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25 April 2011 @ 03:03 pm
TOTW: Subverting the cliche: Maiden in peril  

Many of the stories we know and love have a core motif; that of the maiden in peril.  Although traditionally the word ‘maiden’ was used to mean a virgin of either gender, it is the young woman in peril, rescued by a young man (generally a prince who embodies both rescuer and reward) that is most common throughout literature and the one that resonates most strongly.


Generally females in literature take on one of the three traditional faces: virgin, whore, or hag (sometimes described as maiden, mother or crone) and there are plenty of essays on these clichés.  Rarely do we see a story that dares to subvert them, or if it does, it makes certain to revert at the last minute, making sure that the apparently strong woman really does need rescuing by her Prince Charming; otherwise what are Prince Charmings for? 


And there is something deeply satisfying about the stories we know best.  We are able to live the vicarious thrill of peril, while assured that waiting in the wings is a beautiful boy with a sword.


But what happens when the maiden takes that sword for herself?  What happens when she subverts the cliché, moves away from the reader’s comfort zone and rescues herself? 


This isn’t a recent scenario.  The Master-Maid is a Norwegian tale first written down in 1842 and even the title warns us to expect subversion.  ‘Master’ at that time had layers of meaning.  It could have meant ‘a person eminently skilled at something’ (c.f. master and apprentice), but it also indicates a masculine role.  It is the same with ‘Maid’ which, as discussed above can mean virgin, but is more commonly associated with the female.  So putting those two words together is already pulling the rug from beneath the reader. 


The ostensible hero of the tale is a young prince out seeking his fortune, but the real hero is the ‘Master-Maid’ a woman of compassion, intelligence and personality, who helps the prince defeat the giant and fights for her happily ever after when a spell makes him forget her (for the full story, please look up ‘Master Maid’ on Wikipedia, it is brilliant).  At no time is the Master-Maid dependent on the Prince for safety or happiness.  He does not fight for her.  In fact she saves him, first from the giant and then from a marriage based on deception.  The roles are brilliantly subverted … and yet I have to wonder – did that wimp deserve her?  At the end of the tale, there is an imbalance.  If she is both Master and Maid, what place does the prince have?


A modern take on the Master-Maid / subversion tale is Ever After – a 1998 film starring Drew Barrymore.  The cleverest thing about this is that Ever After purports to be the real story of Cinderella, thereby subverting not only the maiden in peril cliché, but perhaps the original maiden in peril story itself. 


Drew Barrymore’s character Danielle is intelligent and creative; she fences and reads books.  She abuses the prince for stealing, rescues him from robbers, helps him learn about governance and her ‘fairy Godmother’ is Leonardo da Vinci.  In the film’s concluding scenes she is sold to the evil Baron (Richard O Brien), but while Prince Henry is rushing to rescue her from misery and loss of virtue, Danielle leaps up from her prone position grabs a sword and rescues herself.  Dougray Scott turns up, late, sword drooping; sheepish, redundant and emasculated.


The feminist in me wanted to cheer.  I’ve always remembered the film … and yet … it was somehow unsatisfying.  I wanted to see Dougray Scott burst in, knock the villain to the floor and rescue Danielle.  Without this heroic dénouement the film itself seems a little lack-lustre.  Yes, Danielle has refused to be a maiden in peril, but where does that leave her prince?  Doesn’t a woman that strong deserve a hero as her partner, rather than a wimp with a limp sword-hand?


Maybe I’ve been trained to expect a little rescuing in my literature, because the stories I enjoy most are those which flirt with subverting the cliché, but really allow more balance.  The hero and heroine work in partnership, rescuing one another - taking turns if you like, as Disney has recently explored in Tangled.  The important thing in this idea of balance is that if the prince has to win the princess, the princess has to win him right back. 


In an example from recent YA literature Graceling, the wonderful debut by Kristin Cashore, has as its heroine a young girl, Katsa, with the magical ability to kill anyone; to win any fight.  She is her king’s enforcer and doesn’t like the job, so she starts up her own resistance movement.  She meets her match, however, and she and this man form a real partnership, saving their country and one another. 


In Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce, the heroines - sisters - are pitched against werewolves (another excellent subversion of a well known fairy tale) and together rescue the ‘prince’ from their hands. 


In Devil’s Kiss, by Sarwat Chadda, the heroine, Billi (a girl with a masculine name), is a sword wielding Templar knight, who fights the ultimate evil, the angel of death.


And one reason I felt these books were so good was that, despite the strength of the heroine, the heroes are allowed to be strong too, and the ‘big wins’ for the heroines depend on the love and / or sacrifice of the ‘princes’.  In the Devil’s Kiss, Kay, the male hero, whose name mirrors Billi’s with it’s ambiguous gender allocation, could perhaps be described as a Maid-Master, a hero in touch with his emotions and the perfect counter-weight to Billi’s Master-Maid.


In Graceling, Katsa almost ends up alone and sadly, in both Devil’s Kiss and Sisters Red, the ultimate punishment for being a Master-Maid; in treading too close to the line between masculine and feminine, is to lose the prince altogether.


In my own book, Angel’s Fury, the heroine seems a clichéd maiden in peril, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she really is a Master-Maid (in more ways than one).  And in order for her to win her ‘prince’ (and for he to win her), the conflicting aspects of each of their personalities must find balance. 


We authors can subvert the maiden in peril cliché all we want, but for a really satisfying story there has to be balance; in order for the hero / prince to be worthy of our strong heroine, we should let him rescue her … or release him and leave our trouser-wearing heroine alone to play with her own sword.
midnightbloomsmidnightblooms on April 25th, 2011 02:26 pm (UTC)
This has always been my opinion. I love stories where the couple are strong enough for each other. If one is always saving the other, how can that relationship ever work? A relationship is a partnership, and you have to be able to rely on your partner to be there when you need them.
Rose Greenolmue on April 25th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
TOTALLY AGREE on there needing to be a balance. Emasculating a Prince Charming to make a Super Heroine isn't any better than a competent Prince Charming doing all the work to rescue a useless Fair Maiden. They need to both have a lack and both have a strength, and complement each other to take down the bad guys together.
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on April 25th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
Okay I LOVE this post!! I think you hit the nail right on the head. It has to be both. They have to be worthy of each other, rescue each other, to make it fulfilling. :D
dragonmage: librarian bruisedragonmagelet on April 25th, 2011 04:46 pm (UTC)
Hate to be the Debbie Downer...
I don't completely agree. While I think any believable romance must involve a partnership between the two characters, it doesn't seem to me that the emotional balancing act needs to be mirrored in the overall "action" of the story. (I don't think a story needs romance to be successful, either, but that's a bit of a different topic.) Why would a strong female character ever fall for a guy who's not strong and brave in some way himself? He shouldn't need to wave a sword around to show that.

Henry gets a chance to show he's Danielle's equal without ever getting to kick any proverbial ass. It's hardly confusing or surprising that she is in love with him, as it would be if he were depicted as genuinely "emasculated" (I would say, "disenfranchised," or "powerless," or "weak." When a woman loses her chance to save the day, is she robbed of her femininity?) rather than simply naive and short-sighted. He's brave because he can see that he was wrong, and change. He's brave because he chooses to be king even though it terrifies him. He flies in the face of a royal marriage and alliance with Spain to pursue a common-born girl he loves who will also be a great queen. A great partner.

For me, at least, it doesn't matter that he doesn't get to be the big-damn-hero in Danielle's escape from the Baron. Also consider: the Baron says she's escaped before, and she doesn't have the look of a woman who's just killed somebody as she walks away from his fortress. Who's to say that, if not for Henry, he wouldn't have just sent his men after her again? Henry's growth is that he realizes that his "gilded cage" is, in fact, his true power. He saves Danielle by elevating her to the nobility. Which, now that I think about it, is all the prince in that story ever does.

I haven't gotten my hands on any of those other titles, so I can't speak to the contrasting themes you mention. I must say I haven't heard great things about the supposed feminist elements of Tangled, but again, no personal experience to draw from. But I have seen Ever After, and I take a very different view of the story.
dragonmage: spiderdragonmagelet on April 25th, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Hate to be the Debbie Downer...
Just realized I missed a few key paragraphs of your post--OOPS! I do agree that a heroine of the Master-Maid persuasion needs a hero who can be a good partner. I don't agree that they both need to be strong in the same way, and I especially don't think a man needs to demonstrate superior (or equal) physical prowess in order to be worthy of the heroine. As an example, see above treatment of Drew Barrymore film Ever After.

Phew. I wish I could edit comments without having to pay LJ for the privilege.
ellen_ohellen_oh on April 25th, 2011 06:02 pm (UTC)
I admit that I have never really liked the maiden in peril stories. Which is why I love when the girl is the hero. But why must there always be a romantic element? Why can't the girl just be a straight hero? Period. What I liked about Tamora Pierce's Alannah series was that Alannah was a hero first and foremost. Romance was very secondary. I feel like it's another cliche element. That a girl can't just be a rocking hero action story character - but must always have a man to counter her.
jamiejamiewho on April 25th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
I was thinking of Tamora Pierce's stories as well, particularly the Alanna books. All of Pierce's female characters only had romance when or if they chose it, and they were strong characters all on their own - and the male characters they were paired with held their own independent but equally strong roles. I really liked that about her books.
ex_marissam on April 25th, 2011 08:27 pm (UTC)
Applauding this post! I guess I've never given too much thought to this cliche (after all, who doesn't love that moment when the hero saves the day?) but I found myself nodding along with almost everything you said here. Yes, I expect my heroes to be strong, but these days I want my heroines to be stronger - and if my heroine starts out weak, I want her to learn to stand on her own feet by the end of the tale. In the end, I agree that great romances are about balance and deserving one another, which you've stated very well!
annastanannastan on April 25th, 2011 09:53 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post! I especially liked your point about Ever After: "Doesn’t a woman that strong deserve a hero as her partner, rather than a wimp with a limp sword-hand?"

I hadn't thought of it that way before, but you're right that there is something very satisfying about two equally-strong characters getting together. I'm all about a maiden saving herself, but her love interest should also be strong, even if it's not in a physical way.
holyschistholyschist on April 25th, 2011 11:31 pm (UTC)
I really don't agree, I'm afraid--but my preference is for protagonist and love interest to work together to accomplish something, not necessarily to rescue each other. So long as they're both actively doing something productive, I'm not even sure they have to be working together directly--I could be quite satisfied by a story about a heroine with a sword on the front lines and her love interest who's busy thwarting some political plot.

The love interest can be strong and heroic without having to "rescue" the heroine, and he doesn't have to be physically strong even if she is; honestly, I prefer to see couples with different strengths and weaknesses (Wash and Zoe from Firefly are a great example, and I'm a fan of Tamora Pierce's Alanna and George, too--while George fights, that's not his primary preference and he is much more comfortable with the indirect and shadowy than Alanna).

I'd like more stories about heroines focusing on their careers, romance optional, though.
Sayantani DasGuptaSayantani16 on April 26th, 2011 12:23 am (UTC)
wash and zoe
You brought up wash and zoe so I had to respond (fantastic fantastic couple, he's kind of a wimp in the fighting department but a fantastic pilot and snark, she's so tough she can take on an army)... Katniss is a bit like this - much stronger than her partner.
Perhaps the balance isn't the need to be equal in physical strength or "rescuing" but rather to be two equally fleshed out and nuanced characters?
And of course we're assuming heterosexuality, here, check out Malinda Lo's blog today about lesbian YA characters in nonhomophobic environments for more...
holyschistholyschist on April 26th, 2011 12:33 am (UTC)
Re: wash and zoe
I don't really like applying "wimp" as a descriptor to a character who doesn't fight, personally.

But yes--equally fleshed out and nuanced characters is what I want, not equal physical strength or rescuing. And I wasn't assuming heterosexuality, hence "protagonist" and "love interest" or "co-protagonists" in the first part of my comment. :-)

(Not that I wouldn't happy read about two girls with swords dating, too, because it would be the book of my HEART. But they still wouldn't need to rescue each other for me to be happy.)
Sayantani DasGuptaSayantani16 on April 26th, 2011 03:17 am (UTC)
Re: wash and zoe
hear you on "wimp" - cybernetic short hand, but ill chosen.
and not implying you were supposing heterosexuality, just trying to make room by explicitly stating.
I think we've bonded previously on our love of Firefly so happy to be able to add a "hear hear" to your observations! :)
OM... nom nom...
holyschistholyschist on April 26th, 2011 03:22 am (UTC)
Re: wash and zoe
Oh, no worries--I should have been more explicit about it, and I did start using m/f pronouns in the second paragraph. Off to go read Malinda Lo's blog post now!
readwriterockreadwriterock on April 26th, 2011 05:22 am (UTC)
Re: wash and zoe
Wash and Zoe are one my favorite couples in any medium. I love how their strengths are so different, but their love for each other is so obvious and strong.

I am now going to retreat into my own little world where Serenity ended at "I'm a leaf on the wind."
amaris glassamarisglass on April 26th, 2011 08:47 pm (UTC)
Re: wash and zoe
*sob* Wash!
dragonmage: cacklesdragonmagelet on April 27th, 2011 04:41 am (UTC)
Re: wash and zoe
I'm already happy in my own little world where Serenity didn't happen. Although that line was pretty good. Wash and Zoe were the bedrock of that show.
jen_wrote_this on April 26th, 2011 02:42 am (UTC)
Excellent post! I love the examples you gave of strong heroines. I hope this trend becomes ever increasing, not only in fantasy but in all writing.
readwriterockreadwriterock on April 26th, 2011 05:29 am (UTC)
Ooh, Prince of Persia - *shudder*. Even Jake Gyllenhaal being pretty and Alfred Molina being, you know, present couldn't save it.

Holly Black's Tithe is a good example of an evenly-matched relationship in YA fantasy. I love the way Val and Ravus come to care for and support each other. But I think the best example of the sort of give-and-take relationship you're talking about is the one between Claire and Jamie in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels (for adults). They're both incredibly headstrong, and they fight like wet cats from time to time, but they always have each other's backs, and it makes their love story that much swoonier.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on April 26th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
Great Subject.

One author who does strong heroines beautifully is Cynthia Voigt in her novels of the Kingdom. My favorite being On Fortune's Wheel.

S.l. PierceS.l. Pierce on April 29th, 2011 08:15 pm (UTC)
Great post. How about let her be the brains and him be the brawn? I like it that way.