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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Plucky Heroines from Haggard to Hikaru and Buffy

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/01/09 at 10:41 AM

This is a guest post by Timothy Perper, PhD and Martha Cornog, MA, MS, who are Book Review editors for Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga, and the Fan Arts, a scholarly journal about Japanese cartooning and popular culture. Cornog is the graphic novel columnist for Library Journal. They have written extensively about manga and anime, and their edited book Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries is in press at Libraries Unlimited. Perper and Cornog, who are married, have also written extensively about gender and sexuality.

In a recent essay on The Valve, Bill Benzon asked a series of questions about H. Rider Haggard, a 19th century English novelist who wrote adventures set in Africa about supernatural white heroines. Haggard’s characterizations raise questions about how women and girls were portrayed in his adventure fiction, and are prescient in view of later portrayals in American and Japanese popular culture in both text and visual media.

It’s not hard to place Haggard’s views of women. In principle, he idealized the “pure womanhood” of England – for example, missionary Mackenzie’s wife in Allan Quatermain – but at the same time his work reflects his male readers’ uneasy yearning, heavily though not explicitly eroticized, for women who are passionate, active, heroic, and sexually motivated. Haggard was not writing Victorian pornography, but in his treatment of white women from Africa – ESPECIALLY white women like Ayesha in She and many other of his mature white heroines – he reveals the same impulse to eroticize the exotic that Steven Marcus saw as fundamental to Victorian pornography. (note 1) For Marcus, such pornography finds its closest genre relatives in utopian fantasy – hence Marcus’ term “pornotopia” for the worlds portrayed in such literature. In such a pornotopia, women are not passive wallflowers, timid, meek, and obedient to their masters or to the patriarchy; instead, they are active agents of their own sexual purposes and desires, intermingled with a desire and capacity to rule the state as queens and empresses. (You will find an echo of this set of attributions to women in the Empress card in the standard Tarot deck.)

Haggard, Women, and the Wild

In many ways, Flossie Mackenzie in Allan Quatermain – the 10-year old daughter of a Scottish missionary – is simply a very young version of a heroine like Ayesha. Flossie is self-reliant, unafraid, armed, and dangerous, and kills a Masai warrior with the two-barreled Derringer pistol she carries when he attacks her. Although she is therefore attractive, Haggard seems uneasily aware that such a life is somehow not right for Woman, that is, not what a patriarchal God intended: here are his comments about Flossie, put into the mouth of his spokesman Allan. When Mackenzie decides to return to England with his wife and Flossie, Allan praises him:

“I congratulate you on your decision,” answered I, “for two reasons. The first is, that you owe a duty to your wife and daughter, and more especially to the latter, who should receive some education and mix with girls of her own race, otherwise she will grow up wild, shunning her kind...” [Chapter 8]

Allan – and therefore Haggard – seems well aware that for Flossie a life in Africa is a ticket to the “wild,” a place where 10 year-old girls like Flossie shoot leopards and men and live their own lives under their own rule, certainly not (Allan thinks) a world or role suited to an ideal Englishwoman.

But Haggard’s accommodation to Victorian patriarchal ideals is opposed by a desire for women who are precisely the free, beautiful, and erotic women of Marcus’ pornotopia and Haggard’s own imagined Africa. It takes no great leap of brilliance to see the profound connections between Haggard’s imperialist views and what Edward Said called “orientalism” that likewise exoticizes and eroticizes women of Asia. And so Haggard “Africanizes” his white women, if we can use that word in a way similar to how Said uses “orientalism.” Today we hear an echo of this vision of Africa in the phrase “Africanized bees,” the US term used for “killer bees,” which are native US honeybees that have interbred with African bees and have become deadly dangerous.

Haggard’s rhetorical solution to this otherwise insoluble riddle is to create a utopia in the wilderness of Africa, where white women live and rule, and who are the powerful, beautiful, and erotic empresses of Victorian male imagination. Haggard did know life in real Africa – he had lived there – but his African utopia is, in the final analysis, a fantasy. Thus, while Flossie Mackenzie may appeal to a modern reader’s feminist sensibilities, it would be a mistake to think of Haggard as a proto-feminist. As far as we can see, Flossie and her kind owe nothing to any feminism of 1880s-1890s Victorian England, but rather represent a desire to create a wish-fulfillment escape for some male readers.

Haggard was also a serious anti-Semite. His 1906 novel The Spirit of Bambatse (also called Benita) has for its villain the Jew Jacob Meyer, who not only lusts after the white heroine Benita but also after gold. In the last chapter, Meyer dies:

... and Jacob, springing at the slashed bag [of gold] plunged his thin hands into it.  ¶ “No lie.” he screamed, “no lie,” as he dragged the stuff out and smelt at it. “Gold, gold, gold! Hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of gold! Let’s make a bargain, Englishman, and I won’t kill you as I meant to do. You take the girl and give me all the gold,” and in his ecstasy he began to pour the glittering ingots over his head and body. ¶ ... then [he] suddenly paused, for a change had come over Jacob’s face, a terrible change. ¶ It turned ashen under the tan, his eyes grew large and round, he put up his hands as though to thrust something from him, his whole frame shivered, and his hair seemed to erect itself… [after screaming silently] he fell forward and moved no more. ¶ ... Robert sprang to the Jew, dragged him over on to his back, put his hand on his breast and lifted his eyelids. ¶ “Dead,” he said. “Stone dead...” [Chapter 24]

We certainly ought to recognize the anti-Semitic stereotype here of the maddened Jew wallowing in gold. Jacob is not a minor character in The Spirit of Bambatse but is its main villain.

It’s tempting – but we will resist – to get into a Julia Kristeva-esque analysis of the abjection of the Jew and the anti-Semitic author along the lines of her Powers of Horror and its analysis of Celine, (note 2) but let it be. The main point is that Haggard had more here than merely the Jew as his (hated) target. The scene is also anti-bourgeois, which provides an important insight, we think, into the worlds that Haggard fantasized. His “Africa” is more than merely a continent, more than even a heart of darkness: it is a world in which the pathetic weaknesses of bourgeois life are erased from the hearts of men, and more importantly, of women. He officially loves England and its civilization, but he yearns for a world purified of lust for gold and greed for money. That world is the “Africa” of his Englishmen heroes: a place of bravery, loyalty, strength, courage, and manliness – if one is white. Yet, for the Jew, the Portuguese, the French, and, above all, Africans like the Masai in Allan Quatermain, Africa is a place of death and a grave.

Another View

And, by contrast… what of Robert Louis Stevenson? Haggard famously made a bet with his brother that he could write a novel as successful as Treasure Island, and turned out King Solomon’s Mines in (if memory serves) some six weeks. Stevenson too can write of faraway places, like the South Seas, but there is a significant difference. For Stevenson, Samoa and the South Seas in general were NOT a utopia at all. Far from it.

In fact, in his novella “The Beach at Falesa," the island is a haven for some very crooked Englishmen, not Jews, just greedy thieves and liars. The hero, Wiltshire, is no angel; he has had to leave England under a cloud, and decides to become a copra trader. But Wiltshire is an honest man – and he falls in love and marries a native girl, Uma. After a series of nasty interactions, the story ends with one of the villains hunting Wiltshire with a rifle in a leafy jungle as Wiltshire tries to blow him away with a shotgun – and it is Uma who rescues Wiltshire after he kills the rifleman in a vicious knife fight.

Uma is no shy retiring violet, and is as protective of him as he is of her. So Haggard did not invent the heroic woman warrior – and Stevenson did it better. Uma is not a queen, though Wiltshire certainly thinks she’s sexy – she’s merely a woman loyal to the man she loves and who loves her. Her bravery is natural to her, not because she has escaped a bourgeois England as a pure virgin saint who needs “some education” and to mix with girls of the white race lest she become “wild.” Instead, Uma’s courage simply comes with the territory of being a woman. So we see Haggard’s Flossie as owing very little to feminism, but Stevenson’s women do owe a lot to Stevenson’s understanding that women are a much tougher breed than they might seem to a Victorian patriarchal writer like Haggard.

Independent Girls Remembered

But, even so, Flossie does touch on an archetype that was, we suggest, emerging in Eurocentric writing towards the end of the 19th century. That is of the self-agentic heroine, whose proactive agency exists not for evil purposes, as it does with Milady and Lady Macbeth, but for herself. In Flossie, Haggard merely sketches her, but she is there in outline and prophecy. It was, we suggest, the Americans who next followed up on these female characters, especially popular writers like L. Frank Baum and the women artists who later drew heroic women in the comics after World War I – or wrote Nancy Drew.

Anyone interested in the early 20th century history of “plucky girl heroines” in US popular culture should read Trina Robbins’ wonderful 2009 edited book about the American popular artist Nell Brinkley. (note 3) It has a large sample of Brinkley’s simultaneously very pretty, fashionable, and adventurous heroines. They’re usually in their late teens to early 20s, with boyfriends of the stalwart hero type – but the heroines themselves are equally strong characters, not averse to shooting German spies or swimming a mile to shore nude (!) after a shipwreck. After Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code trashed the US comics industry in the 1950s, we have forgotten that such heroines ever existed, and see comics almost solely as a repository of costumed superheroes and gunslinging (male) sheriffs in Westerns – or as Sergeant Fury type anti-communist warriors. So today many readers think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and her imitators on television) were invented only recently or have only a few, rare ancestresses in girls like Haggard’s Flossie. But that impression is seriously inaccurate.

Robbins, herself a cartoonist, has been the indefatigable chronicler of these early female protagonists, and we owe to her usually copiously illustrated historiographies a great debt for re-awakening these parts of women’s history in US popular culture. One can argue that history forgotten is history nonexistent, but not so: we speculate that these pre- and post-World War I heroines were themselves a continuation of family memories and traditions from 19th century America, where the idea that a woman was a timid air-head interested only in clothes and boys would have been laughable. The real grandmothers and great-grandmothers of 1908, say, would readily have remembered life on the frontier or even earlier. Weak women died – and the surviving women were, we suggest, part of the reality that underlies girls like Flossie.

Historical Origins

There’s a connection here between Haggard, writing in the 1880s-1900s, and the American “Wild West.” For European writers looking for models or originals for their utopian fantasies, stories of the American West were a source of amazement and envy. Examples of such models would have included the well-publicized life of men like Theodore Roosevelt (whom Haggard very much admired (note 4)), the “real-life” African adventures of the US-French writer Paul du Chaillu, and the novels of the American-Irish novelist Thomas Mayne Reid. (note 5) We suggest that Haggard’s depiction of “Africa” is partly his effort to utilize but recast then living or recently remembered history of how the West was settled in the US. It is not an accident that Jules Verne set his purely boy’s-adventure The Mysterious Island into a world that derives directly from US history – it opens with a balloon escape by Union soldiers from a Confederate war prison and ends up on a lush tropical island, which its heroes find and where they build a settlement before the island finally blows up. However, it is obvious – blindingly so – that their efforts would have been 100% useless without girls: just a bunch of guys who find an island and died there childless.

Nonetheless, Verne’s evocation of South Pacific Islands – and part of Stevenson’s comfort with that setting and its people – comes from real history. In the early 19th century, US whaling ships discovered the hitherto uninhabited island chain in the Pacific now called the Bonin or Ogasawara Islands. The islands had fresh water and were colonized by sailors from those ships, with ethnic backgrounds from the US, both white and black, from the South Pacific islands, and from Europe. Because some whaling ships carried women the early Bonin Islanders had children and spoke a version of American English. Their language has brought them once again to our attention in Daniel Long’s absolutely marvelous and very scholarly 2007 book about the linguistic history of the Bonin Islands. (note 6) Later, the Japanese, embarking on their Meiji and post-Meiji imperialist trajectory, took over the Bonin Islands and renamed them; and even if you have never heard of the Bonin or Ogasawara Islands, we will guarantee that one of the islands in the chain you do know of – the island called, in Japanese, “Iwo Jima.”

But Verne, trying to find a place to locate his boys-only utopia, erased the girls and women. And Haggard, who kept the girls, still saw these places as “locales of menace” where civilized ways, especially for women, can crumble within a few years, thereby to produce leopard- and man-killing heroines like Flossie, Ayesha, and a number of others. We do not know if Haggard knew anything about the Bonin Islands, but Stevenson lived his last years in the South Pacific, on Samoa, with his American wife – and he would have known first-hand that those women were not timid little fashionistas – as he proved by writing Uma – and that “going native” wasn’t such a bad thing after all, the later Joseph Conrad notwithstanding.

So, strong but indirect threads of reality run through the history of characters like Flossie. Parts of the history have been differentially erased, according to the literary aesthetics and political agendas of the authors, but the history is still real, and is slowly being re-accessed as modern scholars, like Daniel Long and Trina Robbins, rediscover that history.

Independent Girls Move Ahead

The Japanese settled the Bonin Islands some time in the late 19th century and created their own colonies. And that means that Japanese women moved there also, re-drawing a long history of women who have traveled across the globe. So we should not *really* be surprised by a modern Japanese manga like Magic Knight Rayearth, drawn by four women artists collectively calling themselves CLAMP. (note 7) In Magic Knight Rayearth, we meet Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu, three 14-15 year old girls on a class trip to Tokyo Tower who end up magically transported to the world of Cephiro where they become warriors and Hikaru becomes the next ruler of Cephiro, her and her two – count them, TWO – boyfriends. Nor are Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu alone in Japanese cartooning. (note 8) ‘Twas ever thus. The upshot? Flossie has a long history and, we propose, a rich future.


(1) Marcus, Steven. 1966/1974. The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. New York: New American Library.

(2) Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

(3) Robbins, Trina. 2009. The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley’s Cartoons from 1913-1940. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics.

(4) Thanks to Bill Benzon for pointing out the connection between Haggard and Roosevelt.

(5) Thomas Mayne Reid (1818-1883) was an Irish-American novelist who wrote boys’ adventure tales set in the American Far West, Africa, and elsewhere. He was born in Ireland and later moved to New Orleans. He served in the Mexican-American war, later returning to Ireland and England and still later back to America. Details about him and a book list may be found on: http://www.athelstane.co.uk/maynreid/index.htm

Paul du Chaillu (1835-1903) was another prolific writer of adventures, these urged on the reader as unvarnished reportorial truth. His stories about Africa excited much enthusiasm among the boys and young men who read them. He was born in New Orleans, raised in Africa, returned to the US, and later became an explorer of equatorial Africa and elsewhere, including Lapland. Details and a book list may be found on: http://www.mainlesson.com/displayauthor.php?author=chaillu

(6) Long, Daniel. 2007. English on The Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands. A publication of the American Dialect Society, Durham, NC: Duke University Press (ISBN-10: 0822366711; ISBN-13: 978-0822366713).

(7) CLAMP. 1998-2001. Magic Knight Rayearth, Volumes 1-6. Los Angeles: TokyoPop. Originally published in Japanese by Kodansha.

(8) Perper, Timothy and Martha Cornog. 2008. I Never Said I Was a Boy: Utena, Arita Forland, and the (Non) Phallic Woman. International Journal of Comic Art, 10(2):328-353.


This is very interesting.  Sexualised utopias (’pornotopia’: I shudder to think what I’d pull up if I put that term into Google) predate the C19th century, of course ... one of the most famous examples is the very racy La Terre Australe (1676) by the defrocked randy monk Gabriel de Foigny—a sailor is shipwrecked in Australia and discovers it inhabited by red-skinned hermaphrodite fuckers (in the strict sense).  In fact there have been studies of the specifically antipodean, and more broadly Pacifican/South Seas, traditions of sexual utopias: Pam Cheek’s book Sexual Antipodes for instance (though that is more about actual travel literature).

Beyond that I’m not sure I’ve a lot to add to this very detailed post.  Some small portion of my brain niggles somewhere that the fairly specific utopian impulse in literature and the much longer-standing pornographic impulse don’t superpose, as here, without creating all sorts of semiotic interference patterns.  I’ll think more specifically about what I mean when I say that.

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, it seems to me that some form of utopianism has been a central theme of American culture, especially as it constrasts itself with Europe. America was to be the New Jerusalem, while Europe was doddering and corrupt. America was all about carving out a new land from the wilderness.

I don’t know what was going on in dime Westerns by the time Haggard was romancing Africa, but Mark Twain was sailing Huck and Jim down the Mississippi. Their raft was all that was left of the New Jerusalem – there were moments on that raft that were genuinely sublime. But whenever they landed: trouble. Not a lick of utopia left. 

* * * * * *

Just to get it out there, here’s a comment I sent to Tim & Martha via email last week some time:

So, both America and Japan had plucky girls before WWII. American wins and tries to wipe those plucky girls out of popular culture. Japan loses and enlarges the scope for plucky girls.

Hmmmmmm. . . . .

By Bill Benzon on 06/03/09 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A propos of utopian impulses and sexuality, I’ll be interested in Adam Roberts’ thoughts about semiotic interference. In the meantime, just so we don’t think that sexuality and utopias don’t mix in principle, quite a range of sexual/gender utopias have been invented—John Norman’s Gor novels for an anti-feminist viewpoint based on male superiority; Robert Rimmer’s pro-sexuality, pro-feminist novels of sexual exploration, equality, and freedom, and even Wilhelm Reich’s non-novelistic, but still utopia-minded psychology. Depending on where we draw the definitional lines, there are others as well.

By on 06/04/09 at 05:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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