Women in Literature – Represent Them Real!

After reading The Bloody Chamber and adoring it, I have been steadily making my way through Angela Carter’s other works. At the moment I’m reading her novel Heroes and Villains, and it’s made me notice something irritating about attitudes to women in literature. I bet you’re thinking, ‘oh, what now? I’m sick of people going on about this!’ And you know what? So am I. It’s inescapable these days, and whilst I find it interesting and I agree that the argument against feminine passivity is valid, I also think it’s going a little bit too far.


Heroes and Villains is a futuristic, dystopian fairy tale. It follows sixteen-year-old Marianne, who leaves the protection of the community she lives in and runs off into the wilderness with a man, an outsider or ‘Barbarian’ as they’re referred to, named Jewel. Marianne has never fitted into the community, and she’s extremely feisty. She has no friends, refuses to marry, cuts off her hair, and does not take part any of the festivals the others celebrate. Once with Jewel, she refuses his hand to help her up and constantly reminds him that she is with him of her own free will. Now, in the 1960’s when this was written and published, Marianne’s behaviour would have come across as a lot more defiant and revolutionary than it does in the present day. She would have been seen as strong and independent, and probably even a bit scandalous.

However, reading it now, I can’t help feeling like she’s a bit of a brat. And a cliched brat, as well.
Yes, I know it’s good to show women being strong and independent, and yes she is undoubtedly a compelling character, but I believe she is an example of a new kind of stereotype.
Most writers are trying to subvert the image of the repressed, passive female. We’re fighting against it bitterly, agonising over character profiles to make sure that our females come across as gutsy and uninfluenced by men (or anyone/anything else). But to be honest, I think it’s becoming a bit tedious. Tedious to the point where when reading about Marianne, I’m getting fed up with her. Her new kind of stereotype is a woman who does the opposite of what her society expects with the intention that she’ll come across as defiant & independent. And I’m sure this is much more common now than it was in the 1960s.
Writers whose female characters co-operate with men are criticised for upholding the status quo and presenting weak females. Fair point. BUT I think there also needs to be some criticism aimed at contemporary Marianne-esque characters. All her behaviour says to me is that the author is trying too hard to make her appear defiant and independent, which leads to her being defined as that and not as what she (and everyone else) should be defined as: themselves!
As Angela Carter herself said:
The problem here is that neither the common passive woman or the do-the-exact-opposite woman are realistic. The former is outdated and pathetic, and the latter is rude and tiresome. The answer? Just, screw stereotypes! Stop trying to write what you think is ‘right’ for female characters to do. Instead, write what you think is right for your specific character to do. Think about what kind of person she is, what her motives are, and how she would act, not about what kind of person you think society will see her as and which metaphorical stereotypical box they’ll shove her into.
Real life isn’t analysed like literature. If I grab hold of my boyfriend’s hand in public, people don’t jump on me and accuse me of being weak and him of being controlling. But if we were in a novel, they probably would. Readers and critics wouldn’t stop to think that maybe I’m taking hold of his hand because I love him and I feel secure in and proud of my relationship. Similarly, if I don’t take his hand that doesn’t mean I’m trying to be a do-the-exact-opposite woman and appear all stuck-up and display my free will.
We seem to be getting too hung up on this argument of how women are represented in literature. Yes, it’s important — and some cases are just downright wrong and I am one of the first people to get angry when discussing women in certain books. But if you take a step back, do the little things really matter? No. And they need to stop being analysed as if they do.


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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

2 thoughts on “Women in Literature – Represent Them Real!

  1. Thank you, and I agree that it's important for authors to get across the right message. The only thing is, there is a lot of conflict regarding what exactly the 'right' message is, so whatever authors do they can't avoid criticism. Egalitarianism is definitely the best approach, though – Joss Whedon is very wise! No-one should be portrayed as better than anyone else because of their gender alone.

  2. I think you have raised some very thought provoking points and I subscribe to them. Stereotypes of women characters are really prevalent in literature, and critiques are found on different sides of the spectrum. For me, what really matters is that authors use their works to send the right message across. As Mr. Joss Whedon once said after he was asked why he writes strong female leads in his stories, we should continue pursuing the message of egalitarianism in gender issues until such questions can be answered. Thank you for sharing! All the best!

    Christian Pearson @ League of Women Voters

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