Women as the Heroes of Their Own Stories

Yet more food for thought in the discussion of modern heroines (i.e. major female characters who don’t die, marry, or go crazy by the end of the book). This article in The Atlantic by Kelsey McKinney. The first half, in any case, since the second describes a book I have not read.

I do take issue with certain examples the author uses, such as her suggestion that Jane Eyre and “all of the Bennett sisters” were blinded by love. That strikes me as a misreading of Jane Eyre’s character—although one that is probably shared by other “readers”— as well as a (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the social forces at work in Jane Austen’s novels that required women to be well married in order to have any status or agency. The very fact that some of the Bennett sisters not only desire love in their marriages but are willing to reject secure but emotionally unsatisfactory relationships can be viewed as a principled and brave choice, given the possibly quite stark alternative—penniless, homeless, dependent spinsterhood.

And of course, there’s the argument to be made (as we have made here previously) that so many great works of literature that focus on men also involve a love story. Her first example of “Nick Carraway’s lurid account of the 1920’s” strikes me as a bit off, since The Great Gatsby revolves around one man’s obsessive love of a particular woman.

On the other hand, I really see her point, although I disagree with some of her specifics. I have most definitely normalized for myself the idea of male heroes that we are all meant to relate to (and I have) because “man” means mankind, both men and women, or so I’ve been told, and the male experience is meant to be understood as the universal experience. I’ve been willing to go along with that, and it’s been to my edification to do so, or so I believe.

But! The very wrongness of this—why should women not be heroes, too, in stories with supposedly universal themes?—was brought home to me in a big way when I recently stumbled across this post (several years old now) that proposes a genderswap version of The Lord of the Rings films in which all the major characters were actually portrayed by actors of the opposite sex: http://october-26.livejournal.com/371384.html?format=light. Just look at it! Some of this “casting” is brilliant, and I can totally see it. But more than that, I want to see it! Or read it. I would watch the hell out of this movie. Or read those books.

As some of you may have heard me claim before, The Lord of the Rings is my bible. It’s my moral text. I read and internalized it for myself at a fairly young and impressionable age, and that is something I am still happy about. But how much more powerful or meaningful might it have been with more women characters? How different might it be with all women? Not so much in substance as in impact? What might that have meant to me? And why is there still no real literary equivalent that I’m aware of?

Anyway, just revisiting the old conversation here because it’s one I don’t have good answers for but don’t get tired of having. Looking forward to your thoughts!

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3 thoughts on “Women as the Heroes of Their Own Stories

  1. Interesting article. I do agree with some of her points, and I think I understand her frustration, but I also feel that perhaps she exaggerates the problem. It seems to me that contemporary literature is rife with female heroines, particularly in popular fiction. Few are as romance-free as Housekeeping, but I wonder if romance-free is what readers want, male or female. If editors and publishers perceived a general longing for the type of story Kelsey McKinney wants, there would be more such stories published, but I rather think most people like having a bit of romance in their fiction, even if the romantic story is not the main plot.

    The fact that so many of these female protagonists appear in popular or genre fiction is in itself an interesting thing–maybe these heroines have to prove their mettle in the trenches of general readership before they are deemed worthy to be taken up by the makers of “high art”. If the spate of female heroes in contemporary literature has not lead to their inclusion in anyone’s “100 Greatest Novels” list, it may be because they haven’t been around long enough. One of the things that proves a novel “great” is that it still has power and relevance after a couple of generations have passed. We shall see. OK, maybe I won’t see, but someone will, you or your children. My guess is the tide has already turned.

    As to the idea of a gender swap Lord of the Rings: ugh. Bad idea. I would love it if someone wrote a great female epic of the same scale and power, but feminizing the trilogy is right up there with painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

    • Regarding The Lord of the Rings, yes! Of course! Someone should write a great epic work of the same scale and power featuring mostly female characters. That’s the obvious answer, and I hope someone does it and that men read it.

      I have to admit, I was surprised by my own strong and positive reaction to the genderswapped LotR cast. Usually I don’t advocate for messing around with literature that way, especially when it comes to things I care about, or at the very least it must be done exceedingly well. But one of the reasons this suggestion works for me, I think, is that the characters stand out as types of people—er, and hobbits, elves, dwarves, etc.—without a great emphasis on the fact that they are male. Male here seems to be the neutral state of being, of course, and so there is no need to call attention to it. Romance and sex are entirely secondary to everything else going on, to the very minor extent that they even exist all. Within this world, the main characters are allowed to be wise, brave, loyal, foolish, conflicted, funny, frightened, and on and on. Characteristics that I believe are just as easy for women to display as men. Because women are, you know, people.

      What difference would it make to the story if Boromir had been imagined as Denethor’s daughter instead of his son? In the most important ways, absolutely none, or so I’d argue. She could be noble, a fierce soldier, loving daughter and sister, loyal leader of her people, conflicted member of the Fellowship. These attributes are what make the character great, not the character’s gender. Or would the mere fact of Boromir being female change the way you see the character? I don’t really think it would for me, not dramatically, since as written, I generally just think of Boromir as a person without thinking of him as a male person.

      (Of course, the fact that this story takes place in Middle Earth, not in our world, would also make it easy to step away from traditional gender roles. If only Tolkien had wanted to do that!)

      But maybe that is one of the differences between being a male reader and a female reader. Women sort of have to accept the male experience as the universal one, and I would guess that maybe men do not have to do that to the same extent. We all take a leap when we read in order to imagine ourselves in the lives of the characters we’re reading about. I can see myself in many different LotR characters. I wonder how many male readers see themselves in Eowyn?

  2. Sorry to be so tardy with this contribution to the conversation–for some reason I didn’t get notification that you had posted again on this subject, Sarah.

    I quite agree with you about how the deemphasis of romantic themes reduces the importance of male vs. female roles. One thing to notice about the hobbits in the fellowship is that they are not men. This may seem like a quibble since they are male hobbits, but I think the distinction is important to the issue of male and female heroes. They are, essentially, children: innocent, naive, pre-sexual. OK, back in the Shire the marry and have families like little people, but the hobbits of the fellowship, while subject to crushes, are in no sense romantic or erotic. The fact that they are not men is crucial to their roles. It is the reason Gandalf chooses them. It’s pretty clear that men cannot be trusted with the Ring! Or even wizards. So I suggest that Lord of the Rings belongs more to the literature of child heroes than to that of male heroes.

    And you refer to Eowyn, of course, whose most heroic act is possible specifically because she is not a man. As a reader I can’t say that I identify with Eowyn per se, but I certainly identify with many of the female characters in many of the books we’ve read in our group. As a genre, I’d be willing to say that 19th century romance is my favorite.

    The other thought I have is that reversing the roles of men and women in the trilogy does not satisfy the desire for an epic of female heroes. It just makes an epic in which the male heroes happen to be female–if that makes any sense. In other words, what we really long for is a story in which woman are heroic as women, celebrated for their feminine strengths, not just as warriors with breasts. The best model I can think of to express what I mean is a real person (of mythic proportions): Elizabeth I. She puts on the armor and inspires the troops, but her strength is not in battle. She rules her empire shrewdly and effectively for 45 years by being smarter, shrewder, and when necessary more ruthless than her many enemies. She maintains her independence by not marrying–a huge thing for a reigning monarch–keeping a tight grip on her advisors, and staying one step ahead of a non stop parade of conspirators. She is by no means universally popular, but she is beloved by a large segment of her subjects and is so much more effective a ruler than her successor that they pine for her when she’s gone. There is a reason why Elizabeth’s reign is often referred to as a Golden Age. Well, hopefully you see what I mean, a fictional heroine along these general lines: a brilliant, charismatic leader, not, or not only a sword-wielding amazon. Why has no one written this book?

    One thing I must disagree on, though, is your suggestion that the male experience is universal for everyone. It may seem so since there is more art in which the male experience is central, and more male artists. However, clearly, the male experience is universal for males and the female experience is universal for females. Did you think I was going to say “and never the twain shall meet”? Not at all. And here is something hopeful: I think we particularly admire women who display on some occasion what we think of as a male virtue–physical courage, for example–or when a male exhibits some nominally female virtue–compassion, or tenderness, say. This makes me think that the time for the female epic is ripe.

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