Recently, I read three short stories dealing with female characters of different strengths. None of them exactly fit the common meme of the female warrior—who can take on man larger than her and physically defeat him while remaining stoically detached from “feminine” emotions like crying—but one came close.
The business woman who moved with the movers and shakers—the only woman in a high level meeting with men—outwardly resembled the female warrior the most. Danny enjoyed a life of vintage wine, designer clothing, and five-star hotels. Yet, the phrase that kept reappearing was her feeling of being bloated. She consumed luxuries without gaining sustenance. Danny did a good job at keeping her emotions under control. Her only response was restrained anger when sexual relationships with men occurred out of mere form and politeness. She is a tragic character who is a pale shadow of the powerful, yet unfulfilled Citizen Kane. In psychological terms, she was the weakest of the three female characters.
The next “strong” female, Diana, shared a resemblance in her early career to Dian Fossey who lived in primitive conditions as a scientist in Africa. This Diana had moved up to professorship at a prestigious university, sending students out on the field to do the work she had once done. Her husband’s career had spiraled downhill. But, the narrative from his viewpoint was honest. Men are not attracted to a smart, successful woman unless they are unquestionably smarter and more successful. In this story, the husband loved their child, but his switch to expected full-time childcare provider unnerved him. Diana had lived a comparatively charmed life and dealt with his struggles in a logical and not particularly empathetic manner. Unable to be an equal match for his wife, the husband foresaw their union dissolving because she would not put up with him.
The last female character, Mavis, reeked of weakness. The old woman was constantly in a state of indecision, not sure of how to move forward. She cried a lot, she prayed a lot and desperately needed emotional support. Her husband had committed a crime and traumatized her nephew. She could not shake her guilt for her part in this. As the story unrolled I realized that although the term narcissist was never used, Mavis’ husband showed every indication of being one. He blamed his action on her words, insisting that she apologize, while he actually played the part of the provoker. Many readers would ask “How could she not see who he really was?” They probably have not tangled with the wile of a narcissist. (Or perhaps they have and do not realize it, yet.)
Mavis’ husband could be very charming, and she recalled their good times fondly. One pivotal memory was an unexpected enjoyable outing on her birthday. It took a bad turn after her insistence that they see a movie. While complying with her request, his mood showed this displeased him. Later he relieved his anger on a girl he did not know for a minor incivility. Now, he was incarcerated. Mavis’ struggle to break free from her husband’s control was beautifully drawn in her memories as she traveled to visit him and finally gathered the courage to turn around without confronting him. She would no longer be there to field his provocations.
Of the three stories, the woman who appeared like the warrior was the weakest. She portrayed a tragic character, on the way up in power and on the way down in her respect for herself. The timorous, older woman who broke from a clever man that imagined he could do no wrong received my vote for the most powerful. When it comes to creating strong female characters, be aware that appearances can be deceiving.
Cohen, Robert, “Roaming Charges.” Boggs, Belle, “In the Shadow of Man.” and Crew, Ashlee, “Day One.” in Ploughshares Summer 2018. Ed. Jill McCorkle, Vol. 44, No. 2.
Image by S.L. Listman