17 November 2012

Talking About Old School And Older

Synchronicity lives at Beyond the Veil.  Who knew both Anya and I would both be taking a trip in the Way Back Machine this month?  Instead of Mills and Boon, however, my  engine turned out to be Bob Osborne on TCM and this month's festival of great movie adaptations.

Great books seldom make movies as great as John Huston's version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.  They're even more rarely true to the book and and its larger than life female characters.  Hammett's Brigid O’Shaughnessy displays all the necessary qualifications for a classic old school heroine.  She’s twenty-three, possessed of porcelain skin and big blue eyes, and prefers to talk in a breathy, girlish voice.  Mary Astor was ten years older than the literary Brigid when she played the role, but everything else about her portrayal comes straight from Hammett.

I’m watching her now.  Our classic old school heroine just kneed a guy in the nuts less than two minutes after pistol whipping him.

Welcome to the world of real old school heroines.  Brigid might have been the ultimate bad girl, but Dashiell Hammet didn’t write wimpy women.  Even good girls like Nora Charles could handle whatever the plot dished out.  As one of The Thin Man's gunsels pointed out, she was a woman with hair on her chest.  But what would you expect from a man who's life partner was Lillian Hellman?

Shakespeare wrote some notable drips (Ophelia, anyone?  To say nothing of Juliet, the original Little Miss Too Stupid To Live).  But he also gave us Viola and Beatrice, who famously yearned to a certain cad’s heart in the marketplace.  And they were Shakespeare’s good girls.

Homer gave us Penelope.  The Arabian Nights gave us Scheherazade.  You can’t get much more old school than that. 

My point is, you can’t equate “old school heroine” with weak or ineffectual.  You can’t even use those words to describe virginal heroines.  Elizabeth Bennett is unquestionably a virgin, but no one could question her tough-mindedness.  No one could say she lacks agency. 

Most of the weak-minded lack of agency we associate with old school heroines was in fact a product of mid-twentieth century genre publishing tropes, specifically the belief of certain publishing executives that the women who helped win World War II didn't want to read about women as multi-faceted and capable as they were. 

It would be tempting to blame this view on the 1950s' desperate search for normalcy amid the Red Scare and very real fears of nuclear annihilation.  After all, this is the era which gave us the insulting neuroses and emotional fragility of Doris Day’s portrayal of Jo McKenna in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  But three years earlier, in Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue, Maggie MacNamara played good girl Patty O’Neill—a girl who states right up front that she’s a virgin and plans to stay that way—as a smart professional woman who confounds dedicated playboys William Holden and David Niven.  Not only that, she does it dressed like an old school Barbie—tiny waist, pony tail, Mamie Eisenhower bangs and all.

In fact, the attitudes of publishing executives on the subject of “acceptable” heroines lagged far behind what was happening in American and European society, especially as the Seventies gave way to the Eighties.  In Reflections on the Magic of Writing, a new compilation of Diana Wynne Jones’s essays and lectures, Jones writes about how she had to “sneak” a strong female hero into Dogsbody by telling it from the dog’s point of view.  It took her years to work up to writing Polly in Fire and Hemlock and (my personal favorite) Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle.

If one of the most well-respected literary fantasy writers of the late 20th century had to tread carefully in her fictional depictions of girls and women, imagine what it was like trying to work in the hothouse environment of series romance.  Yet series romance writers, as much as Jones and romantic mystery writers like Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, were working to change perceptions of women and women characters from the inside out.

Personally, I’m thrilled the most insulting aspects of mid-century romance heroines have gone out of literary fashion.  I like reading books that reflect the realities of my life as a woman, about heroines who can kick a guy in the nuts for lying and still qualify for an HEA.  But that doesn’t mean the realities of my life are the only valid realities out there.

As far as I’m concerned there’s still room for old school good girls.  After all, there’s a lot to be said for women who triumph over the constraints of their circumstances like Beatrice and Elizabeth Bennett, Scheherazade and Patty O’Neill.

To say nothing of Sophie.

Jean Marie Ward

(And if you want to read more about Reflections on the Magic of Writing—and how could you not?—I strongly recommend Ana’s review at Things Mean A Lot.)
Post a Comment