Kameron Hurley is the author of the novels God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture a science-fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. She has won the Hugo Award and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her latest novel, The Mirror Empire, will be published by Angry Robot Books on August 26th, 2014.
Tea, Bodies and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype
Ok, I want you to stop right there.
Think about what image popped into your mind when you read “hero.” The first one.
What’s the first image your mind conjured on reading that word?
Who is it?
Who is… he?
These days, when I read “hero” the image that pops up is some superhero, because I’m inundated with Marvel movie images all day. Thor comes to mind. Maybe, if I haven’t been eating movies for awhile, it’s Conan.
Hero: a dude. Muscles. White. Butch.
Hero. First image. Every time.
It takes some additional thought, some re-training, for me to see anything but that archetype when I first think “hero.” I have the same trouble with nearly every term we say is gender-neutral or totally inclusive that… well… turns out isn’t. That’s because when we learned what words meant, we had certain types of images placed in front of us. We learned to associate those images with the word.
We ate what the stories and media fed us, and it’s why, to this day, we conjure them again and again when we see those words in text, when we hear them in conversations. We carry those expectations. It’s why, often, we get so upset or simply surprised when the hero we see on the page doesn’t conform to the image we learned.
Subverting expectations has become a hallmark of the gray, grimdark(er) fantasy tales now, and the even darker obsession in more general media of mythologizing serial killers (Bates Motel, Hannibal), elevating them to, if not heroes, then complex protagonists worthy of having their stories told; it’s cultivating compassion for killers. Yet still, there anti-hero heros are the same sorts of heroes: white, male, butch.
I can think of only two movies with women killers we’re meant to sympathize with, and both because they’d been sexually assaulted – Thelma and Louise and Monster. And to be honest, I don’t imagine anyone would call the women in these films heroes. Red Sonja is, perhaps, a proper hero, but is, once again, motivated by a sexual assault. Male heroes are heroic because of what’s been done to women in their lives, often – the dead child, the dead wife. Women heroes are also heroic for what’s been done to women… to them.