A problematic rec: The Beautiful Warrior

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***

12 thoughts on “A problematic rec: The Beautiful Warrior

  1. The book is based on the story of the creation of the Wing Chun martial art system. Yim Wing Chun was threatened by the village bully, she studied kung fu under nun Ng Mui and, in a bout, she defeated the bully who demanded her marriage. Whether or not it’s true is up for debate, but the legend is what it is. The author’s chosen to write and paint that very same tale so she can’t deviate too much or it’s just writing another story.

    So, 1) Marriage is the central plot device because that formed the plot of the original legend. Yim Wing Chun felt trapped.

    3) She doesn’t end up alone. She says she’s going to train in kung fu. This generally involves learning with other people. The terms used in kung fu are familial – sifu, teacher, father, your fellow students are si-hing, brother, sister and so on. Yim Wing Chun actually went on to marry, teaching kung fu to her husband and children, and through them the system survived. I found the book very refreshing that it didn’t end in a wedding or relationship of any sort. She forged a lifelong path for herself, something that would flourish as strength for her and her children, a career if she chose to teach, and I felt that was stronger than any wedding scenario.

    2) I agree with, it bugs me they kept in the ‘but girls can’t’ parts. Either you’re old enough to be able to read between the lines and appreciate she’s bucking gender norms, or you’re too young to notice and can simply enjoy the tale rather than having it hammered home. 3 year olds are just confused by ‘why are they saying she can’t because she’s a girl?’

  2. On female friendship, I feel I have to put in a pitch for Shakespeare here. He doesn’t exclusively show women being mutually supportive (nor would we want him to, what we want is the full range of human experience for women), and there are even evil stepmother figures in two plays, but by far the dominant pattern is for deep, steadfast, devoted friendships between women. Comedies or tragedies, from As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labours Lost, Merry Wives of Windsor, to Othello to The Winter’s Tale, when a woman loves another woman in Shakespeare she will put her wellbeing ahead of everything else, father, king, fortune or husband.

    • Hi Orlando,

      Fascinating. I haven’t read Shakespeare since high school, terrible I know. I should read it again with my 43 year old consciousness. When I was a kids, I had two persian cats: Rosalind and Orlando.

      MM

  3. Books my daughter recommends:

    The Magic Half – Eleven-year-old Miri feels left out in her family, which has two sets of twins and her, until she travels back in time to 1935 and discovers Molly, her own lost twin, and brings her back to the present day.

    The Sammy Keyes series – a terrific children’s mystery series : think Encyclopedia Brown with a female lead instead of the stereotypical “feisty girl” second banana. Sammy gets lots of good advice from her grandmother, has several female friends, and a bit of a flirtation with a nice boy.

    Shakespeare’s Secret – While I intensely dislike the premise ,(that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays) the strong female character and her mutually supportive friendship with an older female neighbor are a big plus.

    The Katie John series – Parts of this feel very dated, but I loved it as a kid. Katie John, (named after her father) moves to a small Illinois town from California and has trouble blending in. She’s a bit of a tomboy, but her best friend is a very ladylike, (but not boy crazy or silly) girl named Sue. She also becomes friends with Edwin, a skinny intellectual boy more interested in archeology than sports, and has adventures exploring their local history with him.

    Another possibility is Anne of Green Gables. Female friendships: check. Older female mentors: check,(several in fact). Happy marriage with cool guy who respects her as an equal,but who is NOT the focus of all her time and energy: check.

  4. What’s wrong with not being beautiful? Not every boy needs to be handsome. That’s the whole point of the book; being beautiful is overrated and essentially unimportant. Not everyone can be beautiful, but everyone CAN strive to be courageous, kind and independent, which Amy does.

    • Hi Lesley,

      Maybe a better word is ‘attractive?’ I get what you mean everyone is not beautiful but I also feel like our definition of beauty is extremely limited, especially for women obviously. Part of me thinks everyone shoudl feel beautiful. But I also realize I may think that because I’m a product of this messed up culture. Maybe to me ‘feeling beautiful’ means feeling happy, centered, powerful, loveable etc. I wrote a post on this a while back when I wrote about a study that only a small percentage of girls feel beautiful. I wrote about how bad that was. But as I thought about it, the study itself was sexist. Can you imagine a headline that read “Only 12% of boys feel beautiful” No one would ask boys that. They have more important things to think about. So I guess my conclusion is I hear what you’re saying, it’s complicated.

      MM

      • Words mean what they mean. “Beautiful” does NOT mean “attractive”, “happy”, “centered,” “powerful”, or “loveable”. All it means is “extremely good looking”. Not everyone is “extremely good looking”, and whether or not it’s due to media standards, there is actually somewhat universal agreement about which people are and are not good looking. Kids know this, adults (when we are honest) know this.

        We don’t need to redefine beauty so that everyone can be described as “beautiful”. We need to make it less important to girls and women.

        For boys, appearance simply isn’t very important (except perhaps for height). It’s telling, I think that “pretty boy” is an _insult _, an indication that all he has to offer is surface good looks as opposed to strength, courage, intelligence etc.

        When was the last time you heard someone tell a boy he had a “handsome name”? Or compliment his clothes or his hair (other than to note with relief that they were clean) ?

        And if a boy felt self conscious about his height would you say,

        “That’s okay, everyone is tall in their own way.”

        “You have inner tallness, sweetie!”

        “Let’s take you for some height implants so you can see how tall you really are!”

        Of course not. You’d (I hope) say, “Well, not everyone’s tall, but it’s no big deal. There’s plenty of stuff you can do without being tall. It’s not going to be the definitive factor in your life, right?”

        And that is EXACTLY what we should be saying to girls about beauty: if you have it great, but if you don’t, please don’t waste your time and energy worrying about it. Be like “Sarah Plain and Tall” or “the Ordinary Princess” and enjoy your life. Instead of getting a makeover to feel better about yourself (oh the horror of the makeover montage in girl’s movies!) learn to garden, speak a foreign language, ride a unicycle, shoot a 3 pointer, discover a comet. You will be loved, will be successful, attractive, and happy regardless of what you look like.

  5. I really liked your points too, Margot. Your reservations for it actually make me more curious about it, and I appreciate being forwarned. Some thoughts, in order of your questions:

    1. I’m wondering whether I’m arguing from the same side, because personally I feel marriage is a dead institution. It doesn’t have validity as the primary life goal every girl should be striving for, I think that’s certain. But in the context of the time this story is written, as well as the culture it’s based in; wouldn’t pointing out arranged marriage as a common part of that time and culture be appropriate? To me, it shows that wherever women have come from and whatever ways they’ve been marginalized or had cultural expectations thrust upon them; with courage they can overcome anything.

    2. Again, it comes down to being realistic about what women really face. If the story ignored sexism, wouldn’t it be guilty of missing a part of what made the heroes…..heroic? Overcoming adversity is a hallmark of a hero, and being real about the adversities we face should be empowering.

    3. I most agree with you here, in every way. The story loses the chance to show that points one and two do not make love unattainable, and that courage is rewarded. Characterizing men as all brutes and strong women as unloveable, the story itself becomes sexist and creates it’s own abhorrent context.

    MJ

    • Hi MJ,

      I agree the marriage issue makes sense in the cultural and period context, and also agree that sexism is a real life issue stories should address. It’s just that I’m sick of it. Me, personally. I’d like there be to be stories where we really break out of the sexist mold by creating imaginary worlds where there is NO SEXISM AT ALL.

      As far as what you say about marriage being a dead instiution, I used to think this way. I don’t anymore. I think marriage is fascinating and exciting and a spiritual path (though I know that sounds chesey.) I wrote a short story story of about this called “Light Me Up” in an anthology called “Sugar In My Bowl” edited by Erica Jong.

      MM

  6. Excellent points Margot, as usual. I would put The Ordinary Princess in this category. Amy is mentored by the fairy Crustacea, who encourages her to go out into the real world to find her destiny. Although Amy is fleeing marriage it’s because her parents have decided to trick her suitors into proposing, and will be wasting tax dollars and exploiting the poor to do so. She ends up in a happy marriage of equals with a prince who falls In love with her in her disguise as a kitchen maid, NOT because she’s a princess, or beautiful. (She’s not).

    • Lesley,

      The Ordinary Princess sounds great! But why isn’t she beautiful? Are kitchen maids not beautiful? Beacuse she doesn’t have styled hair or a fancy dress? It annoyed me that in kidlit, female “beauty” is often limited to barbie doll steretype.

      MM

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