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Posts Tagged ‘The Twelve Kingdoms’

I have a confession to make: I can be a bit of a doormat, a people pleaser, a pushover. In the effort to make others happy and/or lacking the backbone to speak my mind, I have a habit of letting others run right over my true wishes and thoughts without so much as a peep of objection. When people ask me, “What do you want to do,” even if I have a preference (which sometimes I just don’t), I smile politely and say, “Oh, whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Or worse, someone will ask me if I’ll do something and, while in my mind, I’m screaming my loathing of the idea, my feeble subconscious automatically moves my lips in the pattern its grown accustomed to and, before I have time to rally my thoughts, its formed the detested words, “Yes.” And with a smile plastered on my face, of course.

images-82So, how is a feminist who’s a confessed doormat like myself supposed to feel when I see a classic doormat female character letting herself be dragged through the course of a story? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. Like everyone else, I like to see characters who I can relate to, even if that means they are not go-get-’em girls who have a healthy amount of backbone at the beginning of the story. While I admire and praise the female characters who get out there and take action, whether that action is starting her own business or taking back a kingdom, I often see more of myself reflected in those female characters who are too nice for their own good and who seem to be waiting for others to make something happen. That has made me hesitate to take the pen against certain characters despite seeing the problems with the messages those characters send.

Of course, just because a female character is passive doesn’t mean I automatically feel something like kinship to her; passive female characters pop up in fiction a fair amount, from classic princesses from fairy tales to modern action flicks and it’s something that I’ve complained about over and over and over and over and over—well, you get the point. But there are times when they strike a cord within me. For example, one famous character who I have a bit of a soft spot for, but who also has some very reasonable complaints lodged against her because of her doormat behavior is Tohru from Fruits Basket. Tohru is a classic doormat at the beginning of the series; always smiling and putting others before her, she is sweet to a fault and will do whatever others ask of her. She’d let herself be tricked and treated poorly if that somehow helps the other person or because she feels she must have deserved that treatment and she apologizes even when she’s done nothing wrong. As unrealistic as that sounds, there is a degree of her character that rings true to me, especially as the series goes on.

The problem lays in the fact that these types of passive heroines reinforce old notions about gender roles and relationships that just aren’t healthy, notions that suggest that an ideal, good woman is someone who does whatever she can to make others happy and does what she is told. These are, of course, very traditional ideas that aren’t as popular as they were, say, in the 50’s, but still manage to surface in fiction as an ideal. To me, doormats are the worst of the breed of passive female characters because they are presented as saint-like in their benevolence in a way that just isn’t possible for even the nicest human being to behave and feel all the time. In addition, in stories like Fruits Basket, she even has people who will stand up and protect her when she won’t herself. Like classic stories like Cinderella, somehow or another the girl with the “purest” heart eventually wins via living happily ever after. Thus, when girls read or watch stories with doormat heroines, they’re supposed to admire and long to be like them with the promise of praise, protection, and “happily ever after” floating around in their heads. Sadly, reality isn’t nearly so sweet and letting others do whatever they want while lowering your own desires and feelings can be dangerous, if not simply unhealthy, whether you are male or female (of course, males who are passive are mercilessly considered “weak” while women still get the message that passiveness can be an attractive trait in them).

However, I don’t think doormat female characters are inherently harmful role models, the likes of which should vanish from fiction. Rather, I think how we present these characters in fiction images-84should be altered. Instead of depicting a complete lack of a backbone as something to be admired in a woman, it should be shown as a type of behavior that some people have, with all the trouble it can bring upon those people. If a doormat character is to be admired, it’s not because she’s so nice that she’ll let others walk all over her, but for, perhaps, her struggle to stand up for herself and gain a backbone. A woman can still be nice without being passive and it takes real effort to flex those assertive muscles after being doormat for some time; as a confessed doormat, that’s one of my biggest struggles. In fact, one of my favorite stories, Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow, largely centers around the internal struggle of Youko, a girl who has spent her life trying to be non-offensive to others, even if it meant ignoring her true thoughts and feelings. (Edit: Even Tohru is revealed to have problems of her own and she is forced to face those problems down the line, something that adds depth to a doormat character that isn’t always depicted.)

So, show me doormat characters, I won’t deny that they exist in reality, but don’t feed misconceptions about what it means to be a doormat. Better yet, give us doormats some extra inspiration by creating more characters who come to recognize the problem with their own behavior and fight it.

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The Twelve Kingdoms

In this series, I introduce princess characters I feel defy stereotypical princess characteristics, some of which I identified in Disney’s classical princesses characters. Last week I discussed Nausicaa from Nausciaa of the Valley of the Wind, a strong-willed princess with real responsibilities and the best of intentions. I said stereotypical princesses lacked responsibilities, but definitely possess the good-hearted trait seen in Nausicaa. The princess in this post is going to be somewhat in between and takes quite the interesting character journey. You know it’s not going to be a Disney princess story when the princess’ father is a cruel tyrant and her title is taken away from her at the beginning of the story!

HER STORY

Shoukei is a princess from a book series turned anime called The Twelve Kingdoms, appearing in the book entitled Skies of Dawn and in the third arc of the anime series. As I said, she starts off as a princess living an ideal princess life in an ideal world inside the palace, all the while unaware that her father the king has become so obsessed with ridding the world of crime that he executes citizens for the smallest of crimes. After 30 years of this, some government officials rise up and kill Shoukei’s parents, unable to take the bloody reign any longer. Shoukei’s life is spared because of her ignorance, but she is, in her opinion, still unfairly punished by being thrown out of the palace to live like the average orphan at an orphanage. Believe it or not, this is the beginning of her story.     

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

The Twelve Kingdoms

Shoukei begins her story the ideal princess–at least, she has a number of big traits associated frequently with dreamy princesses. For starters, she’s young and beautiful. When her father becomes king, Shoukei is only 13-years-old.  In this world, the ruler is immortal and other high-ranking people are able to become immortals by being entered in a register (Of course, that means their immortality can be taken away by taking them off which becomes part of Shoukei’s punishment.) This means Shoukei had essentially been frozen in the role of a young girl for over three decades. While others may have grown mentally and become independent, she continued to act like a child and was treated as such by her parents who spoiled her. Shoukei even sings like the perfect princesses of Disney! (And like Disney songs, Shoukei’s song has meaning significant to the story.) She is fragile, doll-like, and appears to have no other responsibility other than to be pure and innocent, singing pretty songs and wearing pretty things. But that’s where things get interesting.

NON-TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

The Twelve Kingdoms--Shoukei is on the far left

Shoukei was kept inside the palace at all times by her father and was not involved in politics so that she would always be pure and innocent. If we were to go by Disney standards, Shoukei is just perfect. However, in the world of The Twelve Kingdoms, people expect more from a princess. What the king ended up creating was a girl who was completely detached from the reality of the world outside the palace, unable to live up to her title and position and who struggles to live as normal citizen after she’s dethroned and removed from the Registry of Immortals. In other words, The Twelve Kingdoms takes the traditional princess, sets her in a more realistic word, and highlights the problems. In many ways, this section could be renamed in Shoukei’s case because, while she does develop non-typical princess traits, in many ways the thing that makes this princess different is the world which expects more from her and depicts vividly how purity and innocence aren’t the best traits in someone with power. This forces Shoukei to become something more than a pretty doll.

But for those of you who are a little depressed at the idea of a naive princess’ fall from grace, rest assured there’s more to Shoukei’s journey than this. The Twelve Kingdoms has a lot of character development and, although there’s plenty of action, too, half of the story is about various characters’ psychological journey. Shoukei must cope with the past and figure out how to live this new life as a normal person. That’s the way she is different from Disney princesses; Shoukei grows and experiences many feelings over her new situation, not all of them pretty. She expresses a lot of jealousy, not to mention rage, and can be rather self-centered at times. But Shoukei isn’t a bad person; it’s just that this story isn’t afraid to show that princesses are human with all the emotions that come with it. This allows for realistic growth. Ironically, while Shoukei was punished for her ignorance, her knowledge later becomes a huge asset to some big events and, now aware of both the difficulties of a ruler and the plights of the subjects, she becomes intricately involved in a rebellion in another kingdom. Shoukei is one of many interesting and deep characters from this series (which I hope to review soon) so, if you haven’t read or watched it yet, check out The Twelve Kingdoms.

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What makes a good female character? Because I have now done several posts on potentially good female characters undermined by various factors (in my opinion), I’ve decided to try to map out what I think makes a good, solid female character. To be honest, it’s a difficult question. There may be some characters I bring up as good examples that you will disagree about, but I will try to pinpoint the actions and characteristics that bring them to a realistic and strong level.

Original book series

She accepts or ends up accepting herself for everything that she is and isn’t. 

Great example: Yoko Nakajima from The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

“A young girl who is pushed beyond her limits physically, emotionally, and mentally” –Tokyopop

Yoko Nakajima is a 16-year-old honor-role student from Japan who tries to please. She tries to please her parents, her teachers, and her fellow classmates, but in the process,  isn’t really honest with herself or others. But through a series of events, Yoko is taken to another world where suddenly, she is under attack by demons and confront espionage, terror, betrayal, and herself on a harrowing journey.

Yoko’s story is a brilliant mix of action and psychological adventure. She is lost in this new, strange world and travels alone for good stretches of time where she has a lot of time to think. She’s forced to confront her fears and doubts, not to mention how she behaved previously. However, instead of letting that destroy her, Yoko becomes stronger by realizing her mistakes and not letting her fear defeat her.

The other great thing about Yoko is that despite being utterly lost in this other world, she isn’t helpless. She figures a lot out on her own and, although it’s a skill bestowed upon her, Yoko fights off the demons after her by herself.

Here’s how the author of The Twelve Kingdoms series, Fuyumi Ono says she created the story and character of Yoko Nakajima:

Many of my readers end up writing to me and they often share their personal

Anime adaptation which I also recommend

problems. I was never able to write back to them, so instead, I wrote Sea of Shadow. As for the events that befall Yoko, I feel that all people end up experiencing, to a greater or lesser extent, the kinds of mental and emotional trauma that Yoko does as they grow and establish themselves in the world. – Fuyumi Ono (Interview with Tokyopop)

She can think and decide things independent of the influence of society or other people, is intelligent, and an equal.

Great example: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

“Do not consider me now as an elegant female, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” – Elizabeth Bennet

Elizabeth Bennet is her own person and not afraid to show it. She’s intelligent and witty and isn’t wholly concerned with marriage. She also “demonstrates her intelligence by acknowledging that marriage does not always bring happiness.” (College Term Paper) That’s part of what makes Elizabeth Bennet different to me compared to other heroines in romance novels, but that’s not all.

BBC adaptation which I highly recommend

Whenever I pick up a romance, whether it’s just my bad luck or a trend, the heroine rambles on about how she’s not worthy to have such a fine man, etc. While there is a point when Elizabeth realizes Mr. Darcy is a better man than what she first judged, she never wallows in feelings of inferiority. Even when they were picking at each other, it was an enjoyable banter of equal wit. Also, I appreciated that the two become friends first before it turns into a romance.

As for Darcy coming to Elizabeth’s family’s rescue, it’s a period piece written at a time when women would not have the financial power to handle that issue even if they wanted to. It just wouldn’t be realistic. Furthermore, the way Darcy handles it is not with a big ego and sense of superiority, but with love and a bit of awkwardness or embarrassment.

She plays an important role in the story (whether she’s the main character or not) and is not limited to love interest.

Great example: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.” – Hermione Granger

Hermione is a wonderful character. She’s not the main character of the series, but she holds an important spot in the story. (Can you imagine a Harry Potter without Hermione?) She is the last of the threesome to be introduced and is initially a bit conceited when it comes to her knowledge (because, let’s face it, Hermione could beat even that computer on Jeopardy). But soon she becomes one of the group and the real brains behind the operation. She’s also the only girl in the threesome, but that doesn’t make her the weak link nor just an object of awkward flirting. Sure, there is a bit of romance later, but the romance doesn’t become the essence of Hermione and consume her completely (Look! She still has friends!).  

As Kathleen Sweeny notes in her article Supernatural Girls, “Harry Potter provides a consistent storyline of cross-gendered teamwork that is not trivialized as flirtation. Harry not only encourages Hermione’s role in the acquisition of power–he depends on her.” Depend he does. There are key things that Hermione figures out and moments when Harry may have been lost without her.

She’s human.

All three of the examples above show a sense of realism that really anchors them in my mind as complete and strong. They all have aspects everyone can relate to and/or admire. None of them are superheroes in the sense that they are supremely better in every aspect than all the other characters and certainly, none of them are the weak female character that borders on ridiculous. Each has her own personality and her character is wonderful and able to stand on its own. I’d also like to point out that her strength isn’t necessarily physical or limited to physical strength.

These are what I would probably consider some of the most important factors in strong female characters and only three examples of female characters that reach this level for me. This is obviously all just my opinion so I would love to hear what you think makes a strong female character and/or who some of your favorite female characters are.

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