Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: badass

A Ray of Hope…

Lest the last post be too disparaging about fairy tale ladies in iffy marriage situations, let me bring a seriously rad lady to your attention:

SHAHRAZAD, heroine of The Arabian Nights

illustration from the Edumund Dulac edition

So here’s the deal with The Arabian Nights: it’s one large frame story with several smaller frame stories grouped inside of it. Tales within tales within tales.

magic card

This is accurate.

In the outmost story, the Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad seeks to save her own life and the lives of all the city’s women by telling the king stories and thus staying her execution. The entirety of the Nights is Shahrazad’s slow, clever campaign to save her society from its murderous leader.

So here’s what I always somehow misunderstood: Shahrazad willingly enters her situation with the King. For some reason, I thought she was just next up on the chopping block, a victim of circumstances.

But no, Shahrazad wants to marry the King. She actually blackmails her father into letting her marry a murderer. This is the total opposite western Animal Husband tales where, as Bruno Bettleheim puts it, the heroine goes to a beastly husband “because of love for or obedience to her father.”

*cougheveryDisneyPrincesscough*

So why does Shahrazad put herself in such a deadly situation? Because she’s one smart cookie. And she has a plan.

The first description of her doesn’t go on about her beauty (the number one trait of all Perrault and Grimm princesses), but her intelligence: “[She] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by hreat, had studied historial  reports, and was acquainted with the saying of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.”

"Damn it, all *I* got were these really heavy earrings and a pet tiger that didn't actually rip anyone's throat out."

Shahrazad knows exactly what she wants to do, and lays it all out for her sister: “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice [of killing women], save myself, and deliver the people.” Even by Joseph Campbell’s standards, this is a large-scale, heroic goal.

Shahrazad chooses an incredibly clever setup for her time with King Shahrayar. Firstly, she brings her sister Dinarzad into the picture. Her plea to get Dinarzad in the bedroom is heartfelt and simple, “I have a sister, and I wish to bid good-bye before daybreak.” Of course Shahrayar sends for the sister, and at the opportune moment Dinarzad speaks the words for the first time that will become a refrain throughout the book: “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night…” Shahrazad asks permission, of course. But when the king agrees, he is entrapped.

illustration by Kay Neilsen

Shahrazad never gets quite all the way through a story on any given night, at least not without hinting at the next one. She never finishes the tale during the daytime, presumably because dawn is the time of her supposed execution. The king never demands her to finish except at night, when Dinarzad has again asked for a story. The king himself never asks for a story directly; Dinarzad becomes the innocent voice of the eager listener, and the catalyst of the storytelling. Shahrazad never pleads for her life with the King, she merely tells her sister what further amazing tales she has in store “if the king spares me and lets me live!” The King is never threatened or directly coerced, giving him the illusion of control. In fact, Shahrazad controls the stories, and thus the action, the whole time.

Within the stories themselves, there are a number of frame stories that bear a striking resemblance to Shahrazad’s situation. In one tale, three Dervishes must tell their tales or be executed by the fearsome mistress of a house in which they stayed. In another tale, a vizier named Ja’far must stay his execution by telling a strange story to his Caliph. In yet another, four characters plead for their lives to the King of China. There are several life-or-death situations.

Shahrazad unquestionably holds the most power in The Arabian Nights. She willingly throws herself into a deadly situation to save her people. She stops and starts the stories at will, aided by the soft, inoffensive voice of her sister. She succeeds at every heroic goal she set forth for herself. In the end, she wins the ultimate boon, saving not only of her life, but the lives of all the other women, and even the life of King Shahrayar. As translator Husain Haddawy notes, “Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man.” So, yeah, she got the guy in the end, but it was a kind of bonus effect after she saved the women of her culture from violent death.

Oddly, this does not all end in tears. (illus. Kay Neilsen)

By the way, if you want to pick up a copy and check it out, I highly recommend Husain Haddawy’s translation. It’s really readable and feels faithful to the source material. Also, he has a big honkin’ introduction about how Sir Richard Burton’s translations sucked….because Burton and others loved to Anglicize (and pontificate about) Eastern stories. It’s a proud Western tradition.

1001 nights vess

Snow White and the Sultan from Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham. The book in general is lovely and completely beautiful. But its frame story makes the actual character Shahrazad look all like she's a victim of circumstances following in Snow White's footsteps.

There are two volumes from Haddawy, The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. The second one has the more well-known stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, etc), but the first one has the beginning frame story with Shahrazad, which is the best bit in my opinion. Click on the pic for an Amazon link:

Translated by Husain Haddawy from the 14th century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi, published by Norton.

I highly recommend checking the tales out! They are approachable and worth experiencing firsthand. Besides, badass fairy tale ladies are a sight for sore eyes after the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.

The Child’s Ballads

Let me tell you about them.

Because, thing is, they are where all the bad-ass women of fairy tales have been hiding all this time.

Note who is seducing whom here.

First, the basics:

Compiled by Francis James Child in the mid to late 1800s, the full title is actually The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and it is a collection of just that. Also they are all free and online, so that’s neat.

You probably know some of these ballads; for one, all the Robin Hood ballads are in it. Tam Lin is one of the more popular ones these days. A heck-ton of the ballads have been covered by 60s folk rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Simon and Garfunkle’s (and others’) cover of “Scarborough Fair” also comes from the Child’s Ballads. They’re little-known, and yet oddly pervasive. I know I listened to a bunch of them as a kid, so the stories got stuck in my head. They’re a good repository for British fairy lore, for one.

For another, the Child’s Ballads have some wacky wacky gender-swapping as compared to the rest of European fairy tales. The Germans and French have a cycle of “animal groom” tales, e.g. Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, the Frog King, and Snow White & Rose Red. The English and Scottish have what’s effectively a cycle of “animal bride” tales. They usually go something like this: There is a monstrous woman and/or a woman who’s been turned to a dragon. (Often she’s under some evil spell, sometimes she’s just a witch.) A man has to come along and be nice to her, and then he is rewarded. Alternately, he’s a jerk and she punishes him. Here’s one about a man who acted sensibly in the face of grisly destruction:

A much nicer ending than many tales of monstrous women. “Them sireens loved him up and turnt him to a toad!”

***

The ballad of Tam Lin, in particular, gender-reverses the classic “Prince saves damsel-in-distress” trope. Here’s two versions of the ballad, the more traditional Fairport Convention version and a wacky bassline double-voice new version by Tricky Pixie:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68xxI3az5BY

Despite the ballad’s title, “Tam Lin” follows the character arc of Janet, Tam Lin’s lover. Tam Lin, on the other hand, is a prisoner of circumstances and needs Janet to rescue him. While Janet herself is not a majorly dynamic character, in that she is brave and strong throughout the ballad, she does follow the footsteps of the hero’s journey and is the clear protagonist of the ballad.

Throughout the tale, Janet shows agency and in full control of her actions and choices. Janet shows her true spirit during the ordeal scene, where she declares, “If that I gae wi child, father,/Mysel maun bear the blame.” Janet takes responsibility for her actions and makes clear choices, including the choice to keep her child once she knows Tam Lin’s earthly parentage.

What am I doing? Oh, just waiting to steal my man back from the Faerie Queen. Like a badass.

Tam Lin is reactive and passive through much of the ballad. He displays agency related to his child: he stops Janet from aborting their child and tells her how to save him from the fairies, emphasizing, “I am your bairn’s father.” He would have been unable to escape the Fairy Queen and teind to hell had Janet not chosen to go to Carterhall. Even the method of Tam Lin’s entry into the fairy world is passive: He fell from his horse and was taken in by the Fairy Queen. Like many princesses in Grimms’ fairy tales, Tam Lin is valued by the Fairy Queen for his physical assets: “I am sae fair and fu o flesh I’m feared [the teind] be mysel.” Tam Lin’s character is defined less by him doing things and more by him being things, i.e. a father, a human, a teind payment.

Instead of a damsel in distress saved by a knight in shining armor, the ballad of Tam Lin reverses the paradigm. The damsel pulls the knight in shining armor off his horse and holds him through magical transformations until he regains his humanity. Janet pulling Tam Lin to ground reflects her agency as well as her particularly feminine, “grounded” sense. While Tam Lin’s metamorphoses are similar to many animal husband tales, few of such tales have a heroine who goes on a campaign to rescue the “animal” husband. For example, Beauty goes to the Beast not because she wants to save the Beast, but out of loyalty to her father. Beauty is a victim of circumstances. Janet aims to misbehave (and to save Tam Lin).

***

Aaaand that’s what I think about in my spare time. Which is why I’m going to grad school and rewriting fairy tales, obvs.

So, in conclusion, check out the Child’s Ballads. There are strong and/or excitingly monstrous women, and we don’t have enough of those in fairy tales, damn it. The ballads are written in pretty heavy Scots dialect, so just mutter along in a Scottish accent and you’ll be fine. If reading them is too heavy sledding, you can always listen to Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and Pentangle on Youtube.

And Another Thing…

Apparently, it’s Things That Bother Me Week. Well, who am I to say no to the opportunity to complain on the Internet. (Complaint is the purpose of the internet, after all. That and porn.)

So. Something that bothers me: Chick Lit.

Chick Lit, to me, literature by women for women that probably has some literary merit, but at the end of day is about Getting A Man. It’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sex in the City, modernized versions of Jane Austen that don’t involve zombies* (e.g. Clueless), and other works of literature where sassy spunky heroines decide that their existence is sad and pointless without a man. Chick Lit is the magical lifestyle that Cosmopolitan is trying to sell to you. Chick Lit is close to a lot of feminist ideals that I treasure (sassy spunky heroines, for example), but then falls on its face and undercuts said ideals. Bridget Jones must lose weight to feel worthwhile. Charlotte isn’t allowed by her friends to stop dating just because she has a more fulfilling relationship with her sex toy than she does with men. I love Elizabeth Bennet to death, but she really couldn’t function without eventually finding Mr. Darcy.

The biggest appeal of Chick Lit, to me, is that most of the heroines are Bad Girls. Cameron Tuttle, author of Bad Girl’s Guide series, says, “Bad girls make it happen. A bad girl knows what she wants and how to get it. She makes her own rules, makes her own way, and makes no apologies. […] A bad girl is you at your best–whoever you are, whatever your style.”

This sounds remarkably like my definition of badass. I’d like to see more Badass Girls.  I’m talking girls with a wide range of interests and abilities, for whom romance may be a factor of life, but is not the be-all and end-all of existence. (Who knows, perhaps I’m just sick of stories about marriage.) Now, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a woman who’s willing to kick butt and take names, but that’s not the only type of Bad-Ass Girl I can think of. I’m thinking of women who can hold their own, keep to their ideals, and shape their own destinies as much as possible. To name a few:

  • Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Emilia, Othello by Shakespeare (tragically bad-ass, but still.)
  • Molly, Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • Mary, Mind of my Mind by Octavia E. Butler
  • Morgaine, Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • Tiffany Aching, The Wee Free Men and series (In general, Terry Pratchett’s writing is filled with Bad-Ass women.)
  • Many many heroines of young adult literature. Really, most female characters in the fantasy genre tend to be quite Bad Ass…except Bella Swan, who is the most milquetoast human being possible.
  • And, I’ll admit, of the 1800s British Chick Lit characters, I find Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre to be the least obnoxious. Secretly, though, I think they’ve got nothing on Becky Sharp out of Vanity Fair

Anyhow. While making that list, I found that it was way easier to come up with Bad-Ass heroines for whom marriage wasn’t an option: the very young or the very old. Also, a lot of young adult literature is filled with exciting strong women. So then what happens to our girls (and boys!) who grow up reading books filled with strong girl characters? As adults, the literature featuring women that gets any kind of publicity is Getting Married Stories with varying levels of Sex and Plot. I guess it begs the question: How much of modern femininity is still defined by the woman’s societal duty to marry and/or pop out babies? Am I just jaded because so many of my high school and college friends’ Facebook pictures are weddings and pregnancies and babies?

I’m curious. What’s your take on Chick Lit? How do you define it? Do you find it appealing? Worthy? Vile? Subconsciously antifeminist? What say you?

*I have not yet actually read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I think I should. Perhaps I would like it better?

Badass.

Badass is a fascinating and problematic concept to me. Even the word itself makes no sense: someone who is badass is neither bad, nor an ass, nor so they have a substandard bottom. Exactly what other qualities they possess is up for significant debate.

The dictionary (American Heritage) says badass is vulgar slang for “a mean-tempered or belligerent person.” Dictionary.com expands on this definition, stating that a badass is someone “distinctively tough or powerful; so exceptional as to be intimidating.” As far as I can tell, the word seems to have spawned out of the blaxploitation films of the 60s and 70s, or in any case it is a new word, only about 50 years old.

The internet (by which I mean the stew of popular culture in which we all squat) seems to define badass as follows:

1. Violence

Anyone badass, says Culture, is going to need to kick some serious ass. The asses kicked are sometimes of the deserving, sometimes not. Badass does not come with a particular moral code: there are badass good guys and badass bad guys. Either way, badass people are not to be messed with, or they will hurt you. Like, real bad.

2. Appearance

To be able to inflict the appropriate amount of violence, a badass person must have the appropriate body type. You must be muscular, in-shape, and able to flip out and kick stuff in the face at any moment. In addition, many badasses have adopted an appearance and attitude to signify this readiness of flipping out and kicking stuff. Signifiers traditionally include sunlgasses, leather, spikes, and/or wacky costumery. The mere presence of these signifiers DO NOT, however, necesarily mean that the person in question is a badass. The form of badass without the content is called posing, and the Intarwubs looks on posers with extreme disdain.

3. Lack of emotion

Badass people show no emotion on the outside. On the inside, though, they are often a powder keg of repressed feelings: whether avenging a family member’s death or settling a personal vendetta, there is usually a rationale behind their actions. That being said, the point is that badass people do not freak out in circumstances when regular people would be gibbering and/or dead. Instead, they sometimes have a witty catchphrase to say, or even better, no reaction at all.

Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live (with “Neil Diamond” and JJ Abrams) says it best:

You may have noticed that this definition of Badass is overwhelmingly male. In fact, most of the urbandictionary.com definitions of badass specifically revolve around men. So what about women?  If women are to be Badass, says the Intarwebs, they need to act like badass men.

Violence is the same. Badass appearance for women usually plays up their sexuality. Lack of emotion is key, but since we all know women are hysterical*, emotional creatures, we secretly know that their underlying current of Feelings could reach up and incapacitate them at any moment. I mean, emotions are the secret of badass men, too, but there’s no way that their feelings would cripple them at key points in the final battle, right?

My goodness. What a can of worms I am opening. Look at them go. For a fun time, google How to Become a Badass, or  images of Badass.

Let me be clear: I don’t see anything wrong with that definition of badass, I just think it’s a bit limiting. I’m looking for a broader definition of badass, one less focused on ripping the crap out of stuff. Some crap-ripping, well, that’s okay. But that’s not the be-all and end-all of badass.

For example, my roommates and I last year wrote a list of badass attributes that we posted on our fridge. It reads as follows:

  • Confidence
  • Walking your talk
  • Stick-shift driving
  • Mechanic skills
  • Making organic fertilizer
  • Making meaningful rap/poetry
  • Welding
  • Hot blues voice
  • Slaughering and butchering an animal
  • Being an awesome, fast cook
  • Doing everything one-legged
  • Bike commuting and/or repair
  • Juggling
  • Playing the accordian (well)
  • Working on trains
  • Giving birth

I imagine a more all-encompassing definition of badass, one in which the end result is not violence, but rather a sort of ultimate authenticity. I know a three year old girl who is so totally herself without letting anyone else control who she is or will be…she’s pretty badass. Badass, to me, is a combination of self-sufficient, fierce, purposeful, authentic, multitalented, and passionate. And as much as I love me some Reservoir Dogs, I love fierce authenticity more.

And thus it is so.

*Note for my readers who didn’t get the same flavor of liberal arts education as me: Hysteria. I think it’s a hilarious word. Hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus. The basic theory of the Greeks, our noble and wise cultural predecessors, was that all the ladies were crazy because of their babymakers. The whole menses-babies-lack of penis thing confused the hell out of our classical anscestors, to the point where they came up with wacky theories about menstrual blood being the least pure of all the humours and fluids (sperm being the purest), thus justifying on a biological level thousands of years of misogyny. Whew. In other news, in the 1800s certain doctors discovered that since feminine hysteria obviously came from the uterus, the answer to curing it was clearly to stimulate the clitoris, thus calming the uterus and making the woman posessing said organs more sane. I suspect it was a popular treatment. That’s right, ladies. Orgasms make you less crazy.

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