Women in Horror Month is over, but that won’t stop me from carrying right on talking. This time, it’s women on the page, and I’ll be picking on Stephen King’s It, and the problem of the token girl. In the interest of full disclosure, I liked It, but Beverly has always kind of bothered me, and my thoughts about her character have only recently crystallized.
So, right up front, she’s a token girl in a story about a group of boys. She’s a tomboy, because she has to be to fit in, right? She can’t just be a girl, because girls have cooties. She has to be a girl pretending she’s not a girl, and that’s just for starters. As both a child, and an adult, she faces abuse/sexual abuse, first from her father then from her husband. It defines a large part of her character; when the monster comes for her, it comes for her in the form of her father, wanting to hurt her all over again. As a child, within the group, her usefulness is limited. She’s a whiz with a slingshot, so she has that, but her ability to use it against the monster in its werewolf form amounts to nothing much, and she mostly fades into the background again, until the final showdown.
Uh, spoiler alert below the cut.
Still with me? Okay, so in the final showdown, Beverly manifests her true, super-secret talent. Sex. She has sex with the boys. All of them. It’s posited as her idea, which is fine. It’s not the sex that bothers me, it’s more that sex is Bev’s only real power. As a girl, it’s pretty much all she’s allowed to bring to the group when it comes to fighting monsters. So, she has sex with the boys, bolsters their confidence, focuses their attention, magically holds the group together, and they all go home. I suppose one could claim it’s a metaphor for growing up, and not believing in monsters anymore, because there are more important things to think about, like gettin’ it on. But things don’t work that way in Stephen King novels. The monsters are real, and they inevitably follow you into adulthood.
Flash forward – as a grown-up woman, Bev remains problematic. She’s now the token woman in the group of men, and she’s still in an abusive relationship. Really, she hasn’t evolved. For extra bonus points, the ‘main hero’ of the book gets a consequence-free one night stand with her, then goes happily back to his wife without the burden of a guilty conscience because they all forget about everything that happened to them. And Bev gets to essentially be the prize for the other ‘main hero’ because he grew up and got thin, therefore he wins the girl. Hooray! Perhaps I’m being unfair, and It is far from the worse offender when it comes to a token girl in a story, but there are so many other negatives surrounding Bev’s character, it’s harder to be forgiving.
By contrast, an example of a horror story that gets it right, is Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin, and Dust & Decay. Nix and Lilah are pretty much the opposite of token girls. They’re fully developed characters with their own stakes in the story. They have their own quests, and motivations, and they would pursue them regardless of what the rest of the characters decide. In fact, if anything, Benny follows Nix, and Lou follows Lilah, not the other way around. As opposed to having one characteristic each in addition to being girls (because, well, she’s female, that’s enough of a character trait, right?) they are complex. They screw up sometimes, they don’t always understand the other characters’ motivations, they have relationships that don’t revolve exclusively around the boys in the story. They get scared sometimes, and sometimes they’re brave; sometimes they cry, and sometimes they kick-ass. They don’t have to be strong all the time, nor do they always have to be weak and in need of rescuing. In short, they’re human, and they react to the situations at hand based on the mitigating factors that affect all human beings. Crazy, innit?
Those are just two examples that came to mind. I’d love some other examples of books that get it right, horror or otherwise. And, of course, I want to know what books that piss you the hell off for getting it so very wrong.