Narnia: The Stifling Role of Child-Mother

Narnia Recap: If you've never heard of The Chronicles of Narnia, you might want to start here with the deconstruction vote, and then follow to here for the discussion of the deconstruction vote.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 1: Lucy Looks Into A Wardrobe

Four is frequently the magic number in children's literature, at least in terms of protagonist children. With four children, you can have two girls, two boys, a wide range of ages (and therefore a broad audience appeal), and the author can do all sorts of cute tricks like perfectly alternating the genders by age (boy, girl, boy, girl) or by introducing pairs of boy-girl twins. The Bobbsey Twins features four children of the twin-pair variety, the Boxcar Children features four children of the alternating variety, and the Chronicles of Narnia starts the first published book in the series, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, with a family of four young children: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

The existence of four child protagonists is useful for other reasons beyond gender symmetry and age spread, and will particularly aid an author looking to divvy up his protagonists along standard narrative tropes. The younger children can get into scrapes, make the important accidental discoveries, and endear themselves to any adult-figures in the story; the older children can perform the scary and daring feats, rescue and protect the younger children, and perform any particularly tedious tasks set for them by the adult-figures. Further narrative tropes are segregated by gender: the youngest girl will usually be cute, lovable, and tractably innocent; the youngest boy will be called upon for lightly bratty behavior and naughty shenanigans. The oldest brother will, of course, be the daring leader of the family and surrogate father figure, and the oldest daughter will almost always be saddled with the burden of being the practical, nurturing surrogate mother.

Childrens' books -- particularly classic ones -- are something of a paradox in many ways. The narratives are often crafted around the absence of parents, for how can a child truly have fun, or be subjected to exciting danger, or have the opportunity for daring adventures when parents are hovering nearby? And yet, at the same time, the youngest readers of these series (or, at least, so the authors seem to believe) will suffer the occasional anxious pang and will need to be assured that they are still in caring hands, and that a kind benefactor is still looking out for them. Clearly, a Mother isn't called for -- Mothers are tall and powerful and can send children to bed on a whim -- but perhaps a child-mother is in order. Child-mothers are surrogate mothers who are also children; little girls like Wendy Darling who tell stories and cuddle and make suggestions, but who rarely have the power to enforce an absolute order. They are mothers in miniature, and too often in literature they only exist to serve the needs of their more interesting siblings.

In her incredible book, The Girl Sleuth, Bobbie Ann Mason writes of the Bobbsey Twins:

The books create an illusion that adventure is the process of learning the roles, although the roles of Mamma and Daddy Bobbsey are dull. Nan is "quite a little housekeeper" and nursemaid to Flossie and Freddie. "She seemed like a little mother to them at times, though she was only four years older." (The Bobbsey Twins at School, p. 72) Nan, like Bert, is tops at anything she tries, which isn't much. She wins a peanut race easily and is interested in "patches and tidies" and making jumble chocolates. The reader, at least, is able to lose herself in the excitement of the book, but what is Nan doing? [...] Bert gets to do some clever things, like build an ice-boat, but Nan Bobbsey does nothing whatsoever in the whole of the Great City of New York except buy a workbasket. Nan is ten, when a little girl is too old for dolls and pranks, too young for boys and barred from their games, halfway between Honey Bunch and nymphet. Bert is going to paddle his own canoe somewhere, and Nan is wistful.

   "Wouldn't you let me paddle with you?" asked Nan. "I know how -- a little."
    The Bobbsey Twins in the Great City, p. 167

Nan's alienation is probably not noticeable to the child [...] She has a firm role -- as mini-parent, non-child, serious-minded little woman.
With that in mind, I think it's very telling that the first interaction we see of the four Pevensie children, newly relocated to the country to escape the bombing of London, is this:

   "We've fallen on our feet and no mistake," said Peter. "This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like."
   "I think he's an old dear," said Susan.
   "Oh, come off it!" said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. "Don't go on talking like that."
   "Like what?" said Susan; "and anyway, it's time you were in bed."
   "Trying to talk like Mother," said Edmund. "And who are you to say when I'm to go to bed? Go to bed yourself."
   "Hadn't we all better go to bed?" said Lucy. "There's sure to be a row if we're heard talking here."

And with that rather elegant introduction, the reader already knows all they need to know about the four children of our story. Peter is the oldest, brave and courageous and full of excitement for the adventures he imagines ahead of them. He isn't fearful of the strange odd-looking old professor they've been sent to live with; he's already planning just how much the children can get away with in their new vacation home. Lucy, the youngest, is the eldest Peter's foil -- sweet and timid and nervous, she tries to smooth over arguments and avoid conflicts, fearing a row if the children are caught up past bedtime. As the most innocent of the children, she will be the one to first discover Narnia; as the sweetest of the bunch, she will be The Healer and Aslan's particular favorite.

Edmund, of course, is the Other Boy -- not the oldest boy and not the youngest child. In a mystery series, he would be the brassy, mischievous child whose poorly conceived shenanigans puts the others in danger, but who is loved by his siblings nonetheless. In a series like the Bobbsey Twins, he would be spoiled by his doting mother; in the popular psychiatric thought of the early 1900's, he would likely have been imagined as being his mother's "devoted little man", the male child she could love as her own, spoil without consequence, and expect tenderness from in return. In contrast, as we can see from her introduction, Susan is already well ensconced in the restrictive child-mother role of the eldest daughter -- her first line of dialogue is immediately rebuked by the candid Edmund as being deliberately imitative of their mother; her second line of dialogue is a matronly counter that it is Past Everyone's Bedtime.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (TLWW) is a very conversational novel, and really showcases C.S. Lewis' undeniable talent as a writer. A great deal of the action unfolds through the conversations and interactions of the Pevensie children, both between themselves and with others, and their actions and speech patterns have a skillful and natural flow. The characters of the children are not wholly original, perhaps, and do conform very conveniently to common narrative tropes in childrens' literature, but they are for the most part very colorful characters within their stereotypical bounds, and it's such an easy thing to sink effortlessly into the prose of the book.

And yet, if the value of a character is measured by the extent of their role in a novel, it might follow then that the value of a character in a conversational novel is measured by their share in the conversation. Of all the words spoken by the Pevensie children in the novel, the speakers of those words can be mapped out as such:

Lucy, as the Discoverer of Narnia has quite a head-start on the other children: her introductory conversations with Mr. Tumnus The Fawn that establish much of the world-building in this novel put her in a definite lead over the other children, with a gap which even the loquacious Peter can never quite bridge. Edmund, as The Traitor, is at a distinct disadvantage in the conversation department -- he spends so much of the novel either sulking in silence, answering the Witch in short fearful bursts, or fully knocked unconscious for much of the battle aftermath, that it's not unusual for whole pages to go by without him saying anything at all.

And yet, somehow, Susan manages to speak even less than the frequently silent and moody Edmund. Once the four children arrive in Narnia, she never leaves either Peter or Lucy's side, and she is even one of the two witnesses to Aslan's heroic sacrifice and resurrection, and yet her speaking parts are noticeably subdued. When she does speak, she speaks sensibly and with the voice of experience -- urging the others to borrow the warm coats in the wardrobe before trekking through the deep snows of Narnia, and being the first to notice their lack of food and what it might mean for the long term -- but despite her age and wisdom, her voice lacks the authority of brother Peter. Susan is the peacemaker and the nurturer, and though she may dispense good advice, it is always within the power of her siblings to ignore it. Peter, the destined high king, gives orders, but Susan provides only suggestions.

In the first chapter of TLWW, the children settle into their new home. Peter suggests ways and means for them to enjoy themselves, coming up with fun exploring ideas when the children are trapped indoors by the rain. Edmund grumbles a lot and expresses the discontent one might expect from a young child separated from his home and his parents by the tragedy of war, but brightens at the thought of spending time outdoors looking for exotic animals. Lucy, sweet and innocent, climbs into a wardrobe to feel the soft, reassuring coat fur on her face (and don't I remember a rabbit-fur coat of my mother's that I always felt the same way about?) and in doing so discovers a magical portal to a fantasy realm filled with adventure and talking animals.

Susan, on the other hand, gets to speak four lines in this first chapter: she calls the odd-looking professor an "old dear" in deliberate emulation of her missing mother, she attempts unsuccessfully to send Edmund to bed, she consoles the younger children that the rain keeping them indoors must stop soon, and when the children each cry out the animal they most look forward to finding in the nearby countryside, she counters a meek "rabbits" to the other childrens' more exotic eagles, and foxes, and badgers.


Charleen Merced said...

Great post Ana. I wonder about the distribution of the talking parts in the rest of the series. 

Personal Failure said...

Yay, the deconstruction has begun! It's what happens to Susan later on in the series that always got me, but that's not relevant to this deconstruction.

Ana Mardoll said...

Charleen Merced

Haha, not sure if I'm going to do that little "count by hand" project again. It took longer than I'd expected the first time. :P

Personal Failure

Yes, I'll confess it's not a coincidence that the first post is Susan-oriented. *sheepish grin* But you're right, we'll get there eventually! :)

Charleen Merced said...

@anamardoll:disqus You counted by hand? :O I thought you found the graphics online somewhere. Jeez

@twitter-46666191:disqus I agree with you. I did not like that part at all. Talk about a writer abandoning a character.

Ana Mardoll said...

Haha, it wasn't as bad as you'd think -- I highlighted every Pevensie statement in Moon+, exported the notes, and then counted manually from there.  But it did lead to this phone conversation:

Mom: "Did you have a nice day dear?"
Ana: "Oh, yes, it was very productive! I finished counting the dialogue in the book I was reading!"
Mom: "That's......nice. I guess"

Gelliebean said...

Hooray!  I have been looking forward to this series ever since you mentioned it being a possibility. 

I suspect that Susan's silence is a side effect of her characterization as "child-mother."  Peter never comes across as a fatherly figure (of course, Aslan would probably be the one filling that role) - he may give orders, but more in the same line that Peter Pan would direct the Lost Boys to go exploring over a mountain or down to the lagoon.  He's the commander on a jolly expedition and comes across as being in charge of all the excitement that might happen.

A parental character, on the other hand, is responsible for safety and wellbeing - bring your coat, stay together, and don't go too close to the river.  A parent's rules aren't *fun*; so while Peter might be giving directions, Susan is in the position of giving constraints.  A book about childrens' adventures needs a sense of unfetteredness, which means that Susan must necessarily be silenced so as not to intrude too much upon her free-range siblings.

Kit Whitfield said...

I think it's fruitful to compare Lewis to one of his major influences, Edith Nesbit, on this subject. He doesn't come off well.

Nesbit was a better writer - wittier, more vivid, more compassionate and more inventive - but her handling of family roles is more subtle as well. The five children of Five Children and It, for example, have a little-mother figure in Anthea ... but it's not that simple.

Anthea does not, for instance, try to mother the older boys very often, and neither do the boys particularly give her directions. They just thrash issues out between themselves like equals - and in fact, Robert and Cyril are the least differentiated of the characters and occupy the most similar roles. 

Anthea does mother Jane a bit, but it comes across more as big-sisterly than little-motherly: Jane is clearly younger than her and sometimes gets overwhelmed, and Anthea comforts her kindly, but she only does it when it's called for. When Jane is capable of looking after herself, which she is most of the time, Anthea leaves her to it: her nurture is responsive rather than habitual. It's also presented as part of a general character: Anthea is the most demonstratively affectionate (her letters to their mother are very loving, for instance), and also the most ethical - she worries about paying for food that they steal, for instance. Her nurturing of Jane comes across more as the sisterly behaviour of a girl who's kind and principled than the behaviour of a Little Mother.

There remains her treatment of the Lamb, the baby, and there she is something of a mother figure ... but the thing is, all the Lamb's siblings parent him to some extent. The boys give him piggy-back rides and try to cheer him up; Jane also tries to comfort him when he fusses. The Lamb somewhat prefers 'Panty' as a comforter when he's seriously upset, but he's a shared responsibility: the age gap means that it's simply not practical for one child to be his sole caregiver, they're all fond of him, and as with Anthea and Jane, it comes across as a naturalistic sibling relationship rather than a quasi-adult one.

Nesbit was able to recognise that children may fall into certain roles in a sibling group while managing to portray them as people whose characters extend beyond their roles. Lewis doesn't have the subtlety, so his children tend to come across more as types than as people. 

Emmy said...

I agree with Kit! But I also suspect that some of it is that Lewis doesn't *do* characterization in the first book. It's much shorter than the others, and he relies much more heavily on tropes for the characterization of the kids, especially Peter and Susan. So while Peter gets a lot more dialogue, he doesn't get characterization in the same way Lu and Ed do in this book. And Susan of course is just screwed.

Love the post, Ana!

Chelsea said...

Whoo, the Narnia deconstruction!

Peter and Susan always struck me as the most boring characters in TLWW, part of it for reasons that Emmy mentioned; they are mostly defined by tropes and come off as very flat compared to Lucy the Explorer and Edmund the Traitor. Susan is the mother figure and Peter is every boring white guy who is automatically the leader. Peter gets fleshed out later, but Susan....poor Susan :(

Nathaniel said...

Yeah, the problem of Susan is endemic throughout the series. Its one of its most serious problems along with the racism. But that'll be for book 3.

Amaryllis said...

Alas, poor Susan. She never did get much of a chance.

As another example of this kind of thing, remember the Walker siblings from "Swallows and Amazons"? Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-Seaman Titty and Ship's-boy Roger. When we meet them for the first time, "John was stoking the fire. Susan was spreading bread and marmalade. Titty was sitting between two trees at the edge of the cliff, keeping watch...Roger was pretending to be a ship."

And when they're planning what supplies they'll need for their island camp:
"Compass," said John.
"Kettle," said Susan.
"Flag," said Titty.
"Tents," said Roger.
"Telescope," said John.
"Saucepan, mugs, knives, forks, tea, sugar, milk," said Susan.

What was so domesticated about the name Susan, I wonder?

Susan is definitely in charge of her younger sister and brother. But at least her domestic competence is respected; it's what allows the group to go off and have adventures without actual adult supervision. She doesn't find herself silenced or sidelined by the "mother" role.

I just finished reading The Likeness by Tana French. It's a mystery novel concerning a group of twenty-something housemates, estranged from their families of origin, who attempt to create a "family of choice." And it was supposed to be an egalitarian relationship, but an outsider looks at them and sees, "Daniel, the accepted leader and father figure; Justin and Abbie, taking tuns being the mother figure and the responsible oldest child; Raphael, the moody middle child;  Lexie, the cheeky, funny baby sister." But these aren't a group of children having adventures; they're adults with adult concerns and adult secrets and adult failures; it doesn't end well.

Kit Whitfield said...

Another comparison to Nesbit occurs to me. There's a ring of Nesbit in his description of Edmund as 'tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered'; it's the kind of thing she says about her characters when they're quarrelsome. The difference is, to Nesbit, this is just normal child behaviour. Sometimes children are in a bad mood and don't act their best; it's not a major character trait. It's just the normal frictions within a loving family.

To Lewis, however, this little piece of irritability is a huge harbinger: Edmund is going to be a traitor, a quisling, the villain of the family, and this is how we know. Even as a child, I always thought of Lewis as an author who set traps for his characters and punished them for falling in - their misdeeds tend to seem imposed from above rather than natural consequences - and this is an early example. Character flaws aren't humanising and forgiveable: they're a preemptive justification for his setting up of a character as designated 'bad one'. 

Ana Mardoll said...


I think you have a good point here -- throughout my re-read, I kept feeling very sympathetic to Edward in a way I HADN'T as a child. I kept thinking, basically, "this seems like perfectly normal behavior under the circumstances". Maybe not reasonable or laudable behavior but certainly not some kind of red flag that OMG EVIL TRAITOR CHILD.

Kit Whitfield said...

I think that's probably a factor, but I also think that Nesbit was a socialist, bohemian and all-round supporter of the underdog and defier of conformity. Lewis, on the other hand, was Establishment to his bones. Childish crossness looks disobedient from that viewpoint, and Lewis takes an extremely poor view of disobedience in these books. 

Reading the passage over as a mother (though of a boy much younger than the Pevensies), actually my heart goes out to Edmund. They've all been evacuated to this house: that is, they've been yanked out of a bombed city, taken away from their parents, and dropped into a completely unfamiliar environment where they're dependent on the good will of a total stranger. The effects of evacuation on real children was, if I have this right, a major source of information in the history of psychological research because it demonstrated pretty conclusively that it's bad for children to be separated from the caregivers they're bonded with - that children aren't these infinitely adaptable little rubber dollies who bounce back wherever they're dropped, but vulnerable developing personalities who need consistent loving relationships with trustworthy adults, and who suffer a lot if they're disrupted.

From that perspective, Edmund doesn't look like the bad one; he looks like the most honest one. Peter's putting on bravado and pretending he doesn't care they've been taken away; Lucy's frightened and trying to keep things together because, having lost her parents, she can't stand having her siblings fall out as well; Susan's trying to keep her mother present in the only way she knows how, by pretending to be her ... and Edmund bloody well misses his mother and isn't going to pretend that he doesn't, or that anything the others do is an adequate substitute. 

Evacuation is a narrative convenience, of course, but it's one rather typical of Lewis: he does have a habit of ploughing over the reality of other people's vulnerabilities if it takes him where he's decided to go. But under the circumstances, saying that Edmund is nothing worse than 'tired' feels like a horrendous refusal to acknowledge what real children would be going through in such a situation. It rather reminds me of the section in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (I think) where, after the children fall into the painting, he sneers at Eustace for crying over nothing worse than 'a wetting', when Eustace is clearly suffering from existential terror because, y'know, a painting just ate him.

This brisk refusal to sympathise with any blubbing is one of the many, many reasons I dislike Lewis so very, very much.  

Ana Mardoll said...

@Kit_Whitfield:disqus I really love this comment, and not just because of the charming use of "blubbing". 

It's funny, I read TLWW hundreds of times as a child; I loved the book. When I went to watch the movie and saw all the war imagery at the beginning, I was shocked. THERE WAS A WAR GOING ON?? The whole thing is dealt with in one sentence and then forgotten -- as you say, it's a narrative convenience. Either it didn't stick with me as a child, or I just didn't understand the single-sentence reference and I ignored it.

It doesn't affect the characters at all in the novel, or at least Lewis seems to hope it doesn't. The problem is that when we deconstruct Twilight or Left Behind or Narnia, there's a basic rule that says we CAN'T just throw up our hands and say "bad writing here, move along". We've chosen to work within the bounds of the text.

Edmund IS bratty. That's a textual fact. Edmund DID just leave his mother and father alone in a city being actively bombed. That's a textual fact. And Edmund IS nine years old. That's... well, it's from Wikipedia, actually, but I'm pretty sure you can work it out in text from the relative math given. Lewis seems not to want those facts to relate to each other, but as readers WE make a connection.

I love the analysis that Susan isn't "mother" because THAT'S WHAT OLDER GIRLS ARE *FOR* and rather because she misses her mother so much. Poignant.

Chelsea said...

Kit, I've also noticed that Lewis seems to take a very harsh stance towards the characters that don't immediately accept the magic of Narnia with a sense of ~childlike wonder~. Eustace is obnoxious, yes, but he's mocked throughout The Dawn Treader because he's reacting like, well, a terrified child. He's in denial, he's angry, he's scared, he wants to go home.

That also makes me wonder how much of Edmund's actions with the White Witch may well have been a child's instinctive reaction to an authority figure, the only authority figure, that he's seen for quite a while. Granted, it's been quite a while since I read the books, but I always felt bad for Edmund, who was so far in over his head right from the start.

Kit Whitfield said...

, I've also noticed that Lewis seems to take a very harsh stance towards the characters that don't immediately accept the magic of Narnia with a sense of ~childlike wonder~.

Otherwise known as 'cheerful, unquestioning submission.' Lewis doesn't like people who don't comply, and he wants them to do it with good grace. Anyone who doesn't is a straw man. 

As witness Eustace, in fact: read between the lines of Lewis's description of his family, and there's a pretty good case to be made that the main problem with them is that they're progressives. 

Lewis was heavily influenced by Nesbit as a writer, but I still think he would have consigned a woman like her to hell in his books. 

Dav said...

I was always rather fond of Edmund in his Traitor stage.  It's been a while since I read the books, of course - it's possible he's more awful than I remember. 

Also, isn't the Witch the first character Edmund encounters?  Lucy gets Tumnus, and so her view of the world is informed by him, and his stories of Aslan (??).  Edmund's initial impressions are formed by the woman who gets him warm and feeds him sweets, and I have to admit, even as an adult, if I were lost in the woods, I'd be pretty sympathetic to the first person who showed up and cared for me.  Even if she had declared War on Christmas.

aravind said...

Thanks for doing the statistical analysis. Looking back now, it's obvious, I can only remember Susan occasionally complaining about something, Carroll writes her as basically lacking ideas/wants/needs otherwise. She's very much so a strawman in my mind. 

Also, I'm a nitpicker, but I have to say, the Boxcar kids weren't alternated - the oldest and youngest were the boys. I think the idea behind that was having the oldest also be the male leader, but also to have the youngest be the cute-but-ignorant boy (even as a six-year-old, I picked up on the girls basically having no personality outside of their gender; I vaguely remember them always being in the background and sewing or cleaning or otherwise having a giant neon sign saying FEMALE on them).

aravind said...

Things I forgot to mention: Katara from Avatar the Last Airbender! She is the mother of the group, but it's very clearly presented as part of how she coped within her tribe when her mother was killed and an ingrained characteristic by the time she joined the traveling adventuring band. She's shown as responding to the problems in her environment and having to act the way she does. I can't find it now, but one article on feminist readings of the show interpreted her periodic breaks from being the "responsible one" into playing or otherwise taking a break as her momentarily escaping from duties that were thrust upon her.

To a really minimal extent, her brother Sokka is also shown to feel responsibilities towards their mission of sorts. He's the tactical one, the planner, the person who runs the scenarios through his mind constantly. It's really unfortunate how gendered their responses are, but at least the show was aiming for presenting those aspects of Katara's and Sokka's personalities as coming from similar issues with their upbringing. For what it's worth, their culture was very clearly presented as buying into a very strict gender binary, so maybe their gendered responses make contextual sense? I'm not sure.TL;DR - AVATARRRRR.

Silver Adept said...

@aravaind:disqus Think about he later seasons, too - just about everyone in Avatar is a product of their environment and upbringing - which makes them all believable characters, after all, and they interact quite well.

Getting back on to the Narnia bit, I think these roles also will make sense in the, erm, weapons distribution happens for the boys and the girls when it comes to the fighting later on.  Susan gets the ranged weapon that's supposed to stay in the back and support the boys with their swords, and Lucy is elsewhere (at least, by Movie!Narnia standards). Who are the doers, and who are supposed to stay behind?

Kit Whitfield said...

 For what it's worth, their culture was very clearly presented as buying into a very strict gender binary, so maybe their gendered responses make contextual sense? I'm not sure.

I'd say so. Consider, for instance, how the Fire Nation handles gender: they've got a serious problem with imperialism but very little with sexism. As witness the fact that Ozai, who says everything he can to make his son feel weak and inadequate, never expresses it by calling him effeminate - and consequently, while Zuko has more issues than a news stand, he never seems to worry about his masculinity the way Sokka does. Gender's a cultural construct in Avatar; it just shows people being shaped by their cultures. (Also, rather like Susan, you could argue they're trying to replace the parent they lost by becoming him or her.)
Presenting people responding to gender roles takes a lot more subtlety than Lewis was prepared to display, though, because on the whole he endorsed those roles. To show how gender roles affect people, you have to be willing to take a step back and concede that socialisation may play as big a part as essentialism. To consider the effect of roles, you need to question them. Lewis appeared to regard socialisation merely as a matter of being taught the right values or the wrong ones (Eustace again), and to view cultural conflicts largely as a clash of Right and Wrong likewise. 

And respect for women is pretty much Wrong. Lucy sneers at the knight who admires his green lady that back home, people don't think much of men who let their wives boss them around; Uncle Andrew's attraction to the fiery Jadis is presented with contempt overlaying profound discomfort (and it's worth laying against that discomfort that Jadis is described with more sensuality than any other character except Aslan; physicality and power are inextricably linked in Narnia, and female potency seems to have fascinated Lewis as much as it disturbed him); good women can be respected, but only as long as they accept the limited roles doled out to them. In battle, Lucy is described being as good as a man - or at least as good as a boy, and like a boy, she operates under a senior male general. If she tried to lead an army herself, she'd fall from heaven faster than lipstick. Girls can have some adventure; middle-aged women can have some respect, as long as they stay in the wifely role ... and that's about it. 

Susan's sin, really, is that she finally embraces femininity for its own sake rather the regarding it as a disability that a sporting girl needs to work around as best she can. 

Ana Mardoll said...

Kit Whitfield

I'd say so. Consider, for instance, how the Fire Nation handles gender:
they've got a serious problem with imperialism but very little with
sexism. As witness the fact that Ozai, who says everything he can to
make his son feel weak and inadequate, never expresses it by calling him
effeminate - and consequently, while Zuko has more issues than a news
stand, he never seems to worry about his masculinity the way Sokka does.

Aw, man. Do we need another "HollywoodFail" post in light of this? I've only seen the live-action movie, but the Fire Nation king-dad makes a big deal of "maybe I should have you fight your baby sister!" with everyone HAR HAR HURRING because obviously not being stronger than a GIRL would be such a travesty. (It can't be the age difference -- the siblings are, like, a couple years apart as far as I can tell with the actors.)I assumed it was an imperialistic AND sexist society. Apparently either Hollywood decided to add the sexism in, or they did it without realizing their own biases.


Loquat said...

I've only seen the live-action movie, but the Fire Nation king-dad makes a big deal of "maybe I should have you fight your baby sister!" with everyone HAR HAR HURRING because obviously not being stronger than a GIRL would be such a travesty.

I don't recall the exact details of how the Firelord dealt with Zuko in the animated series, but seeing as how "baby sister" Azula was characterized as a badass firebending prodigy from the get-go, a line like that would have seemed VERY out of place. In one relevant scene from their childhood, not-yet-Firelord Ozai took the wife and kids to see Firelord-at-the-time grandpa Azulon, in part to butter up the old guy by having his namesake granddaughter show off her mad firebending skillz; after her impressive display, Zuko got up wanting to show off his own abilities, and promptly embarrassed his father by screwing up. And that's pretty much how things were for most of their lives.

Kit Whitfield said...

the Fire Nation king-dad makes a big deal of "maybe I should have you fight your baby sister!" with everyone HAR HAR HURRING because obviously not being stronger than a GIRL would be such a travesty. 

Oh good grief.  

No, you should see the animated series, it's really excellent: visually gorgeous, well acted and very well written. 

And yeah, the Fire Nation seems to be the most egalitarian society of the remaining three. They have female guards just standing around and nobody comments on it, for instance. They're good at indicating it's not an entirely bad culture full of nothing but bad people: they seem to be a nation of music lovers, for instance, and fond of fireworks and fairs and spectacle, and they have good cuisine, and their technology is impressive and ingenious, and generally speaking they seem a creative lot and plenty of the citizens are perfectly nice people who just believe the propaganda they've been told. They just have a some power issues and their royal family appears to have a terrible problem with depression. (And actually, the portrait of Zuko is one of the most convincing portraits of depression - like, literal clinical depression - that I've ever seen in fiction.) 

So saying 'Maybe I should have you fight your baby sister' in that context would make no sense. It wouldn't be a taunt; it would just be a threat, like saying 'Maybe I should have you fight Mike Tyson.' Even the most sexist cultures respect talent once it's clear, and gender just isn't an issue in the Fire Nation. Ozai's insults involve words like 'shameful' and 'coward' and 'weak' and 'failure': they're very mean, but they're gender-neutral, and it's perfectly plausible that he'd throw them at his daughter if he felt the occasion called for it. 

Silver Adept said...

Another second for watching the animated series over the movie, for a lot of reasons. @Kit_Whitfield:disqus is right  - and, we note, Sokka and Katara's dad is also suitably impressed with Katara's water-bending skills. It's just that Sokka's identity is mostly bound up in being a provider/leader/hunter for the group, like a young man in the Water Tribe would be expected to do...and most of the group that he's traveling with can take care of themselves. Excepting maybe Aang, but his role is much more like the Priest in Journey To The West than Aang would probably admit.

There's a boatload of Hollywood!Fail! with the live-action movie compared to the series.

Plus, series has Mark Hamill. And it's available on the popular streaming/disc service, too. Three seasons, and you'll be hooked and eagerly waiting to see whether the second series that's been planned and announced can live up to the first.

Kit Whitfield said...

Oh, and another strike in Avatar's favour when it comes to gender equality - it is absolutely the only piece of pop culture epic I can think of where there's a portrait of a relationship between a mother and a son where the mother is an important, positive, heroic influence on the boy. (This is Zuko and his mother; he's redeemable partly because of his uncle's influence, but also because he had a loving relationship with his mother, who ... well, I won't spoil it, but she's a pretty heroic parent. And the more he fixes his values, the more he feels he's been failing to live up to what she taught him.) 

As the mother of a son in a world where pop culture generally believes that heroic boys have no mothers at all, and that any boys who are close to their mothers are probably useless wimps at best and evil perverts at worst, I find it extremely refreshing. 

(Also, yep, Hamill gives a very good performance. If you can imagine the sound of a cat's ego, you've pretty much got it.)

Ana Mardoll said...

A heroic mother?! How amazingly rare. I've had Avatar on my To-Watch list for awhile, but all the praise here has really shot it up the list in priority. Thank you. :)

Loquat said...

sexism is a waste of good firebenders

I'm curious now whether the lack of sexism in the Fire Nation resulted from their esteem of bending, or preceded it. The Northern Water Tribe certainly values waterbending, but pigeonholes the female benders into water-magic healing and refuses to teach them the more action-oriented uses of the craft, despite the fact that their whole ice fortress/city is clearly heavily reliant on waterbending for maintenance and transportation.

Meanwhile, the Fire Nation isn't just training female firebenders; Azula's two friends, Mai and Ty Lee, don't have an ounce of firebending talent between them, but they're both highly skilled at more mundane martial arts and this is in no way implied to be abnormal for daughters of the aristocracy. (Their *level* of skill might be abnormal, but I wouldn't put it past Azula to have picked the most promising fighters at school to befriend.)

I'm also wondering about the Firelord rules of succession. We're not given a whole lot of evidence to work with - it's suggested that the Firelord's oldest child is the preferred heir, but we never see a case where the Firelord's oldest child is a girl. To be sure, once Zuko's out of the picture, nobody seems to have any qualms when Firelord Ozai declares that Azula will be Firelord after him, but by that point, a) she's the last non-traitorous relative he has left; and b) Ozai's gone sufficiently megalomaniacal that nobody much dares object to anything he does. But speaking of the Firelord's's mental state...

their royal family appears to have a terrible problem with depression.

I'm not sure I agree with this. Zuko, yes, but I really didn't get the impression that anyone else in the family had that particular mental problem. Ozai and Azula both have major issues, but of a very different nature (not sure how much spoilering of the finale we want to get into here) whereas with Iroh, my impression was that losing his son shocked him into rethinking his support for the whole conquer-the-world project. So that plus the natural grief of a widower who's just lost his only child would fully account for his decision to give up the siege of Ba Sing Se and quit leading the Fire Nation army.

Kit Whitfield said...

I'm not sure I agree with this. Zuko, yes, but I really didn't get the impression that anyone else in the family had that particular mental problem. Ozai and Azula both have major issues, but of a very different nature (not sure how much spoilering of the finale we want to get into here) whereas with Iroh, my impression was that losing his son shocked him into rethinking his support for the whole conquer-the-world project. So that plus the natural grief of a widower who's just lost his only child would fully account for his decision to give up the siege of Ba Sing Se and quit leading the Fire Nation army.

I wouldn't have said Iroh comes across as depressed, but he has a certain solidity that I associate with people who've encountered depression either in themselves or in others and made a conscious effort to keep their psyches healthy. Other than that, I'd say that the family has a depressive air - in different ways, they have a tendency to be grandiose, to lash out, to obsess about perfection, and generally to subject themselves to an all-or-nothing, almost-isn't-good-enough, triumph-or-oblivion set of standards that are highly depressive if not actually depressed. My read was that Ozai and Azula are struggling to stave off, and Zuko is going through, the psychological breakdown that the family has been due for several generations. And (vague spoilers) if you consider how Ozai and Azula end up - well, I've seen facial expressions like that on sick loved ones. 

Mime_Paradox said...

Oh, Narnia: my introduction to the  'verse was via fanfiction (which i'd stumbled upon while searching for something completely unrelated)  and so my conceptions of the characters had already been shaped by writers (or rather, one specific writer) with more progressive ideas than Lewis had.  Susan, in particular, had been introduced to me as the adult queen in a teenager's body whose individual sense of duty leads her to become a British spy (or, more accurately, a spy handler) in wartime Washington D.C.; compared to that, the canonical version of the character Lewis presented was pretty much lifeless. 

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