No Country for Female Narratives

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portrait of madame x
Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent, capturing the controversial political and social nuance of women’s fashion
(via Wikipedia)

A woman wears her story like she wears a dress. Just as she chooses what to wear, so she chooses what to reveal about herself. Her clothes do not define her; she defines her clothing. They are not for anyone else’s benefit but her own. Such is, too, a woman’s story. Ideally. Sometimes. It’s a great theory, anyway.

The telling female of narratives has been one of literature’s—and society’s— most complicated endeavors, especially in a climate based on a tradition dominated by male voices. How does one reconcile the sovereign female voice within a tradition that consigns female voices to specific contexts and confines, when the female voice within literature has been so long secondary to discourse built around male-dominated forums and communities? How can a real modern woman control her own story when female stories are so often co-opted to represent and serve larger discourses at the expense of the personal experiences they detail?

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Consider, for example, the real-life story of Caitlyn Jenner, a story that has become ubiquitous across every media platform in the last two weeks. Say what you will about the Kardashian obsession with publicity and attention, but it seems that Jenner’s story has suddenly become everyone’s business. Her story of transition is no longer her own but one that has been used both to ridicule and lambast the transgender community, and to represent and celebrate it. I would argue that because her story, like many female narratives, does not fit within the traditional male experience, Jenner’s story, her life, becomes symbolic. Her experience becomes our story of how we talk about gender expression.

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The way Jenner’s story and experience of gender transition have been co-opted into a piece of a great social and political moment follows in the tradition of many fictional female characters whose stories have been written to facilitate larger social and political conversations. 

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Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example, a novel concerning the fall of the titular character, exposes us into the hypocrisies of Russian aristocracy using Karenina’s narrative as a framework. It becomes evident, however, that Karenina does not, possess control of how her narrative is told. Like many of the great novels that came out of the mid and late-19th century, Anna Karenina is a social and political treatise facilitated through the tragic, personal narrative of a woman. Tolstoy alternates between the storylines of the novel’s various characters, and large chunks of the texts are dedicated to Levin, a farmer who struggles with his relationship with his peasant workers. While it’s hardly fair to suggest that the story must remain in Karenina’s proverbial court for the entirety of the novel, it becomes evident that Karenina’s story exists mainly as it relates to the stories of others, particularly men. This, I think, is part of the issue that Tolstoy is trying to bring to the fore: however much a woman is in charge of her actions, she is often not in charge of how those actions are interpreted and received.

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Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina (Working Title/StudioCanal via bringthenoiseuk.com)

While Jenner’s story is largely one of triumph in the face of deep-seated social adversity, and Karenina’s a tragic fall story, both are stories that work at the disposal of larger discourses. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially because we often need personal stories, stories of pain and injustice, in order to inspire real change and acceptance. But I think we also have to remember that when we tell another person’s story, whether that person is real or fictional, we make it part of our own narrative, investing it with parts of ourselves. Even though we may not intend to do so, we take it over.

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Women’s stories, I think, are particularly susceptible to getting taken over, whether it’s by the voice of a male author, the media, or society in general. Fantine from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is another character whose tragic story serves a larger story demonstrating the injustice against the poor and marginalized. What is more moving than the fall and suffering of a beautiful woman at the hands of a corrupt and hypocritical society? What is the point of telling Fantine’s story of ruin and death? Her story is one presented to the audience less as a consideration of a unique personal story for the sake of itself, and more as an aesthetic that colors the larger mural that Hugo seeks to create. Consider, too, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe and Pamela Andrews. Both are novels I would advise against reading unless you’re into tedious doorstops, but both are novels that concern women—written by a man—who serve to illustrate the perils and fragility of a woman’s virtue. Clarissa and Pamela, while they are given first-person narration within the epistolary form of the novel, are symbolic women, women that represent cautionary tales in a society fraught with constant battle between desire and purity. When a woman’s narrative is forced to take on the connotations of systematic adversity, she becomes partly stripped of her humanity as she is transformed into a symbol. If she is a real-life person, she becomes fictionalized, if she is already fictional, she becomes almost mythic.

caitlyn jenner
Caitlyn Jenner
(Vanity Fair)

In my personal experience, I have found that if a female character’s story is going to be used to facilitate a larger discourse, women authors tend to make female narratives integral to that discourse rather than as a sidelined symbol of injustice. Female characters written by women (like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Jo March, or even Katniss Everdeen) tend to be more actively involved in their own stories; even if they are victims, they are not passive ones. When men write female characters–though there are certainly many exceptions–those female characters tend to represent what their stories require them to represent, rather than allowing them to develop organically. Women’s stories, based merely on the fact that literature has historically been dominated by male voices, are more likely to be used for a purpose than for their stories to be the purpose. This is where we should give Caitlyn Jenner more credit: while she and her family are often accused of seeking attention and press, perhaps this isn’t a cheap grab for airtime, but actually an attempt to control her own narrative, to literally and figuratively choose her own clothes. She didn’t have control of her identity as Bruce, but as Caitlyn she has the opportunity to be the author of her own story, to create herself.

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