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The New Heroines

A dialogue about teen and YA heroines in pop culture.

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Pyrrha Nikos – The Brand, The Myth, The Legend

For those unfamiliar, RWBY (pronounced RUBY) is an animated web series by Rooster Teeth Productions, the creators of Red Vs Blue. The show primarily follows the four titular characters (Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna, and Yang Xiao Long) on their academic and extracurricular journey to become monster hunting, crime fighting, superheroes. Working alongside team RWBY, and serving a support role in their narrative, is team JNPR (pronounced JUNIPER), whose members (Jaune Arc, Nora Valkyrie, Pyrrha Nikos, and Lie Ren) tend to cede center stage, but still have their own independent arks.

Before she arrived at Beacon Academy (superhero college), Pyrrha Nikos was already a moderately renowned athlete. She graduated from Sanctum Academy (superhero Highschool) at the top of her class, she won her regional fighting tournament every instance for four years, and she’s on the cover of a cereal box.

There’s just one more thing that make Pyrrha special, and its what we’re going to focus on as we delve into the existential discomfort of posthumanism. Like many characters in RWBY, Pyrrha has a Semblance (magic superpower) which helps her fight. She can locomote, without physical contact, any metallic object.

Allow me to explain said existential discomfort before we go any further. Posthumanism is a school of thought in which the qualifications of humanness (at present: a human consciousness with a human body) are a question rather than a statement. In posthuman thought, the division between a person’s body, and their environment, is not synonymous with their physical skin. Instead, any technology that humans use to enhance their capabilities is a part of their body. This means that no philosophical difference exists between using a computer through an interface, and plugging a computer directly into your brain, the computer is a part of your body either way, and shapes your identity weather you like it or not.

Pyrrha’s power is an example of the union of human and superhuman ability, because of the way she uses it. Pyrrha very specifically does not use her power to perform day to day tasks, (except in the comedy spinoff, RWBY Chibi), in fact she only activates her Semblance in combat, and is usually so subtle about doing so that her opponents succumb to the illusion that she is simply dodging their attacks.

In fact the first opponent to spot her tactic was only able to do so thanks to his metal prosthetic leg.

You see Pyrrha is doing two thing here. She is, of course, winning the fight, but she’s also using her power to engage in psychological warfare. If her enemies believe her to be untouchable, she will be more likely to win fights in the future. She is creating a brand.

There are, in reality, two Pyrrhas, and her primary arc focuses on the difficulties that one creates for the other. Branding herself brings her victories and fame, but it also underplays her emotional needs, and casts her as unattainable in the eyes of potential suitors, and even friends.

To examine this phenomenon in more detail, we turn, for a number of very roundabout reasons, to Karl Marx.

Marxism is a very complicated idea, with a lot of aspects to it, such that I cannot summarize the entire theory here. Fortunately, Marxist criticism was not created by Marx, and only involves one core component of the theory, the concept of societal base and superstructure.

The base is a single fact about a society, which in Marx’s model, the superstructure exists to reinforce. For example, Marx claims that the base of any society is the status quo of its economy. Competition, meritocracy, and lax regulation are the base of all societies which practice capitalism, and all other facets of culture, law, education, religion, and human relationships that occur within said societies represent the superstructure, and exist for the sole purpose of maintaining the base.

Just as the maldistribution of wealth is a tremendous part of the capital base, the Pyrrha brand reinforces the maldistribution of worth between Pyrrha and the rest of society. It was the immense solitude of her success that ultimately lead her to take on the tremendous responsibility of becoming the Fall Maiden (super superhero) without consulting her support network, and to be killed for doing so. This was, in a way, her destiny.

But only if you believe in destiny.

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Oh right. Morals.

Nimona constantly proves herself to be a nuanced character with complex motivations, which sets her apart from many two-dimensional, underdeveloped female characters of today’s media. She’s a villain with a heroic narrative arch, in which she sparks a change in the characters and the society she interacts with.

Nimona is not bound by moral codes when it comes to villainy; she operates outside the “rules” of classical tales of heroism and villainy: no killing, showmanship, monologuing, banter, etc. She’s bloodthirsty and has little to no moral code. In a scene in chapter 3, she shapeshifts into a child to catch a castle guard off guard, steals his knife, and kills him with it. She takes advantage of her enemies’ moral convictions.

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Nimona could be categorized as an example of the “weaponized woman” trope: typically a female character who’s been modified by an outside source to be incredibly powerful, and is used as a tool by a person in power. Her seemingly unlimited shapeshifting power is unprecedented in their world, a place where magic is just a myth and science rules all. However, whether Nimona chose to become powerful on her own is not confirmed in the story, but it’s clear that she became Blackheart’s sidekick by her own volition. She defies this trope by being in control of her own path rather than letting the powers that be control her; she hates being thought of as a weapon. Blackheart considers her a friend and a partner, while the Institution considers her a tool. And despite the Institution’s dehumanization of her, she is portrayed as a sympathetic and relatable character.

She is shown to be an ambiguous and complex character, particularly when she lies to Blackheart about her backstory; her reasoning is never confirmed, but speculation could lead one down many paths. When we find out her true backstory, the differences reveal how guarded she is as a person. The lie she tells Blackheart claims that a witch turned her into a dragon so that she could save her family from raiders, but by the time she is able to return to her true form, she finds her village destroyed and her parents dead. Her actual backstory implies that she killed people in defense of her family, and was subsequently taken from her parents, imprisoned, and experimented upon. This one puts her in a more realistic light; in a way, society dehumanizing her is what humanizes her to the reader. She wanted to save those she loved, but using her powers to do so made people think she was a monster. Growing up as an outcast with too much power to be trusted by normal people, she turned to villainy. Her morality parallels Blackheart’s, both people who started with good intentions, but were forced to be evil by the societies they lived in. Blackheart retained his moral convictions, while Nimona rid herself of hers as a form of protection.

All of this leads up to Nimona being incredibly loyal despite her unethical practices. Her loyalty to Ballister Blackheart parallels the bond between a parent and child, and the Institution uses this to their advantage.

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They use Blackheart as unwitting bait and capture Nimona when she comes to rescue him. The Institution sees her as a power to be tapped into through experimentation, and manages to contain her in a way her powers can’t break through. Even with her incredible strength and science defying abilities, she is helpless to escape on her own. However, even when placed in a “damsel in distress” situation, she’s still a force to be reckoned with; the cells the institution had extracted to run tests on become their own mindless entity and terrorize the town in the form of a monster while her main body is held captive. She may be loyal, but she’s not naive. She knows when she’s being taken advantage of, and she refuses to allow herself to be in that situation. She does not allow herself to be manipulated, and that is what separates her from other “weaponized women” characters.

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Nimona’s story isn’t about her single-handedly saving the day, but about the changes she sparks by being present in the lives of those she interacts with and the society she lives in. She’s not necessarily the hero, but she’s a catalyst for revolution. Her villainous side together with Blackheart’s moral convictions is what allows them to do what is necessary to change the problems in their society. It seems that sometimes it takes a villain to be a hero.

I’m not a kid, I’m a shark!

NIMONA began as a webcomic by Noelle Stevenson, and has now been published as a graphic novel. It takes place in a aesthetically medieval society in which science and technology have antiquated magic, and The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics is pulling the strings in all heroic and villainous affairs. The story begins with Nimona showing up in the lab of Ballister Blackheart, the designated town villain, and convincing him to adopt her as his shapeshifting sidekick.

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Nimona is an enigma: a girl with magical shapeshifting powers and a knack for villainy. She’s bloodthirsty and objectively a truer villain than Ballister Blackheart himself, yet endearing and genuine as a character. Ballister is truly just a hero fallen from the good graces of the Insitution who sees villainy as the only alternative to heroism.

In chapter 2, Ballister Blackheart reflects on his previous affiliation with the Institution’s hero academy and his former best friend, and current nemesis, Ambrosius Goldenloin. They were both top of their class, so the Institution organized a joust between them which would decide the town’s new hero. Ambrosius lost to Ballister, but the Institution, having pre-selected Goldenloin for the heroic role, weaponized his lance, and Ambrosius destroyed Ballister’s left arm out of spite. The hero academy saw no use for Ballister anymore. He was driven to villainy by a discriminatory system, but he still has a strong moral compass. He makes his own rules about being a villain, while Nimona is unabashedly bloodthirsty and violent. She acts as his foil.

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This relates to marxism because the structures in power in Nimona’s world actively seek to undermine the justice system by choosing the vengeful and easily manipulated Ambrosius as the town’s hero and pushing Blackheart towards villainy. The institution uses the relationship between Ambrosius and Ballister to keep both the hero and the villain in their pockets; Their complex rivalry keeps them from doing too much damage or going too far. To Goldenloin and Ballister, heroism and villainy is a sort of game in which they play specific roles and no one ever wins.

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Meanwhile, Nimona obeys no rules, and will accomplish her goals enthusiastically and by whatever means necessary. Nimona’s intervention is what pushes Ballister to look deeper into the Institution’s manipulation of the system for it’s own gain. She’s the catalyst that sparks a rebellion, changing their society as they know it.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the Institution is more insidious than the townspeople believe. Nimona infiltrates the institution using her shapeshifting powers and steals encrypted records from them, which Ballister then deciphers. He finds that the Institution has been doing experiments involving large quantities of Jaderoot, a deadly poison which could pose a great risk to the town. His true colors show as he decides to take action to unveil the Institution’s plans in order to protect the townspeople from the potential threat of Jaderoot poisoning. He and Nimona then begin working to expose and uproot the corruption of the Institution. In this story, the villains act as the true heroes as they work to secure the safety of the townspeople.

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