Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why It's OK That Anne Shirley Doesn't Become a Successful Writer

Kevin Sullivan, in his television adaptations of L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, makes an extensive number of departures from the text. One of those alterations is to make Anne much more serious about a writing career, eventually learning to write about the simple life she knows, rather than her romantic flights of Tennysonian fancy, and publishing a book. This alteration is very much hearkening back to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, but it is also a concession to more contemporary standards for women. We still insist that our heroines get married and live happily ever after, but we also demand that she mitigate that ages-old scenario, rooted in patriarchal conceptions of female fulfillment - in most cases, this is achieved by giving female heroines an artistic vocation.

While the feminist movements of the 1970s encouraged sexual, artistic, and professional freedom and for a brief period of time, created a political space in which women could defy every previous standard of femininity, they also tended to condemn a woman's choice to conform to those standards, even if that conformity was an active, considered choice. It was in this time that the radically feminist film, My Brilliant Career, which tells the story of a young woman determined to have a career even at the expense of marriage, met with critical acclaim; it's difficult to believe it would have been met with a similar reaction either before or since. As always, there was a backlash and in the decades since then, motherhood and marriage have been rehabilitated into necessities for female fulfillment once again. The modern feminist is expected to have everything. Whereas once women were expected to forgo sexual freedom, professional careers, and financial control of their earnings, and then later to forgo traditional marriage and motherhood, now women are expected to forgo nothing. But it is too easy to demand that feminist heroines must "have it all," or fail to be true feminists. One has to recognize that women are still being held to an impossible standard.

The standards of success that today are insisted upon for feminist heroines are eerily similar to the standards of moral goodness that were demanded by the Victorians. In Victorian literature, female characters were held to strict ideals of moral goodness; those that lived up to those standards had happy endings, while those that did not were met with tragic or unpleasant fates. For example, in Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, Florence Dombey is a paragon of moral goodness, suffering in silence, willing to sacrifice her own happiness to her duty towards her father, and deeply engrossed in the protection of her virtue (a.k.a. her virginity) above all else. She is rewarded in the end with a happy ending, Victorian-style, with a loving husband, a home of her own, and a reconciliation with her formerly ruthless, if not downright evil, father. And she is very happy about this. Edith Dombey, in contrast, is a complex woman who chafes against the horrific social constraints that compel her into a marriage that she views as little better than prostitution. She is demoralized and bitter, but nevertheless sympathetic, doing everything in her power to protect Florence. Edith, however, fails to act with the supernatural goodness that infuses all of Florence's actions, and she is therefore condemned to an unhappy ending. Thus, female characters were denied any form of action that contradicts the highly misogynistic code of behavior that is encoded as moral goodness and therefore they are denied complexity, independence, or any form of decision-making that is not beneficial to those to whom they are in duty bound, i.e. one's father, husband, children, etc.

By insisting that our strong female heroines and our feminist heroines "have it all," we insist on a new set of even more overbearing social restrictions. Rather than pushing women into the isolation of a home, where she is expected to complete the housework, care for the children, and perhaps participate in a sanctioned community such as a church group, now women are expected to do all of those things and have a fulfilling career and an exciting sex life, all while following a healthy dietary and exercise regimen and actively "preserving" her beauty or altering her appearance in order to be beautiful and thin. It's just too much.

L. M. Montgomery, whose career spanned from 1890 until her death in 1942, understood all too well the difficulties of sustaining a career as wife, mother, and prominent member of the community (in her role as a minister's wife). She herself suffered from depression and had an unhappy marriage to a husband with his own struggles with mental illness, of her three sons one was stillborn, and she was also keenly effected by the tragedies of the two World Wars. Despite all that, she was able to sustain a critically, financially, and artistically fulfilling literary career - definitive proof that she was a remarkable and extraordinary person. In her books, she set out to create worlds for her heroines that contained only shadows of the sorts of miseries she herself had suffered, from depression and childhood neglect to the violence of world conflict, but she was also aware that fantasy can only be pushed so far. Today, it is easy for us to bemoan that her most beloved heroine, Anne, chooses to forgo working towards a career, because we want and expect that a woman who has followed her own way must "have it all." But Anne chooses instead to marry Gilbert and have a family of seven children. (Although Anne does not achieve her adolescent dream of literary success, Emily Byrd Starr, the most autobiographical of Montgomery's heroines, does, and succeeds precisely because she is willing to make sacrifices that few are willing to make.) But it seems to me that we need to, as readers, be accepting of Anne's choice to relegate her writing to a hobby, secondary to her marriage and her duties as a mother. After all, how many of us fulfill our adolescent dreams? How many of us actually succeed in "having it all"? Why should Anne, for so many of us an alter ego and imaginary companion, have to do so?

By insisting that feminist heroines must achieve what for the vast majority of women is impossible (we're not all Sheryl Sandberg and we don't all have her tidy little bank account), we, perhaps inadvertently, create a new, impossible ideal, much like the Victorian ideal of the angel in the home. Why shouldn't we have empowered, complicated, strong, feminist heroines who still, despite that, don't "have it all"? The truth is that we should. If we can accept that our heroines have to make sacrifices and forgo some things for the sake of others, then it will become easier for all of us to accept that being a feminist doesn't mean that one must be successful on all fronts. If feminism doesn't help us to free ourselves from that belief, then it's precious little use to us. By releasing Anne from our expectations and our disappointment at her failure to meet those expectations, perhaps we can release ourselves from those same crushing and culturally over-demanded expectations.

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