A Woman's Place in the Literary World

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Learned women make men nervous. This is prevalent in reality, and is thus mirrored in literature. The journey of women in the literary world has long been bruised by stereotypical portrayals, often prompted by the laughable lack of women authors in comparison to the predominance of men. The misguiding 'male view' of females has dug its claws deep into the literary canon, and subsequently, girls have strived to mold themselves into a 'suitable' caricature of womanhood. Confronted with such tropes, it has become difficult to navigate female portrayals in literature where the author has not adopted the male value system thrust upon them. This essay will review the most prominent contributions to modern feminist literary criticism, with emphasis on the madwoman thesis and ‘ecriture feminine’. Additionally, I will explore the biblical roots of the 'virtuous' and 'sensuous' woman, and how such contributions have impacted the portrayal of women in literature today.

An expansion of feminism's critique of male control and belief system, feminist theory combines components of Marxism and poststructuralism to examine the province of gender within the composing, translation, and dissemination of scholarly writings. As proposed by Yale Professor Paul Fry in ‘The Classical Feminist Tradition’, there have been several prominent schools of thought in modern feminist literary criticism. In the first wave of feminism, dating roughly from the 1860s to the 1940s, critics consider the male treatment of women and the marginalization of female characters. Many critique the works of William Shakespeare and apply a ‘first-wave feminist literary lens’, when absorbing his characterization of females.

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The second wave of feminism, or ‘gynocriticism’, was coined in the seventies by Elaine Showalter to describe a new literary project intended to construct “a female framework for the analysis of women's literature”. It involves three primary areas of concern. The first acknowledges the assessment of female writers and their place in literary history. The second is how male and female authors treat female characters in their books, and the third is the discovery and exploration of a canon of women's literature. In Showalter's ‘A Literature of Their Own’ (1977), she explores women writing women and proposes three literary phases. In the ‘feminine phase’, female writers attempt to abide by male values, almost writing as men. They usually disregarded the debate regarding women's place in society and employed male pseudonyms during this period. Examples include Charlotte Bronte, who had written under ‘Currer Bell’, and Mary Evans, better known as ‘George Eliot’. Next is the ‘feminist phase’, where the central theme of works by female writers critiqued the oppression of women in society. Finally, in the ‘female phase’, women writers were no longer trying to prove the legitimacy of a woman's perspective. Literary works under this category often lacked or lost the anger and aggressive consciousness of the feminist phase.

The third is the madwoman thesis, made famous by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's 'The Madwoman in the Attic' (1979), which uses Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ as its center. Through the gothic, animalistic descriptions of Bertha Mason, Bronte mirrors all of the anger and distress Jane has to repress in order to fit the mold of Victorian womanhood. Both Jane and Bertha had remained imprisoned most of their early lives so as to not disturb social stability and gender norms. Whilst Bertha is contained physically, Jane’s self-restraint grounds her to the principles of Victorian womanhood. ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ represents the confining aspect of marriage at this time, suggesting that this stereotypical expectation of Victorian wifehood threatens both mental and physical health. Gilbert and Gubar's thesis suggests that because society forbade women from expressing themselves through creative outlets, their creative powers were channeled into psychologically self-destructive behavior and subversive actions.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any intriguing piece of literature always begins with a brilliant first line. And Gilbert and Gubar achieve exactly that. “Is a pen a metaphorical penis” (Gilbert and Gubar 2007, p.3) sets the stage for an intriguing discussion into whether writing anything is inherently masculine. This postulates that the writer’s pen is figuratively a penis. This theory perhaps stems from the predominance of men in literature, and the marginalization of not only female writers, but also female characters. As a society, we have given too much prestige to male authors and provided ammunition to fuel these social taboos against women. Subsequently, we have created stereotypical and innately misogynistic literary criteria which both men and women abide by. Gilbert and Gubar examine the notion that women writers of the nineteenth century were confined in their writing, much like the ‘madwoman’ herself. Consequently, they were inclined to make their female characters either embody the ‘angel’, characterized by pure, angelic attributes, or the ‘monster’, which categorizes them as corrupt and sinful. This arguably emanated from male writers' tendencies to restrict female characters to either wholly evil or wholly good.

Paul Fry identifies the final contribution as French feminism, or rather; ‘ecriture feminine’, a term coined by literary theorist Hélène Cixous. This theory relies heavily on Freudian psychology and penis envy, and foregrounds the importance of language for the psychic understanding of the self. French feminists posit the existence of a “separate language belonging to women that consists of loose, digressive sentences written without use of the ego” and the difficulty to understand it can be attributed to “centuries of suppression of the female voice”. In Cixous’ ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she implores women to pursue writing and ignore the patriarchal attempts to lure her away from exploring the individuality of her mind. She underlines that the “number of women writers…has always been ridiculously small” as historically speaking, writing was “reserved for the great”, meaning, “great men”. Ironically, the earliest named author is a woman: Enheduanna. Her works, predominantly hymnals, also make her the earliest known poet. Around 4200 years ago in the Sumerian state of Ur, Enheduanna was the first known woman to hold the title of ‘EN’, a role of political importance. At the time, anonymous literary work was customary. But as Virginia Woolf noted that throughout most of history, anonymous was a woman. Cixous passionately encourages women to write about themselves so that they can ‘write women’. She furthers her thesis by urging women to not internalize images projected onto them by men and bolster phallocentrism and the phallocentric tradition. Cixous continues to proclaim that by censoring women's writing, the female body was also censored and writing will aid the woman in gaining back her assets and weakening the hegemonic thinking of history. Her conclusion summarizes that although women cannot avoid using the generic language, the tongue of men, they should not be deferred by this. And this is irrefutably precise. The current speech code favors men and although feminism has seen a march of progress, there is much more work to be done. As such, women must not stop contributing to literature. Now, more than ever, it is imperative for females to pick up a pen and write their own stories. Write about their own experiences. Write, and reshape the portrayal of women in the literary world.

Cixous further proposes that ‘marked writing’ (gender influenced work) has created a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated. I believe that this is not only prevalent in modern works but even in archaic literature. The Book of Genesis has been the fundamental basis for concepts of gender and morality in the West. The narrative of Adam and Eve is said to convey essential, and mostly negative, 'truths' about the nature of women. Eve has represented the personality of all women for the last two thousand years or so. And so, it can be questioned to what extent the biblical representation of Eve has influenced the portrayal of women in literature. Eve represents everything about a woman a man should guard against, and her actions have created a prevailing belief that all women are, by nature, disobedient, weak-willed, and prone to temptation. Their actions are defined by self-interest and egoism. The comparison to Eve is inescapable for women, regardless of their achievements. Thus, this continues to serve as the ultimate weapon against women who wish to challenge male hegemony. It is a pernicious view that is so deeply ingrained in not only the socio-religious illustration of women, but also their depiction in literature. Specifically, in pre-Reformation Europe, the most influential figure was that of the Virgin Mary, the archetype of womanhood, and the stark dichotomy of Eve. The Virgin Mary is untainted by immorality and observes chastity and modesty. Women akin to the Virgin Mary (in literature) constantly associate themselves with domestic roles and the preservation of a socially approved nuclear family. They reject debauchery and other illustrious acts and so are praised. Contrarily, Eve is associated with the fluidity of sexuality and its overt display. As such, she is scorned.

Cynthia G. Wolff in her thesis ‘A Mirror for Men: Stereotypes of Women in Literature’ posits five types of women presentations in literature: the virtuous woman, the sensuous woman, the sentimental stereotype, the liberated woman, and the American girl. She cements that, unlike masculine problems, feminine problems are very seldom the principal subject of literary interest. Although there are certainly some exceptions, they are rare, and so balance insignificantly against the massive body of literature which is dominated by masculine dilemmas. Even when feminine concerns are mentioned, they are either dismissed as a ‘joke’ or barely explored. For example, Wolff comments how childbirth exists in literature primarily as a “convenient plot device for eliminating extraneous young women” and “menopause is portrayed as a snide joke”. After all, the plight of women is insignificant against the oh-so taxing struggles of men. Wolff’s virtuous and sensuous woman seem to mirror the Virgin Mary and Eve respectively. Whilst the virtuous woman is identified with the “positive elements in a man’s life”, the sensuous woman is identified with “not only sex”, but with “other forms of non-virtuous behavior”. This dichotomy is also expressed through physical attributes, where the chaste woman is assigned blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin, the sensuous is given more sexually alluring features such as dark hair and dark eyes. This is ubiquitous in modern literary works where chastity and innocence are synonymous with soft, dainty features and traditional Western beauty standards. But since the ‘sensuous woman’ often distracts the ‘strong’ man from achieving his goal, she must inevitably be removed from the literary canon for convenience. After all, how dare a woman waver the path of a man?

Although the portrayal of women has improved significantly, there are still modern tropes that displease some. Personally, the biggest may be the perpetuation of the ‘good girl’ that so many women authors ascribe to their main characters. The ‘good girl’ has a set of criteria to it that women authors persistently follow. First, they cannot be selfish. Instead, these women are desirable specifically because they self-sacrifice and prioritize others over themselves. Teaching young female readers that they should put themselves last to please others is wrong and misleading. Secondly, women authors only allow their characters ‘situational impurity’. Oftentimes, the female narrator dictates that they just had to dress immodestly because of their situation. The ‘good girl’ (much like the Virgin Mary and the virtuous woman) adopts a continual air of innocence and chastity. They only voice ‘improper’ thoughts according to the convenience of the plot, rather than by their own nature. It has long been the time to kill this pureness necessity, built upon the questionable male value of women being virginal and unadulterated, that is the backbone of so many female leads. Finally, the ‘good girl’ is simply unrealistic. Whilst she appears to embody the qualities of a virtuous woman, she is still required to have sex appeal. It transforms women into unrealistic, imaginary objects.

Now sometimes female authors tend to go the other way. They try to completely avoid the good girl trope. In my opinion, the worst overcorrection is the phrase ‘I’m not like other girls’. Women generally have a fear attached to their femininity because feminine things are not taken seriously or seen as important, as reflected through both literature and social dilemmas. This manifests itself through authors attempting to detach their female leads from 'feminine things' like the color pink, or activities that a 'stereotypical female' would enjoy, like shopping. Instead, they must adopt a persona closer to that of a 'more interesting' or 'more important' man. These female leads often show more of an interest in masculine activities. This is entirely unrealistic and such restrictions almost encourage females to reject or shy away from their femininity. For the younger generation especially, we must allow female leads to be feminine as women can be those things and still be individuals with intricate desires and personalities. Furthermore, women who are allowed to be confident in their femininity are portrayed as the bad guy or the ‘mean girl’. They are usually attributed unfavorable features such as impoliteness and they go out of their way to agitate the protagonist. This creates a negative view of femininity, as strong women and sureness in one’s sexuality shouldn’t be synonymous with antagonism.

Lili Loofbourrow’s insight into the male glance, a term coined by the author herself, defines this concept as the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than “lingering lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on”. It feeds an “inchoate, almost erotic hunger to… reject without taking the trouble of analytical labor” because our intuition is so searingly accurate. She posits this phenomenon behind why male critics will dismiss female-driven narratives without actually understanding them, from reluctance to read female authors, to rejection of female protagonists in big franchises.

Men writing women poses an entire other problem. Firstly, it is almost impossible to write about the struggles of a person if you haven’t experienced them yourselves. As such, many men misinterpret or completely subvert the female in their scholarly works. Another grave issue is objectification. Desires are nuanced, and the way men, specifically straight white men, view these desires are different and this is demonstrated through their portrayal of women. The sexualization of women in literature is not only made evident by the plot, but also by the title itself, a feature explored by an article questioning ‘Why So Many Books Have 'Girl' in the Title’ (Times, 2016). There is a phenomenon in the publishing world where a significant proportion of books include the word ‘girl’ in the title, but almost exclusively when the word ‘girl’ is used in the title, it is referring to a grown woman. However, there is no equivalent for ‘boys’. Now there are two reasons for this. Firstly, there are two standards of male beauty in our patriarchal society. The ‘boy’ and the ‘man’ can both be alluring and attractive, but for a woman, there’s just the ‘girl’. In order for a character to seem intriguing, she needs to be a girl. Secondly, vulnerability in females sell and empowerment doesn’t. The obsession with the infantilization of women is simply sick, but it is employed by so many authors, and not just male writers, that it is unavoidable. Women have long been unrealistically sexualized in literature, and it is still apparent today.

In summation, the portrayal of women in literature has always been problematic. The predominance of men in literature, in terms of both writers and characters, are still present, and although the image of women has come far, literary stereotypes are yet to be emitted. The supremacy of the male voice remains unchallenged. Women don't act, they react. And even so, their actions are subjected to the male glance. Obtusely, a woman's place in the literary world must be earned, whereas the male stance is given.

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A Woman’s Place in the Literary World. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 25, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-womans-place-in-the-literary-world/
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A Woman’s Place in the Literary World. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-womans-place-in-the-literary-world/> [Accessed 25 Jul. 2024].
A Woman’s Place in the Literary World [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Jul 25]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-womans-place-in-the-literary-world/
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