I am so sick of the lame old stereotype “women are more emotional than men.” Aside from being blatantly false, it does damage. Often, women are disrespected in the workplace if we get heated over something important, or we’re told to “stop PMS-ing” if we have a personal drama. I will always remember the Sex and the City episode in which Samantha Jones is berated for being a working woman and cries only when she gets in the elevator. How awful is it that female emotions are viewed as a sign of weakness?
The idea of the “strong woman” has come under fire in the past weeks. Natalie Portman expressed the idea that in an attempt to make women seem powerful, Hollywood has made them one-dimensional; we can fight crimes, but can we also be human and vulnerable? TIME’s Eliana Dockterman lamented the fact that the strongest women in television so often sacrifice their careers for the men they love, as if we must choose between rich emotional lives and success. Male characters in TV can be profoundly feeling and terrifyingly powerful at the same time: Mad Men’s Don Draper, Homeland’s Nick Brody and Saul Berenson... the list goes on. So I set out on a mission to find fictional women whose passionate emotion and love were sources of fortitude and not of weakness. I'm not going to lie; they're pretty few and far between. Here are my seven favorites; please add yours in the comments!
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is at least as powerful a figure as Batman, but much of the time, she has difficulty asserting her authority. As Selena Kyle, she is a secretary who struggles to defend herself from cruel male bosses.
But in the exploration of her love for cats and for Batman, Kyle becomes a hero. The Bat’s conviction that they two are fundamentally the same, despite what might be perceived as his male privilege or her righteous anger towards men, sways her to use her powers for justice. And that’s not because Batman steals her thunder; it’s because their love makes them both stronger.
2. Fannie Fern’s Ruth Hall
Fannie Fern’s 1954 novel Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time is often skipped in literature courses for being “too sentimental.” And yes, it is pretty sentimental; for instance, Ruth literally faints when her husband dies and must live a life of pitifully unsettling poverty. But like Fern herself, Ruth is also a huge success as an early woman writer, breaking down barriers in publishing and earning her own living. Fern doesn’t disparage the marital love and grief Ruth feels at the beginning of the novel; on the contrary, her success brings her to honor her husband’s grave, which she now views as a site of hope for the future of her family.
3. Adrienne Rich’s Marie Curie
Adrienne Rich’s poem Power depicts a woman often appropriated as a feminist symbol, the chemist Marie Curie. But it in this version, it isn’t Curie’s rational thought that gives her Power with a capitol P. It’s her passion for her work, her irrational and all-consuming ardor: although she is poisoned by radiation sickness, “She died a famous woman denying/ her wounds/ denying/ her wounds came from the same source as her power.”
4. Virgina Woolf’s Lily Briscoe
Lily Briscoe, To The Lighthouse’s modernist lady character, is no doubt a pre-feminist figure. She battles oppressive ideas that women can’t be painters, and she makes the daring choice not to wed. Throughout the narrative, she struggles to create the perfect painting, and in the end, it isn’t necessarily her craft that vindicates her as an artist; no, it’s the emotion she feels for her late friend Mrs. Ramsey and her family.
As Professor Laura Anne Collins writes, “Lily’s painting [...] becomes in the end a universal gesture of intimacy in the emotions of the artist and the carefully observing viewer.” Lily’s exquisite painting might be called sentimental, and yes, she herself acknowledges that it might only end up in someone’s attic, but it fulfills her personal vision. And that’s an success like no other.
Thecla, the female saint who follows the biblical Paul and yearns to be accepted by the church despite her womanhood, abandons all oppressive conventions that forbid her from pursuing her eternal love for God. She leaves her family, vows never to marry, and wanders the woods dressed as a man. Although Paul rebuffs her, love and faith get this lady through.
6. The woman in Mary Cassatt’s La Toilette
Mary Cassatt, one of the few female impressionist painters, wasn’t shy on her views on women’s rights. She broke the tradition of painting women only in domestic settings, painting them at the opera, on train cars, and at bullfights.
But the beautiful thing is that she doesn’t lend the public female persona any more dignity than she does the mother in her quiet moments at home with her child. He mother and child works have been criticized as being “too sentimental,” but this woman is clearly not weak or pitiful. She has big, powerful hands which she uses to delicately wash her young child’s feet; her housework is hard, and Cassatt paints her as the admirable woman she is.
7. The women of Marie de France
One of the only female authors of courtly love tales and poetry, Marie de France subverted the idea of the damsel-in-distress we know so well. Her stories of knights and princesses are spooky, dark, and beautiful. And her female characters certainly don’t need any rescuing.
In my favorite story, a lady’s beloved knight is slain at the close gallant and brave fight. As she kneels over him, her tears drip onto his bleeding chest, magically turning to blood themselves. It is not only the slain knight, but also the woman who valiantly mourns him, who will be remembered as a hero.
So the next time you’re made to feel bad for being a woman who’s also a human being, don’t. Inequality is bad; emotions aren't. And shocker: people of all genders can be emotional and strong simultaneously.
Thanks to The University of Tennessee and Shmoop
Images via Glamour, My Opera, 19th Century Chick Lit, Biography, Daily Mail, Tradition in Action, Artstor, and Notable Women