Friday, March 6, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Princess Isabella (Galavant)

I don't know if you guys were watching Galavant while it was on, but I sincerely hope you were, because it's definitely in my books as one of the most entertaining shows of the past year. And when I say entertaining, I mean solidly "you'll laugh, you'll get emotionally invested, and you'll get the songs stuck in your head for the next week" entertaining.

But the show isn't worth watching just because it's super fun (as if that weren't reason enough). It's also one of the more diverse network offerings you can find and also a show committed to giving us real and complex female characters to go with our comedy song stylings. In short, Galavant is the whole package, and nothing exemplifies that more than Izzy, or Princess Isabella, the character who so easily could be a femme fatale or damsel in distress but never manages to fall into either of those tropes. So if you haven't seen Galavant, meet Izzy. She's about to become your favorite.

The story of Galavant is basically simple: Galavant (Joshua Sasse) used to be a great and noble knight, but then his girlfriend, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), dumped him in order to marry the wicked and inept King Richard (Timothy Omundson). Since Madalena harshed him, Galavant has been wallowing in self-pity, drinking for the medal, and packing on the beer pounds. His noble squire, Sid (Luke Youngblood), has to rouse him with a bucket of cold water every morning. It's been hell for Sid's resume.

Into all of this comes Princess Isabella (Karen David), a noble young woman who's come to Galavant because he's the only one who can save her home of Valencia from King Richard. She needs Galavant to get off his whiny butt and go save the day. And he does, but only when Isabella sweetens the deal by telling him that Madalena regrets her decision to marry King Richard and now wants him back. So Galavant is hooked. He'll get to fight his nemesis, get his girl back, and help this damsel in distress all in one fell go! If only he remembered where he put his sword...

The twist is that Isabella, or Izzy as she quickly becomes nicknamed, isn't actually looking for Galavant's help. King Richard has taken over her castle, that's true, but he's the one who came up with the idea of her luring Galavant to them. And Madalena does want Galavant back, but not because she misses him. It's just because she doesn't much like King Richard and wants to keep Galavant around as her boy toy while she continues living in a loveless political marriage.

So Izzy isn't exactly a damsel in distress, but she's not really a femme fatale either. She really is in trouble and her parents really are locked away in a dungeon. And, as the story progresses, she comes to care a lot for Galavant. She doesn't really want to betray him. But, then again, she does love her parents.

What makes Izzy such a fun character is her complexity. She's never really one thing, even when she thinks she is. She's a bundle of contradictions and self-awareness, but sometimes she can be so oblivious that you want to shake her. In short, she's a person. A real human being who has desires and needs and sometimes does the stupid thing. And while she does fall into a lot of "strong female character" tropes, she mostly falls into them as a joke and then humanizes her character while she's down there.

Take, for instance, the second episode, which sees Galavant entering a tournament that he is in no shape to win. Since he's spent the last year drunk and asleep, his jousting and fencing skills are pretty much gone. It's up to Izzy and Sid to get him ready for the tournament. But here's the thing: neither Izzy nor Sid are presented as having  inexplicable combat experience. Sid knows stuff because he's Galavant's squire, and Izzy knows how to fence because her home of Valencia is known for their theatrical productions. She knows stage fighting. And the show even points out that it's useful for getting Galavant back up to speed, but not so much after that.

Or later in the story, when our heroes have to pass through Sid's home village and we discover he's been lying about his life for years now, Izzy immediately volunteers to pretend to be Sid's fiancee in order to impress his parents. Not because she has to, but because she loves a good acting challenge! And Izzy doesn't just commit a little bit, she goes into the role with a verve and vigor that frankly terrifies Galavant and Sid.

When she finally does reveal that she's been lying to Galavant all this time, the moment is heart-wrenching not because we feel so bad for Galavant (he's kind of a terrible person, to be honest), but because we sympathize with Izzy. She was stuck in a really rough situation, and she made bad choices but that doesn't make her a bad person. 

But overall, the reason you love Izzy is because she's just another funny cog in the machine that is Galavant. What I mean is, Izzy is exactly as funny and weird and insane as everyone else around her. And that's great.

It's great because so often in media like this, the writers fall into a trap of thinking that women can't be funny, or that the love interest has to be serious all the time. I know you've seen this in badly written stories - where everyone else is telling jokes, but the girl is just over there, being attractive and occasionally disapproving. Here, what's great is that Izzy doesn't do that. She's just as silly and shallow and dumb as everyone else. She's an equal member of the gang, and she's not being held separate because she's a girl.

Arguably, in fact, the actual plot of the show is driven almost entirely by Izzy and Madalena. While King Richard and Galavant like to pretend they're in charge, it's Izzy and Madalena who make the choices that everyone else has to deal with. They're the ones shaping the story. And, again, I think that's awesome.

And, of course, it's worth noting that Izzy is a woman of color living in a faux-medieval pseudo-fantasy world, and no one really comments on it. I mean, she herself mentions it at one point, telling Galavant, "You need someone smart, cute, and ethnically hard to pin down." But it's never really a big aspect of her character, nor is anything ever made of the fact that Galavant's squire is a black guy who was adopted and raised by Jews. It's the fantasy world I've always wanted: one where race just isn't a thing anyone even thinks about.

It's just super cool that Izzy, who is neither skinny as a stick nor pale as sour cream, gets to be the main love interest. She's absolutely gorgeous and that is what the narrative chooses to go with. Plus, who doesn't love a character whose solution to hiding a priceless gem is to stick it in with her tampons and pray that the men searching their stuff don't have sisters.

Gosh, there are so many awesome things about Izzy as a character that I want to commend, but I don't think I have time to get to them all. I love that she's completely open about expressing her attraction to Galavant and doesn't fall into the "I'm a demure maiden who would never think about a man like that" - she stares at Galavant's butt and says, "Damn." Because she is a real person with real reactions to things.

Or there's the moment when she and Galavant and her parents are trapped in a jail cell together and she insists that Galavant try to make a good impression on them because he's her true love and he's also kind of smelly right now. 

Izzy is a great character because she has just as many flaws as the male characters and the narrative never treats her differently for it. She snores. She nags. She's absolutely awful at poetry. She's a liar. And she spends at least half her time rolling her eyes at the man she calls her one true love.

She gets to be in on the joke. She's not too pretty or cute to be funny. She's just as ridiculous as everyone else, and I wish that wasn't something I felt the need to praise because it's so rare, but it is and I do.

You should watch Galavant. It's funny, it's sweet, and its female characters are fantastic. But most of all you should watch it because it's a pseudo-fantasy, fake-medieval musical starring a woman of color singing about how much she hates the hero's body odor. I don't know about you, but that is exactly what I have always wanted in a TV show.