Recently, a friend of mine announced to me in an excited voice that finally literature had given up on stereotypical portrayals of women. When I expressed surprise at her statement, she mentioned Stieg Larssen’s Lisbeth Salander as a mold-breaking protagonist who encompasses feminist values. I shrugged away her comments. I can hardly think of a tattooed hacker as a role model and the more I look around I find heroines in mainstream and genre novels still shaped according to old-fashioned masculine fantasies and girlish fears.
I know that, despite my protestations, many do see in Lisbeth Salander an ideal heroine, one that leases female and masculine readers alike. After all, she is modern men’s fantasy girl. Thin, lean, flexible of body and covered with tattoos and piercings, she fulfills contemporary notions of feminine beauty. She is a computer wiz, fiercely independent, and she “kicks ass.” Moreover, at an age where most men seem to get excited at the sight of girls necking with each other, Lisbeth is bisexual. She doesn´t need men, she doesn’t want to be supported by men, she doesn´t demand protection or commitment. Even women could be attracted to her because she tramples on everything that makes us weak: romantic love, dependency, fear of physical or sexual violence and a legal system that is not always kind to the female sex.
If Lisbeth is the ideal contemporary heroine then her complete opposite should be Anastasia Steele, the flaky protagonist of the Shades of Grey trilogy. Since Shades could only be classified as erotica, it´s sad to know that, in 2012, the genre still uses clichés created by the Marquis de Sade in the 18th century. Like De Sade’s Justine, virginal Anastasia surrenders completely to a handsome rake who abuses her to his heart’s contentment.
Anastasia agrees to become millionaire Christian Grey´s sexual slave only because he is sexy, good-looking and wealthy. Hey! After all isn’t that what women crave? Gorgeous dude, great in bed and a good provider? But those attributes don´t cloak the fact that Shades is a remake of the old rape fantasy. More than a female fantasy, Shades is the sum of all feminine fears.
In fantasy rape, the fantasists always enjoyed the act, and so does Anastasia. She derives pleasure from Christian´s abuse even when it evolves into sexual violence. Because, despite what its advocates claim, the multiple BSDM scenarios in the book could only be describe as violent. In a milder scene that takes place inside an elevator, Christian tugs Anastasia’s hair while kissing her roughly. She relishes it! I would be gouging the eyes of any creature that messes with my hair!
Many try to sell BDSM erotica as examples of “women empowerment.” I can’t think how being spanked, mocked and tied-up constitutes “empowerment” especially since Anastasia not only enjoys her “master’s” attentions. She is also getting regular injections of cash that swells her bank account. Yes, the submissive whore stereotype is doing quite well in the bestsellers list.
What really blew my mind about 50 Shades of Grey were not its idiotic protagonists, but the fact that it was based on the author´s fan fiction...about Twilight! I can´t picture chivalrous Edward pulling a tampon off Bella’s vagina, but obviously E.L. James does, and so do the detractors of Stephanie Meyer's saga who claim that Bella is a “submissive” heroine. Odd, I must have read another story because she didn’t strike me as such. What I did notice is that Bella and Sookie Stackhouse of Charlene Harris’ vampire stories are damsels in distress, always in need of werewolf and blood-suckers paramours to come to their rescue. It gives the impression that paranormal romances are all about frail heroines. Does that apply to the Fantasy genre in general?
Unprecedented literary success has brought George R.R. Martin a nice bunch of critics, feminists among then. For a couple of entries in my Fantasy Blog I found and read several articles discussing different aspects of Martin´s misogyny and the negative handling of feminine characters and female power in his Song of Ice and Fire. Some critics seem to resent the fact that Martin’s strong, independent women like Melisandre, the sexy conniving witch, and Cersei, the sexy conniving queen, are portrayed as evil.
Critics, and not only feminists, have the bad habit of imposing modern moral standards upon historical fiction or fantasy texts. Martin´s women, good and bad, are pretty strong for the barbaric patriarchal world they inhabit. And because it is Epic Fantasy, Martin even includes an ancient archetype, the kick-ass, cross-dressing, warrior maiden, Lisbeth Salander’s medieval equivalent. The saga is pitted with girls that dress like men and fight like men such as Arya Stark, Asha (Yara in the TV series) Greyjoy, Ygrette, the Wilding, and, my favorite, Brienne of Tarth.
Born a lady, Brienne’s plainness (and the fact that she is taller and stronger than the knights in her realm) makes her unlikely marriage material. So she trains to be a knight. When she falls in love with King Renly, she goes to his court to serve him as a squire- bodyguard, knowing he could never reciprocate her feelings (aside from being married, Renly is gay).) What´s interesting about Brienne is that she kills men, is very skillful with her sword, and is terribly strong, but she is far from a virago. For someone who dresses like a man, she is quite feminine. She is shy, sensitive, naïve and she loves troubadour’s songs as much as Sansa Stark (Westeros epitome of refined femininity) does.
Like Lisbeth Salander, she hurts men who hurt women, but unlike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brienne is not a stone wall: she cries, feels sorry for Jaime (with whom she is obviously falling in love) and appreciates the positive aspects of her sex as when she pledges her service to Catelyn claiming to admire Lady Stark's “woman’s courage.”
It is interesting that Martin shows women as both destroying and creating forces, as helpers as well as enemies of the men that love them. Curious, because modern literature insists in presenting women as connivers and bringers of sorrow. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, poor Robbie Turner is destroyed by two women, one he loves, one who loves him. Robbie has been aided in his studies by the Tallis Family, his mother´s employer. However, in the closely structured British class system, he is constantly reminded of his place, especially by Cecilia, the Tallis eldest daughter. On the other hand, he befriends little Bryony, Cecilia´s sister, a precocious would-be-writer who develops a crush on him.
After seeing half-naked Cecilia taking a dunk in the garden’s fountain, tumescent Robbie writes an embarrassing letter describing his feelings towards her. Bryony finds the letter and is shocked by Robbie’s sexually explicit language. She sublimates her jealousy into fear by making herself believe Robbie is a deranged pervert. After seeing him and her sister making love, Bryony is convinced he is dangerous, and when her cousin gets raped in the woods, Bryony accuses Robbie, who is sent to jail. Although Cecilia believes in his innocence and stands by him, there is a sense that her bewitching beauty caused Robbie’s downfall and that his life could have been much better if he had never met these dangerous sisters.
We can’t accuse Ian McEwan of being impartial to women when female authors play the same game. In 2001, the same year that Atonement came out, Philippa Gregory published The Other Boleyn Girl a fictionalized view of Henry the Eighth’s second marriage. The plot follows Ann and Mary Boleyn’s rivalry for the love of King Henry who casts away loving Mary in order to marry her ambitious sister. For some reason, most novelists tend to be unfair to Ann Boleyn. Indeed she meddled in politics and religious affairs, but she was also a patron of the arts, and no more ambitious than most high-class ladies of her day. Her sister Mary had several lovers before getting into King Henry’s bed, and by the time Ann came to Court, her royal affair was over.
In the book, Ann and Mary are loving sisters despite their different characters. Anne is strong-minded and rebellious. As he mother puts it, she is used to get what she wants just by “stomping her little feet on the ground.” Sweet and obedient Mary is happy to be married to a not very bright young squire. Henry visits the Boleyn Manor and Thomas Boleyn pushes a very willing Ann into the king’s path. Although Henry is taken by her beauty, he resents Ann´s facetious willfulness and sets his eyes on demure Mary. When the men in her family (including her own husband) prod Mary into the royal bed, she has no option but to comply. Eventually she falls in love with the king, who enjoys her meekness, thus she becomes his submissive whore, but not for long. By the time Mary is bedridden with pregnancy, Ann is back.
With ruthless ambitious and cruel vindictiveness, Ann does everything in her power to lure Henry away from her sister. Se does not want just to be a mistress; she becomes queen by withholding her sexual favors from the king. Driven by lust, Henry divorces Catherine of Aragon, Mary is forgotten, but Ann never gets her husband´s love. Her willful ways, constant tantrums and inability to provide him with an heir, soon bore the King who has Ann put on trial. The many charges include sorcery since only under her conniving spells could the King have committed so many follies.
Ann loses her head for being a tempting witch while her sister fares better; Mary keeps her life and fades into oblivion. The novel seems to have two morals: is better to be a submissive whore than a bewitching sorceress, and when it comes to men, women will trample upon their own sisters. After glancing over these images of “powerful “women, I rather stick with Lisbeth Salander.
Could you think of examples in recent literature of female protagonists that are good role models? What about your heroines? How do you make them strong yet appealing?
Malena (Formerly known as Violante)