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‘Unlikely Heroines’
An Example of our Current Aversion to Realism in Fiction

The following thread is concerned with the presentation of an adventure yarn in film or literature by treating heroism [according to the oldest storytelling conventions] as a transformative journey rather than as a static state of superiority or the upholding or overthrowing of the world order, which are the modern conventions. Throughout Howard's fiction, most markedly in his Conan and Vulmea tales and westerns, his characters are repeatedly reaffirmed as having been shaped—indeed sharpened and hardened—by their interaction with the environment. While, in the moment, they might seem like plot-facilitating devices—mere action heroes—they are repeating and affirming the earlier transformative experiences that have rendered them potent in the narrative now. The reader should be mindful to read Howard's seemingly chronological story progress with the cyclic nature of the heroic arc in mind. The short episodic nature of most of his character presentations, even those not dealing with regularly reoccurring heroes, is best understood as representative of that hero's greater, implied life journey.

I recently had two conversations with two very different moviegoers about a bad piece of storytelling on film, which I nevertheless regarded as an enjoyable bit of masculine fun. The movie Mad Max: Fury Road, was a violently seething compromise between masculine adventure and the necessary feminist theme required of a major studio release.

The plot was stupid, and the ending was what a woman needs to see to hug her date after a viewing. Along the way, the story continually foisted unlikely heroines upon the viewer, and then cleansed them from the plot by denying them any effectiveness. The only three characters vested with agency in the film were the villain, the hero, and a supporting character—who was the only transformative character in the entire bad idea, and saved the film in my eyes.

The two extreme reactions I got to this movie were one female and one male.

The female viewer was angry that the women accomplished nothing, that men were needed to win freedom, to win a ridiculous high speed battle, to throw engine blocks and play flame throwing guitars. I countered that since there is only one world women’s MMA champion, and that she was busy filming her own bad movie, that this could not be helped.

In short, this highly intelligent woman was angry that her feminist fantasy was not depicted in the purity indicated by the masculine online outrage attending the release of the sequel to the iconic road warrior trilogy. She obviously never read about the most successful pirate in history, a Chinese woman who ruled through wile, not might, for whom tens of thousands of men did physical things at her whim.

The man who saw the movie, was another highly intelligent viewer, who was in such a rage over me recommending a movie to him in which old women attempted to assert themselves via the use of one of the only weapons suitable to a woman’s quest for combat power—the rifle—that he was unable to discuss any aspect of the story intelligently. When I indicated that all of these combative women—every single one of them—were defeated, and that the only thing that propelled the logistically unsustainable struggle to this fairytale, feminist, happy ending was the intercession of violent men, he simply scoffed and raged about the proper place for women being as meek sexual property.

This viewer was angered, that in the midst of this unreal tale, that his fantasy of total male domination was not put forth. I did not have the chance to point out that the toughest warriors in all of western history had strong-minded combative women: the Spartans, the German tribes that slaughtered Varus’ Roman legions, the Vikings who credited female angels with bearing warrior souls to heaven.

What these two viewers exemplify are the frustrated yearnings of a citizen of an insane world for a fantasy of reassuring purity, not some blend of fantasy and realism, which good horror necessarily is. Such a film leaves little in the heart or mind of the viewer—a clunky job of exposition. But a tale of the kind that Robert E. Howard wrote, that has a realistically striving female character—who cannot defy the male-dominated world without a manly ally—the realism of that sinks in long after the read and stays with us, evoking nostalgia for what is essentially the opposite of sentimentality, a reader hook Howard employed to bring back readers to his stories long after he went upon his own dark way.

A Well of Heroes

Add Comment
Jeremy BenthamSeptember 2, 2016 5:48 PM UTC

"I got a story ain't got no moral, I let the bad guy win every once in a while..." - Billy Preston - "Will It Go Round In Circles" (1971)

"More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing nothing, than by believing too much." - P.T. Barnum

“Just repeat to yourself "It's just a show, I should really just relax.” – Theme Song from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Gosh! If you try to please everybody you end up pleasing nobody. Over a hundred years of cinema has sure inspired people to harbor a lot of foolish and unrealistic notions about the world, hasn't it? At the same time being inordinately cynical, a nihilist, isn’t likely to get you anywhere you want to be either. So the next time a woman complains to you that “Chivalry is dead”, show her that it’s not. Challenge her to single combat!
Sam FinlaySeptember 2, 2016 1:49 PM UTC

Speaking of the female impulse to get men to wage violence, I saw this earlier this morning and thought of what you've written on Spartans and so forth. At 4:20 this nice cute SWPL-looking girl outright calls for blood. What a time to be alive.

"You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, and yet, she'll return:
responds:September 3, 2016 7:04 PM UTC

Thanks, Sam.

I'm making a post out of this.

Conan would rescue her—good pick.