What matters that I was born a woman, if I can cure your misfortunes? I pay my share of tolls and taxes, by giving men to the State. But you, you miserable greybeards, you contribute nothing to the public charges; on the contrary, you have wasted the treasure of our forefathers, as it was called, the treasure amassed in the days of the Persian Wars. You pay nothing at all in return; and into the bargain you endanger our lives and liberties by your mistakes. Have you one word to say for yourselves? ~ Lysistrata, Aristophanes
You might be forgiven for assuming that, as gender equality has progressed, so too has the strength and dominant behaviour of our literary heroines. This ties a little into what I was talking about last week and, since then, I’ve done a bit of thinking on the subject. I’ve concluded that such an assumption is very frequently false, and Joss Whedon is awesome.
We think of the ancient civilisations as entirely male-dominated, with Cleopatra and Hatshepsut as blips on the general radar. From the literary perspective (this is not a history blog), that’s not the case. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata; Sophocles wrote Antigone; Euripides wrote Medea – all three are incredibly strong female leads who take a stand against the patriarchal system and dominance of men in order to do what they believe is right.
In the mid-400s BC there were dominant women being portrayed in a public forum, and largely in a positive light. (Yes, Medea killed her children but until that point in the play she comes across as the wronged party.) The system was a patriarchy but these literary heroines were neither passive nor submissive within it. More importantly, it was the patriarchy which created these characters and enabled them to be publicized. It publicly informed society of the possibility of such a gender role, and an argument can be made to suggest it endorsed that behaviour.
Whilst gender equality has come a long way since then, we still live in a patriarchy and it naturally informs much of our unconscious thought. When I was discussing this subject with the raptor and a friend, we tried to come up with some modern equivalents for Lysistrata et al. I’m sorry to say that we weren’t able to come up with a very long list.
Bear in mind that what I’m looking for in these heroines is not just agency – it’s dominance. Katniss Everdeen is a strong character but she submits to the system. The revolution largely happens around her, in fact, and she is a symbol of it because she’s manipulated to be. Storm from X-Men is a strong character but she goes where she’s ordered and, frankly, isn’t that interesting when compared to the rest of the team. Phoenix has her powers repressed by Professor X and then manipulated by Magneto. Hermione Granger, whilst an excellent contender, is not a protagonist – she’s a foil for Harry. In the end we were only able to think of three names: Buffy Summers, Zoe Washburn and River Tam.
Now, I really REALLY hope that we’re just having a mind-blank and missing out reams of names. But it worries me that three relatively well-read people can’t come up with better than this. Have we really not improved our popular literary portrayal of heroines in the last 2400 years, despite massive social reform and the evolution of storytelling? What does this say about what we, as a society, subconsciously expect of a woman’s role?
Commentators, tell me it ain’t so!