Episode 147: The virgin, the whore, and the madwoman

Theme for the day(s)

The Virgin, the Whore, and the Madwoman: Female stereotypes in fiction

Agenda

  • This summer’s work
  • Virgin, Whore, or Madwoman?
  • Do these stereotypes still exist?
  • How to avoid it?
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

So in June we’re going to be giving you some Independent Bookstore names, locations, and other fun details. This week we’d like to introduce you to a Columbia Indie bookstore, Odd Bird Books is in the Arcade on Main Street. You can visit their website here. They’re open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Glad to support proprietor Ben Adams. Go visit them and support the locals.

This summer we’re working on serialization projects. You can review the show where we covered the benefits and opportunities of serialization here. My work is on Wattpad and it’s called The Full Moon in Neverland. It’s six full chapters in, a full 3 hour read (phew!) already and still a few chapters from the climax. I think it’ll end up being between 12 and 14 chapters. So a lot of work and I’m giving it away.  

Rex is working with Vella and has this epic cover for his vampire novel. I know, copycat (ha). So he’s going to go live after he gets six chapters loaded. Vella is a service of Amazon.

So today’s topic is a literary criticism one and so bear with us, as we work through the analysis of text. It might not be the most accessible topic, but it’s worth looking at. Specifically, because the tropes persist. Last week we talked about inclusivity and representation and women, specifically, have achieved a higher level than ever before. But there’s still work to be done. 

In our episode on cliches, we told writers to do the hard work of creating complexity. That means researching points of view that are not your own, that you wish to include in your work. Do not rely on movies and TV — they’re full of cliche and stereotypes — read the books, meet the people, interview the community to get as close to authentic as you can.

The virgin, the whore, and the madwoman is a theory put forward in literary criticism by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their work The Madwoman in the Attic. The gist of it is that works by male authors (specifically William Shakespeare) trap female characters into one of these three archetypes (or stereotypes).

So question 1 is the difference between archetypes and stereotypes. And question 2 is how do each of these types limit the female character.

Segment 2

Here’s the first link for today and it’s describing the Gilbert and Gubar categories. So we’ll use that to explain what these are:

The Virgin — derivative of the Christian Virgin Mary, this is the good, caring, loving, and pure (devoted!) woman. Think Melanie Hamilton from Gone With the Wind. She’s admirable, she’s lauded, she’s proper and well-behaved. She pleases the men around her, she is protected and merciful, she forgives and is beyond reproach. Think Ophelia in Hamlet. We get a sense that she needs to be protected, that she’s unspoiled and therefore ideal. Until she goes mad.

Which brings us to the third archetype, don’t worry, I’ll get back to the second one. 

The Madwoman — she has a mind of her own! She wants to defy convention, she wants more for herself than what society says she should want. This is The Awakening and (really) most of Kate Chopin’s work. In The Awakening, we see Edna Pontellier as Virgin (Mother) and then she leaves her family and is the madwoman. How can she leave? Why should she want more than the life that’s been provided for her? The madwoman is dangerous because she gives good women bad ideas.

Jodie Cain Smith’s new work, Bayou Cresting, takes on this concept that women, when they have ambition, are suppressed by this tag of “madwoman.” And I think this is still true. I think women who don’t want to have children are scorned with this. And women who don’t want to marry. Women who seem to break out of traditional gender roles are often maligned as crazy or mad.

The Whore — one might think this is the opposite of the Virgin and in some ways it is, but it’s more than that. It’s the threat of what happens to you, Hester Prynne, when you don’t act right. You’ll fall. You’ll be a marked woman, a whore, worthless. We see it in Les Miserables when Fantine gives herself to a man whom she believes loves her and he leaves her with child and unwed and she must struggle to care for Cozette and ultimately whore herself out to earn the wages she needs. The Whore is the threat of ruination. So. Many. Examples.

Segment 3

Traditional virtues of woman:

  • Kindness
  • Compassion
  • Loyalty
  • Devotion to children and family
  • Pious
  • Obedient
  • Strength (the silent, suffering kind)

Traditionally negative traits in women:

  • Strength (the noisy, leadership kind)
  • Ambition
  • Promiscuity / sexuality
  • Determination or persistence
  • Curiosity or inquisitiveness (often considered gossipy or nosy)
  • Not family-oriented (doesn’t want kids)

I want to speak for a second (or two) on the promiscuity thing. If I read one more romance novel that apologizes for a woman having a healthy sexual appetite, I will scream. Why can the men have multiple partners, be rogues, rakes, or players and that’s sexy but women have had one or two long-term relationships, or have maybe fooled around but never gone all the way. Ugh. Let them be curious, let them be sensual, and give them an appetite for sex. Jeez.

In any case, your female characters should be well-rounded. They should be multi-dimensional. They don’t need to conform to some social norm unless the point is to use that social norm to constrain or suppress them. Then let them be 1) aware of that condition, and 2) having some kind of feelings about it.

To the point made to me recently, not all women desire freedom, autonomy, and liberty. Some are comfortable in a situation where they are obedient, cared for, and protected. But make that choice evident. At least do them the courtesy of acknowledging that their condition is one they choose.

Okay. Rant over.

Segment 4

So how do you do it? How do you write female characters outside of the archetype? Outside the stereotype? Same as last week: meet some women, get to know them, and then use them for your work.

Also, try these tips (from Masterclass):

  • Give her her own opinions. Do not make her a parrot for her husband’s or (ouch) your opinions.
  • Give her her own identity and trajectory. She doesn’t have to be single, but she does need a life outside of the devotion she has for partner and children.
  • Give her flaws. Even strong women struggle. What can she be worried about? What’s the lie she believes about herself? What’s the habit she can’t break?
  • Make her tough. She needs to stand up for herself or others. She needs to disagree with, undermine, or outrightly defy authority. And she needs to cope with hard things.

Sparkpress adds these items to the list:

Give her a backstory — where does she come from? What does she want? That’s true of all characters, right? But your diner waitress side character is a cliche unless she’s got some background trauma or inner strength.

Give her goals — again, all characters want something and even if they don’t all get what they want in this story, it’s the wanting that determines how they interact with other characters. So decide what each of these women want.

This great link is actually “How to Write a Main Female Character” which is just awesome. I won’t give all 13 steps but these seem do-able:

  • Use a woman you know as a role model (Rex based his lead on his wife)
  • Draw on your own experiences — easier if you are a woman, but try to stay away from the cliched ones like getting a period, having PMS, becoming a mother, etc.
  • Read examples of female main characters — there are so many, but some are not very good representations so be critical of them, too.
    • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
    • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
    • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
    • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    • The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon
  • Give her agency — we did a whole show on this. She has to make things happen. The whole of the story cannot simply happen to her. She has to make choices, do things, and accept the outcomes of those things.

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