When I was a kid, my dad showed me a lot of books and movies that, in retrospect, I realized were incredibly misogynist. In these stories, women could be an emasculating force (or they were completely absent from the story). I have to hand it to him, though – he had great, if ambivalent, respect for tough women.
My dad hated Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, but he also admired her icy control, which made her a truly worthy opponent. He hated Major Houlihan in the film version of M*A*S*H, but respected her skill as a nurse. On a more gentle note, The Sound of Music always made him cry – and he loved how Maria dealt with the naughty Von Trapp children by refusing to be angry with them. Of a character in International Velvet who responds to a naughty child with total calm, my Dad said, “She didn’t even flinch.” I don’t know that I’ve ever heard such profound admiration in his voice. The ability to not flinch was, in his mind, a woman’s greatest virtue.
For a female character to be respected in my Dad’s world of fiction (and reality), the character must be tough, intelligent, competent, and willing to roll along with the fun. She must be impossible to offend and be sexually available without being too sexually available. I believe that to him the perfect woman was the nurse in M*A*S*H who responds to an outrageously sexist rant and request for steak with an unflappable “How do you like your steak cooked?”
Women could be smart, they could be strong, they could be competent, and they could be clever. What a woman could not be was openly angry. Major Houlihan’s great sin is that she is quick to anger and she expresses her anger. Nurse Ratched’s reign of terror is over the moment she raises her voice. A woman could be strong in my dad’s eyes, but she must also be accomodating.
The ability to be calm and accomodaing can only get a person so far. Being calm can help characters survive the status quo, and manipulate the status quo. But to change something like, say, sexual harassment in the military takes not only calm but rage. And women should rage when expected to exist at the convenience of men. Rage can be cathartic, motivating, and highly strategic. The rage my father could not tolerate when combined with the toughness he valued is deadly indeed.
My Dad handed me Ray Bradbury and Issac Asimov (creator of Susan Calvin, another calm woman). I read them avidly and moved on to Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin, N.K. Jemisin and Kelly Sue DeConnick – women who hone their rage into a sharp blade with which they wreak havoc. These women are perfectly capable of calm – after all, calm equals control, which equal effectiveness. But their calm is fuelled with a refusal to be accommodating.
In addition to instilling me with a love of science fiction, my dad instilled me with the idea that women could be as strong as any man. But it took other creators and fictional characters to show me that women could not only survive their circumstances but change them. It took Sarah Connor saying, “You’re terminated, Fucker,” and Ripley saying “Get away from her you BITCH,” and the wives of Mad Max: Fury Road yelling, “Who killed the world?” I’m truly grateful for my dad for showing his admiration for tough women, but I wish he had shown me more women who used their toughness to fight rather than to survive.