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Feminist heroines for all timeBY: Dan Rottenberg 11.29.2011
From Lady Macbeth to Lisbeth Salander, today’s heroines seem just as bloody and violent as men. This is a shame, because women qua women bring something unique to the table. Are there no better role models for female behavior? Let me suggest five— two real, three fictitious.
Beyond Thelma and Louise:
The blood-lusting Lady Macbeth appeared no less than three times on New York stages this year. Desdemona came back from the dead to stick it to her sexist husband Othello. Medea (who kills her children) and Hedda Gabler (who kills herself rather than grant society power over her) have returned multiple times as well lately, to popular acclaim.
And let’s not forget pop literature’s current vindictive woman du jour, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, the victim of unspeakable sexual abuse who addresses the injustices done to her not by calling the police but by deploying cars, motorcycles, computers, guns, whips, chains, saws and all sorts of electronic devices to wreak eye-for-an-eye vengeance upon her tormentor.
What’s going on here? BSR contributor Carol Rocamora recently suggested that these angry heroines reflect how audiences want to see women portrayed today— “not as victims, but as vanquishers.” (To read Rocamora’s essay, click here.)
This Thelma and Louise approach to victimization— namely, do to men what they’ve done to you— may provide vicarious catharsis for angry women. But kicking hornets’ nests or gunning down adulterous husbands— the preferred solution of the women inmates who sing “He Had It Coming” in the Broadway musical Chicago— strike me above all as a failure of imagination.
Women who emulate men
If women’s best response to male violence is to emulate men, then (a) the planet is doomed and (b) women will be doomed first— because nobody does violence quite like men. And besides, men are bigger and stronger. So why would women buy into a man’s idiotic game? Have they nothing better to offer?
We live in an age when women are increasingly assuming roles formerly monopolized by men— as corporate executives, public officials, college presidents, police detectives, Supreme Court justices, you name it. Yet so far, most women in these positions have bent over backwards to suppress their female instincts so as to behave just like the men who preceded them.
This is a shame, because women qua women bring something unique to the table. Women may not necessarily make better managers than men, but their presence does add valuable dimensions— nurturing instincts, women’s intuition, empathy for underdogs, whatever— wherever they work.
As the Philadelphia psychologist Farrell Silverberg (a man) observed during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation in 1991, men and women think differently. Men focus on a specific goal, whereas women look at the bigger picture: “ ‘Womenthink’ is concerned with a loose notion of what’s best for everyone and with the repercussions of action.”
If that’s the case, why are we cheering for Liz Salander and rehabilitating Lady Macbeth? Are there are no better female role models to emulate— in theater, literature or even real life? Let me suggest a handful.
Remember Marge Gunderson, the pregnant small-town Minnesota police chief played by Francis McDormand in the movie Fargo? When it came to solving crimes, Chief Gunderson possessed a secret weapon: her gender. Because she was a (seemingly) non-threatening woman, criminals let down their defenses in her presence. Consequently, Marge elicited better information from crooks through sugar and molasses than any posturing macho TV cop ever obtained through intimidation or fear.
Life on ‘ulcer alley’
A real-life equivalent of Marge whom I met in 1985 is another Minnesotan, Marilyn Carlson Nelson. Her father, the late Gold Bond trading stamps king Curtis Carlson, was a brilliant but tempestuous entrepreneur who ran his fiefdom (Radisson Hotels, TGI Friday’s, Ask Mr. Foster travel agencies, etc.) like an emperor. The hallway outside Carlson’s Minneapolis office was known behind his back as “ulcer alley.” And none of his executives suffered Carlson’s tantrums as much as his daughter Marilyn did. “You don’t know anything about business!” he was once overheard shouting at her. “You’re a goddamn fool!”
Marilyn swallowed these tirades because, at bottom, she was every bit as tough as he was. But when she succeeded her father, Marilyn brought qualities to the company that her father lacked. Curt Carlson couldn’t get good information from his managers because they were terrified to bring him bad news. Nelson, warmer and more approachable, succeeded because subordinates weren’t afraid to tell her the truth.
The hugging judge
The late Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Lisa Richette possessed both an incisive legal mind and a blissful willingness to assert her femininity. Her brightly colored dresses and oversized earrings were legendary. Her courtroom was a wonderfully demythologized, informal place where justice took priority over legal technicalities. To observe it was to glimpse how a humane justice system might some day operate.
On at least one occasion that I know of, Richette came down from the bench after a trial to hug the mother of a 16-year-old boy whom she had just convicted of third-degree murder. When she was criticized for this gesture, Richette replied, “Am I not supposed to have any sympathy for the defendant’s mother? Look, I’m a human being. I have compassion for everyone.”
Dorothea’s secret weapon
Dorothea Brooke, the earnest and intelligent heroine of George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch, confronts a challenge that no dramatic or violent act can solve: Her friend and neighbor Lydgate, an idealistic young doctor, is plagued by widespread but unfounded rumors that he deliberately killed a patient who was a business rival of Lydgate’s patron.
There seems no solution to Lydgate’s quandary but to leave town. But when he unburdens himself to Dorothea, she instantly cuts to the heart of the problem: “But nobody could seriously believe that about you,” she tells him. With a few simple words of reassurance to Lydgate that he was neither alone nor evil, she caused the problem to evaporate— in Lydgate’s mind as well as everyone else’s.
Brains and body, too
Or how about Phoebe Runnels, the heroine of Lights Across the Delaware, David Taylor’s 1954 historical novel about Washington’s crossing and the Battle of Trenton? Phoebe is a spirited Pennsylvania farm girl and zealous revolutionary whose brother is enlisted by the rebels to sneak into Trenton— then occupied by British and Hessian troops— to place a lantern as a vital strategic signal to guide Washington’s forces into the town. But when her brother loses his nerve at the last moment, Phoebe takes his place, disguised as a man.
On the outskirts of Trent’s Town (as Trenton was then known), Phoebe is unmasked by a British sentry who correctly presumes that she’s a spy. But by spinning out a long conversation with him, Phoebe pierces the grizzled sentry’s defenses— among other things, he’s homesick, lonely and limited in social experience— and convinces him that she’s no spy at all but a lovesick runaway intent on joining her lover in Trenton and running off to marry him that night in defiance of their disapproving families.
The sentry, a veteran soldier of the crown, sighs, “Fighting you Colonial women is something I’d not reckoned on.” When he offers to spare her life but refuses to let her through, she explodes not with karate kicks but with a flurry of words. “Stupid pig-headed English dolt!” she snarls. “What care I, if I live or die, if I get not to Trent’s Town?”
So the abashed sentry offers Phoebe a deal: In exchange for sex, he’ll issue her the coveted pass that will allow her to proceed into Trenton. Phoebe, defiant and virginal revolutionary that she is, responds by…. acquiescing. And the rest is history. As Farrell Silverberg put it, what matters is not one’s selfish concerns but what’s best for everyone.
The moral? Never send a man on a woman’s errand.♦
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