A Knight and her white horse:
Characters who defy gender role stereotyping

By Haley K. Holmes

Thematic Description and Rationale for the Project

The following is a description of ten stories and analysis of those stories and their characters. The stories chosen for this project represent a small number of songs, folk and fairytales, books, movies, and Bible stories that deal with men and women who do not adhere to gender role stereotypes set forth by society. They include women who slay vampires, men who need help rescuing a princess, and people who stray from traditional ideas of what men and women are supposed to do. The stories were taken from a variety of sources, movies that I have seen numerous times, a couple of book series that I enjoy, through searches for feminist fairytales in the library and interlibrary loan, and in the Bible. There are tons of stories that deal with this topic. I tried to choose different media as a way of showing how varied storytelling can be and how themes are represented across those formats.

Bibliographic Citation and Story Synopsis

Babbit, J. (2000). But I'm a Cheerleader. Universal City, CA: Universal Studios.
Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, a girl whose parents suspect that she is a lesbian. Megan is a cheerleader in high school, and does not know why her parents want to send her to a gay rehab camp. They have seen all of the signs, but she is oblivious to them, such as being a vegetarian, having a poster of Melissa Etheridge on her wall, and not liking to kiss her boyfriend. At the camp, she meets other people her age who have admitted their "problem." They go through a ridiculous "12-step" program intended to reintroduce them to their appropriate gender identities. Of course, Megan falls in love with another camper and realizes that she really is a lesbian, but that it is a very good thing. She is kicked out of the camp and plans to rescue her girlfriend, Graham.

The Bible. Book of Ruth. 
Naomi's sons, Mahlon and Chilion, both die. Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers and to seek new husbands. Oprah follows her advice, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. She says, "where you go, I shall go, and where you stay, I shall stay ... I solemnly declare ... that nothing but death will part me from you." They take care of one another, and deal with their loss. Ruth works to provide them with food and eventually proposes marriage to Boaz who has treated her kindly. Ruth continues to pledge fidelity to Naomi and takes care of the old woman. Naomi acts as guardian to Ruth and Boaz's son Obed who becomes the grandfather of King David.

Hamilton, L.K. (1995). Guilty Pleasures. New York: Ace Books.
Anita Blake is an animator. At the time that the story takes place, vampires are legal in the United States. St. Louis is the most popular city for vampires. They have been given the right to vote even though they are the walking undead. As an animator, Anita brings people back to life temporarily as zombies so that contested wills can be taken care of. People pay a great deal of money to have their loved ones raised from the dead to ask them questions about who killed them or anything else that might be worth that kind of money. Anita is a vampire executioner as well. The police call her in when they have a legal order of execution for a crazed vampire. The master of the city, a very old powerful vampire, happens to love Anita. It is a complicated relationship, and Anita cannot deny her lust for Jean-Claude, especially since he can read her mind. Anita demonstrates her mental and physical strength again and again as she battles the monsters in this first of an eight book series.

Pierce, K. & Bienen, A. (1999). 
Boys Don't Cry. Beverly Hills, California: Twentieth Century Fox.
The synopsis of this story can be found below in "Parhelion." Teena Brandon lives her life as Brandon Teena until she is killed. This is a true story based on a young girl's life. The song described below tells less of the story than does the movie, and it is necessary to know the story before understanding the song. Although the same story is told in each, the medium is so very different that one might argue that these are not the same story. The movie is much more graphic and shocking. Once the story is known, the song can have the same effect, yet it is easier to hear the song again than to view the movie numerous times. Teena's name is not even used in the song. She is referred to as "Parhelion," which has to do with the sun. The movie reveals more about the people around Teena and the acceptance she found in one person. The struggle she faced is evident in both forms of storytelling.

Pierce, T. (1983). Alanna: the First Adventure. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Alanna of Trebond is a ten-year-old girl who does not want to learn to become a Lady. Her twin brother, Thom, is sent to the palace military academy to become a knight. Neither of them is happy with their father's decision to send them to these institutions. On the way there, they decide that Alanna will go to the military academy, dressed like a boy, and Thom will go to learn magic. Alanna changes her father's letters so that she will now be called Alan. She cuts her hair and poses as a boy successfully. When another boy at the academy picks her on, she learns to fight so that she can protect herself. This is the first book in a series of four, outlining Alanna's adventures as Alan and her path to becoming a knight, not a Lady.

Polenzani, R. (1999). Parhelion. From: Anybody. Evanston, Illinois: Parhelion Music.
Teena Brandon was a young transgender woman who was murdered in Nebraska. Parhelion is a song written in memory of Teena. Teena, or Brandon as she called herself when living as a boy, moved to where no one knew her so that she could start over as a male. Although she was born female, Teena believed that she was male. She lied to those around her so that they would not know her conflict. With slender hips and bandaged breasts, she passed as a small man. Brandon fell in love with a woman who figured out the truth but did not care. In the song Rose has written, "believe me when I say that I was every man for you. I swear that all my lying was the bravest form of truth." His girlfriend's brother murdered Brandon when the truth came out.

Williams, D. S. (1993). When I Was A Boy. From: The Honesty Room. New York: Burning Field Music.
The narrator tells us that from the time she was young, she did things that were considered boy activities. She pretended to fly with Peter Pan, climbed trees, and got dirty. People treat her as though she cannot take care of herself because she is a girl. As a woman, people do the same thing. They suggest that she needs someone to walk her home. Stores sell clothing made to show off the female figure rather than for the comfort she needs. One night she tells the man she is with about her former life as a boy, and he reveals that he was a girl. He picked flowers and talked with his mom. He used to cry, and now he does not. They have each lost something because expected gender roles keep them from exhibiting certain characteristics.

Williams, J. (1978). Petronella. From: The Practical Princess and other Liberating Fairy Tales. New York: Parents' Magazine Press.
In the kingdom of Skyclear Mountain, kings always have three boys. Petronella was born after two brothers, and the king did not know what to do with her. When her brothers were ready to go find their fortunes, Petronella said that she would leave to find a prince to marry. She and her brothers traveled together until they reached a three-forked intersection. An old man sitting there, told Petronella where she could find a prince and how to rescue him from an enchanter. She performed the tasks necessary to win three objects. Although, the prince was not exactly nice, she took him and fled into the woods. The enchanter chased them. She threw down the objects and trapped the enchanter. She felt sorry for him and freed him to find out that he loved her. They left the prince and returned to her palace together.

Williams, J. (1978). The Practical Princess. From: The Practical Princess and other Liberating Fairy Tales. New York: Parents' Magazine Press.
Princess Bedelia is extremely practical. A fairy had given her common sense when she was born. The princess frees the town of a dangerous dragon through her practicality. When Lord Garp asks for her hand in marriage, Princess Bedelia has him perform impossible tasks. He lies and says that he has done what she asked, but the princess knows better and calls him on each lie. Lord Garp whisks her up and locks her in a tower. While trying to figure out how to escape, she finds a young man covered with hair asleep in a nearby room. She wakes him and frees them both. Before she marries the young man, a prince, she has him cut his hair so that she can see what he really looks like.

Williams, J. (1978). Stupid Marco. From: The Practical Princess and other Liberating Fairy Tales. New York: Parents' Magazine Press.
Prince Marco's father tells him that it is time to find his princess bride. Unfortunately, Marco is not very smart and does not know his right from his left. He gets lost on his way to rescue a princess and meets up with another girl who says that she should travel with Marco to help him. They go through a series of steps to find the princess including borrowing boots from a necromancer, talking to a girl who has gold pieces fall from her mouth, and getting past a giant with two heads. By the time they reach the place where the princess is supposed to be, she has been rescued by another prince. Marco is upset that he will return without the princess. His travel companion reveals that she is a princess so they decide that Marco will take her home instead.

Story Analysis

Teena Brandon is the main character in Boys Don't Cry. For much of the movie, she goes by Brandon Teena, which is representative of her transition to living as a boy. Brandon was a born a girl but lives as a girl for most of the movie. He is about eighteen years old and lives in Nebraska. When Brandon is accepted as a boy, he is very happy and carefree, making friends and dating girls. It is difficult for him to pass as male within some groups because he is small and pretty. Brandon is a good kid with a difficult road ahead of him. He lives in a small town so that when someone finds out the truth, everyone knows. He flees to another place where he is not known in order to try to live a normal existence. Brandon takes on male characteristics such as a certain walk, drinking, and pretending to pee standing up. It is not easy for the other characters to accept Brandon because he is different, but Brandon believes that he is truly male, which he cannot deny. He just wants a normal life for himself and to be loved. For him, those are the most difficult things to have.

Alanna is from Trebond. She is ten years old when Alanna: the First Adventure begins. Her father does not listen to what she is interested in and sends her away to become a Lady. Alanna and her brother are twins. They both have fiery red hair and purple eyes, and besides the length of their hair, they look exactly the same. So when Alanna and her brother switch places, no one is the wiser. Alanna is the heroine of the book. She is disadvantaged by her upbringing as a girl, but she quickly learns to fight. She wants more than anything to be a knight. It is obvious that this is something that girls do not do so she must hide her true identity and pretend to be a boy. She cuts her hair and wears male clothing. Alanna is able to fight and learn just as good as the boys. Being a girl does not stop her, even though it would if people were to discover her lies.

Petronella defies her father's wishes to leave home to find a prince. When her brothers leave to find fortune, she goes with them. She is probably about seventeen years old. The fairytale has no context so it is timeless. Petronella wants to bring home a prince but ends up with an enchanter. She is able to calm wild dogs by talking to them, to calm horses by feeding and brushing them, and to calm hawks by singing to them. Through these acts she gains objects that help her escape with the prince she intends to marry. She is kind, intelligent, and talented. Petronella defies gender role stereotypes by finding her own husband and by going out alone to do so. She is unafraid of what she may find. While she seeks a prince, he turns out to be boring so she takes the enchanter instead. She does not know how her father will react to this, but she is willing to take the chance.

Stupid Marco is not smart. His father has to write the words left and right on the back of Marco's hands to help him find a princess. When it rains, the words wash away, and Marco is left to guess which direction to go. He guesses wrongly and ends up on a wild goose chase for a princess who has already been rescued. While Marco is not intelligent, he is lively. He helps people on his quest, and his companion takes to liking him. At the end, she suggests that she should go home with him as his princess, and Marco reveals his lack of confidence. All of his life, he was told that he was not smart and called poor Marco. He is good looking, but no woman would have him who knew how dumb he was. This new girl says that she likes him anyway and that she can act as the brains in the family. Marco is a weak male character. He does not get the girl he is supposed to rescue and is swept up by someone who gets to know him before deciding that she will marry him.

There is a great deal of symbolism in the book of Ruth in the Bible. The female characters are most important and end up doing things that only men were described as doing before. Ruth pledges fidelity to another woman, her mother-in-law. While this is a story of friendship, the role that Ruth plays is that of caretaker to Naomi. She provides food and companionship to her. The acts that Ruth do are symbolic of the loss that they share. Ruth ends up proposing to Boaz, which did not represent her abandonment of Naomi, but her continuing fidelity. She is able to take care of Naomi through her marriage and to provide Naomi with a child to take care of. The women carry on after their husbands die and take initiative for themselves rather than marrying other men right away. They give themselves time to grieve and feel secure in their roles as widows. Ruth and Naomi both call on other women to fulfill their duties and to take care of their own needs rather than relying on men who will not always be there.

But I'm a Cheerleader is perhaps the most striking story described here. It is done in a humorous way, yet it is a very serious topic. The characters have been sent to a rehab camp because they display characteristics of being gay, including a girl who plays softball, a boy who works in retail, and a boy who wants to be an actor. The activities that they must do at the camp are symbolic of the stereotypes that they all defy. The girls are not interested in having babies and being housewives. The boys do not want to shoot guns and fix cars. Because they are not interested in these traditional roles, they are thought of as defective by their families. They look at themselves in the mirror as a sign of how they are changing. Rather than becoming more like the gender assigned to them, they find that happiness lies in being who they really are. The main transition comes when they sneak out for a night on the town. This is symbolic of the lives that they will all lead someday.

Parhelion includes the most symbolism of the ten stories, partly because it is a song, and partly because the songwriter uses a lot of symbolism in her work. She starts by writing, "how easy I lie to you, my own parhelion." Teena lied about who she was for most of her life. She lived as a boy but was born a girl. "A stable full of tumbleweed, to bed the blonding bride" speaks of Nebraska and Brandon's love for a young woman who would later defend him as a boy. "Was not your prince a princess? And was patience so rewarded when the vines were stripped and evening broke." She goes on to write about the parts that Teena had a hard time hiding, like her period. Teena knows that people will lie about her when she is gone. She is not pretending to be something that she is not. She knows that she was born the wrong gender, and just wants what was taken away from her returned.

Anita Blake is motivated to protect herself. If she can save lives along the way, she does it. Anita practiced Catholicism before all animators were excommunicated for raising the dead. Now she attends the Episcopal church. There was a time that she believed that all of the walking undead were monsters, but her experiences have changed her outlook. Some of them are not so bad. Anita has had a few close calls with death, which has made her very careful. She carries at least one gun at a time and knives, most of the time. She works for the police on murder cases and has saw many gruesome victims. Anita is only twenty-four, but her experiences make her seem much older. She was given the chance to live forever, yet she does not want the opportunity. Anita revels in the fact that she is human. It sets her apart from the monsters. As the series progresses, she begins to doubt herself. She learns that she is a necromancer and wonders what that means. Maybe she is not fully human after all. Anita is a complicated character who reveals what she is thinking through the first person style of the books.

When I Was A Boy was also written in the first person so we assume that the narrator is Dar herself. She tells the story of how she does not act the way she did when she was a carefree child. Through society's attempt to tell her how to live, she has neglected the side of herself that was a little more masculine. She can remember the last time she rode her bike topless in the yard. She did not realize that she was doing something "wrong" until someone pointed out that she was not wearing a shirt. Dar resents the world's attempt to quash characteristics that are not traditional. She wants us to know that we should not hide such things. We are lying to each other. Her male companion mentioned in the song reveals that he too used to do things that were considered girly. It was okay when he was young, but now he cannot even cry when he needs to. Dar is a multifaceted woman. I can only begin to scratch at the surface of her personality. Each time I see her in concert, I learn something new about her to incorporate into the image that I refer to when interpreting her songs.

The Practical Princess is practical. That is not the extent to her personality, but the story might have a reader believe so. She is intelligent and wise for her age. She sees through Lord Garp and his plan to take her away. Bedelia is not opposed to marriage, but she wants to marry for love. She is not interested in pleasing her father or anyone else but herself. She is a feminist true to heart. Bedelia's practicality causes her to look beyond the surface to see what is really happening. This mindset saves her village and Bedelia from a frightful husband. She is motivated to be happy. Her fearlessness helps her achieve her goal. Fairytale characters are not extremely well developed because the stories are so short, but Bedelia's most prominent characteristic allows us to see her character from within.

All of these stories show how characters can defy gender role stereotypes in a variety of ways, from living as the opposite gender to rescuing the prince. Not all of the endings are positive in these stories. I think that we can learn from both the true and fictional stories that the endings do not make the stories. The characters and the ways in which they interact with other characters in their stories tells us a great deal about how things could be. In stories, we are allowed to change the world. The characters perform superhuman acts and just acts that we are afraid to attempt. Behaving beyond one's gender role stereotypes can be very difficult when such behaviors are looked down upon and even punished. From this small collection of stories, we can see how empowering it can be to do what is unexpected (Ruth) and how dangerous it can be (Teena). We are left to make our own decision and encouraged to not forget where we have been (Dar).

Summary

Finding stories that fit this topic was not a difficult venture, but I would have liked to have seen more. My searches were limited by my knowledge of the topic and my search criteria. I was able to locate some stories that were not under the topic of feminism. Many of the male characters in feminist stories are weak, but I would have been interested in stories that had sensitive male characters, which does not necessarily mean weak. It is hard to find stories that show men taking care of children or cooking, roles that are traditionally feminine. Including gay characters was a difficult decision, since that gets into another realm of stereotypes. Even so, I think that my choices exhibited the topic sufficiently. I would like to continue looking for stories that present characters who are able to defy their expected roles successfully. I have learned that analyzing characters can be difficult when they are not fully developed within the stories and that the stories are out there, if you know how to find them. I think that I might have found even more stories to choose from if I knew more search strategies and had consulted a thesaurus.