I am Womb, I am Vagina: Women As Roles Rather than Characters

January 23rd, 2007

Warning:  Spoilers for ROME, the recent HBO miniseries

One of the ways I rate my enjoyment of books and filmic-visual fiction is in how the roles of women are approached by the writers and/or directors.  Certain conventions are sure to minimize my enjoyment of a narrative, and chief among them is the narrowing of women’s roles to those related to reproduction and/or Relationship to the Male.  In such cases, women are portrayed either as wombs (mother, surrogate mother, or wife) or vaginas (of sexual interest to male characters without having any other real narrative function);  that is, a female character has no existence beyond her relationship to men via sex and/or reproduction.

I quite liked the first five or six episodes of ROME (well, all right, maybe I quite liked the male frontal nudity in the person of the attractive James Purefoy playing Mark Antony, but let’s not quibble).  I felt the story took a turn for the worse via the transition in Egypt.  The characters who were most interesting (Mark Antony, the ruthless young Octavian and his wicked old harpy of a mother, Atia, and Julius Caesar in his gambling, risk-taking phase together with his clever personal slave) faded into the background while the boring Servilia and her hapless and uselessly passive son Brutus plodded their way onto center stage together with an increasingly melodramatic sturm und drang revolving around the two soldiers (one virtuous and one not so virtuous) who are meant to underpin the narrative of the fall of the Republic.

With the possible exception of Atia, whose role as an active participant in the goings-on collapses in the second half of the show, the female characters end up mired in the womb/vagina morass (in my opinion, anyway, and naturally you are to understand that this is merely my opinion;  yours may differ).

For example:

The story of the virtuous soldier’s wife is really solely wrapped up in the question of whether he will discover that she bore a child to another man while he was in Gaul, and since the question is brought up, you know, as a viewer, that the other shoe will eventually drop, as it does.  Nothing else about her matters, when all is said and done.  Nor does her depiction ever truly round into that of a human being.  She exists in the plot solely as adjunct to his plot.

The Roman matron Servilia, presumably a woman of intelligence, charm, and interest because she is the long-time lover of Julius Caesar who is portrayed as a man of intelligence and vision, is written in the end as fomenting the plot to kill him because he has chosen for political reasons to end their affair.  A woman scorned – nothing else.  She is that shallow a portrayal.

A slave woman becomes the reward for the less-than-virtuous soldier, even though she is never given a personality and has very few speaking lines.  After a rushed sequence of events we are expected to believe that she forgives him for murdering the slave she had intended to marry because he (the soldier) is sorry for what he did and doesn’t blame her for hating him.  But since she has no actual personality, this decision on her part has only to do with his role in the narrative, nothing to do with her as a person;  as a character, she is merely a mechanism.

Let us accept as a given that women had a limited sphere in Roman society, although naturally what was going on in the lower classes was rather different than the upper classes, as it always has been because of the economic necessity for lower class women to be engaged in a larger variety of work and the widening layers of independence that work inevitably brings.  Let us also recognize that under Roman law the master of the house theoretically had complete control of life and death over those under his rule.  He could kill his wife or children or slaves with impunity, and had the right to do so if any of them violated the moral code of conduct;  under these circumstances a wife could be protected if she had family who cared about what was happening to her, which presumably gave some protection to upper class women who were born to prominent families.  In addition, let us remember that women, especially the upper class women about whom we tend to know most because of the nature of the sources, were often and even usually pawns in economic and political alliances, handed from their fathers or brothers to their husbands, and that often their worth depended on their ability to produce sons.

Be that as it may.

Even so, even within limited and constrained lives, human beings still have character and personality beyond their reproductive and sexual role, and that character and personality can be displayed and utilized in a work of fiction IF a writer chooses to reveal it, or – perhaps more pertinently – if a writer is able to see it and thus reveal it.

In such cases where the female role remains restricted to womb or vagina, it strikes me that either

1) the writer simply cannot see women in any role beyond the narrow one that relates directly and only to the life of Men.  Which reminds me of the famous comment made by the famous anthropologist who did extensive ethnographic research among the Yanamamo in South America;  when asked by a filmmaker who was down there working with him if he didn’t want to film some of the women’s activities, the anthropologist said – and I paraphrase – “the women have no activities.”


2)  the writer is uninterested in women as human beings and/or characters except as mechanisms to illuminate the lives of the interesting and important characters, that is, the male ones.

Now, indeed, any character can suffer from being a mechanism, that is, a chess piece being moved around to further the plot.  Mechanisms do not discriminate, nor do I want to suggest that this only happens to female characters, because it does not.

But just by way of showing alternatives, I want to contrast briefly the main female character in the recent movie BLOOD DIAMOND (with Djimon Hounsou, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Connelly).  I thought this a decent movie, although not a great one, memorable because of its subject matter and because of strong acting (although, alas, no full frontal male nudity on the part of either Hounsou or DiCaprio), although Hounsou, a fabulous actor, is hampered and to some extent trivialized by the stereotypical Noble Black Man Who Will Be Saved By A White Man role to which the script limits him (that’s a topic for another rant, but not today).

There are almost no female characters in the film, which is about the endemic violence in West Africa and which focuses on particular on the illegal diamond trade and how the West’s desire for diamond fuels these civil wars.  Hounsou is shown as having a wife and two daughters (and a son, who is crucial to the plot) but these three females are in essence mechanisms (see above) to further his narrative arc as he endeavors to reunite his family, which has been torn apart in the civil war.

Connelly’s journalist character has a two-fold existence:  she is a love interest for DiCaprio’s character, and she is a ‘voice of conscience’ (by which we might suggest she stands in for white liberal guilt).  Yes, she indeed gets the preachy speeches.  But those speeches aside, she functions as an autonomous person;  she has her own life; she deals with upheaval and shooting and fear as an adult.  What particularly interested me was the unfolding of the relationship between her and DiCaprio (although I should note that DiCaprio and Hounsou’s characters form the main dyad;  Connelly has the secondary role here).  She is an adult, who is sexually attracted to the DiCaprio character, who recognizes the sexual nature of the attraction and understands (at the beginning) that it may or may not work out because of their utterly different backgrounds and goals, and who can live with that, however it works out.

It would have been easy to write Connelly’s character as merely a mechanism for the men’s story (one reason I didn’t like the movie HELLBOY was that the female character had no real purpose except as the Love Interest, and for that matter this is also why I did not like the first SPIDERMAN movie and never saw the second one).  However, the writer didn’t write the character and story that way, and Connelly as an actress was also able to bring additional weight to the role.

Now it may be that my perception of which female characters in movies have character and which are mechanisms is, to say the least, idiosyncratic.  My experience of a realistic and interesting portrayal may be your cliché of the month.

For example, we recently re-watched one of my guilty pleasures, THE 13TH WARRIOR (love them Vikings!  and Antonio’s not bad either).  While the female characters in this movie are very much secondary characters, the queen (a mother) and the slave (a sexual object) strike me as people who, when they walk off the screen, still exist.  Despite their few speaking lines, they have motive and function and existence that goes beyond the way they relate to the main (male) characters with their wombs and vaginas.

Perhaps in the end that is the defining difference between character as mechanism and character as, well, character.

Mechanisms don’t move when they’re not in motion, that is, being driven by the plot.  Like puppets, they sprawl limp on the floor while off page or screen because they only matter as they relate to the main character.  That there are people who conceive of women in general in this way is depressing, but not untrue.

Characters – whatever role they have in their society – have other things to accomplish while the storyteller’s eye is directed elsewhere.  They exist nevertheless, in a manner of speaking.

In either case, the ultimate test is that of humanity.  Treat a character as if her or his reproductive and sexual status is what matters most (or is the only thing that matters) about him or her, and that character will shrink to become something less than an imitation of human personality.  Treat a character as a human being first, regardless of gender, and it is likely she or he will live as a character with personality, with the appearance of being true and real.

26 Responses to “I am Womb, I am Vagina: Women As Roles Rather than Characters”

  1. Marie Brennanon 24 Jan 2007 at 12:43 am

    I think one of the moments that makes the women in The 13th Warrior real to me, if minor, is the bit with the knives. It strikes me as the kind of thing that is unsung and usually unnoticed by the guys doing the big heroic things — and nobody told them to do that. They decided it for themselves. And while it has to do with children, in a sense, it’s not quite the mother/womb thing.

    Treat a character as a human being first, regardless of gender

    A male writer-friend asked me once whether his female characters came across well, and I told him that they came across as people first, professions second (empress, soldier, prostitute, whatever), and women third, and that such an approach was fine by me. I certainly don’t think of myself as woman before I think of myself as a writer/grad student/etc., except in situations where my sex and gender are legitimately relevant.

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 24 Jan 2007 at 4:55 am

    On a related tangent, a concept that was pointed out by a Salon reviewer summing up “The Knights of Prosperity” and whatever show comes after it, is that they both fall into the formula of “Five schlubby guys and the hot chick.”

    Now, I’ll admit that I find nothing wrong with hot chicks per se, there’s something really wonked going on where you can have the male lead look like whatever you damn well please because you found a quirky character actor (watch “The Dresden Files,” “Psych” or “Monk”) and they have great fun chewing the scenery, but non-traditionally pretty actresses? Even “Ugly Betty” is more “Badly Styled Betty” because you can tell that under the braces, bangs and awful glasses (along with a series of unfortunate outfits), America Ferrara is pretty hot. Maybe not as hot as the other women on the show, but still.

  3. Constance Ashon 24 Jan 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Banderas’s horse in THE 13TH WARRIOR also had personality and character. She had more function that to just carry one of the principal males from one part of the world to another.

    Additionally, to my mind at least, she was the most beautiful member of the cast.

    However, though I’ve only been able to see so far the first season of Rome, your assessment of the women seems to my viewing a little too harsh, in terms of the narrative.

    For example, Indris, wife of the centurian, Vorenus, seemed to me to be just about the most interesting of all the characters given us. One of the reasons is that she is seen as behaving with autonomy and real life outside of Vorenus. She was a very successful woman and individual. She was enterprising financially, and emotionally intelligent. I was most sorry that she had to die, and had to die as she did.

    Yet, her fate feels authentic and true to the time and who the characters are within that era of history and culture. This particular arc dramatizes the ultimate power over family that the paterfamilias possessed. That Vorenus then loses his own functionality in the world without her, and because he is responsible, also dramatizes a story told even in the present day.

    The historical record of an Roman patrician mother locking her sexually misbehaving daughter into her room to starve to death under her own supervision is history, not melodrama, after all. (Of course I cannot recall which historical figure this was!)

    But these are only my opinions, and not criticism!

    Love, C.

  4. Constance Ashon 24 Jan 2007 at 12:39 pm

    However, that above being said, your thesis is, alas, far too often correct, and that includes Rome too.

    For instance, I am still profoundly disturbed by the choices the Battlestar Galactica writers made with the rape of Pegasus 6 and the subsequent rape of Sharon “Boomer” Valerii. Just think how much more interesting and authentically ‘feminist’ and original it would have been to have Galactica’s female crew members of pilots and mechanics do the race to rescue her INSTEAD OF TWO MALES. Think of the subsequent story twists. We saw a very brief reaction shot of the faces of these women when they realized what was being done to Sharon at that very moment. They were horrified.

    But clearly it never even crossed the minds of the BS G writers and directors to think in any authentically feminist line, did it?

    Sharon, at that point at least, literally functioned solely as Womb AND as Vagina, and was that to every man involved, from her rapist to her rescuers.

    If women had been her rescuers, for instance, it would have been — what? Whatever it might have been, she would have been more than that.

    Love, C.

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 24 Jan 2007 at 3:31 pm

    I’m not actually certain. Admittedly, I’ve not seen that episode, being rather behind on my Battlestar, but Hollywood (and viewers) have a habit of making everyone with the exception of character actors be “really hot person,” and if “really hot person” rescues “really hot person,” there are viewers who will read sexual tension in even if the writer didn’t intend it.

    And sometimes writers do. Best example I can give in our genre is this past season of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off, featuring the proudly omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness and a squad of Really Hot People who, as we discover over the course of the season, are all some flavor of bisexual, from casual hookups to rebound boys to etc. Everyone in the show seems to exist as vagina/penis (completely interchangeable on Torchwood), because everyone has at some point ended up doing the wild thing with one another and rescuing one another. In fact, the only seeming sexual taboo seems to be that no one’s into threesomes, and I think that’s just because the writers are saving them for the second season.

    Oh wait, there was a threesome in the pilot where one of the guys used the alien pheremone perfume to pick up a woman in a bar, and when the angry boyfriend showed up, just used the perfume on him to and they went off for a jolly three-way.

    If we had a women rescue a woman on Battlestar, or almost any other show for that matter, there would be all sorts of lesbian shippers (of both sexes) reading it as prelude to hot vagina on vagina action, no matter how noble-chaste platonic feminist the writers tried to write it.

    About the only exception I can think of is this past Thanksgiving’s “extra special” episode of ER where they did the mother-of-all-cliffhangers literally: The spunky female doctor got put on a life flight for a dying grandmother, gets into a figurative pissing match with the grizzled old male chopper paramedic, then after the grandmother buys it (as she predicted), ends up going to an unscheduled rescue with an auto accident. But what an accident! A bus goes on the edge of a cliff and there’s a woman pinned and bleeding to death inside, and after the rescued son is pulled away from his dying womb, the grizzled veteran says no one’s going inside, it’s too dangerous, the boy goes hysterical, and then spunky lady doc defies conventional wisdom and common sense to go in and try a rescue anyway, shaming grizzled veteran into coming in to help the lady doc who has larger cojones than him. It being ER, the bus does not go off the cliff until the dying womb is pulled free, the doctor saves her for her son and her own feminism, and the grizzled veteran congratulates her as being one of the boys etc.

    So, count that as womb rescues womb, no sexual content, because with the son it would be too Oedipal and with the grizzled veteran the mom is too young.

    Now here’s a question. If we’re using Vagina as sexual object and Womb as mother object, what do you call old man saves young woman situations, especially the case of daughters or surrogate daughters? And doesn’t bring boyfriend or prospective suitor along for the ride?

  6. Kate Elliotton 24 Jan 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Yeah, I like the horse in The 13th Warrior, too.

    Marie – yeah, the knives, and all the minor details of the women knowing things and being consulted or giving information. I think this is one of the big differences between a character as a character and a character as a mechanism. These women have lives and knowledge that they use (just as the horse has an existence in and of itself).

    And why I would perhaps (not having seen the episode) disagree with Kevin about his use of the ER ep as an example. By being a doctor who is, presumably, shown as knowing what she is doing, the female character has already transcended her gender, as it were

  7. Kate Elliotton 24 Jan 2007 at 5:47 pm

    I think Tiberius is infamous for supposedly having locked up a sister or daughter or niece, starving her to death.

    I don’t have a problem with the threat, or even the act, of a Roman head of household killing his wife for being unfaithful. And I very much liked the actress who portrayed the wife. I think my issue may stem in large part because of the way his story unfolded, I felt that the writers set up the entire story to pay off with her death. All the foreshadowing kept hitting on it, which made it therefore feel to me that without that plot turn coming up, she wouldn’t have needed to exist as a character. Markedly, the notion of Vorenus abandoing Caesar just before he walks into the chambers because a servant woman appears out of nowhere to babble into his ear struck me as a bit of a deus ex machina and rather against character.

    But there’s an entire element here of how characters function within plots, so I am sure I am being hypocritical because surely I use the same devices! In part I suppose I just get irritated when I can recognize them coming without there being any other pleasures along the way. It ruins my fun, since I am definitely one who does not want to read the last page except, you know, as the last page.

    In the movie Children of Men, where the character Kee is definitely both womb and vagina – I mean, really, that’s her function – I got a better sense of her character as a human being, that funny sense of humor she has. Additionally, despite that one could pretty much predict the outline and outcome of the plot, I was so taken in while on the journey by the cinematography and Cuaron’s really masterful use of the telling detail that my plot mind didn’t keep intruding to make comments as it did with the latter half of the Rome miniseries. (I have not seen season 2).

  8. Kate Elliotton 24 Jan 2007 at 6:02 pm

    BSG SPOILERS BELOW – eps Pegasus, & Resurrection Ship parts 1 & 2

    Finally, I have mixed feelings about the use of rape in BSG Season 2. 5 (I’ve only seen the first 3 eps of season 2.5, I should note).

    I agree with you about the situation with Boomer. Here was an important character from season one now stuck in a cage, surviving solely because she is pregnant. Fair enough. That is the situation, and certainly she (as a character) is taking advantage of it in order to survive.

    But I think the writers bogged down in what to do with her. It seems to me that, now that she is essentially static in their eyes, they decided to use her to help develop their critique of the brutal culture that had developed on the Pegasus, but it devolves into this assault of women thing (what else do you do with a caged pregnant female?).

    You are absolutely right about the reaction of the other women, including Callie – they are shown to be disgusted, but the fact that none of the women present at that interaction feel free to speak out and tell those guys to shut up is a reflection of our culture – women at least can show disgust, but they can’t do anything to challenge it. They don’t even try. I think that the chronology suggests that the women leave the area before the statement about Lt Thorne giving it to Boomer comes out, but I’m not sure; in any case, it is already implicit that women could not attempt anything, not because they don’t care what happens to the Cylon (or support it) but because the writers aren’t even thinking through the possibility.

    I found the situation with whatsername (6) a bit different. It is implied the Admiral Cane (Cain? Kain? Kane? anyway) doesn’t care how much she is abused because to the admirial she is not human. Which is a well attested historical (and modern, alas) attitude for women of a dominant culture to take. The one thing the writers did do that I found interesting was the bit with the ship, that she wants the ship destroyed and helps in doing so, despite the damage this does to the Cylon cause in general, so that her knowledge of the horrible abuse is not passed on to the rest of her. That interested me as a psychological insight.

    And it was a nice bit with Baltar, who normally bores me to tears – he helps her, but of course for totally selfish and self centered reasons that are really all about him and not about her. That rang true.

  9. Constance Ashon 24 Jan 2007 at 6:03 pm

    . . . . Hollywood (and viewers) have a habit of making everyone with the exception of character actors be “really hot person,” and if “really hot person” rescues “really hot person,” there are viewers who will read sexual tension in even if the writer didn’t intend it.

    But, Kevin, do you think that really matters when the writers and more, um, less narrowly focused audience wouldn’t be side-tracked by that idea?

    Or, more accurately, what I mean to say is, that’s not a valid reason NOT to take the more original and interesting, and maybe even AUTHENTIC action-plot-twist.

    It would have been authentically empowering to women of all ages to see this happen, rather than 2 men making up their differences over a female sex object by cooperating in their rescue of aforementioned sex object.

    Did that make sense?

    Love, C.

  10. Kate Elliotton 24 Jan 2007 at 6:12 pm

    there’s a movie with Robert Redford as an old rancher and Jennifer Lopez as his estranged daughter-in-law (the son died in an auto accident many years ago). In this movie the old guy and the young woman with much difficulty reach a point where they can begin to trust each other again. But despite Lopez’s clear sexual attractiveness (she ends up hooking up with the young sheriff), and the fact that she has a 11 year old daughter, she is simply a human being with a history and personality issues in conflict with another human being with personality issues.

    It’s not a matter of it being female or male, but whether the female is treated as a character in and of herself.

  11. Marie Brennanon 24 Jan 2007 at 6:42 pm

    Two other examples:

    I very much like Joss Whedon’s handling of the core female characters on Firefly, because taken as a whole, they tend to represent a broad range of possible ways of being. On a sexual front, Inara is professionally promiscuous (the harlot), Kaylee is casually promiscuous (the girlfriend), Zoe is monogamous (the wife), and River is celibate/virginal (the oracle, to label her with a female archetype). And it extends to a lot of other aspects of their characters, too, like their education (decreasing from River down to Zoe) and their response to/capacity for vioence (River, again, down to Kaylee). (And I find it funny that, of the men, Wash is the only guy who’s getting laid with any regularity.)

    George R. R. Martin’s a different kind of case. Looking at the adult women, motherhood is central to both Catelyn and Cersei (as wifehood, notably, is not, for a variety of reasons), but they don’t come across as wombs on legs; they proactively act as mothers, and also in other contexts. Cersei’s problematic to me — I hate her so very very much — but I don’t think it’s because Martin can’t/hasn’t bothered to think of her differently; I think he’s deliberately exploring the ways in which her cultural context limits and warps her. The unnatural attachment to Jaime aside, I read Cersei as an ambitious and intelligent woman who has been given no outlet for those qualities; as a result, when she gets power at last, she handles it badly, because she doesn’t know how to use it. Had Tywin ever bothered to teach her politics, I think she would be very effective indeed. (Tywin’s eternal problem, of course, is that he’s mishandled every last one of his children. The tragic flaw of the Lannisters is, invariably, the Lannisters.)

  12. Constance Ashon 24 Jan 2007 at 6:53 pm

    It’s Admiral Cain. Which, again, with that name and all their froufrou mystical/spiritual/myth cosomology, could have led to something very interesting with a FEMALE rescue of Sharon/Boomer.

    In a world that purportedly is so egalitarian that the lavatories and barracks are unisex, one would believe that any FEMALE admiral of any smartz would have problems using rape as a tactic, whether or not the female was human or not.

    Shoot, it was women who objected most and did most of the anti-cruelty to animals organizing back in the day.

    And they were also the backbone of the anti-slavery movements throughout the world — despite the insistence by so Many, from Jefferson on, that African descent slaves were no better than animals. (Yet, by golly, they f*cked those animals by entitlement and right — a perk of slavery that they fought to the death to keep.)

    Love, C.

  13. Kate Elliotton 24 Jan 2007 at 7:02 pm

    The writers didn’t quite have the guts to have those two guys who go in to beat up the Chief and Helo go so far as to rape them, did they? Which might have been more to the point. I didn’t have a problem with Adm. Cain ordering the prisoner to be beaten, raped, and abused – she is portrayed as out of control on other fronts as well, the stranding and murder of innocent civilians, the murder of her XO, etc.

  14. Kate Elliotton 24 Jan 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Marie, good examples. One of the things I really like about Kaley in Firefly is that she is never punished for having a sexual appetite. That’s progress. Catelyn in Martin’s books is an interesting example of a woman whose sole function in society is to be a wife and mother, and yet he makes her a person first and foremost – for me as a reader she never falls into cliche. Cersei doesn’t work as well for me as a character, but obviously ymmv.

    And now, as perhaps you might suspect, I am in a transitional phase having finished Part Four of the WIP and needing to start in on Part Five, so why else would I be spending so much time procrastinating instead of working??? What do I do next???

  15. Cameronon 24 Jan 2007 at 7:12 pm

    I did a tongue in cheek bit about writing female/love interest characters on my blog in ‘How not to write a novel – Part 2’

    I read mainly fantasy, and based on the examples in my library I realised I had 2 choices for a female character.

    “The elegant helpless female who needs to be rescued at the critical moment, or the gutsy, closet warrior, who needs rescuing at the critical moment.”

    I think perhaps I’ll just look at some of the normal women around me and use their personalities – maybe even talk to one or two. There’s an idea!

  16. Constance Ashon 24 Jan 2007 at 7:18 pm

    The writers didn’t quite have the guts to have those two guys who go in to beat up the Chief and Helo go so far as to rape them, did they?

    I thought exactly the same thing.

    Still, the fighter crew mechanic deck and the pilots have weapons, know how to use them. Why are they less privileged to run to the rescue of Boomer than the 2 guys? Other, than, of course, none of the women had baby mama-erotic-romance issues with Boomer.

    Which again, would still make more sense, over all, considering everything, because history of culture has taught us, when push comes to shove, especially in war, men will push their love object under the bus to save their own a$$es almost every time.

    Please, guys, notice the “almost” ….

    This isn’t a diss on any o’ yall. It’s about, like, well, why this choice rather than that choice, which would have been more dramatic, more interesting, more original, and far more egalitarian than the choice they chose.

    After all, by now this is a crew that has been fighting for quite a while by now. It knows how to fight. Boomer fought. Thrace and 6 fight each other. Blah blah blah. We have seen women fighting. But basically, fighting only each other.

    Not for each other. I would, I have fought for my women friends, with our own weapons. We’re not soldiers, etc. But surely, if we were, we’d use those weapons too.

    Love, C.

  17. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 24 Jan 2007 at 7:40 pm


    I see a problem with equating “original” with “this will be empowering to women.” Empowerment may be many shades of good, useful and whatnot, but it’s hardly original. Remember the old folk tale about the husband and wife who switch jobs for the day, the wife does fine plowing the fields while meanwhile the husband has put the cow on the roof to eat the grass thatch and it falls through? Moral: Guys are dumb, chicks kick ass. Empowering to women, yes. Original, no.

    For an example of turnabout, with exactly the sort of BS Alis is talking about, but with the men, anyone seen the film “Practical Magic”? Anyone remember the first husband who dies because of the family curse, whathisname, Penis? Yes, there’s women’s empowerment out the wazoo, but we’re also expected to sympathize with a 200 year dynasty of incompetent witches who seem to think it’s more imporant to wear garden party hats and enchant their blender for margaritas and chick power than it would be to end a family curse that kills any men who actually love them and any women who love them back. Yes, the curse is ended, but only because the line finally produced a semi-competent witch, and there isn’t a single cross word for the margarita-swilling aunts whose love spell is responsible for said witch’s first hubby’s deadness. At the end of the film, all the women are the town are applauding the witches, presumably because no one in this inbred village was related to Mr. Penis or even knew him.

  18. Constance Ashon 24 Jan 2007 at 8:42 pm

    My goodness! Never saw the Practical Magic film, but I did read the novel, and liked it very much. My recollections of the novel don’t jibe with yours of the movie at all!

    I will, however, stand behind, ‘original’ and ‘women acting to defend each other’ being quite on the same spectrum.

    Because, nope. You don’t see it much in fiction or anywhere else either.

    Yet, sometimes, in real life, yanno, one woman might well very quietly step between a woman and some sort of very bad thing directed at that woman, and stop it.

    I’m thinking of what my maternal grandmother did, now and again, standing between my father during his worse moments, and me, when I was young (and so was he).

    Love, C.

  19. […] 5 – I am Womb, I am Vagina: Women As Roles Rather than Characters “Certain conventions are sure to minimize my enjoyment of a narrative, and chief among them is the narrowing of women’s roles to those related to reproduction and/or Relationship to the Male.” (tags: chauvinism personality roles gender characters writing fiction) […]

  20. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 24 Jan 2007 at 9:45 pm

    Well, it’s certainly possible that there’s more to the character of dead first hubby in the novel. It really would be hard to have less. And it’s not as if Hollywood doesn’t regularly give characters short shrift.

    That said, it’s rather telling that the film was cut that way. It certainly wasn’t done to appeal to a male audience.

    With “women acting to defend each other,” sort of thought this was the whole point of the “chick flick” genre. You know, How to Make an American Quilt of Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias for Thelma and Louse. None of which I’ve actually seen, mind you, but I did see A League of Their Own, which does also have “women acting to defend each other” along with a rather cool historical plot about women’s league baseball.

    Of course, compared to the huge swath of sports films, A League of their Own stands out simply because it’s the only one actually about women.

  21. Marie Brennanon 24 Jan 2007 at 11:07 pm

    I really can’t stand the chick flick genre.

    Give me G.I. Jane, which supports its overt point on the covert level of cinematography: the camera lingers lovingly on Demi Moore, but on things like her abs and shoulders, not her boobs. (And what I wouldn’t give to have her muscles from that movie.)

  22. Constance Ashon 25 Jan 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I’m with Marie on the so-called chiclit genre, generally.

    Thank goodness, the market share is oversaturated, and with very bad works too, so publishing is moving on. OTH, some works that were marketed as that were not that, not really. For pete’s sake, Some even try to lable Jane Austen as chick lit. Shame on their ignorance.

    But Romance/Fantasy, Romance/SF, etc. irritate me even more so. Go figger.

    However, there are always exceptions to the annoyance of any genre or subgenre, because, what they are, fundamentally, and first, are really good books in some way. Or, at least, an excellent, single read. Outlander is one of the latter, for instance.

    Love, C.

  23. Muneravenon 25 Jan 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Constance Ash said “Indris, wife of the centurian, Vorenus, seemed to me to be just about the most interesting of all the characters given us.”

    I agree. Although she didn’t have enough screen time, I thought she was a very interesting character. Her situation reminded me a bit of women after WWII who had to suddenly adjust to husbands who came home and seemed like strangers in so many ways. I didn’t think she was one-dimensional at all. Tragic, yes, but then most of the characters in “ROme” don’t exactly have happy stories.

  24. Kate Elliotton 25 Jan 2007 at 11:24 pm

    “The elegant helpless female who needs to be rescued at the critical moment, or the gutsy, closet warrior, who needs rescuing at the critical moment.”

    Heh. I like this. I mean, in an ironically amusing way.

    Someone was recently describing to me an old novel (Burroughs, maybe?) in which the female character is hyper competent at everything, except when the Alpha Male Hero is around, at which point she always needs to be rescued by him.

    I haven’t read or seen Practical Magic, and I have no opinion on chicklit or chickflicks in general, as I tend to watch movies based on whether I think I will like them without (much) regard to how they are labeled, so if, forex, the 2006 “Something New” with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker counts as a chickflick, I liked it. But it is a romance, and the two leads are portrayed as people in a two-way relationship, that is, you need them both to have the story.

  25. DCMon 10 Dec 2009 at 8:05 am

    The effect of Burroughs’ female characters, at least, has not been that of scenery. They’ve had lasting effects on some readers:


  26. Kate Elliotton 18 Dec 2009 at 2:55 am

    I think I never read the Pellucidar novels. Interesting.

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