I’ve been thinking about the stereotypes of the strong male and weak female while reading Graceling by Kristin Cashore. I know we no longer live in caves, and women don’t need to be defended by men, but we still treasure the idea of the knight in shining armor, and so very many male and female characters in fiction (or movies) continue to follow the stereotypical male-female balance of power.
Graceling turns these stereotypes on their heads. The novel follows the adventures of Katsa, a woman graced with the ability to kill but also with extraordinary compassion. Katsa meets Po, who is graced with knowing what people think and feel toward him. Po can sense what an opponent is going to do next, and he is also a talented fighter, though no match for Katsa.
Po is deeply attuned to the emotions of every living thing around him. He can sense not just humans but trees and animals. Katsa is independent, powerful, a strategist. She can fight hundreds of men and come out unscathed, seemingly immune to pain. It seems impossible that they fall in love with each other, and yet when the moment comes it feels natural. Still, I find myself wondering: can a man truly love an invincible woman so strong that he will never have to be protect her? Who, on the contrary, will likely be the one protecting him? Can they overcome the conditioning of the strong man and weak woman?
Po believes he can, telling Katsa, “you’re better than I am, Katsa, and it doesn’t humiliate me.” Then he adds, “It humbles me. But it doesn’t humiliate me.” He loves Katsa for herself, accepting her indestructible powers. He seems happy, though, to offer her protection against King Leck (who they suspect is graced with charm). Katsa decides “She would accept his protection... if truly she needed it. ...And she would protect him as fiercely, if it were ever his need.” She understands she needs to relax her supreme independence and allow for a balance of protection, a give and take.
I can’t help but wonder where the author will take this precarious balance. I am about halfway through the novel and find myself fascinated by this intricate male-female interaction within the story line. I’m looking forward to the moment Katsa must face her vulnerabilities, as I hope will happen. I hope there will come a point in the novel when accepting help is no longer a matter of thought but of action.
I love that there are novels like this, where the woman requires no protection, where she is strong, smart and perfectly capable of fending for herself and surviving even the most extreme conditions. I love Katsa’s compassion, her need to be more than a killer, her desire to help others become as independent and strong as she. But the novel is most amazing, to me, in that it rewrites conventions, a strong woman, a feeling man. The rest is just love, two halves meeting and recognizing each other because of their differences and similarities, as they are.