Sunday, February 11, 2007

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

Last week, we explored the history and mythological themes behind Red Sonja’s oath of chastity, save to any man who can best her in combat. We examined Peter David’s claims that Sonja is a screwed-up character to swear such a thing as well as Roy Thomas’ notes that his whole inspiration from the oath came from myth and that the concept of Sonja is very sound in terms of the same epic legends that inspired Robert E. Howard.

We then concluded with a rather striking concept – is Sonja’s oath a test of any man who would fight her or is it a test of Sonja herself? This is a very important question, for any claims of Sonja’s inherit sexism hinge upon this very concept.

I think a mistake that many supposedly feminist readers and writers make is in thinking that the impetus behind such an oath is to objectify Sonja – to make her a prize to be won by any idiot with more muscles than brains. The problem with this idea is that it defies all reason if Sonja made her oath to a goddess and not to herself. And recent issues of the comic have confirmed that Sonja’s goddess is real and not the hallucination of a stressed-out peasant girl.

To my mind, it seems a rather odd thing for a goddess, supposedly good, feminine and feminist to empower a young girl to defend herself only to say “Yes, I’ll give you the strength to stand on your own and stop others from being hurt as you were... until some twit beats you and then you must be his love slave.” In fact, Sonja’s goddess did not say that and the goddess’ last words after describing the general oath - pledge not to love any man, save who defeats you in fair battle – are quite telling.

”Something that no man is like to do after this day.”

It seems the goddess’ expectation is that Sonja is not going to fail. She is not trying to create victories for great male warriors or literal trophy wives. She is trying to create a worthy servant for herself – an avatar. And in that context, Sonja’s empowerment makes sense – why bother blessing some revenge-craving teenage girl if she’s only going to get beaten by some rube with an axe and a loincloth?

So why require the oath in the first place... except as a test of Sonja’s own resolve? To answer this question, let’s pause a moment to look at Sonja’s past and defuse some of the more popular misunderstandings regarding Red Sonja.

1. Sonja is a man-hater.

To refute this, one need only look at Sonja’s long friendship with Conan in his own comic series. As antagonistic and at odds with one another as they were, the two did have a healthy respect for one another. Even in her own series, Sonja has had a number of male companions whom she allied herself with. Oddly enough this is one of the few aspects of the character that the infamous movie got right...

Swordmaster: Hatred of men in a lovely young woman... Such could be your downfall.
Sonja: I don't hate ALL men, Grandmaster.

2. Sonja is not interested in sex or is afraid of sex.

In some cases, there was a definite romantic attraction Sonja and her male companions. One disposed prince she helped restore to the throne offered to make her a queen but she refused him saying that she was too much of a wanderer to ever settle down as a queen. In the case of one particular rogue – a bard named Tusan - Sonja allowed him to cuddle with her under the same blanket and even kissed him full on the lips. Of course when he suggested going any further, she rebuffed him...

Tusan: But how will we keep warm out here all alone until morning?
Sonja: You’ll build a fire, my man... you’ll build a fire.

Indeed, in Sonja’s second appearance (The Shazam Award winning “Song of Red Sonja” in Conan the Barbarian #24), Sonja seemed to be admiring Conan for reasons that had nothing to do with his skill as a fighter or a thief as she wondered about ‘some of the tall tales she’d heard about Cimmerians’.

It seems likely then that despite her traumatic past, Sonja does have a young woman’s normal sexual urges and attractions.

3. Sonja will lose her power if she is ever defeated.

There is nothing in Sonja’s oath to suggest an either/or end to her divinely-granted prowess. It merely says that she cannot physically love any man who can not prove her better in combat. Quite honestly, it seems counter-productive to the aims of Sonja’s goddess for her to take away power from a faithful servant for losing one battle. Of course if Sonja were to willingly lose a fight, all bets would probably be off.

Regardless, Sonja HAS been beaten several times and never lost her skills. Conan himself had her dead to rights in two separate battles. In the first, in Marvel Feature #7, he hesitated in killing her as he owed her a life debt and decided to spare her.

In the second, in Conan the Barbarian #115, he bested her after she made cutting remarks about his recently dead love Belit and a duel ensued. The victory was somewhat uncertain (Sonja slipped on a wet bar floor) but Sonja was convinced enough of the victory to return to Conan’s inn room, where Conan found himself too despondent over Belit to enjoy the victory.

If “What If” stories may be counted, Sonja lost a battle to a time-displaced Wolverine and still retained her fighting skills despite this.

Indeed, there is only one story where Sonja’s defeat in battle caused her to lose her skills. In Conan #197, while traveling with Conan, Sonja was defeated by an warlord named Bakht, who was attacking her merely to lure Conan into a trap. Despite the ambush tactics used by Bakht (to say nothing of the magical help he had in the battle), Sonja is injured to such a degree that she believes that her skills left her and proves to be more burden in the coming travels than help to Conan and his party. Still, when attacked in camp in Conan #200, Sonja goes berserk and proves capable of defending herself when pressed. Her confidence returned, she quickly returns to her old self.

Given that this is one incident stacked against many others and the fact that Sonja’s “loss of skill” seems to have been more traumatic than spiritual, it seems likely that Sonja will not suddenly become a shrinking violet should any man ever best her in battle.

4. Sonja is a lesbian.

Honestly, there’s nothing in the history of the character to have suggested this, even in the more recent stories. Of course most of Sonja’s stories were published at a time when exploring such things would be completely forbidden by a major publisher like Marvel.

Even today the closest anyone has come to approaching the subject was in Frank Cho’s “Queen of the Frozen Wastes”, and that was only to have Sonja recoiling and spitting after being kissed by a female vampire. Quite honestly, that could just as easily have been a reaction to being kissed by an undead cannibal who doesn’t brush as Sonja’s reaction to being kissed by a woman.

Regardless, all of the textual evidence so far is that Sonja is heterosexual. Any examination of the questions regarding if she can freely love women or if she must offer herself to any woman who beats her in a fair fight are likely to be reserved to the kind of fan-fiction this author will not link to, assuming that it exists.

5. Sonja is above using her sexuality as a weapon/promised reward.

Despite all indications that Sonja maintains a healthy interest in sex but enough personal control to keep to her oath, she is not above exploiting her own myth or her sexuality. In her first appearance with Conan, she persuaded Conan into helping her with a theft with a promise of romance later on. Of course she knocked him out and ran off with the loot before fulfilling any such promise.

On other occasions, Sonja allowed several brutish sorts who thought they could overpower her to get close, only to lure them into a fight, taking a good deal of joy in the brawling with a man who did not respect her.

In the more recent Dynamite Comics (Issue #9 to be exact), Sonja made a rather striking confession to a young teen – also an orphan who lost her virginity to the soldiers that killed her family. This girl asked why Sonja dressed as provocatively as she does and if that was not an invitation to repeat the past. This seems to mirror Peter David’s concerns, to say nothing of repeating the old myth of “dressed like that, she was asking for it.”

“I hadn’t really thought of it before. I always said it was a good distraction. Men would watch my body closer than my blade. But perhaps... perhaps I am seeking that attention again. Maybe because I have sworn to not lay with a man who could not best my sword... or... Or maybe I am calling to those who would force themselves on a woman... like a siren calling sailors to their deaths. Calling such men to my blade so that I may slay them again and again...”

This quote seems to doubly confirm that Sonja is interested in sex and that she is more than willing to use her body and myth to attract and kill the same kind of men responsible for turning her into what she is. Of course, such a woman would undoubtedly be considered a sexual predator today but such behavior is fair in just in the lawless, magical world of Hyboria.

Indeed, in looking at Sonja’s past in the comics, we see a relatively well-adjusted and modern woman. A healthy young woman who, despite her tomboy past and traumatic teen years, still has the normal urges that most women do. She still feels attraction to men though for obvious reasons her attraction only goes towards those men who consider her an equal and do not treat her like a prize to be won.

And this last quote seems to prove what Sierra said looking at the painting we examined last week. Despite Sonja’s commitment to her goddess and fighting evil wherever she finds it, there is still a part of her that actually wants to have a normal life, at least in so far as being able to choose a good man and make love to him.

That is what makes Sonja’s oath a test of Sonja herself. It would be all to easy for her to throw a fight and let herself be won by a man she was attracted to. But because Sonja values her independence and fighting the evil in the world, she does not.

Indeed, in Conan the Barbarian #115, she tells Conan that she must part ways with him after a battle in which Conan gave up a chance to resurrect his dead lover Belit because to do so would require Sonja’s death. She told Conan that she feared staying near him because she knew that sooner or later they would come into conflict and weapons would be draw. She further said that having seen his nobility and how he would give up that which he most wanted for her sake that a part of her wanted to lose that battle and that was something she could now allow. She valued her freedom more than the chance to find love with one of the few men she truly thought worthy of her.

Recent events in Red Sonja #15 seem to have finally settled the issue once and for all. An issue earlier, Sonja and two fellow warriors confronted Kaleval – head of a forgotten pantheon of gods. Defeated easily by the weakened warrior god, they secured his promise of help against the rising of a coming darkness and Kaleval himself guided Sonja to a mystical blade needed in the coming conflict. As they rested, Sonja removed her armor and offered herself to Kaleval, who was all too eager to indulge in Sonja’s ample charms.

This led to some outrage amongst Sonja fans as questions were raised about how this allowed Sonja to stay true to her oath. Are male gods not considered men? Does three mortals against a god truly count as “a fair fight”? And why would Sonja be offering herself to the god if he were not insisting on her honoring her oath...

... unless she WANTED to sleep with the god?

It seems likely, given what we know of Sonja that having finally been beaten in battle by a man – albeit a handsome and divinely-powered one but still a man – that she decided the letter of the law, if not the spirit, had been fulfilled.

It also seems likely that Sonja was more than a little curious about what it would be like to experience physical love as it was meant to be – particularly since the next morning she would be going into a battle against evil the likes of which the world had never seen before where the odds were against her surviving, even if her side won. Michael Avon Omeing, current writer of the Red Sonja book, said as much on his own message boards.

"Kaleval kicked her ass. She didn’t stand a chance. We could have made it more clear, but I thought him standing on her back while holding her two buddies over his shoulder would be enough. But for some reason a lot of people didn’t get that.

Then she wanted some. So she got some.”

Given all of this, I think my girlfriend was right on when she looked at the painting of Sonja and saw something that I, for all my geekiness, never considered. That even though she is a swordswoman in a chainmail bikini, Sonja is still a woman and as such, she still has a woman’s needs and urges though she represses them in the name of a greater good. As such, Sonja is more than a cheesecake heroine and is a suitable icon for any feminist comic fan.

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