Rebecca, Rowena, Puppies, Fanfic

Posted: August 16, 2015 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1.

A few years ago, I tried to read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. I made it about halfway through before the roaring anti-Semitism finally drove me to fling the book at the wall, never to be resumed. I still don’t know how the story ends, but once I’d calmed down enough to think about it, I was struck by the difference in characterisation between Rowena and Rebecca, and what that particular contrast still says about the way we write women in fiction. Rowena, as Ivanhoe’s beloved, is meant to be the personification of all the feminine virtues of Scott’s period – beautiful and pure and obedient and yearning – while Rebecca, reading between the very broad lines, is someone we’re meant to root for despite her Jewishness without ever liking her best.

Except that, for precisely this reason, we do; but even though he wrote her that way, Scott doesn’t seem to realise it. Rowena never reads like an actual human woman because she was never intended to be one: she is, quite literally, a platonic ideal, and that makes her dull and lifeless in addition to being passive. But because Rebecca has to work to even be seen as a person in the first place, she’s much more fully human than Rowena ever is. Rebecca fights; she wins admiration by her actions, by sinking her teeth into the story and demanding to be seen: she has rough edges and strength of character, she’s narratively active, and as such, it’s impossible not to like her.

Here is what I took away from Scott’s treatment of these women: Rowena, passive and set on a pedestal, is what he thought women should be, while Rebecca, active and human, is what he grudgingly acknowledged women were; or could be, at the very least, if they actively tried to overcome the handicap of their gender.

And thus the question I ask myself, when examining female characters on the page or screen: is this woman a Rowena, or a Rebecca? Meaning: has she been written as an ideal, so defined by what the author wants her to do – usually for a man’s benefit, or to benefit his narrative (which classification, I hasten to point out, applies equally to female villains, who benefit the hero’s narrative by being Evil Because Cartoonish Misandry And/Or Incompetence) that she doesn’t come across as an actual human being? Or has she been written as a person, comprehensive and flawed and possessed of agency, even or especially if it makes her seem unlikeable or imperfect?

Slowly but surely, we’re getting more Rebeccas. But most of the time, for a very long time, Rowena has dominated.

2.

There’s this feeling I get, whenever I read a Rowena-heavy story. It’s a physical sensation, a sort of ephemeral chill that sinks into me with every male-only page, every chapter where women only exist to fill in the edges of stories that are really concerned with men. It feels cramped, like I’m crawling into some metaphysical box, and the older I get, the less comfortable it is, and the sooner I have to pull out again, the narrow confines chafing across my shoulders. It feels small in those stories, as though there’s no room for me there. I feel the same way about heteronormative storytelling: the more aware of myself I become, the more conscious of my own identity, the stronger the impulse to scream at books that don’t so much as acknowledge my existence. I feel a similar level of disgust about whitewashed stories, but being white myself, that visceral, squeezing element is missing – it’s an intellectual outrage, rather than a personal affront, and while it still makes me angry, I can’t pretend it’s the same thing. Not, to be perfectly clear, because I think the absence or stereotyping of POC is somehow less important; rather, it’s the difference between seeing your best friend punched in the face, and being punched yourself. Both assaults are utterly unacceptable, but one blow you feel secondhand, and the other in the flesh.

In 2010, I went to see the film Buried, which is shot almost entirely from the perspective of someone buried alive in a small box. It made for an intensely claustrophobic viewing experience: even knowing the camera wasn’t going to suddenly cut to a different scene, you still expected it, still wanted it to, and the lack of variation swiftly became a physical itch, a writhing unease and discomfort.

That’s what homogeneous storytelling feels like from the other side, when all the characters like you are either Rowena or stereotyped or absent altogether: claustrophobic. Go away and watch Buried, and whatever else you think of it – I hated it for reasons that had nothing to do with the cramped perspective – at least you’ll learn what it’s like to read a book or watch a show where part of you keeps waiting for the POV to leap to something new, something other than unrelenting sameness, only it never does, and all you feel is the tension caused by the absence of innovation.

Like being buried alive.

3.

I’m sick of the Sad Puppies.

Look: let’s be honest. The Puppies, by their own admission, aren’t interested in stories about people like me, or the stories of other people who aren’t like them, or stories which feature political arguments other than their own. There’s something fundamentally paradoxical about their hatred of diversity: they seem to think of it as a box-checking exercise, some arbitrary, unrealistic obsession with describing impossible, or at least implausible, persons – but at the same time, they clearly believe such individuals not only exist, but do so in vast, conspiracy-carrying numbers, because who else do they think they’re arguing with? The real world, according to Puppy gospel, is being steadily overrun with politically correct SJWs who are all queer or black or female or disabled or – gasp! – some dread combination thereof, and because they resent this tyranny, they don’t want to encourage it by acknowledging those demographics in fictional stories. This doesn’t stop them arguing, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that their stories are really reflective of the real world, even though their daily lives (they claim) are defined by a ceaseless political struggle that their fiction never reflects, partly because it’s meant for entertainment purposes only (they say), but mostly (one suspects) because the only actual struggle they’ve experienced can be better described as a personal failure of empathy, viz: why the hell would anyone want to read a book about her?

“Her” being Rebecca, both literally and metaphorically. The Puppies are agoraphobic in a genre otherwise defined by sweeping claustrophobia: they want to stay in the buried box with the dwindling air supply, while the rest of us are desperately clawing to get out, away from them and into the sunlight. We want to breathe, to change the scene, and they’d rather we suffocated wholesale than let us.

4.

Here’s what fanfiction understands that the Puppies don’t: inversion and subversion don’t ruin the story – they just give you new ways to tell it, and new tools to tell it with. Take a platonic relationship and make it romantic; there’s a story in that. Take a romantic relationship and make it platonic; there’s a story in that, too. Take a human and make her a werewolf; take a werewolf and make him human. Don’t try and sidle up on hurt/comfort like it’s something you’re ashamed to be indulging in; embrace the tropes until you have their mastery. Take a gang of broken souls surviving the apocalypse and make them happy in high school; take a bunch of funny, loving high school kids and shove them in the apocalypse. Like Archimedes, fanfic writers find the soul, the essence of what makes the characters real, and use it as a fulcrum on which to pivot entire worlds, with inversion/subversion as their lever of infinite length.

Without order, nothing can exist; without chaos, nothing can evolve. So the saying goes, and so it is.

5.

A tip for male writers: if your female characters never defy your expectations – if they never surprise you, never throw a wrench in your plans, never successfully beg a greater share of the story and your attention than you’d initially planned on giving them – then you’re not really writing women. You’re giving us Rowena, not Rebecca; over and over and over.

Be wise to the difference.

Comments
  1. brsanders says:

    Foz, this is such a good piece! I have never read Ivanhoe (I think my exposure to it might have been limited to the Wishbone episode), but there’s a similar dichotomy between the “good” sister in Lorna Doone and the “unmarriageable” sister. It happens everywhere in literature, in television, in lore, in religious texts, you name it.

  2. Linatami says:

    I never read Ivanhoe (and this doesn’t really animate me either) but I think the Rowena/Rebecca problem is very present in any literature: characters that feel real vs characters that are contructed for a certain effect. I will pay closer attention now. Thank you for “naming” this problem ^^

  3. njmagas says:

    I felt the same problem with Laura and Marian when I read “The Woman in White.” Laura is defined by being beautiful, desired by all, and having Bad Things happen to her. While Marian is defined by her intellect, her wit, her courage, her ingenuity and her relentless desire to save Laura. Marian is presented so much as a hero in the story that Collins had to have the rest of his characters go out of their way to discredit her achievements with statements like, “Yes, she’s all those things but she’s so MANish! She’s like a man with boobs, isn’t she?” It’s clear that Laura is the character we’re supposed to be invested in. Laura gets the big romance at the end, it’s Laura whom everyone frets over, and what might happen to poor Laura that instigates the plot. I was disappointed, because Marian is so much a stronger character, and she just sort of moves in with Laura when the latter gets married at the end.

    • Sarah E. says:

      I felt that way when I first read it, but re-reading it a few years ago I was surprised to find Laura more interesting than I remembered — I think there are some very odd things going on under that bland beautiful surface: she’s not rebellious, but she’s fiercely principled. She refuses to go back on a promise made to her dying father no matter how little she wants to marry Sir Percival and how much Marion begs her to reconsider — but, the moment Sir Percival lets his mask slip and strikes her, she tries to get out of there, because her promise didn’t include staying with an abuser. (I also tend to read both her and Anne as autism-spectrum.)

  4. mwinikates says:

    I tried to read Ivanhoe too! (largely, in fact, due to a Girl Scout camp counselor I admired who told me she loved it when I was a kid, though I never did figure out why)

    Your claustrophobia comparison to lack of narrative diversity is really apt: there is something suffocating about reading stories (especially when they are fantasy or science fiction, which ought to be broader by definition) that deal solely with the pompous problems of people with power.

  5. e2thec says:

    Ivanhoe doesn’t exactly have male characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. I have never understood why it’s regarded as a classic. Rebecca is far more appealing than Rowena, as you rightly point out.

    Overall, I don’t think characterization was Scott’s forte. But most principals in popular novels from his era are very 2-D, women and men alike. I mean, Dickens!

    Otoh, George Eliot at her best is a nice contrast.

  6. […] Foz Meadows finally made it through Ivanhoe and proposes a way to look at how well female characters…: […]

  7. David Evans says:

    I’ve just come to this blog from Making Light and enjoyed this piece greatly. But as a cis male I asked myself whether I feel the equivalent claustrophobia on reading a novel where the important characters are female and the males are mainly stereotypes. I don’t think I do – I enjoy everything Sheri Tepper writes, for instance. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s an aspect of male privilege. What do you think?

    • fozmeadows says:

      If I were to ascribe it to male privilege, I think I’d put it down to seeing so many positive and varied representations of yourself in other stories that their lack in a single context doesn’t make you feel threatened; whereas if you’re someone who overwhelmingly sees themselves portrayed badly, if at all, there’s a much more acute sense of injury.

  8. Gali Golan says:

    You’re not the only one who thought so about Ivanhoe….it generated one of the first pieces of fanfiction ever (!!) a story called “Rebecca and Rowena,” written by one William Makepeace Thackery. And I won’t spoil it for you (it’s online, go read it), but let’s just say that the notion of inversion and subversion and making spaces through the subtext is in no way new or original – nor is the discussion about the difference between Rebeccas and Rowenas🙂

  9. Josh Lukin says:

    Well, Wilkie Collins spent his adult life in a polyamorous relationship with two women, and that’s kind of coded into the resolution of The Woman in White; but still, most of the story does conform to the trope under discussion—it’s that strong. Kate Millett in her feminist classic Sexual Politics calls it the lily-and-rose dichotomy, or something like that.

  10. Vivi says:

    I have never read Ivanhoe (though I dimly remember reading something by Sir Walter Scott as a kid… something about Richard Lionheart and the crusades?), but what you said about the claustrophobia of erasure made me think. I’ve been lucky enough to find that queer feminist fantasy existed at a fairly early age (I found most of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels at the library at 13 or 14, and Buffy, Xena and Sailor Moon aired around the same time in my country), and thus knew I didn’t have to go down the route of the male-dominated traditional ‘classics’ of the genre. I found enough high fantasy and scifi books with queer main characters to concentrate my reading time mainly on those, and I still haven’t read most of the “must reads” of the genre. (It took me three tries over the course of my teenage years to get through Lord of the Rings, for example, because it was so dull. I only finished finally a few years ago, when I found an audio book version on the cheap and listened to it while gardening.) Also, 90% of the books I’ve read were written by women, usually with female protagonists, so I have a different reference pool than you. So this might be why I never felt this claustrophobia with regards to characters like me being two-dimensional or missing entirely.

    However, part of that is also that my sexual identity (aromantic asexual) is so very erased that I suppose I gave up early on ever seeing someone like me in fiction (other than Sherlock Holmes). Not that I knew I was aro-ace as a teenager, but I certainly never fully identified with any of these heroes and heroines as they get caught up in their romantic plots. I still enjoy reading about romance, in a kind of vicarious way, but I do wish not every book would rely on that kind of plot. I suppose that’s part of why I liked Terry Pratchett’s writing so much (for a long time the ONLY male writer I read) – I don’t know if he was ace, but he certainly wrote like someone who wasn’t particularly interested in telling romantic stories, to the point where several of his protagonists can be read as asexual simply because they never show any romantic or sexual interest in any other character. They just have better things to do. Thank god the man was so very prolific as a writer – together with Arthur Conan Doyle, he single-handedly managed to even the scales somewhat and made me feel not quite so abnormal. (Yes, I have read Elizabeth Bear’s “Jacob’s Ladder” trilogy with its actually canonically asexual protagonist. But I read that one only recently.)

    Weirdly, even though the female characters I read about were generally well-rounded, and even though I don’t identify as genderqueer, I find myself having an easier time identifying with male characters. That is, usually it’s non-straight male characters as written by female authors. Maybe it’s because the female protagonists, even though I like them, are either too traditionally feminine or too consciously gender-norm-rebelling and tomboyish (I am neither, but my culture is considerably more relaxed about gender norms than the Anglo-American one seems to be), whereas the queer male characters (and often even the straight ones) written by women have a feminine touch that’s probably largely unintentional and which feels more natural to me. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly… A certain unashamed in-touch-ness with their emotions, or perhaps a rather relaxed sureness of their masculinity that even gay characters written by gay men often don’t have. (I mean that no matter what they do, they don’t feel ’emasculated’.) Or an instictual understanding of women’s lives and the lives of less privileged groups in general that I usually find lacking in young men (gay, ace or straight) in real life. No matter how good the female author is, if she writes a male character who’s supposed to be psychologically attractive to a feminist audience, the result is considerably different than how most male authors would write their hero or even a male love interest for a female character. (There are some exceptions, of course – I really like Scott Lynch’s main characters and I think of him as one of the few male authors who actually listened to what his feminists critics are talking about. And even Jim Butcher’s male protagonists have this non-macho quality despite the fact that the Dresden books are so relentlessly heteronormative and male-gazey. And of course, Sherlock Holmes, even if he’s a bit of a mysogynist. There’s just something about a Victorian gentleman who takes such joy in going undercover dressed as an old woman.)
    Or maybe it’s just that most of the female protagonists I’ve read about were straight and I just can’t identify with their yearning for their man, whereas with gay or bi male protagonists it doesn’t bother me so much because there’s an additional layer of ‘insulation’ for me. I don’t feel forced to identify in all aspects with the protagonist if he’s obviously a different gender than me from the start. I find myself similarly recoiling from masochistic female characters, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much with male characters, possibly because the former triggers my feminism (even though I rationally know it’s not abuse, of course), whereas the latter stays at a more distant level of emotional involvement for me.

    • Vivi says:

      Come to think of it, before MBZ and Sailor Moon and Buffy, for me there were the female-centered fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen (bless his bisexual soul) and Theodor Storm (“The Rain Maiden” was never even translated into English from what I can tell, which is a shame because it’s very proto-feminist and even a little queer-friendly – it’s about a farmer’s daughter who goes on a quest with a bunch of supernatural trials to wake a sleeping nature goddess (who becomes quite smitten with the girl) in order to end a terrible drought, defeat a fire-goblin, save her village, and marry her impoverished boyfriend, as she’d made her dismissive father promise she would be allowed to if she actually manages to make it rain), instead of the two-dimensional disney princesses waiting for their prince to rescue them. And there were the tomboy child heroines of Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, etc.). And on TV when I was a kid, “Lady Oscar” (genderqueer heroine who despite still identifing as a woman effectively leads the life of an officer and gentleman in an anime drama from the 1980s about the French Revolution – I think it was finally translated into English as “The Rose of Versailles” a few years ago) and Princess Fataghiro (series of Italian live-action fairytale movies about a tomboyish princess who secretly dresses up as a knight and goes to defend her country in a duel with the neighboring prince, then falls in love with the prince, marries him, and then spends the sequels rescuing him from various curses and abductions) were all the rage, and neither heroine was required to be ‘mannish’ and un-pretty just because they wanted to sometimes behave or dress like a man.
      So yeah, I definetly have a different reference pool than you regarding female characters, and somewhat regarding queer characters (though for the latter I mostly had to actively search when I was a teenager – thankfully, that has changed). Which is probably why the whole puppie outrage has sort of passed me by as pathetic ineffectual raging that comes like 20 years too late (and which feels weirdly alien to me, in a sort of only-in-america kind of way). Which just shows how important it is too start showing children diverse protagonists from a very early age.

  11. I just put up a post arguing that Scott intended readers to feel as though Rebecca was the heroine and better than Rowena. I’m still not exactly sure *why*, though.

  12. Martha says:

    Read Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle for his take on Rebecca and Rowena.

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