11 Unexpected Feminist Protagonists Hiding Out In Your Classic Faves
So much of what we consume, particularly fiction, is imbued with our own stories. That's the beauty of literature - it's a symbiotic relationship between writer and reader, between storyteller and listener. One of the best ways to gauge how much you've grown is to re-read a book, whether it's an old favorite or a high school reading assignment. Who knows, you might find some unexpected feminist protagonists hiding out in the classics.
Growing up, I read extensively, but rarely dug deeper than the initial text. I was raised by a couple of sunny liberals who managed to keep our minds open amidst the casual racism and sexism and classism of a Midwest upbringing, but that innate progressivism also meant I didn't have to do much independent sussing out of feminist ideology. Feminism meant equality, equality was, duh, good - what more was there?
It wasn't until I reached college that I began to form my own opinions and explore both the history and the future of gender politics. Books were suddenly more than an escape; they were an education. bell hooks, Angela Davis, Mary Wollstonecraft, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath. These women, wielding their pens like weapons, began to influence how I consumed all media, including fiction.
As my beliefs have continued to evolve, so have my interpretations of literature. In revisiting Jane Austen, I can see her battering against the deeply patriarchal society of 1700s England; in reading To Kill A Mockingbird once more, I ache for Scout as she learns, for the first time, that our culture is not kind to those who step outside their designated roles.
2017 has shouldered us with so much to do, so much to fight against, to push through, to, in some cases, fully dismantle. But consider, amidst your combat, re-reading some of these books. Remind yourself where we've been, where we're going, and how you've become You.
1. Antigone from 'Antigone'
Antigone broke, like, all the rules. The eponymous character from Sophocles' great tragedy, Antigone goes against the male ruler's decree to properly bury her brother - the price of which is execution. She exhibits passion, strength, bravery and a habit of delivering rabble-rousing speeches. Antigone is one of the original badasses. Curious when the cool n courteous trend of writing off opinionated women as "crazy" began? LOL guess what, it started a really long time ago. Read up. Take notes.
2. Hester Prynne from 'The Scarlet Letter'
Hester Prynne and her lot in life — imprisoned for having a child out of wedlock, forced to wear a mark identifying her sexual "crimes," ostracized as a single mother — is an embodiment of the Madonna-Whore complex. You know, the belief that a woman is a faultless virgin right up to the moment she becomes a fallen slut? But the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter exhibits a stoic strength in the face of everything — way more so than her male counterpart (and baby daddy), Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale.
3. The Dashwood Sisters from 'Sense and Sensibility'
The Dashwood sisters, left essentially penniless after the death of their father, are constantly running up against societal expectations in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Elinor is often criticized for being too practical, too unemotional, and not interested enough in marriage; Marianne is chastised for wearing her heart on her sleeve and refusing to mask her opinions and emotions (her outbursts are honestly A+). Margaret, the youngest sister, takes the most aggressive approach: she just hides, literally, anytime she's expected to uphold her "duties." The sisters serve as a reminder that there's not a single way to be a woman and guess what? They end up happy anyway.
4. Scarlett O'Hara from 'Gone With The Wind'
Oh, boy. Scarlett O'Hara, the fiercely outspoken, sharp-tongued, manipulative protagonist from Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone With The Wind, is, to say the least, controversial. Though in a lot of ways she's problematic - the most immediate reason being that she owns slaves - Scarlett is one of the first female characters who served as an unlikeable protagonist. Like, straight up? She's not a good person. And that's fine, because there are plenty of women in the world who are not good people.
5. Sethe from 'Beloved'
Beloved is a raw and heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of how deep the wounds go for Black women in this country, and how racism and sexism are violently, inextricably intertwined. An escaped slave attempting to carve out space in antebellum Ohio, Sethe must reconcile her past, embodied by the ghost of her deceased child, in order to move forward.
6. Janie Crawford from 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'
Their Eyes Were Watching God narrates Janie Crawford's "ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny." Chronicling a Black woman's coming-of-age in Florida, Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel was initially poorly received because it bucked the tradition of "racial uplift literary prescriptions," so much so that it fell out of print for more than 30 years.
7. Nancy Drew from The Nancy Drew series
Nancy Drew, of the famed 1950s detective series, is more of a feminist concept than she is an actual character — perhaps because she was ghost-written by a slew of different writers. When the books were revised to combat racist stereotypes, alterations were also made to Nancy Drew. She was made less assertive, more feminine. She is smart and problem-solving and independent, but, necessarily, pretty. If you're ever looking to do a deep-dive on the conflicting cultural expectations of girls, look no further.
8. Scout Finch from 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
Like most classics that we were required to read in school, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of those titles that we reference, but rarely read as adults. That should change. Through the eyes of Scout Finch, the tough tomboy protagonist, we watch a child begin to navigate racial and gender politics with the kind of compassion and purity we could all stand to re-gain. I mean, honestly — have you talked with a kid recently? Many of them are progressive and open-hearted and wonderful.
9. Celie from 'The Color Purple'
As the person credited with the term "womanist" ("'Womanist' is to 'feminist' as purple is to lavender," she famously wrote), Alice Walker explores with unending compassion the intersections of culture, racism, sexism, religion and motherhood in her 1982 epistolary novel The Color Purple. Celie, her hard-working protagonist, bucks cultural norms - gently at first, and then fiercely — in the most heartbreaking of ways.
10. "Amazing" Grace from "Amazing Grace"
In this acclaimed children's book by Mary Hoffman, first published in 1991, Grace wants more than anything to be Peter Pan in her class play. But when her classmates tell her she can't because she's Black and a girl, her grandmother takes her to a performance of a Black ballerina to prove the "rules" are there to be broken. Amazing Grace illustrates the strength it takes to overcome cultural stereotypes and expectations.
11. Nazneen from "Brick Lane"
Monica Ali's Brick Lane, initially published in 2004, charts Nazneen's life from her Bangladeshi village to her arranged marriage to Chanu, 20 years her senior, to their immigration to London, to her sexual awakening with a local activist. It charts, essentially, a life. The novel explores what it means to be a "good" Muslim woman, and in the process reminds us that a life, beautiful, terrifying spiral.