In Marion Ravenwood’s introductory scene in the movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark, and throughout the movie as a whole, the character is participating in the continued construction of the ideal action heroine. A tough dame with a justification for being out in the world, she’s been orphaned by her parents and left to fend for herself in a strange land. She’s been specially educated by her unusual life circumstances, in this case, travelling the world with her father in the absence of the domestic influences of a mother who also passed when Marion was young. She has the ability to act independently in Nepal, where she makes cultural contact with the locals and even adapts to her setting by learning the language, wearing the traditional dress of her current location, and acting as a local authority. In this case, the owner of a bar, a provider of liquor and other types of sustenance.
This set of circumstances in Marion Ravenwood’s life echoes common themes for the majority of contemporary female action heroines. A justification for acting independently in the world, a special education typically brought about travel or knowledge of life outside the home, the ability to survive and thrive in a different culture, and last but not least, strength. This strength can sometimes be demonstrated in a special physical skill or even a general attitude of rebellion. I believe that the origin of all contemporary female action heroines can be traced back indirectly to the character of Unca Eliza Winkfield from the book, “The Female American”. Not in the sense that all action heroines are trying to copy her character, in fact, I’d be willing to bet that many creators of contemporary action heroines don’t know about Unca Eliza. But the cultural conventions at work during the period of Early American Literature, and the romantic legends surrounding the origin of America combined with gender politics of the 18th century may still be playing a larger part in our pop culture than we realize.
In regards to the birth of the action heroine, Ellen Moers describes Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novels as, “a device to set maidens on distant and exciting journeys without offending the proprieties. In the power of villains, her heroines are forced to scurry up the top of pasteboard Alps and penetrate bandit-infested forests. They can scuttle miles along castle corridors, descend dungeons, and explore secret chambers without a chaperone, because the gothic castle, however ruined, is an indoor and therefore freely female space. In Mrs. Radcliffe’s hands the gothic novel became a feminine substitute for the picaresque, where heroines could enjoy all the adventures and alarms that masculine heroes had long experienced, far from home, in fiction.” This quote comes from a critical essay in the Norton’s edition of the novel, “Frankenstein”.
I believe that this is precisely the case with Unca Eliza in, “The Female American”, and I want to show you how. Though Unca’s adventures take place almost solely outdoors, I believe that the concept for them is very similar to what Moers described in her explanation of Radcliffe’s novels. I will be focusing on Volume One of the book as an example, because many of the connections and comparisons that I want to make have to do with the origin stories of the modern action heroine and the way that Unca Eliza has set that precedent due to her creation at this pivotal time in world history.
This matters now, because as the genre of film, television and comics evolve, if there isn’t a connection made or an origin point named for these new popular archetypes, they are in danger of becoming vapid and exploitative figures that will climax and then disappear as opposed to continuing to grow as mythic figures with roots and context from Early American Literature.
The Female American is, in large part, a travel narrative. From the very beginning, we are acquainted with Unca Eliza’s family history. Her white grandfather’s involvement with the discovery of Virginia, and her father’s brief captivity with the Indians which eventually lead him to Unca’s mother, an Indian princess. Because of this shared lineage, Unca has a sort of permission slip to talk about adventure and cross-cultural encounters throughout the book. Because she herself is born from that same type of contact. Upon her mother’s death, Unca returns to England with her father, where she is allowed to dress in the same way that her mother dressed her, which was a stylistic and unique mix from both of her cultural heritages. Unca dictates her appearance to us, “My tawny complexion, and the oddity of my dress, attracted every one’s attention, for my mother used to dress me in a kind of mixed habit, neither perfectly in the Indian, nor yet in the European taste, either in fine white linen, or a rich silk.”
She goes on to mention that she wears a cape and flowers in her hair. But most importantly is the following detail, “I frequently diverted myself with wearing the bow and arrow the queen my aunt left me, and was so dexterous a shooter, that, when very young, I could shoot a bird on the wing.” This is Unca’s special education.
Because of her cross-cultural heritage, she is allowed to take part in archery and we can only assume as readers that she learns about her mother’s way of life as a Native American. This is perhaps especially why the title of the book is, “The Female American”. This kind of a lifestyle would’ve been unheard of for young English girls at the time the book was published in 1767. Thus creating a kind of romantic appeal to both the idea of a shared English and Native American heritage and her main prop establishing that identify, her bow and arrows.
Though travel narratives, fictional or otherwise, the proto-adventure genre of their time, were quite common, female protagonists were not. So we can trace the necessity of the special education present in most contemporary action heroines back to this time and even this particular story. In order for a female-centric travel narrative to be more palatable, the author had to create in Unca a reason for this type of adventuring to be considered acceptable. The only way to create a plot where a woman could’ve been considered independent in a wilderness in the 18th century would’ve been to give her a justifiable reason to learn the skills that Unca will need later in the book. It makes the narrative believable for an audience that would not have been used to hearing this type of idea, though it’s something we’re well accustomed to now. Especially fans of action and adventure films and comics.
The book moves on to explain the death of Unca’s mother, which partially creates the impetus for all of the traveling that Unca will experience as the story unfolds. First she must travel with her father as he returns home to England, she later sails to Virginia to live with her father on his plantation after he returns to America, and finally, Unca sets sail back to England after the death of her father. It is this independence created by the eventual death of both of her parents that allows Unca to experience a life that was uncommon for women during this time period, and certainly uncommon for the heroines of Early American Literature.
On her voyage back to England after her father’s death, Unca is left on a strange island. She is abandoned there by a captain who steals her ship and cargo after she refuses multiple times to marry his son. This is Unca asserting her independence. Even though she only has two choices, accept the proposal and be safely returned to England or refuse the proposal and cause her own marooning on an unfamiliar island, she still chooses. Even in these moments of threat and intimidation, Unca manages to work her own special skills and abilities into her refusal. This is a direct reminder to the audience that a female character who can take care of herself has more choices in life. Unca states to the captain after the first time a proposal to his son is suggested, “I at first answered him with good humor, and told him I hoped he would let me see his son before I determined to have him; and that if he could shoot with my bow and arrows, which then hung by me in the cabin, as well as I could, I would have him were he ugly or handsome.”
This demonstrates, to me, that the anonymous author is making some move toward an independent female character with agency, and then pulling back from this idea time and again throughout the rest of the story. Perhaps for fear of reader reprisal. This creates a contradictory and problematic idea of an independent or strong female character. One can see how contemporary action heroines, if in fact evolved from this need for writers to create multiple layers of reasons to give female characters the opportunity for adventure, would create a gender-biased stereotype only complicated by decades worth of copies.
For example, Unca Eliza, literally called The Female American, is a figure born of colonists and Native Americans, well versed in hunting traditions, and acting on her own behalf in matters of the heart. And yet, she contracts a fever from anxiety, grows faint with fear, and must depend on the kindness of, what she believes, is a long dead stranger for shelter and guidance on the island where she is marooned. It should be noted that once again, it is the death of her parents and her decision to refuse marriage that are the circumstances that have allowed Unca passage to this exotic and adventurous location. Not her own desires, but in fact, her lack of choices.
It’s as though readers must be provided with a bevy of excuses and reasons for why Unca might end up in this situation. This type of logic and reasoning for female characters embarking upon an adventure is frequently echoed today. I can only think of a few characters that are the exception to this rule. Almost all contemporary action heroines end up as figures of strength or experts of ability because they were left no choice but to adapt in order to survive, usually after some abuse or trauma perpetuated by a male character, just as Unca is marooned by her dastardly captain.
It is in the island environment that a curious, though frequently frightened Unca, uses some of the skills from her unique cross-cultural background to survive. Even though we have been told by Unca herself that she is an expert hunter of the highest caliber and knows at least some information taught to her by her mother about life in the wilderness, Unca must still depend on circumstance to provide for her survival. It’s a coy first attempt at an action heroine that back pedals on itself frequently in order to ensure its believability to readers of the time.
Initially, she discovers a shelter created by a hermit and a manuscript with information written by this hermit about how to survive on the island. How fortunate for her to be received with a “how to” guide and a place to live. I believe that this is also a move to assuage 18th century readers who may have found it unbelievable that a young woman could survive in this situation. There is almost a sense of double narrative. Knowing what we know about Unca’s archery skills and her attitudes of independence, that would be enough to signify to a modern reader that Unca should have the ability to survive. Which she does. In the character’s own words, “Tis true I am well provided for the present; whilst the summer and fine weather continue, I can with little difficulty, or rather amusement, supply myself with fish, flesh, and fowl;”
Now trapped on the island and already having expressed outwardly multiple doubts, fears and worries, Unca can get on with exploring the island. She finds gold, mummies, and even the hermit that she thought was long since dead. It’s almost as though the reader is finally being rewarded. It takes six chapters of well-reasoned set-up to get to this place where readers can now begin to recognize this as a fictional travel narrative, an adventure, and what could be considered the female version of Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. Also a fictional autobiography of a castaway and also including accounts of interactions with Native Americans.
But alas, the hermit also dies. Leaving Unca’s newly found independence intact, and her adventure continues. She soon finds an underground network of caves that lead to the interior of a local idol worshipped by the island’s native inhabitants, called the Sun Idol. Knowing that Indians are soon approaching, she again allows herself to take action by hiding in the idol and speaking as though she were a God. It should be noted that the first time Unca Eliza truly takes matters into her own hands, deciding to convert the Indians to Christianity, she is in disguise. Ring a bell? Most action heroines from comics and often times film or television are well-known for adapting disguises in order to dole out justice. In the moment that the idea dawns on Unca, she also draws courage to undertake this task from…her special education. “It was nothing less than this, to ascend into the hollow idol, speak to the Indians from thence, and endeavor to convert them from their idolatry. A bold attempt! not rashly to be undertaken. I weighed this for several days in my mind. As the manner of my education had afforded me an opportunity of learning several of the Indian dialects, so as to speak them with the utmost ease…”
So Unca is a cross-cultural, specially educated orphan, who will take up a disguise to set what she perceives to be a wrong, to right. To do this she must act independently in a dangerous circumstance. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is almost identical to the circumstance that Marion Ravenwood finds herself in at the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It’s also true for multiple female characters from the X-Men, popular video game character Lara Croft, and just about any Geena Davis movie from the 90’s.
This is definitely a stereotypical character, and I don’t say that in a derogatory sense. The point is that this is a formula often obeyed across multiple genres to show how a strong female character is born, and it’s directly linked to the ideas of imperialism, hybridity, being orphaned (actually and symbolically by “Mother England) and surviving in the wilderness. My final thoughts on this matter would be to encourage a connection between modern pop culture, cultural studies, and Early American Literature. Specifically that we investigate the ongoing themes surrounding contemporary action heroines in stories we might normally disregard, those found in comic books and action movies.
It’s my guess that if we investigate the themes still present being carried over from the time of Early American Literature, that we can liberate these sometimes two dimensional characters and allow contemporary writers to create new action heroines maintaining the adventurous qualities we love without having to unconsciously echo outdated themes or ideas that don’t have to be perpetuated. Not to destroy the old, but to contextualize these female figures of strength so that we can continue moving forward in their construction.