What conclusions can we gain from our discussion about women as protagonists?
In truth women make decisions in committee with other women, so we must look at group dynamics for motivations and story plotlines. Is there a hierarchy of social status like with men in groups? Is there camaraderie like (can happen when) men are trained together in a military unit?
A hierarchy among women, for example, is found in the protestant church where the women in leadership are the wives of the men in leadership. A deacon’s wife is lower in status that the pastor’s wife, no matter her abilities or service. A woman cannot rise on merit; she receives responsibility and credit ONLY commensurate with how well she serves her husband in leadership. The same is true for military spouses. The captain’s wife has more status than the lieutenant’s wife, no matter their relative talents. There’s no advancement on merit.
Another hierarchy that serves as peripheral material that we can exploit is the daughter-in-law phenomenon because the new wife moves into the sphere of the mother and competes for the attention of a favorite son. One example in recent movies is Hush with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange as the scheming landowner who wants a grandchild, but doesn’t want to share the man-child who is her son.
In history Catherine the Great of Russia began her career with a struggle with her mother-in-law Eleanor who ruled Russia with an iron fist and took Catherine’s child from her.
And that brings up another sleight against women. Why are stories about Catherine as empress always about the men she entertained? So what? It’s her story, and her appetites were part of being liberated.
Catherine opened schools and hospitals, and encouraged midwifery and vaccinations, and lowered infant mortality. The same is true with Eleanor of Aquitaine who along with the ruling women of her time, with whom she formed committees and held lengthy correspondence, provided safety and security for common women by founding schools and hospitals and orphanages and professional guilds that women could enter. This peripheral material is the stuff of great unwritten stories, I should think.
We can cannibalize these archetypes to use the characters that serve our stories. However, we must always ask the question: Where are her sisters, cousins, aunties, daughters, playmates, colleagues, and enemies? What are the events that happen over a decade, or two decades?
So what stories got it right? Surprisingly, the Jane Austen novels showed women who grappled with the kinds of problems that women of the time had, and used the kind of resources women use. The characters made decisions in committee, leading to many wrong assumptions, and waited for the men to notice them while they mustered limited resources to stay in the game.
A modern story that takes the point of view of women is Steel Magnolias, more so because the viewer follows the group of women over a decade through many changes in each of their lives. Would you call this comedy a melodrama? What other modern examples can you name?
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