Over the years the availability of books and films that have improved upon the cliché roles women are given is getting better, though there are miles of opportunities for improvement in both.
In the vein of “we’ve come a long way baby”, I took a look back at the classifications of female roles in fiction over the years to observe any progress. It isn’t a complete or exhaustive look; more like a peek.
Female roles, even when they were played by men, have always existed. In Greek mythology, the roles of human women were limited and often treated only as sex objects. However, the existence of goddesses attributed great amounts of power to female characters.
The women of the medieval literature were, surprisingly, a lot more candid and sexual than one might expect of an era when the ideal of femininity was Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is here that one finds the first buds of feminist literature emerging from the words on the pages. A perfect example of this is the Wife of Bath. Early drafts show that her role was meant to be much smaller and more one-dimensional, but somewhere along the line, Chaucer became enamored of his female creation, and eventually her prologue ended up twice as long as her tale. The Wife of Bath is lewd and lascivious — but this strong female character is also making an argument for female dominance and a woman’s right to control her body.
The role of women in 19th century literature was one in which they redefine their place in society. In this time period, women were being portrayed as protagonists more often than in the past. This was the age of Jane Eyre – one of the earliest representations of an individualistic, passionate and complex female character. Though she suffers greatly, she always relies on herself to get back on her feet — no wilting damsel in distress here.
The 20th century was pivotal for women’s roles in literature. It was the birth of female characters in strong independent roles. The unique voice of female minorities is a common theme in many coming of age novels that allow their writers to establish separate identities for their characters and themselves. Women in modern literature often include strong independent females juxtaposed with oppressed women to provide examples for young female readers and to critique shortcomings of our society. The emergence of the independent female novelist in America has allowed for a new evolution of the role of women in fictional literature. It also set the stage for the 21st century, which explodes with new media and new opportunities for female roles.
For young girls, it might have been Nancy Drew or Little Women. Both represented female roles with strong, opinionated, responsible characters (and role models) who faced adversity without melting in a pool of tears waiting on someone else (presumably male) to fix the situation.
The 21st century also brought us an explosion of science fiction, both in film and literature. Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen are two characters in the science fiction genre who represent strong role models for young women. But surely there were female science fiction characters who represented strong characters earlier than 2000?
Before we’d even heard of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Bewitched’s Samantha Stephens became such a powerful sorcerer that they recast her husband with a whole different dude and no one ever even noticed. http://bewitched.wikia.com/wiki/Samantha_Stephens
And let us not forget Catwoman, a fictional character appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. Catwoman has traditionally been portrayed as a super villain and adversary of Batman, but since the 1990s, she has been featured in a series that depicts her as an anti-heroine rather than a traditional villain.
Classifying female roles by their timelines and development is one approach. There is another interesting perspective that shines some light on historic prejudices and instances where those prejudices do not apply.
The traditional unmarried spinster has been portrayed by weak, less-attractive actresses. Think of Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith Show or Alice from the Brady Bunch. More recently think of Selma and Patty from The Simpsons. Catwoman is a perfect example of an unmarried, or dare I say spinster, female character that is strong and independent who would not be considered the norm.
The 1960s saw the first speculative presentations of women outside the realm of domestic life. Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura is a famous early example of a woman space explorer, and her race made her a role-model for black women in particular. And might we add, she was unmarried as well. Her inclusion in the series is credited with bringing more women into science fiction fandom.
This leads us to June Lockhart who was recently given NASA recognition for her impact on space exploration. Lockhart portrayed Maureen Robinson in the Lost in Space series of the 60’s. She was cast as a biochemist and a wife. However, her status as a doctor is mentioned only in the first episode and another in the second season.
Lockhart is the third entertainer to receive the medal, but just the first actress to do so. Lockhart said it was a highlight of her long career, which includes a Tony Award, an Emmy nomination and a couple of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
As I stated early on, this is not a comprehensive or exhaustive look but a peek into the various categories of female characters in fiction literature and film and how they have evolved over the centuries.
Like most classification systems, they are organic and living, which means they are constantly changing and being improved. In a taxonomy, decisions have to be made and sometimes remade. The key is to be consistent in those decisions so there is consistency across the classification. Consistency makes content findable.
Melody K. Smith, Blog Wrangler
Great piece, Melody! We will have really made it when the concept of the new Supergirl doesn’t raise an eyebrow any more than the original character.