“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

When Jane Austen wrote Emma, she could not have predicted how popular the book would still be two hundred years later, or that she was quite wrong about Emma herself being unlikeable. Critics of the character complain of her meddling and her lack of true self awareness, but the reality beyond this is that in Emma, Austen created a female character that many of her readers envied. Wealthy, attractive, and with sufficient leisure to pursue her own interests, Emma was a woman of substance and relative independence. I say relative, because at that time, truly independent women in Georgian/Regency Britain were few, far between and entirely demonised. Emma was a safe compromise in many respects; Lady Susan, in the incomplete novel of the same name, was much more of the kick-ass who would suit more modern tastes, and was considered entirely a rotter.

Since the 1970s, there have been great strides made for equality, yet in the last few years, I’ve seen indications of backwards movement. In the USA, a worrying number of states have legislated in ways that affect women: some have now not only made abortion illegal, but have given parental rights to men whose victims of rape have carried their babies to term. Birth control, miscarriage, abortion, all seem subject to legislation that very much reduces women to incubator status. Leaving aside employment issues, it feels as if much of the hard work of feminists for the last century is being eroded at such a fast rate.

In literature and in film, the need for strong role models for young women and girls, could not be stronger, yet we get Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the original books, surely neither of these is remotely the kind of role model I’d want for a daughter of mine? Thank goodness for Hermione Grainger, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Black Widow, and a host of other kick-ass women who didn’t wait for anyone else to save them!

There’s a whole other post involved in analysing those famous strong female characters, not least discussing why it is that they’re all pretty women and those who don’t fall into that category are disparaged for it, like Brienne of Tarth   (who is described as being pig-like.) But what is also interesting is the reactions of others TO strong female characters; it’s not uncommon for readers to intensely dislike such a female (as Austen expected people to loathe Emma) because the character somehow flies in the face of what is expected of a woman in their society.

Chloe from Square Peg (and to a smaller extent, Isobel from Fairies) has divided readers. The majority see her as fiery, take-no-nonsense (I’d use kick-ass for the third time this post) and strong. But on occasions a number of people have said they don’t like her; they see her bluntness as rudeness. Women of my generation in particular have been brought up to somehow sugar-coat things, to be polite when rage is the only sane reaction, and to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Chloe’s grandmother (whom I hope to write more about in the sequel, provisionally entitled Rough Edges) grew up in harder times, lived through war and loss and being a single parent when that marked her as a fallen woman; her upbringing (plus some probable Asberger’s) meant Chloe doesn’t mince her words. But put Chloe’s words and actions into the mouth and hands of a man, and you get a very different feeling. It comes down to this: people often see a strong female character as one who highlights and calls attention to the basic inequality that underpins much of our so-called modern society. If a man can say or do it, people still have a problem with a woman saying or doing the same thing.

Joss Whedon, creator of many famous strong female characters, was asked why he still writes strong female characters. His answer? “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

http://genius.com/Joss-whedon-on-strong-women-characters-annotated 

( Square Peg is on a Countdown offer this week; for three days it will be just 99p, then for another three £1.99)

Soul food, mind candy and comfort eating…

When I am under stress I turn to various forms of comfort.

I often return to books I have loved and read over and over again. For some, this can be children’s books. Many people return to books like the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings and various others. Books we know and love are safe and predictable in a changing world. I used to have nightmares that the makers of the film version of Lord of the Rings were going to change the story to fit Hollywood better; this is not so silly as it sounds. One of my favourite books is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman; the film version was an utter travesty.

Some books I read at times like this are not fiction. I read Lark Rise to Candleford, my collection of herbals and even sometimes recipe books. I go back to poetry I haven’t read since I was an undergraduate, and to poetry that has been my constant companion much of my life. These books are part of my soul food collection. They feed my soul, to stop it starving. Other soul food books are ones that come my way from time to time and I rarely read again; they are the ones that spark thought and meditation and sometimes anger and upset. But the iron ration soul food books are the ones that are falling apart.

I also like mind candy. I like candy floss and seaside rock from time to time; and so my tastes in books and other entertainment can seem banal. I like a good “Boys’ Book”: you know the kind, the rollicking adventure with cardboard characters, high octane action, and implausible but compelling plot. Basically, beach reads for those who hate chick lit. They’re light and unsatisfying and after a few they all seem the same. But like candy floss, they don’t fill you up and they taste nice for a while. I wouldn’t recommend a diet of them; they don’t feed anything deeper and they rot your mental teeth.

Comfort eating is a harder one to describe; sometimes it’s books you have read before but usually it’s books by authors you like but haven’t read. I have read about half of all Dickens; but not all. Like Shakespeare, Dickens’ stories have become a part of national identity and have a comforting predictability running through. Jane Austen  novels  are comfort food too, though they stray into soul food too. You’ll know comfort books by their solidity; often great chunks of literature, swimming with a rich gravy of pithy wisdom, and laced with just enough spice to tempt a tired palate.  

I have a collection of books that I go back to and when they wear out, I buy another copy. I don’t put them all on the same shelves or even in the same room. They are different genres, different eras, different needs, but I know where they are. I recently misplaced my copy of TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets and I’m still mildly anxious about where it might be; thankfully I have a copy of the complete poems, but that neat little volume was so handy to stick in a bag.

If only I could get a handle on my real eating habits when under stress. When I am depressed, I eat for comfort, but when I am stressed enough, I stop eating  for days. There doesn’t seem to be a middle way. And since I am usually either stressed or depressed, my body doesn’t quite know which way is up sometimes.

There has to be a better way. Maybe I should start “eating” books more…