Of Princesses and Queens

What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are, as we have seen, both overtly and covertly patriarchal? If the vexed and vexing polarities of angel and monster, sweet dumb Snow White and fierce mad Queen, are major images literary tradition offers women, how does such imagery influence the ways in which women attempt the pen?

–Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

In their co-authored essay, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” prominent feminist literary theorists Gilbert and Gubar elaborate eloquently on a theme mentioned over and over again by the women who came after them: women are rarely represented accurately in any male-dominated medium.

Gilbert and Gubar observe a disturbing pattern in all acclaimed literature. The female characters lack any depth beyond their capacity to reflect well (or poorly) on the male leads. Women in the novels they reference are of two categories: angels and demons. There is no in between. A female lead is either a flawless goddess of beauty and morality or the Wicked Witch of the West. Because, Gilbert and Gubar explain, that is how men see women. One or the other. There is no gradient.

They also fear that this unfair representation of women in literature will trap female readers into believing they have no choice but to be an angel or a demon. Female writers especially will be trapped into perpetuating this pattern in their writings, which of course will never be taken seriously by the male elite who govern what is “good” and what is “bad” as far as literature is concerned.

They have a point.

It’s very frustrating, as a woman, to watch movies sometimes. When I go to a theater, sometimes I find it helpful to leave my opinions at the door to enjoy a film’s plot, particularly an action film, and pick those opinions up for the film review that will happen in the car ride on the way home. It’s frustrating to watch, time and time again, a woman be thrown into a film for decoration only. And then occasionally when I’m delighted by a film with strong female protagonists, I’ll hear someone complain that the movie made the male lead look superfluous and that’s not fair.

Must be tough.

The same plague haunts modern entertainment that haunted the Victorian novel. A woman who falls from her pedestal may never rise again.

I see that plague lifted in the Bible.

The women in the Bible are as diverse as the women I see every day. They all have different backstories, different motivations, different strengths and weaknesses. A woman with a huge family (Leah), a woman who struggled with infertility (Hannah), a woman who oversaw armies (Deborah). I see women in loveless marriages (Abigail), and women with loving husbands (the Shulamite girl). I see female entrepreneurs (Lydia), women who gave their all for others (Tabitha), women who risked their lives for strangers (Rahab), and women who risked their lives for their countrymen (Esther). I see women who were prophets (Anna), women in places of authority (Miriam). I see a woman who worked hard to provide for herself and those she loved (Ruth). I see a woman who was not taken seriously when she told the truth and later proven to be right (Rhoda). I see a woman scorned by men for doing the right thing but praised by Christ Himself (Mary).

I see hopeful women, desperate women, angry women, mourning women, laughing women, praying women, gentle women, clever women, proud women, careful women, busy women, bookish women–imperfect women. Women presented to us with both their virtues and their flaws. Their mistakes are not ignored, but we see them at their best as well.

And as I read through the Bible and note the women I see, I notice that any woman listed by name (Mary) or moniker (the Wise Woman of Proverbs 31) is never used as a garnish. The Bible may call a woman beautiful, but she is never just eye candy. Her role is purposeful and her personality is distinct. And without them, the Book’s plot would never get anywhere.

As I read the Bible from a literary point of view, I read of a wealth of role models. They are neither angels or demons, though occasionally I meet princesses and queens. They are human beings with flaws like mine, dreams like mine, and strengths like mine. I see their lives and know that I am not alone.

God loved them. And He loves me.

And I will pick up my pen and write about them.

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11 comments

  1. alicianewk10 · October 29, 2015

    WOW. Love this fresh perspective!!!! Thanks so much. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. aviscioni · October 29, 2015

    Seriously, this is awesome. It makes me want to go back to my own novel drafts and make sure that I’m not doing the female characters an injustice. Incredible perspective as usual! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. tpelle0808 · October 29, 2015

    Beautifully written! I’ve never seen Gilbert and Gubar’s theory applied to scripture, but your application of the theory works pretty well. I’m not sure G+G would approve though . . . 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • E.A. Stephens · October 29, 2015

      Probably not. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • tpelle0808 · October 29, 2015

        It would be cool to see a more in-depth analysis of specific female characters. Jezebel, for example, would seem to be the stereotypical “Evil Queen,” whereas Ruth would be the “Snow White.” Many of these characters deserve a closer look. Your application of G+G is cool, but I don’t think you can do the theory or the scriptures justice with such a broad overview – regardless of how well done that overview is. I’m not criticising here – I think your post was excellent. I’m just pointing out that there is much more to be said.

        Liked by 1 person

      • E.A. Stephens · October 29, 2015

        I want to do a deeper analysis of individual characters (because yes, the evil queens are there and shouldn’t be ignored). This is kind of an intro.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Elizabeth Turner · October 29, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Dinkey-Bird and Me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Of Princesses and Queens | Feminism in Cold Storage
  6. David · November 1, 2015

    First, your post is superb. Again. 🙂

    Second, I guess I can’t really speak for the men that Gilbert and Gubar interviewed for their research, but I’m not sure that women being portrayed as either angelic or demonic is due to male society’s lack of a middle ground category for them… Just speaking honestly as a guy, I don’t know that that would be the reason. I do think it’s illustrative that the Bible portrays the most valuable possession (wisdom) and the worst plague (folly) as women. This doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t recognize a “middle-ground woman,” as you’ve pointed out, or that men can’t possess wisdom or folly. It may be due to the fact that, given the inestimable worth of women, the only thing comparable to the beauty of wisdom is the beauty of a woman acting as God made her to be. And the only thing that can fully describe the twisted nature of folly is the picture of a woman turned from “ezer” to destroyer. I just tend to feel it may be more accurate to say that the use of women in these roles is due more to an author’s conceptions of what characteristics they are trying to embody, and less due to their conceptions of women in general.

    But again, I speak completely for myself here, and not whoever G+G spoke to.

    Like

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