Updated: Aug 25
Can dysfunctional women protagonists in fiction serve feminism, no matter what?
You’d think so if you read Ellena Savage’s piece Selfish, grumpy and unkind? That’s my kind of woman dated 23 June 2020 in the magazine Psyche (www.psyche.co from Aeon). Particularly, if you mix up what a woman says or does or doesn’t do, with what she could do, with what she ought to.
Take caring. Aren’t there different dimensions?
Actual – actions, reactions, habits. An alcoholic mother ‘automatically’ caring for her sick child. Or ‘uncharacteristically’ neglecting her. Public perceptions don’t matter. What she does or says, they ‘actually’ happen don't they? Her motivations aside. She doesn’t need to think it through. She cares, by default. Or she’s indifferent, by default.
Imagined - an alcoholic mother imagining she’s kicking the bottle to care for her sick child. What she could do. But doesn’t actually. She privately wishes to but doesn’t care enough.
Ideal – she’s almost always caring. Child or not, sick child or not. Such ‘ideal’ women are more the stuff of dreams. And some dreams come true. Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind comes close. Men have such dreams, of women. Women, of themselves. Of something beyond them. And everyone understands it’s aspirational, a journey you start even if you know you’re never going to finish.
Thing is, some expressions of feminism revel in the actual, not ideal.
Savage: “These characters I find thrilling are women who are absolutely not socialised or charitable or good at doing anything much, other than drinking straight from the bottle and ruining other people’s lives (and their own).”
They’re seeking their womanhood, their identity in its difference from the ideal. They looking for their real selves in the actual. Worse they sometimes revel in the actual because it’s not aspiring to the ideal. This can be problematic. Why? You give power to what you focus on.
First, it offers little incentive to change beliefs, perceptions, attitudes, actions, habits. Say, a woman ‘finds out’ one Thursday evening, that she’s abusive, uncaring, greedy, selfish, irresponsible. She ‘decides’ Thursday night, that she’s not going to bother changing. Why? She’d rather be ‘herself’ than mimic her ‘polite’ sister, her ‘caring’ mother, her ‘generous’ grandmother, her ‘sacrificing’ daughter, her ‘responsible’ niece. She forgets that she herself wasn’t always ‘like this’. She’s become more than is.
Second, it makes a value judgement about what is good, bad, better, worse, desirable, undesirable: “it’s OK, I’m fine as I am, right here right now, I’m all right. If I’m petty, vengeful, spiteful or unforgiving, so be it. And to hell with everyone else. I’d rather be than be better.”
Savage says she's "had enough" of......achievement, and of women being excellent. She's "tired of fixating on positives.”
But what’s literature been dishing out so far?
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male – Rudyard Kipling
Kipling is early 20th century, admittedly a little later than the mother of temptresses, Eve in The Bible. But that’s what we’ve been having all along. That or variations of it - in play after movie after short story after novel. Don’t even start on Lady Macbeth or the Shrew. Wasn’t Gone With The Wind about petty, selfish, greedy Scarlett and her schemes? Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice was no role model. Nearly every fairy tale had its witch. Forget about high-brow or award-winning novels, nearly every century of published fiction has had its share of wily women as it has of the winsome. Why hanker after wily?
Third, it demonises the inclination of many humans – not just women – to try to change, often, for the better. Yes, many are prone to self-destruction. But self-destruction itself is rarely valorised. The point of evil characters in fiction is for readers to come away transfixed by the good.
Savage says the “more interesting" characters are ones that reflect how dreadful, we are.
Interesting. Absolutely. But isn’t “may their tribe increase” pushing it?
Do we need more such protagonists? Don’t we get enough of villainy in real life? In the next block? On the next street? Abuse, violence, deception, betrayal?
Savage: “I don’t want all the women in the world to be.....as odd, or bad......I just really like novels about these women, because they make me feel slightly better about being a grump and a pessimist.”
Do we need examples of extreme dysfunction to cope with our middling dysfunction?
Do we need icons of dysfunction at all, merely to tolerate our own?
Yes, but surely in moderation?
The dysfunctional protagonist deciding on Thursday to ‘be myself’ is doing more than that. She’s deciding to ‘stay myself’. She’s also making light of the effort of her sister, her mother, her grandmother, her daughter, her niece. They were all at one time perhaps no less abusive, greedy, selfish but worked their way, over years to ‘become’ – caring, generous, sacrificing. Yet this protagonist is not asking: how did I ‘find’ myself this way, how did I get ‘here’ in the first place?
Fourth, it idealizes rebellion against self-actualisation while believing it’s not rebelling at all.
Savage: “The pleasures of Alma’s maladaptations are not that she is..rebellious.......Cantankerous, sexually perverse, too-smart-for-her-historical-situation, possibly corrupt: this is what I look for.....For some reason, this is incredibly vitalising.”
Savage says, “I’ve had enough of hope” and later explains what she finds attractive in ambivalent, dysfunctional protagonists – they “resemble both the hopes and failures of previous generations’ political struggles.....in ways that make me hopeful about the future, in which women might be untethered, finally, from the expectation of being perfect.”
If feminism – literary or not - is meant to achieve anything, it had better make up its mind about one thing – hope.
But if all the vile women characters in fiction over the centuries, starting with the Greek myths, haven’t yet "untethered" how are a few more "finally" going to?
Savage: "They strike me...as unlikely feminist woman characters......mildly sociopathic, or brazenly complicit....Not role models......Not ‘having it all’ (they kind of reject it all). But the characters are active.”
"Unlikely feminist woman characters"? You don't say.
"Active"?! With what? With whom? On whose behalf? Their own? To what end?
In 1982, Rambo was active in his first film First Blood. In 2019, he was also active in his fifth film, imaginatively titled Last Blood. Frankly, you’ve a greater chance of being active about improving your state of life in a swivel chair.
Savage: “Yes, Alma struggles against the collective oppression of women; she thinks deeply, and structurally, about her society. But she also happens to be unwilling to apply her critical insights to herself.”
Forget about society, what is the point of thinking “deeply and structrually” if you’re “unwilling” to apply critical insights to yourself?
Finally, it imagines changing, as a move away from self-acceptance.
It views becoming as a rejection of the true, real self.
It sees calls to become better as self-deception, self-denial, a big lie.
It confuses self-acceptance, which is an embracing of the self (with) warts and all, with self-delusion, which is an embracing (of) warts and all. The point is not – never has been – to embrace the warts but to embrace the self!
For a woman (or man!) to say, “I am this way. I always will be. Nothing and no one’s going to change that”, is the opposite of self-acceptance. That’s accepting of the way things have become or the way you are now (or these days!) rather than who you are.
It confuses doing, thinking, speaking with being.
Self-acceptance cannot help but lead to self-actualisation. It’s not a static here and now and once and for all.
Life is a journey. We may be on one train and decide, Thursday evening, to hop off at one station because we dig the local scenery. Come Thursday night, we may decide to stay awhile. But on Friday morning (that week or next year or the year after) we may still hop on another train. Another track, to somewhere else, somewhere new. That’s allowing the self to travel, as it should. That’s being an agent. That’s being active.
The more you accept the self, the more you see of yourself, the more you want to move toward actualizing the ideal – you see what others can’t see or won’t see. You see what’s unrealized and you work toward that fulfilment, in yourself.
The more you see of yourself, the more you are.
The more you are, the more you become.
Those who delight in or want to stay their same "selfish, grumpy and unkind" self? They’ve misunderstood the phrase, “Be yourself”. “Be yourself” is always and everywhere about being who you’re meant to be. Being by becoming not instead of becoming.
Those who want to stay the same, who wallow in their mud-wrestling pit? They aren’t active or alive or agents. They start dying the moment they insist on staying put.
Savage: “Women are women, not because they necessarily share any particular qualities, but because they share a collective history.”
Perhaps not quite?
Some women share a collective history. White women, elite women for instance. Others don’t: Black women or poor women or disabled women, for instance. Married women or mothers don’t share the collective history of childless women, spinsters and widows.
Sometimes a feminism that rebels against homogenizing (why should we all be kind and caring) often ends up doing just that – homogenizing. Ironically, it overlooks difference.
The histories of women are different, their oppressions are different, their silences are different, their screams are different, their rebellions are different, their complicities are different, their defeats are different, their regrets are different, their tears are different.
Savage says she’s tired of people boxing women into categories: polite, self-sacrificing and the like. Instead she thinks “of the women who don’t accept those ideas, who fester in their rage and disappointment, and who – inevitably – let it deform them.”
But is acquiescence to deformity any less troubling than labels?
Savage smarts at homogenizing because it “encourages potentially dishonest, ......exploitative self-representation”
Is “festering” in rage and disappointment any more honest, any less exploitative self-representation? Does it move the conversation forward or merely sun-bathe in the status quo?
Savage fears that homogenizing narratives leave out the reality of women’s capacity for violence, greed, self-delusion and irresponsibility. She asks “What happens when women are supposed to be civil, and a woman behaves uncivilly? How do we account for that?”
We account for that by recognizing that not all women are the same. Not because they needn’t be but because they just aren’t!
No one denies or “leaves out the reality of women’s capacity for violence, greed and such.”
Fiction has, thankfully, through the ages given us scores of manipulative or devious or callous women.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, Alexandre Dumas's Milady De Winter, Jane Austen's Isabella, Arthur Miller's Abigail Williams, Charles Dickens's Estella, Roald Dahl's Veruca Salt, William Thackeray's Becky Sharp. And more recently Emma Cline's Suzanne, Neil Gaiman's Other Mother/Beldam, Gillian Flynn's Amy Dunne.
It’s just that we – men and women - expect to find this “capacity for the worst” far less in women. Not because we expect women to be perfect but because this capacity is usually less visible, less brazen, less spectacular – more hidden - than in men. Precisely why the movie Monster (2003) shocks more than The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Male serial killer? Passe. Female serial killer? OMG! And precisely why the vixen appears so compelling - she stands out. If she’s subtle she’s "life-like", if she’s crude she’s "caricature" – either way, she stands out.
Fiction is invigorating because it reflects and informs real life. Good and bad. At its best it may capture the devilish with finesse. It should. But is the devilish a reliable benchmark to make us feel better about ourselves? Or an excuse to ignore, to postpone our potential for good and goodness? Cunning wenches may, on the last page, overwhelm kind women. But is there any doubt in the author’s mind about whom readers should “really like”, who they should aspire to be?
All this confusion (and a conflict of sorts) among feminists isn’t going away soon. Still, the more morbid expressions of feminism can make a start, by learning from women (fictional or not) who find their womanhood less worrisome – actual, imagined or ideal.
My kind of woman isn’t suspicious of perfection. She has the good sense to know that it’s the ideal. As “fantastic” as comic-book character Wonder Woman. But the idea of perfection? That's something she uses meaningfully in her journey, from actual to ideal, living her womanhood fully, even if inadequately, along the way.
My kind of woman is more at home with her womanhood. She can teach other women the meaning of femininity and men the meaning of masculinity. She can teach both to be more accepting of their humanity. And humanity is nothing if it isn’t more inclined to compassion, kindness, generosity, sacrifice than to, well, almost everything else.
The world of fiction needs far more of her.
My kind of woman doesn’t delight in being as delusional or infantile or self-centred as many men (and many women) are.
My kind of woman remains hopeful that the “social” and “collective” will eventually get their act together. But she’s not waiting. She knows that change, of any kind, starts - always and everywhere - with the individual. Only the individual can pronounce the word “First”, even if the social and collective are better at the word “Next”.
My kind of woman isn’t shy of acknowledging her “resentment, emotional dysfunction, ambivalence and the possibility of covert violence” or how she’s “often disfigured”. Yet she’ll always stop short of celebrating them. And she will not “go on to be complicit in the disfigurement of others”, men or women.
My kind of woman hunts for and celebrates the best, the finest in herself and others - men and women - so that both can be better. First, to themselves. Then, to each other. But better. Always better.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture. He’s working on a non-fiction book on women in Hollywood #womeninfilm