With some time to kill before my appointment to have my car inspected, I popped into my local used book shop where I regularly hold store credit and cycle my books through over and again. I had no intentions of making a purchase, but quickly ended up browsing with copies of The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart in my hand. As I made my way through the tall stacks, I started to tune in to the conversation happening at the register.
The woman working at the shop had struck up a conversation with a customer. The customer appeared to be a woman in her late 60s and the employee maybe in her 50s. They were talking about female characters in contemporary fiction and how lately they have been so disappointed in them. “These are supposed to be our heroines!” the customer exclaimed. They then lamented about the recent wave of unreliable, female main characters who do drugs and are simply *pearl clutch* unlikable.
Of course, I was too far away to jump in the conversation and I’m not really good at doing that with strangers anyway, especially as the dissenting opinion. Now don’t get me wrong, if you want all of your female main characters to be someone to 100% look up to that’s fine. There are a bazillionty books already that have those nearly no-flawed women who against all odds overcome some obstacle that causes all of the inspiration. In reality, that’s not what life is for most of us. We may not also have as crappy of a life as some of the characters we read so, I’m not calling for total reality either in my reading. However, society has already told us that the perfect, seemingly superwomen are the ones of more worth. I’d rather not strive for an impossible ideal. I want the grit that comes along with an alcoholic or mentally ill woman who makes terrible life choices and has to figure out how to claw her way out.
Something in me wonders if the women having this conversation don’t understand that there are those of us navigating the world with these types of issues. I’m not investigating a murder or trying to fake my own death at the same time as I work on my anxiety and depression but, I find having that extra depth to the character pulls me in. Not every book has to have a likeable “heroine.” Every once and awhile I do want my Miss Marple, but I want my Bernadette Fox too. So, make your choices, but don’t get down on those of us who relate better to the deeply flawed. If unreliable women weren’t wanted in contemporary literature, we wouldn’t have 500 books with “girl” in the title on the bestseller list.
I think we are finally beginning to see more female characters of all sorts in the book world, and we’re creeping towards the idea that a single female character does not necessarily represent the entire half of the population. (It’s a slow shift, but definitely faster than in the film world where any major movie with strong female presence is seen as groundbreaking, and the female character expected to be all things for all women.)
Maybe one (optimistic) way to see the complaint is as not a (prejudiced) position that a woman shouldn’t be represented as flawed or weak, but as a symptom of the fact that the representation of female heroines in lit is still fairly impoverished. (Name any genre and ask for the first character whose name pops into your head. Unless you say “women’s fiction” or “romance”, you’ll probably hear a male hero’s name.) So for folks who aren’t regular, avid readers, it’s easy to feel that the one (or four) major bestsellers they just read aren’t representing them. It’s not like they can point to their mandatory high school reading or list of household classics and say, “Yeah, but there’s a ton of other women I identify with instead.”
Not yet, at least.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Great post! I love a deeply flawed heroine – there are so many anti-heroes in ‘classic’/canon literature, it’s time for us to get some representation in that area too. It’s also time to truly get away from the madonna/whore dichotomy thing that often goes on. I think the female anti-hero is a great way to do that! Women are multi-faceted too, dammit!
LikeLiked by 1 person