Distressed Damsel Seeks Rescue

In preparation for the rapidly approaching (and somewhat terrifying) deadline of my English research paper, I have taken out pretty much the entire shelf of books on Margaret Atwood from the library.

I’m looking at gender representation in fantasy fiction, which is pretty much synonymous with controversy. Lots of fun. And, unless you are new to this blog, it should be evident that I have a certain level of interest in feminism.

But for today, I won’t be looking at Atwood or the criticism thereof. Save that fun for later. No, today’s treat is To Write Like A Woman, by Joanna Russ. The book is a collection of “Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction”.

So. Much. Fun.

It’s packed with those “a-ha!” moments when you recognise all the weird things that writers of the genre actually do. It branches out from science fiction and covers horror, modern, gothic and dystopian fiction. It’s also very funny.


My favourite essays thus far have been “What can a heroine do? Or why women can’t write” and “Somebody’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my husband”. They don’t sound like scary theoretical papers, do they? Well, they carry all the academic weight of serious literary criticism, with none of the unnecessary jargon-ising. They are carefully observed accounts of real and disturbing trends in the fantastical genres.

A lot of the essays are from the ’70s, so they don’t quite hold true in 100% of cases. But 99% of the time, Russ is spot on. Examining modern gothic novels, she points out the ways that heroines go through exactly the same motions in all of them. They also feature the same cast, which I had never noticed before – Heroine, Other Woman, Super Male, Shadow Male, Young Child. And freaky little details that remain concurrent in all cases, such as the fact that the Super Male is never short. Ever.

The modest, pretty-but-doesn’t-know-it Heroine will always undergo a kind of repulsion/attraction response to this Super Male, who is generally inexplicably mean to her but secretly loves her. There will be a dark secret and someone (the Shadow Male, trusted, benevolent on the surface, hiding true intentions) will try to kill the Heroine. The Heroine will require rescuing. The Super Male will usually oblige.

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The mystery of the dark secret will be unpacked over the course of the novel, but not by the Heroine. She will simply bear witness to the unfolding of the plot. She will not contribute to the development of the story, unless it is by attempting to discover something and then failing and requiring rescue (again).

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And then, bizarrely, there is the Heroine’s obsession with décor, dress and minutiae of emotional expression. At every opportunity, the Heroine will be noting precisely what the people around her are wearing, from the Other Woman’s chartreuse fascinator to the Super Male’s vermillion socks. These are not Chekhov’s Guns, but they are treated as such, as if the precise shade and fit of a blouse is the key to the whole plot.

The Heroine has the almost supernatural ability to read the subtlest of emotional cues, generally interpreted by examining eyes. How anyone can detect that the Shadow Male is happy, but secretly impatient, but really depressed, but only so the Heroine pities him in order to tempt her into taking a long walk in the dead of night…. Well, detect this by the way he stares at a hatstand? The Heroine just can. She’s magic like that.

In addition, she is invariably unemployed. She is in a new environment and doesn’t do very much (apart from staring at furniture and other people). In spite of this, she is captivating to the Super Male, though she may seem pretty boring to everyone else. She is between the ages of 17 and 30 and pretty much always a virgin.

Why do these trends exist and apply so unbelievably consistently?

The answer lies, in part, in the audience. They are books that valorise and glamourise the life of the housewife. It is interesting to note that women with jobs in these stories are generally either a) evil and sexually predatory or b) ugly and older than the Heroine. The books provide an escape from the drudgery of being a stay-at-home mom; they offer a fantasy that validates the housewife without requiring her to change from her passive domestic position.

“You can be loved – just don’t do anything”.

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  • Publisher: Indiana University Press; First Printing edition (June 22, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0253209838
  • ISBN-13: 978-0253209832

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