It’s March! Holy crap where is the time going? This month is going to be about women and literature. Men, I am not going to forget you at all and your turn will be next month. I’m going to warn you that I’m going to be using my English major brain and it’s going to get a bit nerdy. I have a feeling that most of the posts this month are going to be about Victorian literature and not so much on current women’s issues, though I definitely want to talk about that as well.
So what’s important about women and literature?
Much like with in everyday life women are essential to the continuation of the species and also to creative works. They’re, in fact, the muses that plenty of authors – male and female – look to for inspiration. In most literature you’re going to have a female character or there is going to be a mentioning of a woman in some degree. You cannot escape it. It’s like one of my favorite movies, The Women. This movie revolves around women characters and only women characters, but the movie is also about men and how they affect the lives of the women in the movie.
Women were not allowed to write and if they did write it had to be on “suitable subject matters” and, to top it all off, they were not allowed to publish under their own names. So what did suitable subject matters look like? Well it had to be about things pertaining to the home. So their children and husbands. It couldn’t be anything important or political, though some women definitely challenged this. Mary Wollstonecraft is a woman who challenged what women were allowed to write. She wrote political pieces, especially on the behalf of women. Her most important piece of writing, as determined by scholars, is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She outlined in her essay that women should not just be meek, uninteresting housewives with nothing to do, but to be treated as man’s equals, to have access to education and to be allowed to be more than just a mother and a housewife.
Women’s writing generally isn’t making the BIG literary prize lists or garnering a lot of attention as the subject matter isn’t important enough to garner that attention and this is a problem. Women have important things to say even if it may not seem like an important subject matter. Women also use pen names to publish their work under (J.K. Rowling and E.L. James for example) so they can be taken more seriously as writers. On top of all of this, there still is not a lot of women in the literary cannon. I can list the major female authors pretty quickly – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Atwood, Harper lee, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath – and these women still aren’t read and studied much outside of classrooms, with exceptions of course. And honestly, I would have never heard of most of them if I wasn’t an English major in University.
Something I find really annoying about literature is the “strong female character” archetype. This archetype goes two ways in literature. I’ll start off with Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon noticed that in a lot of the interviews he was involved in he always got asked the question “why do you write these strong women characters?” over and over again. I love his response to that. He just said, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” (Full interview here: https://genius.com/Joss-whedon-on-strong-women-characters-annotated). He has a good point. Why is this question still being asked? Every female character in and out of literature is strong in their own ways. Even that girl who everyone makes fun of for being so stupid is strong in her own way. She may the best friend you’ll ever have because she’s loyal or she’s a phenomenal baker. And this isn’t even my pet peeve with this character type. The thing I hate most about these strong women is when a man enters into their life they turn into simpering, submissive wimps. They start doing everything to appease and please this man and they lose bits of themselves in order to keep him happy. She, as a character, disappears and this happens a lot in the romance genre. Now, I understand that in a relationship you’re going to have to change and compromise a bit in order to make the relationship work, but you generally keep your core traits intact. This isn’t what happens though in these books. The women forget what makes them great and it becomes all about the man and what he wants and needs. On the flip side, author J.R. Ward is great at keeping her strong female characters strong. They don’t disappear into the men in their lives. They are in relationships and they are still the bad ass women they were before they got involved in their relationship.
So what makes a strong woman? Well that’s going to depend on your definition of what strong is. For me, it’s someone who goes after what they want, but still has compassion and cares for the well being of others. She’s smart, witty, has a good sense of humor, stands up for herself and others, and knows how to be vulnerable. Most importantly she can stand by herself and doesn’t let other people define who she is. She’s true to herself.
What or who is your strong woman?
Until next time.