Men's Voices, Women's Voices
There’s a common thread connecting three of the best books I’ve read lately: Circe by Madeline Miller, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, and The Heroine with 1001 Faces by Maria Tatar. Each of them examines keystones of our literary heritage from the viewpoint of female characters who traditionally played simplistic, secondary roles. A Thousand Ships and Circe retell The Iliad and The Odyssey, respectively, from female points of view. The Heroine With 1001 Faces is a scholar’s examination of archetypes of women as embodied by female protagonists throughout literary history.
Certainly (and thankfully), these are not the only books taking a second look at the canon from a feminist standpoint, but they are particularly thoughtful and well-written, and I happened to read them in fairly quick succession, leaving a strong cumulative impression. The timing was fortuitous, since I’ve been working on a novel of my own with three female narrators, sisters inspired loosely by King Lear’s three daughters. Or perhaps working on the novel primed me to pick up these specific books. Either way, writers—most emphatically, male writers—would be well served by reading them.
Why? Because most stories include female characters and crafting those characters as carefully as any of the male characters into complex, fully realized individuals can only make a story better. Too often, from the oldest legends and folk tales to the latest best-sellers, this has not been a priority, especially not when the storytellers are men.
I’m not saying men have never succeeded at portraying female characters. There are plenty of great examples: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer and so on. Yet despite this, why do we still see fictional women too often reduced to a love interest or sex object, a mother – either idealized or villainized, a victim or a harridan? Their descriptions no more than a catalogue of facial features and body parts? And why do people keep buying these books (and turning them into movies)?
Guys, we have to do better. Let me put this in the only way that might get through to you: You’re not gonna let a bunch of girls show you up, are you?