
It was a different era- royal men were expected and allowed to have mistresses. Their marriages were rarely ever for love. Those who were lucky enough to love their spouses only did after they’d married. Their wives were expected to be naive virgins who would only be there to have children. Kings might have insatiable appetites and want something more. So long as they weren’t too open about it, they could have as many women as they wanted.
Some queens, such as Queen Alexandra, tolerated affairs. Others, such as Isabella of France, did not. There wasn’t much they could do- some were forced to accept the mistresses as their ladies-in-waiting. The luckiest of them got to choose who their mistresses were.
It could be unfortunate. A king who spent more time with his mistresses wouldn’t give his wife a child. Catherine of Braganza suffered three miscarriages and never had any children due to her husband, Charles II, preferring other women. Charles had no legitimate heirs with poor Catherine, but had at least twelve illegitimate children.
Here are some of the most notable women who caught the eye of British kings:
Rosamund Clifford (c. 1150-1176)
Mistress to: Henry II
Time: Pre- 1174-1176
As with many women of the era, we know shockingly little about Rosamund Clifford. Ancient lore describes her as the most beautiful woman of all time, the Helen of Troy of her day. We know that she was not yet thirty when she died, yet her name lives on years later.
Rosamund was the daughter of Walter Clifford and the former Margaret de Toeni. Historians estimate her birth to have been between 1148 and 1150. The affair between Henry and Rosamund was publicly acknowledged by the King in 1174, but it’s believed that it has been going on a good deal longer.
Whilst Henry had initially had a happy marriage with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. The pair had eight children, including five sons, so Eleanor had fulfilled her duty in medieval eyes. Still, his eyes wandered and Rosamund was one of the women who he noticed.
A common legend, one that is almost undoubtedly false, states that Henry built an elaborate maze so that he could rendezvous with Rosamund. Eleanor reportedly discovered her and forced her to either drink poison or take a dagger to her chest. Rosamund, according to legend, poisoned herself. It is more likely that Rosamund simply died of one of the many illnesses that occurred at the time.
Since so little is known about her, we cannot build an accurate picture of Rosamund. Contemporaries would often exaggerate the beauty of noble and famous women, as beauty was seen as goodliness, so Rosamund may not be the angel that we’ve been taught. That being said, as she was a mistress, society may have been harder upon her so they may be honest in their view.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was also widely reviled at the time as ‘unwomanly’ due to her strong character and political nature. It’s no wonder that it’s rumored Eleanor poisoned her love rival. Rosamund would possibly be described as so beautiful because she was comparatively good and feminine in society’s eyes.
Alice Perrers (1348-1400)
Mistress to: Edward III
Husbands: Janyn Perrers (1360-1364), William de Windsor (1376-1384)
Children: John, Jane, Joan (believed to be with Edward)
Whilst Rosamund Clifford was the picture of beauty, kindness and grace, our next mistress had quite the opposite reputation.
Alice Perrers was widely reviled as a conniving gold-digger who preyed upon an old, grieving king. The wife of Edward III, Philippa of Hainault, was an extremely beloved queen for her graciousness, charity and acts of mercy. Alice had started an affair with Edward towards the end of Philippa’s life but it was not open until after the Queen died.
She’d been first married at the age of 12, shocking for us but very normal for the time. Alice was only 18 when she arrived at court, whilst Edward was 55. We know nothing about when the affair started but they were discreet until after Philippa died. Edward did genuinely love his wife and whilst affairs were tolerated, a king couldn’t afford to be too open about it.
It was this openness that really angered society. Alice was showered with gifts and money from the older king, becoming one of the richest women of the time. Most controversially, Edward presented Alice with jewellery that had belonged to his late wife. If that wasn’t bad enough, he overrode her will, as Philippa had stated that those jewels should have been given to a friend.
Another shocking breach of protocol and etiquette occured when there was an event at Smithfield. Edward presented Alice as ‘The Lady of the Sun,’ and had her sit with him. The senior lady at the event should have either been the wife of his eldest son or one of his daughters. A mistress should never have such an honour.
When enemy powers decided that Alice needed to be out, the King was unable to stop them. Alice was banned from both court and her lover, but this lasted only three months or so. In order to protect herself, Alice had eloped with William de Windsor several months before. She knew that once Edward died, she’d have no protection so she needed to wed. Both strenuously denied it. Edward believed her.
Ultimately, Alice turned out to be right. Edward’s death afforded her nothing, and there were even rumours she’d stolen the ring from his finger as he died. Courtiers got the new boy king, Richard II, to sentence her to exile. Fortunately, Windsor came out and admitted the marriage. This loophole allowed Alice to stay in the country, but Windsor got all of her properties and fortune. Considering women had no legal recourse against their husband, it’s probably what Alice should have expected.
Alice was widowed in 1384. With no children, Windsor made his nephew his beneficiary. Windsor had left Alice a trust, but the nephew did not bother to provide for her. Alice fought it legally but never saw it resolved. Her acknowledged children with the king had been brought up separately from the court. John had already died, whilst the women were married. We do not know anything about their relationship.
It’s believed that Alice died between 1400 and 1401. Historians view her better than her contemporaries, noting it was her business acumen that got her where she was, whilst also noting that Edward did spoil her somewhat.
The contemporary view of Alice probably stems from the deep popularity of Queen Philippa and the age discrepancy between the two lovers. This is somewhat strange, as there were many couples with large age gaps in this period. Perhaps it is because they believed Edward to be old and senile- 55 was a pretty good age back then. Whilst there is no doubt Alice was probably ambitious and cunning, she also probably isn’t the villain they’d like you to think.
Elizabeth ‘Jane’ Shore (c. 1445-c. 1527)
Mistress to: Edward IV
Husband: William Shore (?-1476), Thomas Lynom (1484-?)
Children: Julianne (with Lynom)
Born Elizabeth but known as Jane, Jane Shore was yet another mistress not treated kindly. From a wealthy family, Jane was afforded an education better than many girls of her era. Her intelligence and beauty made her a popular candidate for marriage. Eventually, Jane’s father had her married to a wealthy banker named William Shore. Whilst Shore seemed to care for his wife, Jane did not seem to reciprocate. She had the marriage annulled, ostensibly because of Shore’s apparent impotency:
‘She continued in her marriage to William Schore […] and cohabited with him for the lawful time, but that he is so frigid and impotent that she, desirous of being a mother and having offspring, requested over and over again the official of London to cite the said William before him to answer her concerning the foregoing and the nullity of the said marriage…’
It is believed Jane met Edward IV after he returned from France. Jane’s beauty and intelligence captivated Edward and she became the favourite out of his many lovers. Unlike the others, he did not discard her quickly and the relationship lasted. Other mistresses, however, had been given many gifts. Edward was married to Elizabeth Woodville but was known to have affairs.
Jane wielded a fairly large amount of power at the time, though did not initially receive the same level of hate. She was known to request the reprieve of allies who had been imprisoned. Jane was widely praised as a lively, intelligent and funny woman to be around. The power she wielded only increased after Edward’s death.
During the role of the Protector, the later Richard III, Jane was incriminated in a plot against the government. She’d been in romantic relationships with the men who cared for the boy king Edward V. Jane used those relationships to ensure alliances. Richard, the then-Duke of Gloucester accused her of conspiracy, sorcery and witchcraft.
Jane was imprisoned and required to do a public act of penance. Their had not been enough evidence to charge her with sorcery, so Jane was charged with prostitution. As penance, Jane was forced to walk the streets of London barefoot in a special garment and carrying a taper. The public sympathised with her quiet dignity throughout the ordeal.
Whilst she was imprisoned, Jane became close to Thomas Lynom, Solicitor General. Despite Richard’s misgivings, the romance blossomed and Lynom married Jane. Jane lived the rest of her life in relative comfort and prosperity. Sir Thomas More wrote that she remained somewhat beautiful in old age. Jane died at the impressive age of 82.
Unlike Alice Perrers, Jane’s political actions did not cause her to be disliked. Jane was perhaps more feminine and traditional when influencing the king, as it was expected wives and other powerful women ask for ‘soft’ favours. Her wit and humour also likely offset any issues; Alice Perrers was accused of being haughty and overly ambitious.
Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Blount (c.1498-c.1540)
Mistress to: Henry VIII
Time: Around 1519
Husbands: Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron Tailboys of Kyme (1522-1530), Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln (1533/34-c.1540)
Children: Henry FitzRoy (with Henry), Elizabeth, George, Robert (with Tailboys), Bridget, Catherine and Margaret (with Clinton)
Bessie Blount may be one of the most impactful mistresses we’ve ever had and it’s not through politics.
Born to minor nobles, Bessie became an attendant to Catherine of Aragon. As with others, the only thing known of Bessie is that she was very beautiful. Henry VIII was known for being lustful and it’s unsurprising that he began an affair with Bessie. Bessie was smart enough to know she’d only ever be a mistress and not a wife and was seemingly content with her position. There is no evidence that Bessie was at all political.
Bessie’s greatest contribution was the birth of Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, on the 15th June 1519. Henry was thrilled with having a healthy son and bestowed many gifts upon the boy. The affair soon ended- probably because of Mary Boleyn- so Henry set Bessie up to be married. Bessie had three children with her second husband and three with her third. She died at about 42 years old.
Interestingly, Henry kept this affair discreet. Until his affair with Anne Boleyn, Henry was ‘respectful’ of wife Catherine and kept his liaisons quiet.
Whilst this seems like a rather more uninteresting mistress, Bessie did do one important thing. Illegitimate children were common in history, especially ones sired by kings, so Henry FitzRoy is definitely not special. Still, he was a healthy son. Henry hadn’t had any of those up to that point and wouldn’t for a while. He began to believe that if he could sire healthy sons, then the problem clearly lay with Catherine of Aragon. So began the seeds of discontent.
Bessie was widely lauded at the time for managing to show that Henry VIII could sire healthy sons. She was also uncommonly beautiful, graceful and musically talented.
Mary Boleyn (c.1499-1543)
Mistress to: Henry VIII
Time: Around 1520
Husbands: William Carey (1520-1528), Sir William Stafford (1534-1543)
Children: Catherine, Henry (with Carey), Edward and Anne (with Stafford)
Known as ‘The Other Boleyn Girl,’ Mary was on the scene earlier than her sister was.
It’s most likely that Mary was the eldest daughter and before Anne became Henry’s paramour, she was also the most infamous. She started life in comfort before being sent to France with Mary, Henry VIII’s sister, who was to become Queen of France. Mary Boleyn remained in France after the Queen was widowed quickly into the marriage. Whilst historians believe her promiscuity was exaggerated, Mary was definitely sleeping with King Francis.
Mary had quite the reputation when she returned to England. Francis had called her ‘his English mare.’ Again, whilst her promiscuity was exaggerated, society would have thought ill of her anyway. Francis did call her the greatest whore after all.
She married a man named William Carey in 1520. It was around this time that Henry and Mary began their affair. Carey was showered with gifts and positions, as was Mary’s father Thomas. Some believe Henry fathered Mary’s children but the King never acknowledged them. When Henry did move onto Anne, he requested dispensation for their marriage as he’d previously slept with her sister.
Mary was provided with a generous pension upon the death of her husband, but a secret marriage to a poor nobleman and soldier caused scandal. She had not asked for royal permission and the man in question, Sir William Stafford, was her social inferior. The new couple were sent away from court and cut off. Anne did send Mary some help after she was in dire straits.
There is little information on Mary after she left court. We know nearly nothing about Mary’s reaction to her siblings’ fall from grace and subsequent execution. It is likely that Mary’s marriage saved her from any problems, as she had been sent away before the scandal occurred. Some historians state that Mary tried to beg for her family but was turned down.
Mary lived a life of obscurity from then on. Her marriage was very happy but she died relatively young. Still, this is a much better deal than Anne or their cousin Catherine Howard got. Mary’s time as a mistress clearly influenced Anne, who refused to go down the mistress route straight away and become just another lover. Anne instead went for power and got it.
Lucy Walter (c.1630-1658)
Mistress to: Charles II
Children: James (with Charles), Mary (with Theobald Taaffe, 1st Earl of Carlingford)
Did Lucy Walter marry Charles II secretly? Well, historians are divided.
She isn’t as remembered as Barbara Villiers or Nell Gwyn, but is still important enough here. Charles first met Lucy when he was the King on the Continent, having fled from England upon the Civil War. Lucy’s family had similarly fled. The two soon met and began an affair. Charles would not be married for another two decades and Lucy was similarly unwed. Lucy would bear Charles’ son James in 1649. Charles recognised James as his.
When Charles was away fighting, Lucy had an affair with a married man and had a baby. Upon Charles’ return, the affair was ended. Lucy then lived a life of debauchery on the continent, causing scandal and problems wherever she went. She was lured back to England with her children, but was arrested as a spy and placed in the Tower of London. There was a huge outcry and Lucy managed her way to outfox her captors. Lucy returned to the continent and continued to cause embarrassment.
Lucy was only around 27 to 28 when she died, probably as a result of her lifestyle.
Their son, James, was made 1st Duke of Monmouth. Enemies of Catholicism and Queen Catherine of Brazanga proclaimed that Charles had secretly married Lucy and that James was thus air to the throne. They worried that Catherine would provide Charles with a Catholic heir or that his unpopular brother James would become King.
Upon his father’s death, James arrived back in the country. He attempted to mount a rebellion and used his claim as the king’s first son in hopes of gaining the crown. James was captured and given an audience by his uncle, the new King James II. Unfortunately, King James was not merciful and had his nephew executed.
Lucy lived a short but eventful life. She was described as very cunning, as evidenced by her ability to get out of sticky situations. Lucy lived a very different life to one expected of a 17th century woman- she was sexual, cunning and hedonistic when women were thought to be chaste, demure and modest.
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Modern Feminists and the Anti-BildungsromanBy Dustin Lovell — 5 months ago
Over the recent decade, we have seen a certain type of storyline rise to popularity among critics. The plot usually follows a female character with some type of special power or circumstance who, by virtue of said power, is beset by some type of related conflict; sounds normal enough—this is the beginning of virtually every story.
However, in this case, the conflicts that develop around said heroines’ uniqueness do not always follow their growing or learning how to ethically or effectively use their power. Instead, it’s the opposite: their stories or the cultural interpretation thereof often involve the discovery, decision, or insistence that they do not have to grow or learn, but that it is society or the surrounding world that must adapt to and accept them. From Elsa, to Carol Danvers, to Rey (it cannot be stressed enough) Palpatine, some of the most lauded heroines in current media have followed this type of storyline—which, due to the the ways the characters interact with their settings and conflicts, involves several tropes of a common story type, the bildungsroman.
However, the plot structure and underlying tone of the aspects emphasized as worthwhile by critics classify them as an attempt to form a new genre: a kind of anti-bildungsroman that, in line with the beliefs of the modern feminism that usually advocates said storyline type, actively seeks to subvert the assumptions of the individual’s (here, the individual woman’s) relationship with the broader social structure. The execution of this storyline ironically does the female characters—and stories with female leads generally—several disservices that run counter to the stated goals of those behind the stories.
The Bildungsroman: what it is and what it isn’t.
Just for a refresher, a bildungsroman—German for “education novel”—is a story that intertwines the character’s ethical, psychological, and spiritual growth with the resolution of the conflict. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is as much about Alice’s learning not to behave like all the examples of toxic femininity she encounters through the story as it is actually getting out of the rabbit hole. Harry Potter learns as much about how to be a responsible young adult as how to actually cast spells (with the when and why invariably outweighing the what). The bulk of Aang’s story in Avatar: The Last Airbender involves not his learning how to use his powers as the Avatar, but his learning not to be a childish idiot who sticks his foot in his mouth at every turn. And who can forget Uncle Ben’s injunction to Peter Parker (established by Spider-Man: No Way Home as a theme that transcends the multiverse) about power and responsibility? It’s become nearly as iconic a scene as a still novice Luke Skywalker running through Dagobah with Yoda on his back, with nary a trickle of Force to be discerned by the anticipating audience.
In each of these, the external conflict is resolved and made more complex and dramatic by the character’s resolving some type of inner conflict—usually involving the growth from maturity to immaturity, selfishness to sacrifice, idleness to responsibility, &c.
Now, not every story is or needs to be a bildungsroman. We don’t always need heroes that change or grow—sometimes we need the opposite! It’s no coincidence that Conan the Barbarian and Superman, both unique because of their unchangeability, came out of the flux of the 1930s, when the average Joe, Jane, Jimmy, or Jill might rather enjoy a character who stands in opposition to the instabilities and shiftings around them.
There are many other examples of changeless characters coming out of changing times. The Lord of the Rings—specifically, Aragorn—came out of Tolkien’s effort to preserve English virtues and history through the trauma of values that were the Great War and Modernism (though, granted, Aragorn did a lot of growing up before Frodo receives the Ring). Later in the twentieth century, James Bond stood like a modern Conan (the parallels between their stories and characters are many, despite the obvious differences) amidst the unease of the Cold War. Nor does it always need to be so dire as these: in the ‘90s, Forrest Gump’s charm often inhered in how his simplemindedness showed how the problems around him might really have simple answers (at least within the bounds of his film), and the Dude of mistakened Lebowski fame would not be His Dudeness if he grew through his misadventures.
I list these to head off any claims of my placing standards on the female characters discussed below that I won’t apply to male characters. This is also why, other than this sentence, I won’t use the oft-bandied phrase “Mary Sue;” besides simplifying the argument into mere stereotypes, the phrase, or its male counterpart Gary Stu, implies that strong or unchanging characters are always bad or always lack depth. They may very well be, but my interest is not to simply descry it but to find out why. I come at the topic and characters below with one goal: to encourage complex characters and stories that do what we need art to do—to concretize the values we need to experience at a given time in ways that are timeless. Sometimes that can best be achieved by characters that grow, sometimes not; usually we need iterations of both simultaneously—often in the same story.
But the stories I’m focusing on do assume the complexity of a bildungsroman framework; in each case, the female character is placed in a situation where she is expected by society (and, often, the audience) to grow and she either flatly refuses to do so, or she grows in ways counter to her respective canon. In fact, the characters often self-consciously push against and subvert the canonical expectations for growth in various ways.
Elsa: Letting Go of Past Story Structures
The phenomenon that was Frozen was hailed by many as a deconstruction of the archetypal Disney princess story. Its setup follows many tropes of said genre: a girl of unique birth locked away by parents to prevent a misuse of her powers. However, from there the movie breaks the tradition of stories as late as Rapunzel (2010), which, itself, broke several tropes while adhering to familiar formats. Parents? The uredeemed source of her abuse. Prince charming? Actually the villain. The protagonist’s powers? To be used without compunction after letting go (of expectations? Of the need for self-control? The unnamed antecedent of her song’s Dionysian “it” is as multifarious as the audience might wish).
It would be wrong to say Elsa experiences no growth or argue her character lacks compelling internal conflicts. After going to live alone on her mountaintop (notably embodying several characteristics of the traditional ice queen villain), she does come down and remit her isolation upon learning that by embracing her powers she has caused an eternal winter in Arendelle. Furthermore, not all of the movie’s deconstructions are negative. While the ending of stories in a marriage signifies the restored balance and completion of comedy—and is much more than merely reducing the female to an ornament of the male and his restored power structure, as the format’s feminist critics allege—Frozen’s replacing the familiar eros-driven love story with one of phileo between sisters should be welcomed as an expansion of the virtues and values we enjoy being explored. However, from there we are faced by the irony that the same voices who push the “sisters > prince charming” dynamic often insist on seeing eros in any story featuring two male friends—an unfortunate sexist double standard…
My focus here on Frozen and the others is as much on the cultural response to the stories as the stories, themselves. The danger to Anna posed by her love-at-first-sight relationship with Prince Hans was not rectified by placing it against the authentic relationship with Kristoff; rather, the reversal of the form was turned retroactively onto all other Disney stories about love at first sight, which had the tone less of adding complexity that had never been established than of burning down the now malicious parts of what had. Finally, it was not a song about Elsa’s learning how to judiciously use her powers that every parent of kids of a certain age (or, let’s face it, young adults, too) had to listen to on repeat for the rest of 2013 and most of 2014. It was a song advocating the audience (especially girls) vicariously “Let it go!” along with Elsa. It was a kicking song, and I don’t begrudge any young girl for making her parents want to break a speaker because of it, but it did, thematically, set the ideological perspective and tone for latter heroines that would come after.
Rey Palpatine: A Victim of her Advocates
The next female character who declines to grow in ways prescribed by her lore is Rey Palpatine. Establishing Rey’s arc or lack thereof is difficult due to her appearing in three films with different directors with conflicting goals for her movies. The lack of unified vision, added to the retconning the trilogy exacted on the established Lucas canon and universe, makes it difficult to treat Rey’s plot either as a uniform whole or as a consistent intentional decision to buck expectations.
Nonetheless, against the backdrop of Luke’s growth under Yoda Rey’s development falls short. While Luke’s progression is drawn over two, if not all three, of the original movies, Rey is able to, for example, beat Kylo Ren the first time she touches a lightsaber. This could be possibly excused if, like Anakin, she were shown to have a high concentration of midichlorians and, thus, a more preternatural adeptness with the Force; however, such a reveal, set up by Abrams in The Force Awakens, was rejected by Rian Johnson in favor of making her a nobody in The Last Jedi (a more vicious crime against Star Wars lore than simply creating a new heroine backstory—or, really, refusing to—might necessarily entail). Abrams, then, had to pick up the pieces in The Rise of Skywalker to make what he could of Johnson’s arson. Central as it is, Rey’s disjointed arc is by no means the only problem with the new Star Wars trilogy.
Enough has been written and recorded about the canonical breaks between the original and the prequel trilogies and Rey’s that I don’t need to belabor the differences. Furthermore, many of Rey’s lacks can be explained, and possibly excused, by acknowledging the directorial conflicts of the trilogy. However, this does not excuse how Rey’s character was marketed: she was, we were often reminded, a female heroine, and that to reject her and all the incongruous elements of her story, even for the sake of preserving the larger Star Wars universe in good faith, was nothing less than sexist bigotry resulting from an irrational fear of strong women (which, strangely enough, had not reared its head in response to any of the other strong, complex females in the Star Wars universe).
The insistence among Rey’s defenders that she is a prime example of both a strong female character and a victim of unfair bigotry unfortunately sets the bar quite low for what is considered a good character—besides disregarding a devoted fanbase who were already invested in finding in the star of the revival trilogy as much depth as they could. Again, my focus is less on whether Rey consistently grows (if she does, it is disjointed due to director disagreements and rushed in a “tell rather than show” kind of way—a sin for character development of any genre). At issue here is the implied insistence that she should not have to grow—that standards of growth from a previous canon are at best an unfair standard and at worst a reactionary response from a threatened tradition of supposedly (but, as fans know, not really) male lore and predominantly male audience against a new heroine. That Rey’s greatness, thus, relied on the spectre of sexist pushback for its vitality and clout did not strike anyone as an issue to be worried about.
Carol Danvers: The Unrestrained Will
My final example of a heroine who rejects the complexity of growth prescribed by her own canon—and the one that does so most openly—is the adult version of Elsa, Marvel’s Carol Danvers. Begun in production as Elsa was gracing theaters, Captain Marvel (2019) added the element of the character’s rethinking her entire culture—of decolonizing her mind, as it were—to the formula, providing her further justification to eschew the self-control and prescribed growth of the traditional superhero story.
Danvers’s story begins with her training opposite Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, who is preparing her to be a Kree warrior. It is against his mentoring admonitions to control her impulses and to use her head over her heart—and to become “the best version of yourself”—that the rest of her story takes place. Through the movie, she pieces together her disjointed memories to discover the Kree she is fighting for against the Skrull are actually the baddies, and that she is a human whose powers come from Kree technology she destroyed but which Yon-Rogg and the civilization’s Supreme Intelligence AI are trying to still utilize in her.
For the present I’ll ignore the fact that the movie reduces the 1970s “Kree-Skrull War” match between two bloodthirsty races in into a one-sided genocide of the Skrull by the Kree that resembles less the source material and more the modern revisionist simplifications of history into binaries between rapacious, patriarchal colonists and innocent, victimized indigenous. At issue here is that the heroine discovers, in a reverse-brainwashing sequence, that she has actually been misled (gaslit, brainwashed, Stockholm syndromed, all the common terms) by the Kree, and that her assumptions and even her own mind are complicit with the evils of the Kree. She must, thus, decolonize her worldview as she works out whence she got her powers—which, upon learning she gained them through an attempt to save the Skrull, could be used without any moral qualms about their being created by the antagonists.
Within the bounds of the movie, it’s a compelling conflict, and one which does necessitate Danvers’s rethinking and rejecting Yon-Rogg’s inducements to use her powers in what the Kree would say were the right ways (but which are, in reality, against her practical and ethical interests). However, it is not, technically a character arc: rather, it is an anti-arc. Released from the usual inducement to meet power with self-control, or to clearly delineate between her power and her self (with the former always needing to predominate), Danvers simply uses her powers.
This results in some great cinematics that, I’ll admit, meet the desire for a decent action movie with a satisfyingly insolent protagonist. However, Danvers nonetheless loses a major potential character arc.
Even in the final moment with Yon-Rogg, where, in rejecting his last-ditch effort to manipulate her into fighting as herself without her powers (i.e. on terms in which he knows he can beat her), she simply blows him away, thus showing that he’s right: that she cannot control her impulses.
She claims she has nothing to prove to him, but what about to herself? This is, after all, one of the classic canonical superhero conflicts—where the line between self and power falls, which can provoke further questions of what can ultimately be relied upon, or how to maintain one’s self despite the changes brought by power. What about conflicts regarding the dependability of her newfound way of seeing the world, a major question in a movie where the inability to trust reality (brainwashing Kree, shapeshifting Skrull, etc) is a common motif? No, once she gets woke to the Kree, Danvers never questions her new episteme. Why allow internal conflicts to burden her character with unnecessary complexity—especially when we can resolve all the movie’s external conflicts with unlimited girlboss power, smashing the patriarchy—err, the Kree—with their own tools, instead?
This lack of reflection on her powers is a major part of what makes Danvers’s character flatter than either Elsa’s or Rey’s. Both of them at least experience doubt regarding their powers and their relationship to them and their relative place in the world. However, as if stuck in Elsa’s famous song, Danvers’ climactic embracing of her powers keeps her in a third-act moment of what could have been a five-act growth arc.
There is also the unadmitted Superman paradox.
The Superman paradox arose when writers realized an all-powerful being could have no serious conflicts—and, therefore, no compelling story. His creators had to steadily introduce kryptonite to keep him interesting. Presumably her creators knew of this but didn’t think it would apply.
It can certainly be argued that incorporating both an awakening embrace of power and an overcoming of weakness to that power would be expecting too much—and trying to include two major conflicts in one movie. However, completely eschewing any real weakness (Danvers’ conflict involves her adopting and subsequently rejecting weaknesses she does not intrinsically have, which are accidental and, thus, ultimately unserious as conflicts) still sets a low bar of complexity when most superhero movies include some sort of chink in the hero’s armor for future exploration. Danvers’s embracing of her powers is so wholly untainted that, as cathartic for some as the final sequence may be (complete with her acquiring the ultimate symbol of freedom, flight), the seeds for future growth or reflection—the marks of a hero’s staying power—are, sadly, lacking.
 Feminist Heroines: A Rejection of Complex Females
None of this is to deny that Elsa’s, Rey’s, or Danvers’s movies are entertaining and have devoted, good-faith fanbases. As with the unchanging heroes I mention above, people can and should enjoy what they like and feel they need. However, this leads to my qualms with the idea of a character type that shouldn’t have to grow in expected or sympathetic ways. Among other things, I fear the contention that traditional complexity and character growth are arbitrary impositions meant to reject characters because of their femaleness will result in less complexity in female characters, as well as create, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, an antipathy or apathy among audiences towards new female characters—not because they are female, but because they are simple.
However, so long as a certain brand of feminist critics assume that all efforts to mold a female character according to a broader ethical framework are, really, a patriarchal attempt to keep women down, we will continue to get simplistic stories and morals thereof like these. This should not surprise us. The same critics who hold to this implicitly Marxist reading of traditional story structures interpret Pride and Prejudice as an anti-woman novel because it suggests some of Elizabeth Bennet’s problems can only be fixed by personal reflection and reformation—i.e. because the novel is in part a bildungsroman—despite her embodying most of the same traits of their stated favorite heroines (even those discussed above!). If that is how such critics interpret a thoroughly complex character arc, we should not hold out hope for better from them or from studios working to satisfy them as an audience.
So, what should we do? For one, we should flatly deny the accusations that disliking an individual character equates antagonism or bigotry against an entire category; besides employing an irrefutable denial of moral legitimacy, it tries to shoehorn a Marxist reading that sees individuals as merely instances of their group or class. In trying to save characters from simplicity, we should also fight the simplification of critique.
When stories or characters come out that do, indeed, participate in complexity in some way, we should promote them. This may mean being open to new reworkings of stories (on that note, I had originally included The Legend of Korra above, but on further reflection and research of perspectives, I decided the Avatar Korra does grow in ways consistent with the precedents of the Avatar universe that I had not considered before). While above I critiqued the characters for breaking from their canons, it can be equally damaging for story to never stretch what has already been. The best stories will, in my view, resurrect familiar elements of their canons while showing that new arcs are still possible therein. So, we should vote with our pounds, dollars, and online engagements to show at least the less ideology-driven studios that complexity of story matters to audiences more than character identity politics.
A converse of this is to reject stories built around transgressive or socially deconstructive elements, and to educate ourselves on why such things do not and should not be privileged as equally valid views or stories (being anti-stories) in the marketplace of ideas—especially when those who promote them would not and are not extending the same toleration to the rest of us.
Finally, as we at The Mallard have advocated and tried to put into practice, we should create the things we want to see. If nothing else, this will help us understand how to interpret the other art we consume. Complexity is difficult, and accomplishing it subtly and succinctly is even moreso. It might discredit me as a writer to put it in print, but I had to cut 250+ pages of my novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light, most of which was backstory and characterization. Necessary for fleshing out my characters for myself, but not inherently necessary for developing the book’s conflict. The experience paradoxically made me more sympathetic but also less yielding when it comes to character depth. I hope I’ve shown both above in my treatment of characters who have, in theory (certainly in budget), better writers than I behind them.
[One aspect of Captain Marvel that is only peripherally related to Danvers’s relationship with her powers, but which nonetheless aligns with the eschewing of usual self-control progression, is her treatment of the minor male characters in the film. Danvers has the perfect excuse to treat new people with suspicion, and, perhaps excepting Stan Lee on the bus, she enjoys it—from ____ to committing theft grand auto. Of course, the trope of an apparent alien not conforming to local property laws goes as far back as Thor (and, of course, farther), but the undertone here is that the theft is justified in response to the man admittedly creepily asking Danvers for a smile. She later shows that her default to rudeness is not a casualty of her untrusting circumstances: she responds to someone as unthreatening as Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Avengers: Endgame in as insolent a manner as she does to the characters in her movie—an indecency for which I have not been able to forgive her.]
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