As a woman and a feminist, I love reading stories about fierce, independent women who defy convention and make their own rules. But I know that not every woman fits this mold. Some women are independent in a less defiant way than others, and sadly, some women try and fail to escape the expectations of a patriarchal culture. Other women never see that they’ve given over their identity to meet the expectations of men. Their stories deserve to be told too.
This has been on my mind lately because of some of the conversation surrounding The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (most notably this commentary at the Hairpin). Regarding Madeleine, one of the three central characters in the novel, Anna Breslaw writes,
Though we spend the majority of the novel inside her head, Madeleine’s character is almost wholly defined by the men who fight over her: brilliant, manic-depressive scientist Leonard and the loyal and dorkier Mitchell. As for her relationships with her female roommates, mother, and sister … consider the Bechdel Test failed.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I loved The Marriage Plot, mostly because the characters, including Madeleine, felt so real to me. I remember that when I was in my 20s, an awful lot of my thoughts and the thoughts of my friends centered on our relationships with men or lack thereof. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it’s a true thing, and Madeleine’s thought processes were similar enough to my own that I was glad to find in her a companion on the page. Although I don’t generally take differences in opinion about books personally, it’s hard not to when it appears that someone is saying that stories of women like the woman I was shouldn’t be told.
In reflecting on The Marriage Plot, I can see that there might be problems with it, when it’s viewed through a feminist lens. It is a problem that Madeleine’s eventual move toward independence and agency only comes through a man’s actions. I can see where some get the idea that she is a flat character when compared to Mitchell and Leonard, although I didn’t find her so. Also, the depiction of the one out-spoken feminist in the book is cringe-inducing (and funny, I have to admit). But to some degree these problems can be viewed as a reflection of the ways things often are for women. Many women are unable to find their own agency, some women are bland, and some feminists are obnoxious. These are true things. Would these things be less problematic in a book by a woman? Or in a book that didn’t get a Times Square billboard? (Oh how I wish it were easier to divorce our discussions of the merits of a book from the hype surrounding them.)
As for the Bechdel test, I’m not convinced that the book is a failure on that score—Madeleine contemplates her career a great deal, and she goes to a conference and meets other women whom she talks with about literature. Even if I thought the book failed the test, it would not bother or surprise me much when the book’s title declares that it’s about marriage. Plus, I think that the Bechdel test is useful not so much for discussing the value of a specific work, but for recognizing the lack of depictions of women as separate from men across a wide swathe of works. The fact that a single work fails the test is not a problem; the fact that so few works pass is. (See this great discussion at Jenny’s Books for more on the Bechdel test.)
That takes me back to my initial point. I want books to tell stories about lots of different kinds of women. Some of my favorite books are about women who ultimately fail to break free of the strictures of a patriarchal society. I love those books because they show how difficult life in a patriarchal society can be for women who don’t fit the mold. As much as I love to read about strong women, I know that not every woman fits that mold either, so I’m not interested in condemning a single work because the women in it don’t live up to a particular feminist standard. In looking at a single work, I’m more interested in whether the story feels true.
I would love for the pendulum to swing toward more stories of women having full agency and identities that are independent of their relationships with men. But do I expect every fictional woman I encounter to meet that expectation? No. I figure women, real and fictional, are subject to enough scrutiny as it is.
In Other News
- Registration for the next 24-hour Read-A-Thon, on Saturday, April 21, are open. This is always a fun day, and it’s the start of my vacation, so I have no plans at all and intend to join in. As usual, I’ll be donating 10 cents for each page I read to charity. And I won’t be staying up for the full 24 hours.
- Many of you know I’ve been waffling on whether to go to BEA and the BEA Bloggers Conference. I enjoy meeting and talking with other bloggers, but the Expo itself is not that interesting to me, and I’m not super excited about a blogging conference that mostly involves listening to panels discuss things I’ve already made up my mind about. This week, partly in response to concerns about the format of the blogger conference, Jeff at the Reading Ape proposed a blogger unconference, which would involve smaller, more participatory discussions of blogging issues. Although I’m still not sure my schedule will allow me to go, this is much closer to what I would want in a blogging conference. At this point, the unconference is just a proposal, but if you think you’d be interested, check out Jeff’s post. For more on bloggers’ concerns about the BEA Bloggers Conference, check out Jessica’s post at Read React Review. BEA has also posted more information about the BEA Bloggers Conference sessions.
- Regarding the WordPress commenting issues, Jenny and I have set our comments to allow people to comment without leaving their e-mail address, which should help those of you with long-forgotten or otherwise useless WordPress or Gravatar accounts to comment, although you won’t be able to get replies by e-mail. If getting replies is important to you and you don’t want to or can’t log in to WordPress, my only suggestion is to use a different e-mail address. I recommend copying your comment before you post, just to be sure you don’t lose it in the log-in/posting process. Sorry for the difficulties.