Whither the Heroine?
Think about it. When was the last time you read about a heroine who was not essentially modeled in the male heroic tradition? This tradition was consolidated by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle nearly 180 years ago. Find me a heroine who isn’t an individual acting essentially alone and against societal expectations; who isn’t defined by a journey of self-discovery culminating in an extraordinary individual act; who sacrifices self and many of those she loves—but not her individual integrity or self-reliance—to perform that act; who is ultimately, retrospectively, praised or memorialized for that individual performance. Find me a heroine that is not a clone of millions of male heroes who have come before her.
Nowadays people don’t generally think in terms of heroic tradition, and there’s a good reason. First, fewer and fewer students are forced to read the classics on which the heroic tradition was based. Second, romanticism, which was the literary and artistic movement that really shaped the modern concept of hero, is long out of fashion. Third, literary scholars and critics, by the middle of the twentieth century, were largely shunning the very idea of hero in favor of the fragmented, de-centered, ambivalent subjects featured in avant-garde art (think Picasso and Virginia Wolfe). Modernism itself counteracted the heroic impulse, or tried to. Cubism, surrealism, and the vast influence of existentialism, all obviated the need for coherent individuals who were conscious of their actions—a prerequisite for traditional heroes. Today, academic literary criticism is further than ever from investigating the nature of cultural heroism, immersed as it is in such concepts as the post-human and critiquing the anthropocene. These are valuable contributions, but when it comes to dealing with heroes and heroines, we honestly can’t expect much from those quarters right now.
All of these movements away from realism—and from the “autonomous individual” attributed to René Descartes’s “I think therefore I am”—were envisioned by many cultural scholars as an escape from the trap of patriarchy, of male cultural domination, and of reliance on men and the male psyche as the model for just about everything, from financial and governmental systems to personal and community relations. Women were supposed to transcend the male focus on individual accomplishment and self-discovery. Female superstars were thought to be fundamentally different.
And yet, in spite this protracted, constant tide away from heroism, popular literature has plenty of heroines, and they all conform to the nineteenth-century model articulated by Carlyle (On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, 1841) and by American Ralph Waldo Emerson (Representative Men, 1850). Perhaps start with Lisbeth Salander, heroine of Steig Larsson’s blockbuster The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) series and work backwards among a myriad of dragon-slaying women that could almost as easily be Saint George. Or start with my personal un-favorite, from best-selling author Kathryn Stockett, The Help’s (2009) Skeeter Phelan, whose personal journey from whiney privileged southern belle to the individual authorial champion of African-American maids is somehow supposed to represent both heroic self-reliance and self-sacrifice. Even my favorite woman detective, Arly Hanks, protagonist of Joan Hess’s Maggody series of comedic mysteries (1987-2010), inevitably saves the day without compromising her steadfast aloneness and refusal to conform to the hilarious hillbilly community she calls home. I’d much rather see her mother Ruby Bee and Ruby’s best frenemy Estelle, two willfully ignorant, gossipy, prejudiced and bumbling ladies, be the cause celèbre of each episode rather than comic relief.
Give me heroines like Machado de Assis’s Dona Cesária (Counselor Ayres’s Memorial, 1904) who gossips her way into revealing the truth about the two lovers at the novel’s center. Or Anthony Trollope’s self-styled “Signora” Vesey Neroni (Barchester Towers, 1857), a full-time impostor whose real name is Madeline Stanhope; a beautiful, disabled, dishonest, ruthless seductress, who embodies (literally) everything wrong, and yet when it come to giving relationship advice does everything exactly right. Are there heroines in popular fiction today who don’t concern themselves with personal accomplishment, whose individual integrity doesn’t define them, whose story is not a journey of self-discovery or self-realization? In short, a heroine who could not easily be a man? There are doubtless many, many readers out there who are much better versed in contemporary fiction than I am. I’d love to hear from you.
Todd S. Garth teaches Spanish and Portuguese Language and Latin American and Spanish cultural studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he was the first openly gay faculty member. He is the author of two critical studies of (long dead) Spanish American authors and an enthusiastic reader and commentator of fiction of all kinds. He is currently at work on a historical novel, The Mayor of Newark.