I think of a man, and take away reason and accountability.
Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
I’ve had dozens of moments when I’m reading an otherwise great book and a woman says something, or does something, that jolts me out of the world I’ve been inhabiting and reminds me that the author has his own particular notions of women, and not necessarily correct ones. From female characters who fulfill some male fantasy of what women should be like (hot, mostly), or who have no depth at all beyond their looks, to those who have one highly stereotypical personality trait whereas male characters are fully-rounded: the sins committed by authors of all stripes against female characterization are varied, and unfortunately, still frequent.
Sometimes it seems that the feminist internet has rightly given up on even encouraging men to write women at all; if we want a great female character, we assume we’ll need to read Chimamanda Adichie, Willa Cather, Claire Messud. But every once in awhile, a gifted male writer will come along who has an understanding of the unique power structures that affect women, but also is capable of infusing the same vision of humanity into his female characters as he does into his male characters. Here are a few of my favorite female characters written by men. Comment below to share your favorites! (Or to rant about the worst failures. We love rants here at Adversion.)
Aaliyah Saleh, An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine
The inspiration for this post, Aaliyeh is the mid-seventies woman with blue hair who narrates Rabih Alameddine’s novel.
She doesn’t just have blue hair; she double-translates a book each year for her own personal pleasure, she worked in a bookstore all her life, she divorced an impotent husband, and she packs heat–she lives in civil-strife-torn Beirut. Her love of literature (“I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word”), which drives her to translate books into English and then into Lebanese, producing manuscripts that are scattered all about her house; and her constant allusions to both the well-known and less-known classics of literature, from Sebald and Coetzee to Heidegger and Woolf; are reason enough to love her. But she is also tough, funny, and independent, in a society that doesn’t like women to be any of these things. Her view of the sexism she faces is lucid without being self-pitying.
Social cues, community rites, religious rituals, family events—all are meant to impress upon children the importance and inevitability of what Bruno Sculz calls ‘the excursion into melancholy.’ … Is it true that I didn’t think of a husband, wish for one, or has the image I have of myself, the way I like to think of myself, superimposed itself on what was happening then?
I have to admit—I have asked myself that question, too.
Smilla Jaspersen, Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg
Half Inuit and half European, Smilla straddles the boundary between the colonial culture of her white father and his sexy young second wife, and the colonized culture of her dead Inuit mother. She’s afraid to feel love, but she does open up to one boy, Isaiah—who is then brutally killed in a murder made to look like an accident. She’s a cold (pun intended), matter-of-fact, lyrical narrator who harnesses her fierce anger about her past in her single-minded pursuit of the truth.
Like Aaliyeh, she is an intellectual loner-slash-rebel in a way that is more often afforded to male heroes than to women; she prefers math to people, witnesses with a lucid eye the racial injustice in Danish society, and defies the narrow-minded expectations of people around her, as in this excerpt from the opening scene, where Isaiah is buried:
I can sense the disapproval of the pastor and the verger directed at my black net stockings and at Juliane’s whimpering, made worse by the fact that she took disulfiram this morning and is now confronting her grief almost sober. They think that she and I have no respect for either the weather or the tragic circumstances. But the truth is that both the stockings and the pills are each in their own way a tribute to the cold and to Isaiah.
Isabel Archer, Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
I have read articles that accused the central character of Portrait of a Lady of being a cipher, a mystery, and found them specious. What character has been more finely and subtly drawn than Isabel Archer? What author has more sensitively illuminated his protagonist’s illusions and foibles along with her admirable and striking qualities? Henry James begins chapter 6 of his novel with a long description, and quoting just a couple sentences hopefully demonstrates how deep his characterization of Isabel is:
At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself.
And on love:
Deep in her soul—it was the deepest thing there—lay a belief that if a certain light should dawn she could give herself completely; but this image, on the whole, was too formidable to be attractive.
There is my most beloved character: full of contradictions and idiosyncrasies, and because of that, extraordinarily alive.