Sunday, July 15, 2012

Kick-Ass Girls, Conniving Witches and Submissive Whores: Images of Feminine Power in Contemporary Fiction.

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)


  1. As a reader, I don't want any good role models in fiction. Good people are boring. I want men and women to be destructive forces.

    1. Ooh, interesting response! I agree with your first two sentences. But a purely destructive character might be too one-dimensional to hold interest. Plus after a while, readers want to throw things at a protagonist who is pretty much uniformly wicked. Unless you're Nabokov, that's hard to pull off.

    2. I agree with Stephanie. Destructive characters become annoying after a while. I start yelling at them to get their act together or die already so I can finish the story without them being a pain.

  2. It depends on what you define as "Good" I have met very few real "good people", but I can assure you, they are far from boring

  3. Dear Sister Malena/Violante,

    Out of all the characters you've mentioned here, my favorite BY FAR has been Lisbeth Salander. To me, she's sort of a fantasy for women of how we would want to be. SPOILER ALERT! Imagine being able to fight men and take revenge, the way Lisbeth does, when that nasty guy rapes her. I was rooting for her the entire time!

    In "The Other Boleyn Girl" (the film) I didn't like any of the characters, male or female. None of them were sympathetic and I just wanted the movie over and all the characters dead. Later on, as I researched the real life of the Boleyn sisters, I realized they were very different from the fictionalized version. I wonder why the writer and/or director made Mary so annoyingly weak and Ann so conniving and evil. Dramatic purposes? Perhaps. But as a reader, I like characters to have both positive and negative traits.

    Lately I've noticed the "strong heroine" phenomenon growing in film, particularly children's movies. Yes, I get it, we have to teach girls not to be push-overs/damstels in distress. But somehow it's coming across (to me) as forced and disingenuous. Look at "Mirror, Mirror." In the beginning, Snow White will not even leave her room without her stepmother's consent. In a week, she becomes a ninja fighter and head of a band of thieves. She even TELLS the prince she has to learn to fight for herself and not sit around waiting for a man to save her and bla, bla, bla. Talk about being heavy-handed!

  4. Well, you´ve said it all. We have to be careful in the creation of strong characters. The Snow White in Mirror, Mirror is a clumsy attempt to create an express strong girl.

    About Lisbeth Salander. I didn’t say she was evil or a bad character. She is fascinating, but what the author tells us is that Lisbeth is the product of abuse and she uses violence to fight violence, but aside from that she is a complete asocial and not a very happy person.

    We all long for revenge, but would we be willing to become Lisbeth in real life? If Lisbeth had not been abused she wouldn’t be who she is. So, what is the thesis? We should all be abused so we could grow tougher? We should always use violence to respond to violence? We should live for revenge? Sure, it’s great vicarious pleasure, but is that a true strong appealing personality? Lisbeth is pretty much like Hannibal Lecter (think of his youth as portrayed in Hannibal Rising).

    I happen to adore Hannibal Lecter, but is he an ideal protagonist? Someone we would like to have as lover or friend? Someone we could identify ourselves with?

    Mm, as a matter of fact, I would love being Hannibal, because he enjoys good food, fine wines, art and living in Florence. But what makes Lisbeth happy? She seems so pathetic and lonely.

    1. What I admire about Lisbeth is her strength. It's not that I want her life or to be like her. The "fantasy" I speak of is her power under unjust circumstances: the power over information, the power over nasty men who wouldn't otherwise pay for their crimes. Not all victims of rape or abuse become as strong as she is. Many continue to be victims or are permanently visiting a therapist. Lisbeth doesn't dwell on her pain. This is admirable to me as a viewer and it's more credible than Snow White's forced transformation.

      This doesn't mean I would use her as a role model. But not all characters can be that, particularly in thrillers. Having said that, she (sort-of) has a moral code, doesn't she? The men she 'punishes' are all criminals.

    2. You are right in everything you said. She has a moral code and so does Hannibal. It would be unfair to say she is not a strong charscter. In fact, I never said that, only that I wouldn´t think of her as an ideal character that encompasses true feminist values, but then what character does?

    3. I'll jump in on this one and say that I don't really care for Salander's character. After a while, both in the book and film, she felt kind of like a robot. I actually thought a little about Robocop and how his objective is to get the bad guy and that's what he's programmed to do. Lisbeth is kind of the same. She seems programmed to do what she's told and always goes after hating men. But then in the end, you see she actually has emotions when she buys the jacket/sign (?) for Blomkvist. She's visibly upset that he's with the other woman. Where was any of that emotion throughout the story?

      One character who I think has determination and strength behind her is Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gables series. She's certain she doesn't want marriage and will do most anything to become a writer. Gilbert is her one stumbling block, but she puts him off for as long as she can (goes to school and college, he finishes his medical degree, she starts working for a newspaper, etc.) before finally marrying him. In the film version, Gilbert actually becomes the "damsel in distress" and Anne does everything she can to try and find him.


    4. Ohh I feel so guilty because it sounds like I’m badmouthing Lisbeth and those who like the books. Quite the contrary, but I still can’t root for her. Max said that he cares for characters that interest him. I care for characters that make me care for them. I happen to adore Beatrix (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill and she is vindictive and violent just like Lisbeth, but she is funny, and warm, and flesh and blood not the “robot” you mentioned.

      Anne Shirley is one of my 20 favorite heroines of all times, but I can hardly imagine some creating a character like her in this day and age.

    5. It's funny how subjective fiction can be (what agents say is true!) I could only stomach ten minutes of Kill Bill.

    6. I know...My conclusion is that tastes are ruled by instinct and subconcious, never by objective rules.

  5. I haven't delved into the Lisbeth Salander saga yet, and I have zero interest in 50 Shades of Sex ... er, Gray. I am puzzled at any critic who would see Martin as a misogynist, though. Martin is great at creating real and memorable characters, female and male. One suspects that by the time you create a female character who would satisfy these critics, you'd have the most boring female character ever created.

    When I'm reading, I don't want to think about whether the male characters are man enough or the female characters woman enough. I just want interesting people with tricky problems. I hardly think about gender politics when I'm reading a novel, though I do more when I'm watching movies: maybe because the plots are starker and quicker, and we're also dealing with physical portrayals. I know The Song of Fire and Ice has been criticized for over-relying on sex ("sexposition," they call it, which cracks me up), particularly T&A. You don't see nearly as much man-flesh as girl-parts. That is a legitimate criticism, but probably the director's fault, not Martin's.

    My female protagonist in my historical fiction WIP starts off wobbly, is tested, falls, picks herself up, overdoes it and becomes too hard-edged, and eventually finds some sort of middle-ground. I think that's not an unusual character arc these days. In my modern novel, I haven't even really thought about what kind of woman my MC is ... I think of her as a person first, not so much a female. I'm probably more gender-focused in the historical because gender determined so much more back then. Not that it doesn't now, but we've clearly made progress.

    Very interesting topic!

  6. Dear Sister Stephanie,
    As I told Sister Lorena, discovering the war that radical feminism had declared on poor sweet Martin was an eye-opener to the role gender politics play even in literature. Gender has always been important in my writing process, and I had tried to create heroines that were both feminine and strong, but I feel terribly old-fashioned when it comes to the demands of radicalism.

    If you are interested, you may go to my blog to this article

    And click on the highlighted words, they’ll get you to the articles of Martin-haters on both sides of the Atlantic. It´s amazing to see respected journalists and bloggers spewing so much _____ (you fill the blank). I only included three: Sady Doyle, Gina Bellafonte and Laurie Penny, plus Rosenberg’s reaction to Doyle´s blog.

    The main beef is with Martin's penchant for “hurting “or “causing pain” to women. The second is Daenerys marriage to Khal Drogo. The words “pedophilia” and” Stockholm Syndrome” have been used in regards to what amounts to the saga´s greatest love story.

    1. I will check out your blog on that topic. It's a shame what "radical feminists" have done to feminism. I consider myself a feminist, and can't relate to these complaints. But, each to her own.

      I can totally see why people would use the words "pedophilia" and "Stockholm syndrome" for Dany; I had trouble with that bit, too. But what happened there completely fits the world Martin built, and is internally consistent. It's also consistent with human nature. If the writer had forced the characters to behave in ways that fit out modern sensibilities, it would ring hollow and those books would not be flying off the shelves. As for causing pain to women, I see men going through quite a lot of pain, too. But the medieval world he created was especially bad for women. If women weren't miserable, he'd be rightly accused of looking at the past (since it's arguably a reflection of our own medieval history, minus the dragons and whatnot) through rose-colored glasses.

    2. Ohh, but Sister Stephanie that is precisely what they wanted, that Martin should have taken advantage of the genre to create an utopist world where women ruled and lived happily ever after.

      As I said in my blog, I am surprised at those who resent the fact that thirteen-year-old Daenerys is forced to marry a man to whom she eventually grows romantically attached, but have no problem with the same child ruling a khalassar, raising dragons and putting to death (in a very painful way) a witch. I am much more upset at the fact that little Arya dreams of murdering a lot of people because at age nine she saw her father beheaded in front of her eyes. Arya is traumatized by her experience, Daenerys is not. In the following books, she becomes a powerful queen, has lovers of both sexes, and re-marries.

  7. On one level I think this is an unfruitful exercise. Characters deserve to be taken on their own merits, and have their own journies to travel, and their journies may not necessarily be the journey of what we might think of as the ideal man or woman. It is probably the mark of a good character that it doesn't fit such a mold.

    Is Lisbeth Salander a fine role model? I don't know. I admire her independence but pity her more because she keeps close friends at bay accept when she is avenging them.

    Is Ripley of Alien and Aliens an appropriate role model? I don't know, but her character is certainly interesting. What about Sarah Conners? Probably anotehr sad, though strong person in the mold of Lisbeth. Clairice Starling, an impecable profesional? Is that a good a role model? Is the Black Widow from Marvel comics latest blockbuster The Avengers?

    1. Hello Max and welcome.

      My mistake was to use the word “role-model”. I meant a fine example of female power. I happen to like Ripley, and adore Sarah C. and Clarice. Undeniably, they are strong, courageous women with missions, but they are also loners. They have no friends, no families, no affections, not even hobbies. In order to protect her son, Sarah relinquishes her right to be a loving mother. That is heart breaking. And the question remains. Are these examples of powerful women? Female characters who do have families and a social circle are condemned to never be strong or courageous?

      Now that you mentioned Black Widow, I remembered that in the days of Batman craze, I loved Cat Girl because she was bad (=stronger than men) and she kicked ass. Sometimes, I wonder if the thing we truly admire in characters like Lisbeth, and equate with strength, is their capacity to hurt and do the things we find so reprehensible in men.

  8. Malena,

    For me, characters have to something interesting. I'm less concerned with their ability to hurt people, or do things we find reprehensible when men do it. If it was that simple then we would gravitate toward a character like Mallory Knox (Juliet Lewis) from the Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers." Of course we don't admire her, even as we feel sorry for her, accompanied by contempt for her actions.

    Certainly Ripley, Sarah Conners and Clarice are examples of powerful women. And strong female characters that immediately spring to mind tend to be the ass kickers, and warriors. I think this is because such examples stick out to human brains. This has probably been the case since Atalanta set sail with the Argonauts. Warriors, fighters and scrappers tend to capture our imagination.

    That said, I don't think women with friends, families and strong social circles cannot be courageous in literature (which I will define broadly enough to include pop fiction, and comic books) or film. Nor do I think there is a shortage of them in art. I'll highlight some examples from recent blockbusters. In the film Thor

    Dr. Jane Foster tends to epitomize women admire and know. She is driven, lives and works with a core of friends, seems largely dispossessed of angst, loves her work, and seems more or less happy. She kicks no ass, but has the integrity and courage to stand up to a shady government agency.

    Aunt May from the latest Spider-Man film (excellent by the way) also kicks no ass, but has to help our hero navigate some pretty treacherous waters. She has to do this while also dealing a profound grief. She is as much a hero in the film, and certainly a strong woman, with strong family connections as one is likely to find. Is Aunt May powerful? I don't know, she certainly has an influence on nephew.

    My point with these examples is that even in the big blockbusters the kinds of strong heroic women you describe exist. Their examples may not stand out though because they are the kinds of strength and courage we see around us quite often (and sometimes in literature, and film, they are set against bigger than life backdrops).

    You voiced an interesting concern here: "Sometimes, I wonder if the thing we truly admire in characters like Lisbeth, and equate with strength, is their capacity to hurt and do the things we find so reprehensible in men."

    I don't admire Lisbeth because she can hurt people. What I admire about her character is that she can so ably take care of herself. I admire her courage, and her tenacity. But most other things about her character simply provoke pity. Catwoman (from the comic book) is actually a close analog to Lisbeth. Selina Kyle is a thief, but with a few lines she won't cross. She is interesting, but like Lisbeth, a somewhat sad character (that is hardly news though, she does live in Gotham). Their ability to fight and inflict harm on other people is a part of what they can do, but what they can do flows from who they are.

    Action characters from the other side of the street, the clearly defined good guys (gender neutral!) are also capable of violence, and that violence is also tied to their morals and character traits. They can be violent under extreme duress, and demonstrate great courage (Ripley), or it can be seen as professional (Starling, Sarah Conner, Loretta "Mace" Mason- from Strange Days, Mallory Kane- from the movie Haywire). These characters are all capable of great violence (especially that second category) but that is less important to me than the fact that they are professionals that are very good at their jobs. I'm not sure all fans feel this way seeing tough women is a day to day experience for me. I have been training with great women fighters forever so seeing women capable of handling themselves in a fracas isn't knew to me, or shocking.

    1. Thank you Max for taking your time and sriting this enlightening post. You are right, physically strong women are what comes to mind when we think of “powerful heroines”. As you say, they have been capturing our imagination since the days of legends. However, the classical archetypes include other examples of feminine power: temptress, healers, witches, wise rulers, etc.

      I happen to like sword-wielding wenches as long as they come with a twist like Brienne in Song of Ice and Fire or Elizabeth Swann in "Pirates of the Caribbean.”I am not against heroines using violent methods to protect others or themselves, but it’s sad that they are shown as loners, as people living n the fringes of society.

      That applies to super heroes as well. They have no families; have to hide their identities from their friends and associates, and so on. It’s why I liked Samantha Stevens in Bewitched because she could juggle marriage, motherhood and magic. The same applied to the Halliwell Sisters in “Charmed” who had lives, careers and babies while vanquishing demons and protecting innocents.

      In my post, I use other images of powerful women, and they are so negative that I end up saying I rather stick with Lisbeth. There is something “honest” about the warrior maiden. She is no sneaky like the temptress or the witch. She doesn’t hide behind feminine tricks; she fights in the open (like a guy.)

      Years ago, I wrote a novel about a girl who had suffered neglect and abuse, and found a way to fight back: poison. She became an expert in the making of poisons and used them to climb up the ladder of success. She didn’t kill people, but neutralized those who hurt her: a school bully, a rival in a dress-making competition, etc. Someone who read it said to me that my heroine was “unappealing, too harsh.” Would she have been nicer if she went around with an ax or a machine gun in her hand? Perhaps.

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  10. Answering your question: In my own fantasy novel there is only one female protagonist (masochist, sensible, kick-ass, loving, brave, very young) but plenty of secondary characters. They try to adapt to a patriarchal society, whether creating their own mini-society (a founder of a village), truly accepting it (many, for example the wife of a wiseman), fighting it with poisonous rage (the fanatic follower of a new religion), finding a male protector (a naive cook), fighting its way to professional success (a navigator), building an equal-rights partnership with a man (a magician), rejecting men at all (an idealist lesbian paladin of a Goddess)... many women, many reactions, many personalities.

    1. Hi, Eduardo. It seems your novel presents the desired variety in characters. One can stand a kick-ass heroine as long as a more submissive" type is also present and it´s not the villain. The main goal is to keep an equilibrium and never create unidimentional characters. Thanks for commenting.


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