Single Story

Age and the Single Story

“The older, wise woman has rarely had a starring role in the American story, beyond grandma and her cookies.”

This line from a Washington Post story on Hillary Clinton struck me. I wanted to share it, even though at the moment I am on a tight deadline on my forthcoming book and won’t have time to comment at great length.

The Karate Kid goes to Mr. Miyagi. Luke Skywalker goes to Yoda. When it comes to mentors, there are all these guys.

Yet we have few narratives about women beyond beautiful object of longing and desire, and parent. Even that second role is limited. We have stories about perfect mothers, and occasionally villainous wicked step-mothers, but few dramatic parenting narratives.

What struck me in the Washington Post story is how deeply ingrained these assumptions about the role of women are. Because the very next sentence, after the one I quoted is this:

“Plenty has been said about the way American women feel invisible once they reach 60, or 50, or — gack — even 40 today. We live in a culture where gorgeous Maggie Gyllenhaal is being told she’s invisible before she’s out of her 30s.”

Note how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s relevance in her 30s is defended. She is “gorgeous.” Even while making the case that women can be sages, the author resorts to a “still sexy at sixty” framework. She should not be dismissed, because she is still attractive. These ideas run very deep.

 

See also: The Happy End: Male vs. Female.

 

Conditioned Like a Lab Animal

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.

This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.

(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)

The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.

What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.

Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.

I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.

A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.

The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:

“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.

After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.

This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.

As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.

 

 

Puzzle of Identity

Collage by Claire Pestaille

In the book Lewis & Lewis, John Juxon describes the solicitor Sir George Lewis’s approach to legal cases. He saw them as a puzzle, Juxon writes, but unlike a jigsaw puzzle they are puzzles in which the pieces can form different images.

This is equally true of writing a biography. The events of a person’s life can be arranged and contextualized in a way that makes her a hero or a villain, selfish or caring, powerful or powerless. In fact, we all have moments that could be used to tell the story of a saint or a sinner, a wise person or an idiot. We play all of these roles at different times.

It is not just lawsuits or biographies but our identities themselves that are puzzles with pieces that can be arranged to create different faces.

Living up to Specifications

“Life imitates Art fare more than Art imitates Life.”-Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

When my father passed away, a little more than a decade ago now, I went through his papers– articles, correspondence, drafts– and compiled a book of quotations for friends and family. I had cause to revisit that collection again recently, and I came across this observation from a letter he wrote in 1990:

You know, for all my book learnin’, I have to say I’ve learned more about life from ordinary folks trying to muddle through. From a guy who specializes in military procurement, that means he develops tanks and airplanes and such to Army specifications, comes what I think is a truly insightful thought.  He said, “an old rule of thumb is if a weapon can’t do its job, find out what it can do and make that its job.”

In other words, let the thing — or the person — define what its job is. As simplistic as this sounds, it rarely happens. The norm is for “them” to define what’s important, and for the individual to attempt to live up to those mandated “specifications.”

This is certainly true. Rather than allow people’s talents and skills to present themselves and making use of them, we go looking for people to match job descriptions we create in advance.

But I would go further and say that it is not only in employment but in life that this is so. We start with stories about what life is supposed to be like, what goals we ought to have, what love is and friendship. There are stories about how you’re supposed to feel when you get an award of suffer a loss. We go along always comparing ourselves to these stories and seeing how we match up. Very few of us start with what we are and make that our life.

The Explosion of Their Own Myth of Fragile Womanhood

Guest posts are not a regular feature of this blog, but a few months ago I read an article on the site Women Writers, Women’s we_that_are_left_cover_artwork:Layout 1Books called Women and Myths in Storytelling.  I felt that the themes of Juliet Greenwood’s novel “We That Are Left” fit in very well with the regular themes of this blog and I asked her if she would be interested in writing a guest post. The historical novel deals with women who served on the front lines in World War I.

What struck me in particular was one line from the article: “What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection…”

I must admit that I misread it when I first scanned the line thinking that it said that the women struggled with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood. I found this intriguing because women as well as men are invested in maintaining certain cultural myths. Our sense of what it is to be feminine forms a bit of our own identities as women. Both men and women compare and contrast their individual identities to the mythic narratives. The ideals of identity, however, rarely match up with the messy reality of life. It turns out they never have.

So the women who fought in the Great War can be added to a long list of myth-busting women. As you will recall, I only recently learned that female writers outsold male-authored fiction in the 19th Century.  In the past year I learned from reading A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell that women of early U.S. history did not all live lives of quiet domesticity.

Russell writes of the late 1700s “Women were extraordinarily free during this period, most strikingly in their ability and willingness to leave their husbands…for many segments of eighteenth-century society, marriage did not have to be permanent… Far more women chose not to marry at all during this period than at any time in the first two hundred years of the United States. Researchers estimate that at least one-quarter of women living in late colonial American cities were not married… Many women in the eighteenth century not only worked in what later became exclusively male occupations but also owned a great number of businesses that would soon be deemed grossly unfeminine…Historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women…Most upper-class ‘society’ taverns barred women, and respectable women rarely drank in taverns, but fortunately, most taverns were low class and most women were not respectable.”

This is all getting quite long for an introduction to a guest post, so without further ado, I will let Juliet Greenwood tell you about her research:

The Myth of Fragile Womanhood by Juliet Greenwood

“What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection.”

The thing that fascinated me most when I was researching the lives of women in the UK just before, and during, the First World War, was just how central the image of woman was to Edwardian society, colouring its view of how the world was, and naturally should be.

I was familiar with the image of women in Victorian novels, with their impossible skirts and lack of any independent life, but that seemed far back in history. Another time, another place. They do things differently there. But this was different. I come from a family of late starters, so my grandfather was married, and my father born, before women achieved the vote. A long time ago, but in the history of humankind, less than a breath away from where we are now. Touching distance.

The young men who went off to fight the First World War were raised on Boy’s Own adventures, full of daring do, fearless heroes saving the world and civilization (generally from foreigners and the lower orders), in which women appeared only to be saved, and to be the reason for saving civilization at all. Women were the Angel of the Hearth, the centre of the domestic sphere. They were physically fragile, intellectually weak. Their role was to produce the next generation of fine young men, and to be the quiet, supportive, modest (as in self-effacing) figure her husband needed after a long day saving the empire.

It was this image of the Angel of the Hearth that was often used against those unnatural women who longed for higher education, financial independence, or even the vote. Intellectual activity, it was argued, damaged a woman’s reproductive capacity, and unbalanced their fragile emotional state. In short, it was quite likely to send them unhinged. As for financial independence and the vote – well that was only desired by women too ugly, or too old, to attract a husband, as the anti-suffrage posters of the time loudly proclaimed.

What soon became clear, was that this image was outdated even before the Great War began. For one thing, women already outnumbered men, leaving increasing numbers of women needing to find a way of supporting themselves, and therefore working for a living as clerks and teachers, as well as in domestic service. Women were beginning to make gains, against all the odds, in obtaining university education (although not able to take degrees), and become skilled professionals, such as doctors. The advent of the bicycle, and the recognition that women benefitted from exercise, meant that women were more active. And of course some women had always been adventurers, climbing mountains, sailing up the Nile and the Congo and trekking across deserts. At home, women could be on councils and on the board of school governers, and middle and upper class women organised charitable works and ran large estates.

What was striking about the advent of war was that it brought this huge clash between this image of womanhood and the reality into sharp focus, one that, with the advent of photography, could no longer be denied. When women first volunteered their services as ambulance drivers, they were laughed at, but the necessity of war changed that. Women soon became nurses and ambulance drivers on the frontline, they set up field hospitals, kept the country going back at home. Some of the most interesting were the female spies, working behind enemy lines, gathering vital information, often collected from ordinary women in occupied France and Belgium, who counted out beans and knitted into garments the numbers of troops passing their villages. The irony was that it was the assumption that women were weak, cowardly, and non-too-bright, that offered a form of protection.

Where these two worlds clashed, was when these young women guided men separated from their units, or wounded, to safety. No wonder the men found the hardest thing was their total dependence on the language skills, the quick thinking, and the bravery of these ‘fragile’ flowers. Not to mention their physical prowess as they led them over the Alps to avoid border guards.

It was a shaking of a picture of the world, both for men and women, and although things have changed, it’s one that is still ongoing. The cult of the fragility of size zero, exchanging the dangerous crushing of the corset for the danger of the crumbling of malnourished bones, still presents an image at odds with the majority of women, who hold down jobs, while raising a family and juggling dreams and ambitions of their own. While James Bond (along with a parade of Hollywood heroes, some visibly well past retirement) is still the superhero, saving the world.

The image of man the hunter, man the warrior, is simple. It answers all the questions. The trouble is, it excludes the majority of the human race (of both sexes) who would rather not be either, thank you very much. It was the image that was used to argue that women didn’t need, or even want, the vote, even after Parliament (entirely made up of men) had twice democratically agreed that women should be given the right to vote. Many of those young women contributing to the war had been beaten up, sexually assaulted, tortured and abused in pursuit of their democratic rights in the face of this failure of democracy, while being informed roundly that they were acting out of ugliness and envy, and an incapacity to be a ‘real’ woman (as in weak, stupid and cowardly).

As I have been writing this post, outrage has been stirred in some quarters by the fact that in the new ‘Mad Max’ film a woman dares to bark orders at the hero, meaning that the feminists (as in ugly, envious and man-hating) have taken over, in a world gone mad.

Those incredibly brave, strong and resourceful young women, leading to safety the men whose worldview had just crumbled, must be smiling everso wryly. For the questions posed by their actions (conveniently forgotten, as is much of women’s history) are ones that still have not been answered – and still have the power to rock the world.

About JulietJuliet signing small

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage in North Wales, between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.

As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes serials and short stories for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’.

‘We That are Left’ was completed with the aid of a Literature Wales Bursary and was book of the Month for March 2014 for Waterstones Wales, The Books Council of Wales, and the National Museums of Wales. The kindle edition reached #4 in summer 2014.

The Happy End vs. The Noble End III: Navy Seal Edition

A while back I wrote a pair of articles on “The Happy End vs. The Noble End.”  The first article discussed our preference for endings in which the main character emerges victorious compared to the popular 19th Century ending in which the hero’s good deeds went unrewarded and unknown.

I wrote in the first article:

The theme of nobility conducted in secret was popular a century ago. It doesn’t sit well with us now. It seems to fly in the face of our notion of a just world. At least this is the conventional wisdom about what audiences want.

We have occasional glimpses of noble self-sacrifice. Action movies often feature a secondary character who fills that role. Michelle Rodriguez’s role in Avatar, Trudy Cachon, comes to mind, but the film does not make her crisis of conscience central and her death for a greater good is in support of the real business of allowing the heroes pummel the bad guys and save the day.

(Incidentally, while we’re talking about Trudy Cachon taking the fall so our hero can save the day, you might want to read about a couple of TV/Movie tropes. “Black Dude Dies First” and “Vasquez Always Dies.”)

In the follow up article on the topic, I talked about how we are now living in what one cultural historian calls “The Culture of Personality” as contrasted with the 19th Century “Culture of Character.”  Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, described this shift:

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining….

I concluded:

The ideal hero has changed as well. The physical laborer owned his inner world, as did his hero. The service worker gets things by manipulating the impression he makes on people in the outer world. His hero acts in this realm and must win in this realm. In the culture of personality, what is not apparent to the outer world might as well not exist. If good intentions do not yield good results– directly for the person who is the viewpoint character– what is the point? We can’t abide by a story like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth where the main character’s self-sacrifice is a secret shared only with the reader. We may not change the story to the extent that Lily Bart lives happily ever after, but in the modern film version we at least have to see that someone in her world learns what she did.

So building a “personality” and getting credit for your good deeds are matters of survival in the attention economy.

We are seeing a real world demonstration of the effects of these narratives among members of the military. In the past few weeks a couple of members of the Navy Seals have gone on record claiming to be the man who pulled the trigger and killed Osama Bin Laden.

The publicity seeking among the ranks of Seal Team Six has led Rear Adm. Brian Losey to write a letter reminding the elite forces that it is not part of their culture to take credit or seek the limelight.  As reported in the Navy Times:

“At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL ethos,” according to the letter, which was obtained by Navy Times. “A critical tenant of our ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’ Our ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the service. Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare.”

…“We will not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service, courage and sacrifice,” the letter says. “Our credibility as a premier fighting force is forged in this sacrifice and has been accomplished with honor, as well as humility.”

Yet our culture does not tell the stories of those who sacrifice with humility. Yes, our politicians lay wreaths at the tomb of the unknowns and they utter stirring words about serving with honor. But in our popular narrative we have abandoned the character who acts with honor when no one is looking. If we do not tell stories that honor those who make unrewarded sacrifices, how can we expect our soldiers to feel truly valued when their deeds remain unknown?

The Power of Narrative

I gave some thought to the focus of this blog, what ties its content together and what a regular reader might come to expect here. It is occasionally about the pleasures and pitfalls of the writing life, but more often it is about the stories we tell, the language we use and how they shape the way we see the world and interact with one another.

I am fascinated when I discover cultural blind spots– especially my own– as reflected in the most popular article ever posted here: The Invisible Famine in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The Power of Narrative will regularly examine areas where a single story has permeated our culture, whether it be about tortured ballet dancers or  what it means for a story to have a happy end.

It questions assumptions about what it means to be a failure, what we say to women about beauty, the identity categories we maintain, and what we mean when we evoke the notion of “tradition.

I like to look to other cultures and other time periods for what they reveal about things we take for granted.

This blog will examine the words we use, the sometimes icky ways we frame our discussions, and will not be satisfied with an either/or choice when the real question should be in what context?

I will inevitably also include occasional discussions related to whatever book I happen to be working on at the moment or odd subjects that capture my interest. (Lord Alfred Douglas, Adam Ant and David Hallberg for example.)

So this new title does not reflect any narcissistic assertion of my own powerful narrative. (I only wish I were narcissistic in that way, being a narcissist is annoying to other people, but to the narcissist herself I believe it feels pretty darned good.)  It is an expression of my topic and focus– writing, reading, the stories we tell and the powerful impact stories have on our lives.