bookgazing: (Default)
[personal profile] bookgazing posting in [community profile] ladybusiness

Last year I asked Simon at Savidge Reads to see if his readers could come up with a list of books that included single women, who stayed single until the end of the book and didn’t die of despair because of their lonely hearts. The Savidge Reads commenter’s made a pretty strong effort and furnished me with a list of contented, fictional single women to check out.

But, see, I am never satisfied. Even as I added these books so full of promise to my list, I was thinking one step on, identifying and grousing over other gaps in fictional female representation.

Although I think addressing the lack of fictional female representation in certain subject areas is important, I don’t intend to get shouty and moan (again) that books about female pirates, or warlords, or scientists are never going to trend as their own separate sub genre. Sure, I’d like more books about female pirates,** but in this post I want to go beyond asserting (again) that female protagonists don’t make it into novels about certain, very cool subjects, as often as male protagonists. However, I think that at least people recognise that this problem exists and these people are committed to pushing for a more equal representation. At least we can see that problem.

My query to Simon was about a much less visible lack of female representation. The low numbers of single, happy women in fiction is clear from many of the comments made on that post, but what’s also clear is that for some commenter’s it was the first time they’d realised there was a gap in the representation. A couple of months before I sent to Simon asking for recommendations I hadn’t really noticed just how absent single, happy women were from fiction. I am a very single woman who reads all the time. If anyone should have noticed and been annoyed that in a modern society, which would likes us to believe that it validates a single woman’s choice to be single, it should have been me.

When I eventually saw the lack of single female happiness made me think about what other kinds of general female experience are underrepresented and struggle to get that under representation noticed. As soon as I started looking I realised that it had been a loooong time since I’d read a book where a female character was described as plain, unattractive, or ugly where that character ended up some kind of happy by the final chapter.

‘The Woman in White’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ are both good examples of books where female characters don’t have to be attractive to get their happy ending. In the nineteenth century, when looks (in tandem with money) played a large part in defining how marriageable you were and marriage was seen as the gate to prosperous female fulfilment. Despite these societal truths neither the ‘ugly’ Marianne, or the ‘plain’ Jane found in these nineteenth century novels, die out of despair that their looks have doomed them to solitude. Jane actually gets to marry a man she loves. Wilkie Collins doesn’t lead Marianne to traditional, validating romantic happiness, but she doesn’t die, go mad, get assaulted, or end up in the poorhouse. In fact, she is shown as an intellectually sharp, happy, healthy character at the end of the book. I always find Collins treatment of Marianne vs. his treatment of Laura annoying, but since I wouldn’t have wanted her to marry Walter anyway (whatever Walter you are not that cool) I’m generally content to call Collins depiction of an ‘ugly’*** female character progressive.

I guarantee you if this problem was set up as an opinion piece on a big newspaper’s site these are the two books everyone would pull out to knock down the idea that plain girls don’t get a place in fiction. Yes, there are two whole books! Ok, they were written in the nineteenth century, but they’re both classics right? That means female characters described as unattractive are like, taking over the world!

Yes (Mr Straw Man), fine, blah, blah, classics, blah, blah, higly visible – theimportant thing, the thing to focus on is that there are just TWO books. Apart from those two books I find it hard to name any other books where a main female character is described as plain, unattractive, or ugly and offered some kind of happy ending.

Few authors describe female characters as unattractive and write them happy endings. I could make a couple of educated guesses about why that is:

Judging by programs that push make overs as therapeutic, fresh starts that will bring all the wonders of the rainbow, the way society perceive a woman's happiness is still tied up with how society thinks she looks

Not much has really changed and society still thinks happiness comes from romantic fulfilment, which it assumes is denied to women it deems unattractive. Fiction doesn’t reflect happiness for female characters which writers describe as unattractive, because society is narrow in its happiness recognition and assumes female characters described as unattractive could never find traditional happy endings

Some vestige of Victorian scientific analysis still remains in society and it’s still believed that character, personality and fulfilment are reflected by outward appearance. Unfulfilled characters are automatically written as unattractive, because people feel that unfulfilled lives are reflected in people’s dress, or features (or more generously writing descriptions is still seen as a reasonable short cut route to characterisation)

Wish fulfilment

And I’m sure the publishing industry has practical, writing as a business reasons as well (meh).

Now that I actually see this trend to reward only the fictional and beautiful with happiness****, I’m already bored of it. If you can recommend any books with happy endings for female characters who are clearly supposed to sound unattractive to the reader, please leave recommendations in the comments, I will love you. I’m not accepting books where a first person female character describes herself as unattractive, yet everyone around her falls at her feet, which makes it a bit trickier. I don’t expecting we’d get a lot of suggestions wherever we took this topic, but being proved wrong can only make me happy!



* Btw the late, great Diana Norman’s book ‘The Pirate Queen’ is perfect for anyone who wants a starting place

** Can we totally have female pirate week sometime this year?

*** There are tons of complicated cultural ideas past and present that go into that word and into Marianne’s presentation as an ‘ugly’ woman, but let’s push on and I’ll recommend that you hit up an aware fashion commentator like threadbared for analysis of these issues

**** Not every character described as unattractive has to be left happy. I’m not arguing for blanket positive messages that obscure complexity. I just want a little variation from the current standard of ‘beautiful/not considered totally unattractive and happy’ and ‘unattractive, so dying inside’

Date: 2011-06-01 05:01 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
YES to female pirate week!

Another fabulous post. I've heard people say they find it really distracting to read books when the characters (both male and female) are described as unattractive or their physical imperfections are highlighted. I can only think of one book which I really didn't like and it's Christian fiction romance and both characters were supposed to be unattractive. I only think of it now because the author said she had a bit of a struggle over the idea with her publisher and making sure they didn't put model beautiful people on the cover.

Date: 2011-06-01 06:04 pm (UTC)
kingrat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kingrat
Not that it changes the representation of plain women in fiction, but I did immediately think of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, which has both a happy ending and where the main character Lauren Olamina is described as plain. (However, the sequel upsets the happy ending of the first book.)

Date: 2011-06-01 10:38 pm (UTC)
krait: a sea snake (krait) swimming (Default)
From: [personal profile] krait
Well, my immediate thought was of Sarah, Plain and Tall, which I read as a kid. :D (Hey, it's right there in the title!)

Other than that...? Possibly Sergeant Taura, from the Miles Vorkosigan series, could count -- she's not conventionally attractive, having a protruding jaw, visibly enlarged canines, and standing eight feet tall. She does sort of "pretty up", but (given the reactions of other characters, later) that may be as much acclimatisation on the part of those around her as actual physical improvements...

She's not a lead character, though she is involved with the main character for a novel or two.

Date: 2011-06-03 12:46 am (UTC)
krait: a sea snake (krait) swimming (Default)
From: [personal profile] krait
I didn't really go into the details of Taura's appearance because it's a sci-fi novel and therefore the explanations are long and universe-specific, but: she's an engineered supersoldier, and her DNA contains bits of nonhuman DNA; her "jaw shape" is an abbreviated wolf muzzle, and her canine teeth are visible (I think) even when her lips are closed -- pretty sure that she doesn't meet any time period's definition of attractive in a convential sense. :D When Miles (the main character) first meets her, he assumes she can't speak and that her IQ is subhuman...

It's been so long since I read Jane Eyre that I really don't remember anything about Jane's appearance, alas.

Sarah, Plain and Tall probably -- from what I recall -- falls into the "may be mostly a function of time period"; at least, I suspect that what colonial Americans would consider "tall" (and even "plain") might be considered attractive today; but at least within the novel, set as it is in that period, Sarah is judged to be unattractive.

Date: 2011-06-02 09:28 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
HARRIET VANE. From Dorothy L. Sayers' books. This is not a ploy to get you to read them - it's just that you asked and everything ;)

Also, yes! Bring on the lady pirates.

Date: 2011-06-02 02:49 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
BUT! You need to read Strong Poison and Have Your Carcase before Gaudy Night. It's seriously EXTREMELY important that you do. I'd be more than happy to lend you my copies to make sure you don't read Gaudy Night first and accidentally ruin the huge emotional impact it has due to the slow build up of the first two books. I was going to read GN first too, but then Jenny of Jenny's Books yelled at me, and I'll be FOREVER grateful that she did :P

Also, yay yay yay! Can't wait to read your review.

Date: 2011-06-03 09:44 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
London it is! And yay Moomins :D

Date: 2011-06-02 10:33 am (UTC)
goodbyebird: Luther: Alice confronting John on the bridge. (Luther and you think I'm a monster?)
From: [personal profile] goodbyebird
Very good point, and yes, it's an issue that has irked me for some time.

...will there be female space pirates? *g* (I AM INTERESTED EITHER WAY)

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