Monday, June 07, 2010

The Sad Literary Fate of Useful Women

Another busy morning. I've already run some errands, gone to physical therapy and replaced my air conditioner filter. Now my shoulder hurts. A lot. I really need to get some writing done, but between the shoulder and the ongoing allergy attack, I may do some napping this afternoon and hope I feel up to working tonight, since I don't have anywhere to go.

One of my errands involved correcting an odd lack in my closet. I'm teaching Vacation Bible School next week, and at the training session yesterday, they told us about the themes for each day and the fact that we're supposed to wear particular colors on each day. My vast wardrobe of plain t-shirts means I can do just about every color, but one day is yellow, and when I got home and looked through my closet, I realized I didn't own a single yellow article of clothing. I can do many shades of green, pink, a whole range of blue, probably a different red item every day of the week, white, black and purple. I could sort of get orange, though my orange is closer to a peach or coral color. I could even manage brown, though I'd have to explain the Firefly reference. But there wasn't one item I could even squint at and pretend was yellow. Target had t-shirts on sale for $5, so I picked up a yellow one. Yay for variety. I'll essentially be the "homeroom" teacher for the fifth grade class, mostly just herding them around to all the activities. I shall report on my adventures. It could be interesting, considering my theory that 10-year-old girls are the meanest, most evil creatures on the planet. We shouldn't be sending in the Green Berets, Marines, Rangers or soldiers like that to hot spots. Drop in a crew of 10-year-old girls and the enemy will beg for mercy after their self-esteem has been shattered. Meanwhile, boys that age are whirling dynamos of energy who can't seem to focus on any one thing for more than about five seconds. I remember dreading the nights the 10-year-old cabins had table setting and clean-up duty when I worked in a summer camp kitchen. That's a very, very difficult age. I'm still amazed my parents didn't "accidentally" lose me in the woods and then move when I was that age. I was absolutely vile when I was in fifth grade. That's the one phase of my life when I didn't get along with my mom. I said some things to her then that I still cringe about.

In other news, I've been on a 19th century reading kick lately, and I've noticed an annoying pattern. If a man wrote the novel, the female romantic interest (I can't bring myself to use the word "heroine") is almost always the "waif" type -- the useless female who's almost child-like even though she's an adult, who has to be protected by everyone around her, who can't make a single decision about her own life even when given the opportunity, and who has to be rescued. It's not just that these men can't write female characters. Often in these books, there's a female character who's either a friend of the male hero or a sidekick of the female romantic interest who's strong and capable, who can interact with a man as an equal, who is brave and intelligent. She's usually instrumental in helping the hero rescue the waif and get her out of trouble. And yet, even after they've worked together as a team and he's seen how useful she is and how well they work together, and he's seen how feeble and useless the waif is, he still ends up with the waif, and the useful woman gets "rewarded" by getting to remain a spinster and stick around with the couple because the useless woman would get lost between the sitting room and the bedroom without her there to guide her. That's if the useful woman even lives to the end of the book. When the useful woman sticks around, the hero really makes out like a bandit because he gets to have the pretty, compliant wife without a thought in her head as well as the best buddy he can actually talk to.

No matter how many of these books I read, I still manage to be surprised by this outcome. I was just reading one I thought would be different because much was made at the beginning about how the hero and the waif could never be together because there were all these obstacles between them, including their stations in life. There was nothing keeping him apart from the female best friend, other than the fact that she wasn't little, cute and blonde. The hero and the capable female best friend ended up growing really close through the course of their adventures, and the waif became even more childlike and useless, so I started thinking this might be the book that broke the pattern, where he realized that the waif was just an infatuation and he could really be happy with the best friend, but no, somehow all those objections from the beginning were totally forgotten. I wanted the best friend to slug him when he offered to let her stay with them because his useless wife wouldn't want to be parted from her.

But if a woman wrote the book, it's entirely different. Then it's the useful woman who gets the guy. Jane Austen often set it up to happen both ways, where there was the pretty but essentially useless sister who did get a guy, but the real heroine was the one who thought for herself, made decisions and sometimes even took risks, and the hero chose her over wealthier but more useless women. Jane Eyre had a waif-like life, but she took control of her own destiny and made her own decisions. She was able to stand up to Rochester, and he still chose her over the pretty, useless women he could have had. In The Age of Innocence (which is borderline, as it was written in the 20th century, but Edith Wharton had lived in the time she was writing about), the guy does choose the useless woman over the woman he can actually talk to, but it's portrayed as a big mistake that ends up making his whole life something of a disappointment rather than the perfect happiness that the male writers portray.

Now I kind of want to write a scene where the best buddy woman slugs the hero in the jaw when he persists in pursuing the useless woman, in spite of all he's been through with the best buddy. It would be very satisfying.


Chicory said...

Was the book you were reading, by any chance, `The Woman In White' by Wilkie Collins? Because I sooo wanted to smack our hero at the end of that book for being a moron.

Shanna Swendson said...

Wow, you're good! Yep, that was what set off the rant. The way the book was written, I really did think he'd end up realizing that the older sister was far preferable. He kept talking about how wonderful and reliable she was and what a remarkable woman she was while describing the other one as childlike and feeble. I never imagined he'd actually end up choosing the childlike, helpless one to marry.