A Woman By Any Other Name...

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. 
 However, if you had to introduce someone to the machinations of Morgan le Fay (or any of the dozen other names she goes by), you would immediately call her a “female wizard,” or a “sorceress,” or an “enchantress.” When I was a freshman in college, I assumed distinguishing a female from a male was a mark of equality; to that end, I wrote a paper where I doggedly called Emily Dickinson a “poetess.” My professor (not professoress), responded to this quite icily with the warning, “if you ever call Emily Dickinson a ‘poetess’ on a paper again I’ll give you a zero, sight unseen.” Lesson learned. She immediately became a ‘poet’ in all subsequent papers and remains so today.

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 detractors).

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?

The French theorist, Luce Irigaray, writes in her book, This Sex That Is Not One (1985), “female homosexuality does exist.  But it is recognized only to the extent that it is prostituted to man’s fantasies. Commodities can only enter into relationships under the watchful eyes of their ‘guardians’.” What she means by this is that most books that write of lesbian love are written from a male perspective—the lurid, pornographic aspect of it. What is never considered is that being a lesbian could be natural, pure, affectionate, or even normal. It’s something that is “prostituted” and sold to men as an aberrant fantasy to get their rocks off. In many ways, female heroes become “commodities” in the same way; they are packaged as “feminist,” but really, it’s the same old fantasies for male consumption. Wonder Woman is a case in point, as she was traditionally a hero who enslaved men with her lasso of truth, yet found herself tied up in virtually every story—a bondage fantasy that clearly went both ways! Is that feminism? Is that empowerment? While even having a female superhero is progress, it only progresses if it moves us beyond a stereotypical fantasy. Can the woman be a true hero? Can she grapple with real-world problems without constantly shaking her boobs? And to invoke Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and the famous ‘Bechdel Test’, can she talk to another woman about anything not involving men and male relationships?

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 Bath