This week on our Academia FB page: (https://www.facebook.com/ groups/1232336103498178/), we asked the question, “what does it mean to write a “feminist” heroine in the 21st century, particularly in genre fiction? Does it mean simply casting the woman in a man’s role (the princess = the warrior)? Or does a truly feminist approach require us to abandon the script of heroes altogether?” Like so many literary questions, this one appears to have as simple answer: no, it means you have to write a woman with as much complexity as you would a man. But even this begs a larger question: what does it mean to write a ‘complex’ woman in fiction? In fact, if we draw attention to the word ‘woman,’ aren’t we already having a different discussion? Think about it: if you had to describe Gandalf to someone who had never read The Hobbit, you would call him a “wizard,” or perhaps “an old wizard.” You wouldn’t bother to explain, “well, he’s actually a male wizard.” No, a wizard implies that he’s a man—we take it for granted.
While some might scoff at this, or dismiss it as the sad state of gender equality and multiculturalism in academia (though this occurred 21 years ago), my professor had a valid point. Why can’t a woman be a poet—and not a poetess? And what does it imply to be a “poetess”? In the 19th century, it was a pejorative term, reeking of second-rate talent and mawkish pretensions. There were no great female poets because they simply weren’t good enough (or so it was claimed), so you couldn’t grace them with the title of poet. More importantly, it made sure you saw the writer’s sex, something you never considered when reading the works of Shakespeare, or Keats, or Yeats. You take for granted that each one was a man, to the point that you merely see the words, and not the male presence behind them. With a woman, however, be it Emily Dickinson or Adrienne Rich, you are constantly told to see the woman: look, a woman is writing this, she’s struggling with her identity, that’s a metaphor about her sexuality, etc.
To return to the topic at hand, if we set out to write a feminist heroine (hero?), many writers are already at a disadvantage. While I approve strongly of feminism and want my women (in fiction and in life) to be empowered to explore multiple careers and identities, this might be placing the cart before the horse. Starting any character with a theory or an identity usually reduces them to a broad cliche. Feminist heroes tend to be “bad-ass bitches” or “vixens,” or “ice queens,” and so forth. It seems to preclude the idea that a character can simply be herself, but has to adhere to a rigid formula of female emancipation that can check off all the boxes. In real life, feminists come in all shapes and sizes, and often contradict themselves, as well as surprise themselves. Too many characters in fiction are ideals; they never swerve from a theoretical notion of the ‘strong woman,’ which seems terrified to allow these women to be women—or more properly, to be human beings.
Take, for example, one of the early literary feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley and author of the seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798). By all accounts, she was quite a bad ass. She traversed
Europe all by herself, living by
her own wits; she wrote for a living and started a school; she courted men and
had tempestuous affairs; and she defied the male status quo by suggesting that
18th century marriage was akin to prostitution. And if she were a character in
a modern novel, that’s all she would be: spitting in the face of society,
smoking cigars, and fighting vampires and werewolves (surely someone has
thought of it!). Yet her biography shows us a much more nuanced woman than this
portrait would allow. She fell madly in love with men, and when they rejected
her (Gilbert Imlay, you bastard!), she fell into suicidal despair and tried to
kill herself. Additionally, she wanted desperately to be a mother and have a
family, and ultimately shared some very conventional values—though she also
fought for the right not to have these values. She was by turns weak
and strong, masculine and feminine, wife and whore (according to her
Many authors, trying to write a “strong female” character would be terrified to write her as she was. In trying to follow the industry standard, he/she would make her a stereotype, rubbing out her ‘weaker’ qualities to make her a trash-talking vixen. And who knows, it might even sell. But I don’t think this would really be a “feminist” character, but yet another version of the “poetess” in fiction. Because if women can only be “tough asses” or a “piece of ass,” is that really much of a choice? All too often, the tough asses are also described as a piece of ass as well—look at most superhero comics, where the ‘kick ass women’ are little more than pin-up girls prostituted for a male audience. Which begs an even bigger question: are feminist heroines trying to inspire young women or titillate young (and old) men? Would a female superhero really run around in thigh high boots and a bikini bottom? Would she bear her breasts and wear her hair like a cape? Or would she be like Batman—a symbol of fear and revenge upon the criminal underworld? Is there any ‘kick ass’ superhero who is a woman without advertising the fact? Shouldn’t she be a superhero first and foremost—and not a superheroine?
In the end, characters only exist to the reader if they are like us: they want something. They desire something. They set out to find and/or achieve it. That’s the genesis of every story on earth, from The Iliad to Napoleon Dynamite. While men and women do have different motivations and obstacles, they can’t emerge on the page as propaganda. They need the right to transcend their appearance and not have to think “how do I look while I’m kicking ass in heels?” We need to identify with these women, even if we’re men, and understand that their problems are our problems. Or better yet, that a woman can solve the same problems a man can, without trying to please him, too. Otherwise, we’re using 21st century lingo to re-write the 14th century—though to be honest, Chaucer was already looking forward to the 20th century when we created a character called The Wife of