Strong women make good drama!
Nobody wants to read about feminine doormats … do they?
I was teaching Shakespeare’s Othello to a class the other day and pointing out what a strong woman Desdemona was. She defied her father to marry in secret; her choice of husband, a black man, shocked Venetian society. She remained loyal to him in the face of his increasing mental instability, refusing to criticise him, even on her deathbed.
Desdemona is not alone. What about powerful Lady Macbeth whose ambition even exceeds that of her husband, or strong willed Beatrice, not afraid of giving Benedick a good tongue-lashing? It struck me as odd that at a time when women were generally uneducated, brought up to be meek and subservient, and considered inferior to men, Shakespeare bucks the trend. Was it a compliment to his female monarch? Possibly. But I think the real reason was that strong women make good drama.
Two hundred years earlier, Chaucer created the Wife of Bath, a larger than life character who rode horses astride, had gap teeth (a sign of lasciviousness), had got through five husbands and was on a look out for a sixth. What a woman!
Neither of these DWEM (dead, white, English men) was a feminist – the concept hadn’t been thought of. But they both understood that demure females who do everything they are told are boring to watch; if they don’t stand up to men then there is no tension.
Prior to a certain 2011 publication I would have written that few modern writers would consider creating a docile, biddable heroine. Chaucer and Shakespeare’s women have stood the test of time because of their dramatic potential.
I wonder whether current novels featuring passive women will be able to claim the same success in a few centuries’ time. I for one wouldn’t risk it!