In my previous post, I laid out the argument that was the heart of my senior thesis: a heroine should drive the action of her own story and retain her feminine nature. This raises an important question—what characteristics does ‘feminine nature’ imply? When I started thinking about what I wanted to write about for my senior thesis, I realized that I couldn’t write about what a literary figure should be without considering what her real life counterpart should be. So when asking what characteristics a heroine should possess, I am really asking the question of what characteristics a woman should possess.
At this point, it is important to recognize the different between an archetype and a stereotype. Elisabeth Eliot distinguishes the two well when she writes, “Stereotype is a word generally used disparagingly to denote a fixed or conventional notion or pattern. An archetype is the original pattern or model, embodying the essence of things and reflecting in some way the internal structure of the world” (from her essay “The Essence of Femininity: A Personal Perspective). In considering characteristics that a woman should possess, we are trying to discover her archetype, not female stereotypes.
Here is my attempt to describe the female archetype: a woman is a helper. I don’t mean to say that she is a second rate character, only there to help a man. I mean to say that her characteristics are important and necessary to her person because they allow her to help those around her, and not just her husband or men. This is how a heroine distinguishes herself from the hero. The hero leaves his home to go out into the world, and despite whatever companions accompany him he ultimately faces his task alone. He leaves people behind him in order to protect or save them, and after succeeding he returns home (think Odysseus, the Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter, etc.). The heroine is different in that even though she also goes out into the world, she does not leave people behind. That is why a heroine is a helper. While the hero serves the community by going out to face adventure, the heroine serves the community by being with them (think Jo March, Hermione Granger).
Now, this doesn’t mean that heroines can’t slay dragons or that they shouldn’t, but it means that heroines must possess certain qualities. If she doesn’t she is not heroic in a feminine way. She isn’t a heroine. I’m going to boil these qualities down to maternal love, compassion, kindness, faithfulness, anarchy, sacrifice, and virtue. Remember, I’m not trying to pin point the feminine identity, but I believe these characteristics are very important for women to have. Let me explain.
Women are natural mothers. Whether you believe we were created that way or evolved that way, there’s no getting around it. When I say women love in a maternal way, I mean that they love very deeply, a love that involves caring and protecting someone (indeed anyone) they come across. This kind of love sort of encompasses compassion, kindness, and faithfulness. Now I’m not saying that men can’t be compassionate or kind, but women demonstrate these virtues in a unique way stemming from their nature.
Women are also very sacrificial. So are men, by the way. Dr. Podles puts it eloquently, saying, “To be masculine, a man must be willing to fight and inflict pain, but also to suffer and endure pain. He does this not for his own sake, but for the community’s, to protect it from its enemies, both human and natural. Masculine self-affirmation is, paradoxically, a kind of self-abnegation. A man must always be ready to give up his life.” Women are sacrificial in a different (and sometimes much harder) way. Sometimes they are called to sacrifice their lives, but often times they are called to sacrifice their own desires for the sake of others, much like mothers sacrifice a great deal in the care of their children.
Heroines, and women, should also be virtuous. I don’t mean this as some Puritan lecture. I mean this as a form of respect. Virtue involves respecting one’s own body as well as the body of others. It means being wise in your decisions and doing the right thing. She doesn’t find her liberation or her identity in a loose sexual character. A heroine finds her identity in a confidant respect for herself and for the men and women around her.
Okay, if you want more of my sources or research, you’ll have to ask, because I’m going on too long for one blog post as it is. My point is that the heroine should be a helper to those around her. If she sacrifices her femininity, she loses qualities like her compassion and kindness and virtue. Without her femininity, a heroine cannot serve her full potential.
For more on the heroine: