A Brief History of the Cat Lady

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From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, countless thousands of cats across Europe were tortured and burned to death alongside the women whose “familiars” in witchcraft those cats were presumed to be.  Sometimes the cats themselves were believed to be witches.  The women were usually single and often elderly.  Medieval and Early Modern society’s mistrust of single women, cats, and any bond between the two lingers in today’s conception of the “cat lady.”  Like her persecuted “witch” predecessors, the cat lady is our culture’s envisioning of the woman who has failed to remain within the social order, who lies precariously outside it.  Continue reading “A Brief History of the Cat Lady”

Game of Thrones: An End of Season Recap

Or, as a friend once called it, “stabby castles.”

SPOILERS AHEAD
I recently wrote about the exciting potential of the early episodes of Game of Thrones season 6, and the second half of the season more than fulfilled the promise of the first half. The last two episodes in particular were each better than most full-length movies. (Also, we got confirmation of the most important of all fan theories: the one regarding Jon Snow’s parentage.) When I wrote about the first half of the season, I mentioned the surprising amount of female wish-fulfillment fantasy it contained; with the second half of the season, the dark side of that wish fulfillment became clear. We were given what we wanted—Sansa’s revenge on Ramsay Bolton, Arya’s on the Freys—only to feel how dark and morally murky our satisfaction with such scenes became. Continue reading “Game of Thrones: An End of Season Recap”

Getting Angry at Strangers

Over the course of my late twenties and now into my thirtieth year, I like to think I have become increasingly confident and assertive.  There is one area, however, in which I still find myself feeling helpless and inadequate: I have not learned how to effectively communicate anger.  This is particularly the case in situations in which it is appropriate for me to express anger toward someone I don’t know.  I have recently gone through two minor ordeals, one of which involved someone trying to cheat me out of a significant sum financially, and the other of which involved someone making a professional mistake that could have physically and psychologically harmed me.  I am not satisfied with my responses in either case, as I think they were governed by the difficulty I have in finding an appropriate way to express my anger.

The first of these occasions was the more mundane; it began with a sudden billowing of smoke from the front of my car as I arrived home one day.  I assumed my car had overheated, and waited till the smoke had stopped before driving it to the nearest auto repair shop.  The mechanic I spoke to that day looked under the hood of the car, and explained to me that one of my radiator pipes was cracked.

As he spoke, the mechanic was no doubt sizing up my petite blonde self, my Bambi-like stare as he explained what he was seeing under the hood, and making fairly accurate assumptions.  My PhD in English literature would not help me here.  When it comes to cars, I conform pathetically to sexist gender stereotypes.  The car mechanic could probably have told me there were unicorns waltzing in my engine and I would have asked the price to have them removed humanely.

But the cracked pipe seemed—and probably was—plausible, and he said it could be repaired for $170, and would be ready that day or the next.  It turned out, however, that he would need to order the part, and thus the process stretched out over five days in which the mechanics were (they told me) waiting for the arrival of the apparently rare and elusive radiator pipe.  On day four, I was informed that the price would double, as the other radiator pipe, it had now been discovered, was cracked too.  I accepted this, mildly annoyed but still basically believing I was being told the truth.

On the fifth day, when I called—and when I was finally able to reach someone who seemed to know what was going on—I was told my car would finally be ready at 4:00 that afternoon.  I showed up at that time, desperate to have my means of transportation back.  Instead, I was told that now that the pipes had been replaced, the mechanics were able to see that the radiator itself had a small leak.  They would need to replace the radiator, which would require them to order one from Indiana and would bring my total up to $1,200.  I still didn’t believe that they were outright lying to me, but I am a graduate student, so I don’t have that kind of money readily available, and I was frustrated at how they’d kept stringing me along. 

Thus—much to my dismay—I found myself overtaken by one of my least attractive habits, Angry Crying.  In such moments, my very dislike of making a scene only makes me more frustrated and makes my crying even harder to stop.  I managed in the midst of this to tell the mechanics that I would pay them the $300 or so for what they’d already done and take my car somewhere else.  I drove off in a car that did not smoke at all, but I was fuming.

My father ended up taking my car to a mechanic he trusted.  That mechanic said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my car.  Probably the initial radiator pipe had been the only issue in the first place.  But, naïve as it may seem, I was shocked that the first repair shop had tried to cheat me to such a degree.  Car mechanics don’t have the best reputations for honesty, but I still felt amazed that, had I had the money, they might have convinced me to order a new car radiator for absolutely no reason at all.

My car is running fine.  But I wonder why, in moments of deep frustration, all I can do is cry.  It would have been appropriate to express some anger to the men lying about my car, and certainly afterwards to write a scathing review of their business online.  But in those moments when some frustration that has been building inside me slides into anger, that anger always takes me by surprise, and my coping mechanism is a highly ineffective one.

***

The second event made me less angry, though it threatened me with more harm.  It left me for most of a day in bed, sleeping or too tired to move.  I was visiting my parents for the weekend, and that is very, very fortunate.  If I had had to go to work that day, or drive anywhere, or do anything at all, I would have been unable to do so.  I woke up at my usual (early) hour, but right after breakfast I felt exhaustion seeping through me.  Instead of getting dressed, I got back into bed, intending to close my eyes for a few minutes.  Not long afterward, my mother walked past the room, and I made some feeble excuse for not being up.  She laughed it off as me needing to catch up on sleep.  “I feel like I could sleep all day,” I said, perplexed.

Hours passed, and still the warmth of my bed exerted an irresistible pull on my limbs each time I tried to rouse myself.  I was starting to get worried.  My mother kept checking on me, asking if I felt sick, but I didn’t—just bone weary.  I tried to think of some reason for such intense fatigue, assuming it was somehow my fault.  Perhaps I’d accidentally swallowed an extra pill when taking my anti-anxiety medication that morning, though that was not a mistake I’d ever made before. 

Things got worse.  When I dragged myself down the hall to go the bathroom I realized I was stumbling around as if drunker than I’ve ever actually been.  I was dizzy, my vision blurred.  I fell.  My mother found me lying on the bathroom floor, and by then she was worried too.  I heard her speaking to me as if from a great distance, though I couldn’t see her through the stars floating in front of my eyes.  She tells me I asked her “Is that you, Mom?” but I don’t remember this.

It got through to me, as my mother led me back to bed, that she was asking if I wanted to go to the hospital.  I don’t know what or if I answered, but I remember how impossible a feat it sounded to get up, go somewhere, and answer questions.  I slept some more, roused only later by my mother to eat lunch, which I did without noticing the taste.  Finally, in the early afternoon, an idea penetrated my foggy brain.  I remembered that it was the first day I’d taken a pill from a new refill of one of my prescription anxiety medications.  The pill had looked different than usual, but I hadn’t thought anything of that at the time I took it, knowing that sometimes pills can look different when pharmacies get the medications from different manufacturers.  But now I went back to look at the pill bottle, and took out one of the strange pills.  As I ought to have done that morning, I read the description on the back of the bottle of what the medication was meant to look like.  The description was of a white, round pill, like the one I was used to taking—not the oblong yellow pill I now held in my hand.

At first I mistrusted the evidence of my eyes.  But I carried the mystery drug to my computer and Googled the numbers printed on it.  I felt a thrill strangely like vindication when I saw that the pill I had been given was not only not my usual anti-anxiety medication, but was in fact a serious anti-psychotic drug. (It was also a fairly high dose, I later learned, particularly when combined with my other medications).  I had found the explanation for what I was experiencing, which was a huge relief.  But the discovery also brought a chilling sense of recognition.  As a teenager recovering from anorexia, I’d been put on a medication to keep me calm and compliant.  I think I was on it for about a year.  It wasn’t until I was a college student taking Abnormal Psychology, when I saw that medication listed in my textbook, that I discovered that it was an anti-psychotic.  It was not the same one I had now accidentally been given years later, but it had served a similar purpose.  In sedating me it had leeched my will, my energy, my fighting spirit.  Perhaps that was for the best for me in the long run.  But even now I resent it, and those feelings were churned back up by the familiar enforced lethargy I was now struggling to shake off.

This is no means an attack on psychiatric medicine, which has been invaluable to me for years as I have battled chronic anxiety and depression.  Medications that allow you to be yourself, less prey to the distortions of mental illness, are wonderful things.  But there are also cases in which psychiatric medication is used primarily sap you of self, of will, of control.  The line is a thin one, and differs in every case.  But for me this pharmaceutical mishap was a reminder of a time when I felt that line had been crossed.  In both cases, I had unquestioningly taken what I was given, and was left powerless.    

Within twenty-four hours, the drug had pretty much left my system.  It took a few more hours before my concentration and focus fully recovered.  I soon returned to the pharmacy to exchange the incorrect medication for the correct one.  The pharmacist who had filled the prescription was there, apologetic.  My mother, possibly Earth’s least vindictive person, had nevertheless felt that he should lose his job over this.  But standing in front of him, hearing him apologize, I didn’t know what to say that would be worthwhile.  “I lost a day of my life,” I told him.  He apologized again.  I asked for the number of his manager, which he gave me.  And I left. 

I never called that number.  Nor did I ever put up a negative review on the auto repair shop’s website.  In the case of the pharmacist, I don’t actually want him to lose his job.  I hope he will be more careful, but his actions were accidental.  They also weren’t sexist.  It made no difference that I was a woman and he a man, unless you count the fact that women are more often diagnosed with mental illness, and so are perhaps more likely to be the victims of this kind of mix-up.  The auto mechanic’s actions, on the other hand, were malicious and probably sexist, as he saw a young-ish woman and assumed (sadly, correctly) that he could invent complete falsehoods about her car’s condition and she would believe him.  In both cases, I haven’t pursued any further action—besides writing this article.  Maybe this is due to weakness or laziness, but it’s also due to what was ingrained in me growing up: that I shouldn’t complain, cause a fuss, or stir up trouble.  I can be pretty assertive defending people or causes I care about, but expressing anger on my own behalf still makes me feel uncomfortably like that unpleasant kind of person: shrill, suspicious, impolite, rampaging.  Basically, the stereotype of the angry woman. 

I have written before about being a recovering good girl, and perhaps these two experiences happened to help me on my path.  I don’t intend to become paranoid that everyone is either conning me or incompetent, but I will focus on asserting myself on my own behalf, and reminding myself that doing so is not rudeness but basic justice to myself.  Ladies, let’s look out for ourselves, and, just as importantly, let’s speak up for ourselves.  We don’t have to be helpless in the face of our own anger or in the situations that provoke that anger.  In this one area, I am still working on finding my voice.  And I may also try to learn something about cars.   

Game of Thrones: A View at Mid-season

Tuning into Game of Thrones tonight? Of course you are. Peep I.C.’s mid-season write-up before you do! You won’t regret it. It is known.

Warning: Spoilers for Season 6, Episodes 1-5 of Game of Thrones

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Throughout the first half of season 6, Game of Thrones has been giving its viewers what they want (with some exceptions: RIP Hodor).  The most obvious example is Jon Snow’s resurrection from the dead in Episode 2, an event all fans fully believed would happen while remaining very anxious that it might not.  This season has also briskly rearranged the chess board by wiping out some of the old guard: along with the death of Stannis Baratheon last season, Balon Greyjoy, Doran Tyrell, and Roose Bolton have all now met their demises.  Perhaps most importantly, however, Game of Thrones has positioned its female characters as the most powerful in the game.

In general, this season has emphasized women’s power; Entertainment Weekly pointed this out even before the season started, announcing that women would “rule” Season 6.  They were right, and it’s unfortunate for viewers like those at The Mary Sue that they gave up on the show last season.   From the minor to the major, female characters have been taking control, even having a “renaissance of the ‘Dames of Thrones,’” as Laura Bogart at A.V. Club puts it.  So far, we have seen Ellaria and the Sand Snakes seize power in Dorne through a quick and bloody coup.  Melisandre may have revealed vulnerability in her despair—and in the revelation of her true age—in the first episode, but by the second she had raised someone from the dead.  Cersei’s grief at her daughter’s death quickly sublimated itself into a return to her usual determined scheming, precariously aligned with the equally cunning Olenna Tyrell.  There’s a new red priestess who has managed to shake Varys’s self-assurance, something viewers haven’t seen before.  Meera and even Leaf of the Children of the Forest have had their moments of heroism.

Then there are the long-suffering Stark sisters and Brienne, who are all coming into their own.  I’ve written before about Sansa Stark’s potential as a heroine, and this season she is more than fulfilling that promise, as other viewers, including Casey Cipriani at Bustle, have recognized.  Some even declare her the best character on the show, and the one who has grown the most.  She has played a central role in three of this season’s most moving and emotionally rewarding moments so far.  The first was Sansa and Brienne exchanging their vows of loyalty as lady and knight.  (This followed a sequence so typical in most fantasy series but so rare and precious in this one, of a knight riding in at just the right minute to save a lady—in this case, Brienne rescuing Sansa from recapture by Ramsay Bolton.)  Finally, Sansa was out of the hands of sleazy or sadistic men, and instead had the protection of a fiercely loyal female knight in shining armor determined to protect her. 

A second deeply cathartic moment soon followed, with Sansa’s reunion with her (supposed) half-brother Jon, whom she urges to help her retake Winterfell from her former tormentor.  She even gets the chance, in another crucial scene in episode five, to confront Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish for putting her in the power of the Boltons.  She forces him to confront not just the emotional, but the physical pain she endured.  She emphasizes that some of that pain involved things “ladies don’t talk about,” but she is not ashamed to bring them up; the shame is all, rightly, Littlefinger’s.  While her lie to Jon about her meeting with Littlefinger suggests she may not have fully severed the latter’s puppet strings, she is undoubtedly becoming a force to be reckoned with.

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Photo via Twitter @TheDove_Stark

The show sets Sansa’s impressive and hard-earned courage alongside Arya Stark’s accelerated training as an assassin in Braavos and the return of her eyesight.  Arya has reached a cross-roads where she must decide what her identity will be from this point forward—will she remain Arya Stark, or become No One, as she must to serve the Many-Faced god?  Will she sacrifice her own moral judgment, and her own quest for vengeance?  While we have yet to learn the full significance of the choice, it seems clear that what she decides will have impact on the story as a whole.

While the entire season has been putting women front and center, nowhere is women’s power more emphasized than in Episode 4, perhaps the most compelling episode of the season so far.  This is the episode in which Sansa’s bravery and queenliness shine through, as she plans to return to the place she has just escaped, telling Jon Snow: “I want your help, but I’ll do it myself if I have to.”  In this same episode, Osha heroically sacrifices her life out of loyalty to the Starks, and Margery Tyrell and Yara Greyjoy (Asha in the books) reveal themselves to be more determined than their brothers to keep playing the dangerous game of thrones.  (Interestingly, though, Theon has never seemed more mature as a man than when he shows himself ready to support his sister’s authority in the face of those who mock the idea of a female ruler.)

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Photo via Twitter @Daenerys

And then, of course, there’s Daenerys. Men on the show are constantly underestimating Daenerys, and one of the pleasures for female viewers is seeing those men turned to cinders when they do so.  Dany spends the first three episodes of the season captive to the Dothraki warlords who verbally assault her and threaten her with rape.  At the end of Episode 4, they argue her fate amongst themselves, and are astonished when she dares to ask, “Don’t you want to know what I think?”  Naturally, she is told her voice means nothing, and when she suggests that only she is fit to lead the Dothraki, they respond with threats of brutal assault.  “Did you think we would serve you?” they sneer.  “You’re not going to serve.  You’re going to die,” she tells them, overturning all the torches and burning them all to the ground.  She, the blood of the dragon whom fire cannot harm, emerges unscathed.  All the Dothraki outside fall to their knees in awe and reverence.

Why is that scene so spine-tinglingly wonderful, even for someone who would happily dispense with much of the violence on this show?  I think it’s because Dany has been forced to put up with the kind of macho BS all women have to put up with, but especially when they dare to exert authority or just to use their voice in public.  Women who speak up for other women on the internet or other public forums are particularly often silenced by barrages of hateful and threatening comments, and sometimes by actual physical violence.  That’s what gives such sweetness to Dany’s being able to dismiss her captors as “small men,” and to turn their intended violence back on them.   She does so instead of attempting to flee with her would-be rescuers, Daario and Jorah, and without even the help of one of her dragons swooping in.  This is a specifically female brand of wish-fulfillment fantasy.  And that’s not something a Season 1 viewer would ever have expected from Game of Thrones.

On Turning 30

Thirty was the dead end of narratability for female protagonists until the twentieth century. By thirty, the heroines of my most beloved novels are either long married or long dead. Either way, there is no more story to tell about them, as they have reached a sublime and static state beyond narrative. Like fairy-tale princesses, they have ridden off into one sunset or another.

All this has of course changed. Fictional female protagonists, like real women, now have flourishing lives after thirty (and after marriage). But women are still raised with the awareness that our society has assigned us expiration dates, even if that date is now later than thirty.

by I.C.

On April 23 this year, I turned thirty.  Prior to that day, on the few occasions that I mentioned the upcoming birthday to other women, they gave a slight wince of commiseration.  They knew this was a birthday that must come with mixed feelings, at best.  Turning thirty represents the crossing of a bridge, invisible but very real.  On the other side I find myself the dreaded femme de trente ans.  A woman of a certain age.  When I was younger, influenced perhaps by too many historical and literary idols whose flames had burnt bright and briefly, I thought it was rather unromantic to live much past thirty.  Then again, when I was younger, I couldn’t actually envisage myself ever being thirty.

Thirty is the age that has traditionally marked the end of youth.  Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, turns thirty in a novel all about disillusionment and disenchantment with youthful ideals.  “I just remembered that today’s my birthday,” he recounts himself saying, and thinks grimly: “Thirty.  Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade… Thirty– the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”

It’s a difficult birthday, and, whatever Nick Carraway might say, harder for women, in whom our culture so fetishizes youth.  In the nineteenth-century novels that have been my personal and academic staple, this birthday marks the end of the age of marriageability for women.  Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion generously announces himself ready to marry “anybody between fifteen and thirty.”  In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas’s sense at age twenty-seven that thirty is fast approaching partly motivates her agreeing to marry the pompous Mr. Collins, whom Lizzie has already rejected.  Charlotte cannot afford to be “romantic,” unlike Lizzie, who is “not one-and-twenty.”   Similarly, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the narrator intones: “At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact.”

More generally, thirty was the dead end of narratability for female protagonists until the twentieth century.  By thirty, the heroines of my most beloved novels are either long married or long dead.  Either way, there is no more story to tell about them, as they have reached a sublime and static state beyond narrative.  Like fairy-tale princesses, they have ridden off into one sunset or another.

All this has of course changed.  Fictional female protagonists, like real women, now have flourishing lives after thirty (and after marriage).  But women are still raised with the awareness that our society has assigned us expiration dates, even if that date is now later than thirty.  (Amy Schumer’s “Last F**kable Day” sketch famously skewers the expiration dates arbitrarily assigned to female desirability.) Furthermore, it’s hard to get past the idea of this particular birthday as a sort of milestone or benchmark.  A lot of us use thirty as a deadline—whether for marriage, starting a family, or reaching a certain place in our careers.  We feel like we should have our personal and professional lives mapped out by the time we’re thirty, or at least have found some stability in those areas.  Twenty-somethings, even those in their late twenties, can laugh about not having their lives together, about not feeling like an adult.  But no one thinks that’s cute when you’re in your thirties. 

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Thirty in our culture ideally means empowered adulthood.  In the 2004 romantic comedy Thirteen Going on Thirty, an awkward teen wishes herself to the pivotal age of thirty, when her career (if not her personal life) has all the trappings of success.  Last year, I read Elle Magazine’s triumphantly titled “This is Thirty!” September issue, its cover featuring Keira Knightley, who turned thirty that year.  If one reaches thirty with Keira Knightley’s impressive resume and astonishing beauty, it may be easy to embrace the birthday with grace confidence.  For me, I’ll admit, it hasn’t been so easy.

One of my own personal “deadlines” for years has been to get my PhD by or at age thirty.  This one actually looks like it will happen.  But as I plan to walk across the stage at my graduation ceremony this May, it’s possible that while doing so I will still feel like a failure. That PhD has turned out to mean none of the things I thought it would mean, and the rest of my life is in a slightly tumultuous state.  I have to accept that turning thirty is not a stopping and resting point, but a period of transition, of enforced dynamism, of change and even transformation.  Sometimes it feels like I’m in free-fall, shoved off the path I’ve diligently pursued for years.  As someone who is less inclined to embrace change than to be dragged toward it clawing and clinging like a cat to the familiar, this is especially difficult.  But I know that at thirty, I’m only beginning to write my story. So I’m trying to see thirty as a beginning, not an end. 

Perhaps the key to finding empowerment in a “benchmark” birthday like thirty is not in trying to dismiss it with an “age is just a number” or “thirty is the new twenty” attitude.  Maybe it’s more empowering to actually embrace turning thirty as a sort of day of reckoning: specifically, of reckoning up your life, your accomplishments, and weighing them in the balance against the dreams that have sustained you.  We gain so much self-knowledge in our twenties, putting us in a good position at thirty to look hard at our life choices.  If our lives don’t match our dreams, it’s time to reevaluate one or the other.  It’s not easy.  And we need to have compassion for ourselves in the process—that isn’t always easy either.  But comparing ourselves to our best possible selves is certainly a more positive mental task than the tempting but toxic one of comparing ourselves to other people—their accomplishments, careers, relationships– at the same age.  If we use this birthday as a chance to focus on our own paths, to consider honestly how to better align our lives with our goals, and if we then have the courage to act on that assessment, there’s promise in thirty.  There’s hope to be found in it.  Even if you don’t resemble Keira Knightley.

Shakespeare’s Heroines for the 21st Century

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was this April 23rd; that date is also, according to tradition, his 452nd birthday.  In the spirit of celebrating the noble bard, let’s also celebrate some of his most memorable heroines.  Here, I consider their pros and cons as heroines, and imagine their lives if they were living in the 21st century.

Juliet from Romeo and Juliet

Pros: Juliet is as passionately romantic as Romeo, but a little more level-headed; she’s often the one who points out the practical side of their situation.  She refuses to marry someone she doesn’t love.  And let’s not forget that she’s the one who basically proposes to Romeo.

Cons: Juliet is thirteen.  Thus, Juliet is a little bit hasty and impetuous.

Juliet today: At thirteen, Juliet thought an unreturned text from her boyfriend meant the end of the world.  But ten years later and still very much alive, she and Romeo are still together, having ditched their families. Juliet fronts a rock band with angst-ridden but poetic lyrics, with the three Weird Sisters from Macbeth as her backup singers.  Romeo is her biggest fan.

Ophelia from Hamlet

Pros: Ophelia’s positive qualities are linked to her negative ones; she is affectionate, gentle, and eager to please. 

ophelia2.jpgCons: Ophelia is so submissive that she allows others to manipulate her like a pawn, ultimately at the expense of her own psychological health and even of her life.    

Ophelia today: Ophelia was a troubled adolescent, but years of therapy and journaling have helped her understand the futility of basing her own self-worth on the affection of emotionally distant men.  She is now an acclaimed poet; her latest volume, Sweets to the Sweet, was especially praised.  Now, if any of the mansplaining philosophy majors she dated in college were to tell her to go to a nunnery, or insulted women for wearing make-up and “nicknaming God’s creatures,” she would call them out.

Desdamona from Othello

Pros: Desdamona is a loving, innocent person.  She is admirably immune to the racial prejudices of those around her.

Cons: Desdamona is a little too trusting, and puts up with way more from Othello than she should (though, given the time period, wives didn’t have much alternative).  She is also for a long time surprisingly blind to how her talking about Cassio affects her jealous husband, though that’s obviously no excuse for his murdering her.

Desdamona today: Desi’s that impossibly gorgeous co-worker who is just a magnet for boy drama without even trying.  When you meet for martinis and she’s stressing over the conflicts between the men in her life, make sure you suggest a therapist who can help her recognize red flags of domestic violence that can quickly escalate.  And offer her a safe place to stay if she needs it.  Because she really shouldn’t put up with jealous and potentially homicidal tendencies in a partner.

Cordelia from King Lear

Pros: Cordelia doesn’t say much, but she’s honest to a fault when she speaks.  The catalyst for the play’s action is her refusal to flatter her father the way her sisters do when he is dividing up his kingdom.  Her unswerving loyalty to that father leads to her untimely demise.

Cons: She could possibly learn to be a little more tactful and diplomatic (without sacrificing her admirable integrity).

Cordelia today: Cordelia was that kid in your high school class who stayed silent all semester and then near the end came out with some zinger in the middle of class that was just so on point.  She’s now a family therapist, able to truly listen to her clients but also to tell them the truths they really need to hear.

Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing

Pros: Beatrice is a witty, sharp-tongued but warm-hearted heroine with a delightfully amusing love-hate (eventually just love) relationship with Benedick.  Some of her insightful comments on gender and marriage show that her humor is rooted in real awareness of herself and her world.

Cons: Beatrice is a little stubborn; she also initially hides behind her humor to some extent, afraid to open herself to love.

Beatrice today: Beatrice and Benedick now have their own talk show, and they’re hilarious sparring with one another on political and social issues.  Beatrice is the show’s producer as well as one of the two stars.  Like the best comics, B & B use their humor to skewer social injustice.  They’re a husband-wife celebrity power couple.

Portia from The Merchant of Venice

Pros: Portia is extremely intelligent and resourceful.  She disguises herself as a man to preside as a judge over a court case, saving someone’s life in the process.

portiaCons:  Portia is unfortunately part of an anti-Semitic culture and doesn’t fully transcend its prejudices.  She also takes a practical joke involving rings just a little too far.

Portia today: Portia was top of her class at Harvard Law School, and has now worked her way up to Supreme Court Justice.  She’s best friends with Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  She has tirelessly advocated for women’s issues, but also refuses to tolerate anti-Semitism or any other kind of bigotry in her courtroom.  Her recent memoir, The Quality of Mercy, is a bestseller.

What to Read Next? Victorian Heroines Edition

This post is part of a mini-series by I.C. on female characters, both heroes and villains. Find the rest of the series here and here. 

victorian-2Those Acro Collective readers who incline toward the bookish will agree with me that there’s nothing better than a complex heroine in whose struggles you can become invested.  Victorian novels are particularly rich with such characters, coming as they do from an era in which women were beginning to call their society’s strict gender roles into question.  Below are five heroines of Victorian fiction whom you’ve hopefully already met.  (If not, do!).  Based on which one you prefer, I’ve suggested other novels, either other Victorian novels or contemporary novels set in the Victorian era (or both), with similarly engaging female protagonists.    

If you like Jane Eyre, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) Continue reading “What to Read Next? Victorian Heroines Edition”

Women and Villainy

What makes a woman a villain? And what makes a female villain’s portrayal sexist?

by I.C.

I recently wrote about the qualities that constitute a heroine, whether in literature, TV, or film.  In doing so, I was led to consider the equally compelling question:  What makes for a successfully imagined female villain?  Perhaps more specifically, what makes for a portrayal of a female villain that isn’t sexist?   

We know what makes for a good villain in general—he or she should be someone we love to hate.  Generally, a villain is characterized by an incapacity for empathy.  This is true no matter the villain’s gender.  But too often, representations of female villains seem driven by animosity toward women in general, or at the very least fall back on misogynistic gender stereotypes.  Thus, perhaps the most common female villain is the “ambitious woman,” the power-hungry Lady Macbeth archetype: hard, icy, cunning, and scheming (think House of Cards’ Claire Underwood).  There are also female villains who are merely promiscuous, irrational, and violent, ruining the lives of the unfortunate male protagonists they ensnare.  These two stereotypical female roles have sometimes fused in the femme fatale who uses her sexuality to advance her ambition.  Some combination of the two stereotypes has informed female villains from King Lear’s two ungrateful older daughters to the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

maleficent
Disney’s retelling of Maleficent

Stereotypes of female evil also often blend ageism with sexism—every fairy tale has its evil hag or warty witch.  I grew up watching Disney’s female villains—the Evil Queen, Maleficent, Cinderella’s step-mother, Ursula, Cruella Deville.  Their villainy was usually connected to their jealousy of youth and beauty and/or to their hunger for power.  The evil queen is vain and envious, Maleficent vengeful, Cinderella’s step-mother spiteful, and Ursula manipulative and just generally ruthless.  Whether or not their individual representations are sexist, as a group they send the message that older women are dangerous to youthful heroines, and could never be heroines themselves. 

How do we tell, beyond a gut feeling, if a particular representation of a female villain is sexist?  Certainly we can’t call sexism on every female villain; to demand only positive representations of women would itself be regressive and sexist.  The question is only complicated by the fact that today, particularly on TV, we seem to have moved in many cases beyond portrayals of clear-cut villainy, favoring anti-heroes and (less-frequently) anti-heroines.  Generally, an anti-hero or anti-heroine is made, not born; they have nuance, and we see the circumstances have led them to be who they are.  Some iconic female villains have been given backstories this way and even received full-on makeovers in recent years, occasionally even transitioning to heroine status: Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the West are among these.  But other female characters, even when given nuance, remain evil, and it’s in those cases that it’s particularly tricky to pinpoint whether they convey a generalized negative attitude toward women.

One such difficult character is A Song of Ice and Fire/ Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, who is worth discussing in detail.  Is she a villainess or an anti-heroine?  She’s certainly not pure evil like her son Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton.  She has a back-story and some complexity.  But why must the series’ most overtly devious female character be the one with the most feminist awareness?  Is dissatisfaction with female roles aligned with villainy?  Other, more positive female characters in the series transgress gender norms (Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth).  But Cersei has the most fully developed awareness of the gender constraints imposed on her, and of the differences in the way she and her twin brother have always been treated.  She resents being married off like chattel and having her ambitions limited by her gender.  The trouble is that her indignation about these things is part of a general pattern of resenting and blaming others for her own faults or the consequences of her own actions, so that it feels as if Martin is undermining the validity of her gender critique.  (Book readers may be particularly unlikely to attribute her villainy to years of gender inequity, since as a little girl she was already apparently evil enough to drown a friend in a well.)

Another thing that frustrates me about the representation of Cersei, but may just reveal my own stereotypes of female villainy, is her lack of cunning or even intelligence; this lack is unusual for a powerful, ambitious female villain.  The first time I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I was surprised when I reached the third book, A Feast for Crows, in which Cersei first becomes a point of view character, to discover that she lacked the calculating intellect that typically goes along with ruthless ambition in a female villain.  The second time I read the novels, I was more actively annoyed—Why does G.R.R. Martin have to emphasize that every single decision she makes is stupid and self-defeating?  Her one redeeming quality is her love for her children, but she loves them only for the same narcissistic reason that she loves her twin—because they are reflections or extensions of herself. 

I am not sure that it is necessarily sexist that Cersei’s villainy is bound up with her gender and her gender-awareness.  It seems incorrect to say that a representation of a female villain is sexist unless her villainy is disconnected from her gender, or unless her role could just as easily be played by a man.  I am also thinking here of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and its deliciously sociopathic title character, who has cunning in spades.  Amy Dunne, like Cersei, is keenly aware of the role gender plays in every aspect of life.  She uses the media’s bias toward pretty white women to strengthen her intricate revenge plot against her cheating slob of a husband.  She also gives the novel’s powerful and much-quoted “cool girl” speech, skewering men’s expectations of women.  At the same time, what does it mean that this arguably feminist speech comes from a sociopath?  Amy herself is certainly no feminist—like Cersei, her attitude towards other women is often sexist, contemptuous, and exploitative, never sororal.

Is Amy a villain, an antagonist, an anti-heroine?  Rosamond Pike, who played Amy in David Finch’s 2013 movie version, has said there is something essentially feminine about Amy’s type of crazy—by extension, one might say Amy’s type of evil.  This makes me distinctly uncomfortable, but it seems indisputable: there is no way Nick’s and Amy’s roles could have been successfully reversed.  Indeed, they seemed to play out an extreme version of husband-wife dynamics that some readers and film-goers found uncomfortably familiar.

Gone Girl seems to break the most fundamental rule of non-sexist villainess depiction: that a book/show/movie not cater to men who could close the book or leave the theatre with the comment: “Women—crazy, am I right?”  (This rule is why I have avoided watching movies like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.)  But then again, men are more likely to leave Gone Girl terrified than smug, and I honestly can’t say if that’s better or worse.  In any case, sociopathy certainly characterizes many of the scariest male villains as well.  It doesn’t necessarily make a depiction of female evil sexist.

So it seems any rule one lays down about female characterization is inevitably unstable.  The best conclusion I can come up with in avoiding creating sexist female villains, and it seems a cliché, is that a character should be fully-realized, not a caricature or stereotype, but recognizably a human being.  She should not be vilified merely for wanting things or doing things a man would not be a villain for wanting or doing.  Those ideas seems simple, but we can hold to them and still retain characters like Cersei or Amy, who challenge us to continue the debate about representations of women that loom large in our cultural consciousness.    

In Defense of Sansa Stark (and other “good girls”)

I love Sansa Stark. Let me say at the outset that I do not intend to enter here into the broader debate about whether George R. R. Martin’s array of strong female characters are sufficient to help the books or show transcend their penchant for depicting violence against women (and, in the show’s case, objectifying female bodies). Nor do I intend to discuss the controversial scene of Sansa’s rape in the show’s last season. Plenty has been written on those subjects. Rather, I wish to use Sansa Stark as a way of thinking about patterns of female characterization more generally.

Sansa quite clearly does not resist gender roles; she’s conventionally feminine. She wants nothing more than to be a true lady to a handsome husband. Her template for life comes from the chivalric songs and stories she loves, and she is forced to face a brutal world to which that template is wholly inadequate…but she, in particular, illustrates the crucial importance of feminism for all women, because her story highlights the cruel toll patriarchal society exacts even on women who happily, graciously conform to gender norms.

Like countless others, men and women alike, I have something of an obsession with Daenerys Targaryen, a central character in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and in the HBO TV series based on it.  The long-awaited sixth book in the series is still being, well, long-awaited, but the show’s fifth season swept last September’s Emmys in record-breaking fashion, and its sixth season is set to start next month. Dany (more formally, Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Khaleesi, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, etc.) is one of the most popular characters among readers and viewers of the series.  A Funko bobblehead of Dany sits on my desk; an image of her (often with a small dragon nestled on her shoulders) occasionally graces my computer as a screensaver.  Small but fierce, and determined to “take what is mine with fire and blood” she fits neatly into the expanding niche of strong female heroines finally claiming their place in popular culture.  Other fan favorites in the series similarly defy traditional gender roles: for example, Arya Stark, a feral tomboy who prefers swordplay to needlework, and Brienne of Tarth, a woman who is also Westeros’ noblest knight.

But I’m equally interested in another female character whose place in public perception has shifted over the course of the series (both books and show).  I love Sansa Stark.  Let me say at the outset that I do not intend to enter here into the broader debate about whether George R. R. Martin’s array of strong female characters are sufficient to help the books or show transcend their penchant for depicting violence against women (and, in the show’s case, objectifying female bodies).  Nor do I intend to discuss the controversial scene of Sansa’s rape in the show’s last season.  Plenty has been written on those subjects. Rather, I wish to use Sansa Stark as a way of thinking about patterns of female characterization more generally.

sansa 1

Sansa quite clearly does not resist gender roles; she’s conventionally feminine.  She wants nothing more than to be a true lady to a handsome husband.  Her template for life comes from the chivalric songs and stories she loves, and she is forced to face a brutal world to which that template is wholly inadequate.  She’s compliant, gracious, well-mannered. A few years back, my friends who mentioned Sansa did so with slight distaste, pronouncing her “annoying.”  They had a point.  Sansa initially trusts people she shouldn’t, unwittingly betrays her father, and uses the word “tummy” like a four-year old.  But the dislike of her seems to me emblematic of a larger trend.  In a way, it’s as if we no longer know what to do with “good girls” in literature, TV, and film. The old idea of female virtue was so tied to sexual chastity that it seems archaic and irrelevant.  And we’ve quickly grown uncomfortable with heroines who aren’t rebellious. We demand that our heroines be, if not badass, at least feisty.  And I wonder if this might get in the way of our recognizing the full range of ways women can be strong.  Continue reading “In Defense of Sansa Stark (and other “good girls”)”

The Childfree Choice

by I.C.

Throughout my childhood, insofar as I ever thought ahead to my adult domestic life, I assumed I would do exactly as my mother had done.  I thought the ideal plan was to get married straight out of college, wait about three years, and then have three daughters, each spaced out two years apart.  There was a sort of fairy-tale symmetry to that arrangement.  While it was comfortably far off in the future, I could take it for granted that I wanted something similar.  I took it for granted, as I think most girls do, that I would want children.

Then the future came up to meet me, and found me changed. Continue reading “The Childfree Choice”