Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency

When I'm talking narrative and I want someone's eyes to light up, I just tell them this: Die Hard is one of my favorite Cinderella stories. I cannot take credit for making the connection myself. It was at a conference. An editor from a well-known publishing house was defining an elevator pitch for the benefit of a new writer. "It's like: Cinderella meets Die Hard," he said. The audience laughed, and the editor with them. "I know," he continued. "What would that even look like?"

Reader, I was shaking. Instantly abuzz. If I hadn't been conspicuously seated in the second row at this panel, I'd have run straight out of the room and started writing.

OF COURSE Die Hard is Cinderella. A mysterious stranger crashes a party he wasn't officially invited to. His feet are covered in glass. Later he is pursued by people who are desperate to uncover his real identity. He ends up reunited with the person he went to the party to see. Holly is the prince. Al is the fairy godmother. Argyle's limo is the pumpkin carriage. And Hans Gruber, naturally, is the wicked stepmother.

John McClane sits by the sink and picks glass shards out of his bloody, injured feet.

I've been thinking a lot about this in context of a recent NPR story by the ever-revelatory Linda Holmes -- this paragraph in particular:

[Cinderella is] partly a fantasy about simplifying the relationships between social standing and coupling — one that makes the most sense in a world in which class differences are an accepted barrier to a good man choosing to marry a woman. If the prince is a man who believes from the outset that love conquers all, the story doesn't really make any sense. It would be hard to set Cinderella on a properly functioning egalitarian collective.

The gender-flip in Die Hard turns the prince into a princess -- but the class chasm stays the same. Bonnie Bedelia's Holly is a corporate ladder-climber, an executive at a Japanese company that occupies an entire LA skyscraper. Her job is far more high-status than that of her scruffy blue-collar cop husband. But where the original Cinderella is about elevating the low-born heroine to the prince's aristocratic level, Die Hard's perfect, meticulously constructed plot inexorably undermines the foundation of Holly's higher status.

Imagine Cinderella blowing up the palace.

Yes, technically Hans Gruber is the villain -- but our hero John McClane does at least as much blowing up of things as his nemesis does. One by one, the connections between Holly and her career are severed: her boss is killed, her douchey co-worker is shot, the company is burgled, the building is destroyed, and finally even her new Rolex must be sacrificed to ensure Hans Gruber's downfall. (See what I did there? Oh, Hans, please forgive me that joke, I love you -- you were raised to be charming, not sincere.) She is given no choice but to take John back almost out of self-defense.

It's not just me saying this, either -- witness this really  detailed PopMatters essay about the political/social/cinematic context of the film:

The obvious professional success of Holly at Nakatomi, which led her to forsake her husband in New York, is presented in Die Hard as a metaphor for the threat of feminism to the family institution and to the established patriarchal social order.

There's a lot in there about westerns and WWII and Vietnam and categories of masculinity; it's pretty dense and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Getting back to the fairy tale, everyone's always framing Cinderella stories in terms of agency. Here is Linda Holmes on the Prince in Disney's earlier Cinderella film:

If you were putting on a stage play based on that cartoon and you were short of actors, my very first suggestion would be that you obtain a large bag of flour and a toupee, allowing you to dispense with casting anyone at all as the prince.

And yet when we criticize the storytelling in Cinderella tales, it's never the prince's role that comes under fire. Because even in the most bare-bones versions, the prince goes in quest of something -- and there is a long, long, Western narrative tradition that tells us the quest story is a hero's story and automatically worthy (oh hello, Star Wars fans who like to cite Joseph Campbell). We read the prince as a little mini-hero in this tale, while we dismiss Cinderella for being confused and conflicted and passive. (Sondheim's Into the Woods will always be the most resounding critique of this structure, for me.)

Joseph Campbell has a lot to answer for.

But agency is only one axis on which a character can be given importance. Perspective, choice, centering of a protagonist can happen regardless of the level of doing-ness. For comparison: Hamlet is notorious for passivity and indecision, but his inability to act is a feature of the story, not a bug, and critics discuss it as such. Die Hard reads as anti-feminist thus not so much because Holly is inactive -- she is the agent of several key turns of the plot. The movie is anti-feminist because Holly's perspective/wants are not centered by the film's arc. We see a little bit of her emotions at the beginning, on the phone with her children, but we never see the real defining moment where she decides she and John can make their relationship work. (They ultimately don't, as the next few films demonstrate.) We do see John's moment of revelation -- but crucially, this transformation appears in a scene between him and Al. Al and John's developing trust, of course, is the real emotional arc in the film, and a much more convincing romance.

Using pure action-based agency as a metric to judge female characters as more or less feminist has become this year's Manic Pixie Dream Girl: it started as a useful critical lens, but when it's the only lens we apply it blinds us to other aspects of storytelling. The protagonist's lack of agency in recent glorious mess Jupiter Ascending was frequently singled out as poorly written and regressive.

From the Mary Sue's review:

If I had to critique this movie in any sort of, you know, actual way (beyond “it was a hot-ass mess”), I would say that I do wish the film had been a little less caught up in the traditional model of princess-saving. When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.

From Variety:

Although clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another...

From The New York Times:

Though she has more space opera swirling around her than any actor could possible hold together, Kunis does an admirable job even if never given much of a chance to be the prime mover in her fairy tale.

All these reviews and many others have bought into a limited concept of agency: kicking ass and taking names. Partly this is habit -- quest narratives and violence-as-agency are hugely enshrined in sff/geek culture and film blockbusters both, most especially when those two fandoms overlap: see The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien/Aliens, Terminator/Terminator 2, and even The Princess Bride. Take a good hard look at your love for The Princess Bride, those of you who found Jupiter Jones too passive a heroine.

See also: critiques of Twilight that point out how much of the series is designed to give Bella Swan everything she wants. People hate when you suggest that maybe Twilight is doing something interesting with its heroine. (Standard disclaimer: not a Twilight fan, haven't read it, found some persuasively written articles.)

Jupiter Jones does not hit very many people in the course of her movie, it's true. But her life, her experience, her anxieties, and her choices are all central to the film's framework. She is important, and not merely as a vessel of power: she narrates her own birth in voiceover and explains how it is significant, she worries about trust and love and an inherited history of unhappy relationships, she struggles with a difficult family whose engagement is embarrassing and an irritation, she is burdened with sudden knowledge and terrible power and galactic prominence without ever asking for it, without being sure if she even wants to be a part of what seems like a really shitty system of government and exploitation. That she hesitates to wield this power is, I think, a mark of intelligence and good moral sense. She mistrusts her sudden elevation in rank, and does not consider herself automatically an expert in an ancient and politically fraught hypertechnological culture she's only known about for three days.

Imagine Cinderella realizing she has no inclination to rule a kingdom where three of the most powerful nobles are constantly trying to kill one another.

Caine, by contrast, is given the cardboard quest narrative: get your wings back, brooding hero, and find your pack or mate or whatever. It's as plain and predictable as the prince's agency in the traditional Cinderella. Caine has only one possible choice or motive in this movie: to save Jupiter, to choose Jupiter, to support Jupiter. Jupiter, meanwhile, gets everything she wants. Caine objects to a relationship between them because of her higher rank, but she laughs this off and they end up together despite his objections. Caine gets his wings back (hardly a spoiler), and Jupiter lovingly caresses them as though they belong to her. She insists that he call her "Your Majesty" because she likes it -- and then she straps on his gravity skates and flies away with him.

Is our heroine really the one with the lack of agency in this framework?

Screen shot from Jupiter Ascending. Jupiter Jones is seen from behind, in a fancy white dress spotted with red feathers and a headdress to match. She faces away from the camera, shoulders tall, while far below her crowds of tiny people look up in awe.

The scene where Sean Bean lays out Caine's angsty backstory for Jupiter's benefit is so full of lingering shirtless Tatum camerawork that I laughed aloud in the theater. It is the single most romance novel-esque thing I have ever seen on film (though I haven't seen the wedding episode of Outlander, which author Alisha Rai assures me is the most Female Gaze-y thing in all the world). The critics focusing on action might have misread the film: the romance readers and authors I know were all hailing it as one of our own.

Romance as a storytelling form has long existed in counterpoint to the mainstream male narrative canon -- counterpoint both in the sense of alternative, and in the sense of harmony (since not all romance is automatically feminist in nature or perspective). Romance features happy endings instead of 'important' tragedies, female characters given pride of place as heroines, love and family and domestic concerns treated as weightily as wars and battles. Romance also deals quite often with limits on agency: the unmoneyed gently born heroines of Austen's novels; those notorious scenes of forced seduction during the era of Woodiwiss, Rogers, and Small; even E. L. James' The Book That Shall Not Be Named explores what it means to be constrained on both a physical and metaphorical level.

A romance heroine's limited agency is, like Hamlet's, not a bug but a feature.

Jupiter Ascending is a Cinderella story -- but it is also, importantly, Jane Eyre. We begin with our heroine's birth, we see her thankless labor and her mortified body (someone write me an essay comparing the egg-selling clinic with Lowood School IMMEDIATELY PLEASE), she finds a secret family and a brooding love interest, there is an interrupted wedding and an unpleasantly insistent relative and at the end everything burns to the ground but our heroine finds happiness anyways. And you could make a pretty good case for this narrative being anti- or ambiguously feminist, as people often do with Jane Eyre --but the critics of Jupiter Ascending have not been making this argument. The sci-fi movie lovers have not been making this argument. They have been arguing for more violence, more unquestioned use of questionable power. More doing simply for the sake of doing-ness.

It is not enough to critique a character's lack of action, especially a female character, without looking at the context in which that action or non-action takes place.

If what Jane Eyre really wanted from her story and her wold was agency for agency's sake, she'd have gone off with St. John Rivers. Rochester would have struggled alone with his disabilities. Jane herself would have died while bolstering a racist colonial empire in a sexless marriage with a coldly principled, joyless man. Instead Jane makes a choice -- as Jupiter Jones does, over and over, not carving out a space with fists and weapons but picking the least bad of several options -- and that choice is given weight and heft by the narrator. Reader, I married him, she says, speaking out to us from the page.

I've always loved dogs, says Jupiter Jones. And we laugh, because it's ridiculous, and she rolls her eyes, and says it again, horrified at what's just come out of her mouth.

And we laugh again, in recognition. Because we've been there, so many of us, at the peak of a crucial romantic moment, saying something that initially seemed clever but turned out to be an absolute disaster.

Jupiter Jones may not be the Heroine With Agency we're supposed to want -- but she may be the heroine we didn't know we've been missing.

___

There's always someone, somewhere, writing about Cinderella. Here's a very incomplete list of the most recent/most interesting ones I've seen:

For bonus fun, here is a short and pointed Jupiter Ascending fanfic that imagines an alternative wedding scene because, per the author, "I spent too much of the movie waiting for Chekhov's bees to go off."

A is for Ash

{Welcome to the first post of my April A-Z challenge! For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} This is my second time reading Ash, Malinda Lo's lyrical lesbian Cinderella YA romance. The first time I found our heroine a little bit too reactive for my tastes, though I liked the book's style and setting a great deal. I also liked the presence of queer relationships in a fairy-tale context, and thought it was a step forward for LGBTQ representation in young adult fiction. Upon the re-read, I started to qualify and modify this second conclusion. It now seems to me that the specter of compulsory heterosexuality is very present in Ash, and even helps drive the mechanics of the plot.

Cover for Ash by Malinda Lo. A black background with the image of a black-haired, pale-skinned girl in a white diaphanous dress. She is on her side, curled up with her arms around her knees. Cursive script reads ASH.The main action is interspersed with fairy stories, many of which feature some element of romance. Some of these romances involve two women, such as the sweetly charming story of Niamh and the Fairy Queen. Throughout the book, women are shown falling in love with one another, sneaking away from dances with one another, all the usual motions of romance. But we never see two men together—and we never see two women getting married or raising children. We have queer relationships, but no queer families.

In fact, marriage in Ash is very classically heteronormative, particularly among the upper classes on whose borders our heroine exists. Her stepsister Ana is "well ready to find a husband" (Kindle location 970); her fellow maid Gwen "can't wait to find a husband" (1191); and the kingdom is all a-twitter about Prince Aidan choosing "a bride ... a lady worthy of becoming his wife" (1957). As for the prince's thoughts on his upcoming nuptials, Ash "did not think he seemed particularly thrilled by his parents' announcement" (1963). Just as in the default medieval fantasy-Europe, marriage is for legitimizing children, for inheriting power, and for merging property.

And in this world, despite all the lesbian love, ladies cannot earn their own living, as stepsister Clara makes clear: "I am a gentlewoman's daughter. I have no trade" (Kindle location 2120). Which means upper-class manners are heavily gendered in a way readers are likely recognize from their own lives:

"One must be properly respectful and yet give a hint of playfulness," Lady Isobel instructed ... "One cannot diminish the importance of this -- you must always show that you admire his wealth and stature, but at the same time you must not be in too much awe of it."

"Why not? Clara asked. "Do men not enjoy it when a woman is in awe of them?"

"Of course they do," Ana put in, "but you must avoid appearing as though you are interested only in his wealth." (Kindle location 2110)

Ambitious Ana is angling for the prince, and Clara merely hopes to be comfortably well-off, but Ash explicitly rejects marriage as a means of self-support. She argues with Clara and says that such an arrangement would "be false" (2127), emphasis original, and she "deliberately" devours an egg on a night when girls who fast are promised dreams of their future husband (1265).

It seems fairly obvious in this context that Sidhean the fairy represents Ash's putative husband. He is aloof and cruel yet protective in the manner of alpha heroes from time immemorial: he jealously rescues her from an interested female fairy (1333) and his gifts are magically binding and symbolically loaded -- a fur cloak, a medallion, and a moonstone ring. Each gift is a debt: along with the material gifts, he grants Ash's wishes and helps her attend the Royal Hunt and the subsequent masquerade, Ash's stand-ins for the single ball of the original tale. So again, heterosexual relationships are transactional and commodified. SIdhean's ability to grant Ash's wishes places him in the fairy godmother role, but unlike the original story it is made abundantly clear that his gifts come with price tags attached.

The hunters, including Ash's love interest Kaisa, exist somewhat outside this patriarchal framework: "hunts had always been led by women."

When she saw the hunters in the village, Ash was transfixed by the sight of them. The women, especially, with their casual camaraderie and easy grace, seemed like entirely different creatures than her stepmother and stepsisters. (493)

As the King's Huntress, Kaisa can earn wages. She is a member of the royal household in a way that is more than mere servitude: she has a certain independence, and she is invited to high-class events like the masquerade, which a true servant would never be permitted to attend as a guest. Her romance with Ash is secret and sweet and happens in the forest and in back hallways of the palace -- on the fringes of the world of straight marriage and patriarchal monarchy. In one of these stolen moments, we learn Ash has internalized the rules of straight romance:

"I am no one -- a servant in a poor household. What could I give you?"

Kaisa seemed taken aback. "You don't need to give me anything," she said. "I offer because I care for you." (2412)

At this point, Ash is still in debt to Sidhean, still bound to him by gifts and promises and the full weight of his love and expectation. There appears to be no way for Ash to be with Kaisa; she is owned by someone else, not free to make her own choices. Later, once she realizes the depths of her love for Kaisa (and vice versa), she has a deeper realization:

The knowledge of love had changed her. It focused what had once been a blur; it turned her world around and presented her with a new landscape. Now, she would do anything to bring Kaisa happiness. And if the knowledge of love could change her, would it not also change Sidhean? (2795)

The world of transactional (straight) romance is mutable, escapable: true love has a power that mere marriage can only envy, even as the fairies envy mortals and copy the forms but not the substance of their customs:

As the people swayed and stamped and sung their way around the bonfire, Ash knew that this was what the fairies were always hunting for: a circle of joy, hot and brilliant, the scent of love in the deepest winter. But all they could do was create a pale, crystalline imitation, perfect and cold. (2720)

Ash goes to Sidhean and does something that surprised and puzzled me on my first read: she asks him to let her free, in return for one night together. I'd been thinking of the fairy as something of a villain, or at least an antagonist: that Ash could simply ask to be released and get it seemed to cheapen the climax of the novel. It's that easy? I wondered. Just like that?

Well, yes, just like that -- because Ash's request preserves for Sidhean the form of the transactional, heterosexual marriage, an exchange rather than a true gift. There is a risk: "One night in my world is not the same as one night in yours," he tells her (2812). But Ash has the advantage of knowing that the fairy world is not quite real -- she has had this thought many times over the course of the book -- and she is willing to take a chance. And indeed, upon waking, only one mortal night has passed (though there's an argument to be made that something like a lifetime has passed in the fairy realm). Ash is able to accept Kaisa's love and to offer her own, freed now from the bonds of debt.

At the same time, this freedom from the larger patriarchal/transactional system appears to come at a price. Lesbian relationships aren't at all visible in the larger world of Ash, as straight relationships are. We only see two women living happily ever after together in the tales of fairies and heroes, tales that take place in an implied (and very romanticized) past. The choice between the fairy husband and the huntress lover is a lose-lose, given this structure. Queer love can subvert the larger social system; it cannot participate in it.

___

Malinda Lo has talked quite a bit about race in fantasy and race and sexuality in character dialogue. The prequel Huntress makes it more explicit than the text in Ash, but Ms. Lo does say that she pictured both Ash and Kaisa as having Asian features. At the end of last year she also did a post full of YA books featuring LGBT characters of color.

Recently I discovered the existence of The Lesbrarywhich is a fantastic name for a website and a bountiful source of recommendations and reviews of lesbian writing in just about every genre.

___

Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co. 2009. Ebook.

Book Vs. Book: Ash and Ella Enchanted

We here at Olivia Waite earned our masters degree in Comparative Literature, and old habits die hard. The Book Vs. Book series will compare one book to another book similar in plot or theme or based on the same material. We will not care (much) about arguing which book is better, but we will care a great deal about what the books' differences mean for the story experience. It goes without saying that Here There Be Spoilers.

Today's contenders:

The hardback cover for Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo vs. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

The cover for one paperback edition of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Let's talk Cinderella stories. In an essay you should read if you haven't already, Jennifer Crusie breaks down the essence of Cinderella, both the well-known Grimms' version and a modern Harlequin romance based on the tale. She finds that one of the hallmarks of the original tale is the heroine's passivity:

In the Grimm’s story, Cinderella feels a lack of love and status; she follows her mother’s interdiction and is good; she quests (?) by asking others for help, and she is rewarded with the love of the prince and marriage. The tale punishes active women (the stepsisters who move heaven and earth and even chop off body parts to snag the prince) and rewards the passive (Cinderella, who depends on other to save her, runs away from confrontation, and sits waiting to be rescued). The Grimm’s culture was obviously sending women the message/theme: “Be good and passive and you will be rewarded.”

But if the Grimm’s culture rewards passivity in females, [the] modern audience does not.

A modern reader, even one who has been raised with these stories, often finds them at odds with many other messages sent by the culture: be passive and good, but follow your dreams; carpe diem, but the best things come to those who wait; etc etc etc.

Although Steven Swan Jones has argued that the resonance of a tale comes from the text interpreting “the larger drama of life,” in fairy tales that larger drama is often of male life, not female, and this has led many women to feel both drawn to the original tales and uncomfortable with them. … One woman reported to Stone that “I remember a feeling of being left out in the fairy tale stories. Whatever the story was about, it wasn’t about me. But this feeling didn’t make me not interested in them. I knew there was something I was supposed to do or be to fit in there, but I couldn’t do it, and it bothered me” (qtd. in Stone 133).

These two aspects—passivity/activity and reader identification—are vital to any comparison of Ash and Ella Enchanted. Let's start with the question of our heroine's passivity.

In Ash, which I only discovered recently and mostly enjoyed, our heroine only does about three things under her own steam during the course of the book. She is isolated, and diffident, and tends to feel numb with grief, which is affecting at first but starts to get tedious after a while. She may have been promised and is certainly attracted to an elf who was an acquaintance of her late mother's, but she's also very drawn to the King's Huntress, a completely awesome character named Kaisa who teaches her to ride and track. (There is a prince floating around, but he's not who the story is interested in.)

In order to get proper gear and a proper mount for the King's Hunt—our ball equivalent—Ash promises herself to the hot but scary elf, only to realize that of course she's really in love with Kaisa. How to get out of this magically binding promise? She asks the elf to let her go after a single night, because if he loves her he'll want her to be happy. And he does. And this is the solution to our whole problem. Love is a get out of Elfland jail free card.

It was a little unsatisfying to this particular reader—though I admit, part of that could be because I'd read Ella Enchanted before, and this book really ups the bar on Cinderella interpretations.

In Ella, our heroine is under a curse: she has to obey any direct order she is given, whether it's a command to pass the butter at dinner or a demand that she slit her own throat. Any resistance becomes physically uncomfortable and even dangerous to her life. Naturally, she finds all this infuriating, and much of the book is spent demonstrating how she can subvert orders that are broad or unspecific—when told to come closer, she takes a single step forward, for instance, or when told to pick up a pair of her stepsister's shoes, she picks them up and throws them out the window into a slop bucket. The forced obedience makes her follow the lines of the story (poverty, servitude, helplessness, disguise) without wholly taking away her agency as a character. In a way, she's struggling against an enforced passivity in the same way as readers of the Grimms' original story.

She meets her prince, they fall in love, he asks her to marry him—and Ella has a horrible realization: because of the curse, she could put her prince and her kingdom in danger. She is a weapon to be used against the people she loves. And so she refuses, even though the prince himself (who doesn't know of the curse) is commanding her to say yes (though he doesn't know it's a command rather than persuasion). And she refuses again, when her stepmother and stepsisters (who do know of the curse) command her to accept, because they want to use her as a means of increasing their own wealth and status. And the physical effects of disobedience become worse and worse, until she's shaking herself to pieces—and then deep inside herself, she finds an oasis of strength, and knows she's doing the right thing in refusing the marriage to save the prince she dearly loves. So she refuses a third time—and the curse is broken.

This is love as a force to be reckoned with, not a weakness to be exploited.

But if Ella Enchanted is more successful in dealing with the passivity from the original story, it is still firmly rooted in heteronormativity. Women and men get married to each other, and never is anything else suggested.

In Ash, on the other hand, queer relationships are everywhere, built right into the recognizable fairy-tale world. Characters tell fairy stories where women fall in love with women; some girls dance with girls and some men with men at a Yule ball, and it's no big earth-shaking deal. Ash herself is attracted to both an elf man and a human woman, and for all her angst she spends not one instant of time wondering which of them she's supposed to be "really" in love with on account of their gender.

There is an opportunity that Ash provides for queer youth and teenagers to see themselves reflected in its pages; it is a less exclusive mirror than the original Cinderella—where every woman wants the prince, and is competing to get him.

And if there were a way to squish these two books together into one giant Super-Cinderella of Awesome, I totally would.