Monday, 25 February 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: A Death in Pictures

A Valentine’s Day killing of one half of a couple by the other seems like something out of an episode of a crime procedural, doubly so when the two halves in question are a model and a Paralympic champion whose story went global when he competed at the Olympics. Perhaps the writers would have given the athlete a suitably filmic nickname like, say, “Blade Runner”. Unfortunately, this is the kind of stuff that, as the adage goes, you just can’t make up.

The story of Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius is a big deal in the way that all crimes committed by people sponsored by Nike are big deals. However, in an article written about the media coverage of the killing, Helen Lewis suggests that the most interesting aspect of this situation is not the downfall of an underdog athlete, but the media’s treatment of his victim.

As always, we heartily recommend checking this article out, though in this case it’s partially because the photographic evidence at the source must be seen to be believed. The thrust of Lewis’ article is that the slaying of Reeva Steenkamp has led to a particularly flagrant disregard for a potential murder victim’s personhood and the reduction of a human being to a sexual object. The newspapers “pay tribute” to Steenkamp not by discussing her law degree or her tragically relevant history of campaigning against violence against women, but by splashing the images from her most revealing photo shoots across their covers. Lewis discusses not only the sexual objectification of a dead woman, but the lengths people will go to in order to defend said objectification, from suggesting that attractive men would be treated in a similar fashion to stating that no other images existed of a woman whose job it was to be photographed.

We’ll be dealing with the issue of sexualizing women in death when we discuss comic book characters in July, but until then, let it suffice to say that we are sick of seeing dead women turned into pieces of meat for the consumption of the male gaze. Death should not make it easier to treat women as sexual objects, and the fact that it does indicates something deeply wrong with society.

Friday, 22 February 2013

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Amanda Clark

One of the terribly interesting things about fairy tales is that they’re not just for kids. I don’t mean this just in the sense that the lessons they teach us are applicable to situations we experience throughout our lives, or that the current trend in film and television intended for adults is the retelling of these same stories. What I mean is that the tales themselves follow you into adulthood.

When I was a kid, my family acquired a paperback collection of First Nations stories native to the Pacific Northwest. The only story I remember from the collection, long since donated, is one about a young woman taken from her family by a spirit bear, who climbs into her bed each night in the shape of a man under the cover of darkness. Several years later, I borrowed Edith Pattou’s East from the library and came to recognize elements of the spirit bear story in the more widely known “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” A decade later, I finally purchased East, having just made the connection between the trope of ursine bridegrooms and Brave’s subversive replacement of the bewitched love interest with the transformed mother. Now, as part of what we probably should have called “Fairy Tale February” or something equally alliterative, I want to talk about the original story.

Technically, in order to talk about the original version of this tale, we would probably have to go all the way back to the Cupid and Psyche myth. However, that’s a bit of a tangent, so the myth is perhaps best left as recommended reading. What you need to know about it is merely that variations of this story have been told for thousands of years. In the same way that it keeps popping up in my life, it resurfaces across countries and centuries.

“East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is a Norwegian folk tale, collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the mid-nineteenth century. It begins on a dark and stormy night, when a mysterious visitor knocks at the window of a house belonging to a poor husbandman and his family. The father answers the door, only to find a white bear asking that he give him his youngest, most beautiful daughter in exchange for wealth equal to their current poverty. To his credit, the husbandman tells the bear that he’s going to at least run the idea by his kid before he sends her off with a talking animal he’s known for five minutes. When she declines the offer, her father tells the bear to come back in a week, when her answer will have changed. He then uses this time to guilt her into agreeing. When the bear returns, she has her rags all packed up and ready to go.

H.J. Ford
It turns out that the bear lives in a castle in a mountain, and once they arrive, he gives the girl (who is never given a name) a silver bell that will grant her whatever she desires. At that moment, she quite understandably wants to go to bed. Unfortunately, after she turns out the light, a man crawls into bed with her. She hardly seems to react, and she is disappointed that he leaves too early in the morning for her to learn his identity. Here’s where things get a little iffy -- even iffier than an only sort of consensual abduction -- as the girl apparently only wants to know who the man is so she can spend time with him during the day. Although she has everything her heart desires, she is agonizingly lonely, and she sees in the mysterious man a potential companion, as opposed to a definite creeper.

When her homesickness and loneliness become too overwhelming, she asks that the bear allow her to visit her family. He agrees, on the condition that she not speak with her mother alone, because doing so will bring both bear and girl great misery. Despite this ominous and unhelpfully vague warning, the girl eventually does speak to her mother, who suspects that the mystery man is, in fact, a mystery troll. She proposes a plan that involves the downright genius measure of lighting a candle and seeing who it is. Why this idea never occurs to the girl is not addressed. (Apparently some versions suggest that the candles in the castle cannot be used for this purpose. This is probably a later addition by a writer who didn’t want the girl to be dismissed as unforgivably stupid. We approve.)

When she returns to the castle, the girl puts her mother’s plan into action. She takes a look at the man and falls in love at first sight, as fairy tale maidens are wont to do. Again, in her defense, he’s apparently “the handsomest prince that eyes had ever beheld;” still, this doesn’t justify what she does next. Consumed with love for the sleeping prince, she kisses him, spilling three drops of tallow on his shirt and waking him up in the process. He then proceeds to freak out, telling her that if she had been able to unquestioningly accept a stranger into her bed every night for a year, he would have permanently shed the bear form he was cursed to wear during the day and they could have gotten married. Now that she has ruined everything, however, he must return to his stepmother’s realm, located east of the sun and west of the moon, where he will be forced to marry a troll princess with a distressingly long nose. Then he flounces, taking his castle with him and leaving the girl with her rags.

A major issue throughout this first half of the story is the matter of consent and control. Although the husbandman could easily have sent his daughter off with the bear without her consent, he explicitly asks for it. This act is complicated by the fact that he seems quite certain that he can change her mind, thereby proving that he doesn’t respect her decision. This issue arises again in the case of the bed companion. While this version of the story does not suggest that their encounters were in any way sexual, other versions certainly do; however, the Christian character that comes to define the girl later in the story seems to preclude the possibility of any premarital hanky-panky. Still, the bizarre situation in which a stranger shares a bed with you each night should, I think, set off a few more alarm bells than it does here. Perhaps the reason why it is not more of a problem is because the girl is so lonely. To stave off the intense loneliness she feels, she imagines the man as a probable friend instead of a potential threat.

The most intriguing treatment of the issue of consent and control outside of the pivotal tallow-spilling moment is the conflict between the girl’s respective allegiances to the bear and her mother. On the one hand, there is the pseudo-husband who extracts her promise not to speak to her mother alone. On the other, there is the mother who might offer some insight into the strange events at the castle. The girl must choose between ignorance and knowledge, between honouring her word and securing her safety. While we support the choice she makes, the story certainly doesn’t.

There is a fairly obvious parallel between “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and “Sleeping Beauty.” In both stories, a kiss delivered to a sleeping person breaks a spell laid on the sleeper. However, whereas the prince kissing the sleeping princess is a necessary step on the road to happily-ever-after, the girl kissing the prince potentially annihilates her chances of marrying him and, in fact, forces him into the arms of another. While it is apparently beneficial to both parties when the man engages in non-consensual kissing, a woman taking the same action not only chases her man away but becomes a literal home wrecker.
Mercer Mayer
It is at this point that the quest narrative begins, and the power balance shifts. Left with nothing but the rags she arrived in, the girl takes some time to cry before setting off on an impossible task: to find the realm east of the sun and west of the moon and rescue her prince. Along the way, she encounters three old women, each of whom offer her the use of their horse, an object made of gold, and absolutely no solid information about the location of the stepmother’s castle. Finally, the last old woman suggests that she ask the East Wind for help, and he and his brothers carry her across the four corners of the globe until she finally meets someone who can give her some real directions.

That someone is the North Wind, who volunteers to take her to the land east of the sun and west of the moon, which is so far away that even blowing a leaf across the distance exhausted him. Still, the prospect of being dropped by a mythological figure while on the way to a possibly imaginary place doesn’t faze her. When the North Wind asks if she is afraid, she states that she isn’t, echoing her own sentiments upon initially leaving with the bear. What she seems to lack in intelligence, she more than makes up for in reckless bravery.

Unfortunately, she really lacks in intelligence. Once she arrives at the stepmother’s castle, she encounters her prince’s troll fiancée and trades her one of the three golden objects for entry to the prince’s room for the night. (Yes, it is just that dubious in the text.) However, in a delicious twist of irony, she can’t wake him up. So she makes the same deal again with the second object, and is apparently surprised when the prince is in an obviously enchanted or drugged sleep for the second time in a row. Finally, she offers the third and final object to the princess without thinking to add any stipulations to the deal such as, say, the prince being awake.

Luckily, help arrives in the form of a group of Christians who, through some particularly contrived coincidence, are staying (as captives) in the room next to the prince’s chamber. They warn the prince not to drink the troll princess’ sleeping draught, leaving him awake to reunite with the girl. Just in case you were wondering if the power balance would continue to work in the girl’s favour once the prince was back in the picture, it doesn’t. Instead, he greets her with an assurance that he’s thought of a plan to save himself, in which she is to have a starring role.

The next day, he sets a challenge for any woman hoping to marry him: wash the tallow out of his shirt and he’s yours, ‘cause domestic proficiency, a pretty face, and a willingness to sleep next to a stranger you’ve never seen for a year are all he’s looking for in a wife. While every other woman manages only to stain the shirt further, the girl merely has to dip it in water to restore it to whiteness. Although this was apparently a common requirement for marriage at the time in which the story is set, it is troubling to see it used as a triumphant, climactic moment, especially in light of the fact that the prince isn’t required to make a similar show of marital value.
Kay Nielsen
What is more troubling is the fact that she has to prove herself at all. Symbolically, removing the stains on the shirt serves as a visual representation of the girl’s redemption, as she rights past wrongs by saving the prince from a fate worse than death: marriage to an unattractive woman. The problem I have with this is simply that I don’t feel that she did nearly enough wrong to justify the punishment that led her to this redemption. She did break her promise to the bear, and she did kiss the sleeping prince; however, making a difficult journey to an impossible place should more than absolve her. She broke a promise that she made not only while ignorant of the possible repercussions, but while kept intentionally ignorant by the very person who blamed her for events that he could have prevented from occurring if he had only treated her with the same level of trust that he clearly expected from her.

A popular reading of this folk tale holds that it makes a case for the necessity of women’s obedience; women who disobey their husbands, even when such disobedience is in their own best interests, will suffer. I might offer another interpretation: that the story can be read -- and used, if it was adapted to suit modern sensibilities -- as a cautionary tale against keeping women in ignorance in unequal relationships. Ultimately, the careful cultivation of her ignorance leads to a bunch of dead trolls, a looted castle, and a marriage to a prince whose pretty face cannot possibly make up for the fact that his plan still leaves them stranded in a land that shouldn’t exist. That’s not exactly what I’d call a fairy tale ending.

Verdict: Strong Female Character™   

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Call for Reader Submissions

George Perez
Dear readers,

We just want to remind you that March is Reader Appreciation Month, an opportunity for us to say thank you and for you to give us your opinion about the characters you love. While we welcome you to sit back and enjoy the posts, we need your help to make this happen. If you want to request a character for us to analyze, leave a comment on this post. If you want to write a paragraph or two telling us about your favourite female comic book character, send us an email. We'll post your messages during the weekend of the Emerald City Comicon (March 1-3). This blog could do with some more voices; make yours heard!

                           The Management

Monday, 18 February 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: The Brain Scoop vs. Nincompoops

Emily Graslie is the volunteer curatorial assistant for the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana. She hosts a YouTube series called “The Brain Scoop,” in which she discusses her work and her workplace with a candid enthusiasm (it's awesome and you should watch it). She once saved a taxidermied raccoon from the dark depths of storage oblivion. She's skinned a wolf. And she, we can assume based on a recent blog post, does not suffer fools gladly.

Here we see the Badass Woman in her natural habitat, schooling morons. Graslie responds to two YouTube comments from people who encourage her to wear “racier” clothing, one going so far as to blame her outfits for his “antiboner.” Graslie handles the comments well, letting her followers know that she wants to be a role model for young women who think that they cannot pursue a career in science. We’re especially glad to see her taking this opportunity to remind her viewers of the title of her channel; she’s here to encourage the mind, not the libido.

And, honestly, why would anyone need to wear more revealing clothing to attract viewers when they included a taxidermied animal race in one of their videos? That should be sexy enough for anyone.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Sedna, Inuit Sea Goddess

Hrana Janto

In the last semester of my B.A., I took a class on the popular writing of Indigenous writers. There, I was introduced to Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic, a collection of short stories drawing on Inuit culture and lore. Lurking in the margins of these stories is a character who never sees the light of day: Sedna the sea goddess, the “Deep Mother,” the “greatest Agony of the deep.”

Sedna, also known as Nuliajuk and Taleelayu, is the most powerful being in Inuit mythology. She is typically depicted as a mermaid-like figure, with a woman’s body and a whale tail. However, the Taleelayu is not like the traditional mermaid. Kinngait artist Pitaloosie Saila describes her thusly: “I believe in Taleelayus -- not mermaids, the way that qalunnaat (white people) seem to think about them. Their mermaids are just beautiful creatures, sitting on top of rocks, but for us, Taleelayu is the great leader of the animals, underneath the sea.”

Sedna is certainly more than a pretty face. She rules the realm of Adlivun, the Underworld of the North. There, souls are purified in preparation for the journey to the moon, or Quidlivun, where they find their eternal rest. When Sedna is angry, she produces storms; however, she can be assuaged by a shaman descending into the deep to wash and braid her hair. When she is content, she provides the Inuit with the sea creatures on which they rely for food and oil.

There are several versions of Sedna’s origin story, all featuring a woman unwilling to bend to the will of society. In one, she is a giant with a voracious hunger that causes her to attack her parents. In another, she rejects all of her suitors only to marry a dog. In the tale that I will be discussing, she begins as an ordinary woman unhappy with her marriage prospects.

Susan Seddon Boulet
Published in Franz Boas’ 1888 monograph, The Central Eskimo, this version begins with a familiar scenario: Sedna, the daughter of a single father, has attracted numerous suitors, none of whom interest her in the least. Then a fulmar -- or a bird in the guise of a man, depending on the version -- shows up and woos her with promises of everything her heart desires. She will have a warm tent, soft bedding, plentiful meat and oil, and clothing made of feathers; in short, she will want for nothing.

Unfortunately, it turns out life with a bird for a husband isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Her tent is covered with tattered fishskins, her bed is made of tough walrus hides, and she has to live on fish brought by a bunch of birds. The lesson here is intended to be something along the lines of “don’t let your pride blind you to real opportunities,” but I’m inclined to read it as something more like “marrying a bird may lead to some pretty intense culture shock.”

A year passes, and Sedna’s father comes to visit. After she tells him about her horrible living conditions, he kills the fulmar and tries to take Sedna home. Understandably, the fulmars are not impressed to find their dead companion and an empty tent where his wife ought to be, so they leave in pursuit. When they reach Sedna and her father, they create a deadly storm. Sedna’s father, in fear for his life, flings Sedna overboard in an attempt to appease the birds. When she clings to the side of the boat, he cuts off her fingers, which become whales, seals, and walruses.

Here the two versions I’m working with split off. In the one recorded by Boas, the storm dies down because the birds think that Sedna has drowned. Her father brings her back into the boat, but she pronounces herself well and truly done with him, vowing revenge. Once they arrive back home, she sics her dogs on him and they gnaw her father’s hands and feet off while he sleeps. He responds by cursing her, himself, and the dogs, all of which get swallowed by the Earth. They end up in Adlivun, where Sedna somehow becomes the ruler of the realm. I must admit that I find myself dissatisfied with this ending, as it deteriorates into nothing but a battle between two destructive personalities. The alternate ending, however, shows promise.

In many versions of the legend, Sedna sinks to the bottom of the sea following the loss of her fingers. In some mysterious way, she defies the death that usually awaits a person left to drown while bleeding copiously. Instead, she emerges from this traumatic experience as a powerful goddess, reborn in the ocean’s womb. This is a fascinating moment for a number of reasons.

The first lies in the transformation itself. The transformation from human to god is demonstrated by two important figures in Western culture: Jesus and Hercules/Heracles. The former undergoes crucifixion and the latter death by poison in order to attain godhood. Like these two towering cultural figures, Sedna achieves apotheosis through intense suffering. Unlike these men, however, she does so without a head start. Although, in some versions, she is the daughter of a god, the Sedna of Boas’ tale and many others seems to enjoy no such lineage. Instead of asserting her birthright, then, she is claiming something more.

Lisa Hunt
The question is: How does she claim it? What causes the transformation in the first place? Based on the fact that her father literally has to chop off her fingers to get her to let go of the boat, it’s a pretty fair assumption that she wishes to live. Perhaps she survives through sheer willpower, unwilling to give up and let her father have the satisfaction of winning. Another option is that she not only survives, but flourishes due to the transformative power of rage. This could recast the ending as a portrait of positive rage, that forgoes destruction and condemnation in favour of construction and salvation. It could be seen as a model of response to trauma, as Sedna uses her justifiable anger in order to transform herself into a necessary creative force.

Unfortunately, as much as I would love to give her the “actual strong female character” stamp of approval, the vast differences in the various versions of her story leave me at a bit of a loss for a final label. Still, however you interpret her story, Sedna is a compelling figure from a little-known but fascinating legendary tradition, and it’s well worth your time to check it out.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: Beyoncé Edition

For weeks, the Internet has been buzzing over Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance. Before the show, a poll showed that 51% of Bravo viewers thought that the singer, despite not actually playing in the game, would win the match. Still, Beyoncé faced something of an uphill battle, following a much-criticized lip-syncing performance at the presidential inauguration. Even after proving that she could, in fact, outperform any of her detractors while singing the national anthem live, it was obvious that many viewers had their phasers set to “roast.”

Everyone had an opinion, and we’ve found four that you might enjoy reading or watching.

The first concerns Beyoncé’s all-female band, a major change from the usual all-male outfits that populate stages at pop performances across the country. The singer has said that she started the ten-piece band, called “The Sugar Mamas,” in order to provide role models for girls who want to play instruments. Commenting on the establishment of this group in a BlogHer post, an anonymous writer suggests that the group is definite step in the right direction:
“This act, I think is absolutely feminist, to include these amazing women, because as I have stated before, if you don’t make note of women, to include them, they won’t be included, and they will become invisible to the point that we think it is ‘strange’ to see so many of them in a band.”

In another article, David Henson argues that those who saw the performance as a sexual display misread it. Instead, he claims that Beyoncé was using the half-time show, usually governed by the hegemonic structures of patriarchy and capitalism, to fight against the objectifying male gaze:
“So here, in the midst of commercials and a culture that objectified women and their bodies and in the middle of a sports spectacle that construes power in terms of violence, Beyoncé began her performance by upending the narrative. As she walked the length of the stage, Beyoncé showed more power in a handful of purposeful, defiant strides than both sports teams had during the entire first half. In short, during those few steps, walking as a woman, Beyoncé declared ownership of that stage -- that stadium -- and, more importantly, claimed ownership of her own body in the most misogynist and objectifying four hours of mass culture.”
You should also check out Henson’s follow-up article, prompted by the conversation in the comments.

In a less positive take on the performance, social psychologist Dr. Christena Cleveland contends that it is the very hegemonic structures that Henson claims Beyoncé defies that allowed her to “own” that stage in the first place:
“As ‘powerful’ as she appeared on stage, Beyonce was still subject to the stringent rules and standards that white men set for black women.  All other things (e.g., talent) being equal, she was only given ‘power’ because she happens to be the kind of black woman that white men like and because she was sure to ‘perform’ in a way that would be pleasing to them.  To be blunt, she was treated like a 21st century ‘house nigger’ whose value will never outlast the duration of an erection.”
Again, it’s worth your time to check out Dr. Cleveland’s addendum.

Finally, while guest-hosting The Rachel Maddow Show, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry confronted the concept of “blame.” Was Beyoncé’s fierceness responsible for the power outage that followed her show? Was her outfit to blame for the moral degradation of millions of viewers? Dr. Harris-Perry links this issue back to the power of time-worn narratives:
“Feel free to debate and disagree about the aesthetic, musical, or artistic value of Beyoncé’s performance. But once you start blaming electrical engineering failures of moral disintegration on a thirty-one-year-old, married mom and businesswoman with an enviable pair of thighs, you have entered into mythological woman-blaming. You know, like the story of Pandora, a woman who opens a box that unleashes sadness and misfortune onto the world, or of Eve, another woman, who ate that apple and brought sin to all humanity? Now it’s Beyoncé and her bootyliciousness that will make it unsafe for American children to enjoy the brain-crushing performative violence of Sunday afternoon football, punctuated by Go Daddy commercials. Right.”
Her own self-titled show airs on weekends on MSNBC, and she often focuses on women’s issues.

So, sit back, relax, maybe put on a little “Run the World (Girls)” and enjoy.

Friday, 8 February 2013


Many of us in the West probably got our first exposure to this week’s featured character while singing along with the Genie. He told us that “Ali Baba had them forty thieves, Scheherazad-ie had a thousand tales;” being a character in one of these tales, he should know.

In his introduction to a recent edition of The Arabian Nights, otherwise known as One Thousand and One Nights, Ken Mondschein describes the collection, in its many and varied forms, as “the text from the Muslim world that is most widely read in the West and thus the most identified, in popular culture, with Arabic history and customs.” We see its influence in everything from Budweiser commercials to Disney movies, from symphonies to comics. However, although it is in many ways the West’s favourite gateway to the East, it is one that we built, leading to a land that we envisioned. The collection is a work of literary transmission spearheaded by the West and, as Mondschein suggests, “there is no transmission without transformation, and in many ways, the reception of the Nights tells us more about our own culture than it does about the Muslim world.”

The edition that I will be using is a translation originally issued in 1885-6 by Sir Richard Burton, a figure heavily identified with the spread of the stories in the English-speaking world. This is a deliberate choice, as this post is intended to be read alongside this week’s Miscellaneous Monday post. While that article discussed many of the positive, transformative aspects of reworking stories, Burton’s version of the Nights demonstrates the negative consequences of creative translation. His problematic work includes what Mondschein terms “salacious details,” intended to indulge his contemporaries’ orientalist attitudes at the expense of accuracy.

From the Reader's Digest edition
If you’ve been in a college or university-level English class in the past few decades, you probably know which critical text I’m going to reference next. For all those who have no wish to be exposed to Edward Said’s seminal 1978 work, Orientalism, or academic writing in general, skip ahead to the next paragraph. Said describes the kind of creative action taken by Burton thusly: “In any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as ‘the Orient.’ Thus all of Orientalism stands forth and away from the Orient: that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the Orient visible, clear, ‘there’ in discourse about it. And these representations rely upon institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes of understanding for their effects, not upon a distant and amorphous Orient.” Basically, the West creates a false representation of the East using Western methods, so what is represented reflects what the West imagines the East to be: mysterious, mystical, homogeneous, and utterly fictional. It makes sense, then, that one of the abiding cultural icons that emerges from the Nights is a storyteller.

The frame story in which the thousand tales are told begins with a smorgasbord of infidelity. Two kings, Shahryar and Shah Zaman learn that their wives are cheating on them and, after a brief, self-fulfilling quest to find another man who has been similarly wronged, they conclude that all women are malicious, untrustworthy, and unworthy of power. They return to their respective kingdoms, where they -- having both already executed their wives -- put into action a plan to wed a virgin each night, bed her, and put her to death in the morning. This goes on for three years before Shahryar finds himself all out of virgins, all of them having fled or been killed, and all out of goodwill from his subjects.

This is where Scheherazade enters the story. She is something of a narrative nerd and has “perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.” She is an academic par excellence and something of an inspiration for those of us who spend most of our lives consuming and discussing stories. Who knows when we might find ourselves in a situation where we need to tell hundreds of stories in order to distract a mass murderer for years at a time?

Scheherazade is the elder daughter of the king’s vizier and, as the vizier has been responsible for carrying out the executions, she and her sister, Dunyazad, have been spared. When her father refuses to let her marry the king, she defies his authority in such a way that proves that he has no real power over her. Even after he threatens to beat her, she remains defiant, secure in the knowledge that she could bring the king’s ire upon him should she tell Shahryar that her father prevented the marriage. She also proves herself able to resist the lessons of stories, as she does when her father uses a tale to try to dissuade her from her task. As she says, “I will never desist, O my father, nor shall this tale change my purpose. Leave such talk and tattle. I will not listen to thy words and, if thou deny me, I will marry myself to him despite the nose of thee.”

Léon Carré
This is an important point to remember: at no point does Scheherazade have to step forward, because self-preservation dictates that she would be better off doing nothing. Instead, she chooses to offer herself in marriage to a psychopath and either live or “be a ransom for the virgin daughters of Moslems and the cause of their deliverance from his hands and [her father’s].” Hers is an act of heroism: forsaking her own safety and, potentially, her life, she sets out to save untold thousands. She is not an accidental hero, who looks back at her deeds and finds herself surprised at their import, but a deliberate saviour, who plans to become a champion of women.

To do this, she enlists the help of her sister, who will request that Scheherazade tell her (and the king) a story on the wedding night. Scheherazade plans to tell only part of a story each night, keeping the king in suspense and herself alive to finish the story -- and start another -- the next evening. This continues for 1001 nights, during which time Scheherazade gives birth to three sons. While she suggests that the latter accomplishment should earn her a pardon, Shahryar assures her that it was her ingenuity, piety, and purity that convinced him to spare her life. It seems, however, that it was actually her stories that did the trick. When she concludes her last tale, she reminds him that he should keep things in perspective, as many of the characters she told him about had to deal with far worse troubles than his own. Then, with her stories complete, “she ceased to speak, and when King Shahryar heard her speech and profited by that which she said, he summoned up his reasoning powers and cleansed his heart and caused his understanding revert.” It is her words, specifically, that restore the king’s sense and allow him to relinquish his prejudice. The man who condemned women comes to view Scheherazade as a saviour sent to stop the oppression and slaughter of Allah’s creatures.

Before I get into the more symbolic meaning of Scheherazade’s storytelling, I’d like to take a moment to discuss it on a literal level. This woman, with the threat of death hanging over her head for the better part of three years, manages to remember and retell a thousand stories. Not only does she remember them, but she recounts them with enough style and timing to keep her audience riveted for more than thirty months. So, for a period of time during which many television shows cannot hold our attention airing once a week with hiatuses, Scheherazade tells stories that earn her her continued existence. That’s pretty damn impressive. (It also makes me wonder if we wouldn’t have better programming if we implemented a similar model for modern writers. I jest, but this may be the only way to make Glee bearable again.)

Laura Swinton
In addition to the already extraordinary task of merely relating a thousand interesting tales, Scheherazade manages another feat: becoming the hero she planned to be. Not only does she end Shahryar’s reign of terror, but she also indirectly does the same for Shah Zaman when Shahryar, in telling his brother of Scheherazade’s tales, convinces him to stop the executions in his own kingdom. Through her stories, she ends the kings’ vindictive slaughter, proving the adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword;” as she demonstrates, words can overcome violence. Her storytelling proves that language has a transformative ability, healing the king and restoring prosperity to the kingdom.

Beyond her status as the fictional character telling stories about fictional characters that have become the West’s basis for imagining the Middle East, what gives Scheherazade her lasting (pop) cultural importance? On some level, she is a kind of cultural liaison to an imaginary culture and, despite being fictional herself, her presence legitimizes the stories. For a Western audience, she is the narrator who allows us to pretend that the tales remain authentic despite decades of translation. For some modern women, she is a point of identification, a homegrown alternative to the kind of Western feminism that so rarely grasps the intricacies of Middle Eastern life.

In the age of fanfiction, we can also find value in Scheherazade as the prototypical female fan creator. She familiarizes herself with stories in order to remake them to suit her needs. Like William Shakespeare, Jean Rhys, and Gregory Maguire, she validates derivative work, proving that it can build upon the original. She demonstrates the necessity of storytelling and the power of words; in Scheherazade, we see a woman who appropriates men’s stories in order to save women’s lives.

Verdict: Actual strong female character