Can Men Write Good Heroines?Posted: February 2, 2014
From The Little Mermaid and Anna Karenina to Holly Golightly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Samantha Ellis examines the heroines written by men
I was delighted to see Truman Capote–the little freak was a genius–featured as an example of an author that excelled at writing woman characters. Holly Golightly is arguably one of the most compelling women characters in 20th century popular fiction.
Besides being a classic 1960s Hollywood movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a novella, a small book with a big character. Made famous, of course, by Audrey Hepburn. Which is unfortunate–many contemporary readers wouldn’t likely place Capote’s forgotten book on their must-read list. I came across it casually, in my 20s, and it was this exact thing that captivated me. The creation of this… indelible character. I almost felt like the detective in Laura, infatuated with a ghost. In this case, a fictional creation. The character is darker, more seductive, more melancholy, in Capote’s book, than the romantic, candy-coated version in the movie.
The other thing I found striking was that Capote was writing about himself. If we take the Holly Golightly character, and switch the gender, it’s a story of a young homosexual male from the south, hustling among the wealthy and famous in New York. Swinging between euphoria and depression, a sexual social climber, running from a troubled past. That’s a Truman Capote autobiography.
But we also know that Capote drew inspiration, like a reporter, from real women. One of Truman’s great talents was befriending talkative, wealthy, fascinating women. It’s said that he based the book on an actual young socialite in Manhattan (or a composite of a few women he knew) which involved discretion, misdirection, secrecy, and even threats of lawsuits, as the guessing game disrupted reputations and ignited rumors among New York’s elite. One wonders if the handful of society women in contention were insisting they were not her, or claiming that they were.
It’s also unfortunate that Capote was remembered more for his decadent celebrity, than his (regrettably thin) body of work. He was a writer of great promise who lost his way. After the obscenely-rewarding success of In Cold Blood (it made Truman literally the most famous writer on earth) Capote never wrote a serious novel again. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a forgotten little gem that gave us one of fiction’s great heroines.
Samantha Ellis poses a good question. She writes:
Can men write good heroines? Most of the heroines I write about in my book How to Be a Heroine are written by women. And most of the heroines I find most problematic are written by men. It’s very troubling to go back to Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Little Mermaid and find that it’s a story about a mermaid who gives up her voice for legs to get a man. And even as a girl, I was furious with Charles Dickens for letting Nancy get bludgeoned in Oliver Twist and, later, outraged that Samuel Richardson heaped pain and indignity on Clarissa and called her “an Exemplar to her sex” as though learning to suffer well made us exemplary.
It’s particularly distressing to see how male writers have punished their heroines for being sexually adventurous. Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train; Gustave Flaubert makes Emma Bovary pathetic even before she poisons herself. It’s striking that when Erica Jong wrote about an adulteress in Fear of Flying, she gave her a happy ending, in which she is reborn in a hotel bathtub, and summons her adoring husband back.
But men can write wonderful heroines. Shakespeare‘s Juliet is both bold and brilliant. She defies her parents, deceives her nurse, marries in secret, sleeps with Romeo, plots an ingenious escape and isn’t even fazed by death – all this and she’s only 14. It’s just a shame that Shakespeare didn’t give her a hero worthy of her – it’s fickle Romeo’s ineptitude that gets Juliet killed. But I still love her, and I’d go to the wall for the unruly, cross-dressing heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies.
Henrik Ibsen‘s Nora inspired many women to smash down the walls of their own dolls’ houses. Daniel Defoe‘s Moll Flanders is a shrewd, bawdy wonder. I have a lot of time for JD Salinger‘s restless, questioning Franny Glass. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer should prove, definitively, that men can write not just heroines but superheroines – famously, when asked why he writes strong female characters, Joss Whedon shot back “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
As for the much-maligned Tess, I think Thomas Hardy tied himself in knots trying to show the plight of a poor Victorian woman while also making her feisty enough to be interesting. The crucial scene in The Chase went through three drafts – in the first, Alec tricks Tess into a sham marriage, and consummates it. In the second, he drugs and rapes her. But in the final draft Tess isn’t duped or drugged or raped, she’s seduced. She’s complicit. And she faces the consequences bravely. She could hide her past from Angel, the man she falls in love with, but she wants to be honest. And Hardy paints him as a weak hypocrite for not respecting that candour. At the end of the novel, when she stabs Alec to death, Hardy makes his loyalty even clearer; he calls the bloodstain she creates “a gigantic ace of hearts”. He’s saying she’s a winner. The winner of the novel. He rewards her with a few pages’ grace, as she and a repentant Angel have the honeymoon they never had, and at the end she goes to the men who arrest her like a goddess…
- How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Author Samantha Ellis: To be a heroine you have to defy fate, not be trapped by expectations (metro.co.uk)
- Interview: Samantha Ellis (thejc.com)
- Stage heroines: tell us your favourites (theguardian.com)
- Why Hardy’s Sue Bridehead reminds me of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (crazyforviclit.wordpress.com)
- A girl’s guide to growing up with romance (standard.co.uk)
- 10 Greatest Girl Power Heroines (whitmansyawp.wordpress.com)
- Book review: How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis (scotsman.com)
- Julie James (taylorgraceauthor.wordpress.com)
- Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (myoldaddiction2.wordpress.com)