SHE-ROES & VILLAINS: The Characters That Made Me
Updated: Feb 17
If you don't know the tales or characters I'm about to reference, I've put links at the end. Otherwise half this post would be links. Hahaha!
Also. Never mistake my snark and derision over the way women were treated in certain forms of employment back then for snark and derision about the jobs themselves or the people who do them. I've worked in or known awesome people who work in a bunch of these professions. I was grateful to have those jobs, even if I hated doing them.
The same is true for motherhood, childcare, and other life trajectories that would have crushed me. Wifehood did crush me when I caved and tried it. I admire people who can do those jobs. I'm just not one of them and knew from a very young age that these things wouldn't be good for me.
This post is about how people treat each other, gender stereotypes and inequality, and a lifelong search to find my way through restrictive and damaging social expectations when the world keeps telling me I'm doing it wrong.
It's also about the first characters that inspired me to become what I am at my most fundamental, whether I'm dancing, singing, speaking or writing: a storyteller.
The Melodrama Heroine, 1988
"Who are you?"
"Who do you want to be when you grow up?"
"What kind of person do you want to be?"
I have been searching for the answers to those questions for as long as I have memory. I always knew WHAT I wanted to DO with my life. From the earliest years of elementary school, I knew that I wanted to be in arts and entertainment. I wanted to act, dance, sing. I wanted to create characters and tell stories, on stage and in writing.
That has never changed.
But as for WHO I wanted to BE? Well, that was always the question.
Countless books, the small black-and-white box, and later the hulking ox-shaped technicolor box had shown me that there were many options beyond the ones that lived in my home, family, neighborhood, or classroom.
More often, I was shown that the options I found the most exciting and enticing weren't available for people like me.
Ugly tomboys could never become desirable women. Sluts weren't allowed to hold positions of honor and dignity. The sensitive, innocent, and kind were hurled to the bottom of the social food chain as prey to be abused by the cruel, the greedy, and the prejudiced. The non-churchy were wicked, sinful, and damned.
The stereotypes ran rampant in both stories and life. Nerds were picked on by athletes; jocks were considered cretins by The Aspiring Artiste; cheerleaders were blonde, busty, brainless bimbos according to nerds; writers of fantastical or romantic tales were starving wastrels destined to become drunks according to the academic and the literary. Females who were visible, skilled, loud, and opinionated were bitches according to just about everybody.
I was all of those things, and none, which left me very lost.
I may have mentioned that I was an 80's middle-schooler and teenager, but the decade that formed my most subconscious foundation was the 70s. The earliest television she-ro I can remember gazing at with starry eyes was Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, followed closely by the sexy, butt-whuppin', gun-packin' Charlie's Angels. But these women were adults. They were beautiful and powerful--the opposite of me--and one of them was supernatural.
So when Jana of the Jungle appeared with her weaponized throwy-necklace and ferocious tiger, her origin story at the beginning of each episode gave me hope. I played that scene over and over: the little girl lost in the wilds who grows up to be one of those women I had originally found so unattainable.
In truth, I sometimes pretended I was the tiger, just like I would have much rather been Bagheera the Black Panther, or even Kaa the Snickety-Snake than Mowgli the Lost Orphan about to be eaten by everybody.
Then in second grade, I watched a movie that would change my internal psyche forever. It was one of those copious sword-and-sandal numbers. Of all the movie types that played every weekend, none captured my goggling eyes more than these epic period pieces, particularly if the period was the ancient world. (This was such an obsession it would eventually become my college major.) One of these movies, had a scene that would stick with me until I finally internalized it, idolized it, and wrote it down in my longest work of fiction to date: that of a gladiatrix--a female gladiator--battling a male in the arena and winning.
Notice a trend here? Females who could defeat foes--and not just another female in a cat-fight, but the Evil Males, too--were very important to me. In fact, this archetype of the warrior woman was crucial to my subconscious and to my everyday life. Only in adulthood would I learn just how deep this need ran, and that it goes all the way back to my days on a changing table.
Although I adored Princess Leia and always wished I was as pretty and cool as she was, she had needed to be rescued for most of Star Wars (technically A New Hope but we didn't call it that back then), so whenever we played with the action figures on the flagpole base or the jungle gym, I always wanted to be Han Solo. If I couldn't be him, I wanted to play Vader, just like I would have rather had Skeletor rule over my ice sculpture castle in the back yard, rather than She-ra. She was just so...blandly good. 🤢
I also wanted to be:
Starbuck - the rake of a starfighter pilot battling the evil Cylons.
Spartacus - the rebellious gladiator who led a slave-army against the oppressive, corrupt fist of the Roman Empire.
Ben Hur - the Jewish prince-turned-charioteer seeking vengeance upon the Roman who sent him to the galleys and destroyed his family.
Zorro - the masked vigilante defending the oppressed from the corrupt fist of Spanish California.
Robin Hood - who robs from the rich to give to the poor and defends the oppressed from the corrupt fist of Crusade Era England.
(It would seem that I really had a problem with oppressive, corrupt fists.)
The Count of Monte Cristo - the disguised sailor-turned-"mysterious nobleman of the East" seeking vengeance upon the men who got him imprisoned as a Bonapartist traitor, stole his fiancee, and destroyed his family.
The Scarlet Pimpernel - the English nobleman, master of disguises, who saves heads from Madame Guillotine during the French Revolutions' Reign of Terror.
Notice some other trends here? Rebels. Disguises. Protagonists of immense personality and questionable morals. A few are downright villains with very questionable morals. Of course, I would re-write the truly corrupt into that gray area, and I would write the gray choices as "eventually unnecessary" because I had done my work so well that there was no oppressive, evil force to battle/rob/swindle/take vengeance upon anymore. These figures were also not from my world. They're from the past or the far-flung, fantastical future.
But no matter when and where, the characters that inspired me most were not the squeaky-clean, shiny He-Ro, and rarely were they they shiny She-Ro. I knew I was nothing like the "perfect" protagonists of the day--c'mon, I was a daughter of Eve-il by my very existence with a vagina, remember? To my forming 70s child-brain, I equated the feminine with sin, scheming, and shame. Wherever it wasn't that, it was almost always weakness. Meekness. Soft-spoken or saccharine nicety. Victimhood. Subservience to the masculine.
And the archetypal masculine wielded an iron fist, from fathers to husbands to bosses and God Himself.
The divinity I was raised to worship was either a vengeful, wrathful entity I was supposed to fear and cower before on threat of AllTheSmiting, or else He was Perfection and the only route through which I could ever hope to become salvageable and worth the air I breathed--as long as I remained a Good Girl. That meant virginity, followed by complacent, wholesomely willing acts of procreation with a sanctified owner--I mean husband.
Well, that option had been stolen from me. I might not have remembered the theft of my virginity as a toddler, but my body sure did, and there was always that fear out there...looming.
Because rape could happen to me at any moment. The Old Testament terror that a female deserved death and damnation for being incapable of stopping somebody from slamming a penis or a phallic object into her holes weighed greatly upon me. So did being falsely accused of sexual "misconduct." So did the discovery of my missing hymen at twelve.
And they could SAY "all that feminine oppression stuff" was no more since the Suffrage and Women's Rights movements, just like they SAID that "all that race stuff" had been handled in the 60s.
The fact was, the books and TV I was allowed to digest before puberty taught me that the best I could hope for as a Moral, Nice Brainiac Girl who wasn't The Renowned Beauty was to emulate my favorite heroines:
Laura Ingalls - kind, smart, plucky girl, less pretty than her sister, who became a schoolteacher and a wife
Anne of Green Gables - awkward, red-haired (red hair was a super-bad thing in those days), smart orphan who became a schoolteacher, a caregiver of her aging adoptive family, and a wife
Jo March - social rebel who dressed as a man, less pretty than her sister, governess, schoolteacher, writer, heiress, wife
Maria von Trapp - failed nun who becomes a governess and eventually wins the love and marriage proposal of the widower who hires her
Anna Leonowens - widowed schoolteacher, tutor for the children of a king
Mary Lennox - sour, spoiled, neglected orphan who is taken in by her reclusive wealthy uncle, taught to blossom by the reclamation of an abandoned garden, and by mentoring her cousin who is even more sour, spoiled, and neglected than she is.
Pollyanna - eternally optimistic orphan who regains the use of her legs after being hit by a car, taken in by her grouchy, wealthy aunt who later marries a doctor
Annie - another plucky, optimistic, red-haired orphan who is adopted by a grouchy, mega-bucks Daddy
While I adored all those characters and looked to them as role models, I became instinctually aware that the best possible fates for females of this nature, if they didn't want to wind up as penniless and starving, some breed of fallen woman, or an old maid and eternal drain upon their families' resources was to:
become a nun (I was Catholic, so this was forever an option)
become a schoolteacher, governess, or other gender-appropriate position
battle her way into positions usually reserved for men--provided she was extraordinarily skilled and luck-kissed enough, and she didn't take a tumble amidst her efforts. Because failure in this category had dire consequences, including unemployability, shunning, loss of her children, starvation, prostitution, violence, death or something worse.
These concerns weighed on my mind from a very young age as I attempted to establish my path. Since I wanted to take a divergent route from categories 1-4, being an actress and writer left me a trajectory that was similar to category 5, but with the advice to rely on the other categories while awaiting one's big break--if it ever came.
As a four-to-twelve-year-old, I was gifted and skilled, but luck had never been my friend when it came to finding my place in society. My parents often had $5 left after paying the monthly bills, so inheriting wealth was not going to happen. I had zero interest in a life that revolved around a religion that, even at seven years old, I found hypocritical, demeaning, and contradictory.
And finally, I despised children.
As an Orphan Annie devotee--okay, as an obsessed broken-record dispensary of the Annie soundtrack--I had been taught all too well what happened to unmarried females who had to herd children for their survival when they couldn't stand them:
In my experience, children were one of the most evil, vicious, fanged creatures on this planet. So the last thing I wanted was to follow in the footsteps of those women who couldn't wrangle my classmates into submission and who were often brought to tears by them.
By twelve years old, I had made the determination that, even if I managed to "win" Prince Charming, I would never have children. EVER.
And I meant it.
That meant Charming was also off the table because what married couple didn't try to have kids? I didn't know any. As a Catholic, that was the primary purpose of marriage.
Besides, I was "ugly" and story stereotypes had taught me that ugly women were destined to either wind up as grouchy spinsters (if they were rich) or hags (if they were poor). Those "lucky" enough to get married had to settle for the drunkard wife-beaters or the equally ugly "losers" who were the butt of the town's jokes and could rarely hold a job.
Thanks, I'd rather be a hag. Give me a cauldron, thirteen black cats, and let me cackle under the full moon. (Of course, this life trajectory also included Prince Charming's sword, pitchforks, and blazing stakes. I also didn't know any philanthropic , wart-nosed witches to teach me such skills, and had no desire to be baked in an oven and eaten amidst my search for one, so I crossed that off the list pretty early.
To top off my list of feminine transgressions, I was also a tomboy. A tomboy who beat the pants off the real boys in way too many activities. Not the way to win over gallant princes when I couldn't fall back on my looks. Oh-and-woe unto me, my hometown was sorely bereft of Gilbert Blythes or Teddy Lawrences.
So great. In my modern world, if I wasn't going to become a teacher or work in childcare, I could be a secretary. Joyest of joys. As TV showed me night after night, I could get my ass slapped as I was called "sweetheart" and "honey" by nasty, cigarette smoking gorillas-in-suits while I smiled and served them coffee just the way they liked it. If I was super-duper lucky, the boss or some hotshot underling might take a shine to me.
(Spoiler alert: that's exactly what happened to me, only it was the 90s and he didn't smoke. I also got fired the very next day after I snarled at his wandering hands and inappropriate comments.)
Oh, I despised that show. I mean...despised. As an adult, now I understand why. And this one was from the 80s. Earlier ones could be even worse. At least they didn't show the ass-smacking and goosing as "normal", only hinted at it.
Okay, so how about the quintessential day-job for an aspiring actress: I could be a waitress. Same job for less pay, but without the paperwork and with the added bonus of having to kiss the asses of hi-fuckin-larious teenage pranksters, snooty females, and their food-throwing, tantrum-throwing brats. TV assured me that the best I could hope for was who I might get to service.
Great. So I could be a stewardess. Same job for more pay, in the air, also expected to get on my knees in the COCKpit. But nope, never mind. You had to be sexy for that job. Crap.
I could sell clothing. That turned out to be 1001 times more heinous than my years as a waitress with its cutthroat cattiness, bullying managers, shame tactics, and daily threats to job security if I didn't corner the customers and high-pressure them.
If I wanted to be in law enforcement, I could work dispatch or shuffle paperwork and deliver more coffee while having my ass slapped. If I was determined to be an officer, I learned at a young age how important it was that the far more capable, leading male officers found me hot.
Alas. I wasn't. And we all knew what my role would be if I was more capable than kissable--at least by anybody that a girl like me would want to kiss.
Yup, if I wanted to be a nurse, I would either have to develop the Bitch on Wheels attitude of Hot Lips Houlihan and settle for kissing the Frank Burnses of the world, or I'd have to vacuously kiss the asses of the Almighty MDs and--like always--hope that one of them would want to marry me. Or both. (The vacuous ass-kissing usually helped with the marriage thing.)
I'd heard a rumor I could be an MD myself, or a scientist or mathematician or pilot or lawyer or astronaut or journalist or any other thing under the sun. Parents and teachers said it to me all the time and I believed them. Yet my world pumped image after story after movie of men in those roles. Excuse me. Mostly white, straight cis-men. The female glass-ceiling busters I did hear about all had to battle for it--not just to get it, but to keep it, and sometimes to keep their heads and their children.
It's important to note that most of the success stories were of white women, so at least I had that going for me. Then again, as we've discussed previously, so did most people around me, and I was a brown-eyed, brunette French Canadian. (Hence why I was considered so "ugly" even as an adorkable kindergartener rapidly losing her toddler's blonde.)
At its highest population in 1950, Minneapolis was a whopping 98.4% white. In 1980, at its smallest since 1910, it was still at 90%. But that was down in the Twin Cities. In 1970, the state as a whole was still 98% white, and as of the 2010 census, my hometown still sat at 96%. (1) So yay, mega-advantage for me, compared to the nightmare our minuscule minorities endured, but that should also give you an idea about the unwavering reign of the Big White Weenie, and over half of us up there didn't have one.
Title IX of the Education Amendments was only passed six months before I was born. Roe v. Wade happened only a few weeks after I was born. I was only nine when we got our first woman in the US Supreme Court, and I was only eleven when the first woman went into space. So although there were living, breathing examples to inspire me, these milestones were engulfed by the deluge of imagery and daily, real-life examples steadfastly espousing the older models.
This is precisely the quandary that I was born into and that I watched all my teenage and adult models wrestle with:
But as I've said, I wasn't born in New York City or San Francisco, or even in Minneapolis. So although I kept hearing about all these revolutionary changes, and experienced opportunities our mothers and grandmothers couldn't have dreamed of when they were my age, that tiny town in the toolie bushes of Minnesota lagged behind the times. It told me a myriad conflicting tales, particularly with the kind of books that populated our school library, and the kind of wholesome TV I was allowed to watch.
I had strict weekday TV allowances on our four stations (ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS), and I was allowed to watch two hours of Saturday morning cartoons. We usually watched one of the many weekend movies, in addition to the annual showing of the major classics--most of which were from the 1930s-50s.
So...yeah. All those prevailing attitudes we just covered in the past posts? These are the racist, sexist, prejudiced, restrictive, and outdated tales that I gulped down like Kool-Aid before I was old enough to understand anything about what I was looking at.
Like I said, at least I had a plethora of examples to choose from, because I had a similar skin hue to most of the people onscreen and in the books I read. I mean, heck, even Jesus was a white dude with heavenly blue eyes and a flowing, feathered, sandy-hued mane. 🤨
Trying to find any guiding light that inspired me to say, "Yes! That's the kind of person I want to grow up and be!" was few and far between. I kept searching and searching and not finding. I developed this fuzzy, stapled together image, a patchwork of traits from disparate characters. That deluge of "nope...nope...nope..." only served to reinforce what the world around me kept saying: I was a misfit. An alien. I didn't truly belong to any kind of known and admirable demographic of human.
Show after show portraying families I would never make or penis-heavy casts I lacked the proper anatomy to model proved that theory into law:
Wendy Darling took care of children, so I wanted to be a Lost Boy or a Pirate. Alas. No penis.
Mary Poppins took care of children, too. I didn't wanna be anybody in that cast. I actually hated that show.
I couldn't relate to the extremes and pigeonholing of the 1950s-60s Happy Days. It reminded me too much of my neighborhood, just with different decor and fashion. Sorta. Like I said, we lagged behind the times up there.
Scarlet O'Hara was spoiled and mean. So was Miss Piggy, so I wanted to be Animal. Alas, Animal wasn't known for much intellectual aptitude.
Lady was constantly collared, chained, muzzled, and locked up, so I wanted to be Tramp.
Vixey was a sideshow love interest, so I always played Todd.
Mrs. Brady was a housewife, Alice was a housekeeper, Marcia was pretty & popular, Jan was jealous, and Cindy was a snoopy tattletale--nobody I could or wanted to emulate.
Mrs. Elizabeth Swiss-Family-Robinson was a mom. The disguised Roberta was awesome, but she was also pretty. It would have been cool to be like her, but I figured becoming the tiger or the ostrich was more likely to happen than ever being fought over by cute boys.
Dreamy Jeanie and Witchy Samantha were both powerful, magical beings whose primary concerns were making their men happy. I would have rather seen them blink a chocolate cake into existence, eat it with their heels kicked off, and then blink themselves to the beach. Alone.
Sandra-Dee reminded me a lot of myself, but emulating her would have taken a transformation from Ugly Duckling into Swan, which maybe I could hope for someday when I grew up. Or maybe not. It was a crapshoot.
Maid Marian, Guinevere, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and countless other leading ladies in towers, dragon caves, railroad tracks, cellars, seaside rocks, cliffs, and dungeons all had to be rescued by males.
Alas, you had to be beautiful to be rescued, so it was very clear to me. I was going to have to rescue myself. Either that, or become the flippin' dragon, tiger, witch or villain.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
SOME MORE LINKS:
THE TALES THAT MADE ME:
He-Man, She-ra & Skeletor
Little Orphan Annie & Miss Hannigan
Sandra-Dee - Grease