The Slow Fall of the Hot Heroine
In eighth grade, every weekday afternoon was church. Held after Dragonball Z and before Gundam Wing on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” block. The Sacred Time Slot of Sailor Moon. These were the thirty non-negotiable minutes with the family television, from intro theme song to end credit reprise. There weren’t many episodes—the American importing studio only translated the first two of five original Japanese seasons, so the same story arcs repeated from middle into high school five times over. But as the formulaic episodes became more familiar, practically memorized, I only grew more obsessed. They were a canon. A touchstone. A lightly rendered collection of stories and characters I could shade with all of the depth, intrigue, and importance I was lacking in my own adolescent heart. Sailor Moon and her inner solar system of best friends were paper dolls for my fledgling personality.
During the other twenty-three hours and thirty minutes a day, I devoted myself to further Sailor Moon consecration. I collected the manga (comics) released every few weeks at Hot Topic, taking care to touch the pages as little as possible before returning them to their precious plastic sleeves like Comic Book Man. During geometry class, hidden in the shade of my textbook, I drew my own strips, adding in my best friend and myself as extra princesses and importing Link from The Legend of Zelda to fill in as my boyfriend. I dialed up to the Internet and scanned eBay for merchandise to blow my babysitting money on. I collected a can of imported Sailor Moon Spaghetti-Os, a moon stick lip gloss wand, and a miniature spatula.
I’d switch over to my most worn browser bookmark, Mistress Saturn’s Cosplay House. Hosted by Angelfire with a Sailor Moon MIDI track bumping on each page, the site showcased a seamstress’s costume business. Unlike the Spirit Halloween store I visited every year to browse hundreds of slutty possibilities in a plastic zip bag, Mistress Saturn’s costumes didn’t top out at a size Medium. They were made-to-order, meaning that even my broad shoulders, overbearing breasts, and everlasting torso made it onto her sizing chart.
I added the Super Sailor Moon costume to the cart over and over, letting the 38D, size-14 space princess suit teeter on the throes of purchase, then vanish when I closed the window.
Email with questions! the site offered.
Dear Mistress Saturn,
Are you sure this costume will fit?
I mean, really fit?
Will I look like a tube of Pillsbury crescent rolls wrapped in a rubber band?
Yes, the characters were marketed as “normal teenagers.” They failed tests, craved ice cream, lurked at the arcade to try and catch the eye of the cute guy who worked the counter. They agonized over being too fat, too thin, too athletic, too bookish, too strange. In classic adolescent fashion, their greatest individual gifts glimmered just enough to catch the eyes of their peers; that anonymous horde of other girls who refracted genius back in shards and shrapnel: “She’s so weird! No wonder she doesn’t have any friends.” The sailor girls’ saving grace was that they were special, chosen by fate, destined to become best friends, to transcend their simple lives of school and video games into a purpose more important than anyone they’d ever known could imagine.
This classic hero narrative was supposed to give me, the normal teenager, hope. Hope that I could make it through the slog to the other side of high school. That I’d leave my small town and move to a city people could find on a map.
And I devoured that fantasy. Most days. Girls who are too ambitious and overly sincere with bad hair and volatile skin need a mirage to wrench themselves forward. We have to believe that there is a purpose to our strangeness and our suffering. My heart clustered the characters into my camp. They would grow up to inherit the throne to future ethereal Tokyo; I might get a loft apartment in Seattle and write a book.
The illusion held until I imagined my plush body wrapped in a second skin of sailor uniform and ribbon. The moment when I realized that we weren’t fighting the same fight. We weren’t even the same species. Series creator Naoko Takeuchi drew her heroines in elongated, wispy strokes that make Barbie look stocky. The Japanese title translates into “Pretty Soldier.” They aren’t gawky kids; they’re international supermodels with high-artillery accessories.
They were Anne Hathaway playing frumpy in The Devil Wears Prada, unpopular Emma Stone in The House Bunny, characters written with our problems but drawn as the beautiful people. As much as I wished otherwise, I knew that dressing up like Sailor Moon would only spotlight how thoroughly I’d never become her. A one-woman, hot heroine drag show.
As a girl coming of age over the Millennial shift, I was sold a tall glass of “girl power.” By the time I crossed through elementary school, the riot grrls were out. Born in 1984, I narrowly missed the zine and punk rock revolution in my Seattle backyard while I was in the sandbox. Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill are legends I trace behind glass at the Experience Music Project museum, historical figures remembered in Sharpie scrawls and yellowed cassettes.
For me, and others my age, feminism was served in five tall glasses of water. The Spice Girls came in a variety of sexy teetering on platform heels as their rallying cry whipped up cotton candy delusions from hot air. “Girls can be anything!” pop culture echoed back.
Which would have been a lot more convincing if TRL wasn’t stacked with a lineup of stars plucked off the same block in Stepford: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Willa Ford. Dressed in the requisite vinyl crop top, with navels pierced and immaculate popsicle-stick torsos, they sang lullabies to our freedom, coaxed nightmares into our esteem. What happened to Miss Independent? No more the need to be defensive. Goodbye, old you, when love is true. Be a sassy bombshell, in other words, but keep your heart open for the perfect man.
It’s easy from this high-and-mighty adult-with-a-forged-identity vista to pick apart the MTV princess pack and my obsession with them, but in a rural logging town in Mt. Rainier’s foothills, Adolescent Patriarchal Deprogramming was a service in short supply. I lapped up the sugar and the gloss as it was served; I didn’t think the image of attractiveness and acquiescence was in the wrong. It was my job to make myself right.
On a high school date I was held hostage by Frodo and his wandering band of elvenfolk. It was one of the few times I went out with anyone before college, and even this marginal relationship is tough for me to own up to. The guy creeped me out—he had a ratty ponytail and was late to homecoming because his Dungeons and Dragons session ran long. He couch-surfed and thought Hitler was deeply misunderstood. But he was there, on the fringes of my friends’ circles, too disinterested to push me away.
The importance was in the boy, not the friend.
As the movie dragged on I mentally checked off each scene spliced into the trailer, steps closer to the credits. Magical ring engraving, check. Evil cloaked horseback riding chase, check. Gorgeous mystical doorway, check. When the screen finally faded to black, I doubled over in relief, my fingertips brushing the syrup-caked concrete floor. The boyfriend leapt up and applauded as if Peter Jackson had snuck into our Puyallup theater showing.
“I can’t believe we have to wait a whole year for the next one,” was his sole complaint. “They filmed them all at once. I don’t know why they have to torture us like this.”
Since I didn’t want to rock our shitty relationship’s crumbling foundation, I saved my commentary for Monday at school. First-period drama class was crammed with fantasy epic buffs.
“It was boring as hell,” I said. “Like, twenty dudes on a hike. The guy/girl ratio in Narnia must be 100/1.”
“IT’S MIDDLE EARTH!”
“But Legolas is so hot!”
“But what about Arwen and Galadriel?”
Yes, two otherworldly porcelain women flickered into a few frames. Cate Blanchett whispered from afar. Liv Tyler dispensed jewelry and tears. They weren’t forging rings or fellowships. They had no country to traipse. In the safety of dreams and glens they held back, telegramming their love from afar. It was the brotherhood that made the story.
“They didn’t really do anything,” I tried to point out.
“They’re important,” my friends insisted.
To be fair, Arwen and Galadriel were far more integral to The Lord of the Rings universe than their contemporary screen heroines the camera lingered on like a leering uncle. I can’t even remember their names, only their pout-lipped silhouettes on posters and presence in blockbuster after blockbuster, outnumbered by men and monsters fifty-to-one. Kirsten Dunst in Spiderman loves to sing! Megan Fox can fix cars in Transformers—what a twist! Jessica Alba is Sin City’s stripper with a heart of gold! Joey is so sad when he learns that Lucy Liu is one of Charlie’s ass-kicking Angels and not a bikini waxer. Their skills were set dressing, like the plot of a porno.
Every night of my MFA residency schedule ended with a faculty advisor reading. We filed back from our various dinners and preloads and nervous breakdowns to the university auditorium, where the mentors who eviscerated our manuscripts and methodically pinned our bullshit into a corner during workshop showed us their true mettle—a showcase of what the titans accomplished while we sat, exhausted and hungover and wrung, to wrestle with the awestruck fact that we were lucky enough to work with such masters against the creeping reality that most of us would never ascend to such a level.
On one night during my first residency, one of the program’s most popular writers ascended to the podium. He sailed on silver hair and swagger, headwinds of accolades at his back with a disinterested and under-prepared schtick. “Oh, I was supposed to send in a PowerPoint for this thing, huh?” he shrugged with a Han Solo wink.
The reading emcee introduced him with a flurry of publication credits that even people who weren’t entrenched in the literary community had actually heard of. At the lectern he flipped through the Big Six-bound copy of his latest novel, muttering as we waited, lobbing love and cheers from the stands down to our rock star.
The creased page he landed on described the protagonist, a teenage girl, stripping down in front of her bathroom mirror. Her gaze lingered on her two supple, soft, perky breasts and the way her hair fell on her bare shoulders. Men and boys, they always stared, her inner monologue noted. How beautiful she was. How curious, this incredible, enchanting body. So much attention it garnered, constantly. She was so admired it drove her mad. She wanted to be a tomboy! One of the guys! Fie this goddess curse.
I was twenty-five. Since the day my breasts were born (overnight in the fifth grade) I’d been a range of sizes along a paradigm of forty pounds. My bare ass had stood in front of the bathroom mirror every single morning, five thousand times. I’ve thought about how much smaller my right boob is compared to its big lefty sister. How quintessentially white my flat butt is. How much flabbier my arms have become. How much I love my forever-long legs. It’s a running, morphing monologue of critique and observation, of revelation and disappointment. But whether I’m satisfied or crushed by the reflection, the opinion is mine. How do I feel in this skin?
In the naked morning, men don’t exist. They creep into my mind later, when I’m standing at a bar in a dress or straddling hips. Wait, am I hot? But it’s an afterthought when the die is already cast—a sudden realization that all of the criticisms of myself, all the tricks I’ve amassed to shade myself in the angle I most desire, eventually reach an audience. Such an opinion is an abstraction.
If nothing else, it’s the opinion of other women that encroaches on mine. Resemblances spark my joy; differences become character flaws. The comparisons between my favorite bodies: Kate Winslet’s, Holly Madison’s, Elizabeth Hurley’s. I wonder if I can fool the women around me into admitting me into their tribe. Will they think I’m refined? Can I carry this hulking flesh as feminine? If I paint my face with the right strokes and find the right shoes with the right skirt, maybe I can distract from my flaws. I might pass.
Later in the MFA residency week, the writer discussed his process in crafting the novel. “I was nervous about being a guy trying to come at it from a woman’s perspective,” he admitted. “But I got a lot of advice from my wife.”
I tried to imagine this woman steering his husband’s perspective so far askew. Did she weigh her body in glances and pickups? Did any actual woman take in her reflection this far removed?
“Does this character sound… real to you?” I asked my friend, who was taking notes next to me.
“No. He’s so full of horseshit.”
The book went on to become optioned for a film. A marquee starlet was cast as the perfect-breasted girl. It currently has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 14%.
After I graduated with my MFA, I forgot about Hollow Mirror Girl for five years, until recently when my Twitter feed spit out a new account garnering a torrent of retweets. A Hollywood insider began posting real female character descriptions from Hollywood scripts—the point of hot heroine conception. Each of them read as hollow and unconvincing as the mirror girl mesmerized by her impeccable tits.
JANE, (20s), a neighborhood girl with fuck-me eyes for him.
JANE pours her gorgeous figure into a tight dress, slips into her stiletto-heeled fuck-me shoes, and checks herself in the dresser mirror.
His wife JANE is making dinner and watching CNN on a small TV. She was model-pretty once, but living an actual life has taken its toll.
JANE after JANE after JANE, totally interchangeable blow-up dolls that would be hilarious in their robotic inauthenticity, if they weren’t so completely, inescapably common. Telling the JANEs apart is an impossible blind item. JANE is virtually every character Blake Lively, Denise Richards, Mila Kunis, and Jessica Alba have ever played.
If a man isn’t staring at us, do we exist at all? It’s easy to forget, amidst a hundred thousand concerns, how myopic the zeitgeist renders half of humanity.
When I bought two tickets for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I wasn’t expecting transcendence. I grew up watching the original trilogy with my dad on school breaks, when USA Network ran marathons. I loved trash compactor-splashing, gun-firing Leia, was forced to remember she looked better in a gold bikini than I ever would, was sad to see her left behind with ratty braids to babysit a forest of teddy bears. The remake prequels fell in my middle school, high school, and college years, following a similar emotional trajectory:
- Oh cool! Padme has the Bob Mackiest wardrobe AND can rappel off castles!
- Wow, that’s some pretty advantageous crop top tearing.
- Pregnant and crying on a balcony. Bye.
The Internet dissected The Force Awakes teaser trailer and Target toys like a mummified prehistoric corpse, scraping bare bones for clues. We knew there was a girl. We knew her name was Rey. But we had no reason to believe that she would be any more substantial or less trivialized than any hundred heroines before her.
The revolution I saw wasn’t the fact that Rey was a female character. If that was revolutionary then I’d be tearing up over Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers or Zoe Saldana as Guardian of the Galaxy’s Gamora. But unlike these heroines, Rey wasn’t wearing a costume molded to every miniscule contour of her figure. The camera didn’t loiter behind her ass while she mounted the Batcycle. Men didn’t run off the road because she was striking enough to stumble, to suffer, to die for.
She was a scrapper because she needed money.
She was a pilot because she tinkered with shit.
This was important because she had a Millennium Falcon to fly and a Jedi destiny to fulfill.
Rey was all the glimmers of hope pop culture parsed over the last decade like Willy Wonka’s golden tickets rolled into the biggest movie of a generation: the natural aptitude and tenacity of Hermione Grainger, the stubbornness of Game of Thrones’s Arya, the relentlessness and hidden charisma of Katniss in The Hunger Games.
As I watched her sprint through the desert, pulsating in the lightsaber’s blue glow, a realization came: I could be Rey for Halloween.
I could dig up Mistress Saturn’s old Angelfire email and ask for a Rey costume and catwalk right into ComiCon and I wouldn’t be the girl who was being “brave” for wearing a sailor costume without a thigh gap or “fearless” for being almost naked in Seven of Nine spandex. I would just be Rey because Rey can be anyone. She’s a friend, a survivor, maybe-royalty. Her body is never addressed by anyone. Han Solo only warms up when her mechanical skills becomes useful; Finn’s relationship with her runs mercifully, refreshingly as a conduit to the human friendship his clone upbringing denied him (and besides, we’re all too busy pulling for Disney to let him end up with Poe). Kylo Ren’s progressive villain treats her as a worthy adversary, not a conquest.
Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Sailor Moon endure past their primes because they offer us the simplest, most comforting of delusions. We love Frodo and Luke and Usagi not because they could potentially save us, but because they could potentially be us. Within the mediocrity of our every days and the disappointments of our endeavors, we sift for meaning: a path to something incredible if we’re open to finding it. If an owl can find Harry Potter under some English stairs, why couldn’t Gandalf or R2D2 pick us out of the crowd?
When a heroine isn’t explicitly hot, when she’s plucked out of the obscurity of her life for the same reasons a man would be—a rare and unmined talent locked within her heart—a multitude of possibility opens. A little girl is cued to embrace her intelligence. A young woman doesn’t skip out on a costume party. A million more of us ask, Why couldn’t that be me?
Image credits: Feature image, image 2, and image 3 provided by author; image 4, image 5, image 6.