Trawling the uproarious TV tropes site, I happened to come to "Big Damn Heroes" -- about characters coming to save the damsel in distress in a big, awesome manner. Interest in it earned me a look of intense disapproval from a feministic colleague sitting in close proximity, despite explaining to her that these were now likely to comprise Action Girls, substantially or wholly.
Gender double standards have been as prevalent in literature as in society with different roles for each sex as per assumptions of what men or women should or can do -- and not do. And while the world has changed, all authors may not have kept pace.
Even paradigm shifts that subvert the assumptions these double standards are based on can themselves be a double standard. Say it is a Big Damn Heroine instead, but this works on the principle that it is unusual. So perhaps my colleague's gaze of disapproval did have a justification.
But you have to start somewhere and it is heartening that the blurring of these distinctions, and outright substitutions, are coming in book series targetted at children and young adult readers (many adults enjoy them too). Though they are of the fantasy genre, the issues they take up are the deep-rooted problems of our time -- racism, cultural differences, class and privilege, sexual orientation, radicalism, and many others.
And they allow female characters to have full scope.
Take J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter series -- Hermione Granger is much more wiser and resourceful than Harry and his best friend Ron Weasley combined. In Rick Riordan's mythological contemporary urban fantasies, Annabeth Chase, daughter of wisdom goddess Athena, is the principal strategist and a doughty fighter, well complemented by other female demigods like Reyna Avila Ramirez-Arellano, Piper McLean, Hazel Levesque, Thalia Grace and others. The most effective fighters are the all-girl Hunters of Artemis, led by Zoe Nightshade and then Thalia, or the Amazons of Queen Hylla.
But a much wider range of remarkable women protagonists are found in the older and more sprawling Discworld saga -- over 40 books -- of prolific British author Sir Terry Pratchett.
For those not familiar with the series, they started out as parodies of heroic fantasies, but then went to get inspired by a range of popular literature, mythology and folklore, films and even historical and contemporary events and cultural manifestations to draw satirical parallels with our world's political, social and cultural trends. Rock music, academic conflicts, power-grabs, radicalism, journalism and football are among the issues taken up.
Let's look at some of its engaging heroines.
One-woman adventure whirlwind Conina appeared in "Sourcery", one of the earliest in the series. Daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, she wanted to be a hairdresser and live a normal life but was blessed with incredible looks from her mother and "sinews you could moor a ship with, muscles as solid as a plank, and reflexes like a snake on a hot tin roof" from her father, who also taught her to become an expert swordswoman and use anything as a deadly weapon. In the book, she has to keep saving the nominal hero Nijel the Destroyer. Unfortunately, this was her sole appearance.
Debuting in "Men at Arms" and appearing in any installment featuring the City Watch, the police of Discworld's largest city Ankh-Morpork, Delphine Angua von Uberwald became the force's first werewolf. Her physical beauty led co-workers to predict that criminals would be lining up to be arrested by her, but her strength, tough attitude and tracking skills soon made her one of the most feared officers.
The granddaughter of Discworld's personification of death, the young but white-haired (with one black streak) Susan Sto Helit, who appears in "Soul Music", "Hogfather" and "Thief of Time", has inherited certain of his abilities: She can "walk through walls and live outside time and be a little bit immortal", and from her mortal parents, learnt to always be sensible and keep her head in a crisis.
With a nose for news and a mind that thinks in headlines, and an ability to ask penetrating questions and find people, usually young men, who tell her what is happening, attractive and buxom Sacharissa Cripslock works for The Ankh-Morpork Times, the Discworld's first newspaper. Debuting in "The Truth", where she slaps the paper's founder Willaim De Worde for putting her grandfather, an engraver, out of work by using a printing press, she takes up his offer of a job and shows her skill. She subsequently marries De Worde but keeps her maiden name.
Appearing in "Going Postal", "Making Money" and "Raising Steam", committed businesswoman Adora Belle Dearheart does not live up to her name, being no-nonsense and never far from anger, though always considerate to her employees. She is also a furious smoker, who stamps down with her pointed heel on the foot of whoever seeks to stop her from lighting-up.
This is just a barebones description. See them in their full glory in the Pratchett series.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)