As I discussed in previous posts, the medieval heroine struggles to take control of her own story. One reaction to this struggle was for a heroine to use her sexuality to take an active role in the plot. Now I turn my attention to the other reaction—the masculinized heroine, a female character who makes herself more masculine in order to become the protagonist of the story. To analyze this type of heroine, we turn to one of my favorite Shakespeare plays—As You Like It. I chose to analyze this play because one of the heroines, Rosalind, literally disguises herself as a man in order to directly participate in the action of the story. I also chose this play because the other heroine, Celia, is an interesting comparison to Rosalind.
Let’s set the stage. Rosalind and Celia are cousins, and Rosalind’s father is a duke. Celia’s father usurps Rosalind’s father and Rosalind is exiled. Celia decides to go with her out into the wilderness. Celia decides to disguise herself as a shepherdess and Rosalind decides to disguise herself as a man. This becomes a perfect way to analyze the benefits and costs of a heroine rejecting or maintaining a feminine identity, as Rosalind reveals what happens when a heroine rejects her femininity and Celia reveals what happens when a heroine retains it.
The masculinized heroine gains independence by rejecting her feminine nature. While she is disguised as a man, Rosalind shows bravery in leading Celia out into the wilderness, and she participates directly in the action of the story, challenging her love interest Orlando, acting as a judge in settling a dispute between lovers, and interacting with the other male characters in the play. Celia, on the other hand, as a woman, does not perpetuate the story like Rosalind. The masculinized female character can drive the plot of her story.
Also like the sexualized heroine, however, the masculinized heroine loses the essential qualities of a heroine that are rooted in her feminine identity. Throughout the play, Rosalind fails to demonstrate any notable compassion, individual attention, or maternal affection towards anyone. Celia, on the other hand, who maintains her feminine identity, does demonstrate these qualities. Celia is the more loving character. This is clear when Celia’s father banishes Rosalind and Celia decides to go with Rosalind into exile because of her deep love for her cousin:
Herein, I see, thou lov’st me not with the full weight
That I love thee; if my uncle, thy banished father, had
Banished thy uncle, the duke my father, so thou hadst
Been still with me, I could have taught my love to take
Thy father for mine; so wouldst thou, if the truth of thy
Love to me were so righteously tempered as mine is to
Here, Celia is saying that if their roles were reversed, Celia would learn to love Rosalind’s father as her own, but Rosalind refuses to learn to love Celia’s father. Celia sees this as proof that she loves Rosalind more than Rosalind loves her. Celia says this outright:
Rosalind lacks then the love
Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one.
Celia not only demonstrates deeper love than Rosalind, but almost more faithfulness:
And do not seek to take your change upon you,
To bear your griefs yourself and leave me out:
For, by this heaven, now at our sorrows pale,
Say what thou canst, I’ll go along with thee.
Both Rosalind and Celia are very interesting and engaging characters. In a sense, combined they make the perfect heroine—Rosalind brings her assertive character and Celia brings her feminine nature. However, they are two separate people. Rosalind succeeds in driving the plot of the story but fails to demonstrate compassion and love. Celia does demonstrate compassion and love, but she fails to perpetuate the story as Rosalind does. In the end, they both fail as heroines.
So what does a true heroine look like? I think she’s something special. She doesn’t need to make herself more masculine because then she becomes a hero rather than a heroine. A heroine has something to offer that a hero doesn’t, and that is why she is unique and necessary. So far, we’ve looked at heroines that have all been written by men, and maybe that’s why none of them have succeeded in representing a true heroine. Next, we’ll take a look at Jane Eyre, a heroine written by a woman, and a heroine who maintains her feminine nature while perpetuating the action of her own story.
For more on the heroine: