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March 02, 2010

Reading Update

Finished Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series:

The Sea of Monsters
The Titan's Curse
The Battle of the Labyrinth
The Last Olympian

It was fun and addicting, but it wasn't as good as Harry Potter and I'm trying to figure out why.

I think part of is was that Harry Potter had the growing-into-teenagerhood-battle-of-the-sexes thing, but didn't have to contend with traditional archetypes. It's really hard to represent female empowerment when your two strongest battle goddesses are sworn virgins who get their power from their virginity. Also hard when your top three most powerful gods are, well, gods, not goddesses.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Riordan did some interesting stuff here with making the potentially most powerful demigod -- the child of Zeus -- a girl. But then he also took her out of the running by having her swear eternal maidenhood, which means both eternal virginity AND eternal adolescence, argh. This could have been the vehicle for some interesting discussion about teens and decisionmaking about their sexuality, but it's glossed over in favor of a truly not okay dichotomy between slutty/manipulative/dumb/vain Aphrodite (and her children,) and cold/standoffish/superior/selfish/uncaring Artemis (and her followers.) Oh yeah, also: Hera is a vengeful hypocrite who only cares about appearances, although she's constrained to sexual fidelity to her husband, being the goddess of marriage; Demeter is just plain dumb, caring only about farming; Persephone is also dumb; Hestia, who kind of saves the day, is weak and "prefers" to appear as a little girl sitting by the fire, overlooked by everyone but -- literally -- keeping the home fires burning; and Athena, the wise one, turns out to be wrong about our hero, and also has children parthenogenically, through platonic love affairs with men.

Yep, there's not a single good, strong, triumphant female god in the bunch, although all the male gods end up coming through: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Dionysus ... well, maybe not Ares. And all the male gods are rampantly sexual -- in fact the main action of the series is caused by extracurricular fucking on the part of the three strongest male gods.

I DO however, think it's really interesting that the character chosen to play the part of Achilles in the series' retelling of The Iliad in the final book is a girl. Yep, that's right. Clarisse, daughter of Ares, argues with the Apollo children over who gets the spoils of a particular battle -- although the spoils are a flying chariot, not a pretty girl. When Apollo cabin wins, Clarisse refuses to fight against the Titans. Her Patroclus is another girl, actually, the head of the Aphrodite children. Although there's no overt homoerotic tinge to their relationship, it's the only relationship in the series that approaches (but never breaches) the Bechdel barrier.

And yeah, that's another issue: doesn't pass the Bechdel test. Although the hero of the Harry Potter series is a boy, there are plenty of moments in HP where girls talk to each other about magic or school or dresses or stuff (even girly stuff.) In fact, we see them off whispering to each other and talking and having a good time all the time. Not in Percy Jackson, though. The only Bechdel-safe relationship (mentioned above) is implied, not shown. Actually, it's not even implied; the girls bond over the death of one of their boyfriends. Argh.

I also thought that the series' utter failure to consider Western Civ as maybe, possibly, not the only important or humanity-changing Civ in hisotry was a big fail. And it's not like there weren't multiple opportunities to dig just a TINY bit deeper into the whole "Western Civilization will die in chaos and take you and your playstations with it!" thing. HP, on the other hand, took what it wanted from western witch/wizard tradition and build the rest anew. It wasn't beholden to ancient archetypes (although you might not know it from the Christ-like conclusion to the series) any more than it had to be. It didn't go running toward outdated archetypes with open arms.

"Open" is the word I'm looking for. Although PJ was just as cutesy/funny and well-structured and so forth as HP, there's a lack of openness in the narrative, a lack of feeling that anything could happen (even though, of course, in HP, not just ANYTHING could happen. But it sure felt that way.) It was stuck in thousand-year-old ideas.

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