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.
We build our heroes, too often, on terrible things done to women, instead of creating, simply, heroes who do things, who persevere in the face of overwhelming odds because it’s the right thing to do.
It comes as little surprise, then, that though I’m known for writing gray, morally ambiguous anti-heroes and heroes alike, I’m not asked to write about “heroes” in posts like these very often.
I am, more often, asked to write about “women heroes” or “female heroes” and what makes those particularly gendered people special super unique from other heroes…and by “other” folks generally mean that first image, that initial burst of an archetype that comes to mind when we say “hero” – and that means men. We mean the default hero. We mean the image our female heroes are being judged against, instead of already standing alongside, popping up in our minds right next to our caped male heroes.
You may not catch the difference here, but I do, now. I hear it every time I’m asked to be on a panel about “strong female characters” or “women in science fiction.” There’s an implication when people ask, and the implication is that we aren’t talking about women characters and women in science fiction or fantasy in the other panels, or in other spaces, or within other topics, so they – we – need to have our own special one, just to ensure we get five minutes in where someone remembers women are heroes, and writers, and… people.
I want you to take a look at the title of this post again, and see what I did there. This post, I told you, was about heroes. Not women heroes, female heroes. But heroes. And it is.
The protagonist, Nyx, in my book God’s War is a pretty standard anti-hero. I built her on the bones of Conan and Mad Max. She’s everything I love about 80’s action heroes, which includes sarcastic wit, endless persistence, an inability to commit, and the profound loyalty of those around her. I loved watching those heroes growing up – I loved reading about them in noir and science fiction thrillers. I just couldn’t understand why they were all men. I couldn’t understand why none of them could be women; I didn’t know why the women were always sidekicks, plot hurdles, prizes, when I and all the women around me were heroes in our own lives. What were all these stories trying to say, collectively, about my ability to be heroic in my own life?
When Nyx sits down with a mark or an employer who offers her tea, she doesn’t drink it – she asks for a whisky. When people want to talk about the weather, or feelings, or the history of the world, she’ll stop them. She wants to talk business. Bounties. Heads. She’s a bounty hunter, and bodies are her business. This is her life. It’s who she is. She’s not some bit player in someone else’s story. She is the story. She often ends the stories of others.
I built the societies in my new novel, The Mirror Empire, with a similar eye for heroic stories, for creating people, not archetypes, not the same old images many of us are fed as children. I worked hard to remember the other half of the world when I said “hero.” Heroes all belong on the same slate, the same panel; they should all be here when we talk heroics, when we make strong protagonists. They don’t need their own book, their own panel, their own post.
It turns out that I ended up with several soldiers, commanders, and generals in The Mirror Empire on top of my politicians, orphans, shepherds, and novice magic users, and I remember being concerned at one point, realizing one was the head of the militia in one country, another the War Minister in a second country, and in a third country, I had a legion commander. Why such concern? I mean, after all, you see these characters in epic fantasies all the time. Books are stuffed full of them.
But in this particular case, when I wrote, “head of the militia” and “War Minister” and “legion commander” every single one of them was a female character. I had this irrational moment where I thought, “Oh no! I can’t have so many women in positions of martial power. People will get them all confused.”
Because if we’re going to have a “strong female hero” there can only be one, right? One woman to prove the stereotypes. There’s only one Smurfette.
Scrubbing that out of my brain took some doing. It took reimagining my own vision of what types of people held these roles, and whether or not that was “OK.” It turns out that when folks say “Why is character X a woman?” my response now is “Why not?”
Because there’s no legitimate reason why not.
I will say that again: there is no legitimate reason the stories we create, the stories we read, cannot include a true representation of the makeup of the actual world around us.
I remember gender-swapping a character in Mirror Empire at one point with much trepidation – I’d taken on the “Luke, I am your father!” trope and was trying to figure out how it was possible to play it as “Luke, I am your mother!” I had a mental resistance to it, like the Secret Parental Reveal somehow wouldn’t work with a mother in the same way it would a father. But it turns out there was no good reason I couldn’t – it’s just that my expectation for this trope was, admittedly, based on Star Wars, and in Star Wars the reveal is about a father.
I was limited by stories that came before mine.
We are so often limited by our own expectations of stories, by the stories that came before, by the heroes who came before… how is it we can bear to live with ourselves, as readers and storytellers, if we swallow those limitations without questioning them?
I like to challenge the expectations of story. I like the challenge the way I was taught language. I like to tear it down and remake it, because I see, so often, that what I was served up on a plate was, so often, in service to someone else’s narrative, to someone else’s wish for what the world would be – a world that did not include me, or people like me, a world that pretended we never existed at all.
That’s not my world. And it’s not the world I write about.
When our heroes are broken, it’s up to us to remake them.
Thanks to Kameron Hurley and congratulations on her Hugo wins. Find her online at kameronhurley.com and pick up The Mirror Empire, her new book, out from Angry Robot books