Earlier published at The Scene, Mad About Moviez and Former People.
“[Mrs Ramsay] had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl – pray Heaven it was none of her daughters! – who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones.”
– To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
The first time I remember meeting Mrs Ramsay was, in a sense, at least a year and a half before I read even my first Woolf novel, Mrs Dalloway, when I read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. And I’ll be honest: it baffled me when I first read it.
The Wikipedia summary of act one of the play is
The play opens at Christmas time as Nora, Torvald’s wife, enters into her home, “thoroughly loving her life and surroundings (Ibsen, 1871, p. 590).” An old-time friend of hers, Mrs. Linde, arrives to her home seeking employment. At the same time, Torvald “has just received news of his most recent job promotion (Ibsen, 1871, p 590).” When Nora learns of her husband’s promotion she instantly and excitedly hires Mrs. Linde. In the meantime, Nora, who is playing the ordinary housewife, is unhappy with her husband and becomes very distraught with him. While conversing, “Mrs. Linde complains about her most difficult past, and Nora mentions that she has had a life in resemblance to Mrs. Linde’s (Ibsen, 1871, 590).”(Emphasis added.)
But before we get to Nora, we should acquaint ourselves with Mrs Bennet. I read Pride and Prejudice a while after Mrs Dalloway, but nevertheless she forms an important precursor to both Nora and Clarissa. One thing Austen is not famous for but is an important element in the book is her judgmentalness towards characters she doesn’t approve of. Probably the character who gets the most flak from her is Mrs Bennet, a tactless housewife whose only aim in life is to get her five daughters married as quickly as possible. Not having read any other books by Austen, I can’t say how common it is, but I’m willing to bet that her acerbic criticism of Mrs Bennet’s narrowness is not a moment of whimsy. Any feminist worth zir salt will tell you exactly why this is a horrible thing to do. Melissa McEwan, in an article about allegations often made against feminists of ‘man-hating,’ wrote,
“There are the stereotypes—oh, the abundant stereotypes!—about women, not me, of course, but other women, those women with their bad driving and their relentless shopping habits and their PMS and their disgusting vanity and their inability to stop talking and their disinterest in Important Things and their trying to trap men and their getting pregnant on purpose and their false rape accusations and their being bitches sluts whores cunts… And I am expected to nod in agreement, and I am nudged and admonished to agree. I am expected to say these things are not true of me, but are true of women (am I seceding from the union?)”
While this is an illustrative quote, it doesn’t really explain the situation: it boils down to the fact that hating people for doing what they are socially conditioned to do is just another aspect of subjugation – freedom involves the freedom to act in socially acceptable ways too (there are much deeper issues here, to do with the criticism of not being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose but there are arguments against that being phrased against women and the associated domestic and cosmetic concerns but not men and the associated concerns about cars and sports and business and being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose in extremely kyriarchial terms etc – it’s a part of what’s encoded in the word ‘femmephobia’ which means hatred of the womanly).
Nora, like Mrs Bennet, starts off the play as an extremely ‘shallow’ (the deep/shallow dichotomy needs to be tackled in a separate piece altogether – but it’s probably not too hard to appreciate the fact that I hate it) woman, living entirely in the sphere of her social life, her relationship with her husband and her housewifely duties; she’s basically a doll, in her doll’s house. The play is about how she breaks out of the doll’s house in her head and then walks out of the doll’s house owned by her husband.
And, despite such a seemingly clear arc, it baffled me till I was reading a collected edition of some of Harold Pinter’s plays. At least two of them (The Birthday Party and The Room) had a housewife figure who, when faced with her domestic idyll giving way to gaping chasms in her path, tried to make it right by pretending nothing was off and trying to convince everyone, through entirely friendly social persuasion, that everything was all right and they should stop acting so fucking messy. Now, this made sense to me: it was a classic story of the abyss staring at someone and that person closing her eyes and trying to jump over it – it’s one of the most fascinating arcs I’ve ever encountered.
What defines all these women –and countless similar characters, including our very own Charulata and every Bollywood mom ever – is a certain brittleness of character. They’ve been trained all their lives to be the emotional and spiritual backbone of their families, the susheel naari, and they’ll do that no matter what, damn those men and their annoying egos. Tropes like a mother desperately searching for her child or acting as an intermediary between a feuding father and offspring sound like clichés even though I for the life of me can’t come up with examples.
Now, the fact that this is how women are often portrayed speaks directly of the prevalence of oppression and is therefore not a good thing (but, to be clear, it is not in itself evidence, though it is part of a larger class of things that is at least motivation for plausibility). However, the other fact is that in most Bollywood movies the moms are not the central characters, and that is a manifestation of misogyny (and other things) too; what is a good thing is that there is a subgenre of narrative art, and often created by men, which tries to use these tropes to at the same time point out the effects of oppression and provide sympathetic portrayals of the women – that is nice.
But, you know, everything I’ve spoken about was created by men; to really take these tendencies as far as they need to go needs women (well, I don’t see any reason it should in principle but in practice women are the only people I’ve seen go the distance on this – this may of course have something to do with the fact that they have probably at times had to actually consider the possibility of being Charulatas).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is the story of, and from the point of view of, a woman whose intellectual freedom and her awareness of the oppressiveness of the thinking-is-bad-for-women world around her can’t coexist; it causes a fragmentation of her experience (I ought to warn you that that’s just my favourite way of phrasing it), which boils down to her describing herself tearing down the not-too-subtle-symbol-for-oppression wallpaper in the third person.
Clarissa Dalloway is a woman who long ago chose a stodgy, conventional man over an adventurous intellectually open and respectful free spirit whom she loved. One of the best things Mrs Dalloway does is make a deep case to us that that may not have been the right choice but it definitely was a right choice. Yes, she isn’t respected for her not inconsiderable intellectual capabilities, but she chose a certain sort of emotional stability over that, and it’s not as if her intellectual life is dead: beneath her veneer of the party hostess is the woman, the one who carefully picks her guests for a very specific purpose:
“But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties?”
“But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?”
“And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it. It was too much like being — just anybody, standing there; anybody could do it; yet this anybody she did a little admire, couldn’t help feeling that she had, anyhow, made this happen, that it marked a stage, this post that she felt herself to have become, for oddly enough she had quite forgotten what she looked like, but felt herself a stake driven in at the top of her stairs. Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background; it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper. But not for her; not yet anyhow.”
But, let’s cross 1950 already. What’s the situation like after the feminist movement got a hold? Obviously, the domestic woman is still a prevalent character, as is her brittleness, from The Godfather’s women to Carmela Soprano, from every Bollywood mom ever to the crazy punisher of Ek Hasina Thi, from the bar dancer who doesn’t want her sister to marry a prominent thief to – as a friend entertainingly called the anti-heroine in Maqbool – Lady Maqbool. And, as I’ll explain, the quality of portrayal is not significantly better.
Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar’s Shanghai features a cascading set of women who are prompted into action by the deeds and misdeeds of the men in their lives; at its centre is an ultra-rich half-white woman who only pays lip service to the cause of the poor people around her till her boyfriend/teacher is murdered and then goes on an investigation spree for justice (which also solves the problems of the aforementioned poor people), even after finding out that sleeping with his students is a common behaviour for the man.
Or, for a less conflicting example, let’s turn to the well of American TV series. Specifically, Cougar Town, created by Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel. It’s a ‘hangout comedy’ (or whatever they’re calling it nowadays) about a group at whose centre is the intensely motherly Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox); she got pregnant at sixteen and the father couldn’t provide so she raised her kid on her own and now (eighteen years later) she’s a well-off real estate agent. And, you know what, she is usually a fluffy ignorant irascible woman but she commands respect like few other characters I’ve ever seen; ‘hear me roar’ is actually a line she might say when she gets worked up, and she will be taken seriously. And then there’s even more: she’s a depressive. There are whole episodes about her unstoppable downward spiral, and they often contain some of the show’s greatest moments. But it’s as if there’s an on/off switch. Certain episodes will be about her internal life and certain episodes will focus on her exclusively as an anchor for social dynamics; it could have been a great show if the writers had been able to handle these elements with the consistency and respect with which they handle all the others.
On the other hand, there’s Gilmore Girls, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (and her husband Daniel Palladino is a non-trivial creative force too). It’s also about a woman, Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) who gets pregnant at sixteen, finds the father inadequate, and begins her own life. The series begins sixteen years after that, and at its centre resides the relationship between Lorelai, her daughter Lorelai urf Rory (Alexis Bledel) and her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop). And it features a massively inclusive world – every side character gets a fully-fledged personality, so much so that the other relationships are almost as important as the central ones.
And at the centre of this network of relationships? Lorelai. Not only is she dangerously close to being defined solely by her relationships, she speaks in an unending stream that makes it easy not to take her seriously. Further, we are introduced to her at the cosiest, happiest period in her life, after she’s finished her rise from maid with baby on back to manager of the inn, when she is free to just sit back and have fun with her daughter (whom she’s really close to).
It could have been very easy to go through this show considering her an unbelievably fun and lovely person, but not necessarily someone to respect and look up to, had it been written by the team of Cougar Town. But it’s not, and so it’s not.
An epicentre for these considerations is the thirteenth episode of the third season, “Dear Emily and Richard,” in which Rory gets stuck alone at the birth of her half-sister and simultaneously we get to see the events surrounding Rory’s birth, though they are already well fleshed-out in conversation. And this episode honestly alters your perception of Lorelai. It’s not as if I didn’t respect her before, but this is an episode where we get to really see the hard, strong core that allowed her to go from a super-rich family to maid to manager. We see how she heard the father’s resigned agreement to marrying her and told him to go away, and ran away from her suffocating home, and how for her her loyalty to her daughter is everything; she may have been a person with a bright future at some point in her life, but now her life is defined by her daughter and her daughter above all else, and that’s neither ‘okay’ nor ‘not okay’ but just is.
We can narrativise all these similarities and the attendant differences in many ways, but that would be an exercise bordering on facility; it’s too easy to impose a conventionally feminist understanding of reclamation of women’s identities and stories but not give any reason other than ‘my narrativisation, based on the examples that I picked explicitly to support it, makes intuitive sense and is therefore right.’ But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a well-established trend, or at least a strain; and it certainly doesn’t change the inherent value of the characters and pieces of art.