A Reflection On A Semester of Reading: What I Knew, What I Know, and What I Still Don’t Know About Women’s Literature (Mostly the Latter)

By Molly K. Lichtner, 5/10/17

Before taking Women’s Lit last spring, I was sure of two things.  One, I am a feminist, and two, I already knew everything about women’s literature.  After taking Women’s Lit, I was still sure about two things.  One, I am still a feminist, and two, I most certainly do not know everything about women’s literature.  Women’s literature has a lot of gray areas concerning what it actually is.  It is hard to tell what constitutes as true women’s literature.  Is women’s literature trashy romance novels, like Susan Lute’s Oops…We’re Married? that caters to what women readers want in a novel?  Or is it like Uprooted by Naomi Novik, that has many complex female characters but and  fails to properly flesh out and stereotypes its only character of color? Or is women’s literature the graphic novel A League Of One by Christopher Moeller, where Wonder Woman is surrounded by egotistical men?  Out of everything we have read this semester, I think the strongest example of women’s literature has been Marjane Starapi’s Persepolis because of its brutally honest depiction of what growing up as a young woman in Iran and Europe is really like.  Over the course of the semester I have learned that there are two kinds of women’s literature: literature for women and literature by women.  Everything we have read this semester has fit into one of these two categories.  Literature for women, which includes Oops…We’re Married?, Uprooted, and A League Of One, all have female characters but none are developed or characterized to their fullest capacity.  Literature by women, which includes Persepolis, has the capacity to stand the test of time in the greater discourse of literature because of its deeper meaning and cultural relevance.

Every year, millions of dollars are made off of the romance novel market.  There are hundreds of them in any given bookstore; all of them are red or pink with mysterious men and scantily clad women on the covers.   Although they hold a large part of the paperback book market, they are unsubstantial.  Lute’s “Oops…We’re Married?” falls into the category of literature for women because of it fits right along into the well-defined trope of all romance novels; they pander to what women want without being anything deeper.   In Janice A. Radway’s “Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context,” Radway claims that the women she interviewed “especially like romances that commence with the early marriage of the hero and heroine for reasons of convenience.”  This is exactly what happened in this book.  The heroine, Eleanor Silks Rose, is asked by her brother Jake to participate in a dating game for charity.  Her character is exactly the way Radway describes the main character that readers prefer in romance novels: “[they] all emphatically insist that the ideal heroine must be intelligent and independent, and they particularly applaud those who are capable of holding their own in repartee with men.”  This is exactly what Eleanor is; she is a successful business woman that lives on her own.  She needs no one, until she reconnects with Dillion Stone: “Eleanor ignored the faint tremble in her heart as she felt again his prowling interest…”  Because of this novel’s predictable plot and reader-pleasing clichés, this book is written for women.  It has a specific target audience.  It may be an entertaining afternoon read, but it does not contribute to women’s literature.

Although Uprooted is an enjoyable romp in a fantasy world, it cannot be considered women’s literature because of its underdeveloped and underrepresented woman of color while it spends hundreds of words on other secondary characters.  One of the most pivotal supporting characters of Uprooted is Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia.  Because of her beauty, Kasia is groomed from a young age to be able to serve and entertain The Dragon.  She is denied most close relationships that children have because everyone assumes that she will be the 17 year old girl that will be taken for ten years: “We knew it would be Kasia, but that didn’t mean we weren’t still afraid.”  Although beautiful and soft on the outside, one can assume that Kasia was forced to grow numb and hard inside in order to keep people out.  After not being chosen by the wizard, everything Kasia has been trained for is now useless.  Her preparations for ten years of servitude have no meaning now, and although she did not want to go, it is a letdown.  All her wasted time and spurned relationships are now meaningless.  She could have been like other little girls.  She could have had lots of friends and been openly loved by her parents.  When Kasia is taken by the Wood, her outer appearance changes remarkably: “Her skin was soft, but beneath it her flesh was unyielding; not like stone but like a smooth-polished piece of amber…She might have been a carved statue.”   Her inside personality changes too, although less obviously.  After leaving the Wood and becoming inexplicably strong, Kasia has no fear of being taken away from her loved ones again.  She is able to let people in and love them, namely young Prince Stashek and Princess Marisha.  After their mother’s death, Kasia becomes an older sister and protector to them.  Her love for the children is obvious: “Hush, Marishu,” she said, a quick touch of her hand to Marisha’s cheek, to quiet her; the little girl was trying to reach for her.”  Novik gives readers a deep look into a character that is fully fleshed out, but gives little greater meaning to its one and only character that is explicitly stated as being a person of color: Alosha the court witch.  Her skin tone is mentioned when she is first introduced: “…Alosha was taller even than me, with ebony-dark skin and shoulder as broad as my father’s, her black hair braided tightly against her skull.”  In addition to her skin color, her attire is described as well: “She wore men’s clothes: full red cotton trousers tucked into high leather boots.”  The fact that she is the only woman of color in the book but wears what is characterized as men’s clothing is concerning.  The trope of “strong black women” has been around for a long time.  What Novik is doing here is taking her only minority character and turning her into something almost akin to a caricature; if no one else’s race was important to mention, why was Alosha’s?  Black women are so much more than just stereotypically “strong” or as Novik describes, almost “mannish.”  Because Novik puts Alosha in men’s clothes and has Agnieszka relate her to her father, this novel is literature for women (namely, white women) instead of literature by women.  Its lack of representation will keep it from entering the lasting discourse of women’s literature, even if it is made into a movie.

Wonder Woman has always been a favorite of many women around the world because of what she represents.  Wonder Woman is strong and self-confident.  She is self-assured and does not worry about what other people think of her.  Even though Wonder Woman is not technically human, she is relatable to human women because they can see themselves in her.  She is represented perfectly in Christopher Moeller’s comic JLA: A League of One, but that does not make the comic a piece of women’s literature.  Besides Wonder Woman and a brief encounter with Poison Ivy, the only other female characters are the nymphs and the dragon.  They are not even human.  A dragon has more speaking lines than the second humanoid woman in this comic.  In addition to its lack of female characters, JLA: A League of One is incredibly heavy with self-centered male superheroes, specifically Superman.  A League of One is a fitting title for this comic because Wonder Woman is the only woman that is a part of the Justice League.  Her biggest battle is the battle against her male counterparts’ egos.  This is particularly notable after Wonder Woman saves the day and is discussing her choices with Superman.  He is angry with her for not letting the Justice League help her defeat the dragon.  Wonder Woman explains her reasoning:  “I did what I had to do!  Believe me, I didn’t do it out of pride.”  Eventually Superman retorts: “I would have died fighting at your side, Diana.”  On the surface, this seems gallant and brave, but by potentially sacrificing himself he puts the rest of the world in jeopardy.  Wonder Woman knows this.  She knows that the world can live without just her but the world could not survive if all of the Justice League perishes.  Wonder Woman’s strength and the comic’s lack of women help categorize this comic as literature for women.  Although it has a strong female lead, its overall lack of representation (and male author) keep it from being literature by women.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis has always been one of my favorite books.  The first time I read it I was a freshman in high school—seven years ago.  I was about the same age as Marji was when her parents sent her to Austria.  At the time, I thought that was probably the coolest thing ever for a 14 year old.  I understood why her parents sent her there (to escape the ravages of war, obviously) but I didn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of a young teenager being left to her own devices.  After a couple years being parent-free, Marji makes some questionable choices regarding recreational drugs.  Without close contact with her parents, Marji falls into a death spiral.  She becomes homeless after breaking up with her boyfriend when she finds him in bed with another woman.  Marji almost dies from a horrendous cough (which I can only assume is something severe like tuberculosis) and has some major realizations about her life: “I had known a revolution that had made me lose part of my family.  I had survived a war that had distanced me from my country and my parents… …and it’s a banal story of love that almost carried me away.”  Her realization had no lasting effect on me as a 14 year old (probably because I had never even been kissed at that point) but now her claims ring true.  She had escaped a war unscathed but almost succumbed due to futile teenage puppy love.  The juxtaposition of the two situations is jarring; war is a life changing event that killed hundreds of thousands of people whereas breaking up with a boyfriend is a more commonplace occurrence.  What makes it even more lasting is the fact that it is true.  Satrapi is brutally open about her experiences in Persepolis.  She does not sugarcoat her life or try to make herself seem better than she is.  The honesty and subject in this graphic novel confirm it as true women’s literature; it is literature by a woman and it has greater significance and importance than anything else we read that semester.

I have come out of this course more well-read and more equipped to participate in feminist discourse.  I think I know what women’s literature is now, but I have only scratched the surface.  Although Persepolis had the most lasting effect on me, the other novels hold merit as well; all of them tell immensely different stories of different women.  Maybe I am wrong about my assertions of women’s literature, that there are concrete and tangible differences within women’s literature between each kind of story or novel.  Maybe it does not really matter what I make of women’s literature.  Maybe it matters what women’s literature makes of me.

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