What genre novels have women who have "too much power"?
July 8, 2006 12:31 PM   Subscribe

Is the Woman Who Has Too Much Power and Must Be Stopped a commonly recurring plotline in genre works? If so, what are some examples?

Last night I was discussing science fiction novels with a few friends of mine, and posited that I feel that the following plotline, with some variations, recurs in one form or another in a good many genre works. I could only come up with a couple of specific examples offhand, and yet it seems quite familiar, as if I should be able to rattle off dozens (and my friends agreed). I won't yet list the examples we thought of in this thread, though if they're not here when I come back later, I will.

1. It begins with two characters, one male, one female--for some reason or other, the female is subordinate to the male.

2. For some reason, the female character (who is not necessarily a child) undergoes a change (either mystical, supernatural, or the result of science gome amok) that can be read as symbolic of puberty, and ends up with supernatural or superhuman powers as a result.

3. The male character decides that the female character has "too much power" and "must be stopped", though oftentimes she's not really doing any harm to anyone, and may even be helping people with her newly acquired power (she may have the power to heal by laying on hands, e.g.). He reasons that the two avenues available to him to "stop" her are violence and seduction. Violence is off the table because, after all, she has too much power; for some reason, likely related either to the male character's ineptitude in matters of the heart or his abusive or boorish nature, seduction fails.

4. The plotline ends with a fight, during which the female character's newly acquired powers are tested to their limits. As a result the male character is defeated and may be annihilated completely, absorbed into some larger, wiser consciousness, or something similar.

Of the four points mentioned above, (2) is absolutely necessary; however (1), (3), and (4) tend to accompany it in one form or another.

Does this plotline I've described above seem familiar to you? If so, what works (science fiction, fantasy, or horror; books, comics, or films) can you name in which it appears?
posted by Prospero to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I assume that the X-Men Phoenix plotline is at least partially what inspired this...
posted by ch1x0r at 12:36 PM on July 8, 2006

Does not seem that common to me. Mists of Avalon, maybe, though it's been 16 years since I read that book so I'm not sure. Sci fi novels with powerful women characters are in the minority.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:41 PM on July 8, 2006

I don't recognize it, but it's certainly reads as a "girls are scary and getting boobs and I can't control my reactions to them, which gives them too much power! Must fight back!" reaction, which I've found to be a pretty common theme among a lot of male-written literature (though not necessarily in the supernatural ways you describe).
posted by occhiblu at 12:48 PM on July 8, 2006

I have read a good amount of fantasy and have never come across this plot line. I usually read plots in which the female protagonist has some supernatural powers that help the male protagonist but are not as powerful as his. Terry Goodkind comes to mind.
posted by meta87 at 12:55 PM on July 8, 2006

The "Evil Willow" storyline on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the first thing that came to my mind on reading this.
posted by Gator at 1:00 PM on July 8, 2006

After a lot of rummaging about the dusty halls of memory, the only initial thing that comes to mind about this was a "young adult" fantasy trilogy that started with Justice and Her Brothers. The puberty metaphor was right at the surface there, inasmuch as the titular characters were at that age. One of the older brothers was just sort of a dick rather than particularly evil, and the girl grew into paranormal powers greater than his. There was a climactic psychic duel, ending in general familial reconciliation, and launching some adventures in a funky alternate dimension. By the end of everything, aforementioned brother had gone through some significant moral growth--as had all of them, really. (It's one of those series I keep meaning to find copies again one of these days; I really enjoyed it at the time.)

Beyond that, I'm a little puzzled at framing it as a very common kind of plot. Perhaps I've just not read the proper subset of books it appears in, but I'm skeptical the characterization is accurate.
posted by Drastic at 1:08 PM on July 8, 2006

Boy, that does sound familiar. Phoenix certainly, and for some reason I want to mention cheesy 80's cartoons like GI Joe, the Thundercats, Superfriends, etc. though in those examples the 4th point you mention is more along the lines of "Female is defeated, losing her (increased) powers in the process (in the interest of continuity), but learning that absolute power corrupts absolutely, or something." I can't come up with any concrete examples, but I'm almost positive there was a Thundercats along these lines with Cheetara (mrowr!) as the superpowered chica.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:09 PM on July 8, 2006

Response by poster: ch1x0r: I assume that the X-Men Phoenix plotline is at least partially what inspired this...

Partly. I've been thinking of it because I've read a couple of novels by Octavia Butler recently (Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind). Both have a plotline similar to the one I've described above: Mind of My Mind is a texbook example (the male character in that book even has the line "She has too much power"), and Wild Seed is close, though in that case the puberty-like transformation takes place before the action of the novel begins, and the conclusion is somewhat unexpected. When I described the similarity in plots of the two books to my friend, he immediately said, "Oh, yeah, the X-Men Phoenix plot."

Two other examples we came up with:

--Clive Barker's novel Weaveworld, though it's been many years since I read that book and so I might not remember its details correctly--however, a little Googling reveals that the female protagonist's power in that book is called the "menstruum" and that only women can wield it, which suggests that I do remember it correctly.

--A borderline example is Ripley's character in the film Alien Resurrection, but it's interesting because that's the point in the series in which Ripley changes from an ordinary human woman who performs admirably in exceptional circumstances to a woman whose power comes nearly entirely from scientific tinkering--she gets out of difficult situations not solely because she's clever and quickly learns to fire a gun, as in Aliens, but primarily because of inborn abilities like acid for blood.
posted by Prospero at 2:02 PM on July 8, 2006

Besides the Phoenix saga, I'm drawing a blank...but WOW! , that really seems like a loaded question.

If I may generalize for a sec...maybe your subgenre reading is attracted towards stories with female leads and every story needs an antagonist which half the time would be a male.
and thats why it seems like subgenre unto itself?

I mean are there really enough examples of this to identify some sort of theme to actually name?
posted by stavx at 2:48 PM on July 8, 2006

I am very familiar with the current state of the fantasy and science fiction genre, and to answer your question: No, that is very much not a common plotline in written works of fantasy and science fiction. I can't speak to other genres such as westerns, horror, romance, mainstream lit, technothrillers, or what have you.

What makes you think it's common?
posted by Justinian at 5:24 PM on July 8, 2006

posted by acoutu at 5:33 PM on July 8, 2006

This probably would sound common to someone who has read a lot of Andre Norton. She wrote a damn lot of books but all of them seemed to revolve around a plot similar to this, and were about a subtle as a brick to the face in their man-hating.
posted by Riemann at 5:42 PM on July 8, 2006

In Dune, a woman gets supernatural powers but it's a good, community-serving thing. ...trying to remember the sequels...
posted by salvia at 5:59 PM on July 8, 2006

Hm, I'm not a scifi fan, but the significant other is and this sounds a bit like the Ringworld plot he was explaining to me the other week. It might hit three of your four points.
posted by eatdonuts at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2006

Best answer: Well, in terms of sci-fi, John Varley's Titan may be a good candidate. In terms of more mainstream stuff, you've got movies like Basic Instinct and Disclosure. And then there's Eve of Destruction, for which the trailer included Gregory Hines talking about a "toy" that "needs to be put back in its box." You might even make an argument for Heavy Metal, which in my opinion is underrated as a gender power inversion metaphor, with women going from ditsy sex symbols to savior goddesses by the end.

As acoutu tersely indicates, what you're really talking about is a take on the Lilith myth, which in western thought is more or less the prototypical battle of the sexes, with the main question being whether the power of female sexuality is going to be contained and controlled. Naturally, this also relates to the Pandora myth, and so on.

What's most problematic about your description is part #4, because usually, in this type of story, the woman loses. (I'm not saying she should lose, I'm just saying that's usually what happens.)

For a different angle, there's Kiss Me Deadly, in which a hardboiled chauvinist detective gets caught up in a mystery involving poetry by Christina Rosetti. And there's The Dead Pool, in which a detective tracks a female killer to whom he's increasingly sympathetic. In both of those, you could maybe see your condition #4, although they aren't sci-fi (well, Kiss Me Deadly kind of is, depending on your interpretation).

As far as Dune, the relevant character is Paul, who essentially becomes the first man in history to literally see things from a woman's point of view. You could say that he gets absorbed into a larger, wiser consciousness, although it's not one that he directly did battle with.
posted by bingo at 6:34 PM on July 8, 2006

In Dune, a woman gets supernatural powers but it's a good, community-serving thing. ...trying to remember the sequels

A man gets bigger and better powers.

I'm not sure I see this as a trend or grand theme in the genre. Unless you're Joss Whedon. A better theme would be that slutty chicks are evil, but that's hardly a genre exclusive deal.
posted by megamanwich at 6:41 PM on July 8, 2006

Unless you're Heinlein, in which case slutty chicks totally rule. Especially if they're related to you!
posted by Justinian at 6:50 PM on July 8, 2006

Not Sci-fi, but Junichiro Tanazaki has a short story called The Tattooer (Shisei) found in Seven Japanese Tales that deals with this kind of transformation. A tattoo artist works on a woman and with each tattoo she becomes more powerful.

There's also the trio of work that sums up this plotline pretty nicely-
Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the original)
Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki (the updated literary version)
Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov (possibly the best of the lot)

All of these stories have plots that cycle through the 4 points you outline above, but instead of obliteration, there is just humiliation. But I'm willing to believe that the loss of the main character's sense of manhood in literary fiction is analagous to Sci-fi's loss of self.
posted by rodz at 7:54 PM on July 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Your description made me think of the plotline of Dark Angel, James Cameron's dystopic, grrl-power saga. Jessica Alba's character, although only one of many genetically enhanced gov-lab escapees, is their natural leader. Physically all girl, she's got a guy's name — Max¹ — and drives the many males who hunt/desire her to distraction.²

¹Amusingly, Max's (female) sidekick has a nickname that pays homage to your leitmotif: Original Cindy.
²See also the unfolding tale of the junior senator from New York.

posted by rob511 at 8:05 PM on July 8, 2006

What about Isabelle from tv show The 4400? Anybody watch that? It's almost exactly what you described except Isabelle was never subservient, just a baby. Tom Baldwin just got orders from the future to kill her.

Also what about the series of books called His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, but not as straightforwardly. But it is about fear of women/puberty, in a way. Except the good guys/powerful woman wins.. i think.
posted by amethysts at 8:35 PM on July 8, 2006

Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear maybe?
posted by crack at 9:16 PM on July 8, 2006

The ending of "Bad Wolf", the season finale of the previous season of Doctor Who has exactly the situation you're describing.
posted by nervestaple at 9:19 PM on July 8, 2006

Best answer: Er, excuse me. It's the ending of the second part of that episode, "The Parting of the Ways."
posted by nervestaple at 9:23 PM on July 8, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all of your responses.

stavx: If I may generalize for a sec...maybe your subgenre reading is attracted towards stories with female leads and every story needs an antagonist which half the time would be a male.
and thats why it seems like subgenre unto itself?

Most likely not it, because I don't read more than two or three genre novels a year these days--my reading is either nonfiction or 20th century American literature for the most part, and the primary reason I'm reading Butler is because she was recommended to me as a "literary" science fiction writer.

Justinian: What makes you think it's common?

Though I enjoyed both Butler books I read (and will probably pick up another at some point), I felt that I was able to predict specific elements of their outcomes accurately, far earlier than I should have been if I hadn't come across such a plotline often enough to know its usual twists and turns. Part of what the list of works that others cite above does is help me locate the book in a larger cultural context--except for Andre Norton (who I don't know much about) the genre works that people have listed all seem to post-date Butler ('77 for Mind of my Mind; '80 for Wild Seed). So it might be that back when the books were published, their plots might have seemed more surprising to their readers than they do to me.
posted by Prospero at 7:06 AM on July 9, 2006

Species was on TV here, last night. My gut feeling is that you'll find most examples of this plot in filmed horror, rather than written SF.
posted by Leon at 8:31 AM on July 9, 2006

Best answer: Prospero, the time period you're talking about might also be a clue -- you've got books written smack in the middle of the second wave of feminism, when it probably did seem to large portions of the population that women were getting too much power in opposition to all laws of nature and needed to be knocked back down to restore societal order.

Obviously (good) literary plots are also going to draw on myths and other sources that resonate, but the current politics of the time probably brought those myths to the forefront of the popular consciousness.
posted by occhiblu at 2:34 PM on July 9, 2006

Lang's Metropolis has this from the male protagonist's point of view, but the audience knows the heroine's transformation from sweetheart of the working class to militant revolutionary is caused by her being replaced by a robot.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:42 PM on July 9, 2006

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