Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Screen and Pageby Susan Isaacs
In this look at the role of women on page and screen, Susan Isaacs argues that assertive, ethical women characters are losing ground to wounded, shallow sisters who are driven by what she calls the articles of wimpette philosophy. ("Article Six: A wimpette betrays other women, including her friends.") Although female roles today include lawyers like Ally McBeal and… See more details below
In this look at the role of women on page and screen, Susan Isaacs argues that assertive, ethical women characters are losing ground to wounded, shallow sisters who are driven by what she calls the articles of wimpette philosophy. ("Article Six: A wimpette betrays other women, including her friends.") Although female roles today include lawyers like Ally McBeal and CEOs like Ronnie of Veronica's Closet, they are wimpettes nonetheless. A brave dame, on the other hand, is a dignified, three-dimensional hero who may care about men, home, and hearth, but also cares - and acts - passionately about something in the world beyond. Brave dames' stories range from mundane (Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to romantic (Katharine Hepburn in Adam's Rib) to fantastic (Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess), but whatever they do, they care about justice and carry themselves with self-respect and decency. For a Really Brave Dame, think Frances McDormand as the tenacious, pregnant police chief in Fargo. Isaacs's unmistakable love of fiction and film shines through even her most scathing wimpette assessments. In the end, she urges us to become "smarter consumers of art."
Wimpettes, on the other hand, are invested in masochism, subterfuge, low ethical standards, and men who will give them identities. Holly Hunter's character in "The Piano" is a wimpette par excellence-she betrays her husband (and daughter) because she "just needs to get laid." Other mothers, sisters, and friends fare slightly better but fail the "brave dames" test because their lives are defined by men. Isaacs falters on her own test when she sets males as the standard in comparing buddy films,e.g., "Midnight Cowboy" vs. "Thelma and Louise." A lightweight overview of women in film, fiction, and video, but the author offers a challenge: Look closely. Is driving a bus over the speed limit really an example of the best a woman can be?
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OH, SURE, WE TALK A good game: Assertiveness. Power. Take back the night. Just do it. After all, we've been through a revolution in women's rights in the last thirty-odd years. Except even after all the fireworks, speeches, and marches, our female icons seem to me a pretty pathetic lot. Ditto for many of the characters we meet these days in movies, on TV, and in novels. There are not enough of those courageous spirits to reflect the times. I miss the Jane Eyres, my heroes, the brave dames I always admired and sometimes loved. Too many of today's female protagonists are still tremulous, willfully naive, self-absorbed, and self-pitying, queens of passive aggression. They are the Madame Bovarys. Wimpettes. And too many of us accept them as feminist heroes.
As no doubt you know, a wimp is someone weak and ineffectual. A wimp is the ninety-eight-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face by the pumped-up bully not merely because he is a physical lightweight, but because he is a moral one as well. Instead of trying to reason with the bully, or venturing a sock in the snoot, the wimp says, in essence: Do with me what you will.
A wimpette--a word I made up because I needed it--is a woman who is weak or ineffectual because she gives in, without a real fight, to the limits imposed on her by virtue of her gender. A wimpette deserves the diminutive at the end of her name. Her "no" rarely has an exclamation point. Her voice used to be pitched high--either nauseatingly perky or breathy--as if to underscore her utter lack of testosterone. She sounded like Minnie Mouse or Marilyn Monroe. Now she may simply be mute, like Holly Hunter as Ada in The Piano. Or she may in facttalk the talk, but she lacks the guts to walk the walk: A wimpette may tell us, with words or grimaces, "Ooh, ooh, I'm trying so hard!" yet she never quite manages to rise above her own fragility, be it psychic or somatic--unless she is helped by a man. At her worst the wimpette puts the blame for her failures on society, on men, on her mother. At her best she is feisty or spunky--never strong.
To be fair, a woman often must struggle harder than a man simply because more gender limits are imposed on her than on any man. So? Just because life may be tough, should a woman simply accept what comes her way? Most of the women I know do not, and I bet most of those you know don't, either.
Nevertheless, our media--our journalism, our art--abound with wounded women. We seem to have lost our sturdy immigrant past, forgotten that we once had strong and gallant women heroes such as the title character in Willa Cather's My Antonia. We are descendants of brave dames like these, not a nation of weaklings. Yet eighty-one years after Antonia, we are offered tales of women who have been battered. Who have been violated, molested, or date-raped. Who have been sexually harassed by swinish co-workers. Whose husbands have left them (generally for younger, juicier women) high, dry, and impoverished. Who are debilitated by obscure ailments. Who are simply sick to death of life.
Are some of these sad narratives stories of authentic victims? Of course. Read or watch The Color Purple or Sophie's Choice. Read our first literature, the Bible. Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, was no wimpette; she was a genuine victim. She was raped. She was powerless. That is, there was nothing she could do to prevent the violence against her. So some victims are genuine victims. The physical pain of domestic violence is real pain. So is the psychic pain of clinical depression.
But are a fair number of these tales actually weepies about women who could have fought for themselves and chose not to? Damn right. A damsel-in-distress, movie-of-the-week mentality has infected our film and fiction. Despite the most recent revolution in women's rights, we are still being portrayed as the gender of the quivering lower lip. Our art, not our lives, too often presents us as the demonstrably weaker sex. Worse, instead of seeing suffering as a condition that morally requires us to respond with pity and aid, too many of us have come to believe that being a victim is somehow noble. That kind of thinking leads to a flowering of wimpettes.
Look, who are among this decade's female demigods? Dead Diana. In life, she certainly did speak out for noble causes, but her real vocation was getting friends and journalists to headline her agonies--bulimia, suicide attempts, anguish inflicted by a faithless husband and censorious in-laws--and to report on her attempts at recovery, from standard psychotherapy to all manner of New Age drivel to pumping iron at a gym. Extra! Extra! She got the whole world to read all about it. (That the whole world included her young sons did not slow down the "people's princess" one whit.)
For those cerebral types who found Diana too featherbrained to venerate, there was attorney and Yale Law School alumna Anita Hill to revere. This über wimpette testified before Congress how she endured vile sex talk from a superior rather than (1) report him for harassment through established procedures or (2) tell him to shut the hell up.
This canonization of female degradation and malaise is dangerous. It depreciates the suffering of women who truly are victims. It degrades women's views of themselves. Yet the mantle of victimization seems so chic that I expect to see it on the cover of Vogue. Everyone wants to try it on. There is an often-cited, unattributed statistic wafting in the media ether and on college campuses these days that a fourth of all American women have been abused or sexually assaulted. Does "abused" mean physically battered? Does it refer to a sex act consummated without a woman's explicit verbal consent but with her implicit agreement? Or is it about something nasty in between? We don't know, yet we renounce skepticism and rush to outrage.
I cannot understand why our art does not reflect the strong women I meet every day. Now, I'm not saying the dames I know--my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors--are invincible. But pound for pound, they are heartier, more high-spirited, more valorous, and infinitely less frivolous than so many wimpettes we see today in literature, film, and television. Their paradigmatic experience is neither forcible violation nor abuse. Yes, their lives are sometimes tough, but in the worst of times--in the face of illness, death, economic worries, family traumas--they show amazing resilience. I am not talking about Cabinet-level women: I'm talking about nursery school teachers, poets, secretaries, interior decorators, community volunteers. Ordinary citizens. And while we're on the subject, how come when women on-screen or in books do manage to act assertively, as in Thelma and Louise and What's Love Got to Do with It, they are often pitted against one specific evil--bad men? The cosmos gets reduced to gender warfare.
Turn on the TV, read a book, or go to a movie, and you'll find hurt women disturbingly prominent in our art. This worries me. The Big Lie repeated often enough becomes truth. I, for one, don't want to be assumed to be weak or wounded. Further, art not only reflects society, it is society's collective memory: It can become history the way a Supreme Court decision does, by ultimately changing the minds--or at least the behavior--of Americans. Do we want our descendants to look back at the women who bore them as wimpettes? Worse, do we want them to inherit the belief that women are inherently less stalwart than men?
The wimpette's pain may be real, but she does little or nothing to avert it. She can act, but chooses not to. Her unspoken credo is this: Women are helpless or close to it. They don't act independently; they react to men and frequently take their identities from the men in their lives. When they do act bravely, it is, even today, often to defend husband, home, hearth, and children, or the community in which said husband, home, and so forth are set. Anne Archer's Beth in Fatal Attraction is a prime example. For many wimpettes, the world stops at the white pickets of their fences; they lack the curiosity to look past the spaces between the pickets at the world beyond because they are so self-involved. Larger causes--racial equality, justice--are left to the guys.
Now, while the Bible is still open: The culture that gave rise to the recording of the story of Genesis might have believed as a general proposition that women are weak. But Eve did not have to be. One of the many points of the story of the Temptation is that Eve could have said no. Yes, the serpent was persuasive, and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge must indeed have seemed exceedingly succulent. However, Eve had neither the stature nor the will to even try to fight a cosmic battle. The mother of us all was, sadly, a wimpette.
From Eve on, there have always been women in literature who simply could not cope. Some were real victims, some wimpettes. Of the protagonists who even tried to break the mold, many came to a bad end or died, including Anna Karenina, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, and Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, to name just a few.
Since those times, however, we've had the suffragette movement, the march of women out of the home into the workplace during the wartime forties, and the liberation movement of the sixties and seventies. Yet we still have had a surprising amount of fiction--some of high literary merit, such as Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue, Stephen King's Rose Madder, and Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina--that is premised on women suffering under the tyranny of men. (Some is simplistic, cheap victim fiction, third-rate stuff, like the spate of quasiliterate whodunits about serial killers that feature women being tortured, raped, and/or murdered, all attempting--and failing--to emulate The Silence of the Lambs. But that novel featured the valiant and virtuous Clarice Starling, as well as author Thomas Harris's brilliant, harrowing insights into the psyche of a maniac. What is literature in Silence comes close to misogynistic porn in the descriptions of violence and torment in the work of author James Patterson, to sa
y nothing of the novels of his less able colleagues.)
Meet the Author
Susan Isaacs is the #1 bestselling author of Compromising Positions, Close Relations, Almost Paradise, Shining Through, Magic Hour, After All These Years, Lily White, and Red, White and Blue. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the International Association of Crime Writers. Isaacs is on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and is chair of its Committee on Free Expression. She lives on Long Island.
- Sands Point, New York
- Date of Birth:
- December 7, 1943
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- Honorary Doctorate, Queens College
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