Wednesday, March 13, 2013

From Sleeping Beauty to Dystopian Heroines: Vulnerable Badasses

The New Yorker recently posted an article by Maria Tatar called "From Sleeping Beauty to Gonzo Girls: A New Generation of Modern Heroines?" In the article, Tatar, chair of Harvard's mythology and folklore program, examines the rise of the female trickster archetype: "women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave." Using pop culture examples such as Lisbeth Salander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Carrie Mathison, Tatar posits that the placid Sleeping Beauty archetype has given way to the spunky, intelligent, and formidable female trickster.

But there's a catch: even in our I-am-woman-hear-me-roar contemporary culture, the problematic aspects of Sleeping Beauty never really disappear. As Tatar writes, these tough-girl characters have moments of "[seeming] utterly lost. There is clearly something compensatory in the psychological fragility of these women warriors: their gains in intellect and muscle are diminished by moments of complete emotional collapse. Vulnerability continues to attract." Tatar proceeds to look closely at Hildy in the movie "Django Unchained" as an example of this Sleeping Beauty stereotype.

Using Tatar's analysis and looking at the Sleeping Beauty archetype as a symbol for vulnerability, I can see numerous other examples in the contemporary young adult books I so love to read. In the plethora of dystopian YA novels that have come out in the last several years, the female trickster is readily apparent. There's Katniss in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (which Tatar mentions), whose cleverness and survival skills keep her alive in a competition to the death; there's Tris in Veronica Roth's Divergent, who wills herself to be tough and uses her small stature to her benefit in hand-to-hand combat; and, most recently, there's the titular character in Marissa Meyer's Scarlet, who embodies a version of the Red Riding Hood character with a gun in her waistband and a chip on her shoulder.

But beneath the bravado and the intense desire to fight and win, all three of these characters have moments of extreme vulnerability. Mockingjay, the final book in Collins' trilogy, finds Katniss dealing with post-traumatic stress. Gone is the kick-ass warrior of the first two books. In her place is a new Katniss, one full of doubt and a desire to retreat from the political war for which she has become a symbol. Her emotional breakdown overshadows her previous accomplishments. She is no longer the actor; instead she has to be prodded to action by outside influences. Similarly, in the first two books of the Divergent trilogy (the third will be released in October 2013), Tris grows in strength both physical and mental. But she still relies on her boyfriend, Tobias, to buoy her through her battles. Furthermore, the mere fact that she is physically small gives her a vulnerability that no amount of trickster skills can overcome. Finally, while Scarlet maintains a single-minded focus on her journey in the second book of Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, she is accompanied by a strong, brutish street fighter named Wolf, whose hulking strength saves Scarlet's hide on more than one occasion. Additionally, her single-minded focus leads her to be emotionally crushed when her mission does not go as planned.  

Why is it that even when the female trickster character is colored with shades of strength and cleverness, the damsel-in-distress lurks beneath? Maria Tatar's assertion about the Sleeping Beauty archetype is that it "invite[s] riskless voyeurism in both [its] cinematic and [its] fictional incarnations" and that "the upright, brainy female, physically commanding and a bit unhinged, is less of a crowd-pleaser." So even though the spirited heroine in a contemporary YA dystopia is prevalent, it seems that the cracks in her armor are what really make her pleasing and accessible to the crowd.

While the characters in the dystopias I mentioned are not Sleeping Beauties in the sense that they are idle and mute, they do still require outside influence to spur their actions. They may be strong, but their vulnerability links them to their Sleeping sisters.

Read Tatar's full post here:


  1. Have you read Tiger Lily yet? I wont what you might say about her as a heroine, whether she falls under this trap or not? I would say the very fact that she didn't bend to Peter's will, rely or nurture his masculinity removes her from this equation. However, it also removes her from the typical "happy ending"--and there are a ton of gender issues within that story.

    Nevertheless, I feel that it at least tries to circumvent the Sleeping Beauty syndrome that is so prevalent in pretty much everything I can think of at the moment. Tatar is correct in observing that the "upright, brainy female" is less crowd-pleasing, but this book I think creates a heroine who we might struggle to understand at first but really vie for more than Wendy or anyone else. What do you think? I also only read it once for pleasure, so I may not remember every detail currently.

  2. I haven't read it yet... I started it but then got distracted by another book I was reading for a conference proposal. (It's funny, what I do have to say about what I've read so far is that Tink proclaims that fairies are mute, but then she narrates that her mother "told" her stories. But how, Tink?? HOW?)

    I will definitely let you know what I think about Tiger Lily as a heroine when I finish it.

    1. Hahaha, much the same way she is telling you this story, I imagine... but how is that??