Sunday Salon: (Not) Holding Out for a Heroine

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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24 Responses to Sunday Salon: (Not) Holding Out for a Heroine

  1. This is such an interesting post. I find myself hugely conflicted about this issue – on the one hand I absolutely agree with you that all women’s stories should be told, including the ones where our lives are shaped by men and patriarchal forces. It isn’t right that these should be written out for the sake of feminist correctness. I feel there is a parallel here wih what some critics of books like The Help have done by declaring that white people shouldnt be portrayed as assisting in the civil rights struggle because it diminishes the achievements of African Americans. This doesn’t make sense to me, particularly in the case of The Help as I read it as a book about women helping one another rather than a grab for civil rights kudos.

    But I’m rambling away from my point! What I meant to say was that, yes, we shouldn’t dismiss these re

    • representations, but I do think we have to be vigilant in making sure they don’t dominate our fiction. Sometimes I find myself utterly infuriated by them, as in the film Becoming Jane where Austen’s work is shown to be solely inspired by a failed love affair with a man who gives her permission to do so. Argh! So yes, conflicted :-).

      Apologies for the broken Comment btw, trying to type long comments on my iPhone and still haven’t quite got the knack.

      • Teresa says:

        It is complicated! And I’m torn about it too. I think you’re right that it’s a problem when these narratives dominate our fiction, rather than the stories themselves being a problem. Yet maybe such stories dominate because they’re so accurate to so many women’s experiences. It’s difficult.

        The Help is an interesting parallel to The Marriage Plot because part of the issue in both cases is with the writer. A lot of the complaints about The Help had to do with Stockett being a white woman, and a lot of the complaints about The Marriage Plot have to do with Eugenides being a man. And that’s complicated too, because I wouldn’t want to say people can’t write about the experience of races and sexes different from their own, but I wouldn’t want their versions of the story to dominate either.

  2. To me, Madeleine was the least complex character of the main three in The Marriage Plot, but I agree with you that she doesn’t exclusively think in terms of her relationships with men. The literary conference she attends is a great example; as far as I can recall, she even reflects afterward about how nice it is to talk with women about the things she really loves (namely, reading).

    I agree with you that all types of women’s stories need to be told, and Madeleine’s choices are common ones. It’s also important to remember that The Marriage Plot took place in the 1980’s, which wasn’t so long ago — but social norms do change within 30 years, even if it’s not a dramatic shift.

    • Teresa says:

      I can’t decide if Madeleine is less complex or just more passive than the other two characters, but I can understand why some readers would be frustrated with the contrast. And I agree that the fact that this is set in the 80s could make a difference.

  3. Jenny says:

    Excellent post! I wish I could weigh in with more valuable ideas, but I’ve only read The Virgin Suicides, where the whole point of the book was that the girls were being defined through the eyes of the boys in their town. (Which I have to say was not my favorite point ever made by a book, but the idea was sort of cool.)

    Thanks for the link! My original post isn’t very interesting, but everyone weighed in with the best ever comments about the test itself and how television works and all sorts of things. Bloggers! Bloggers are awesome!

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read The Virgin Suicides, but I know some people have complained that the critique of objectifying the girls actually objectified the girls–or something like that. I do want to read it for myself someday.

      That was a great discussion. It really helped me gel my thoughts about how it’s the overall pattern rather than the individual cases that are of concern. Bloggers are great for helping me think through stuff like that.

  4. Lisa says:

    As always, a very thought-provoking post! I haven’t read The Marriage Plot so I can’t comment on that. I agree completely with your statement that “In looking at a single work, I’m more interested in whether the story feels true” – and for me also whether the characters seem true, and not just hooks on which the author hangs his/her arguments, or cardboard pieces to advance the plot. Unfortunately, “fierce, independent women who defy convention and make their own rules” are in short supply before the 20th century – or at least in stories where they aren’t punished for their unconventionality. And historical fiction, to my mind, has to respect the reality of women’s lives and situations, or the story becomes too implausible, at least to readers who know something of the historical context.

    • Teresa says:

      I have seen some complaints that Eugenides does use the characters as hooks for his ideas, but it didn’t feel that way to me. But it seems like a fair argument.

      And historical fiction is so tricky, isn’t it? I like to read about women who are perhaps more independent than might have been the norm, but it doesn’t take much for me to get annoyed at their seeming too modern or to be getting away with things a woman never would have at the time.

  5. Jeanne says:

    I like what you say about women being subject to enough scrutiny! I think it’s valuable to subject works of literature to various tests in the course of talking about them, but usually not as a way to warn other people off, and never as a way to feel smug about liking them or having read them.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m not sure how we can expect every fictional woman to live up to the kinds of ideals they’re expected to. Most of us real women don’t, but we’re awesome people just the same!

      I think the Bechdel test and similar are valuable, but I tend to find them more useful as a way of examining the larger context in which a work exists rather than as a judgment on the work itself.

  6. Jenny says:

    Works don’t have to be true to my experiences for me to resonate with them or enjoy them — not at all. (I don’t think this is what you’re saying, Teresa, I’m just commenting.) Many of my favorite works have to do with people who make choices I would never make, and I love watching how that plays out. However, I do want to have some sense that it’s true to history, or if it’s not, how it’s not. This goes along with your comment above, that in some historical fiction women are portrayed as getting away with stuff that they never would have in real life, and that’s simplistic (unless there is a lot of context given.) Same with books like The Help, to me. An easy example of “white person saves us all” is To Kill a Mockingbird, which is such a wonderful, beautiful novel — but there is not a single historical example of a white person stepping in to stop a lynching. It’s not that people shouldn’t write or read such books, just that we should contextualize and question them. There’s not a “test” to apply. Just critical thinking, which goes along with every book we read.

    • Teresa says:

      And that critical thinking doesn’t have to deny the value in a book. We can acknowledge the problems surrounding a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird while also recognizing what’s wonderful about it.

      What’s interesting about some of the conversation about The Marriage Plot is that I feel like people are complaining that it’s too realistic. Or maybe they don’t believe that an intelligent 20th-century women can be that consumed by thoughts of marriage. I just can’t fully wrap my head around their criticism.

      • Jenny says:

        That is interesting. I often feel that people prefer their heroes and heroines to be aspirational rather than realistic. (I’m reading The Eustace Diamonds by Trollope right now, and he directly addresses this.) But that’s classifying books as moral objects: lessons for us to follow; prescriptive rather than descriptive. And of course books can be either, or even both. But again, we’ve got to use our critical-thinking skills to determine that — both what a book is doing and what we want it to do.

        Incidentally, of course critical thinking doesn’t deny the value and wonder in a book. To my mind, it enhances it.

  7. Mystica says:

    I’ve just read Middlesex which I found not an easy book to understand/assimilate though it grew on me. This should be another good one.

    • Teresa says:

      I liked The Marriage Plot more than I did Middlesex, which I found to be uneven. But I’m an exception. I think most people like Middlesex more.

  8. litlove says:

    Very interesting post, Teresa.

    For me, feminism is about the relationship to power. If women are denied access to power then that’s a problem. But if they seek to appropriate it and deny control to others, that’s equally problematic. So to my mind, no one has a right to prescribe or limit the creativity of others, to say how women ‘should’ be represented. After all, it hardly makes sense to replace one set of adjectives we dislike – homemaker, nurse, nurturer – with one that we do: strong, proud, independent. Isn’t the point here that we should have free choices as women, as to who and what we are, and that distorting our characteristics to fit a model dictated by other people, no matter how well-intentioned, is hardly an act of liberty.

    Plus it’s a bit silly to say that women in their early twenties shouldn’t be obsessed with relationships. My students think of nothing else! Literature has to be an accurate mirror of culture and society, otherwise we are all living in some sort of fantasy land where we live one thing and happily imagine our world to be entirely different. I can’t see how that can be healthy.

  9. Teresa says:

    I like the way you put it Litlove–that we should have free choices instead of distorting ourselves to fit a model dictated by others.

    When I was in my 20s, I and my friends thought about relationships all the time, just as Madeleine did. And I don’t think the book is saying this focus is good thing on Madeleine’s part, which is another reason I can’t quite get behind that critique.

  10. rebeccareid says:

    yeay, I was not too impressed with the BEA Blogger Con panels…blah. Way too bad.

    • Teresa says:

      It is too bad. Now that they’ve got the panelists listed, I can see they’ve got some good people lined up, just not necessarily people I want to hear from. It’s really the interaction that I value.

  11. Jessica says:

    This is the first commentary I’ve read that makes me want to read the Marriage Plot. Thank you!

  12. amymckie says:

    I’ve not read The Marriage Plot and am unsure if I would like it or not, but I love the points you make. It actually made me think of this post I read (btw, a great blog, some fantastic stuff comes up for discussion on it!) It really made me rethink the definition of strong female character and what that means, and how it’s really really OK to have female characters who are all kinds of other things too.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Amy. And I just clicked over and read that post and liked it a lot and then started following the links and found more awesomeness, so thanks for that, too! I especially like the point that there’s lot of different ways to be strong, that it doesn’t just have to be about being fierce and kicking ass.

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