Not too long ago I posted a link to a rather odd video called Princess Valhalla Hawkwind. For readers who don’t know the television series The United States of Tara, the youtube clip would have made absolutely no sense. I awarded it a ‘postfeminist heroine of the week’ prize, but without explaining why. So perhaps it’s time to try put Princess Valhalla into context.
First, let me explain a little about the series. Don’t worry, there won’t be spoilers. In Australia the ABC is screening Series 2 once a week. (Except it has been rudely interupted mid-season by The Chaser’s election show. Boo!) You can also watch the series online via iView, but only one or two episodes are ever up at one time. The series is executive produced by Steven Spielberg, written by Diablo Cody (of Juno fame) and features Australia’s Toni Collette in the lead role.
Toni Collette is absolutely fantastic in this. So good that she has won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. She plays Tara, wife to Max and mother of teenage kids Kate and Marshall (perhaps my two favourite characters). Toni Collette also plays several other characters, in the form of Tara’s “alter egos” or Alters, because Tara suffers from dissociative identity disorder.
I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of the condition this is. But this is television, and as a piece of drama, it’s fantastic. I really love it. The acting is brilliant, the scripts are moving and hilarious and the relationships between the characters always strike me as believable. Each character copes with Tara’s mental illness in different ways, painting the complex story of a family in all its quirks, its tensions and its humour.
So where does this whacky Princess Valhalla Hawkwind character come in?
I’m glad you asked. Princess Valhalla Hawkwind is a fictional character within the series. We first come across her when Kate (in her new job as a debt-collector) has to track down a woman called Lynda P. Frazier. Lynda turns out to be an artist, and the creator of a comic-book featuring feminist super-hero Princess Valhalla. Kate and Lynda quickly become friends, hanging out and smoking pot. Kate becomes fascinated with the Princess Valhalla character, and in one episode she raids Lynda’s wardrobe to dress up in full Princess Valhalla costume.
Princess Valhalla Hawkwind’s outfit is kitsch and colourful and oh so camp. Think red sparkly hot pants, pink and gold armour (with a breastplate that is not unlike Madonna’s conical bra), shiny red latex boots, long blonde locks, and a viking-esque helmet with pink wings.
[Excerpt from the comic. The text reads: Save your sisters by entering into a lifelong bondage. Or save yourself first, and in so doing free not just your sisters but all women.]
The Princess even has her own website, with art, fan-fic and a downloadable version of the comic. Here’s a short excerpt from the Princess Valhalla Hawkwind fairytale, which highlights its feminist credentials:
The next day, in the garden, the Princess is visited by a Hawk. She tells the Hawk of her predicament, she cannot allow the Bastard Prince to do to her sisters what he has done to her. The Hawk is wise and sends her on a Quest saying, “You shall obtain the tools necessary to free your sisters.” But the Princess protests that she does not want to go, she cannot abandon her sisters. But the Hawk tells her “There are only two paths she can follow. You can save your sisters by entering into a lifelong bondage… or, you can save yourself first, and in doing so free not just your sisters, but all women ever to be born into this kingdom.” The Hawk christens her Princess Valhalla Hawkwind. Finally, she has a Name!
Princess Valhalla does not understand the Hawk’s request and begins to cry. She thinks to herself, “There must be a third way, a way to stop the Bastard Prince.” In that moment she grabs a knife! And cuts off all her hair! “This will make me ugly to the Bastard Prince. Now he will leave me alone!” That night, Princess Valhalla awakes to a shining full moon. Her hair has all grown back! Sitting at the end of her bed is the Bastard Prince. To her surprise, he is being held back by an invisible force which allows her to escape untouched. Once she is out into the night, she runs like the wind as far away from the castle as possible. Then, Princess Valhalla lifts off into the night sky, flying away. There is no turning back! Where will her voyage take her? Will she be able to save her sisters?
So the prince is an obnoxious bastard? And the princess has superpowers and must save her sisters? This doesn’t sound like the fairytales I’m used to.
In episode five of Season 2, via some dialogue between Kate and her brother Marshall, we learn a little bit about why Princess Valhalla is postfeminist. I’ve transcribed the scene because it was to blame for me wanting to write this post in the first place. From about four minutes into the episode:
[Marshall and Kate (siblings) are sitting on Kate's bed smoking pot. Marshall asks if the video has been uploaded yet, and Kate checks the link on her laptop and they start watching the Princess Valhalla Hawkwind clip.]
Marshall: Wow. That horse looks completely fake.
Kate: On purpose! It’s a comment.
M: On what?!
K: On the testosterone-fuelled fantasy genre… [sounding vague]…Totally subverting the hero archetype… Valhalla’s postfeminist.
M: Do you even know what that means?
K: No, not really. [exhaling smoke]
At this point I was in hysterical laughter. I’m finding it difficult to articulate why I found this scene so damn funny, but let me have a stab.
For someone who spent a stupidly large amount of time writing about postfeminism – endless paragraphs and pages on the topic for a thesis, ugh! – it was a moment of hilarity because of the sudden recognition of the absurdity of it all. Here’s a teenaged girl quite succinctly summing up some of the debates about feminist pop culture while she’s half-stoned. And in the next beat, her brother is poking fun at the earnestness of her words. So it was weird and funny self-deprecating moment of television for me.
But while Marshall’s teasing question “Do you even know what that means?” ridicules the academic lingo that Kate adopts, her analysis of the Princess Valhalla character is pretty spot on. Certainly Diablo Cody, the writer behind the series and self-avowed feminist, knows what she’s talking about. Valhalla is postfeminist because she’s a parody of the usually very masculine fantasy hero genre. She’s a princess, but the fairytale is atypical. Instead of marrying the prince, the princess must escape him and the lifetime of imprisonment he represents. She’s feminine, but in such an over-the-top fashion that is clearly mocking and derisive.
If you’ll permit just a brief discussion of some theory, camp is an ironic performance that works to uncover the constructed nature of gender. According to Niall Richardson (2006: 159) “a camp representation will draw attention to gender roles as actually being gender roles. In camp, both masculinity and femininity, through hyperbole, exaggeration, parody or irony, are represented as constructs or performances”.
Richardson’s work is useful because his interpretation of postfeminism incorporates the connections between camp, postmodern irony and feminist theory. For Richardson (2006: 164), postfeminism appropriates postmodern irony in its engagement with feminism. He links the subversive potential of camp to the influential theorist Judith Butler, whom he describes as “the most influential of the post-modern feminists” (2006: 164). Drawing on Butler’s critique of the sex/gender binary he demonstrates that the over-the-top performance of Bree van der Kamp (from Desperate Housewives) and her knowing wink to the audience emphasise the social constructedness of femininity.
I think this is precisely how Princess Valhalla Hawkwind works too. She’s postfeminist because she’s knowingly playing around with constructions of femininity. Her bleached blonde hair with red boots and exposed bra are exaggerated versions of what is considered attractively feminine in our culture. Coupled with the pink and gold body armour, viking helmet, pink wings and over-sized sword, Princess Valhalla is also mocking the idea of the superhero. Like Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer before her, Princess Valhalla Hawkwind can be considered feminist because of the way she is subverting stereotypes and challenging gendered relations of power. Xena, Buffy and Princess Valhalla aren’t damsels in distress waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming. They’re tough, independent, and ready to kick some arse.
[image of Kate dressed as Princess Valhalla, via AfterEllen.com]
I think Princess Valhalla is also interesting because she personifies what Lynda and Kate feel that they lack. First created by Lynda and later resurrected by Kate, Princess Valhalla is a fantasy for them. In the case of Lynda, a black artist struggling to make ends meet, a feisty blonde superhero provided an escape. For Kate, a sarcastic teenager growing up in a difficult family, Princess Valhalla becomes her alter-ego. She can escape the monotony of school and the powerlessness she feels in relation to her mother’s illness by playing make-believe as a superhero princess.
Apparently later in the series a kid asks Princess Valhalla what her superpower is and she replies “I don’t have a vagina”. So while she’s stereotypically “sexy”, Princess Valhalla is actually sexless. I’m sure there is something to be said about Kate and her sexuality here, but I’m yet to view that episode. It will be interesting to see how the Valhalla plotline develops.
In the meantime here’s the Princess Valhalla Hawkwind video once again, in all it’s tacky and kitsch glory:
Richardson, Niall. 2006. As Kamp as Bree: The Politics of Camp Reconsidered by ‘Desperate Housewives’. Feminist Media Studies 6 (2): 157-174.