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.