Sunday, May 13, 2007

It's All About Him -- I Mean, Her

This is cross-posted at Alas, a Blog, where I'm doing a stint as a guest blogger.

Last semester, I was privileged to take a fiction workshop with Marilynne Robinson, the author of Housekeeping and Gilead. In one of our later class sessions, we were looking at a beautiful story by one of my favorite writers in the workshop, Jill Wohlgemuth. The story was in the form of an informal essay about kissing, written by a thirteen-year-old girl who wandered away from her academic thesis to meditate on her own impressions of love and desire, framed around her burgeoning sexual attraction to a boy named Theo who she described several times as being incredibly smart -- which is ironic, because of course any thirteen-year-old girl who could write an essay as beautiful as this story was would have to be a prodigy herself.

Marilynne watched patiently as we students gave our opinions of and reactions to the piece. Then she sat back and said, "I've noticed a problem in the writing of young women."

Instead of giving character traits to their female characters, Marilynne argued, young women writers give those traits to male secondary characters -- in this case, repeatedly describing Theo as intelligent when it was the narrator who was brilliant.

I've been thinking about that comment a lot lately.

Now, I don't think that the particular story we were looking at was actually a black and white case of this happening. There are a lot of reasons why a particularly smart thirteen-year-old girl would fixate on describing the object of her affection as "so smart" -- I did that a lot as a kid, particularly with boys I had crushes on, because I had swallowed some line that men needed to be smarter than their female partners. Still, I think that Marilynne's observation is keen and insightful. Looking at broader media trends, it's definitely possible to uncover cases where a female character's personality is rendered through male characters, or not rendered at all.

Girl Detective talks about one such case in her review of Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, You Don't Love Me Yet. The plot of the novel literally revolves around the female main character, Lucinda. She acts as a middleman, conveying McGuffins (sought-after objects) and witnessing plot points. However, the story is happening to other people. Her characterization -- personality and praxis -- are deferred onto male characters.

Girl Detective writes, "Although Lucinda’s consciousness is what binds the novel together, her actual place in the story is minimal; her only motivation is superficial attachment and lust, and she spends the entire story either having sex, wanting sex, or masturbating while wanting sex. All the male characters in the story have traits, interests, and personalities... Lucinda, however, is completely devoid of any desires, aspirations, thoughts, or goals that don’t involve finding a penis to put into her vagina."

"What’s really sad," Girl Detective continues, "is that our culture is so ignorant of women’s inner lives (50% of the population, people! Seriously!) that this substitution of sex for psychology still very often passes for legitimate characterization in even the highest ranks of literature."

And now that I've discussed a high brow example, you know what this reminds me of? Lost.

First things first: I'm a couple seasons behind in watching Lost. I rented the first few seasons on Netflix with my fiance and my parents last summer, and I'm not sure whether I'm a year behind, or two, or three. The last series of episodes I saw had to do with them finding the survivors on the other side of the island. So if brilliant twists have hence ensued, I can't comment on them.

I also have to confess that Lost drives me kind of nuts. I mean, it's really entertaining, and I'll probably watch the rest of the series, but there are times when I want to throw things at the television screen. But -- all that aside -- I think Kate is a perfect example of a character whose own personality has been vitiated in favor of developing the men around her, Jack and Sawyer.

Up until the last episode I saw, Kate's main action in the present revolved around her atraction to both Jack (representing the "good") and Sawyer (representing the "bad"). Kate's character doesn't so much evolve as it does swing back and forth between these extremes. Her inner life is textually represented by which of these two men she's attracted to, or allied with, in any given episode. We see Kate as torn and ambiguous because we understand who Sawyer and Jack are. We watch Kate move between the two of them and understand her as somewhere in between Sawyer and Jack. Yet she doesn't have character development of her own; her good traits are displaced onto Jack (who fosters in her altruistic behavior) and her negative traits are expressed through Sawyer (who periodically lures her away, all sexy-like).

As I've written about before, I believe that literature reflects the narratives that we, as a culture, tell ourselves about ourselves -- both overtly, as in art, but also covertly, as when we meet someone and create a framework and story around that person. When writers sit down to create a world from their imaginations -- which is a damn hard thing to do -- their personal assumptions and prejudices come out clearly. You can't necessarily analyze each individual manifestation as meaningful, but when you detect a trend, either in an individual author's work or in literature at large, I believe that it is a significant tool for figuring out how we as a society are thinking about people and the world.

I haven't had time to fully consider all the ramifications of this particular phenomenon, but my instincts are that it reflects the limited number of roles available to women in our society. If women are seen to be limited to a certain number of stereotypes, such as mother, Madonna, whore, and so on, then when a writer wants to create a female character who is more complicated, they end up posed with a problem. They have to think their way around how to make up a woman, out of whole cloth, who defies the well-worn ways they are used to thinking about women.

If they were considering this consciously, it's possible that they could figure out a logical way out of the situation, or self-correct their tendencies toward cliche. But if it's happening on the unconscious level -- and I believe it almost always is -- then the subconscious offers a pretty easy solution. If it's hard to think of a woman outside roles A, B, and C, and you need to create one who is in role G, H or I, then create a male character who embodies G and H and let that character stand in for the female one via identification. This can create a kind of mirror character who reflects the complicated people around her (like Kate and Lucinda), or it may create a lot of slices of people, none of whom are fully developed.

It's not uncommon to find the latter situation in literature that was written before there was a popular concept of the subconscious. The Monk, by Matthew Lewis, features several different characters, all of whom can be easily interpreted in a post-Freud era to reflect various parts of the pscyhe.* Now that more people understand that individuals are a complicated mass of conscious and subconscious yearnings, played out in ways that are not always under their control, characterization like that which appears in The Monk seems quaint and out-dated. Our narratives about men have advanced further.

Unfortunately, our narratives about women have not come as far as fast.**

As for Marilynne's claim that she finds this phenomenon specifically in the writing of young women -- well, I don't know what to say about that. Most of the examples I can think of are male-authored. I suspect that it may be possible to find a lot of what she's talking about in, for instance, the romance genre where heroines are typically passive or plucky, but I haven't read widely enough to be able to substantiate that (and I sincerely doubt that's where she's drawing her examples from). To the extent that it is happening more often with young women writers than with men writers, I wonder if it's because women are trained to view themselves as transparent and passive, and map those traits onto their characters. But I really couldn't say what leads Marilynne to that conclusion, because it doesn't match with my observations.


*I'm not endorsing Freud, just citing him as the founder of psychology.

**When I get involved in talking about poorly written female characters with other writers, it frequently happens that they (usually male) will bring up the fact that poorly written female characters (or poorly written minorities) are often written by people who write insubstantial white male characters, too. I don't think that anyone would make the argument that this is the case in Letham's writing -- at any rate, given his plaudits in the writing world, he seems to be acknowledged as at least a competent writer of character. I think there is some merit to this theory in regard to Lost since most of the characterization relies on established stereotypes with carefully placed "Gotcha!" reversals. (Though I should say I feel that most of the actors are able to cover for the poor writing by successfully hinting at an inner life that isn't present textually.) Still, I think the male characters in Lost have considerably more development than the female ones, with the possible exception of Ana Lucia who the writers seem to have generally dealt with by making her as masculine as possible and then giving her some pregnancy issues, in case we, the audience, should forget she had a vagina. The writers of Lost seem to be good with masculinity. Femininity seems to baffle them, so that the feminine characters come across as some variety of inscrutable (the French woman), passive (Sun, Claire), or non-present (Kate -- who is much more vital during the flashbacks in which she has access to violence and stereotypically masculine behaviors).


Timmi Duchamp said...

This is what I think Joanna Russ was talking about in her early 1970s essay on images of women, which has sometimes been misunderstood by feminists reading it a quarter of a century later. That misunderstanding, I feel sure, must be due to the problem's having slipped back under the radar. So all this needs to be articulated very plainly (as you do here) all over again to make the convention visible & intelligible.

I wonder: is it a convention? & one that takes different forms in different genres?

baby221 said...

I hate that "torn between two men" plot facade masquerading as characterisation crap. I hated it in Phantom of the Opera and seeing it recreated in Lost is super annoying.

Rachel Swirsky said...

That's interesting -- is this the essay that came up in Tempest's discussion of vagina stories versus penis stories?

I don't know whether it's a convention or not. I suppose it may be, but I don't know if it's the same kind of convention as "have your first person narrator mention being a poet so that you can justify him having beautiful and windy sentences." It seems much more subconscious, and more sort of virulent for that.

Josh said...

Rachel --Great commentary, although it's sad about Lethem, who should know a lot better (Dunno if "What Can a Heroine Do?" is what Timmi's referring to, but that was the Russ essay that immediately came to my mind. I think it's still in print. I very much like Ben Rosenbaum's characteristic explanation of Russ's brilliance on that thread).