Tue
Jul 3 2012 10:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Endurance and Persuasion - Traits of the Heroine?

Sleeps With Monsters: Endurance and Persuasion - Traits of the Heroine?

A little while ago, I finished reading Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo. It’s a delightful book, with the rhythm of a told story, and drawing from a different vein of tradition than our modern doorstopper fantasies. It has the mood of a fairytale. And its heroine, Paama, is unusual among fantasies of all stripes. She is an adult, once-married, famous as a cook, and quietly unflappable.

Not that long ago, either, I wrote about Mass Effect and the normalisation of the Woman Hero. Commander Shepard’s an action hero, and action hero-ing seems to be the most popular style of career for SFF’s protagonists. There are other kinds of heroes, and other ways of being heroic, but they emerge more rarely. As Lois McMaster Bujold said in her GOH speech at Denvention in 2008, “[I]f romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.”¹ The fantasy of political agency lends itself well to men and women of action: less well to heroines or heroes of a quieter bent.

Young Adult fantasies aside, it’s striking that most of the examples I can bring to mind are women: Karen Lord’s Paama, Doctor Who’s Donna, Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu, Terry Pratchett’s famous pair of witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Where their involvement in world-changing events is concerned, their role is as catalyst as much as actor: they bring the quotidian into contact with the numinous. Sometimes, they make the numinous quotidian.

And there are a handful of women who, while directly — even intimately — involved in the development of politics, are never personally involved in the kinds of violence in which the action-hero thrives. Ista from Bujold’s Paladin of Souls is perhaps the best example of this. Forty years old, the mother of a ruler, once mad and still thought to be so, Paladin of Souls is her bildungsroman, her growth into her own power. Yet it is very much a forty-year-old woman’s story, one who has come to self-knowledge through endurance and who has had to live circumscribed. Her triumph is, itself, ultimately a triumph of endurance and self-knowledge: she outmatches her adversary not in strength or power, but in will and trust. It isn’t a story one can easily see told with a man in her role: the kinds of endurance which Ista calls upon are kinds of endurance which are mostly associated with women’s lives.

One may also mention in this connection Jacqueline Carey’s Phèdre, from her first Terre d’Ange trilogy. Although intimately connected to politics on several levels as courtesan, exile, and later, noblewoman, her role as a mover of events requires persuasion and endurance much more than violence. She is more a catalyst for violence than its instigator: the violence she initiates personally takes place after all options for persuasion have been exhausted.

If there is a commonality in stories of this kind, it is that women protagonists who are not action heroes can be expected to draw on patience and persuasion: their power lies in their ability to endure and to convince. The emphasis is less on over-mastering their adversaries (or adversity in general) than on outlasting them. And, if possible, outmanoeuvring them.

I can think of two examples from visual media to support this idea. Delenn, the Minbari ambassador on Babylon 5, is a builder of consensuses by preference. The early seasons of the show demonstrate both her patience and her persuasive abilities. While the events of Season Three place her in a position where her abilities as a leader are redirected to meet more martial goals, I think it is also a challenge to her endurance² — which she overcomes. The violence in which she is involved is rarely a personal or individual struggle: she directs and oversees as much as she engages personally.

The other example is President Roslin from Battlestar Galactica. While every character’s endurance is challenged by the nature of the threat which they face, Roslin’s will is further tested by her diagnosis of fatal illness. She does not have the power to compel by force (except inasmuch as those who follow her are willing to use force on her behalf), but must lead by persuasion, and endure the consequences when persuasion fails.

Gentle Reader, what do you think of this sort of story? Or perhaps I should say, this sort of character? Are endurance and persuasion traits that crop up in situations more intimately connected to women? If so, why?

I have some theories. But I’d rather hear what other people have to say before I go theorising all to hell and gone.

 

¹Jo Walton argues contra that rather than being the fantasy of political agency, SFF is the fantasy of changing the world. “Rather than your characters needing to have political agency to engage the reader, the world is a character and as such needs to change and your story will be engaged with that change - whatever is happening to the other characters.” It’s a good point, but the fantasies of political agency remain among the more popular of the genre’s offerings.

²Confirmation bias on my part, perhaps.

Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax minifigs by Captain Mog


Find Liz Bourke @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.

26 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I think this is an element of the "martyr" complex in fiction; the idea that a "strong woman" is one who endures the crap the other characters can throw at her. That, I would say, is a turn on the "passive" misogynist cliche; male characters are active, female characters are passive.

This is, to cite a random example, why I felt cheated by Graceling; the main character ostensibly has the super talent of killing people, & the story deals with that, what it is like when your superpower is actually just being way dangerous. In the end-- spoiler!-- it is revealed that her power is actually "survival," which I thought really took the wind out of the sails.

The whole "secret nurturer" complex comes into play here, too!
Patricia S Bowne
2. Patricia S Bowne
I tend to feel the same as Mordecai. I remember being very frustrated in my youth with the fact that when men won kingdoms, they got to be kings, but when women won kingdoms they only seemed to get to be middle managers. I also am very put off by writers who undercut their heroine's powers with an unstated message that using your powers really isn't as good as patiently manipulating other people into consensus. This is one of the problems I have with Granny Weatherwax, especially with her advice to Tiffany Aching.

On the other hand, I very much like the nurturer figure and enjoy fiction that respects and exalts that figure. Characters who are focused on nurturing and succeed through nurturing usually please me a lot; I just don't like it when characters who *don't* have that focus are steered into it by the author.
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
Much as is said above, there is this tendency to cast women in these roles because "endurance" and "passivity" can be, if not the same thing, at least easily mistaken for each other. (I also think it's very hard to express endurance in visual media without it looking like passivity, because it's hard to tell the difference sometimes between "frozen in indecision" and "deliberately standing still" without internal voice.)

And yet, and yet... I love that type of character. I love it when characters can realize that Exciting Immediate Response isn't always the best way to deal with things, and can have the patience to find the slower, better solution.

I can, actually, think of one male character who fits this role: King Bumi, from Avatar: The Last Airbender. All the people around him are confused and upset that someone who's so clearly powerful would simply sit back and passively allow bad things to happen... until he says, no. I'm not being passive. I am choosing inaction deliberately, because sometimes that's the right choice. Action needs to wait for the right moment, and is not more valid simply because it's more active.

Which is not something that comes up much as an actual validated philosophy in most entertainment media.
Brian R
4. Mayhem
The only other example that springs to mind is Anna, Modesitt's Soprano Sorceress. She goes through a series of books as a middle aged modern woman in a medieval world with medieval views, but being a trained singer makes her a powerful mage and survival makes her forge a place.
Yet every step of the way her modern ideas of diplomacy and concessions are seen as weakness, the only thing the world seems to revolve around is force.
Modesitt is always good at balancing action with thoughts on ethics regardless of if it is a male or female lead, this series was mostly unusual in how ruthless she was willing to be when the situation required it and yet still accept the costs which is less common in fantasy.
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
3. fadeaccompli

"...it's hard to tell the difference sometimes between "frozen in
indecision" and "deliberately standing still" without internal voice.)"

The Twilight franchise in a nutshell?

Anyhow, besides King Bumi, Flynn from Tron: Legacy also comes to mind.
Patricia S Bowne
6. tolladay
I read quite a bit of military sci-fi, which pretty much sells the opposite of endurance and persuasion traits. As much as I like this kind of escapism, I also find it annoying. For some reason beating the crap out of a problem with your fists is not actually a good "real world" survival trait.

I just finished the forth book in the Tiffany Aching series, and loved every bit of it. Surprisingly, my 11 year old son seems to like them as well. Perhaps being male blinds me to some things, but could it be that endurance and persuasion are not gender coupled, but seen as opposite to direct application of power?

I think the witches on discworld are a wonderful example of this. To them absolute power corrupts absolutely. They established a social system to ensure that those with power have a low error rate, and the risks are well contained from society at large. Moreover they are placed in a position where they are constantly confronted with their community. I think Pratchett was wise in making it difficult for a person to exercise power without knowing full well the ramifications of that power usage upon their community. In other words, its difficult to be selfish when you are stuck in the cost of it.

Pratchett also makes it clear that the other witches are watching, and will not tolerate any misuse of power.

In discworld the power wielded by witches is contrasted sharply with that of wizards, which are seen as selfish and chaotic. Pratchett uses gender to support this division, but I don't think this was to enforce gender roles as much as using gender identity in the heads of his audience to better pass along his concepts. I don't think there is any doubt upon which side he thought the best.

How power is expressed in the real world is a point of much debate. Gandhi comes to mind, so does Revered King, both of which seem to believe in endurance and persuasion, and both obviously are very male.

Whether this is a socially acceptable concept to sell endurance and persuasion as entertainment is an interesting point, but I think that such ideas do not need to be gender locked.

I will add that I am likely quite myopic about gender. If I have stepped on any toes, it was not with intent.
Patricia S Bowne
7. Cybersnark
3. fadeaccompli /5. mordicai

Aside from King Bumi and Flynn, I'm inclined to invoke Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda as they appear in the original trilogy; having waited in secret 20 years for just the right moment to nudge the Empire into collapse (contrasted neatly with Leia, who we see arc from "manager" to action-girl ).

There's also Ambassador Spock, quietly working behind the scenes toward Vulcan/Romulan reunification, while carefully staying out of the killing field of Romulan politics.
Jenny Kristine
8. jennygadget
fadeaccompli: "...it's hard to tell the difference sometimes between "frozen in indecision" and "deliberately standing still" without internal voice.)"

mordicai: The Twilight franchise in a nutshell?

Well, "frozen in indecision" is certainly fairly accurate for the Twilight series.

As far as it being hard to tell the difference between the two on screen, I actually think a better example of that would be the reaction of a lot of people who saw The Hunger Games without having read the books first. Katniss comes across as a lot more passive in the movie because when she isn't being clearly active - which is actually fairly often early in the actual games - it's much harder to be certain that she is doing the "deliberately standing still" and not the "frozen in indecision".
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
7. Cybersnark

I'll grant you Obi-Wan, but only because he commits suicide to further the plot-- literal martyrdom! Yoda is just the old wizard; he is outside the plot, not in it.
Patricia S Bowne
10. charming.quark
Darwi Odrade, in Chapterhouse: Dune. The Dune series (and I probably should specify, the Frank Herbert-written books) is chock-full of great female actors, but Odrade is my particular favorite. She is quite unabashedly a political agent, and like any modern political leader, she mostly leads by persuasion. She can direct force when necessary, but like Bumi, she knows that force must wait for the right moment. And one of the hard parts is knowing when it IS the right moment.

What I mostly love about her, though, is how much of her action is strictly interior, meditating on what it means to be human, and why that's important and worth preserving, even at the highest cost.
Patricia S Bowne
11. jacqie
I think that there are male characters who exhibit traits of fostering relationships and nurturing, but they don't get to be main characters.The one who comes to mind immediately is Agent Coulson from the Avengers. Everybody liked him, he was sort of the "glue" of the group, but he was by no means in charge. He's sort of a character trope.

Maybe it's partly that the nurturer doesn't often get cast as the protagonist in general. Our culture does seem to enjoy the explosions (I'm certainly guilty!) and the big bold personality types aren't the same as the ones who quietly get most of everything done behind the scenes. It's more acceptable for women to be nurturing-style leaders, I think, which is why you occasionally get to see it.

I take a bit of issue even with Katniss's agency. In the book, she's shown as not being especially in touch with her feelings or the feelings of others. Yet the author shies away from allowing this character, who seems temperamentally suited for it, to kill -except as an act of mercy for another. At least in the first book, which is the only one I've read. But I've got mixed feelings about Katniss; she's an interesting character and I think the author was trying to say some pretty disturbing things about how female characters are allowed to have agency (mostly through the use of sex).
Patricia S Bowne
12. PhoenixFalls
YES to all of this.

I do, personally, love the enduring character. . . really, I prefer this type to the action hero, for the novelty of it if nothing else. (Also because there's no way I could ever be an action hero.) But in my experience it is a trait found almost exclusively among women in fiction. Glancing through my bookshelves I can only spot only two examples of male characters whose primary traits are endurance & consensus-building: Isolfr in Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette's A Companion to Wolves and Regis Hastur in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Heritage of Hastur. However, even those examples are likely parts of the same pattern, because Regis is gay (or at least his primary sexual/love interest is another man) and Isolfr, while explicitly straight, is bonded to a female wolf and is forced to bottom when his wolf goes into heat. (NOTE: I am not saying that queerness/bottoming are in any way feminine traits. But I do believe that that is how society at large views these things, so it's relevant to a discussion of gender.)

But as I finished typing that bit, I came up with another example! (Maybe.) I've only read the first trilogy so far, but perhaps Bren Cameron in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series would be a straight male protagonist characterized by endurance and consensus-building?
Patricia S Bowne
13. Jandore
I like this trope very much, whether it's given to a male or female character. In some ways it's the answer to Le Guin's question about "feminine" heroic narratives, and much more successful, I think, than the one Le Guin proposed in Tehanu, about threatened domesticity and daily life itself as heroism. (I do not wish to denigrate the innate heroism of daily life itself! but surely the outsize paragons of weapons and wars require a similarly outsize counterpart, with stories holding more at stake than the simple exigencies of survival. Sacrifice in the name of the commoner and the common-day is still sacrifice for an abstraction, if a more inclusive one.) Persuasive, enduring heroism is not the same thing as a story narrow as a threatened hearth, no more than bloody in-the-moment heroism is.

In fact, as this is a trope particularly associated with feminity, I like it very much when it's handed to male characters, much as I particularly flip when the coded-male active, muscle-bound, weapon-bearing heroism is handed to women. OB example, Mau in Nation.
Patricia S Bowne
14. 4ontheFloor
Frodo.

I would put forward Frodo as the epitome of the male 'endurance and persuasion' character. His quest is given to him by Gandalf and the elves, his struggle is to outlast the ring's poisonous influence, and even though he's got a sword, his safety depends on protection and rescue from others. Even in the final moments, the success of his quest happens not through his own agency but through Gollum.

It's interesting that in the final chapters, when they're all back in Hobbitown, Tolkein specifically calls out how the townspeople regard Merry and Pippin as 'the real heroes' since they come back bigger, stronger, and louder. Practical Sam eventually becomes the mayor. But it's quiet, long-suffering Frodo whom nobody in town takes much notice of and who is the one worthy to go with the Elves into the West.
Patricia S Bowne
15. ilse
I wonder if you could also make the argument that Ogion from the Earthsea books has these traits as well. He is not the central character, but he is the one to whom both Ged and Tenar turn and return when their lives feel like they are falling apart. He is known as 'The Silent', and certainly one of my favourite characters from childhood because of his quiet simplicity - which, of course, hides a complex and thoughtful soul.

He never dictates nor does he lay down the law to a wilful Ged or a different and foreign Tenar - he is persuasive through his love for them (and almost everything, it seems) and endures longer than the others of his generation because of his calm and clear nature. I'm not sure if Le Guin shades in some tiny hints that he is gay - does anyone read him that way?
Shelly wb
16. shellywb
A lot of the males in manga are like this. Not shounen, with all the fighting (though it contains it to some degree), but seinen, the stuff for older kids and adults. Endurance and patience and not complaining are virtues for both males and females in their society.
Patricia S Bowne
17. TheMadLibrarian
Yes, Bren Cameron!
How about Hari Seldon? I'd say he was the prototype behind the scenes director, or maybe Cassandra would be more appropriate.
On the distaff side, Mara from the Daughter/Mistress/Servant of the Empire series. She never really wanted to run her house, but ended up surviving a loveless marriage and multiple attemps to snuff out her line, while making a place in a thoroughly Machiavellian world.
Mordicai Knode
18. mordicai
14. 4ontheFloor

I mean, the whole "Christ-like" archetype is actually a big "men suffering" thing in fiction over-all, right?
Patricia S Bowne
19. CaitieCat
There's always Stephen R Donaldson's titular Thomas Covenant.

Or, from a slightly older anthology, Job.
Patricia S Bowne
20. spuddylou
An interesting discussion.
I just have to give a shout out to whoever created the Nanny Ogg & granny Weatherwax mini figures. Two of my (many) favorite diskworld characters.
Patricia S Bowne
21. S.M. Stirling
"She does not have the power to compel by force (except inasmuch as those who follow her are willing to use force on her behalf)"

-- well, yeah, but that's true of all large-scale political leaders, right up to guys like Stalin.

Traditionally, direct violence was something young men did; old men commanded and directed it and (even more often) used the explicit or implicit -threat- of doing so. Stalin started out as a button-man for the underground Bolshevik party, robbing banks and beating people up; he did his real number, however, by signing papers and chairing committee meetings.

And by patiently, cunningly out-maneuvering his opponents until he was in a position to have them shot (by others).

As Max Weber put it, "violence is ultimately the decisive means of political action". That's what Bismarck meant when he said the great issues are decided by "blood and iron".

But effective political violence (war being the most obvious example) is always a collective activity -- hence, it's a product of cooperation, consensus, and legitimization.

Violence and persuasion are not opposites; they're complementary.
Jenny Kristine
22. jennygadget
"Violence and persuasion are not opposites; they're complementary."

Which makes the gendered myths about violence/strength and presuasion/manipulation that permeate western fiction all the more ridiculous by comparison.
Patricia S Bowne
23. S.M. Stirling
"Which makes the gendered myths about violence/strength and presuasion/manipulation that permeate western fiction all the more ridiculous by comparison."

-- It ain't just Western fiction, btw. It's been a common trope worldwide until fairly recently.

There have always been at least occasional female rulers (even in cultures more severely patriarchal than ours has ever been), and generally there are at least a few female 'violence specialists' around

There's a great book called THE CAVALRY MAIDEN about a woman who served in the Russian cavalry in the Napoleonic wars, to name one example. The Tsar let her stay on after she was "outed"; she said that the hardest thing initially was not fighting, but adapting to men's boots, which were excruciating after the soft slippers she was used to.

Catherine the Great and Elizabeth the First had -absolutely- no problem deploying political violence. Catherine offed her husband and seized power in a military coup, for example. Elizabeth was one of history's great Pirate Queens. A fact which she blandly denied, to the screaming fury of several Spanish ambassadors.

People knew this at the time, just as they 'knew' that women were naturally meek and mild and incapable of exercising power. Logical consistency is not something most human beings have ever attached much importance to.

Virtually all times and places and times treated violence as "men's work" in theory, however much the practice diverged. Probably because women in preindustrial societies spent so much of their time pregnant or nursing.

Most of social life consists of myths -- stories which people generally accept. You know, the Divine Right of Kings, the righteousness of 50% +1 making decisions, that sort of thing. All human social groups (nations, tribes, 'races', classes) are mythical -- social constructs.

These things aren't 'true' in the sense that the inverse-square law is true; but they aren't just arbitrary nonsense either.

They're true -because- people believe them; and if a lot of people believe in them, they become (from an individual's perspective) real as a rock.

Most people behave in accordance with the social expectations of their time and place. A functioning society requires common stories; when the stories lose credibility, things tend to get out of hand.

Myths change, of course. However, we should beware of thinking that the myths we share with our own social reference group are -necessarily- more 'true' than the ones whose falsehood seems obvious because we're outside it.

As the saying goes, orthodoxy is just my doxy, while heterodoxy is just someone else's doxy. Fish don't see water.

We are not more intelligent than our ancestors, nor morally better, nor wiser, not 'sub specie aeternitati'

We are, at most, somewhat better informed.
Jenny Kristine
24. jennygadget
"-- It ain't just Western fiction, btw. It's been a common trope worldwide until fairly recently."

I didn't think that it was, I just don't know enough about non-western fiction to make generalizations about it.

I also feel the need to point out that "worldwide"...is a pretty big umbrella. I wouldn't be suprised if this was true, but I do admit to being curious about your sources. I mean, that's a pretty damn wide range of stuff to claim that kind of knowledge about.

(also, what's up with the "until recently?")

"Probably because women in preindustrial societies spent so much of their time pregnant or nursing."

I believe that the theory is actually that women spent much of their time in preindustrial societies pregnant, nursing, or dying from childbirth. And that children were a much more risky investment due to dying quite often themselves. The issue being not so much that women were constantly saddled with kids (although that had an impact) but that the high rates of death among pregnant women and very young children meant that men in power didn't want to waste women of childbirth age in war.

Which may seem like a nit picky correction, but good lord no. Not the least of why being that, by minimizing high childbirth and infant mortality rates, we create the impression that, in terms of changing the physical limitations of gender, industrialization just gave us breast pumps and populations big enough for preschools or something.

"Myths change, of course. However, we should beware of thinking that the myths we share with our own social reference group are -necessarily- more 'true' than the ones whose falsehood seems obvious because we're outside it."

We should be? Or I should be? I mean, this is a comment initially in response to me ...and I am getting the impression from this bit that you think that I was trying to say something about myths? And even if this is not directed at me...are you seeing people doing this in this thread? Because otherwise this seems like a bit of unnecessary finger wagging.

To be honest, I was merely trying to point out how off topic all this talk of history is, while still giving you the benefit of the doubt that you were trying to be on topic and discussing fiction as well. I brought up myths because that is one way in which all your talk of historic precedent and the fictional patterns Liz wrote about converge.
Patricia S Bowne
25. Leighp
Endurance is seen as an Australian trait for both genders and forms most of the 'Aussie Battler' icon.
Patricia S Bowne
26. S.M. Stirling
"I also feel the need to point out that "worldwide"...is a pretty big umbrella. I wouldn't be suprised if this was true, but I do admit to being curious about your sources."

-- decades of reading and history and anthropology as hobbies. When you find a trope everywhere from THE TALE OF GENJI to BARRY LYNDON something's going on. I won't claim universal knowledge, but close enough for government work.

" I believe that the theory is actually that women spent much of their time in preindustrial societies pregnant, nursing, or dying from childbirth.

-- yeah, that too. IIRC the overall average was between 5 and 10%, though with wide variations from place to place. Cities in particular were violently unsafe in that as in other respects. Plus, as you point out, high infant mortaity, though that also varied widely.

Eg., in England in 1700, about 40% of children died before reaching reproducitve age; in New England at the same time, it was around 10%.

There's a group-selection Darwinian thing going on there. Reproduction isn't the only thing human beings do, but it is one of the things which, if they -don't- do it successfully, nothing else matters much.

"We should be? Or I should be?"

-- all of us. There's an inherent human tendency to see the mores of one's own in-group as objectively true and other people having weird and/or bad customs. 'tis the same reflex which tends to treat political disagreement as being the result of the other side's evil and/or stupidity.

"To be honest, I was merely trying to point out how off topic all this talk of history is"

-- not really. SF/F is more often than not set in different cultures (often made up). However, it's notable that a lot of the -invented- cultures aren't really different from the writer's, save for some exotic details, the equivalent of costumes and quaint dancing. There's an old joke that most SFnal aliens are less alien than a Japanese, and alas it's often true.

The easiest way to see a really different worldview is to read something written a couple of generations ago, and enjoy the feeling of clashing assumptions.

I get -really- tired of futures or alternate dimensions or whatever in which the protagonists all share the basic assumptions of a 21st-century BoBo Westerner about politics, gender roles, personal interaction styles and so forth.

This is an ongoing problem for both speculative and historical fiction.

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