Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

'Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief'

January 25, 2023

Annabeth Chase and the Male Gaze

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For every icebreaker this year, my fun fact has been about the reading milestones I’ve experienced. Rediscovering my passion for literature has included reading the Percy Jackson and Harry Potter series for the first time. 

In first grade, I devoured countless editions of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I stayed up reading about Emily Windsnap’s adventures as half-human, half-mermaid. I pored over Suzanne Collins’ every word and prepared myself to fight in the Hunger Games. By the end of elementary school, I was writing a sequel for James Riley’s Half Upon a Time. I wasn’t actively avoiding Percy or Harry — there were just too many great books to read and not enough time.

 After one middle school emo phase and too many assigned high school readings, my relationship with reading was all but abandoned. Forget reading for fun — I barely had enough time to complete the required readings for class. Halfway through my senior year, though, something sparked inside me. My workload was far lighter than in previous years, and I felt something missing in my life. December 2021 marked my resolution to read more in 2022, and the spark ignited into a flame. Through listening to audiobooks at the gym, consuming e-books via the Kindle app while waiting in line and reading paperbacks in my scarce free time, I’ve consumed as much literature as possible. My friend’s recommendations overwhelmingly favor two childhood favorites that I was missing out on. I then decided to finally take on Buzzfeed’s beloved kid wizards and the lore of Camp Half-Blood.

Barring my serious grievances with J.K. Rowling, I fell in love with both series. I couldn’t believe the fantastical worlds that had always been waiting for me. Like every kid in the target demographic, the magical realms fascinated me (although I have a lot of questions about veritaserum). Beyond that, though, I was struck by the leading female characters. Annabeth Chase from the Percy Jackson series and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter share intelligence as their trademark characteristic. Hermione has an answer to every question in class, while Annabeth is the daughter of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. In conversation, they constantly outsmart their companions. In the heat of a tricky situation, their intelligence often saves the day (and everyone’s lives). 

Yet, Annabeth and Hermione are not without flaws. Annabeth is prideful and stubborn, always believing her way is best. To deal with her insecurities, Hermione puts on a bossy front and closes herself off from friendship. But they both show immense character growth by learning from, while not completely resolving, their flaws. They are fully developed, strong female characters, and I wish my younger self could have looked up to them. 

Against many warnings, I chose to ruin my day by watching one of the Percy Jackson film adaptations. The series author, Rick Riordan, was not heavily involved in the Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters movie. He warned the producers that audiences would not happily receive their dramatic changes to the plot and characters. As an audience member, I can vouch that Rick was right! I can understand the production logic behind aging up the characters, even if I don’t like it. I get that I’ll have to give up a few scenes for time’s sake. But I, like most reasonable readers, just can’t comprehend why a movie adaptation would completely change the world-building, plot and personality of the characters. As Seattle Pacific University’s Valari Westeren describes in her dissertation, the film relegates Annabeth’s wisdom and growth to the backseat (or actually just packed in the trunk under a heaping pile of junk). Whereas her “child of Athena” wisdom saves book Percy’s life on numerous occasions, she is largely ineffectual to the movie’s plot. Most importantly, her few major moments in the movie are no longer unique to her. Her book persona relies on her extensive knowledge of Greek mythology and even physics, but in the movie she merely drives a car into Medusa and shoots a dart gun at a few janitors — as said by Westeren, “nothing about driving a truck truly makes it an ‘Annabeth’ move.” The complexities of her character are completely lost in the movie adaptation. We don’t see her struggle with perfectionism, hubris, family dynamics or her sympathy for Luke even in his evilness. From the beginning to the end, she is one-dimensional: She is a physically strong individual with good battle skills. Otherwise, she serves only as a way to measure Percy’s growth.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not unique to Annabeth. Hollywood often warps the definition of a strong female character, favoring flashy shows of physical strength over meaningful characterization. Westeren explains that film adaptations often confine strong female characters to “exhibiting traditionally masculine traits … to replace the need for complex character development.” She points out that this phenomenon is not limited to battle skills but open to all traditionally masculine traits, including intelligence. Once the female character proves herself as a “man-equivalent,” she is relegated to a supporting character — usually the main character’s love interest. 

Women in film are thus limited by the male gaze not only in their characterization, but also in the actual purpose of their roles. They are always viewed based on their proximity to masculinity. While I wish I could’ve read Annabeth when I was younger, I’m glad I didn’t watch her. It’s damaging enough for films to originate characters under the “cool girl” or “one of the guys” tropes. We don’t need to ruin existing multi-dimensional characters by flattening them out. Young girls don’t look up to Annabeth to be reminded that their ultimate goal is to serve a man. Here’s to hoping that the new Percy Jackson series follows Riordan’s vision more closely and allows Annabeth to thrive in her fullness. 

Isabella Hackett is a freshman in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]