Before I go into the issues I have with this story, Beautiful Warrior should be in your collection. It’s the story of Wu Mei who defies expectations to become a fierce Kung Fu warrior. Wu Mei mentors Mingyi who doesn’t want to marry a brute and, with Wu Mei’s training, ends up beating him in a fight and liberating herself.
What is great and rare about this book: It features two female friends, one who mentors the other. Wu Mei doesn’t rescue Mingyi, she teaches her how to save herself.
While this teacher/ student relationship is extremely common in boy fantasy world, it is highly unusual for girl characters to experience it. Strong females often exist in isolation. If there are two strong women, one is usually evil. (And we all know the patterns of dead mother, wicked mothers, and the dreaded step-mother that dominate fairytales and keep positive female relationships at bay.)
This female friendship is so rare, please tell me if you see it in books, movies, or TV shows. I think its super threatening to the male power structure. I’d like to make a media list of examples. Of course this list will include a female protagonist whose best friend is a magical creature (such as BFF males Remy and Ratatouille from “Ratatouille,” Andy and Woody or Buzz and Woody from “Toy Story,” Hiccup and the dragon from “How to Train Your Dragon.” I could go on and on, the male buddy relationship is the most common plot/ theme of kids movies today.)
I also love Beautiful Warrior because, as I’ve written before about violence in kidlit, it’s metaphorical. Violence is as normal for kids to see in a story as it is to occur a dream and just as symbolic. In Beautiful Warrior, the violence is so clearly teaching larger life lessons, so much so that it seems even weird to call it violence.
So why does Beautiful Warrior get an S? I’m reviewing this book in part, because, though it’s clearly about strong females, it also features three stereotype themes/ plot devices that show up so often in feminist kidlit.
(1) Rebellion against marriage: Yes, its better than marrying the one she’s supposed to, but why does marriage have to be such a central issue in the story at all? Personally, I’m sick of it. When I come across this plot device, I sigh.
(2) References to sexism: Both Wu Mei and Mingyi become warriors, even though the story says its surprising for girls to act this way. While I understand, obviously, that sexism exists in the real world, and this kind of story can teach a great lesson in how to deal with it, why do kids have to hear so often about the low or different expectations for girls? Why do female heroes so often have to perform in this context? Why not jut show them doing heroic acts?
(3) The heroine ends up alone: This is another classic outcome in feminist kids stories such as the Paper Bag Princess. The men are obnoxious brutes and the women don’t marry them. But why do the females so often have to make this choice? Males rarely do. I think its pretty scary for girls to get drilled into them that being strong is oppositional to being in love. It’s the same artificial choice that they can’t me be smart and beautiful, while male heroes usually are, in fact their intelligence and strength makes them attractive. (One reason I was attracted to this story is because it’s title, Beautiful Warrior, defies that duality. At the same time can you imagine a story called Handsome Warrior? It sounds like gay porn.) This pairing of attributes actually seems to be the lesson learned from much of kidlit. It’s so stereotypical and annoying to deny females that wholeness. It’s one reason I absolutely love Brave Margaret (and that story could be the basis for Pixar’s Brave) Margaret gets to be smart, strong, and beautiful and ends up with a cool, hot guy who admires and adores her. Can’t girls have it all, too? We need more stories like that! Tell me if you know of any.
Reel Girl rates Beautiful Warrior ***GGG/S***