The Heroine With A Thousand Faces

Nicole Lyons

Writer’s comment: I’ve been considering journalism as a career, and when I saw that UCD offers a journalism course which also satisfies a university requirement, I had to take it. Looking at the syllabus, I was worried I wouldn’t have anything exciting to write about, but Professor Scherr seemed open to ideas. I convinced myself that I could handle the assignments; I was an English major, after all. Within the first weeks of class I ripped apart my sentences, relearned grammar, and felt generally frustrated with my writing capability. Then I started to write better.
         When I received the feature assignment, I scrambled for topics until one night while watching my favorite show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I realized that Buffy was only one of many female heroes flooding TV screens everywhere. There was drama, the driving force in a feature piece, in the tales of these women. I picked Moxie magazine to focus my audience, watched some more Buffy, and had fun with the topic. I hope that you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.
—Nicole Lyons

Instructor’s comment: When Nicole approached me about her piece, with its subtle analysis of heroines in English narrative, I thought it best suited for a lit class. She proved me wrong. For this piece I ask students to combine research, interviews, and personal experience. It must also be an article the writer has a strong possibility of publishing. Nicole chose Moxie, a woman’s magazine that advises women “to live boldly, pursue adventures, take risks and provide others with vibrant role models in the process.” This is not Cosmopolitan nor Ms. The women writers, artists, and columnists in it model roles, not, dresses and show off their fat and fists, not varnished fingers and feet.
         When Nicole turned in “Heroine with a Thousand Faces,” she said not a word about Joseph Campbell’s classic, but I knew she knew how stories are always changing and never change, how women, though they have had it in them, have not always been permitted to show off their roundhouse kicks and then go about their business. It took moxie for women to speak. It takes moxie to write what one thinks.
—Raquel Scherr, English Department

Goddesses were the original kick-butt heroines. Incite their wrath, and you risked being turned into a stag with your own hounds tearing you apart. Or perhaps if a goddess was in a better mood, she might turn you into a spider to weave webs for eternity instead. In any case, she was not to be messed with. As the centuries move forward, we have dragged goddesses down to earth and stuffed them inside of a page or a screen to move at our bidding. These new women are our heroes or heroines if you choose to use the feminine form. We look to them for inspiration, or at least a new way to do our hair. Characters like Buffy, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Daria from Daria represent some facet of what we admire in a female. Buffy can beat male attackers to a pulp without breaking a nail, while Daria can verbally crush intolerable idiots with sarcasm, smashing them like a bug under the heel of her quintessential black Doc Martens. Like goddesses, these women are not to be trifled with. And lucky for us, there are many of these women to choose from in our pop culture, from the sexual tigers of Charlie’s Angels, to the loyal warrior daughter in Mulan. All of these heroines are raring to go, and our culture is prepared to embrace them, so where did they all come from?
         We could start exploring the many faces of Sally Hero with the animated superheroes and supervillains from the 1940s: Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman. The heroic girls could keep up with the boys any day, and the supervillains made the boys work for their living. Unfortunately, we always knew they were cartoons, so we couldn’t completely idolize them like we could a real woman. However, they were a start. Girls found even more heroines in literature at this time, from Nancy Drew, girl detective, in Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series to the irrepressible Anne in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Young women could only imagine real, strong girls because they had few physical role models to admire in the entertainment world. Books emphasized the mental heroism of women, while in comic books superheroines proved their worth with tight biceps and fast moves.
         In the late fifties and early sixties Sally Hero was emerging as a perky career woman type with Doris Day in movies like Pillow Talk, and toward the end of the sixties , with Mary Tyler Moore in her self-titled show. A few years later, the feminist revolution produced sexy crime fighters who liked to bed the villain before beating the crap out of him. Foxy Brown and Charlie’s Angels were women who used their sexuality as a source of power to take on men. By the eighties, female cartoon characters dominated the airwaves; shows like She-Ra, Rainbow Brite, and Strawberry Shortcake featured young girls who used powers more cuddly than scary to face evil. Today’s Sally Hero increasingly appears on television as a kick-ass vixen, whether in the genetically engineered form of Dark Angel, the government assassin in La Femme Nikita, or the super-strong Chosen One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s in the movies in Terminator 2, Tomb Raider, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Right now the strong girls dominate the entertainment scene, and there are many types of these idols for the discerning viewer to choose. But who are these scrappy girls, and what’s so great about them?
         In 1997, I watched the season premiere of a show on the WB featuring a 16-year-old girl who had to fight evil and still finish her homework for school. She kicked, she punned, she stayed out late: she was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was blown away by a girl who could (and did) defeat evil demons, her mother never guessing that her daughter hung out with the dead more than the living. She had a lot of responsibility for a teenager (Buffy quote: “If the Apocalypse comes, beep me”) and she could handle it; she never asked for help, and hardly ever needed it. She wasn’t a stick figure counting every calorie, and she thought about a lot more than boys. I thought she was amazing. I taped every episode I could, speeding home on Tuesday nights to catch the opening scene, then at commercial breaks looking for dinner.
         I noticed more shows like Buffy; on Nickelodeon there was The Secret World of Alex Mack, on MTV Daria, on ABC Sabrina the Teenage Witch. All the shows featured girls “so capable, self-assured and unfrivolous that any feminist would be proud to call them little sisters,” Ginia Bellafante declares (82). The flood was just starting; in 1997 USA premiered a show called La Femme Nikita, based on the 1993 movie of the same name. In 1998 WB released Charmed, about three sisters who also happen to be witches. Now we have Dark Angel, Roswell, and Powerpuff Girls, among others. And that’s just television. Movies like Girlfight, Charlie’s Angels, the upcoming Tomb Raider, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon all feature young, fearless women who are “passionate about something besides passion” (12), Susan Isaacs asserts in her book about female characters in entertainment. As Isaacs noticed, these women are heroes because they care about something more pure than their hormones.
         That’s not to say that many of these women aren’t sexual. Charlie’s Angels flash more skin in two hours than a whole month’s worth of Sabrina or Daria. Angelina Jolie’s new movie Tomb Raider has taken some flack because Jolie spends half the movie “in the skimpiest of shorts, wearing weapon-holders that look more like garters than holsters,” Mary Spicuzza observes; “When she flirts with death, her sexuality is a key piece of her arsenal”(1). Many people have claimed that characters like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider create unhealthy expectations of what a heroine should look like. Spicuzza cites a report from Children Now (a research group that analyzes media’s effects on children) in her article showing that “nearly half of all top-selling video games in the United States contain unhealthy messages for girls, including unrealistic body image—tiny waists supporting unusually large breasts—as well as violent and provocative behavior and very little clothing” (1). The downside to idolizing these women is that some of their questionable qualities become justified. Girls think that women should be half-naked and erotic when battling men, and that men can’t fight women without succumbing to their own desires.
         Not all women agree with this; rather, some women appreciate the highly eroticized nature of women like Lara Croft. My friend Kristy Donohoue calls Angelina Jolie “bad-ass.” She says, “I like that she just does what she wants to do. She doesn’t necessarily think about what other people think of her; she just does what’s best for her. . . she’s a kindred spirit, I guess.” Like Kristy, I admire an actress—Drew Barrymore—for throwing herself into the public eye, regardless of the scandal she causes. I’ve also always been fascinated by the femmes fatales that populate film noir, like Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep and Kim Novak in Vertigo. The sexual woman goes way back into Biblical times, with women like Jezebel and Delilah, and only the label we put on her—good or bad, or sometimes fairly good or bad—has changed. It’s okay now for a women to drink, have premarital sex, or kneel at whatever altar she chooses. We’ve pushed the boundaries, and our heroines represent the changes that society allows or will allow. So what has changed?
         I asked my mom and Kristy how female heroes today are different from those of the past, and my mom said it was the violence. “The heroines are tough like men and talk like men,” she said. “And the trouble they get into is much deeper and more dangerous.” My mother idolized Nancy Drew when she was younger, and Nancy Drew certainly never had to face apocalypses or a single vampire. Kristy also mentioned Nancy Drew, but less admiringly: “I’ve noticed there’s not a back up plan. Like Nancy Drew, she always had her dad and friends to get her out of trouble.” She added, “The guy always had to bail her out. We’re getting to a point where the girls don’t need guys to bail them out.” This is true. Buffy hangs out with her Scooby gang and frequently needs their help, but in the end she always saves herself. I think this quality above all attracts women to these heroines. These girls are self-sufficient, quick thinkers; I guess they have to be with evil and physical violence threatening their clever heads every day.
         Margaret Finnegan argues that these women saturate the entertainment world because young girls will pay good money to watch women beat down male oppressors. Finnegan claims, “The commercial embrace of kick-butt girls breeds a less obvious threat to women’s struggle for equality: the illusion of equality. Feminism has few greater enemies” (1). Recently, filmmakers realized that teenage girls contributed a large chunk of consumer spending, and as a result we’ve seen a glut of faux-heroic movies like She’s All That, starring women with snappy wits and great looks who just want to get the guy in the end. But for every Cinderella story, there’s a Mulan character proving female heroism isn’t the latest marketing trend.
         However, heroines are everywhere, and they do make a lot of money. Well-known female athletes were formerly limited to Olympic skaters, gymnasts, and the occasional Babe Didrickson or Billie Jean King, but now there are Gabrielle Reeses doing shampoo commercials, Venus Williamses promoting sports drinks, and numerous basketball and soccer players pushing girl power, girl power! I saw a commercial yesterday where a female athlete, standing with a group of male athletes, confronts the hulking opposition facing them. She says, “I’ll take the big guy,” before any of the males can or will speak up. Her male counterparts seem awed by the big guys in front of them, but she is nonchalant, safe in the knowledge that girls kick ass no matter what. On AOL today, a link led me to a page where I could vote on whether Laila Ali or Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, daughters of Mohammed Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier respectively, is the “ultimate she-fighter.” There was also a poll asking whether women should box and a page of female trailblazers in athletics. Women are on cereal boxes, magazine covers, and even lollipops.
         I have so many heroes to choose from, and yet, when I think about how they might have changed my life, I can’t name anything tangible. I’ve always known to stand up for myself and I’ve never concentrated my energy on getting a man. If these heroes are so revolutionary, shouldn’t I be brushing my teeth in a new way, or shocking the world with my upstart intelligence? No, and the reason isn’t inconceivable: these women have always been here. We’ve always had role models like Buffy or Sabrina; they were just elbowed aside by the sob sisters and happy homemakers. The Mother Goddess fragmented into lesser goddesses in Greek mythology, and so she emerged on television. So many women to choose from, and so many unwise choices. I think our heroines sailed forth from the dark corners of our subconscious minds on the tide of girl power, and they’re not going back. And I like it. Wait— there’s one change in my mind. When I was younger, I dreamed of demons and other unearthly beings chasing me around my front yard. I was always running, never going anywhere, trembling and crying. Now I dream that I whip out a stake and a roundhouse kick, then go about my business. Problem solved; no harm, no foul. I think I can live with that change.

Works Cited

Bellafante, Ginia. “Bewitching Teen Heroines.” Time. 5 May 1997: 82-84.

Finnegan, Margaret. “Sold! The Illusion of Independence.” Los Angeles Times. 1 Jan. 2001.

Fleming, Charles “That’s Why the Lady Is a Champ.” Newsweek 7 June 1993: 66.

Isaacs, Susan. Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen. Ballantine Publishing Group: New York, 1999.

Spicuzza, Mary “Bad Heroines” Metro. 15 March 2001. http://www.metro activcom/papers/metro/03.15.01/cover/womanfilm-0111.html (25 May 2001)