Can men write good heroines?

This article gives the answer: A grudging “Um, oh, yeah, some can. Like, you know, Joss Whedon.” Only the writer’s a Brit so she says it a tad more eloquently:

buffy and that angel guy.tvwriter.netby Samantha Ellis

Can men write good heroines? Most of the heroines I write about in my book How to Be a Heroine are written by women. And most of the heroines I find most problematic are written by men. It’s very troubling to go back to Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Little Mermaid and find that it’s a story about a mermaid who gives up her voice for legs to get a man. And even as a girl, I was furious with Charles Dickens for letting Nancy get bludgeoned in Oliver Twist and, later, outraged that Samuel Richardson heaped pain and indignity on Clarissa and called her “an Exemplar to her sex” as though learning to suffer well made us exemplary.

It’s particularly distressing to see how male writers have punished their heroines for being sexually adventurous. Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train; Gustave Flaubert makes Emma Bovary pathetic even before she poisons herself. It’s striking that when Erica Jong wrote about an adulteress inFear of Flying, she gave her a happy ending, in which she is reborn in a hotel bathtub, and summons her adoring husband back.

But men can write wonderful heroines.Shakespeare‘s Juliet is both bold and brilliant. She defies her parents, deceives her nurse, marries in secret, sleeps with Romeo, plots an ingenious escape and isn’t even fazed by death – all this and she’s only 14. It’s just a shame that Shakespeare didn’t give her a hero worthy of her – it’s fickle Romeo’s ineptitude that gets Juliet killed. But I still love her, and I’d go to the wall for the unruly, cross-dressing heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Henrik Ibsen‘s Nora inspired many women to smash down the walls of their own dolls’ houses. Daniel Defoe‘s Moll Flanders is a shrewd, bawdy wonder. I have a lot of time for JD Salinger‘s restless, questioning Franny Glass. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer should prove, definitively, that men can write not just heroines but superheroines – famously, when asked why he writes strong female characters, Joss Whedon shot back “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

As for the much-maligned Tess, I think Thomas Hardy tied himself in knots trying to show the plight of a poor Victorian woman while also making her feisty enough to be interesting. The crucial scene in The Chase went through three drafts – in the first, Alec tricks Tess into a sham marriage, and consummates it. In the second, he drugs and rapes her. But in the final draft Tess isn’t duped or drugged or raped, she’s seduced. She’s complicit. And she faces the consequences bravely. She could hide her past from Angel, the man she falls in love with, but she wants to be honest. And Hardy paints him as a weak hypocrite for not respecting that candour. At the end of the novel, when she stabs Alec to death, Hardy makes his loyalty even clearer; he calls the bloodstain she creates “a gigantic ace of hearts”. He’s saying she’s a winner. The winner of the novel. He rewards her with a few pages’ grace, as she and a repentant Angel have the honeymoon they never had, and at the end she goes to the men who arrest her like a goddess.

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2 thoughts on “Can men write good heroines?

  1. The original Wonder Woman comic book character was created by Charles Moulton.

    The original 1975 90-minute Wonder Woman TV-movie-pilot starring Lynda Carter was written by Stanley Ralph Ross – and just so happens to be one of the best-written pilot films of ANY genre.

    Kenneth Johnson created the character of Jaime Sommers, who first appeared as The Bionic Woman on The Six Million Dollar Man; and who then received a series of her own.

  2. stuartland says:

    Samantha, while I agree with everything you wrote about the male writers of yesteryear, maybe you could do a follow-up on writers of this century, or even the last fifty years. I’m a man. I’ve written 8 novels and 18 screenplays. Three of my novels have women protagonists, the rest either are part of an ensemble–where they are equal to the other characters–or they are strong secondary characters.

    Basically, my female characters (no matter their age), are who they are in the story, and act as a person would in whatever situation they find themselves in. Probably, because most readers nowadays are women, most of my readers are women, even in genres that are normally not attractive to women.

    I believe men can write woman characters, and vice versa, if the writer has empathy, awareness, and all the other aspects which are important in good storytelling.

    Though I think Joss Wedon is a terrific writer, both of women and men, it always baffled me why he wasted the characters of Inar Serra and River Tam in Firefly and Serenity. Those characters were immensely more interesting and defined than the other characters, yet their (personal) stories, far more engrossing, were left in the shadows.

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