The Trembling Heroine in Fantasy Literature

She trembles. She bites her lips and feels shaking all over. She is a beaten dog who is filled with righteous fear and a sudden articulated need to vomit or evacuate her system through other orifices. She shakes and hesitates, and has traumatic flashbacks of the terrible times that came before. And she fidgets her way through spilled soups, clumsy meetings where she averts her eyes, physical stumbles, and horrid dreams that make readers pay for their faith in the author. As soon as she catches a cross glance, she loses her appetite. She befriends other underdogs and creates a bench of friends that she treats like Disney animal companions. And most assuredly she feels that her knees will buckle at the most critical moments of her experience, and prays that no one notices her tremors. Her brain tells her to run, but somehow she continues her stride in spite of her instincts.

Will she ever overcome this? Will she ever find her strength and become her own woman? After all, adversity knocks at her door once more, and dear reader, we are eavesdroppers. Can she pull it off?

The answer is, of course, yes. She is the modern young adult fantasy heroine. In spite of her palsy and digestive failings, she manages to do the impossible and vanquish the evil! Oh, hooray for the reluctant savior who wins the day and overcomes insurmountable odds!

Except that I hate her.

I hate her overly bitten lip and fidgeting. I hate the way she devours broth and bread and fights to hold it down. I hate those moments when she stares at her shoes and prays to move on unnoticed. Our tormented lady is weak, naive, and far too easily intimidated. And she keeps showing up in a number of modern young adult fantasy books.

For the life of me, I cannot understand what the authors are thinking. Are they convinced that they need their own Bella Swan to sell copies? Are there really so many women in the modern world who relate to this?

I don’t know about you, but I face adversity like a motherfucking woman. I fly across the Atlantic Ocean by myself, rent cars and drive on the totally improper side of the road, dodging cows and tractors. I stand up at a funeral when no one else will, and deliver a eulogy that brings to life a most beloved family member. I have changed diapers full of diarrhea and have chopped down trees. And do I tremble? Do I bite my lip?

No. I fight through it. And maybe I need a swig of gin at the end of it, and maybe I need to sob in an embarrassing way when I reach the end of a long week and have a little Sam Cooke playing. But I motherfucking own my struggles and only fight impulses to lunge or shout or at least give one hell of a death glare.

Yes, let’s acknowledge that there are a variety of traumas the likes of which I have never experienced. And I am the first one to sing the praises of the traumatized who tremble and hesitate during their recovery. Facing demons is damn heroic.

Let us also concede, however, that only a portion of these quivering piles of feminine gelatin have any proposed traumas in their backstory. Enter Bella Swan again. Theoretically, she was drawn as a clumsy underdog to make her relatable to the “every girl”. Same with Anastasia Steele. If they seem mortal and vulnerable, then any girl can find love with Edward or Christian (…and be physically abused by her partner–wait, that’s a different feminist literary issue).

The problem, of course, is that in the wide, wild world of women, we possess so many other different types of charms that the simple, shaken variety needn’t be our go-to. Coy and embarrassed isn’t a good look on most people, and I dread the thought of teenaged girls putting on the “oops” act to seem like they need a caregiver more than a partner or minion.

Now, there are plenty of instances where the heroine is good-and-plenty traumatized, as in the newest book I just picked up, “Poison Study”, by Maria V. Snyder. Her “lady of woe” is Yelena, and she seems to have assertiveness Tourette’s. One moment she is too shell-shocked to focus on swirling visions in front of her, and the next she is leaping to her feet and chiding or threatening a powerful superior who could execute her with a crook of his finger. There is something very real about her suffering and paralyzing flashbacks, but I picked up the book not to read about recovery and perseverance, but rather to read about a fantastical life at court with poisons and intrigue. The author has snagged us with a bait and switch. Utilizing trauma as a plot device is a bit like torture porn or grief porn. Every now and then I can stomach it, but not too often.

Where have all the plucky heroines gone? I am craving a leading lady who is so gritty that she tells herself, “Fuck the tremors, I want some revenge. Where’s the plunger and a hot poker?” I want more Rachel Morgans and Mercy Thompsons. Us grown-ass ladies know how wonderful and deliciously wicked they are, but the young folk may not realize what a firebrand the hard-luck lady can be.

If you still aren’t convinced, consider carefully that you almost never read novels with male protagonists who tremble and cower, who bite their lower lip, stutter, and twirl their locks nervously around their fingers. They can eat their broth without spilling a drop, and they certainly don’t swoon. This is a woman problem.

So what kind of commentary is this on young women in our time? To all of the authors out there, I want you to remember that ladies, even those of us who have been terribly hurt, are not beaten dogs. We are fierce fucking bears who lie in wait for our moment to strike. So let’s start showing the literary world what it’s like when we show our teeth.

Oldies Music is Creepy and Disturbing, Vol. 1

Surf City here we come, indeed.

I grew up listening to 1950s and 1960s “oldies” music on the radio and records and cassette  tapes. It all seemed really normal since it was my mom’s favorite, until I realized that she was born in 1955, which means that she was still worshipping music from her preschool years–and worse yet, subjecting me to it throughout my impressionable youth. Thanks, Mom. I could have been raised on the Stones. Or The Doors. Or even ELO. Those were your contemporary groups! Instead, I spent the 80s listening to Buddy Holly and the Crickets tracks over and over on some enormous headphones that would’ve fit in at NASA.

Okay, I kind of like it. There were some epic tunes even back then, and I’m a little proud of knowing so many lyrics. But decades on, listening to and singing the same lyrics over and over and over, I’ve started to hear some of them in a much different light. I’m rocking out to some of the classics in my kitchen, washing dishes and cooking dinner, and suddenly I catch what I’m singing in front of my daughter and I’m halted upright and make that lemon-sucking face.

What did I just sing out loud? Oh my god, did I just sing about sexually attacking a teenager?!

And I want to hit the “next track” symbol or start nervously laughing at Alexa as if it was her fault the song came on. “Oh, Alexa! What kind of crazy music do you think I like? Ha. Ha. Yeah. Next track! NEXT TRACK!”. But the truth is, some of the creepiest songs are also the catchiest, so my finger hovers over the iPhone and then I just keep grooving, while making coughing noises and mumbling over the choicest lyrical bits.

Damnit, Baby Boomers, you guys are messed up. Your generation sang about some pretty sick relationships, and you weren’t trying to be shocking or emo. You were happy and bopping about it! Dudes. Messed up.

Can’t recall what I’m talking about? I present as evidence, five pretty horrible offenders:

“Surf City” – Jan & Dean (or The Beach Boys) (1963)

Ahh, a classic surf song about penises and vaginas. No, really. Consider the lyrics:

Two girls for every boy
I bought a ’30 Ford wagon and we call it a woodie
(Surf City, here we come)
You know it’s not very cherry, it’s an oldie but a goodie
(Surf City, here we come)

Okay, first off let’s just acknowledge that “Surf City” = vagina, and this dude is really excited to get some action with his woodie. Here we come, YEAH! Except, if your “woodie” is an oldie but a goodie, how old? How old, Jan & Dean?

Yeah, and there’s two swingin’ honeys for every guy
And all you gotta do is just wink your eye

That had better be a really impressive woodie if all you have to do is wink your eye. I mean, record-breaking. And still, you expect a lady to respond to a wink and then share? Never, ever gonna happen.

And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route
I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit
And when I get to Surf City I’ll be shootin’ the curl

I understand that these are all legitimate surfing terms, but puh-lease. That last stanza could be a euphemism for several nasty things, including the guy losing his boner and giving her oral instead, or him getting rejected so he rubs one out behind his surfboard. Either way, yikes, Jan & Dean. This song gets a triple GROSS!

“Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” – Neil Sedaka (1961)

This is the song that everybody wants to be able to play for their daughters, sisters, or friends on the day they turn 16. Until they listen to the lyrics. Sedaka makes it weird.

Tonight’s the night I’ve waited for, because you’re not a baby anymore

What the hell’s happening tonight, Sedaka? She’s still a minor, by the way. Keep those pants zipped, buddy.

When you were only six I was your big brother
but since you’ve grown up,
your future is sewn up
From now on you’re gonna be mine.

So, how old are you?? Here’s a hint: Sedaka was singing this tune to girls in the audience starting when he was 22. So a 22 year-old is planning to bag a girl who, just yesterday, was only 15. And she has no choice about it. I wonder if he’ll dim the lights before or after she does her homework. Gross.

Continue reading “Oldies Music is Creepy and Disturbing, Vol. 1”