Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

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The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

wein_codenameverityWein, Elizabeth. Code Name Verity. New York: Hyperion, 2012. Print.

Genre: YA historical fiction

Summary: World War II historical fiction of the most gripping kind! Either the protagonist, Julie (AKA “Verity”) spills her guts about her spying exploits or her Gestapo torturers will…well, spill her guts for her!

Critique: This book is an epistolary thriller (thought you’d never see that combo, right?) assembled from hotel stationary scraps, prescription cards, and any other pulpy item around that can be scrounged up. The more the pieces assemble Verity’s confessions, the deeper readers dig into her friendship with female pilot, Maddie. Eventually, readers discover that Maddie flew the plane that crashed landed Verity right into enemy hands. And just when the narrative reveals Maddie’s fate since the crash, readers lose contact with Verity!

The motivations driving the characters are electrically urgent and starkly primal! The historical facts are cunningly deployed. The pace is a swift, cruel dive into constant unknowns and dangers. The pages might as well be coated in super glue — no way can you put this book down!

Pay the Piper by Jane Yolen

Yolen_piperYolen, Jane and Adam Stemple. Pay the Piper: A Rock n’ Roll Fairy Tale. New York: Starscape, 2005. Print.

Genre: YA fantasy (light)

Summary: Callie, 14, wants to go to a rock concert but her mega-protective parents won’t let her go. As the editor of the school news paper, Callie cooks up a quick scheme to interview the band, thus scoring backstage passes and forcing her parents to let her go cuz…it’s totally for school, right? Turns out the band is really a cadre of banished fairy folk who must make enough money every year to pay the king of the fairies, or else he must be paid in blood (read: human children). When money falls short, Callie’s little brother winds up on the blood list, jump starting Callie’s heroic and defiant side!

Critique: I lovedLOVEDl.o.v.e.d the title of this book! A rock n’ roll fairy tale? Yes, please! Publishers ought to be pushing these out like apples: one a day, to keep the doctor away. I also loved that the premise of the book unfurled from a historical hypothetical: what if what happened to the children of Hamelin in 1284 was true? What if a piper showed up and actually (millennials read: literally) led all the children away to who know where?

According to Yolen and Stemple, that event DID happen and it was because Peter Gringras and his Brass Rat band mates could not make enough money on their musical gigs to pay the king (also Gringras’s father who banished Peter–the piper, or virtuoso flutist–for accidentally killing his brother and heir to the throne).

In practice, the worldbuilding did not fully support the dilemma, which let all the air out of the stakes. Nothing really felt urgent. Peter’s band has been around forever. They are fairies after all, and age super-slow compared to humans. So every good while, when their fans begin to wonder why they don’t ever look older, they disappear and reinvent themselves. New name, new place, new tunes, etc. But by Callie’s time, they are mega-famous. As a result, I was not sure why losing the money from one gig was enough to blow the whole year and send the kiddo’s packing to fairy-folk-land.

Lastly, even though the point of view occasionally alternated between Callie and Peter, the story picked Callie as its protagonist. This also left me puzzled. In the grand scheme of things, Callie’s troubles were not that big. Her need for growth was, correspondingly, not that big. Peter, on the other hand, was a huge mess and had the most to overcome.

On the bright side, this is one of the few fairy books where the girl protagonist is NOT enchanted and idiotically, helplessly, submissively in love with the hot fairy dude. Callie tells Peter straight up, You’re 800+ years old. I’m 14. Gross! As a result, Callie is permitted throughout the story to be smart, resourceful, and autonomous. She thinks. She decides. She acts. And that’s a refreshing change within this popular trope!