Sunday, 6 April 2014

Girls on Film: by Tanya Landman

Today we have a guest post from Tanya Landman. One of Tanya's many previous books, Apache, was shortlisted for the Carnegie. For her latest, Buffalo Soldier, she returns to America, to the time of the Indian Wars. (For a review, see here.) Read on to find out about the inspiration behind her heroine.

I grew up very confused.
            My grandmother was born in 1903:  her generation had lived through WW1 and WW2, keeping the home fires burning and the country running, dealing with grief and loss with heroic fortitude.  All around me I could see strong, intelligent, capable women: there was nothing weak or feeble about any of them!  
            And yet when it came to film and TV,  if a woman appeared on screen at all,  you could guarantee three things.  She would:  
            1) scream   
            2) fall over 
            3) need rescuing.
Oh yes – and if she was being chased she’d be in high heels and she’d never ever have the sense to take her shoes off so she could run properly.  I seemed to spend most of my childhood yelling at the screen, “Don’t do that, you stupid woman!”
That’s probably why the film of Gone With The Wind had such a big effect on me.  Of course, there are all kinds of problems with it for a modern audience, but I saw it for the first time when I was eleven and Scarlett O’Hara – tough, manipulative, determined, resourceful – was a revelation.  OK, so she wasn’t particularly likeable.  But then, Scarlett didn’t give a damn about whether people liked her or not.  She was her own person, a  belle turned businesswoman, and  I admired her.
            But as far as female role models on screen were concerned,  Scarlett was kind of it.
            It’s true that every so often a character would come along who would be hailed by the press as a feminist icon.  I remember when Sarah Jane joined Doctor Who she was said to be something new and different.  She had a job!  Sarah Jane was a journalist, no less.   Wow! Here was a companion with brains!!!!
            I watched the first episode with avid interest.  As I recall she did the guaranteed 1 – 3 in about five minutes flat.
            It was the same with Marian Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark.   Another ‘breakthrough’ female character I thought she was great – for a while.  All right, she drinks men under the table, she wears trousers, she runs her own bar and stands up for herself.  But oh dear – pretty soon  there she is needing to be rescued.  And later  – well, there’s a big surprise – she ends up in high heels and a frock.
            When I started writing I wanted to create female characters who were not only capable of saving
their own skins, but of rescuing other people too. Who had adventures and faced challenges; who were good at what they did and could think and act for themselves. Just like real women, in fact.  I’ve written the kind of people I’d have enjoyed reading about in my youth:  the kind of ones I’d have loved to have seen on TV: people like Charley O’Hara, the subject of my new novel, Buffalo Soldier. Charley – born Charlotte – is born a slave, but she eventually achieves freedom – after a spell in one of the black regiments of the American Army (as a ‘buffalo soldier’) in the 19th century Indian wars. Quite a girl!
            So – in my dreams – I think it’s about time that Hollywood came along to make  me an offer I can’t refuse.   Come on, guys!  Charley O’Hara would look great on screen!  And it’s about time Katniss had some company…. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

I do hope you saw a bit more of Sarah Jane Smith than her first episode! :-)

I'm afraid my problem with Gone With The Wind was, nt it's female characters, but its presentation of slavery as a good thing and the Ku Klux Klan as the good guys. I read the book in my teens and thought it a 1000 page Mills and Boon novel.

Marion Ravenswood was kidnapped, yes, but she was a much stronger character than the woman in the second movie! Now, THAT one screamed a lot! But she was being laughed at, not presented as a role model.

Katniss is just one of a bunch of young female asskickers in the realm of YA fiction, don't worry. They've already made a film of Divergent. Whether you can care about the characters is another matter. I cared about Katniss, but not about Tris, heroine of Divergent.

Hermione Granger ends up saving the day many times in the HP series, something even Harry admits in the last movie. And she does it with her brain, not her body.

Buffy the vampire slayer, anyone? :-)

John Dougherty said...

Did you name Charley O'Hara in honour of Scarlett, or is that just coincidence? I'm interested partly because I have a strong, brave, resourceful O'Hara girl among my characters: Bansi O'Hara, who certainly wasn't named after Scarlett. Maybe there's just something about the name!

I think part of the problem you mention with Sarah-Jane & Marion Ravenwood is simply that they were sidekicks, and part of the job description of a sidekick is to make the hero look good. Even Robin the Boy Wonder has to be rescued sometimes... It's not just that we need strong female characters; it's that we need strong female leads.

And Charley sounds like a great one [*adds Buffalo Soldier to reading list*].

Penny Dolan said...

Wishing the book supremely well - and no more than it deserves! Great post.

C.J.Busby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.J.Busby said...

Interesting to read this in conjunction with the previous post! I'm curious, Tanya, with this and your previous, Apache, did you get any negative feedback for being a white English woman writing about native American or black American characters/history? I know, for example, that Alan Garner got much mud thrown at him for Strandloper, for appropriating Australian aboriginal voices/culture, and that as I said in comments to Savita's post, Sarah Rees Brennan has suffered from the same thing. I don't agree with this criticism, but wondered if you'd had to justify yourself against it at all?

Tanya Landman said...

Sue - yes, the racism is jaw dropping - that's what I meant when I said there are problems with Gone With the Wind (and I've written about that on other blogs). Hermione and Buffy are both brilliant, but sadly they both came too late for me when I was growing up!

John - she's certainly not named in honour of Scarlett although I guess there's something of an ironic echo. I think O'Hara is just a good name!
You're right about sidekicks/leads although I don't recall Robin ever screaming or falling over. Or running in high heels for that matter (although given how camp the TV series was it wouldn't surprise me).

Penny - thanks!

C.J.Busby - Yes, one or two. (And the negative comments are, of course, always the ones you remember!) But, as you said , writing is all about thinking yourself into someone else's head. I'm aware of the pitfalls, but I console myself by thinking that fiction isn't autobiography. (After all, Michael Morpurgo isn't actually a horse...)

Nick Green said...

I don't think 'Gone With The Wind' is apologist for slavery, and it's certainly not racist. (If anything it's the opposite, the black characters often seem too good-natured to be true, and all the real horrors are perpetrated by the whites).

Yes, the O'Hara family's slaves seem suspiciously happy with their lot, but I think that's partly a reflection of the times it is describing (that's how it seemed to those characters) and also it's a reflection of what they are like as people. A slave says to Scarlett on one occasion (I paraphrase): "If you treated white folks as well as you treat us, you wouldn't have all these problems." Maybe it is a fantasy world, but given that Scarlett at the time is working in the field alongside her slaves, it does carry some weight.

'Gone With The Wind' might not be an anti-slavery tract - but that doesn't mean it's pro-slavery, or racist. I think it's a great book.

Nicola Morgan said...

I'm on record as praising Buffalo Soldier to the hilt. It's a BRILLIANT book. That is all.