Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Screen and Page


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...
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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."
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Editorial Reviews

People Magazine
Engaging analysis of women's roles and images on page and screen.
People Magazine
Engaging analysis of women's roles and images on page and screen.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively look at the role models provided by women in film and fiction, with unexpected exegeses from a bestselling novelist (Red, White, and Blue). L. Frank Baum's Dorothy and Jane Austen's Emma-in both original and modern interpretations-are "brave dames"; Sandra Bullock in Speed," although her character was the driver of the rampaging bus, and Anita Hill, testifying about long-past transgressions, are "wimpettes." Even the feminist icons Thelma and Louise and biblical mother Eve get ambivalent reviews here. Think about it, says Isaacs: Thelma and Louise would rather drive off a cliff than take responsibility for their actions; Eve knuckled under to the serpent rather than take a stand in the cosmic battle between good and evil. Brave dames are "passionate about something besides passion," are resilient, competent, moral, and "a true friend." In literature, Jane Eyre is the bravest of dames, along with the spider Charlotte of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. The author's TV heroines include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena (although production values are seriously deficient, Isaacs admits); films offer Auntie Mame, G.I. Jane, and Clarice Starling of "The Silence of the Lambs."

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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345422811
  • Publisher: Random House, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/19/1999
  • Series: Library of Contemporary Thought
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 159
  • Product dimensions: 5.05 (w) x 7.93 (h) x 0.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Isaacs
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.


Susan Isaacs, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. After leaving school, she worked as an editorial assistant at Seventeen magazine. In 1968, Susan married Elkan Abramowitz, a then a federal prosecutor. She became a senior editor at Seventeen but left in 1970 to stay home with her newborn son, Andrew. Three years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. During this time she freelanced, writing political speeches as well as magazine articles. Elkan became a criminal defense lawyer.

In the mid-seventies, Susan got the urge to write a novel. A year later she began working on what was to become Compromising Positions, a whodunit set on suburban Long Island. It was published in 1978 by Times Books and was chosen a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her second novel, Close Relations, a love story set against a background of ethnic, sexual and New York Democratic politics (thus a comedy), was published in 1980 by Lippincott and Crowell and was a selection of the Literary Guild. Her third, Almost Paradise, was published by Harper & Row in 1984, and was a Literary Guild main selection; in this work Susan used the saga form to show how the people are molded not only by their histories, but also by family fictions that supplant truth. All of Susan's novels have been New York Times bestsellers. Her fiction has been translated into thirty languages.

In 1985, she wrote the screenplay for Paramount's Compromising Positions, which starred Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. She also wrote and co-produced Touchstone Pictures' Hello Again. The 1987 comedy starred Shelley Long and Judith Ivey.

Her fourth novel, Shining Through, set during World War II, was published by Harper & Row in 1988. Twentieth-Century Fox's film adaptation starred Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith. Her fifth book, Magic Hour, a coming-of-middle-age novel as well as a mystery, was published in January 1991. After All These Years was published in 1993; critics lauded it for its strong and witty protagonist. Lily White came out in 1996 and Red, White and Blue in 1998. All the novels were published by HarperCollins and were main selections of the Literary Guild. In 1999, Susan's first work of nonfiction, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, was published by Ballantine's Library of Contemporary Thought. During 2000, she wrote a series of columns on the presidential campaign for Newsday. Long Time No See, a Book of the Month Club main selection, was published in September 2001; it was a sequel to Compromising Positions. Susan's tenth novel is Any Place I Hang My Hat (2004).

Susan Isaacs is a recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award. She serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers and is a past president of Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle, The Creative Coalition, PEN, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Adams Round Table. She sits on the boards of the Queens College Foundation, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association, the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is an active member of her synagogue. She has worked to gather support for the National Endowment of the Arts' Literature Program and has been involved in several anti-censorship campaigns. In addition to writing books, essays and films, Susan has reviewed books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Newsday and written about politics, film and First Amendment issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband.

Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Isaacs:

"My first job was wrapping shoes in a shoe store in the low-rent district of Fifth Avenue and saying ‘Thank you!' with a cheery smile. I got canned within three days for not wrapping fast enough, although I suspect that often my vague, future-novelist stare into space while thinking about sex or lunch did not give me a smile that would ring the bell on the shoe store's cheer-o-meter."

"I constantly have to fight against the New York Effect, an overwhelming urge to wear black clothes so everyone will think, Egad, isn't she chic and understated! I'm not, by nature, a black-wearing person. (I'm not, by nature, a chic person either.) I like primary colors as well as bright purple, loud chartreuse, and shocking pink. And that's just my shoes."

"I'm not a great fan of writing classes. Yes, they do help people sometimes, especially with making them write regularly. But the aspiring writer can be a delicate creature, sensitive or even oversensitive to criticism. I was that way: I still am. The problem begins with most people's natural desire to please. In a classroom situation, especially one in which the work will be read aloud or critiqued in class, the urge to write something likable or merely critic-proof can dam up your natural talent. Also, it keeps you from developing the only thing you have is a writer -- your own voice. Finally, you don't know the people in a class well enough to figure out where their criticism is coming from. A great knowledge of literature? Veiled hostility? The talent is too precious a commodity to risk handing it over to strangers."

"Writing is sometimes an art, and it certainly is a craft. But it's also a job. I go to work five or six days a week (depending how far along I am with my work-in-progress). Like most other people, there are days I would rather be lying in a hammock reading or going to a movie with a friend. But whether you're an artist or an accountant, you still have to show up at work. Otherwise, it is unlikely to get done."

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    1. Hometown:
      Sands Point, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 7, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      Honorary Doctorate, Queens College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

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.)
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