By Kelly Foster
In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.
—“Penelope” by Dorothy Parker
Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts,
Unsex me here, and fill me from the crown
To the toe top-full of direst cruelty.
—Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
My parents still keep a battered vinyl copy of Bill Conti’s Rocky soundtrack in a box of old records. When I was seven years old, I wrote “Kelly’s Workout Music” on the front cover. My chicken-scratch scrawl is still discernible there.
I say this not to illustrate my then already blooming self-consciousness as a body that needed to be toned and fit, rather to illustrate the fact that even as a nine-year old, the fanfare of trumpets and strings that accompany “Gonna Fly Now” and the other classic Survivor montage songs of the later Rocky films (“Eye of the Tiger,” “No Easy Way Out,” “Hearts on Fire”) used to make me feel heroic and strong—earnest and brave. I’d clench my fists. I’d jump up and down. I’d run in place. I’d feel ready to punch, kick, fight, shout—to rally and come back from a deficit. I wanted to be a fighter too.
I remember going on a walk with my dad the evening after I saw Rambo: First Blood (coincidentally, this was my first R-rated movie), and getting “pumped up” as we recounted the classic scene where Stallone growls to Richard Crenna’s Colonel Trautman, “I’m your worst nightmare.”
The scene had given me chills. Frankly, I thought it was awesome. Frankly, I still do.
I saw Last of the Mohicans four times in the theater. The same with Gladiator. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Braveheart. I can recite all the Lord of the Rings movies. I’ll be honest. I saw Cliffhanger more than once at the Plaza Twin Cinema in Yazoo City, Mississippi, when I was in high school. Now, my motives in having seen Last of the Mohicans or even Gladiator may not have been entirely, ahem, heroic...but I am deeply hesitant to relegate my interest in them entirely to the realm of carnal desire.
Because I don’t watch those movies wishing to be the damsel in distress. No one wants to be Maid Marian. No one wants to be Penelope, waiting twenty years for Odysseus to return, fending off her predatory, banal suitors. I watch those movies and read those stories because I want to strike the blow, jump the ship, climb the hill, and ford the stream myself.
It’s a complicated place for a woman who enjoys and celebrates being a woman to stand. I don’t want to be a man, but the desire for action, for heroism, for independent movement more than simply domestic often appears limited to masculine provinces.
Nor do I wish to be seen as a woman aping at manhood. Or to play at sports weaker and less glorious. Think even of the common phraseology surrounding sports, “You throw [shoot/run/jump] like a girl.”
But feminist though I am, I don’t watch the WNBA because, despite myself, I find it deeply boring. And I hope my disinterest doesn’t derive purely from some latent, yet-to-be-purged misogynism within me. And the Serena Williams of the world, while inspiring and worthy to be emulated, don’t quite do it for me either.
I’ve previously mentioned the Foster’s familial penchant for Lewis and Tolkein. From the time I was very young, I was aware of the story of Eowyn striking her fatal blow against the Lord of the Nazgul in Return of the King. For the three or four people reading this who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, the Witch King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul and arch-servant of the evil Sauron, was rumored by an old prophecy to be impossible to kill because “no living man could hinder him.” Disguised, Eowyn sneaks into the penultimate battle as a soldier against the dark forces of Sauron. When her uncle Theoden is mortally wounded by the Witch King, she stands before him to defend Theoden. After a brief struggle, it appears her defiance was futile. With his hands wrapped around her neck about to snuff out her life, he reminds her of the old prophecy.
“No living man may hinder me!”
She shouts back.
“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter.”
In Peter Jackson’s film version of the same, she says simply, “I am no man,” and having said so, administers a killing strike that shifts the trajectory of the battle entirely.
I think I like the book’s version best, because in it she claims her name. And that’s what I love best about Homer’s Odyssey. It’s what I love best about Beowulf. It’s what I love best even in Gladiator.
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
When I teach Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to my students after nine weeks of reading the Odyssey, we always have a heated debate. Many of the students hate the old man for leaving the admirable Penelope and for bestowing upon her the dismissive moniker “an aged wife.” Angry as I too feel at him for this, something primal in me still resonates every time I read these lines:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am become a name. Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. And it’s not just men who want that.