In the summer of 2001, I found myself sitting on the hot concrete floor of the Florence train station in tears. Leaning against my red and black backpack and staring at the train schedule, the times and arrivals blurred into a sea of numbers as I tried to add up the various connections I needed to make. I had to get to the Cinque Terra by sunset, and as train after train pulled out of the station I wondered if that was the one meant for me or if I would sit here forever in the hot purgatorial air of the platform watching travelers hop on and off with the kind of confidence only Europeans possess with rail travel. In Germany, I could squeak out a few phrases in broken German, ask simple, basic questions about directions and travel, and most of the time they would take pity on me and switch to English. But Bush was in the White House, I was an ugly American, and the Italians were having none of it.
It’s not that I have never faced complex problems or confronted difficult challenges, but in that muggy afternoon as I sat for hours, literally hours, trying to cipher the train schedule, the sickening fear that no one was going to save me or rush in and grab the schedule out of my hands and point out the solution came over me along with the wild realization that I had spent half of my life in a stasis of feigned helplessness. The youngest of two brothers, there was always someone to lend a hand, work out a problem. And while this is not always gender specific, I do think it was compounded by this factor. Straight out of my parent’s house, I entered a relationship with a very controlling young man and when I left that situation, I found solace in my male friends and their company, for instance, the male friend who was supposed to have accompanied me on this wild European backpacking adventure but who had to leave the Continent unexpectedly for mysterious reasons I’ll still never fully understand. Surely he could have solved the train station quandary, pulled me out of my despair, saved me from the sweltering heat and the pain of doing math in my head. Of course. Because that’s what men do. But on that July afternoon, the music of Italian voices and the clamor of trains rushing all around me, I had no other choice but to save myself. I blinked back my tears, pulled out a pencil and set to work circling my connections.
I find myself editing my first book mired in the same set of painful realizations about myself and my deeply embedded assumptions of gender expectations and performance. One thing you should know about me is that I am a feminist. Of course, most educated women these days happily take on the mantle, but for me feminism is not just a casual affinity. It has, in many ways, been the intellectual driving force behind my existence. From the moment I read The Second Sex, reading about, discussing, teaching, and exploring feminist theory has been central to my identity as a scholar and an academic professional. The year I read Irigaray’s entire oeuvre, I fell in love with a woman perhaps genuinely, but perhaps also as an effort to escape patriarchy (surprise! Patriarchy was alive and well in that relationship, too). I have studied under some of the greatest feminist thinkers of our time, and my dissertation involved, amongst other subjects, female agency in the early Irish novel. I tell you this not to brag, but to reveal to you how, in spite of all this, how deeply, deeply entrenched I still remained in patriarchal systems and beliefs. How, in spite of everything I read, wrote about, and studied, and in spite of everything I’ve done and accomplished, my writing came to reflect the same systems of power I despised.
Perhaps not completely, but I felt as if someone I had been doused with ice water as I read feedback revealing places where my female protagonist lacked agency, where she seemed more of a victim than a problem-solver. And there were little things, too, like playing with her hair too much, or the fact that she seemed more consumed about getting a boyfriend than completing her Master’s degree. Even though I’ve revised these dreadful elements out of the book, it still shames and embarrasses me to admit to them. Somehow, unwittingly, I had played out the secret psychological dramas of my own existence right there for everyone to see in 1 inch margins and 12 pt. Times New Roman font. The worst moment came when I gave my draft to a male friend of mine, former student turned friend and critique partner, and he threw my own words back to me from a lecture I gave a million years ago about the importance of ownership over one’s education disparate of the patriarchy. I was grateful, but I felt exposed. A fraud. Even more so, ashamed that I had come to believe so firmly in my staunch feminism that I couldn’t see the secret battles of patriarchy always/already waging in my mind. I will say, though, in spite of this shame, editing these sins out of my manuscript felt like one of the greatest acts of feminism of my life.
Yet, as I worked with more female novelists, most of whom were editing their first book, I found we shared a similar story with our main female characters. With one of my critique partners we have actively brainstormed ways to bring more agency to the women in her book. Another female author confessed how in her first draft her female character talked obsessively about clothes and cried so much, it made her sick to reread her manuscript. I had another conversation with a beta reader about the high level of cattiness between the female characters in her draft, something I also saw reflected in my own early attempts. All of these women are smart, educated, feminist women, and even though they all write in very different genres, set out to write, in part, stories that involve smart, educated, feminist women. And yet the realizations about our female characters had us reflecting about to the deception of storytelling that tries to convince us that we are always in control of our words, our narratives. We are, ourselves, written by culture and the pen has cut deep.
One of my critique partners said that perhaps it’s not just about women, but that as writers we’re always pushing against cliché and stereotype regardless of gender. I think there is a lot of truth to that. But the difference between male and female writers is that men have a much deeper archive from which to pull their stories whereas female writers have to wade in very shallow stacks to find themselves represented, female people of color even more so. Furthermore, most women were raised seeing ourselves under the male gaze, or to put it another way, when men wrote us into their stories, we generally played the role of victim, damsel in distress, shrew. We have come to see ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, in those roles. I remember the first time I cracked open Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the electrifying sensation of hearing Jane’s voice speak to me from across centuries, telling me her story. I had never met a woman like her because I had never had a woman speak to me like that in books, and the feeling of knowing that maybe my story mattered, too, began a lifelong pursuit of letters.
But I understand now that the desire to write one’s story is not enough for a woman. For some of us, the patriarchal baggage we carry is a serious burden made worse by the fact that we can’t always see it for ourselves. That’s why I think as writers, critique partners, beta readers, editors, publishers, we may need to start thinking beyond the Bechdel test for considering the role of women in our stories. The Bechdel test is fairly simple. For a book or film to pass
· It has to have at least two women in it,
· who talk to each other,
· about something besides a man.
Naturally, even my earliest drafts fulfilled this test, but I would propose for all us working with writing and aiming for female empowerment in our stories, we may need to ask ourselves a fuller set of probing questions. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the questions I’ve been asking myself a lot lately:
- Is my MFC a problem-solver or is she just being a problem?
- Is she a damsel in distress or is she actively seeking ways to save herself when danger arises?
- When my MFC becomes the victim of some heinous crime, does she process in a way that doesn’t reflect oppressive social narratives about women?
- Does she have agency? If her circumstances don’t allow for agency, does she seek it indirectly through other channels?
- Does she stick up for herself and communicate in ways that are intelligent and assertive?
- Does she have complexity and nuance?
- Do her quirks and social tics reflect negative gender stereotypes?
- Are the words and actions of my MFC empowering or self-defeating?
These are just a few of the questions I’ve had to ask myself as I edit my work and as I catch myself falling into familiar patterns over the course of drafting new books. My Women Studies Professor, Dr. Audrey McKinney once told me that feminism is not a static thing, something you can wrap up neatly and put in your pocket. It is a dialogue. In other words, it’s dynamic, it changes, it grows and fluctuates. There will always be new questions to ask of my female characters, and there will always be new challenges that my stories will demand of me.
But even if you find discussions of feminism and agency discomfiting, no one can deny that characters that sit around and do nothing are boring. The girl sitting at the railway station in Florence crying like a child because she couldn’t figure out a train schedule is boring. The girl who wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve, dug in, figured out her connections, and in halting Italian purchased a ticket from the belligerent clerk frowning behind a bulletproof pane of glass? That girl is exciting. Because she did have her wild European adventure and she did do it all on her own. The stories of helplessness, of object, or damsel in distress—we carry these with us and they are loud passengers. Deafening. But we have access to other stories, too, stories of triumph and empowerment. And while they may sometimes be small, with trembling, wavering voices, it is all the more reason to search for them.