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Monday, October 27, 2014

Powerful Female Characters

One of the irritating things is how famous and popular Shakespeare is. Because he is so damned popular, a lot of people think they know what these plays are about when they really don't. People throw around stuff like, his female characters are merely decorations to the male characters, which is a clear sign that they have not actually read any of the plays except maybe Hamlet. Of all the Shakespearean plays I've read, Hamlet is the only one about weak women with two parallel characters in the Queen and Ophelia, a mother and a daughter, fucked over by men and just taking it dumbly. The rest, uh, not even close.

Funny how "strong female characters" are suddenly a "thing" these days. When people talk about this, they usually mean Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games. Not that I want to knock Hunger Games, but come on. What does this say about women's place in society in our time? I'd hardly regard such a cliche as great assurance for a thoroughly free mind.

Male authors tend to write women into stereotypes, a more polite term is "archetypes." The most prominent types are the virgin and the whore, or the mother and the femme fetale. Whatever. With impeccable insight, Catholicism tells us that the virgin and the mother are the same woman (at least to men): a de-sexualized female who is infinitely loving and accepting and omnipotent to our every wish and need. The whore is the woman he both wants and fears. Anyway, Carl Jung might have better explanations about all this. All I'm trying to say is that male writers tend to write female characters that are not too real or diverse and rather tend to fall into these categories. (I'm not trying to be completely one sided about it. Female writers cast male characters in the stereotypical images of their father figure and greatest fear too.)

Incidentally, the two female archetypes are exactly the two female characters in Hamlet, except the roles are somewhat twisted around. The mother is the whore, whose sexuality has contributed to the destruction of the kingdom. The lover is the virgin, who is too weak to bear the leading man's complicated needs and desires and baggage. Therefore, neither provides quite enough fulfillment of the male audience's fantasy for the perfect partner. I am finally at an age where I can imagine how instinctively disturbing Queen Gertrude is to men. Ophelia, on the other hand, is a perfect tragic virgin lover to a lot of men. Again it has taken me a long, long time to sympathize with this fantasy.

Outside of Hamlet, however, the women rarely fall into these types. In fact they are often very scary, and their scariness often do not come from their seductive sexual power over the male characters. In fact, Shakespeare seems to be especially fond of a type of women who are, for lack of a better expression, headstrong. The good ones, the bad ones, they are all so damned willful!

For example, Juliet of Capulet runs away with the guy she is supposed to hate, in open defiance of her parents. Do you think that's easy for a thirteen-year-old aristocratic girl? Then Desdemona runs away from home to that guy who is no match for her family, in the middle of the night, when her dad is asleep. Anyone who thinks Desdemona is just another victim should go read the play. From the first to the last scene, she is sometimes confused and sometimes retreating from madness, but she is no weakling. In the last moments she is screaming that she's never had an affair with Cassio and she is not guilty of anything. Her husband overpowers her with brute strength but never gains any psychological upper hand. See also Portia (Merchant of Venice), Isabella (Measure for Measure), Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia (King Lear), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Queen Tamora (Titus Andronicus), Volumnia (Coriolanus); each is tougher than the next and every single one of them knows what she wants and grabs it with no apology. In other words, they are powerful.

A lot of men, including male writers, don't like women who are too powerful and would never write them. Perhaps just as many women are equally uncomfortable with powerful women. That is why headstrong female characters are uncommon and widely disliked or misunderstood. Look how public perception of Juliet, Desdemona, and Cordelia is softened from their original shapes to become more palatable as good women. The funny thing is that not only did Shakespeare write a whole of tough cookies, but they can be both good and bad. They are a force of nature that, like the crashing waves, can kill you or carry you to the heavens (or both). They are sometimes terribly destructive. This is something that today's writers are unable to deal with. So powerful female characters have to be good and stay good and be the perfect mother figure, so as not to threaten the sensibility of readers and writers themselves. But if we never acknowledge and accept the destructiveness of power, we will never be real.

Then there's one of my favorite female characters of all time, Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing). When asked how he can write so many interesting and believable female characters, GRRM said he just puts himself in their shoes and treats female characters like male characters, ie, like human beings. The fact that Beatrice is such a meticulous mirror image of Benedick is proof that Shakespeare takes the same approach. If you can treat them all like human beings, you won't need stereotypes.

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