Where Are The Female Superheros

A strong theme of Bear Skin is how narrative both reflects the world and shapes it. Story is educative, story asserts a view, story informs and we viewers and readers engage, and re-tell and become.

Deeply truthful stories are vital to good and strong society. This wonderful TED talk by Christopher Bell sums up the importance of this fact by addressing the place of strong female role models in narrative, not only for little girls, but also for little boys.

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But here’s the question that I have to ask. Why is it that when my daughter dresses up, whether it’s Groot or The Incredible Hulk, whether it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Maul, why is every character she dresses up as a boy? And where are all the female superheroes? And that is not actually the question, because there’s plenty of female superheroes. My question really is, where is all the female superhero stuff?Where are the costumes? Where are the toys?

Because every day when my daughter plays when she dresses up, she’s learning stuff through a process that, in my own line of work, as a professor of media studies, we refer to as public pedagogy. That is, it is how societies are taught ideologies. It’s how you learned what it meant to be a man or a woman, what it meant to behave yourself in public, what it meant to be a patriot and have good manners. It’s all the constituent social relations that make us up as a people. It’s, in short, how we learn what we know about other people and about the world.

The Wild Duck

It is not often that plays made into films, particularly remakes of classics written in another language and era, translate well. However, sometimes it is done well and a particularly good case in point is the 2016 Australian film, The Daughter, based on Henrik Ibsen’s classic, The Wild Duck [1884].

Adapted for screen and directed by Australian film and theatre director Simon Stone, the film features an ensemble cast including Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neil.

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The original play, The Wild Duck, is a Norwegian classic, set in the 1880s. It is considered to be Ibsen’s greatest work and recounts what he discerned to be the fatal effects of the “life lie” and the destructive nature of idealism in a quest to dislodge fantasy.

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It centers around the rather singular character Gregers Werle who returns to his home town after a self imposed exile to visit his father Hakon Werle, a wealthy merchant and industrialist. He encounters his old school friend Hjalmar Ekdal, who married a servant girl of his father and is working under Hakon’s patronage. Gregers  is bitter with his father over the suicide of his mother 16 years earlier from an affair with the servant girl Gina and discerns that she was married to Hjalmar as a cover for her pregnancy.

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Feeling his old school friend is living a lie, particularly in relation to his 16 year old daughter Hedvig, who is in fact not Hjalmar’s child but rather Gregers own half-sister and Hakon’s daughter. The idealist Gregers cannot help but reveal the truth. However, in doing so, he upsets the fragile equilibrium of everyone’s life. His idealism drives him to speak frankly and bring all to light. However, in exposing the skeletons in the closet he rips up the foundation of the Ekdal family and their whole dreamworld collapses.

Deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness.

Re-written into rural Australia, the film opens with wealthy landowner Henry shooting down a wild duck. As the story unfolds we see the return of unhappy Christian after 16 years in the USA, to his home town for the wedding of his father Henry. Tension between father and son expose the unresolved pain from the suicide death of Christian’s mother 16 years prior. Christian encounters his childhood friend Oliver and observes his seeming idyllic rural life with wife Charlotte and daughter Hedvig. Oliver works at Henry’s sawmill and looks after his father Walter, a slightly doddery old man who rehabilitates injured animals. It is Walter who takes the injured bird from Henry to convalesce it with the help of 16 year old Hedvig. It is Christian, alcoholic and facing the demise of his own marriage, who cannot help but reveal the painful truths to not only Oliver but also eventually Hedvig, leading to the unraveling of their family.

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The Wild Duck is littered with symbolism centered chiefly around the wild duck. Gregers  imagines Hjalmar as the wild duck in his entrapment in the “poisonous marshes” of his household – shot down by wicked Hakon. The old Ekdal lives in a fantasy world, rehabilitating animals when he himself had been fatally wounded by Hakon and willingly conceals the truth about Hedvig from his own son. Moreover, Hedvig figures as the wild duck in that she loses her family and place of origin and is caught up in the mendacity of three generations of deceit. Most significantly, it is Greger’s “truth telling ” which catalyses the fatal blow for Hedvig and the duck, bursting the fragile fantasy world of their imagined protection.

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The story in modern form is still as powerful as the 19th century stage-play and a credit to the film makers and actors for translating it so effectively to film.