Boldness and privilege in The Golden Compass

I saw the Golden Compass for the first time last week, and felt a sort of thrilling identification with Lyra in her moments of ridiculous bravery. She’d step forward and speak up, to the Panzerbjorn king or to the line of Tatar soldiers and I’d think, “Oh my god, that’s what I always do in hard situations, and it’s what I imagine that I’d do if actually in a crowd of snarling, hostile, armored bears.” I don’t get enough of that sort of female hero in movies and it was super gratifying to cheer Lyra on and shake my fist at the villains on the screen.

Then I was watching the movie for the second time with Moomin and whenever Lyra stepped up, he’d say “Oh my god. Why is she doing that! Noooooo!” I thought about his approach to problems and bullies. For one thing, he has a particular strategic approach to games and problems based in absolute safety. In checkers, he prolongs neutrality as long as possible, also refusing trades or sacrifices in chess. For another, I’ve said “Well, if someone’s trying to fight with you, just go away” a hundred times ever since he was 2 years old.

I didn’t think to add “…unless they’re a line of grim soldiers with wolf daemons and there’s nowhere to run to and you’re in some kind of morally correct position so you might as well act brave.”

There might be a couple of spoilers coming up, so take warning. Nothing too serious, though.

During the bear-king’s court scene where Lyra’s walking forward through the ring of snarling bears, and Moomin was exclaiming at how stupid she was being, I did say something to the effect that “Well, it wouldn’t do her any good to act like she’s scared. So, why not act brave and bold? They’re either going to eat her up, or not. So she figures that being bold and talking her way out of it is her only hope.”

He looked at me like I was completely nuts!

So that led me to a further thought which was that Lyra is shown as a child of great privilege (as I also was and am). Her argument with Roger on the rooftop about being a “lady” nailed the point home; she insists she isn’t a “lady” and maybe isn’t in some ways, i.e. behaving and doing what she’s told, or being quiet. But she *is* one in that she knows how to behave in an upper class way, and when she does it, she is treated with respect by the people around her: by Mrs. Coulter, by King Farr, even by King Ragnar.

The way she is constantly rescued and is lucky and has people watching out for her is also a good way to show her level of privilege. In the movie it’s because she’s particularly special and a child of prophecy. But in real life, people who grow up with privilege assume that safety net, that possible unexpected help may come to you — and I don’t mean just wealth and social class but I was also thinking of the privilege of physical attractiveness. If you’re pretty, or cute, like Lyra, then you can often just assume other people will be nice to you, listen to you, and help you, even strangers, soldiers, and Kings.

I mention it because I’ve seen people blogging their complaints about the way Lyra gets rescued at every possible bad moment by the Gyptians or Lee Scoresby or Iorek or others. (I would argue that she always goes down fighting very fiercely and that she chooses to do many brave things. She’s never helpless and pathetic and then rescued.)

I don’t think Pullman or the movie makers meant to show Lyra’s privileged position as a critique of privilege. But, we could use the movie’s events, and similar patterns in other fantasy novels with children-who-fulfill-the-prophecy, to explain ways that privilege work – they are useful examples for teaching, because they’re so exaggerated.

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5 Responses to Boldness and privilege in The Golden Compass

  1. Liza says:

    Interesting thoughts! Have you read the series on which the movie was based? I think it drives your point home in many ways, but am curious about what you think of the male protagonist in terms of privilege.

  2. elswhere says:

    oh this is such a cool way of thinking about that series. It reminds me of my old favorite kids' book, A Little Princess–Sara really *is* a princess even when she's in a garret and being boxed on the ear etc., and the author basically posits that it's because she's so naturally good, but also it's because she comes from privilege and is destined to return to it. I mean, fiction isn't a mirror of real life– usually it's an implicit moral lesson in which the good are rewarded. Lyra *has* to be rescued, because she's Lyra. I think complaining about the unlikeliness of it misses the point.Also: much more like Moomin than like you. I'd never never go up to those bears like that. Well, I don't think so, anyway.Do you think they showed the daemon thing sufficiently? I've heard complaints that they didn't, but I thought that part was fine.

  3. Mary says:

    I went to see Golden Compass with my grandchildren (2 boys and 2girls all about 6). When I glanced at them during the movie, they were lined up on the edge of their seats, spellbound, mouths and eyes wide open, totally enthralled. I love movies that feature strong females as heroes. It's important for boys and girls to see girls making decisions, following through with them and taking charge of their lives. Sure Lyra got help but she wasn't counting on that to happen-just like most of us. We make a decision, start down a path and find help in the most unlikely places,

  4. Kragen Javier Sitake says:

    César Chávez wouldn't have let the bears intimidate him. But, nonviolent or no, he wasn't a big fan of "if someone's trying to fight with you, just go away," either.

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