Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Formidable Older Woman Character

One of the pleasures of Westercon 2011 was attending the panel on "Writing Formidable Women: Making sure they're formidable; making sure they're women." (As an irrelevant side note, it's always a treat to listen to a panel I'm not actually on; among other things, I get to take notes.) As a woman writer, as a woman interested in empowerment in my own life and in those of other women, and as a reader who loves strong women characters, I appreciated many of the perspectives offered.

I've heard, and participated in, many discussions about women warriors. For some years back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was active in a network of women martial artists who were also writers (or, conversely, women writers who also studied martial arts). We tossed around ideas and our experiences in training, we pushed every boundary we could find. Marion Zimmer Bradley began editing the Sword & Sorceress anthologies in the early 1980s, and it seemed there was an explosion of kick-ass sword-wielding women heroes.

Now I'm older and am finding a particular delight in characters -- men as well as women -- who are smart enough to use violence only as a last resort. My kung fu teacher, Jimmy H. Woo, used to say that young people need to study kung fu (meaning, to work all that aggression out) but that with age comes wisdom, movements become more circular and flowing, and you end up with tai chi. Much the same holds true for my ideas about heroes. I find a particular delight in the heroic older women in, for example, The Stone War by Madeleine E. Robins, or Elizabeth Moon's wonderful Remnant Population.

Hence, the panel discussion became particularly interesting to me when the idea of the dowager as a Formidable Female arose. A dowager is usually defined as "a widow holding property or a title from her deceased husband," but has also come to mean, "a dignified elderly woman." Neither definition acknowledges the sources of her power: her role influencing and shaping the new king/ruler/heir and that she herself is a repository of experience and knowledge. As one panelist put it, "She's been around long enough to know where all the bodies are buried." She's had time to observe other people's mistakes; she knows the subtle uses of alliance and persuasion. In this, she can be a far more powerful figure than her reigning son. All he knows is how to bash things (the kung fu analogy); she, on the other hand, is the tai chi or aikido master.

All too often, this mother-son alliance is depicted in some unhealthy or unflattering way.  Hence, we have the stereotype of the domineering, manipulative, ambitious queen. What's done less often is the dowager who truly has her son's welfare at heart, who brings perspective and temperance to whatever crisis is brewing, and who has the moral as opposed to military power, the power to change men's minds hearts. This power comes only with mindful experience; it's one of the rewards of having learned to bend, to compromise, to seek consensus, to be able to see the adversary's point of view. I think that such characters can be just as interesting and dynamic as the sword-bashing youngsters. For those of us who appreciate characters with insight and brains, they can be even more rewarding.

What do you think?

The illustration is Pharaoh Amenhotep I with his mother Queen Ahmose-Nefertari. (18th dynasty of Egypt. The photo is of a demonstration of kung fu from around 1995. Oh yes, that's me.

1 comment:

  1. I think the character of Ilsidi in the Foreigner Sequence by CJ Cherryh is an excellent example of a dowager in the true sense of the word. A bit too dangerous to be "likeable", but fascinating - yes.