So a couple of weeks ago, I had a nasty cold, and I mainlined all of the Percy Jackson books via Audible. Yes, all five of them.
For those who don’t know, the Percy Jackson series is a childrens/YA popcorn action-adventure-fantasy series about demigods (children of a mortal and an Olympic deity). Percy is short for Perseus, naturally, and yes, he battles a titan while riding a Pegasus, but Sir Laurence Olivier is not involved (alas?).
These are not deep books. They’re silly and fast paced and filled with summer-blockbuster like explosions and sword fights and classic monsters. I listened to them all, so I was entertained. I mean audiobooks ain’t cheap, and the reader, Jesse Bernstein, is kind of terrible. But they have lots of funny moments and Percy is a really likable, regular sort of kid with the kinds of traits I most enjoy reading about (he’s kind, he has some faults, he gets discouraged but bucks up). However….
When I was in the last book of the series I finally lost patience with some of the recurring themes that troubled me in earlier books. As longterm readers probably know, I’m a chick. As longterm readers might not know, I was a classics major so I could (and did) do things like read all of Homer in Greek. (The catalog of ships, by the way, is even more borrrrrrring in the original. Blah blah blah whatever, I do not care how many warriors came from your little town.) Which is to say, I’ve got a pretty good grasp on some of the original sources that Riordan had to draw on (mostly he used Pseudo-Apollonius, apparently). Anyway.
I’m going to say upfront that these books have a ton of cool stuff. There’s a hilarious pegasus named BlackJack who insists on calling Percy “Boss”, for instance. He lands on Percy’s stepdad’s Toyota at the beach one day and leaves hoofmarks on the Prius, which cracked me up. Blackjack is always dragging Percy off to help various sea creatures, which leads Percy to help this strange sea-cow-creature that Percy names Bessie. (It turns out to be a boy cow sea monster, but hey. It’s still a cool name!)
When they run into the Circe of legend, you know, the witch who turned Odysseus and company into pigs? She turns the guys into pigs all right. Guinea pigs. They all go Reeet Reeet Reeeeeet in the way of guinea pigs in classrooms everywhere.
But, as I said, by the time I reached the last book, I lost patience with the repeating themes. This series has some massive problems, and I was strongly reminded of Noah’s theory about the backlash against Twilight. That it isn’t the poor plot (there’s worse plots) or prose or whatever, but that these books are the embodiment of young teen girls, and our culture kind of hates teen girls with a passion. Hence the Twilight hatred.
And I think that the Percy series suffers from a lot of that kind of hatred, as well as several other truly depressing choices, and so I thought I would inflict my thoughts on them upon you all.
The basic premise of the story, as I said, is that the Olympian gods are alive and well, and they continue to go around, mating with mortals (as one does), and having kids, who are demigods. The gods sometimes acknowledge these kids and sometimes not. Monsters in the world, like Cyclops or Harpies or whatnot, sniff out these demigod kids and attack them. There’s a camp, run by Dionysos and Chiron, who send out satyrs to find these children and bring them to Camp Halfblood for the summer, so they can train in their special powers and learn how not to get eaten by monsters and so that their parents can, if they wish, recognize them. The Camp has a cabin for each of the major Olympian gods, and it’s on the East Coast in America, because that’s where the heart of Western Civilization now resides (sorry Greece, you’re just not good enough anymore).
The main character is Percy, from Perseus, Jackson and he’s a son of Poseidon. Through each book we get a chance to meet other children of the gods, and the gods themselves. Percy’s girlfriend is a daughter of Athena, his early mentor Luke is a son of Hermes, and his nemesis Clarisse is a daughter of Ares, and so on. Rivalries between the gods tend to result in rivalries between the kids (Poseidon and Athena never got on) and each kid embodies their parent’s prowess or skills or whatever. Some gods, like Artemis, don’t bear children but go about things differently (she has a hunting pack of maidens that she adopts). It’s a straightfoward but pretty cool idea.
Except the execution is telling. And not in a good way.
Artemis, for instance, is a big problem. She’s portrayed in the book as a pre-teen, a girl who is about ten or twelve. She’s a maiden, which, you know, fine. That’s cool. But Riordan also portrays her as hating boys like she was in an old-fashioned French lesbian separatist novel. That’s wrong. Canonically wrong. The classic Artemis vs Aphrodite fight is over a guy, Euripides’s Hippolytus. Hippolytus is Artemis’s favorite hunting buddy. (It’s also got my favorite line, by the way, which is Forgiveness is for mortals, vengence is divine. ) The reason, by the way, that Aphrodite smacks down Hippolytus is that he is too chaste, too sworn to Artemis. The followers of Artemis are not singularly female, and this is a pretty classic, well-known work (one of Euripides’ best).
When the Ancient Greeks are more even handed about gender politics, it makes me go hhhhhm, is all I’m sayin’.
Overall, Artemis and her hunters are portrayed as forces for good. Sexist jerks, yes, but forces for good. Except, and I admit to finding this troubling, they’re portrayed as good based on traditionally male ideas of good, that is to say bravery in a fight, prowess with weapons and tracking, and since they do not age, they’re often described in ways that do not display their female sex traits (breats, hips, etc). They’re very much girls, not women.
Which is fine, so far as it goes. I like positive portrayals of girls. But. The next step in the aging line (for most or many females) is to turn into a sexually active young woman. Which brings us to Aphrodite and Hera.
Aphrodite is portrayed as might-as-well be evil. She’s shallow. She’s caught canoodling with Ares (again). She tricks people and causes problems for Percy’s lovelife. She appears to have no good traits besides having Angelina’s boobies. Her children are portrayed in the same way: they run away from fights, screaming about their hair. They worry about their nails. They obsess about appearances and generally are jerks. Except for Celina, who is portrayed as their leader.
I thought, OK, you know, that does balance it some, since one of the themes in the book is that the demigods are better than their parents, are the good side to any power. But then we hit the last book of the series (where I lost my patience and hurled the ipod at the wall.) Because Celina is the spy who has been betraying them the whole time and it is her betrayal that gets her own boyfriend killed as well as a whole bunch of other people!
Moving right alone, we hit Hera, who has no children at camp, because she’s the goddess of marriage and family. She’s portrayed as beautiful, which instantly clued me in to the fact that she’s evil. Sure, she doesn’t side with the villains, but she’s a villainous jerk all the same.
Lots of people don’t like Hera or Aphrodite, and you know, I’m OK with that. I get it, and I see it, and I can appreciate it, if there’s appropriate balance with other good characters. Like, say, Demeter and Persephone. I mean, Demeter. She’s the goddess of the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, which only lasted two thousand years and were the most important mysteries of all. Secret worship! Big party! Lots of awesome throwing of phallic shaped pig cookies into pits! Great fodder for a story, right? Lots of opportunties to balance the nasty old Aphrodite with a warm, mother figure who controlled that little minor thing called the harvest.
But in this series, Demeter is a nagging mother in law who wants people to eat cereal, and her kids are known for the flowers in their cabins. And that’s it. That’s all she gets. Her daughter Persephone, the wife of Hades, is no better. She’s portrayed as annoyed that her husband slept around and bored with her mom’s cereal obsession and again, that’s it. Again, Riordan had choices to make, and he chose a more one-sided view of goddesses than even the Greeks.
We do have one goddess to balance the tide, and that’s Athena. She’s portrayed as wise, and interesting, and smart, and good. She’s also sexless. Her children are children of the mind, born from her head in the way that she was born, and her daughter, Annabeth, Percy’s girlfriend, eventually gets a makeover, but it looks wrong on her. Because Annabeth wouldn’t wear makeup. Which is fine, so far as it goes, except that the not-wearing makeup has become a sign of Annabeth’s goodness. The makeover person is Circe, and she’s hosting a spa for lady visitors and turning guy visitors into guinea pigs who go reet. And you know what? ENOUGH.
There are only two choices for women in these books. 1. You can be a psuedo boy: like to fight, stay youthful without secondary sex characteristics, enjoy battle or science. That’s the ‘good’ choice. 2. You can be a woman: grow breasts and hips, enjoy broad friendships and romantic relationships, wear makeup. That’s the ‘bad’ choice, and eventually you will betray someone, steal, nag, lie, fuck around, trick people.
I think those are some remarkably crappy choices. But you probably shouldn’t listen to me, since I’m currently wearing MAC’s Amplified Cream Lipstick in Blankety.
(I had some other issues with these books, but I’ve decided to cover the parenting problems in another essay, since this one is already ridiculously long.)