Friday, January 9, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Ulga (Princess Ugg)

Look, we all know that there are strong female characters and then there are Strong Female Characters. And then there are Strong Female Characters who read like they were written using a manual. Princess Ulga from the hilarious and hopefully long-lived comic Princess Ugg is definitely one of the latter, a female character so clearly designed to be a feminist archetype that you kind of want to be annoyed by her on principle. Except you aren't. Because she's great.

Princess Ugg, written and drawn by Ted Naifeh, is a pretty standard fish out of water story. Our heroine, the titular Ulga, is the crown princess of a far northern kingdom full of fearsome warriors and an eternal war with the frost giants. She's basically a Viking, and she's the biggest badass to ever badass.

But when her mother falls in battle, a remarkable moment because Ulga has always thought her mother invincible, she makes Ulga promise that she will learn how to lead their people well. Not just with another thousand years of war, but just maybe with the first years of peace. In other words, her mother's dying wish is that Ulga learn diplomacy, how to be a good and just ruler. And there's really only one place to learn that. Princess school!

Which is how our journey begins. Ulga travels down from her high mountain home to the land below and enrolls in a princess academy for the daughters of rulers in the whole region. She's forced to take classes on elocution and grace and dancing, but also the classes she really wants, about political history and diplomatic tactics. 

The real challenge of the school, though, comes not from the classes but from the other students themselves. And this is where the story could fall into shaky territory. After all, we've established that Ulga is tough and awesome and a fearsome warrior. The other girls are all basically stereotypical princesses, and catty ones at that. They like their fine dresses and delicate dancing lessons and they find Ulga's muscles and illiteracy horrifying and ridiculous.

It could so easily fall into one of those narratives where we praise Ulga for not being like those terrible, catty feminine girls, for being "not like other girls", and appreciate her as separate from her gender. But, I am happy to say, the story really doesn't do that.

Yes, the other girls are horrible to Ulga at first, but most of them really come to respect her. Yes, there are a lot of cultural differences and different values at play in their interactions, but Ulga does come close to being friends with them. At this point in the comics, there's really only one holdout who insists on being a jerk to Ulga, and that's her roommate, Jullifer, who is really exceptionally nasty and probably would be to anyone.

Furthermore, the entire point of the series is not that Ulga is better or more valuable because she's physically capable and they aren't. The point is that Ulga is a warrior who needs to learn to be both a warrior and a princess. Those feminine skills that she lacks aren't pointless: they're what's going to help her end the war with the frost giants once and for all.

The most recent issue even ends with Ulga "embracing mah destiny" and kissing the handsome prince to thank him for rescuing her* and the other girls when they're kidnapped by pirates. Ulga isn't morally opposed to liking girly stuff, nor is she really that repulsed by it. And, as time goes on, the other girls are genuinely impressed and in awe of her physical prowess. In other words, the narrative here isn't about one form of female expression being better or more valuable than another, but about the ways in which we can all teach each other how to be better people.

And that's a pretty awesome message for a comic like this to send. It's about sharing and understanding, and it's still very funny and a bit caustic at times, but it never really loses its meaning. It's so valuable in a comic like this because characters like Ulga are still, sadly, pretty rare. The female characters we do get generally do fall into the trap of competing with other women rather than learning from them, and that's a damn shame.

It's also a societal problem, because it makes it harder for women to see one another as people to be built up. I mean, when you look at our media, so much of it is centered around the idea of pitting women against each other. "These two female celebrities are in a catfight over a man!" and "Who do you think would win in a fight, Agent Carter or Melinda May?!" They're questions that make women start to see one another as rivals. Like there aren't enough resources for us all, and if we don't cut down the other women we'll be left with nothing.

But life isn't like that at all.

In life, the best way to be successful isn't to cut down the people around you, it's to build them up and build yourself at the same time. It's to learn from the women in your life and teach them what you know so that everyone can increase. The only thing that happens when women see each other as competition is that we all lose. Every single one.

I'm not saying that Princess Ugg is a perfect comic, though it is better than most. But I am saying that Ulga is a freaking great character simply because she values the different perspectives and values that other women can bring to her life. And that is freaking awesome.

Also she is terrifying when she wants to be.
*Sort of rescuing her. It's clear that Ulga had it all well in hand, but he did provide a helpful distraction.

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