Recently, N. K. Jemisin wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of womanhood in fantasy. Together with Kate Beaton’s take on Strong Female Characters, Kate Elliott’s discussion of gender and culture, and Overthinking It’s analysis of why strong female characters are bad for women, the essay illuminates an increasingly problematic disjunction in our treatment of femininity. The success of feminism means that women can now choose to live beyond the confines of their traditional roles; but despite/because of that freedom, there’s a fearful sort of disparagement reserved for women who still elect to be wives and mothers, or who shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. As though, somehow, feminism has made all such occupations redundant; as though a perfectly equal society is one in which nobody ever has to get married, give birth or do the washing-up. Doubtless there’s some who’d call such a world Utopia, which is fair enough. But here in reality, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t the same as being anti-feminist, and the definition of a strong female character is not exclusively one who eschews domesticity – or love, for that matter.
Commenting on Jemisin’s post, one woman remarked:
“Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.”
Which is another way of saying that romance in narrative is innately anti-feminist. Frankly, it’s a sentiment which terrifies and chills me, not least because of the way in which it echoes the historical discrimination against working women who dared to get married. Find a man, this logic went, and you loose your credibility: married women should be (or are, depending on your preferred flavour of sexism) incapable of devoting time, effort and intelligence to anything other than marriage itself, and therefore can’t be trusted in the workforce. The modern version is subtler. In this scenario, women shouldn’t (or don’t, depending on your preferred flavour of feminism) need men to fulfill them; positive depictions of male/female romance contradict this tenet by linking happiness with heterosexual romance, and are therefore anti-feminist. To be clear: the overwhelming preference of our culture for embedding marriage as the standard Happily Ever After is still problematic, as is the marginalization of happy non-hetero love and the idea that singleness is always the same as loneliness. What I’m objecting to is the idea that being romantically involved with men is, by itself, enough to undermine the feminist worth of female characters.
Imagine a group of macho men disparaging love as ‘chick stuff’ and an affront to masculinity, calling their married friends pussy-whipped and questioning the manhood (not to say intelligence) of any man who changes his lifestyle for the sake of a woman; the whole ‘bros before hos’ nine yards. Ugly, right? Then imagine a group of modern women disparaging love as a means of patriarchal control and an affront to feminism, calling their married friends submissive backsliders and challenging the feminist cred (not to say intelligence) of any woman who changes her lifestyle for the sake of a man; the whole ‘housewives and breeders’ manifesto.
Yeah. Still ugly.
To wax briefly lyrical, love is the great leveler: if you don’t lose your dignity at some point during the process, then I’d contend that you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, and as treacherous an idea as it might seem to our sensibilities, loving another person does fulfill us in a way that nothing else can; nonetheless, love is not our only means of fulfillment, nor even – necessarily – the most important. Love is unique; it fascinates and enthralls. As countless narratives from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice have been at pains to point out, neither love nor loving is a weakness. Which isn’t to say that love is never destructive, ill-conceived, fleeting, hurtful, wrongheaded, violent or stubborn. It can be all that and more – but the saving grace is, it can also be exultant, glorious, unexpected and gleeful. Contrary creatures that we are, it can sometimes even be all those things at once. To quote e.e. cummings, whose wisdom in such matters is unparalleled:
‘and being here imprisoned, tortured here
love everywhere exploding maims and blinds
(but surely does not forget,perish,sleep
cannot be photographed,measured;disdains
the trivial labeling of punctual brains…’
That being said, I’m not about to issue a blanket indemnity for each and every romance ever written. Just as many real-world relationships are abusive, one-sided, airheaded and/or undertaken for all the wrong reasons, so too can narrative relationships turn toxic. The vital point here is whether the author intended the relationship to be positive or negative or somewhere in between, to what purpose, and whether or not they’ve succeeded. In this as in so many things, your mileage may vary; but more of that shortly. Assuming momentarily that adherence to feminist canon must always be the rubric by which we gauge the narrative success or failure of fictional relationships (it’s not, but that’s another post entirely), failure on that count isn’t the same thing as failure overall. By which I mean: a story which deliberately chronicles the ups and downs of a negative relationship is not automatically anti-feminist. But wait, you cry: weren’t you asserting only moments ago that positive relationships were the problem? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked me that, because the sad fact is that some proponents of this view will have you coming and going. Negative hetero relationships are called anti-feminist because, nine times out of ten, they show women being mistreated by men, which – yes – is awful, but frequently on purpose, which is to say, the mistreatment is written deliberately to raise exactly this point; which is to say, a point that some commentators – not many, but enough to notice the pattern – persist in missing. But positive relationships are still called anti-feminist, too, because isn’t it just so contrived and backwards and cliche that a heterosexual woman might fall in love with a man, or want to? Why is it even necessary?
Look, you got me: it’s not necessary (or at least, not necessary to everyone). That doesn’t make it irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t make it unrealistic. I mean, dragons aren’t necessary, and they’re still fucking awesome – but hey, if you don’t like dragons? Maybe read a unicorn book! Or something.
This is why I get irked when novels – or more specifically, their romantic plotlines – are reviewed in line with this somewhat warped version of feminism. To directly refute the Jemisin commenter, you do not fail the Bechdel test by having your heroine fall in love, even if it’s with an awesome, powerful dude; but perhaps you do fail at writing a feminist heroine if, for whatever reason, love turns her into a doormat and her love interest into a douche without any indication that this is, in fact, suboptimal. Similarly, to play something of a strawman argument – and without wanting in any way to suggest that lesbian relationships aren’t legitimate, beautiful, awesome things – having your heroine fall in love with a lady does not automatically make her more feminist than if she falls in love with a dude; so why would heterosexuality prove a feminist handicap? So often in these debates, I feel like narrative context becomes optional in assessing a story’s merits; we get hung up on whether or not the heroine is making the same choices we would under the same circumstances when the whole point is that the story’s not about us.
Returning finally to the subject of strong female characters, then, wives and mothers of any kind are no more anti-feminist than kickass warriors in skintight leather with multiple sexual partners are the feminist ideal. Suggestions to the contrary may well be a fault of terminology; despite appearances, the strong in strong female character doesn’t refer exclusively to physical attributes, but rather to strength of character – interesting, three-dimensional ladies with a range of capabilities, backgrounds and interests being, for my money, a far more workable and compelling definition than just ladies who can fight. But then again, I’m happily married, so I guess that means my life fails the Bechdel by default.
Rats. And I felt so strong, too.