Friday, October 5, 2012

Not the First Kind

by Jean Roberta

For better or worse, art imitates life and life imitates art. Eee-vil women not only seem to abound in romance plots of all sexual flavours: m/m, m/f, and even (in some) f/f. Even the most casual conversation among people over age 30 or so (i.e. old enough to have some relationship history) will eventually include a casual reference to an actual woman who sounds criminally insane.

I can accept the fact that many people, including women, look better at first glance than they turn out to be in the long run. Getting to know someone well is sometimes a process of disillusionment. What I can’t accept (in real life or on the page) is the concept of pure, irrational, unmotivated evil. There must be more than that. Those who harm others (and I’m including murderers in this group) have their reasons – not acceptable reasons by most moral or legal standards, but reasons that can be understood.

Unfortunately, the myth of the Femme Fatale goes way back to creation myths such as the story of Pandora (who predates Eve by a few centuries), who foolishly opens a box and lets evil into the world. Numerous queens have been described as cruel, self-indulgent and perverse (by the standards of those who spread the rumours), often based on no evidence. For example, Queen Jezebel is widely thought of as an adulteress or nympho slut, whereas the biblical story simply describes her as a pagan import who introduced polytheistic rites to a God-fearing Hebrew nation. Her sex life doesn`t seem to be a major issue in the original version, unless one assumes that all pagans fuck more than they should. (This kind of sexualized racism has survived through the centuries, even as various distinct cultural groups disappear and new ones rise.)

Bad behaviour on the part of a rival in a romance could be understood in a context in which women grow up knowing that they must marry men in order to stay out of the poorhouse or the whorehouse. Manipulation makes sense in a situation which doesn`t offer many options. Unfortunately, even in historical romances, the social context is usually mentioned briefly, if at all, and the behaviour of individual women is described as a sign of their nature. Bitches are apparently born that way.

One of the blockbuster movies of my teen years was Doctor Zhivago (1965), in which Julie Christie played Lara, seduced (or possibly raped) in her teens by a corrupt lawyer, Komarovsky. In one scene, he tells her: “There are two kinds of women. You, my dear, are not of the first kind.” Even though this scene takes place in pre-Soviet Russia some time before 1917, the division of all women into two kinds (pure but boring, or trashy and expendable) was understood in the 1960s to be a universal fact of nature, even if the label of "bad girl" was not freely chosen. I heard variations of Komarovsky’s speech from every guy who thought I owed him something.

The two-kinds-of-women theory seems intended to eliminate the need to get to know any woman as an individual. They are either Good or Bad, and you can tell by the uniforms they wear. (When I was a teenager, you could apparently tell by their bust-size. This confused some guys, because I was never well-endowed.)

Stereotypes in fiction are bad enough, but when applied to actual people, they are totally unbelievable. Every ex-wife or ex-girlfriend, it seems, was incredibly aggravating to the martyr who put up with her for too long because the ex`s only motivation was to aggravate. As a 20-something undergraduate, I took a course in The Modern Novel (Parts 1 and 2) from a male prof who mentioned in class that all six of his ex-wives were batshit crazy. Seriously, dude? Of course, no female authors were on the book list for his two-semester course. I couldn`t help wondering what grade he would give me if I read modern fiction as superficially as he read live women.

I`ve been told numerous times that male rule is dead, and that women have taken over. But those in power control the means of production, including cultural production. And those in power are never irrational minor characters in their own stories.
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4 comments:

  1. Six batshit crazy ex-wives, but none of that reflects poorly on his judgment? Oy. And why is it that "they" always get to decide which category we're in?

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  2. Six wives guy needed to take a serious look at that "common denominator" concept. Hee.

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  3. This was not the only male academic I've met who seemed to have much more perspective on literature than on his own life.

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  4. Hi Jean!

    Getting here late again.

    I was especially struck by this line"

    "Getting to know someone well is sometimes a process of disillusionment."

    You need to scribble that down somewhere wherever you keep these things because that would be a powerful hook in a story. I just love that. Don;t lose track of it.

    I agree also wiith what you;ve said about no villian or rival being completely evil. The best villians are complex.

    Garce

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