Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Badasses: A Condemnation

I have a list of media pet peeves a mile long — like most writers, I suspect. Usually I prefer to use this blog to talk about things I do like instead of things I don’t (except when I write about politics), but today I’d like to talk about a trope and a mindset that I’ve been ruminating on lately: the Badass. Join me, won’t you, in what will probably be a rambling explanation of why I don’t consider any of my own characters badasses, and why I don’t think declaring any character a “badass” is a particularly useful thing to do.

First I should probably define my terms. These are going to be entirely my own perceptions, and if anyone disagrees with them, I’d actually love to discuss it. But in my mind, “badass” is a term that connotes several qualities. The first (and most positive) is taking no shit. I have no arguments with this particular characteristic. I enjoy characters who don’t allow people to push them around or talk down to them, and I have definitely turned to the assertiveness of fictional people for inspiration when my own natural spring of assertiveness has run dry. (Which it does pretty quickly. I’m working on it.)

However, based on my purely anecdotal observations, I think that the aforementioned assertiveness is often conflated with stoicism when people talk about badass characters. Now, obviously the degree to which a character does or does not wear their heart on their sleeve varies. Some characters play things closer to the vest than others. I certainly don’t expect every character to be as overtly emotional as, say, I am. But I think the designation of badass often imbues stoicism with a positive or aspirational connotation, when it’s actually at best a neutral trait and at worst a sign of repressed emotions. In fact, I’ve taken several of my characters on a journey from Don’t Show Emotions to Feel Your Feelings as they learn to deal with the hardships in their lives in healthier, more honest ways. That doesn’t mean that they’re widely broadcasting their every emotion; they’re just not hiding them as much as they used to.

The most obvious potential problem with badassery is its association with violence. Here’s where, like, every character ever played by Bruce Willis comes in. (I honestly have seen very few movies with Bruce Willis, but don’t @ me, I’m still right.) Many characters are declared badasses specifically because of their ability to fight and/or use weapons better than anyone else around them. There is a Very Obvious issue of toxic masculinity here; I imagine the Venn diagram of “male characters most frequently called badasses” and “male characters I would never invite over for lunch” has a significant amount of overlap. But as a fantasy and scifi fan, I actually think there’s a lot more to unpack here. Those genres fairly frequently feature large-scale physical violence, so there are potentially many characters who know their way around a sword/bow/laser blaster/whatever. When these weapons-friendly characters, male or female, are also assertive and/or stoic (particularly if their assertiveness and stoicism comes with a side of sarcasm or general prickliness), they are almost automatically dubbed badasses.

I think this does them a disservice. I think the term “badass” establishes a set of expectations for the reader/viewer, and any behaviors or traits that fall outside of these expectations can wind up being written off as a “weakening” of the character. I saw an example of this in the comments of one of the many, many articles I read about Avengers: Infinity War after I saw it. More than one commenter was annoyed with the character Gamora’s emotionality in the movie. To be as spoiler-light as possible, Gamora, who ticks all of the boxes I listed above, spends a decent amount of her screen time in Infinity War visibly upset. She even cries. To these commenters, these emotional reactions were a disservice to the character and made her less badass.

Now, if you’ve seen the movie and you know me, you may guess that I have some opinions about Gamora’s arc. But it had honestly never occurred to me to read her emotional reactions as a diminishing of the strength she has in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (which have skyrocketed to the top tier of my favorite Marvel movies). I mean, in Infinity War, Gamora has kind of a lot to be upset about??? And I personally am much more moved by characters honestly experiencing their emotions than by them trying to suppress them. Plus, Gamora has always been more than just a badass, even if she does fulfill my criteria. The stoicism category is the most interesting in this case, because it is the one that sees the most over the course of the three MCU movies Gamora has been in. One of my favorite moments in Infinity War is the introduction of the Guardians, when Gamora is lip syncing to Quill’s music. She never would have done that in the first movie. She doesn’t have to hide what she’s feeling, positive or negative, anymore, so when the moment calls for some raw emotion — as several moments in IW do — she is at least able to express it.

Of course, there are many conversations and probably an academic monograph to be had about agency in the MCU, but my specific point here is that I don’t think that agency and emotionality need to be inversely proportional. Of course, when we’re talking about female characters, there may well be concerns with the former, but that doesn’t mean that writers should eschew the latter to make up for that. Female characters also seem to be the first to come under fire for perceived emotional weakness, as well. I understand that some of the criticism comes from, you know, centuries of women being perceived as “the weaker sex,” and consequently centuries of female characters genuinely displaying less emotional fortitude than their male counterparts. As a woman myself, though, my argument with this paradigm is not that women actually don’t have intense emotions; instead, I’d argue that having intense emotions is HUMAN, you can be emotional and resilient at the same time, and maybe more dudes should try admitting to the presence of a feeling other than anger once in a while. I mean, I’ve seen people criticize Hermione Granger for crying too much in Harry Potter — again, there are conversations to be had about her arc versus the male characters’, BUT MY GOD, do you know how much on-page crying there would be if someone documented my ages 11 through 17?

My philosophical objection to The Badass is probably clear by now. I dislike narratives that punish or dismiss emotion. For male characters, The Badass all too frequently upholds elements of toxic masculinity. For female characters, The Badass can comes across with a kind of not-like-other-girls defensiveness. (I don’t know enough nonbinary characters to make a sweeping generalization about their portrayals vis-a-vis badassery.) But philosophy aside, I artistically object to the category of “badass” simply because it’s boring. It’s flattening. I have characters who don’t take shit, who are varying degrees of stoic, and who are violent, but I wouldn’t call them badasses, because that would paint a picture in people’s mind. If someone describes a character as badass to me, for better or for worse, I feel like I know what to expect. I don’t want people to feel like they know what to expect from my characters at all!

So perhaps, as media consumers and media creators, we can describe the characters we love a little more specifically, paying attention to the times when they surprise us the most. And if something bad happens to them, don’t expect them not to weep. It’s what they do after they weep that matters.


Formative Narratives

So basically as soon as I said that I was going to finish the second draft of werewolf story, I experienced my patented reoutline-everything-five-chapters-til-the-end part of my ~process. (This time, on a notepad in the car on the way back from a bridal shower for about an hour. I was pretty boring company, I’m afraid.) I did this I think three times with story, so I’m not totally sure why I thought I would make it to the end of this draft? I mean, I kind of still will, but with the last few chapters written as though I’ve already done everything I now know I need to do to the middle, just to see what they look like. I’m always somehow taken by surprise when my sudden windfall of clarity happens, but I suppose I shouldn’t be at this point. It always kind of makes me laugh, actually. It’s like my brain needs to get almost there . . . before it can reboot.

Onward with werewolf story then! Revision and rewriting are my favorite thing to do. Getting closer and closer and closer to the story you know the characters deserve.

(Also: Health Stuff is on the mend. Yay!)

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about Les Miserables, which I just saw on Broadway with my mom last week. This is the fourth time I’ve seen Les Mis live (the first time I was 10 years old). I have also watched the movie musical many a time since it came out, and I’ve also read the book (known affectionately as the brick by fans) quite a few times as well. Probably 90% of my reading is children’s and YA books, but when I go for an adult title, I guess my attitude is go big or go home. So considering my 15 year old love affair with this story, it is definitely fair to say that Les Mis is one of my formative narratives.

Everyone’s familiar with the hyperbolic claim that “this book changed my life.” Usually that’s just shorthand for “it was really good.” And I don’t even mean that disparagingly — hyperbole is one of my preferred modes of communication. (For example, if as many stories had actually “completely destroyed me emotionally” as I have claimed, I probably wouldn’t have the wherewithal to write this blog post.) But for the most part, life trucks along mostly unchanged even after a good book.

Sometimes, though, “this book changed my life” isn’t hyperbole. Sometimes it’s actually an understatement. There are some narratives that I can honestly say didn’t just change my life; they shaped it. I have several, but for me the main two are Harry Potter and Les Mis. Harry Potter’s a bit obvious, as a huge percentage of my “kids who liked to read and were born in the late 80s” demographic also fit that bill. The fact remains, though, that the Kathleen who lives in an alternate universe where Harry Potter never existed is not the Kathleen writing this post right now. She’s probably fairly similar — for example, I had alighted upon my writing ambition pre-HP, because I’m one of those obnoxious people who’s always known what she wants to do — but so many of my professional interests, political views, and personal relationships and patterns can be traced very clearly back to my childhood and adolescence with those books.

Similarly with Les Mis, I’ve been engaging with these characters and narratives for three-fifths of my entire life. I fancy myself a bit of a Les Mis connoisseur, with an oddly detailed memory of minute performance details and musical-novel connections. Also, I have literally been reenacting my favorite death scene  from the book (listen, Les Mis has a lot of them) for 12 years, maybe? Including on the school bus in middle school, all the way up to outside a Tasty Burger for an audience of grad school friends. So that’s . . . a weird thing about me.

But it’s not all encyclopedic recall and gushing fannishness. It’s determining the kinds of narratives that matter most to me, both as a guide for creating my own fiction and also for creating my own life. Of course real life has more moving parts than even a beast of a book like Les Mis, and any editor would tell you that it is overcrowded, poorly paced, and has far too many loose ends and dropped plotlines. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t plan our lives like narrative (or that I don’t, at least). We expect a satisfying conclusion to any number of our efforts. We want our own character development to pay off, and we hope that we accomplish something. (I am assuming here that no one actually wants to live the lives portrayed in the drab cynical contemporary adult realism subsection of the market.) (I’M NOT SAYING ALL CONTEMPORARY ADULT REALISM IS BAD. Just, you know, a lot of it.)

My formative narratives are the stories that helped direct the rising action of my own life really early on. I honed my opinion-forming skills on these books. I went on HP-verse werewolf rights tirades in eighth grade that were actually my first opinions about healthcare. That same year, I was zoning out in class to consider the implications of How Cynicism Sucks, But More Importantly, Is Incorrect embedded the character of Grantaire in Les Mis. Much later on, I learned to be critical of these texts, and if that’s difficult, it’s because these texts have become a part of me, and being critical of oneself is always difficult, but also necessary. (I need to keep getting better at this, especially with regards to Harry Potter. But I’m working on it. And I’m certainly trying to not have the same flaws in my own writing, especially with regards to representation of race and sexuality.) (Being critical is easier with Les Mis, mostly because if you don’t find some things to disagree about with a well-off white guy from the 1800s, you probably have to do some pretty urgent reevaluation.)

When I was watching Les Mis last week, a lot of things were going through my head. I cried a lot, because that’s what I do. I cataloged actors’ facial expressions with a furious intensity, mostly because MY MOM GOT US SUCH GOOD SEATS. (Last time I saw it, I couldn’t so much . . . see. But that production [25th anniversary UK tour, baby! I was studying abroad] was so breathtakingly perfect that it kind of didn’t even matter.) But there where also moment when I would feel a sweet, aching tenderness. Parts where I thought: ah, yes. That’s where that part of myself was born. Hello, little me. I still love this. I still care about this. I’m still here, trying to make myself in the image of narratives of hope, and love, and the possibility of change.