20 August 2010

Girl Meets Gun: 2 of 2

Part 2:

For those familiar with female protagonists in children’s and teen literature and media, Hit-Girl falls into a niche situated between two known genres: that of the survivalist pre-adolescent and the deadly teenager. Both of these groups speak to the importance of a sort of competent, survivalist, and occasionally violent female archetype. These characters, including Hit-Girl, have adult level competencies and skills, the ability to kill, and a tough capable independence. These characters and Hit-Girl intersect in various different ways concerning age, survival, violence, and the film’s realism

Jean Craighead George, a writer of numerous kid survival novels, includes two of my favorite teen heroines. Both Miyax from Julie of the Wolves and Billie Wind from The Talking Earth are thirteen year-old girls who survive on their own in the wild. They and Karana, the 12-year-old (and up) heroine of 1960’s Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, are the closest characters in age to Hit-Girl. These characters from middle grade books are the survivalist pre-adolescent.

While Miyax is older than Hit-Girl, it is quite clear in the book that she hasn’t had her period yet. As far as physical development and the onset of puberty, 11 year-old Hit-Girl and 13 year-old Miyax are more physically similar than not. It is unclear at what stage of her physical development Billie is at, but as she and her book share themes and an author with Miyax it seems fair to say that she is also about a year away from beginning her period. There is no similar discussion of menarche or womanhood in Island of the Blue Dolphins. However, the historical figure Karana is based on lived in the mid-1800’s when the average age of menarche was between 16 and 17. This suggests that twelve-year-old Karana is the most physically immature of all the girls (being some four or five years from her period rather than a year or so for Billie, Miyax and Hit-Girl). Yet Karana is able to build a house, make tools and fire, to fish and to protect herself from the wild dogs on her island. This suggests that in the genre of survivalist girls physical maturity and sexuality are less important than practical skills.

This basic set of skills established by the adventures of Karana. It includes building and finding shelter, creating bonds with animals, the trapping and killing of other animals for food, and other aspects of survival. Both Miyax and Billie build traditional methods of travel (a frozen sledge and a dugout canoe, respectively). Billie even makes a shirt of bird feathers in a direct nod to Karana’s best outfit.

Hit-Girl provides a playful twist on these skills. She too operates a “traditional” mode of travel: the souped-up muscle car traditional to male superheroes. She handles the threats of her local environment (drug dealers and mafia thugs), and like the other girls she befriends a local ally, though Kick-Ass may be of a slightly higher order of wildlife than Karana’s wild dog, Miyax’s wolves or Billie’s tortoise and otter friends. When Hit-Girl’s father first shoots her to test out her bulletproof vest, it is not because they plan on dressing like superheroes and staging war on drug dealers and the mafia. Instead he warns her that it is because he doesn’t want her to be scared when a punk pulls a gun on her. Miyax is also trained in esoteric survival skills –that would be considered sure death in the real world – by her father. The wider world files Miyax’s skills under the heading of preservation of culture, but for Hit-Girl, they fall under the heading of pseudo-sexual abuse. But Hit-Girl does know how to survive and does so with as much aplomb and grace as any of these other pre-adolescent heroines.

And when I say survive, I mean Bear Grylls can take his stupid show and go home because no one’s playing with anything that lame. Karana survives, primarily alone, for six years on a desert island. Billie handles an Everglades forest fire and saves herself and a local boy during a hurricane. And Miyax walks hundreds of miles through one of the harshest wildernesses known to man. These fictional girls do things that kill real life adults, yet no one is freaking out that these characters mere existence is leading the girls of America to death’s door.

It is fair to point out that these literary survivalist girls are not particularly violent toward people. Why should Hit-Girl be compared to them, when the reviewers’ difficulties suggest it is a question of violence? I would argue it’s because Hit-Girl is not very violent per se. Rather, she is very good at hurting and killing people, which is different. Hit-Girl never lashes out, she never screams or has a tantrum. She is methodical and competent. She dispatches humans rather than fish, birds or lemmings, but in the moral universe of an action movie, those she kills are worth less than animals. This is not a fair or meaningful accounting of human life. But it is identical to the accounting used in action movies starring grown men and the standard should be used for this movie as well.

These non-violent survivalist girls do, however, lead into the genre of the deadly teenager. They are, if you like, the younger sisters of Buffy Sommers, River Tam and Katniss Everdean. Katniss, the heroine of The Hunger Games is most like the younger survivalist heroines. In fact, she begins as a survivalist heroine in a post-apocalyptic future where she hunts to supplement her family’s meager government rations. But when her government forces her into a televised gladiatorial type competition she becomes just as deadly as Hit-Girl. The overlap of her hunting and fighting skills speaks to the importance of including the pre-adolescent survivalists in consideration of the deadly Hit-Girl. If forced or convinced any of them would have the skills to kill another person.

Unfortunately for Hit-Girl, she exists in the somewhat real world – played by an actual eleven-year-old in a live-action film. The deadly teenagers Buffy and River, both creations of Joss Whedon, are television/movie characters. Like Hit-Girl this makes them somewhat more realistic: they are portrayed by real young women. Unlike Hit-Girl though, and perhaps because of this added realism, their foes, abilities and exploits are less realistic than they might otherwise be. Buffy is gifted with magical powers, while River has had her brain hacked by a futuristic government. Buffy fights demons, hellspawn and vampires, while River fights hyperviolent space zombies (also created by the futuristic government). It begs the question, at what point – at what age, versus which foes, with what weapons – does Hit-Girl become acceptable to our culture at large?

The question of realism can’t be ignored. We can see how books provide the competent and deadly girl with a protected space. Their stories, abilities and, in the case of Katniss, foes are, in some ways, more realistic than the television and film characters. There is a lack of magic, and even in the science fictional world of Katniss, her skills are based on years of practice and necessity. Hit-Girl may be a superhero, but she is operates in the realistic vein of Batman. She has no powers, only her training, equipment and nerve in her fight against evil. Had she been gifted with superstrength, a la Molly Hayes in Marvel Runaways would there have been any question of her propriety or sexual appropriateness? Or had she quietly remained a figure in a cult comic book, would she have ever come to the attention of cultural critics who seem to have no problem with a girl having mystical powers to kill imaginary foes.

But if one of the problems of understanding Hit-Girl is her realism you have to wonder how realistic is she? There is no way to know what a child raised on action movies and trained since toddlerhood to have the skills of an Army Ranger would actually be able to accomplish. It would probably be unethical to try and find out. But in Hit-Girl’s spectacular final battle with goons in the hallway of the crime lord’s apartment we have something that can almost be twisted into a comparison. During the Beijing Olympics China inappropriately fielded several female gymnasts under allowed age of 16. The youngest discovered to be just fourteen. They fielded them, not because they wanted to show off their underage gymnasts, but because they were the best. Their physical capabilities – their prowess to use another sexually charged word – were greater than that of the older girls who had trained longer. While it is unlikely that any of these Chinese gymnasts could have preformed their routines while killing numerous adult men, they certainly could have moved through that apartment hallway with the same grace and ease that Hit-Girl did.

But why should Hit-Girl surface now? The survivalist girl genre has existed for fifty years, violent comic books with boy sidekicks for almost a hundred. Even though there are literary, real world and filmic antecedents, Hit-Girl still struck many reviewers as an aberration. Again and again – in the media, in the news, to the girls themselves – preteen girls are presented as victims.

They are sexual victims of pedophiles, they are surveillance victims of technology, they are bullied victims of each other. The teenagers and young women these girls are shown as the next step in the journey toward adulthood are a combination of pantyless upskirt photos, fame for fame’s (or sex’s) sake and vapid soundbites. Hit-Girl is the dark glass image of these teenagers and young adults. She is the kind of thing that rises from our collective unconscious when we begin to search for a way out of decadence presented as the female body. This is not the Madonna/Whore binary, it is a more complex Joan of Arc vs. Marie Antoinette. Hit-Girl is kevlar to their nakedness, she is cunning to their shallowness, she is secret identity to their public personas, she is the shadows to their spotlights, she is violence to their violation.

Eventually my dad did get me a pocketknife – when he thought I was old enough to keep it sharp and handle it responsibly. I was eight. I feel I was lucky to read books with characters like Miyax and Karana. Still, I had to read lots of books with male protagonists (Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Call It Courage, etc.) to get my fix of survival literature. And of course, all of these kids were surviving out in nature, far from civilization and the real threats of the world. Kick-Ass, the film Hit-Girl appears in, may not be appropriate for pre-teen and young teen girls. Then again, Hit-Girl herself probably is. If we reveal the extremes of bravery and competence available to girls, perhaps the middle ground (where girls don’t actually try to kill drug lords) will become well-trodden by middle schoolers who don’t believe that they exist solely to be victimized.


At 3:26 PM, Blogger Marirosa Mia said...

Loved this. Great job.

One thing. I think its Buffy Summers, not Sommers.

Also. publish this, yes?


At 12:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Argh! You are right about Buffy. :)

And yes, I'll see what can be done about publishing.

Thanks Mia!


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