Sunday, February 4, 2007

Looking To The Stars - Red Sonja: Feminist Icon or Misogynist Fantasy? Part One

My girlfriend Sierra’s favorite comic book heroine is Red Sonja-


Sir, get your jaw off the ground! You may attract birds to nest there.

As I said, her favorite hero is Red Sonja. This fact seems to astonish some people, like our large-mouthed friend there, because the conventional wisdom of late seems to be that the only people who collect Red Sonja are men.

Now, I’ll admit to having believed this in the past myself. It astonished me when, early in our relationship, my lady said that one of her favorite movies growing up was Red Sonja. Yes, it was cheesy and she knew that but there was still something about the idea of Sonja that appealed to her. Sonja is strong, physically and spiritually. She is uncompromising and independent, more than capable of standing on her own. And above all else, she is a survivor.

Here you have this young woman, who is raped while her entire family is killed right in front of her. And where many would break or give into despair, she emerges from this determined to do what she can to stop men like those who killed her family, wherever she can find them.

Take away the rape and it sounds just a little bit like Batman, doesn’t it?

Still, what really convinced me that there was more to the character than just cheesecake was when Sierra showed me an image, shortly after I introduced her to the Red Sonja comics, for despite liking the movie, she never knew about Sonja’s time as a comic book heroine. It was a Boris Vallejo painting, used as a book-cover for one of six very-rare Red Sonja novels.

Now, I had seen this image before - a red-haired woman, taking a rest from a journey of some kind. She looks beautiful and powerful – typical Vallejo.

Sierra saw something quite different – she saw the city in the background and how Sonja seemed to be looking at it wistfully. She thought that Sonja looked lonely and that she was looking, not at the place she was going to, but the place she was leaving and thinking about how a part of her would like to stay there and have a normal life, and being a little sad that she could not.

It was the whole post-modern female conflict laid bare – the natural desire to nurture, have kids and settle down versus the need for a career and independence from the expectations of society – all in what I dismissed as simple cheesecake.

And while Sierra was the first woman I met who saw Sonja as a feminist role-model, she was far from the last. I’ve met many a number of women in my last few years as a writer and chatting on-line on various forums, who count Sonja as a personal influence. And yet there are an equal number of fans, male and female, who say that Sonja is not a feminist icon but a sexist one.

Now I’ve found that a lot of these comments do come from ignorance – people who, like me, assumed that there was no motivation behind the character but to sell a lot of books to desperate, horny fanboys. Still, there are some complaints were well-reasoned and about something besides the chainmail bikini.

And to give one brief tangent before we go any further, I believe it does a great disservice to women everywhere and the legitimate complaints I am about to discuss to assume that all complaints about sexism in comics boil down to “women don’t like to see women in skimpy costumes”. While the portrayal of women in comics artistically is a major issue with some feminist comic fans, it is also a complex one worthy of its’ own discussion. As such, it will not be discussed here right now.

There is a school of thought that says that Sonja’s method of dress and loud proclaiming of her oath to never bed down with any man who cannot best her in battle is nothing more than male sexual fantasy. They say that Sonja is an object catering to a man’s desire to dominate and control a woman who is seemingly out to torment him. And given that Sonja puts herself in this position and is smart enough to know what losing requires, that there is something more than a little screwed up about her.

Peter David said as much just over four years ago – before Sonja became a hot property in the comic world – in one of his columns. I quote:

"Sonja was raped. She was brutalized. Control over her body was taken by a man, who overpowered her and had forced intercourse with her.

And she swore that no man would ever touch her except-- who? A man who could beat her. Overpower her. Defeat her. That's creepy.

A gentle man does not have a chance with Red Sonja. A poet couldn't woo her. A singer could not sway her. A man of grace or charm, a man of breeding and education who would never think of striking a woman, much less raping one, won't get to first base with her. In short, the sort of man who, with patience and understanding, could put the pieces of this woman's sex life back together again is automatically out of the running.

Instead, the only man that she will have sex with is a man who can re-enact the single most traumatic and devastating event of the woman's life. Someone who is capable of overpowering Red Sonja, as her rapist did, is the one she will give herself to. She has doomed herself to disdain all normal sex, searching instead for someone who can remove control of her body from her once more and force her to relive her rape."

Yes, Sonja’s actions are mad in a modern, civilized Western world that has all the benefits of an active police force, psychiatrists and Donna Karan. The problem here is that David is trying to force modern sensibilities upon the quasi-medieval world of Hyboria - a world where man and woman alike are at the mercy of the powerful.

The meek may inherit the Earth, but the only way the meek will inherit Hyboria is if all the blood-thirsty warlords, cunning thieves and treacherous wizards kill each other off and leave a scrap of untainted land intact.

David does have a point though, in that doubtlessly there are some men who fantasize about “winning” a woman under such circumstances as there are some women who fantasize about being overpowered. But any student of psychology can tell you that rape is about control, not sex and there is a world of difference between a man who fantasizes about proving his worth to a dream girl and a man who forces himself on women out of a desire to dominate.

Roy Thomas himself certainly had no sexual fantasies in mind when he created the character of Red Sonja. He simply wanted to create a female adventurer to match Conan, whom could be used early on in his career without conflicting with the exact chronology of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. He found her while adapting one of REH’s historical tales into a Conan adventure, changed the name slightly, and changed Red Sonya of Rogatine to Red Sonja of Hyrkania.

When Sonja proved popular enough with readers and critics alike to warrant her own series (the second-part of her first story won The Shazam Award for Best Individual Story in 1974), Thomas turned his eye to expanding Sonja’s background and giving her a full history.

I quote Thomas, from his introduction to the recent trade-paperback collection of the first few Red Sonja stories:

"Some feminists (and a few guys, too) have taken me to task over the years for that vow, but that’s never bothered me. The lineage of the concept was flawless, literary and respectable – a statement attributed to the warrior-queen Aoife in William Butler Yeats’ beautiful early 20th-century verse-play On Baile’s Strand, one of whose protagonists was the legendary Irish hero Cuchulain – so I never faltered then or now in my support of the oath. If I didn’t know the motivations of a heroine that I, at the very least, co-created, then who did?"

The line in question is, in fact, He said a while ago that he heard Aoife boast that she'd never but the one lover, and he the only man that had overcome her in battle. But Aoife is not the only warrior woman in myth to have such lofty requirements of potential suitors.

* Atalanta, an Amazon Huntress in Greek myth, put forth a challenge that she would only marry a man who could best her in a running race and would kill any man that lost to her.
* Some versions of The Labors of Hercules have Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, offering herself to Hercules after being beaten in battle.
* The idea of an Amazon having to offer herself to a man who vanquished her in battle was around long before Wonder Woman, who lost her powers when bound by a man, was published.
* In Norse Myth, Brunhilde, valkyrie and daughter of Odin, created a test for any man who would have her. Cursed to sleep eternal until kissed by a man who would love her, she was placed inside a magical ring of fire that would burn any but the most fearless and worthy of warriors.
* Valkyries in Norse Myth were expected to remain chaste if they wished to remain empowered with prodigious fighting skills by Odin.

Given that I believe Thomas to be a man of his word and that he did draw upon the same rich literary traditions that Robert E. Howard did in the creation of Hyboria, I think it can safely be said that the intent was to mirror epic legend – not to play fan service to the boys with a crush on Big Red.

I think Peter David’s fault lies in that he believes Sonja’s oath was made, not to the goddess who blessed her, but to herself. Were this the case, he would be entirely correct to think that Sonja is disturbed, even by Hyborian standards.

Indeed, for many years there was a theory that Sonja’s amazing skill in battle was natural and not part of a divine blessing and that the goddess Sonja saw was merely the tormented imaginings of a young woman under great stress. However, recent issues of the current Red Sonja comic have eliminated any doubt as to the true existence of Sonja’s mysterious and unidentified goddess.

Still, the question does remain; was Sierra right about Sonja in the painting? How does Sonja feel about her path in life? Does part of her long for normalcy? Is Sonja’s oath not a test of any man who would have her but a test of Sonja herself?

We’ll discuss all that and more next time. Same Matt Time! Same Matt website.

Read Part Two HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Re: Red Sonja
    Let's take this line by line.
    First of all; Red Sonja did not make that vow of her own free will. She made the vow to get her strength from a goddess. So it makes sense that she had to give up something- a normal life, to gain what she wanted more- the strength to punish men who did that to her.
    I think you mean Sonja DID make the vow of her own free will. She could have said no.
    Indeed, in later stories (one of which I mentioned in the part two of this article) the goddess did tell Sonja she was free to abandon her oath and settle down with any man she wanted at any time, but it would mean giving up the blessing she had been given. This when Sonja had started developing feelings for a king she served as bodyguard, who was a kind man but not a great warrior.
    Second of all; Why do you say a poet, or a gentle man has no chance with Sonja?
    I do not say that. Peter David, who I was quoting, said that. And in case you couldn't tell from the rest of my article, I disagree with him quite strongly upon that point. I certainly believe women are just as capable of fighting physically as most men. I'd put money on my mamma over Chuck Norris in a fight, for instance. Texan Women Trump Faux Texan Cowboy. :)
    Since when does; defeat in battle equal beat up and rape?
    In Hyboria, that does tend to be the assumed end result - at least by idiots who see Sonja and think beautiful woman = pushover and Peter David - as to what would happen if Red Sonja were to lose a fight. Because there's no chance that somebody might defeat her and then try and romance her BEFORE demanding she fulfill her oath.
    And that's assuming you even believe that the terms of the oath say she MUST sleep with any man who can beat her - not that she CAN sleep with him. The more recent comics have assumed the alter case.
    Again, as I noted in part two of this column, what Peter David assumes about the oath makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER form the perspective of the goddess. Why empower Sonja only to allow her to become a victim again if she loses a fight? The oath only makes sense, as you say, as a sacrifice for Sonja. She gives up the right to be a right to loving freely and raising a family - in exchange for a divine blessing.
    If you haven't already, read and I think most of your concerns will be addressed.
    Thanks for reading!