From cynical and pessimistic comic creations to gun wielding gangsters, a selection of Wales Arts Reviews’ top writers reflect on a particular fictional female icon who has had a real impact upon them.
It may be that Sweden is ahead of other countries when it comes to feminism and equal rights; certainly the fact that Sweden recently instituted the Bechdel test for films is a good indicator of this. Swedish literature too often features strong female characters who are interested in thinking about issues beyond romance (although they might also discuss equality within their relationships).
One of my current favourite Swedish characters is Zelda, from Lina Neidestam’s comics. The most recent collection of Zelda comics was published a few months ago as Zelda vs. patriarkatet (Zelda vs. the patriarchy), and the title alone probably reveals a lot about our heroine.
Zelda is a young woman who works rather unhappily for a cheap entertainment newspaper, writing gossip articles about celebrities. She has an intelligent, feminist boyfriend who is pretty desperate for the two of them to live together and be monogamous, but our Zelda is not interested in traditional relationships (except when she and her roommate get evicted and she needs a place to stay, and her boyfriend’s flat suddenly becomes an appealing option). Meanwhile, Zelda hangs out with her best friend; chats with people about issues ranging from having kids to the importance of International Women’s Day; protests the treatment of women in society (Why do men urinate in public but frown on women breast-feeding? Why do male bosses take advantage of young, poorly paid female employees?); participates in antics that get people thinking, such as by turning a snowman family into two males and a child; and, well, yes, she also lusts after men. Zelda likes male bodies and she likes having sex with men, and she isn’t ashamed of this, nor does it go against her morals (for the most part, that is; she’s against the objectification of women but sometimes objectifies an attractive male). She’s a well-rounded and opinionated character. And Neidestam’s comics are funny, too.
English-speaking countries could learn quite a bit from the Nordic lands, not least when it comes to active, engaged female characters in literature and films. Lina Neidestam’s Zelda is an excellent example of this, and I wish Zelda were available in English.
The Governess in The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
Henry James created not only one of the greatest ever ghost stories with his tale of a remote manor house peopled only by two small children, the housekeeper, a governess, and an ugly terrible evil; but in that Governess he created a new literary type: the female protagonist as action hero. The Governess is a fighter, pro-active, bold and fiercely protective of her charge, even in the face of terrifying supernatural threats. It is the journey at the centre of the Governess’ character, her awakening that makes her so enduring, and so powerful. That she ultimately succumbs under the pressures of her extraordinary battle with evil makes her all the more heroic and all the more enduring.
The character has never been improved upon from James’ original, although she has become a stock figure in the horror genre. And as long as there’s the horror story, there will be a character who resembles the Governess. Deborah Kerr played her directly most successfully in Jack Clayton’s masterful film version of the James novel The Innocents, in 1962. She embodies protective fortitude, steel in the eye, a heroic maternity. Nicole Kidman takes the part in The Others; not a version of the book, but a film that openly acknowledged the debt to The Turn of the Screw. It is arguably Kidman’s finest performance – awkward, burdened, she is more emotionally disconnected from her own children as James’ Governess is bonded to the unwanted children of someone else. But she grows to protect them with warmth rather than coldness as she does at the beginning of the film. The Governess appears again in the most heart-breaking supernatural movie of recent years, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007), a film that really gets to the core of James’ novel, which is about the maternal instinct, a woman who will protect children that are not her own against almighty peril.
In literary criticism too the creation of the Governess caused a change in the way women could be portrayed in literature originally intended for a male reader. Critics who originally believed the Governess to be insane, to have imagined the hauntings in the story, began to see how carefully James had created her viable sanity, threaded through her tangible strength. The Governess is a figure who quietly towers over modern storytelling, a creation of James’ own fascination of women’s suffrage, most forensically explored in his novel The Bostonians published a decade before, it becomes a fully-fledged literary philosophical exploration by the time of The Turn of the Screw. James, of course, wrote women exceptionally well, particular for the time; but in the unnamed Governess he created a symbol, with all the curves and turns and glints in the eye of a real character. No mean feat, that.
Briony Tallis in Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan
Briony Tallis, aged 13, is the youngest of the upper-class Tallis family who reside in a lead-paned baronial Gothic home surrounded by an artificial lake, oak woods and a fountain, and on the hottest day of 1935 she makes a decision which changes life as she knows it. The fact that the decision is hers and not circumstance’s alone gives her character a personality and power which no other female teenager in fiction has pulled off, especially with as much literary pomposity and emotive grace as readers endure in Atonement.
The decision Briony makes, which affects the lives of several characters in the story as well as herself, is based on events she sees but does not understand. Throughout the story, prior to her big decision, there are several incidents involving her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis’ family housekeeper, which Briony witnesses and takes her own truth from. Her lack of understanding also comes from physical distance, but clearly the main fuel for her assumptions is her tender age. The lack of understanding and maturity on Briony’s part adds to her personality rather than detracts from it. And the title of the book undeniably belongs to her.
If it is difficult for male writers to create convincing potent women who not only contribute to the story but determine its pace, content and consequences, creating girls at the cusp of adolescence in the same vein is harder still. In Atonement, the author Ian McEwan manages this accomplishment through his trademark intellectual style of writing and an amalgamation of traits for the character of Briony, including intelligence, creativity and a love for her sister, which collide devastatingly with jealously, a lack of experience of grown-up life and underdeveloped logic. Briony’s desire to be a writer enables her varying views, both physical and mental, to synchronise wonderfully with McEwan’s time-shifting and story-shifting narrative.
A day which consists mostly of a young girl trying to direct a Play starring her cousins, to be performed later for her visiting brother, culminates in a dinner party where one person’s truth overrides everyone else’s, resulting in a chilling impact.
Sugar in The Crimson Petal and the White (2011) BBC mini-series
My first instinct had been to choose one of Angela Carter’s gloriously alive, fully multi-dimensional heroines as my contribution to this piece. Then, quite by chance, I happened to re-watch the BBC’s exceptional re-telling of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. And at once, I thought, oh no, it has to be Sugar.
It has to be Sugar because when you have recently seen Romala Garai’s coruscating portrayal of her, it is so subtle and under-the-skin complex, that it is hard to think about anything else for days. You want people who haven’t seen it to know about it and to watch it immediately. And for people who have seen it to watch it again. Now.
It has to be Sugar, too, because in a week when the comprehensive National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles reports that one in ten women have been coerced into sex, it is worth reflecting on just how far, if far we have come at all, we have travelled from the Victorian era. Are the slumlands where Sugar lives and works so very different to the ghettoised ganglands of inner city Britain? It is also worth considering how many non-male-gaze, quality prime time dramas like The Crimson Petal and the White get made on British TV, not just in a year but in a decade. (I haven’t the space to go into lists here but I can certainly count all of the ones I can think of on both hands.)
It has been said that The Crimson Petal is the novel that Dickens would have written had he not been constrained by censorship and certainly as Garai begins to narrate a direct quote from the novel, while the camera leads us through Victorian slum London, this point is instantly enforced:
You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it [Victorian London] well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.
And in Sugar we have a character whose voice has for too long been denied to us by censorship. The voice of a deeply intelligent, deeply creative individual, who Victorian society perceived as a non-person. Do we, as a society, think of prostitutes so very differently today? They are something that most people prefer to forget exists (and to think that they are empowered Thatcherite Billy Piper-lookalikes is to do exactly this). The men who visit them, meanwhile, one can only presume are little changed from their Victorian forbears.
Michel Faber has said that he was delighted with the way that Garai portrayed Sugar not as a ‘ruthless, beautiful courtesan… [clawing] her way to the top’ but as ‘a frighteningly damaged female’ and this really is the heart of who Sugar, whose mother first introduced her to a ‘gentleman caller’ when she was thirteen, is. But this does not mean that she is incapable of great strength of mind and great acts of love, far from it. Indeed it is ultimately her love for her client’s neglected daughter, and her absolute refusal to repeat the cycle of abuse that she has been subjected to throughout her entire life, that makes her an icon for us all.
Paula, the booker on The Larry Sanders Show
My eternal (and occasionally tedious) bar-room deification of The Larry Sanders Show is partly rooted in its finest, and most tragically overlooked comic creation, Paula, the grouchy chain-smoking talent booker, a woman who can barely conceal her contempt for her job of appeasing self-satisfied celebrity egos. Played by the wonderfully acerbic Janeane Garofalo (in so many ways, Paula is Janeane, and Janeane is Paula) Paula acts as everywoman for those either perpetually disillusioned by their own debilitating day-jobs, or those within the entertainment industry for whom the initial veneer of tinsel and glamour came swiftly to hang like sick on the stars. Cynical, pessimistic, unpretentious, and having booked everyone from Elvis Costello to Angie Dickinson, to a dog that drinks coffee while smoking a cigarette, Paula exists to hold the mirror up close to the bloated face of show business, to the world of work itself, to expose the ludicrous hoopla of modern-day existence. Until its fat nostrils steam up the glass with shame and revulsion.
As the show’s unabashed alt-rock totem (though never once drifting into the ‘I could be your kooky girlfriend’ cliché now being stretched to breaking point by Zooey Deschanel), Paula is a vocal devotee of mid-90s U.S. slacker rock: ‘Pavement, Weezer, I would be willing to sleep with any of those gentlemen.’ In one memorable episode she is obliged to appear on the show and, though ambivalent about the exercise, takes succour from the fact that members of Pavement might possibly view it. Notably, 90s alt-rock was an occasionally reoccurring thread for the show, Larry’s waspish producer Artie once unexpectedly claiming to be a big fan of The Breeders: ‘Their first album anyway, the second one was a disappointment.’
Paula’s breast cancer scare, the emergence of her former lesbian lover (played by the quite marvellous Brett Butler), her fling with Larry’s weasel of an agent, Stevie Grant, were standout moments of a series that provided many of television’s most stellar comedic moments, and one which utterly redefined the term ‘post-modern’ within the genre of the TV sitcom. Her fitting final storyline on the show, within an episode titled ‘Pain Equals Funny’, revolves around a disillusioned Paula threatening to quit her job for another show – prior to Larry impulsively offering her a promotion in an ill-thought out bid to get her to stay. To the surprise of many, the offer is accepted, and Paula – prior to this, a professional only in the sense of her rampant and vocal anti-careerism – disappears, almost poetically, like a moth up the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. And is never seen again.
Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson in The Wire
It might seem a strange selection for fictional female icons, a category that has already inspired some truly great character studies by other Wales Arts Review writers – but there are few fictional characters, male or female, that so defy any gender based stereotype.
The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns’ brilliantly stark portrayal of street and civil life in Baltimore, demands attention. Not just for its ultra-realistic representation of drug crime and dysfunctional institutions, but also for the rich cast of characters that inhabit this modern-day Gotham. There are no clichéd heroic policemen fighting crime for the betterment of society, like so many principle characters of too many (soon to be forgotten) cop shows, or any comically hackneyed bad guy whose murderous ways are caricatures of pantomime villains. These characters are drawn from real people and placed into real situations; there is little room for sentiment as their lives interact with each other.
It is against this backdrop of grimly authentic drama that Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson is introduced. As part of a small drugs gang, whose attempts to gain a larger slice of the American Dream are documented in the final three seasons of the show, Snoop’s presence develops from just a one-dimensional ‘foot soldier’ to a fully rounded character, that despite her homicidal tendencies, garners both understanding and, perhaps, sympathy. It would be too easy to credit Simon and Burns for creating a wonderfully complex, and convention challenging, character, but Snoop (the character) is, in part, an exaggerated version of Snoop (the actress, eponymously played) – a native Baltimorean, with her own chequered past, Snoop not so much owns the character, but actually is the character.
Despite a recent shift in societal, and therefore cinematic, attitudes towards depictions of women in the media, still too many female characters in film and on TV today are caricatures of what men believe women should be. Snoop is a character that defies both convention and stereotype – her relationships with men do not define her. Her sexuality is alluded to, but it is of no consequence. Fiercely loyal, tough and uncompromising – Snoop is a product of the world around and the world should watch out, because Snoop might be ‘packing some heat’.
Illustration by Dean Lewis