Burnt Snow, my first novel, was released in 2010 by Pan MacMillan Australia. White Rain, the sequel, is due soon. As part of a trilogy about witches, earth magic, curses, love and revenge, this blog archives my research into the world of the witches - as well as my own magical saga as a new author.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Search is on for the REAL Top-10 Feminist Literary Icons

Hello! Have you tweeted your spooky story to #31witch yet? You should: YOU COULD WIN my book and a bunch of other fab spooky titles JUST IN TIME for Halloween. The details are in my last blog. But now, on to more pressing matters: The Search is now most definitely on for the REAL Top-10 Feminist Literary Icons of All Time.
"I'd rather be a feminist warrior than a Spice Girl."
My quest for Feminist Literary Icons was inspired by this article, "The Top 10 Feminist Literary Icons of All Time", unattributed and on a site called "Library Science Degree" - which was posted as a link by @emmaguire on Twitter.
I identify as a feminist, in the words of the great Rebecca West, "because I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat". And amongst the fictional women cited on the "Top 10 Feminist Literary Icons" list, I'd suggest there are some characters whose behaviour is, I think, a bit doormatty.
So here, I thought I'd stir up some discussion and playfully - playfully, mind - argue some of this list. Because I love books and I love talking about books, I'm very interested to hear what all of you think.
Here goes.

Scarlett O'Hara may be feisty, but most of her advantages are gained by the fact that she's pretty - not to mention that there's a rape scene in Gone With the Wind the repercussions of which are a literary gift to rape-enablers worldwide.
Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's is arguably fun at a party, but rather than being the agent of her own subjectivity, she's really just another exploited and exploitable young woman who trades on her allure to men; she's only got value to herself or the leeches she surrounds herself with while she remains attractive.
This is the same as Becky Sharp, the relentlessly self-interested protagonist of Thackeray's Vanity Fair; Becky, like Holly, may be smart enough to know that her social value is entirely her sexual appeal, but she, too, is young, exploitable, summarily exploited and very soundly punished by the author - her attempts at agency both defeated within the narrative and met with moral approbation.
That Becky's so wrapped up in her own ambitions, and willing to screw over other women to get what she wants - that is, individual social promotion within a patriarchal society - is hardly a feminist mindset. A rather central pillar of the feminist project is collective sisterhood - competing against one another leads to isolation and isolation to annihilation - like Becky Sharp's.
With this in mind, don't even get me started on Dagny from Atlas Shrugged, one of the deplorable heroines of Ayn Rand's propagandistic pap-tales of relentlessly projected self-hate. How on Earth did she make it on to a "feminist icon" list?! Rape fantasies and narrative motivations to destroy not only collective bonds of sisterhood, but of society and the very notion of altruism are not the attributes of a feminist.
That Dagny manages to hold down a demanding job is one thing, but barely restraining a paraphilia for a railroad (or its capitalist ubermensch proxies) is entirely another - and whatever it is, it's about worshipping domination and it's doormatty. Besides, the very notion of including one of her heroines in anything as collective as a list would have made the poisonously individualistic Ms Rand throw up.
As for Jane Austen's Emma, let's be honest, Ms Woodhouse's interests are hardly the pursuit of agency, intellectual liberty and moral values above bourgeois, material concerns. She's one, alas, of an overwhelming percentage of female literary characters with a monomaniacal obsession with courtship and marriage. It's a fixation that kick-ass feminist babes eschew while they're busy trying to actually do something.
Jane Eyre may not share the singular focus of Emma Woodhouse's obsessions, but while Jane's general behaviour is smart and principled, her attraction to and validation of a misogynist partner like Rochester is an act of self-harm. Loving a bigamous, cruel, undeserving idiot who has married another woman for money, tortured and imprisoned her, gone whoring in Paris and lied to and manipulated you into a false marriage is not a feminist's act of noble self-sacrifice - it is the behaviour of a serially-abused woman trapped in an abusive paradigm.
Now, I love Jane - but the poor woman needs a social care intervention and emergency housing, not the legitimisation of her doormattery as "romance". The real feminist icon of Jane Eyre is not Jane but Bertha, as the excellent Jean Rhys knew all too well when she expounded the wronged wife's story in Wide Sargasso Sea. This is a woman who maintains resistance through the worst ongoing deprivation and degradation and asserts her subjectivity in a glorious conflagration of protest.

These are my six principal objections to the "Top 10 Fictional Feminist Icons of All Time" list. I have my reservations, too, about two of the four characters who remain.
Ramona Quimby
is an adorable, sprightly and active protagonist in the Ramona books, but her age-range across the entire series only ascends from 4-10. I'll leave it up to the readers of this blog to determine how much of an icon status her age allows her, unencumbered as she is of the sexual pressures that beset all adult heroines.
Goddess Athene is worth considering. As goddess of wisdom, strategy, justice and war, she is certainly no doormat - but the fetishisation of her virginity is a bit of a concern. If a classical deity were to make the list, I'd certainly advocate the more worldly Hecate, goddess of witches, wisdom and the night. Her remit as protectoress of women, children, the homeless, the poor and the marginalised certainly advances her sisterhood credentials over a goddess who turned a sister into a spider for beating her in a sewing contest.
My Antonia by Willa Cather I haven't read. I will pursue it as an adjunct to my quest - to see if Antonia the Bohemian immigrant to the prairielands can crack a knee to the first Mrs Rochester in my regard.
Of the ten, it is only Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's brilliant The Scarlet Letter, to whom I would unhesitatingly apply the status of feminist icon.
Named, shamed, used, abused, threatened, humiliated and ostracised, Hester never relents, always resists, and wears the badge of shame her community literally sew into her as an avatar of her own defiance and identity. She is the counterhegemonic, feminist babe par excellence, her resolution so strong she actually subverts the society around her into accommodation of her uniqueness and ultimately achieves that for which all feminists aspire - a better future for her daughter. So right on, Hester: girl power.

Readers, friends, the task at hand is this. I have consulted the oracles of Twitter and Facebook, and harvested from friends and twitterwes a list of characters worth considering in a REAL Top-10 Fictional Feminist Icons of All Time. I'm going to list them below for your consideration, and would love to receive comments and suggestions for additions to or perhaps removals from the list. When there's something approaching a consensus of worthy nominees, I'll post up a poll for the Top 10.

Some criteria for considering a feminist icon:
  • either an active protagonist of the story, or an active protagonist of a story within the story
  • pursues the realisation of values and moral principles ABOVE the monomaniacal pursuit of a man, even if the man hanging around is nice enough
  • isn't a helpless victim, or a maiden in distress; is instead the kind of girl whose first instinct is to fight her own way out of trouble; who always, always, resists doom
  • isn't some candified idealisation of popular "femininity" contemporary to the creation of the book
  • refuses to spiritually submit to a dominant paradigm that keeps her in chains
  • doesn't ascribe value to herself on the basis of her looks
  • doesn't submit to a subjugation of the self or submit her body to subjugation to attain some kind of realtionship status with either another individual or a social paradigm
While TV, film and games abound with feminist icons, I'm keeping this list to aural/literal cultural products: characters from books, myths, stories and poems. Here's the list of suggestions thus far: I don't agree with all of them, some are deliberate provocations, but I'm interested in reading discussion. Feel free to suggest other characters, out-argue me on the characters in the original list above or demand exclusions.

Lyra from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Phyllis from The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
Offred in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Moira in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Ann in Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien

Emily from the Emily of New Moon books by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne from the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Molly from Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Nora from A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
Mrs Lind from A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
Hester from The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hermoine from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
Bertha/Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Bertha from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Orlando from Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Lydia from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 

Takako from Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
Mitsuko from Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Anna from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Eloise from the Eloise books by Kay Thompson
Lisbeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series by Stieg Larsson
Lucy from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Irene from Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Ayesha from She by H. Rider Haggard
Ellie from the Tomorrow When the War Began books by John Marsden
Jessica from Dune by Frank Herbert
Trixie from the Trixie Belden books by Julie Campbell
Nancy from the Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene
George from The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton
the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
the governess in Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Lucy in Dracula by Bram Stoker
Molly in Ulysses by James Joyce
Alice in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Sookie in the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series by Charlaine Harris
Valancy in The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Stephen in The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Sybylla in My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
Gertrude in Good Bones by Margaret Atwood
Meg in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Anna in Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Cordelia from An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by PD James
Harriet from Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers
Eoin from Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein
Lucy in The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Miss Marple from the Miss Marple novels by Agatha Christie
Flora from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
June from The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Jo in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Alexandra in O Pioneers by Willa Cather
Cordelia in This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn by Aidan Chambers
Villanelle in The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Ma in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Anna from The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Frances from The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing
Iza in The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Ma Ramotswe in The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Edna from The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Rosalind from Shakespeare's As You Like It

Amy from Me and the Fat Man by Julie Myerson
Fevvers in Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
The Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Marilla from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

What think you? 

Please remember: this is about a love of literary discussion, so no biting! No pie-throwing!


Lizabelle said...

I love this post! (And it's lovely to see so many LM Montgomery heroines in the list already.)

Another couple of suggestions for the list: Cordelia Naismith from Shards of Honor (and sequels - the Vorkosigan series) by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Many Terry Pratchett women, like Tiffany Aching in The Wee Free Men, Susan Sto Helit in Hogfather and Granny Weatherwax, whose response to any stupidity is that she "can't be havin' with this."

datakid said...

I'd agree with Lizabelle on the Pratchett, although I'd go so far as to suggest the whole witches coven.

Also, Nell from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Jennifer said...

Hey Van,

Suggestions suggestions. Here's five, but I am not sure if they are my top five or not. I don't think it is an accident that all of the authors below are female too.

1) Sethe from Beloved by Toni Morrison
2) Alice B Toklas - from The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein
3) Teresa from For Love Alone by Christina Stead
4) Ginny from A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.
5) Orlando from Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I think my first is a no brainer, she should go straight to the shortlist.

But the second-fifth might be more contentious. I understand your criteria is chracter-based, but a novel is more than a character (as you would know!). So, I think that the character needs to be considered within the novel, rather than the individual characteristics of the character valued by an independent feminist yardstick as though somehow magically divorced from the context of the novel's plot (and author). What the character does within the novel, and to what ends within the novel itself, should be factored into the criteria. I say this because...

2) Oh Alice. Gertie was a massive patriarch herself. She wrote her own girlfriend's autobiography! But there are so many reasons this novel should be on the list. Let me know how many reasons you would like.

3) This classically underrated Australian novel charts Teresa's monomaniacal pursuit of a man who does not love her, but her dogged determination becomes historical. Her pursuit becomes a quest for knowledge. The novel is about what SHE wants. Indeed, it takes the pursuit to such an extreme it could be read as a critique of the trope of the monomaniacal pursuit itself. She's a feminist in a particular context.

4) Ginny is a wife, a daughter, and a victim of abuse. But, Smiley's novel is a retelling of King Lear, which is why I think she is a real contender for this list. Lear is such a well known story, and Goneril is such a widely demonised character. Here, we get Lear from the perspective of Goneril the evil daughter. And, things look a little different. We see a woman trying to make her self fit the social order, sure, but we also are provoked to reimagine the status one of drama's most revered tragic patriarchs.

5) Well, I guess the reason Orlando is contentious that the character is not a woman the whole way through the novel. But, sex and gender are complicated! I think Orlando should be on the list.

And, I do love Alexandra from O Pioneers.

Love Jen xx

melitarowston said...

oh oh! what about Laura in Getting of Wisdom and Dolour Darcy in Harp in the South and of course Beatie Bow!

P.M.Newton said...

From the land of crime fiction, you can't go past V.I. Warshawski as a feminist literary icon (or her creator the equally feisty and fabulous Sara Paretsky).

V.I. has been fighting the good fight on the mean streets of Chicago since the 1980s, working on behalf of the powerless, exposing corrupt institutions and political operators.

Sara gets huge kudos from me for writing another character in VI's world. VI's best friend Dr. Charlotte “Lotty” Herschel is a recurring character who runs a family planning clinic for women on low incomes where she offers abortion services. In one novel her clinic is attacked by a radical right to life group, VI standing at her side helps her to defend it.

It's rare and getting rarer to see abortion presented at all in fiction or movies, but Sara Paretsky and VI refuse to shy away from it.

Eirinn said...

The 'Library Science Degree' list is a strange one -- not so much a list of feminist icons in literature as memorable female characters -- maybe...

I guess the problem with feminist icons in literature is that there aren't many. I can think of a lot more in film, TV etc, but most female characters in fiction that I can think of are either victims of patriarchal oppression to the point that they are forced into submission, or they are beholden to men in such a way that they pay a price for resisting submission -- usually a huge one.

Examples are Tess in Hardy's 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles', a truly feminist classic. She's rooted from the start, exploited and powerless, and although she initially has the will to resist, it is overcome by a will to survive, but all hell breaks loose. Similarly, Anna Karenina might have had the courage to rebel, but she pays the ultimate price.

And then there's one of my favourites, Atwood's 'The Robber Bride' where three relatively modern women are almost brought undone by the feminist antiheroine and saboteuse, Zenia -- a woman who preys on their insecurities and for the most part succeeds in stealing their men, who they are arguably better off without. Either way, regardless of their class or educational status, all of these women are compromised.

My favourite feminist icon is Lilith. Another bitch/whore Goddess who was systematically demonized by the patriarchy. The myth of Lilith was that she was Adam's first wife who refused to take the lower position during sex. As a result she was banished from Eden to inhabit the night and blamed from then on for arousing lust in men and causing the death of infants. Truly! In other words, women shouldn't ever ask for equality or they'll be blamed for every catastrophe under the stars. However, I'm quite fond of the myth of Lilith, because she didn't compromise, and the patriarchal resistance to her shows how powerful a woman can be when she stops caring about whether people think she's 'nice'.

Nice rant on Ayn Rand, btw. I tried posting something on the First Tuesday Book Club about Atlas Shrugged -- how it was written in the style of a DC Comic, but with a million times the word count and no pictures -- but they didn't put it up. Bastards.